When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

When Grandpa Was a Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

A Popular History of the 20th Century

Cordite And Conkers

1917: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

“In present circumstances it is felt that school children could give most valuable assistance in collecting the [horse] chestnuts . . .”

What could possibly link the Balfour Declaration with a Board of Education circular urging British youngsters to gather conkers? The answer: cordite, acetone, the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum and the chemist (and ardent Zionist) Chaim Weizmann.

Continue reading

Lament For Peace

Mary Butts, photographed by Bertram Park

1916: “Not till the end of the war will there be any time for art or love or magic again,” lamented aspiring writer Mary Butts. “Perhaps never.”

Source: Mary Butts, The Journals of Mary Butts, ed. Nathalie Blondel (2002), p. 58

Graves Gets Cold Feet

1915: “I only once refrained from shooting a German,” Robert Graves recalled. “While sniping from a knoll in the support line, where we had a concealed loop-hole, I saw a German, perhaps seven hundred yards away, through my telescopic sights. He was taking a bath in the German third line. I disliked the idea of shooting a naked man, so I handed the rifle to the sergeant with me. ‘Here, take this. You’re a better shot that I am.’ He got him; but I had not stayed to watch.”

Source: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1982), p. 112

Day In The Country

1913: Motor cars were unwelcome arrivals in the countryside. They hurtled noisily along narrow roads, stirred up clouds of dust, frightened horses, flattened chickens. Angry peasants sometimes scattered nails and broken glass on the roads, or pelted cars with stones, or blocked their way with ropes or barricades.

Continue reading

Making Mischief

1912: Eight-year-old Cecil Day-Lewis entered Wilkinson’s prep school in central London. The future poet laureate got to know Nicholas Llewelyn Davies, one of J.M. Barrie’s adopted boys. When Llewelyn Davies took his friend to the playwright’s house in Campden Hill Square, the two youngsters went up to the attic and fired an air gun at pedestrians in the square.

Source: C. Day Lewis, The Buried Day (1960), pp. 72–4

Murder Incorporated

1911: On 11 January, Takács Rozália succeeded in murdering her husband, Takács Lajos. It wasn’t from want of trying; she had already made several attempts. According to his wife, Lajos was a good-for-nothing “alcoholic beast” who regularly mistreated her. His death was the first of a string of murders in the Hungarian village of Nagyrév. The killings were the work not of individuals acting in isolation, but of groups of villagers sharing their murderous expertise. Almost all of the murderers and their accomplices were women. Their victims – four-fifths of them – were men: abusive husbands, unfaithful lovers, elderly and frail fathers-in-law. The preferred means of murder was poisoning with arsenic, which was easily dissolved out of flypapers. Between 1911 and 1929, when the authorities eventually cottoned on that something was amiss, forty or more villagers were poisoned.

Source: Béla Bodó, Tiszazug: A Social History of a Murder Epidemic (2002), chap. 5

God’s Too Busy

1910: Among those taken to see the funeral of Edward VII was Lord Kinnoull’s young daughter. That evening, at bedtime, the girl’s mother asked her whether she had said her prayers. She hadn’t.

“Why not?”

“I don’t mean to say them to-night.”

“Why not?”

“Well, because it won’t be any use, as God will be too busy unpacking King Edward.”

Source: Lord Riddell, More Pages from My Diary 1908–1914 (1934), p. 149

On Guard Against 9/11

1909: Ninety years before the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Russia’s political police were sufficiently perceptive to realize that aircraft might be used as terrorist weapons, and began to monitor the activities of aviators, would-be aviators and flying clubs.

Source: Charles A. Ruud, Fontanka 16: The Tsar’s Secret Police (1999), p. 70

“A Fairy Tale!”

1908: In German South-West Africa, a coloured worker named Zacharias Lewala, shovelling sand against an embankment in a railway siding, came across a diamond. Lewala’s supervisor, August Stauch, straight away quit his railway job to search for diamonds full-time.

