When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

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Tetchy Telegram

1908: Violet Asquith was on holiday in Italy when her father, Herbert, succeeded Campbell-Bannerman as prime minister. She dashed off a telegram:
“How dare you become prime minister when I’m away great love constant thought Violet.”

Source: Violet Bonham Carter, Lantern Slides: The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter 1904–1914, ed. Mark Bonham Carter and Mark Pottle (1996), pp. 150, 151

Dismal Prediction

Black mamos, depicted in Frederick William Frohawk’s The Birds of the Sandwich Islands

1907: Robert Perkins discovered the black mamo on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in 1893. He proposed the Latin name Drepanis funerea for the bird, partly because of its sombre plumage, partly because of “the sad fate that too probably awaits the species”.

Fourteen years later, in June 1907, his dismal prediction came true. “To my joy I found the mangled remains hanging in the tree in a thick bunch of leaves,” exulted Alanson Bryan as he shot and killed the last three known birds.

Source: Errol Fuller, Extinct Birds (2000), pp. 354–6

Ludicrous Notion

1906: Two years after the Wright brothers had first achieved powered flight, people still scoffed at their claim. Alliott Verdon-Roe, a pioneer figure in British aviation, believed them and backed them. On 24 January, The Times published a letter of support from him, although the newspaper appended an editorial footnote cautioning that “all attempts at artificial aviation . . . are not only dangerous to human life but foredoomed to failure from an engineering standpoint”.

Source: L.J. Ludovici, The Challenging Sky: The Life of Sir Alliott Verdon-Roe (1956), p. 40

Snub For Sweden

1905: In a plebiscite held on 13 August, Norwegians voted to dissolve the country’s union with neighbouring Sweden. A total of 368,208 men – women were excluded – voted in favour of the dissolution; 184 voted against.

Source: www.nb.no/baser/1905/tema_
folk_e.html

Musical Notation

1903: The composer Leoš Janáček maintained that the melody and rhythms of simple sounds and everyday conversation provided a window on the inner self. Janáček called this concept speech melody, and applied it to robins’ song in a park, to the muttering of an old woman gathering fire wood on a river bank, even to the words of his daughter, Olga, delirious with rheumatic heart disease.

“I don’t want to die; I want to live!” she sobbed. “Such fear!” And a final sigh, “Ah-h,” which Janáček notated as two Ds, a quaver and a crochet, at the bottom of a treble clef, followed by a pause.

Source: John Tyrrell, Janáček: Years of a Life, I: (1854–1914): The Lonely Blackbird (2006), pp. 543–5

High Jinks

Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso

1902: Enrico Caruso sang alongside Nellie Melba in La Bohème at Covent Garden. Caruso was a great practical joker. When he reached the aria “Che gelida manina” (“How cold your little hand is; let me warm it for you.”), Caruso placed a hot sausage in Melba’s hand.

Source: Howard S. Greenfield, Caruso: An Illustrated Life (1991), p. 50

Russian Scientists Recover Mammoth From Siberia

1901: Russian scientists were excited by the discovery of a mammoth, frozen into a cliff above a remote Siberian river. Otto Herz, a zoologist, and Eugen Pfizenmayer, a taxidermist, were sent to excavate the carcass and transport it to St. Petersburg. Herz noted that the mammoth’s flesh, refrigerated for thousands of years, was dark red and marbled and looked like fresh beef. “We wondered for some time whether we should not taste it.” They didn’t, but they did feed bits to their dogs, who lived to tell the tale.

Source: Richard Stone, Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant (2002), pp. 29–35

Speech Impediment

Winston Churchill in 1900

1900: Newspaper correspondent Winston Churchill began the year in high spirits, having escaped from Boer captivity only days before. A wanted poster issued on 18 December 1899 had offered a reward of £25 for his recapture, dead or alive. The poster had described him as about 5 feet 8 inches tall, of medium build, and had noted that he walked with a stooping gait, spoke through his nose and couldn’t properly pronounce the letter “s”.

Source: Celia Sandys, Churchill Wanted Dead or Alive (1999), p. 103

Lightning Strike

1998: The Kinshasa newspaper L’Avenir reported that lightning struck and killed all 11 members of a football team during a match in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, while leaving the opposing team unscathed.

Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/
africa/203137.stm

Chaplinesque Insect

1996: The taxonomist Neal Evenhuis came up with the name Campsicnemus charliechaplini for a species of Hawaiian fly “in honor of the great silent movie comedian, Charlie Chaplin, because of the curious tendency of this fly to die with its midlegs in a bandy-legged position”.

Source: http://hbs.bishopmuseum.org/pdf/
op45-54-58.pdf

Legal Niceties

1995: Hours before his scheduled execution at Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Robert Brecheen overdosed on sedatives. The condemned murderer was taken from death row to hospital, where his stomach was pumped. Once his condition had stabilized, he was returned to prison and executed by lethal injection.

Source: The New York Times, 12 August 1995

One Thing Leads To Another

Oriental white-backed vultures feeding on a dead cow in Rajasthan, in India, photographed by Bernard Dupont

1993: In 1993 there were around 40 million vultures in India. By 2007, the population of the long-billed vulture had plummeted by nearly 97 per cent, while the oriental white-backed vulture had fared even worse, with numbers down by more than 99 per cent.

Scientists eventually linked these disastrous declines to the veterinary use of the drug diclofenac. The drug was initially developed to treat pain and inflammatory disorders in humans; from the early 1990s, Indian farmers began to use it on their livestock.

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How To Live To 135

Nikola Tesla photographed at the age of 34, a quarter of the way through his expected lifespan

1991: On his 80th birthday, in 1936, the electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla informed reporters that he wiggled his toes several hundred times before he went to bed. This toned up his body, Tesla explained, so that he would live to 135. In the event, Tesla’s toes stopped wiggling long before 1991; he died in 1943, at the age of 86.

Source: W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (2013), p. 380

Kaboom!

1989: Spooked by the downfall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet officials at the KGB office in Dresden desperately destroyed records of agents and operations. They burned so many files, recalled one member of staff, Vladimir Putin, that “the furnace burst”.

Source: Vladimir Putin with Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova and Andrei Kolesnikov, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (2000), p. 76

We’re Watching You

1988: The Stasi employed a work force of 102,000 to monitor a population of 17 million: one secret policeman for every 166 East Germans, compared with one Gestapo official for every 2000 citizens under the Third Reich and one KGB agent for every 5830 people in the Soviet Union. In addition, the Stasi had at least 174,000 regular informers among the population, 10,000 of whom were under the age of 18. There was one Stasi employee or regular informer for every 66 people; if part-time informers were included, the ratio of agents and informers to citizens may have been one to 6.5.

Source: John O. Koehler, Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police (1999), pp. 8–9