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

Whining And Dining

Official portrait of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1955, by Sovandara

1976: While his compatriots had to put up with empty bellies, the former Cambodian monarch Norodom Sihanouk complained that he was running short of the rum needed to create bananes flambées.

Source: Norodom Sihanouk, Prisonnier des Khmers Rouges (1986), p. 155

Final Curtain For Kabuki Actor

1975: On 16 January, the kabuki actor Bandō Mitsugorō VIII died from tetrodotoxin poisoning. The actor, designated a “living national treasure” by the Japanese government, ate four servings of puffer fish livers in the apparent belief that his body would tolerate the highly toxic organs. He was wrong. Hours after the meal in a Kyoto restaurant he died of convulsions and paralysis.

Source: The Japan Times, 17 January 1975

Print by the 19th-century Japanese artist Andō Hiroshige, depicting a puffer fish in front of a yellowtail

“Spherical Bastards”

1974: The Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, who had posited the existence of neutron stars and dark matter, died at the age of 75. Not the easiest of people to get on with, Zwicky allegedly described his fellow astronomers as “spherical bastards”. Why “spherical”? Because, he said, they were bastards whichever way you looked at them.

Source: Richard Preston, First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe (1998), p. 149

Colour Prejudice

1973: In extreme cases, Cushing’s syndrome, caused by hyperactive adrenal glands, can be treated by removal of the glands. Surgery is seldom performed, however, since removal of the glands may in turn cause Nelson’s syndrome, a disorder characterised by darkening of the skin.

When Rita Hoefling, a white woman from Cape Town, began to suffer from Nelson’s syndrome, she became the hapless victim of South Africa’s apartheid system. She was shunned by the white community and even by her own family. After her father died, her mother refused to allow her to attend the funeral: “I do not want to be embarrassed by your black body at Daddy’s grave.”

Source: Armand Marie Leroi, Mutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body (2003), pp. 263–5

Animal Wisdom

The Duke of Windsor, photographed in 1970

1972: On the evening of 27 May, the Duke of Windsor’s doctor was surprised to see that the duke’s favourite pug, which had seldom left its master’s bed during the previous few weeks, had moved on to the bedroom floor. Early next morning, the duke died.

Source: Michael Bloch, The Secret File of the Duke of Windsor (1989), pp. 425–6

Carrot And Stick

1970: The East German state used a carrot-and-stick approach to nurture athletic excellence among its children. Budding champions were forced to adhere to rigid training regimes and to meet strict sporting and academic targets. Those who succeeded might be rewarded, for example, with the right to have a teddy bear.

Source: Mihir Bose, The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World (2011), p. 243

Long-Haul Flight

1969: Perhaps anticipating the tedium of a long-haul flight, astronaut Neil Armstrong took along as his soundtrack for the trip to the moon Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”, and Harry Revel’s album Music Out of the Moon.

Source: Andrew Smith, Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth (2005), p. 304

Man Of Few Words

1968: In contrast to the effusive manner of other winners at the Oscar ceremony, the director Alfred Hitchcock ambled into view, took his award, leaned towards the microphone, and simply said:
“Thank you.”

Source: Donald Spoto, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius (1983), p. 499

Chinese Gooseberries

1966: In the middle of the Cold War, New Zealand fruit exporters got round the political touchiness of the name “Chinese gooseberry” by devising a new name: the “kiwi fruit”.

Source: John Ayto, Twentieth Century Words (1999), p. 416

Chinese gooseberries, also known as kiwi fruit, photographed by André Karwath

Nuclear Proliferation For Beginners

Mushroom cloud from the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, photographed by Charles Levy

1964: The Pentagon, worried about nuclear proliferation, set up a small-scale experiment to find out how easy it would be for a country starting with no relevant expertise to build a nuclear bomb. The Nth Country Project chose two scientists to represent the attempts of the fictitious country to produce such a device. The scientists held doctorates in physics, but, crucially, their knowledge of nuclear physics was limited and they had no access to classified information. After 2½ years, they came up with a feasible design. Their bomb was powerful enough that it would have produced an explosion similar in size to the one dropped on Hiroshima, yet simple enough that it “could have been made by Joe’s Machine Shop downtown”.

Source: The Guardian, 24 June 2003

Black Dog Barbot

1963: They were once close comrades, but by 1963, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s dictatorial president, and Clément Barbot, his thuggish henchman, had become deadly enemies.

Duvalier went gunning for Barbot, and Barbot for Duvalier. Tontons Macoutes combed the shantytowns of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding countryside for Barbot, who responded with bombings and ambushes.