Continue reading

Not Just For Eating

1907: In 1870, there were 30,000 orange trees in California; 20 years later, there were 1.1 million. At the start of the 20th century, Californian citrus growers ran the risk of producing more oranges than they could sell, and with recently planted trees set to begin bearing fruit, the problem was likely to worsen.

Growers faced a stark choice – reduce supply or increase demand. So, in 1907, the California Fruit Growers Exchange teamed up with Lord & Thomas advertising agency. The growers adopted the name Sunkist for their produce; the advertisers launched energetic sales campaigns and devised snappy slogans.

Continue reading

Green Girls

André Derain, photographed in about 1903

1906: The young girls of London, André Derain wrote to Henri Matisse, have faces “made to stand out in the misty streets or in the cold calm of English interiors”: “very blond hair, untidily wound up, with plaits tight around a matt-ivory coloured face, with their lips and cheeks lightly tinted pink, which makes the skin green”.

Source: Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen et al., André Derain: The London Paintings (2005), p. 133

Chance Discovery

1905: Edgar Purnell Hooley patented Tarmac in 1902. The story goes that Hooley, a county surveyor, came upon a hard-wearing and dust-free stretch of road. Tar had been spilled on the surface and slag from a nearby ironworks used to cover it. Hooley set up a company to exploit his discovery – The Tar Macadam (Purnell Hooley’s Patent) Syndicate Ltd., which in 1905 was renamed Tarmac Ltd.

Source: J.B.F. Earle, A Century of Road Materials: The History of the Roadstone Division of Tarmac Ltd (1971), pp. 16–17

“Worse Than Baboons”

1904: “Just look at us. [We’re treated like] Dogs, slaves, worse than the baboons on the rocks.” In January, the Herero people of German South-West Africa could stand it no longer, and rebelled against their colonial oppressors. Defeated at the battle of Waterberg in August, they fled into the eastern desert. To make sure they didn’t come back, General Lothar von Trotha issued a Vernichtungsbefehl, or extermination order: “Every Herero found within the German borders, armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot.” By the summer of 1905, in the first genocide of the 20th century, three-quarters of the original Herero population of 80,000 had been killed.

Source: Jon M. Bridgman, The Revolt of the Hereros (1981), pp. 38–131

Modest Sales

1903: King Camp Gillette’s disposable razor blades would eventually revolutionize shaving, but 1903 sales for the fledgling Gillette Safety Razor Company were modest: 51 razors and 168 blades.

Source: Gordon McKibben, Cutting Edge: Gillette’s Journey to Global Leadership (1998), p. 14

One Man’s Poison

1902: One man’s poison is another man’s meat. The abrupt postponement of Edward VII’s coronation (caused by the king’s appendicitis) meant that delicacies destined for coronation banquets were distributed instead to London’s poor. Soup kitchen menus briefly included prawns, oysters and Dover sole poached in Chablis, as well as quail, snipe and consommé de faisan aux quenelles.

Source: Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (1999), p. 823

Crammed Coffin

1901: Victoria’s coffin was crammed with her favourite shawls and embroidered handkerchiefs, her wedding veil, Prince Albert’s dressing gown, a model of Albert’s hand, numerous lockets and bracelets, family photographs, a photograph of John Brown and a lock of his hair. There were so many mementos that there was barely room for the queen herself. Luckily she was a short woman.

Source: Jerrold M. Packard, Farewell in Splendour: The Death of Queen Victoria and Her Age (2000), pp. 199–201

Jittery In Manila

1999: For weeks, the Philippines was rife with rumours of a military plot to unseat the country’s unpopular president, Joseph “Erap” Estrada. When the lights went out in Manila and across much of Luzon on the evening of 10 December, jittery Filipinos thought a coup was under way, until Estrada popped up to show he was still in charge. The electrical blackout had in fact been caused by jellyfish: tons of jellyfish had clogged the cooling water intake of a power plant in Pangasinan.

