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

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

Billions And Billions

1987: The United Nations designated 11 July as the day on which the world’s population would exceed 5 billion. It was impossible, of course, to pinpoint the date – the Day of 5 Billion was largely symbolic. More credibly, though less precisely, population experts estimated that the number of human beings reached 2 billion sometime during 1927, 3 billion during 1960 and 4 billion in 1974.

Source: Geoffrey Gilbert, World Population: A Reference Handbook (2001), pp. 35–43

Fluent Cantonese

1986: Colloquial Cantonese and Putonghua Equivalents provided visitors to Hong Kong with the right phrases for unexpected situations:
“I forgot to wind up the doll.”
“A petty worker’s income is deplorable.”
“He was made so angry as to thump tables and throw bowls.”
“Many wizards hoodwink people all the time.”

Source: Zeng Zifan, Colloquial Cantonese and Putonghua Equivalents (1986), pp. 10, 54, 89, 119

Self-Loathing

Albanian leader Enver Hoxha, photographed in 1971 by Forrásjelölés Hasonló

1985: Petar Shapallo was a dentist from northern Albania who resembled the country’s Stalinist leader, Enver Hoxha. After the secret police forced him to undergo plastic surgery, the likeness was even closer.

For years, Shapallo acted as the dictator’s double. He talked the way Hoxha talked, smiled the same reassuring smile, lost weight when Hoxha dieted, limped when Hoxha sprained his ankle.

When the Great Leader died, Shapallo lost his job. When communism collapsed, Shapallo was attacked by Albanians who feared he was the ghost of their despised leader. Shapallo loathed his appearance. When the torment became unbearable, he used a knife to gash and gouge his face.

Source: Lloyd Jones, Biografi: An Albanian Quest (1993), pp. 1–5

Deadly Witch-Hunts

1984: Between 1970 and 1984, police in 13 regions of mainland Tanzania recorded a total of 3,333 cases of witchcraft. This wasn’t harmless hocus-pocus: 1,407 men and 2,286 women suspected of being witches were murdered.

Source: Denise Roth Allen, Managing Motherhood, Managing Risk: Fertility and Danger in West Central Tanzania (2005), p. 249

Senior Comrades Drop Like Flies

Moscow by night, with Lenin’s mausoleum at the side of Red Square and the Kremlin behind, photographed by Andrew Shiva

1983: After years of arteriosclerosis, severe coronary disease, leukaemia and emphysema, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982 at the age of 75. Yuri Andropov was already seriously ill with chronic kidney disease and diabetes when he stepped into Brezhnev’s shoes, and died 15 months later. Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, suffered from emphysema, cirrhosis and hepatitis, and survived only 13 months in the top spot.

In the summer of 1983, and perhaps indicative of the doddery health of the Soviet leadership, an escalator was installed in the Kremlin to help ailing elderly comrades cope with the short climb to the platform on top of Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square.

Source: Dmitri Volkogonov, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire: Political Leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev (1998), pp. 371–2

Cactus Fights Back

Saguaro cactus, photographed in Arizona by Andrew Horne

1982: On 4 February, David Grundman drove out of Phoenix into the Arizona desert with one of his buddies, lots of beer and a shotgun. After a few drinks, Grundman began taking pot shots at saguaro cactuses. The smaller ones toppled over, but a big old saguaro stubbornly refused to fall. Grundman poked it with a stick. That dislodged an arm and then the whole cactus – more than a tonne in weight – wobbled and crashed down. Unfortunately for Grundman, it fell directly on its tormentor.

Source: Tom Miller, Jack Ruby’s Kitchen (2001), pp. 184–95

Smallpox Stamped Out

1979: After an intense global effort a special commission was able to certify, on 9 December, that smallpox had been eradicated from the world. The last person known to have been infected with naturally occurring smallpox, in October 1977, was Ali Maow Maalin, at the port of Merca, in Somalia. The disease was estimated to have killed 300 million people during the 20th century. The last fatality, in September 1978, was Janet Parker, who was exposed to the virus at the University of Birmingham Medical School.

Source: Ian and Jenifer Glynn, The Life and Death of Smallpox (2004), pp. 225–8

Population Boom

1978: One for the record books: the first human birth on the Antarctic mainland. Emilio Palma was born on 7 January at Esperanza Base in Argentine Antarctica.

Source: http://webecoist.momtastic.com/
2011/02/15/born-freezing-meet-antarcticas-first-citizen/

Not-So-Sharp Shooter

1976: Paul Cerutti of Monaco was disqualified from the Olympic trap shooting competition after testing positive for amphetamines. Not that they had done him much good – he had finished 43rd out of 44.

Source: Stan Greenberg, Whitaker’s Olympic Almanack (2003), p. 124

Bacon Bookmark

1974: Cyril Connolly’s obituary in The Times concentrated, of course, on his achievements as a book critic and author, but noted also his habit of “marking his place in a book at the breakfast table with a strip of bacon”.

Source: The Times, 27 November 1974

Sleight Of Hands

Portrait of Pablo Picasso, by Juan Gris

1973: Pablo Picasso never learned to swim. According to his widow, Jacqueline Roque, he mimicked strokes with his arms, while keeping his feet planted on the bottom.

Source: John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years 1917–1932 (2007), p. 160

Blown Sky High

1972: John McErlean lived with his family just north of Belfast. He was 17 years old, an apprentice mechanic and a Catholic. His family never talked politics, but a few days after Bloody Sunday, he and two friends joined the Irish Republican Army. Ten weeks later, the IRA instructed them to move some gelignite stored in a garage. The gelignite exploded, killing all three.

John’s father, Jack, recalled, “I didn’t know anybody was killed until I was told there was flesh over the road and on the roofs.” Jack wasn’t even aware his son had joined the IRA, and only began to worry when he didn’t come home that evening for his meal. “It was a cold April day, there were pieces of flesh and bone all over the place, and the steam was rising off it all.”

Source: David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton, Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles (1999), pp. 172–4

Unearthly Footsteps

Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man on the moon

1969: American astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, remarked: “When I would take a step, a little semicircle of dust would spray out before me. It was odd, because the dust didn’t behave at all the way it behaves here on Earth. On Earth, you’re sometimes dealing with puffy dust, sometimes with sand. On the moon, what you’re dealing with is this powdery dust traveling through no air at all, so the dust is kicked up, and then it all falls at the same time in a perfect semicircle.”

Source: What It Feels Like . . . , ed. A.J. Jacobs (2003), p. 41

Six O’Clock Swill Comes To An End

1967: South Australia became the last Australian state to abolish 6 o’clock closing at hotel bars. That put an end to the hour of frantic drinking after men finished work, characterised by “a flurry of shirt-sleeves, spilt froth, slapped-down change, and swished dish-cloths,” when “glasses of beer were slid two or three at a time along the wet counter-tops as fast as they could be pulled.” Then came the spectacle, after closing time, of drunken men tumbling out into the streets, lurching and vomiting their way home. No wonder it was called “the 6 o’clock swill”.

Source: J.M. Freeland, The Australian Pub (1966), p. 176

A barmaid at work in Petty’s Hotel in Sydney in 1941, photographed by Max Dupain

Showing Off

1966: On 16 July, Mao Zedong swam several kilometres down the Yangtze at Wuhan to demonstrate that, at 72, he retained his vigour. Mao was a keen swimmer, unlike his wife Jiang Qing, who never learned to swim. At the seaside, Jiang wore rubber shoes even when she paddled in the shallows, to conceal a sixth toe on her right foot.

Source: Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Inside Story of the Man Who Made Modern China (1994), pp. 175, 463