1905: In a plebiscite held on 13 August, Norwegians voted to dissolve the country’s union with neighbouring Sweden. A total of 368,208 men – women were excluded – voted in favour of the dissolution; 184 voted against.
1903: Renewable energy was a concept whose time had not yet come, but this was the year that the terms “solar heating” and “wind power” entered the English language.
Source: John Ayto, Twentieth Century Words (1999), pp. 49, 59
1902: At the end of the Boer War, a British Royal Commission calculated that 400,346 horses, mules and donkeys had died during the 2½ years of fighting. Or as the War Office put it, had been “expended”.
Source: Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War (1979), p. 607
1901: The murder of U.S. President William McKinley was a death foretold. The inhabitants of Leslie County, in Kentucky, believed that spiders had prophesied the president’s death by writing his name in their webs.
Source: Daniel Lindsey Thomas and Lucy Blayney Thomas, Kentucky Superstitions (1920), p. 277
1900: “To yield to the parent state the rightly expected profits” from its colonies, wrote Henry Morris, the native population “should be amenable to discipline, to regular forms of government, to reformed methods of life”. And if not? “The natives must then be exterminated or reduced to such numbers as to be readily controlled.”
Source: Henry C. Morris, The History of Colonization from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1900), vol. I, pp. 20–1
“Amenable to discipline”: in the Congo Free State in 1904 a father contemplates his 5-year-old daughter’s hand and foot, severed by soldiers as a punishment
1999: As the year 2000 approached, computer experts warned of the havoc that could be expected from the millennium bug. Inordinate sums were spent to make computers, in the current jargon, “Y2K compliant”. In retrospect, it appears ridiculous and slightly embarrassing, but at the time, fears of widespread dislocation of the world’s computer systems seemed plausible enough.
At the end of December, rumours spread in the Philippines that not only would electronic devices be affected, but even candles and matches. Exactly how this would happen wasn’t clear. Fortunately, getting them blessed by a priest would make them Y2K compliant.
Source: Far Eastern Economic Review, 13 January 2000
1998: Britain’s Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Act 1998 made it illegal to cause a nuclear explosion:
“Any person who knowingly causes a nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for life.”
1997: President Boris Yeltsin’s security adviser, General Alexander Lebed, admitted that Russia was unable to account for 84 out of 132 KGB nuclear “suitcase bombs”.
Source: Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (2004), pp. 9–10
1995: The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the poet Seamus Heaney. The Irish Farmers Journal ran the story under a proud “Local Boy Makes Good” headline:
Bellaghy celebrates as farmer’s
son wins top literary award
Source: Irish Farmers Journal, 14 October 1995
1994: The rules of the Shell Caribbean Cup football competition produced the ludicrous situation, towards the end of the match between Barbados and Grenada, of the Barbadians deliberately scoring an own goal to tie the game, followed by the Grenadians trying to score at both ends of the pitch, and the Barbadians defending their opponents’ goal as well as their own.
Source: Simon Gardiner et al., Sports Law (2006), pp. 73–4
1993: Cats always fall on their feet.
Toast always lands buttered side down.
So if a slice of buttered toast were strapped to a cat’s back and the cat dropped from height, would the cat land on its feet or on its buttered back?
John Frazee, who submitted this conundrum to the magazine Omni, suggested that the unfortunate feline would hover, spinning, just above the ground. The buttered cat would, in fact, be a perpetual motion device.
Source: Omni, July 1993
1992: “Communism died this year,” proclaimed George Bush in his State of the Union address. One month earlier, the Soviet Union had formally ceased to exist. “By the grace of God,” the president told Congress, “America won the Cold War.”
1991: British Rail regretted to announce, on 11 February, that very cold weather would continue to cause delays and cancellations of commuter services around London for several more days. It wasn’t the amount of snow, explained a BR spokesman, so much as its nature – very dry and fine enough to penetrate the air intakes of trains and to short-circuit their motors.
The spokesman didn’t actually say “the wrong kind of snow,” but newspaper headline writers knew a good paraphrase when they coined one, so the expression stuck.
Source: Terry Gourvish, British Rail 1974–97: From Integration to Privatisation (2002), pp. 274, 613
1990: Following the murder of Liberian President Samuel Doe in September, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia tightened its grip around the capital, Monrovia. The NPFL set up checkpoints in the countryside, some adorned with human skulls, some with sinister nicknames, such as No Return.