Source: Lisa-ann Gershwin, Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean (2013), pp. 13–14

Name Change

1998: After 70 years of getting by on first-name terms, Mongolians resorted to using three names – given name, patronym and clan name. The communist government had banned clan names in the 1920s; Mongolians owed their allegiance to the state, the authorities had said, not to their clan. All change in the post-communist 1990s: Mongolians were instructed to resume using their old clan names or, if they couldn’t remember them, to adopt new names. Many chose Borjigin, the clan name of Genghis Khan.

Source: Ian Jeffries, Mongolia: A Guide to Economic and Political Developments (2007), pp. 19–20

Height Advantage

1996: An intriguing but ultimately meaningless statistic: “practically every president elected in the United States since 1900 was the taller of the two candidates”. Eighteen of the 25 presidential elections in the 20th century were won by the taller of the two main candidates and five by the shorter. In the other two elections, the main opponents were the same height.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Heights_of_presidents_and_presidential_
candidates_of_the_United_States

Laws Of Physics

1995: In “Tumbling toast, Murphy’s Law and the fundamental constants”, Robert A.J. Matthews demonstrated mathematically that “toast does indeed have an inherent tendency to land butter-side down”. At the end of his article, Matthews suggested ways to avoid this messy outcome: by swiping at the falling toast, to give it a horizontal as well as a vertical velocity; by reducing toast size to 2.5-centimetre squares; or by breakfasting at 3-metre-high tables.

Source: European Journal of Physics, 1995

Scaredy Cats

1994: Why the sudden appearance, in Japanese backstreets and alleys, of clusters of plastic bottles filled with water?

To ward off unwanted cats. Householders believed the cats would be frightened by their distorted reflections as they walked past. A sort of feline hall of mirrors.

Source: James M. Vardaman, Jr., and Michiko Sasaki Vardaman, Japan from A to Z: Mysteries of Everyday Life Explained (1995), pp. 19–20

Shrieking Rabbits

1993: During the siege of the compound near Waco, in Texas, occupied by the Branch Davidian religious group, the FBI subjected sect members to the recorded shrieks of dying rabbits.

Source: Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise (2010), p. 71

Exhausting The Inexhaustible

1992: The catastrophic collapse of the cod population off the eastern seaboard of Canada forced the government to impose a moratorium on catches.

European sailors who reached Newfoundland at the end of the 15th century found the seas “full of fish which are taken not only with the net but also with a basket”. In 1851, Newfoundland’s display at the Great Exhibition in London dealt solely with the history and manufacture of cod liver oil. Cod sustained the Newfoundland economy, and cod numbers seemed inexhaustible.

Continue reading

Nothin’ To It

1991: Louisiana’s executioner expressed nonchalance about operating the state’s electric chair: “It’s no different to me executing somebody and goin’ to the refrigerator and getting a beer out of it.”

Source: Wilbert Rideau, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance (2011), p. 220

Dahl Finds Solace

Roald Dahl, photographed in 1982 by Hans van Dijk

1990: In 1962, Roald Dahl’s 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, caught measles. The virus can lead in rare cases to measles encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that is sometimes fatal. Olivia was one of those rare cases, and the disease was fatal.

Thirty years later, as his own life drew to a close, the children’s author tenderly remembered his dead daughter and drew inspiration from her. “I am not frightened of falling off my perch,” he said. “If Olivia can do it, so can I.”

Source: Donald Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl (2010), pp. 383–8, 560

Internet Acronym

1989: A new Internet acronym: “LOL”, meaning “Laughing Out Loud”, which appeared in the 8 May issue of the computer newsletter FidoNews, between mentions of “exiting” new software (a “Realistic Cake Mixing Simulation” and a “ ‘Fun’ Nuclear War Game”) and an article about UFOs.

Source: www.textfiles.com/fidonet-on-
the-internet/878889/fido0619.txt

Unlucky Number Nine

1988: Ne Win wasn’t the only member of the Burmese military to attach importance to the number nine. The officers who shunted him aside in a coup timed their action for 18 September (1 + 8 = 9; September = 9th month).

Source: Christina Fink, Living Silence: Burma under Military Rule (2001), p. 229