1996: An intriguing but ultimately meaningless statistic: “practically every president elected in the United States since 1900 was the taller of the two candidates”. Eighteen of the 25 presidential elections in the 20th century were won by the taller of the two main candidates and five by the shorter. In the other two elections, the main opponents were the same height.
Tag archive: United States
1993: During the siege of the compound near Waco, in Texas, occupied by the Branch Davidian religious group, the FBI subjected sect members to the recorded shrieks of dying rabbits.
Source: Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise (2010), p. 71
1991: Louisiana’s executioner expressed nonchalance about operating the state’s electric chair: “It’s no different to me executing somebody and goin’ to the refrigerator and getting a beer out of it.”
Source: Wilbert Rideau, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance (2011), p. 220
1986: “Americans may have no identity,” observed Jean Baudrillard during his travels around the United States, “but they do have wonderful teeth” (“une dentition merveilleuse”).
Source: Jean Baudrillard, America (2010), p. 34
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
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.
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.
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.
1975: “There are ominous signs that the earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production,” warned a science story in Newsweek. “The evidence in support of these predictions has now begun to accumulate so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” What evidence? A shorter growing season in Britain, drought near the equator, lots of tornadoes in the United States. “The central fact is that after three quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the earth’s climate seems to be cooling down.”
Source: Newsweek, 28 April 1975
1974: Faced with impeachment over the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency of the United States. Even in utter disgrace, Nixon managed a final act of bravado. As he climbed aboard the helicopter that would whisk him away from the White House, he lifted both arms and stuck out his fingers in a V sign – V for victory.
Source: Stephen E. Ambrose, Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 1973–1990 (1991), p. 445
1972: For 40 years, black men in Alabama were the unwitting participants in a Public Health Service study of the effects of untreated syphilis. From 1932 until 1972, when The Associated Press broke the story, the Tuskegee Study followed the progress of the disease in a group of 399 men. No effort was made to cure the men. When penicillin became available for the treatment of syphilis, it was deliberately withheld from them, since its use would interfere with the experiment. By the time the study was terminated, at least 28 and possibly as many as 100 of the participants had died from complications caused by the disease. “They were subjects, not patients;” James H. Jones observed in Bad Blood, “clinical material, not sick people.”
Source: James H. Jones, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1993), pp. 1–2, 179
1969: In 1968 and 1969, the United States dropped on South Vietnam one and a half times the tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany by all the Allies during the Second World War.
By 1969, the explosive force of the bombs dropped on North Vietnam each month was equivalent to two atomic bombs.
Up to the end of 1971, the United States had dropped 6.3 million tons of bombs on Indochina – more than three times the amount it dropped in all theatres during the Second World War.
In South Vietnam alone, there were 21 million bomb craters.
Source: Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn Young and H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and America: A Documented History (1985), p. 461
1962: America’s first space mission to another planet came to a very premature end. The Mariner 1 spacecraft was supposed to fly past Venus, but the rocket carrying the spacecraft began to behave erratically soon after lift-off from Cape Canaveral, forcing NASA to blow it up five minutes into the flight. A post-mortem attributed the failure to a missing symbol in the guidance program. Dubbed “the most expensive hyphen in history”, the omission of the symbol (actually an overline rather than a hyphen) allowed incorrect guidance signals to throw the rocket wildly off course.
Source: Paul E. Ceruzzi, Beyond the Limits: Flight Enters the Computer Age (1989), pp. 202–3
1960: Before the discovery of a vaccine, most children in the United States had to endure a bout of measles; it was part of growing up. Many suffered nothing worse than three or four days in bed with a rash, a temperature and a cough, but complications and fatalities could and did occur.
Between 1912 and 1916 measles-related deaths averaged 5,300 a year – 26 deaths for every 1,000 reported cases. By the late 1950s the mortality rate had declined to less than one death for every 1,000 cases, but with an average of 542,000 cases of measles annually between 1956 and 1960, this still amounted to a significant number of deaths: 530 in 1956, 389 in 1957, 552 in 1958, 385 in 1959 and 380 in 1960.
Source: The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 1 May 2004
1957: Magazines and newspapers marvelled when Maria Callas managed to shed 28 kilograms in 11 months; they carried before-and-after photographs of her transformation from a frumpy 92 kilos to a slender 64.