Doe’s Krahn tribe were renowned monkey hunters. At the God Bless You gate, NPFL fighters enlisted a monkey that could supposedly recognize their common enemy – Krahn tribesmen. Anyone fingered by the monkey was killed on the spot.
Source: Stephen Ellis, The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War (1999), pp. 89, 116
1989: Whew! That was close! An asteroid measuring an estimated 300 metres across, travelling at 74,000 km/h, came within six hours of slamming into the Earth. The asteroid, named Asclepius, crossed Earth’s orbit and passed within 650,000 kilometres of the planet. A collision with an object of that size, moving at that speed, would have seriously rattled the crockery.
Source: Gerrit L. Verschuur, Impact!: The Threat of Comets and Asteroids (1996), p. 116
1988: Geruchsproben, or smell samples, provided the German Democratic Republic’s secret police with a highly personal way of keeping tabs on citizens.
Based on a theory that everyone possessed a separate, identifiable odour and left traces of that odour on everything that he or she touched, the Stasi built up an extensive collection of smell samples.
Surreptitiously collected garments or pieces of fabric bearing individual odours could then be matched, using trained sniffer dogs, against smells found (for example) at the scene of an illegal meeting.
Source: Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall (2004), p. 8
1987: Britain abolished dog licences.
1986: On 14 April, hailstones the size of pumpkins killed 92 people in the Gopalganj district of Bangladesh.
Source: Christopher C. Burt, Extreme Weather: A Guide & Record Book (2004), p. 162
1985: Ten years after the fall of Saigon, a poll in The New York Times revealed that only three out of five Americans could identify South Vietnam as America’s wartime ally.
Source: The New York Times, 31 March 1985
1983: The “Gimli glider” was the nickname given to an Air Canada Boeing 767 that made a forced landing at Gimli, in Manitoba, after running out of fuel in midair.
On 23 July, halfway between Montreal and Edmonton, one of the engines of Flight 143 lost power, and shortly after, the other. The pilot put the airliner into a glide and headed for the disused air force base at Gimli.
1982: At the Barbir hospital in western Beirut, medical staff treated casualties from the Israeli Army bombardment of Palestinian camps. Some had been hit by phosphorus shells, including 12 members from the same family.
Two 5-day-old twins had already died, but when they were brought into the emergency room, they were still on fire. “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames,” Amal Shamaa said. “When I took them out half an hour later, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for several hours.”
Next morning, when Dr. Shamaa took the corpses out of the mortuary for burial, they again burst into flames.
Source: Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (1990), pp. 282–3
1981: A survey of the feeding habits of London foxes found potato peelings in the stomachs of 8.4 per cent of them, birdseed in the stomachs of 1.9 per cent, cooked peas in 1.1 per cent and Chinese takeaways in 0.2 per cent. Nonfood items included rubber bands in 1.6 per cent, cigarette ends in 0.4 per cent and lollipop sticks and shoelaces in 0.2 per cent.
Source: Mammal Review, December 1981
1980: The gold medals in the men’s coxless pairs rowing event at the Moscow Olympics were won by identical twins, likewise the silver medals. Bernd and Jörg Landvoigt of East Germany finished in first place, with Nikolai and Yuri Pimenov of the Soviet Union in second.
Source: David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics (2004), p. 19
1979: The overthrow of the Shah of Iran ushered in an Islamic state. Religion became paramount. The mundane details of governance were of little concern to Ayatollah Khomeini. “Economics is for donkeys,” he once declared, and when Iranians complained of falling living standards, he admonished them, “We did not make a revolution to slash the price of watermelon.”
Source: Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (2007), p. 134
1978: A human reproductive first: the birth of the first baby conceived by in vitro fertilisation. Louise Brown, born in Oldham, Manchester, on 25 July, was dubbed a “test-tube baby” in the popular media, although the term was a misnomer, as conception actually took place in a Petri dish.
Source: Anthony Dyson, The Ethics of IVF (1995), p. 1
1977: East European humour:
Q: Why do Bulgarian secret police patrol in threes?
A: One to read, one to write and one to keep an eye on the two intellectuals.
Source: Punch, 1 June 1977
1976: Canada failed to win a single gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics. No other host country shares this dismal distinction.
Source: Stan Greenberg, Whitaker’s Olympic Almanack (2003), p. 44