1978: The popularity of the Golden Gate Bridge with would-be suicides has been attributed to the bridge’s fame, to copycat behaviour, to the likelihood that a leap from the bridge will be fatal (very few people survive the impact with the water far below), and to the ease with which those intent on suicide can get over the bridge’s guard rails (which are little more than waist-high).
1977: President Mobutu Sésé Seko intended that the launch, on 17 May, of a rocket from Shaba province, in eastern Zaïre, would set the country on course to join the select club of space nations. The rocket, designed and built by the West German company OTRAG as an inexpensive alternative to NASA and European Space Agency rockets, reached an altitude of 20 kilometres. But any hopes that Shaba would become the Cape Canaveral of Africa, putting satellites into orbit at cut-rate prices, received a severe setback a year later, when another rocket crashed immediately after takeoff, directly in front of the country’s watching president.
Source: David van Reybrouck, Congo: The Epic History of a People (2014), pp. 365–7, 369–70
1976: The Observer newspaper quoted R.G. Daniels: “The most delightful advantage of being bald – one can hear snowflakes.”
Source: The Observer, 11 July 1976
1975: Margaret Thatcher worked hard to improve her public speaking skills. Analysis of recordings showed that over a decade she succeeded in lowering the pitch of her voice by about 60 hertz, which made her sound more assertive, gave her more gravitas. She had less success with the tone of her voice. Even at the end of her political career it still sounded (to use Clive James’s description) like a “condescending explanatory whine” that treated the person on the receiving end as if they were “an eight-year-old child with personality deficiencies”.
Source: Anne Karpf, The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent (2006), pp. 226–9
1974: Inventor Jack Cover secured a patent for a “weapon for subduing and constraining” that consisted of a projectile “connected by means of a relatively fine, conductive wire to a launcher which contains an electrical power supply”. Cover called his stun gun a Taser, an acronym he derived from one of his favourite childhood books, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.
Source: Los Angeles Times, 13 February 2009
1972: A storm that battered the Thule area of Greenland on 8 and 9 March produced winds gusting to 333 km/h, which broke both the meteorological record for peak wind speed at low altitude and the anemometer measuring them.
1971: The journalist Nomi Masahiko wasn’t the first to suggest that blood type influences personality, but the popularity of his book Understanding Affinity by Blood Type gave the theory a big boost in Japan. People with type A blood – so the theory goes – are sensible but stubborn; those with type B are creative but selfish; type ABs are sociable but indecisive; and Os are optimistic but arrogant.
1970: The health needs of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman were served by two hospitals, with 12 beds and 13 physicians – one bed, one physician to 50,000 inhabitants, approximately.
Source: The Report: Oman 2009, ed. Andrew Jeffreys (2009), p. 226
1969: After a public trial in newly independent Equatorial Guinea on Christmas Eve, those found guilty were shot or hanged while the loudspeaker system played Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days”.
Source: Financial Times, 17 February 1970
1968: When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, Edward, the last of the four Kennedy brothers, delivered the eulogy.
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
1967: Under pressure from his religious advisers, King Feisal of Saudi Arabia banned the sale of Christmas trees.
Source: David Holden and Richard Johns, The House of Saud (1981), p. 262
1966: On 29 April, The Times of India reported that Balasaheb Patloji Thorat, of Hingangaon, in Maharashtra, secured victory in a lawsuit over the rights to preside at religious and public functions. What made this minor legal squabble newsworthy was that litigation had been initiated by one of Patloji Thorat’s ancestors, umpteen generations earlier, in 1205. The Guinness Book of Records picked up the story and acknowledged the lawsuit to be the most protracted in legal history.
Source: The Times of India, 29 April 1966
1965: Towards the end of Clement Attlee’s life, the biographer Kenneth Harris questioned him about religion. What were his feelings towards Christianity and God and Christ and life after death?
“Believe in the ethics of Christianity,” replied the former prime minister, in typically terse fashion. “Can’t believe the mumbo-jumbo.”
Source: Kenneth Harris, Attlee (1984), pp. 563–4
1964: “Education,” wrote Professor B.F. Skinner, “is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.”
Source: New Scientist, 21 May 1964
1963: Ozu Yasujirō, the Japanese film-maker who directed Tokyo Story, died of cancer on the evening of his 60th birthday. His ashes were buried in the grounds of Engaku temple in Kamakura, beneath a tombstone that bears no name, no dates, no lengthy inscription, just a single character:
which means “nothingness”.
Source: Donald Richie, Ozu (1974), p. 252
1962: Men looked at her, said Marilyn Monroe, but only saw her smile and curves. “Men do not see me, they just lay their eyes on me.”
Source: London Review of Books, 26 April 2012
1961: This was the only strobogrammatic year of the 20th century – the only one that read the same when the figures were turned upside down. This had last happened in 1881; it won’t happen again until 6009.
