When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Category archive: 1980s

Summary Justice

1989: On Christmas Day, deposed Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were put on trial for genocide, armed attacks against the people, the destruction of buildings and state institutions, and undermining the national economy. The prosecution offered scant evidence, but it was enough to satisfy the military tribunal. In less than an hour the Ceaușescus were found guilty and sentenced to death. The couple were immediately taken outside and shot.

Source: Peter Siani-Davies, The Romanian Revolution of December 1989 (2005), pp. 136–41

Infinitely Slowly

John Mainstone, of the University of Queensland, photographed in 1990 with the pitch drop experiment

1988: For half a century, John Mainstone oversaw the University of Queensland’s pitch drop experiment, in which pitch – the tarry substance used to make boat seams watertight – dripped infinitely slowly from a funnel into a flask. Set up in 1927, the experiment demonstrated that pitch is not a solid, but an extremely viscous liquid.

Although a drop fell from the funnel only once every decade or so, paradoxically, when this happened, it happened in an instant. One weekend in April 1979, aware that a drop was about to fall, Mainstone kept a close watch on the experiment, but nothing happened, so he went home. When he returned on Monday, the drop had fallen. Nine years later, he was determined to witness the next drop, but briefly abandoned his vigil to go for a cup of tea. When he came back, the drop had fallen.

Source: www.wnycstudios.org/story/
267176-never-quite-now

Out Of Limbo

1987: The antiretroviral drug AZT, developed in the 1960s to combat cancer, proved too toxic for its intended use. After years in pharmaceutical limbo, the drug returned to favour in the 1980s when it was found it could treat HIV and AIDS – appropriate, given that it was first isolated from herring sperm.

Source: Barry D. Schoub, AIDS & HIV in Perspective: A Guide to Understanding the Virus and Its Consequences (1999), pp. 177–9

Easy Peasy

1986: A year after CIA counterintelligence officer Aldrich Ames began betraying secrets to the Soviets, the American spy agency scheduled a lie detector test for him. Although it was only a routine test, it put the wind up Ames.

He got in contact with the KGB and asked them to suggest ways to foil the polygraph. Their advice: “Get a good night’s sleep, and rest, and go into the test rested and relaxed. Be nice to the polygraph examiner, develop a rapport, and be cooperative and try to maintain your calm.”

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Moscow Calling

U.S. President Ronald Reagan

1985: When his hearing aid started playing up during a White House briefing on the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan turned to intelligence official Robert Gates, smiled, and said, “My KGB handler must be trying to reach me.”

Source: Robert M. Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (1996), p. 344

Deceptively Peaceful

1982: The 26 March issue of The Penguin News included articles on Polish sailors jumping ship in the Falklands (the 11 seamen represented “an increase in the population of the Falklands of over one half of one per-cent”), the construction of six houses in Stanley (“the biggest spate of house building that the capital has seen for many years”), and the horticultural society’s annual vegetable and home produce show (entries were “much more numerous” than the previous year). In fact, rather like a parish magazine, except that other articles expressed unease on a topic of wider importance: Argentine claims to the Falklands. The islanders were right to be apprehensive; a week later Argentine troops invaded the islands, which put an end to all that parochial calm.

Source: www.fig.gov.fk/archives/online-
collections/periodicals/penguin-news

Underwater Activity

1981: Animals can sometimes make humans look really stupid.

In October, a Soviet submarine ran aground on rocks close to the naval base at Karlskrona in southern Sweden. This was undeniable evidence of foreign intrusion into Swedish territorial waters, and it made Swedes jumpy.

For the next decade, unidentified submarines were frequently reported along the country’s coastline.

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Defence Of Honour

1980: Under Colombia’s new Legal Code, parents who murdered their daughters, husbands who murdered their wives, and siblings who murdered their sisters could no longer get away with lighter sentences by claiming to have killed in defence of honour.

Source: Las Mujeres en la Historia de Colombia: Tomo 1: Mujeres, Historia y Política, ed. Magdala Velásquez Toro (1995), p. 425

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

Bad Year In The Air

1985: On the first day of the year, 29 passengers and crew died when an Eastern Air Lines plane flew into the side of a mountain in Bolivia. Six weeks later, an Iberia airliner struck a television antenna near Bilbao, in northern Spain; 148 people died. A terrorist bomb exploded on an Air India jumbo jet over the north Atlantic on 23 June, killing all 329 people on board. On 12 August, in what was shaping up to be a bad year for air accidents, a Japan Airlines jumbo jet on a domestic flight went out of control after its tail sheared off. The aircraft crashed in mountains west of Tokyo; 520 died, four survived. On 12 December, 248 U.S. servicemen, heading home for Christmas, together with eight crew, perished when their Arrow Air plane came down shortly after takeoff from Gander, in Newfoundland. Total fatalities for the year: 2,962.