Duvalier’s gunmen thought on one occasion they had trapped Barbot in a hideout. They riddled the house with bullets, but when they kicked down the front door, a black dog ran out. Perhaps Barbot possessed the voodoo power to turn himself into a black dog, Haitians thought, and it was rumoured that Duvalier ordered all black dogs to be shot on sight.

Source: Bernard Diederich and Al Burt, Papa Doc: Haiti and Its Dictator (1970), p. 222

Biology Boffin

1962: Elizabeth II formally opened the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge. The scientists had constructed models to illustrate the complexities of biological structures. The queen was very attentive. One of her accompanying ladies remarked: “I had no idea that we had all these little coloured balls inside us.”

Source: New Scientist, 31 January 1980

Big Bang

1961: The most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated was the Soviet Union’s Tsar Bomba hydrogen bomb. The device was tested on 30 October, producing an estimated yield of 50 megatons, roughly 3,000 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War.

Source: http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/
Russia/TsarBomba.html

“Wind Of Change”

1960: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent,” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told South Africa’s white lawmakers. Belgium relinquished control of the Belgian Congo; in West Africa, a swathe of French colonies gained independence; Britain pulled out of Nigeria. In a single year, Macmillan’s “wind of change” gusted through 17 African nations.

Source: www.france24.com/en/
20100214-1960-year-independence

Women In Space

Edward Teller, advocate of female astronauts

1957: In Edward Teller’s opinion, “All astronauts should be women because they weigh less and have more sense.” The United States ignored the nuclear physicist’s trenchant views and it was the Soviet Union that first sent a woman into space. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova orbited Earth for three days in June 1963; the first American female astronaut didn’t blast off until 1983.

Source: Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space (2003), p. 7

“Like A Lumberjack”

1955: Albert Einstein was a better physicist than violinist. One acquaintance remarked, rather harshly, that he played “like a lumberjack”. There’s a story, probably apocryphal, that, while rehearsing in a quartet, he repeatedly came in at the wrong time. The exasperated pianist, Artur Schnabel, eventually rounded on him: “For heaven’s sake, Albert, can’t you count?”

Source: Albert Einstein, The New Quotable Einstein, ed. Alice Calaprice (2005), p. 321

In Short

1954: The American poet and humorist Strickland Gillilan died in 1954. He was the author of “Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes”, which has a strong claim to be the shortest poem in the English language:
Adam
Had ’em.

Source: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, ed. Emily Morison Beck (1980), p. 727

Annoying Or Coercive Or Downright Sadistic

Soldiers of the King’s African Rifles transport goods by horseback, while keeping a watch for Mau Mau fighters

1953: Kenyan police and white settlers treated Mau Mau suspects in ways that ranged from annoying to coercive to downright sadistic.

Annoying: detainees on Mageta Island in Lake Victoria were subjected to endless replays of “God Save the Queen”.

Coercive: a European police officer admitted he got results during interrogations by “putting an up-turned bucket on a man’s head and then beating it with a metal instrument for up to half an hour when the man usually burst into tears and gave the information if he had any”.

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Hypnotic Acts

1952: Britain’s Hypnotism Act (“An Act to regulate the demonstration of hypnotic phenomena for purposes of public entertainment”) prohibited the hypnotising of people under the age of 21.

Source: ‘Current Law’ Statutes Annotated 1952, ed. John Burke (1952), chap. 46

Health And Safety

1951: Inspectors at the Fernald uranium processing plant near Cincinnati, where ore was converted into metal for the American nuclear weapons programme, would routinely test the metallic strength of radioactive “green salt” by dabbing some on their tongues to see whether it tasted right.

Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, 11 May 1998

Eccentric Englishman

1950: Lord Berners, who died in April, was a classical composer and the author of several novels, though he’s probably best remembered for his eccentricities: the clavichord in his Rolls-Royce; fake pearl necklaces round his dogs’ necks; blue mayonnaise; the warning, “Trespassers will be prosecuted, dogs shot, cats whipped,” in his garden; pigeons dyed magenta, copper green and ultramarine, “tumbling about like a cloud of confetti in the sky”; the notice at the entrance to his folly at Faringdon, “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”.

Source: Mark Amory, Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric (1998), pp. 79, 120, 137–8, 150

Promise To Be Good

1947: After dusk on 7 April, a search party of coalminers recovered the body of 4-year-old Glyndwr Parfitt from the River Afan in south Wales. The boy’s hands and feet had been tied with bootlaces. The police charged a 9-year-old playmate with murder. When questioned, he admitted the killing but promised, “I won’t do it again.”

Source: David James Smith, The Sleep of Reason, p. 5