Source: Mad, March 1961
1960: The amount of energy released in the Chilean earthquake on 22 May, the most powerful quake of the 20th century, was so great that it “wobbled the planet” and caused it to reverberate for days like a giant bell.
Source: Nature, 6 May 2010
1959: During the three years he was incarcerated in Soviet prisons, Felix Yaroshevsky worked as a surgeon. He came across many cases of self-mutilation among his fellow inmates: veins slashed; fingers and toes lopped off; buttons sewn on bodies; and one instance of a youth who urinated on his feet and put them through a broken window to expose them to the freezing January air, resulting in severe frostbite.
Source: Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, October 1975
1958: Pius XII died on 9 October. Despite a lack of expertise, the papal physician Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi was entrusted with embalming the pope’s body. Galeazzi-Lisi resorted to “aromatic osmosis”, an embalming technique developed by the plastic surgeon Oreste Nuzzi, whereby pungent fluids were sprinkled on the clothing and absorbed by osmosis.
The Vatican’s trust in Galeazzi-Lisi and Galeazzi-Lisi’s trust in Nuzzi’s method were misplaced. If anything, Galeazzi-Lisi’s efforts speeded up the process of decomposition. The pontiff’s appearance visibly deteriorated while still lying in state, and those on vigil near the bier found that their eyes “smarted and watered”.
Source: Robert A. Ventresca, Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII (2013), pp. 300–3
1957: Rather than fret about the mushroom clouds rising over the nearby Nevada Test Site, many businesses in Las Vegas hoped to cash in on the nuclear explosions.
The Chamber of Commerce printed special atomic calendars to promote the city. Newspapers carried photographs of “Miss Atomic Bomb”, a showgirl from the Sands Hotel, with a cotton mushroom cloud fixed to the front of her swimsuit. The Flamingo beauty parlour invented an “atomic hairdo”. Visitors to the city could stay at the Atomic View Motel; other motels provided “atomic box lunches” for guests who wanted to picnic closer to the test site.
Source: Barbara Land and Myrick Land, A Short History of Las Vegas (2004), pp. 113–14
1956: “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married,” wrote Billie Holiday at the beginning of Lady Sings the Blues. “He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.”
Source: Billie Holiday with William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues (1958), p. 1
1955: Ravens have probably stalked and flapped around the Tower of London for much of its history, but the earliest reference to the myth that their departure would portend a calamity for the British nation dates back only as far as 1955.
Source: History Today, January 2005
1954: During the Malayan Emergency, the resettlement of a sizable part of the colony’s rural population in “new villages” was an important element in the government strategy to defeat the communist insurgency. The high commissioner, General Sir Gerald Templer, had harsh words for anyone opposed to the policy.
He berated one group of villagers: “You are all bastards.”
1953: Jean Cocteau wrote in his diary on 10 January: “The young duke of Kent and his sisters, taken to see a famous illusionist in a London music hall. The number ends with some nudity, and the nanny doesn’t know what to do. As they leave she ventures to ask, ‘How did your Highness enjoy the performance?’ ‘I’m scared.’ ‘Why, Your Highness?’ ‘Mama told me if I looked at naked women I’d turn to stone – and it’s starting.’ ”
Source: Jean Cocteau, Past Tense (1990), vol. II, p. 4
1952: From the 18th until the 20th century, the population of Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, included a disproportionately large number of deaf people. Isolated farming and fishing communities, and consequent intermarriage, ensured that the defective gene passed from generation to generation.
In the 19th century, when the national average in the United States was one deaf person in roughly 6,000, the figure for Martha’s Vineyard was one in 155. The concentration of deaf people was greatest at the western end of the island, the up-Island; in Chilmark, one in 25 was deaf.
1951: Q: What linked HICKS, HOMER, STANLEY and JOHNSON?
A: Soviet code names for the Cambridge spies Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt.
Source: Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009), pp. 423, 429
1950: The United States expected imports from postwar Japan would be limited to knick-knacks, quaint oriental goods and not much else. At a party in Tokyo, President Harry Truman’s special envoy John Foster Dulles suggested that there might be a market in the United States for Japanese-made shirts, pyjamas and cocktail napkins.
Source: John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986), p. 312
1949: The composer Igor Stravinsky and the novelist Christopher Isherwood hit if off right from the start. Stravinsky found Isherwood’s casual manner refreshing. While many reverentially addressed Stravinsky as “Maestro”, Isherwood simply called him “Igor”. Isherwood didn’t know much about music, didn’t particularly like it and didn’t pretend to. On his first visit to Stravinsky’s Los Angeles home, Isherwood fell asleep while listening to a recording of the composer’s music. Stravinsky later observed: “My affection for him began with that incident.”
Source: Peter Parker, Isherwood: A Life (2004), p.588