Source: www.planecrashinfo.com/1985/
1985.htm

Words For Snow

1984: How many words do the Eskimos have for snow? A handful? Dozens? A hundred?

The anthropologist Franz Boas gave four examples in his 1911 Handbook of American Indian Languages. Benjamin Lee Whorf expanded the list to at least seven in a 1940 essay. After that, the number snowballed; by 1984, an editorial in The New York Times was mentioning “100 types” of snow and “100 synonyms” for the white stuff.

So how many words do the Eskimos have for snow? It’s not exactly a trick question, but there are a variety of answers, depending on what you mean by “Eskimo” and “word” and “snow”.

Source: American Anthropologist, June 1986

Williams Bows Out

Tennessee Williams, photographed in happier times by Orlando Fernandez

1983: The American playwright Tennessee Williams bemoaned the downward trajectory of his career “from good reviews, to bad reviews, to no reviews”.

On 25 February, his body was discovered in a New York hotel room, curled on the floor next to the bed. An alphabet of prescription drugs, from Aldomet to Zyloprim, lay on the chest of drawers; capsules of Seconal, a barbiturate, littered the bedclothes; a half-empty glass of red wine stood on the bedside table. Cause of death: the toxic amount of Seconal consumed and not, as some reports suggested, a medicine bottle cap stuck in the throat.

Source: John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (2014), pp. 582–8

“Lawn Chair Larry”

1982: Larry Walters had always wanted to be a pilot, and on 2 July he finally achieved his ambition.

The Los Angeles truck driver bought a bunch of weather balloons, inflated them with helium and tied them to an ordinary garden chair – what the Americans call a lawn chair. He then donned a parachute, strapped himself into the chair and instructed his ground crew to release the cords that tethered his home-made flying machine to the ground.

Walters had expected to rise gently into the sky and to float about at a modest altitude; instead, he zoomed upwards at an alarming speed and drifted into the airspace over Long Beach airport.

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Silver Lining

1981: The economic recession of 1981 to 1982 forced the closure of many steel mills and factories in Pittsburgh and throughout Pennsylvania. This produced a sharp reduction in air pollution. Measured in terms of total suspended particulates, or TSPs, pollution fell by a quarter between 1980 and 1982. The improved air quality led in turn to a decline in infant mortality caused by “internal” causes (respiratory and cardiopulmonary deaths, for example). While the number of births in Pennsylvania increased by roughly 3,000, the number of infant deaths actually decreased: from 1,815 in 1980 to 1,595 in 1982. So, each year, 220 infants lived who, if it hadn’t been for the recession, would have died.

Source: www.nber.org/papers/w7442.pdf

Out Of Step

1980: Each year, regularly, in December, the United Nations General Assembly voted to find “approaches and ways and means” to improve the “effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Given its laudable aims, the resolution garnered overwhelming support: 120 nations voted for it, and one nation voted against, in 1980; 135 nations voted for, and one against, in 1981; 113 for, one against, in 1982; 132 for, one against, in 1983. Each year, regularly, the lone country opposed to the resolution was the United States of America.

Source: www.un.org/en/ga/search/
view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/35/174

Cutting Air Pollution

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.

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Blindfolded Monkeys

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.

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Weapon Of Choice

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

Furniture Removals

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

Fact And Fiction

1982: In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted the Knights of St John the use of the islands of Malta and Gozo in return for a nominal annual rent of a single live Maltese falcon, a subspecies of peregrine falcon renowned for its hunting skills.

Four centuries later, in The Maltese Falcon, the novelist Dashiell Hammett turned this yearly tribute into a jewel-encrusted statuette, which was pursued by a slippery mix of crooks and private eyes.

The real world was every bit as unsavoury as the fictional world. In 1982, or very soon after, hunters shot the last pair of breeding Maltese falcons on the cliffs of Gozo.

Source: Emma Hartley, Did David Hasselhoff End the Cold War?: 50 Facts You Need to Know: Europe (2007), pp. 105–6