Callas lost weight by strict adherence to a diet of one meal a day, small servings of fresh fruit and raw meat, no pasta, no bread and no alcohol. But when the opera singer later became infested with a tapeworm (probably consumed with the raw meat), gossip columnists gleefully suggested that she had deliberately swallowed it as part of a diet regimen.
Source: Anne Edwards, Callas: Her Life, Her Loves, Her Music (2001), pp. 115, 116, 160, 161
1955: Driver Jim Blake must have thought he was simply enforcing regulations when he ordered four black passengers on his bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to give up their seats for a white man. Instead, Blake’s action on the afternoon of 1 December provoked the Montgomery bus boycott, a milestone in the American civil rights movement.
1954: Jack and Bobby Kennedy attended a speed reading course in Baltimore, but Jack’s later claim to be able to read 1,200 words a minute – three or four times the average – was probably exaggerated.
Source: James P. Pfiffner, The Character Factor: How We Judge America’s Presidents (2004), p. 28
1951: The National Safety Council reckoned that towards the end of the year the total number of deaths from traffic accidents in the United States since the advent of the automobile would reach 1 million. In December, the millionth death was reached and passed, like a bump in the road.
Source: The New York Times, 24 December 1951
1941: The attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted Donald Keene’s Japanese studies at Columbia University. Japanese in the United States were classified as enemy aliens, and the day after the attack, New York police detained Keene’s teacher, Tsunoda Ryūsaku. Japanese residents were suspected of gathering information about American defence facilities, although the most serious evidence against Tsunoda seems to have been that “he had been observed taking long walks without a dog”.
Source: Donald Keene, The Blue-Eyed Tarōkaja: A Donald Keene Anthology, ed. J. Thomas Rimer (1996), pp. 8–9
1931: On the afternoon of 22 August, a young British aristocrat named John Scott-Ellis was making his way along Brienner Strasse, in Munich, in a little red Fiat. “Although I was going very slowly, a man walked off the pavement, more or less straight into my car.” The 42-year-old pedestrian was bowled over, but quickly picked himself up, politely shook hands with the driver, and went on his way.
1927: Charles Lindbergh’s inflight food for his trans-Atlantic trip consisted of five sandwiches. With dry logic he explained, “If I get to Paris, I won’t need any more, and if I don’t get to Paris, I won’t need any more either.”
Source: A. Scott Berg, Lindbergh, 1998, pp. 14–15
1925: After graduating from college in Iowa, William Shirer made his way to Montreal, where he boarded a cattle ship that carried him to Europe and the start of a career in journalism. To save money, he worked his passage across the Atlantic by feeding and watering the cattle and shovelling their manure overboard.
Source: Steve Wick, The Long Night: William L. Shirer and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (2011), pp. 9–12
Q: What began life at Stanford University in 1996 as a student research project with the nickname “BackRub”?
A: The Internet search engine Google.
Source: John Battelle, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture (2005), pp. 72–6
1995: At the beginning of the century, the world land speed record, set by the Belgian racer Camille Jenatzy in 1899 in an electric-powered car, stood at 105.88 km/h. By the end of the century, bicycles were travelling faster than that. Much faster. On 3 October 1995, at the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah, the Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg, pedalling in the slipstream of a dragster, set a world bicycle speed record of 268.831 km/h.
1993: Deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States: diphtheria, 156 in 1953 and none in 1993; whooping cough, 270 in 1953 and one in 1993; tetanus, 337 in 1953 and 11 in 1993; paralytic polio, 1,450 in 1953 and none in 1993.
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.
1979: “A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics notwithstanding, this year saw the first known killing of a human by a robot. On 25 January, workers at a Ford Motor Company plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, noticed that a robot appeared to be giving incorrect information about the number of parts stored on shelves. When Robert Williams climbed on to a shelf to investigate, he was fatally struck on the head by the robot’s arm.
Source: The New York Times, 11 August 1983
1974: Over a five-year period, St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center of New York treated 28 patients with foreign bodies lodged in the rectum or with perforations of the colon resulting from “self-administered instrumentation”. Plastic battery-powered vibrators were the instrument of choice; other items used included bottles, bananas, a broom handle and an onion.
Source: Annals of Surgery, November 1976