1903: Before dawn on 11 June, officers of the Serbian army forced their way into the royal palace in Belgrade. Alexander I was an unpopular monarch; he was high-handed, reactionary, and his marriage to a former lady-in-waiting had scandalised many. The officers had come to kill him. They blew in doors with dynamite and frantically searched the darkened palace. After two hours, the intruders discovered the royal couple in a concealed alcove. They killed the king and his queen, riddled their bodies with bullets, slashed them with sabres and tossed them into the garden.
1902: Throughout the last week of April and the first week of May, underground detonations shook Mount Pelée, on the Caribbean island of Martinique. The volcano belched smoke and showered ash on the nearby town of Saint-Pierre. At 8 o’clock on the morning of 8 May the side of the volcano ripped open, and a cloud of superheated gas, ash and rock spewed out, hurtled down the mountainside and engulfed Saint-Pierre. The town and its inhabitants were incinerated. Out of a population of 26,000, only two survived: Léon Compère-Léandre, a cobbler, and Louis-Auguste Sylbaris, who had been incarcerated in the solitary confinement cell of the town jail.
Source: Alwyn Scarth, La Catastrophe: Mount Pelée and the Destruction of Saint-Pierre, Martinique (2002), pp. 112–21, 127–8, 183–9
1901: Queen Victoria died; Edward VII became king. If, however, the throne had passed to the firstborn child, regardless of sex, Victoria would have been succeeded by her daughter Vicky. And consider this: when Vicky died, as she did just a few months later, her eldest child, Wilhelm, would have become king. Already kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm would have also become William V of Britain.
Source: The Independent, 7 July 2006
1900: “Old Warren is a duffer,” was General Redvers Buller’s verdict on his second-in-command after the carnage at Spion Kop. Buller’s assessment wasn’t altered at Hussar Hill, a few weeks later, when he found General Charles Warren splashing about in a bathtub on the battlefield instead of fighting the Boers.
Source: Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War (1979), pp. 322, 365–6
1999: The Scottish poet and translator William Auld became the first person to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature for work in Esperanto.
Source: The Daily Telegraph, 22 September 2006
1998: In Hong Kong, a city where the majority of people live in high-rise flats, it was perhaps unsurprising that the most common method of suicide should have been by jumping from a tall building; intentional carbon monoxide poisoning was relatively uncommon. In November, however, a middle-aged woman took her life by sealing herself in a room and burning barbecue charcoal to produce a fug of the deadly gas. The novelty and simplicity of this method attracted widespread media coverage and inspired copycats. Within two months, charcoal-burning had become the third most prevalent means of suicide in Hong Kong.
Source: Psychiatric Services, June 2001
1997: No one wants it to rain on their parade. To make sure that wet weather didn’t spoil Moscow’s 850th anniversary pageant, the city’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, sent up aircraft to seed approaching clouds with silver iodide as a way of encouraging them to shed their rain before they reached the celebrations.
Source: Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter’s Guide (2006), p. 270
Q: What began life at Stanford University in 1996 as a student research project with the nickname “BackRub”?
A: The Internet search engine Google.
Source: John Battelle, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture (2005), pp. 72–6
1995: At the beginning of the century, the world land speed record, set by the Belgian racer Camille Jenatzy in 1899 in an electric-powered car, stood at 105.88 km/h. By the end of the century, bicycles were travelling faster than that. Much faster. On 3 October 1995, at the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah, the Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg, pedalling in the slipstream of a dragster, set a world bicycle speed record of 268.831 km/h.
1993: Deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States: diphtheria, 156 in 1953 and none in 1993; whooping cough, 270 in 1953 and one in 1993; tetanus, 337 in 1953 and 11 in 1993; paralytic polio, 1,450 in 1953 and none in 1993.
1992: The Times of India report on 29 April 1966 that Balasaheb Patloji Thorat, from Maharashtra, had won a lawsuit that had dragged on for centuries was incorrect. The dispute had a long history, but a civil suit had only been filed on 8 April 1964. The lawsuit had lasted just over two years, not 761 years.
Source: The Times of India, 18 February 1992
1991: In the space of 70 years, Azerbaijanis had to cope with three major changes to their alphabet, plus a handful of minor alterations. From 1923, the centuries-old Arabic script was replaced by a Latin script; in 1939, Stalin imposed a Cyrillic script; and in 1991, the newly independent state reverted to a Latin script. Azerbaijanis barely had time to become literate in one before they had to learn another.
Source: Azerbaijan International, Spring 2000
1990: Between the end of the Second World War and 1990 the world’s population soared by almost 3 billion. The medical journal The Lancet illustrated the scale of this increase with an analogy: if an atomic bomb with the killing capacity of the one that obliterated Hiroshima had been dropped every day since 6 August 1945, it would have failed to keep pace with the runaway growth in human numbers.
Source: The Lancet, 15 September 1990
1989: Mexico City introduced the Hoy No Circula environmental programme to reduce air pollution. Hoy No Circula prohibited most motor vehicles from the city’s streets on one day a week, based on the last digit of their number plates. Vehicles whose number plates ended in 5 or 6, for example, were banned on Mondays.
This restriction, which was vigorously enforced, applied to 2.3 million vehicles, or 460,000 vehicles on each weekday. Obviously, removing this number of vehicles from circulation cut pollution at a stroke.
1988: In his 1973 book A Random Walk down Wall Street, the American economist Burton Malkiel suggested: “A blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.”
In 1988, The Wall Street Journal decided to put Malkiel’s theory to the test. A list of stocks was fixed to the office wall and journalists – the next best thing to blindfolded monkeys – picked stocks by flinging darts at the list. Investment professionals, representing the experts, selected their portfolio by more conventional means.
1987: “And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag . . . and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.”
Three thousand years separated the young shepherd from Arab youths flinging stones at the Israeli Army, but modern Davids were just as particular in their choice of weapon. A German geologist explained: “The young Palestinians have told me that chert is their favourite throwing stone, that it makes the best missile. It’s sharp, hard, and heavy in the hand.”
Sources: I Samuel 17:40; Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012), p. 229
1986: The explosion of the Chernobyl reactor released 400 times as much radioactive material into the atmosphere as the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
Source: International Atomic Energy Agency, Ten Years after Chernobyl: What Do We Really Know? (1997), p. 8
Q: Which country, in response to a referendum of its citizens, withdrew from the European Community in 1985?
1984: Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won the ice dancing competition at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Millions of British television viewers cheered them on. I didn’t watch them; I was on board a long-distance bus from Athens to London that was delayed in Yugoslavia by heavy snow. I didn’t know about Torvill and Dean’s victory until the bus reached London. In fact, because I had lived abroad for the previous few years, it was perhaps the first time I had heard their names. They didn’t sound like a pair of ice dancers, I thought, more like a furniture removal firm.
Source: The Times, 15 February 1984
1983: Straying from the usual sentiments of obituary notices in The Times:
JOHN LE MESURIER Wishes it to be
known that he conked out on
November 15th. He sadly misses
family and friends.
Source: The Times, 16 November 1983