1966: Charles Whitman, a student at the University of Texas at Austin and a former Marine, confided to the university psychiatrist that he often thought of shooting people from a tower that dominated the campus. Whitman “seemed to be oozing with hostility”, but other students came to the psychiatrist with fantasies about the tower, so he wasn’t unduly concerned.
Tag archive: United States
1961: From an American perspective, the middle of April was one of the lowest points of the Cold War. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space on 12 April, and this Soviet technological and propaganda triumph was followed, five days later, by the military fiasco of the American-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba.
Source: Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin (1998), p. 142
1957: Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson pleaded and cajoled to get the civil rights bill through the U.S. Senate. The tall Texas senator was very intense, very physical: up-close, fast-talking, his heavy arm draped around a shoulder, his “big meaty hands” grasping his quarry, “his long forefinger through the hole in the senator’s lapel”, buttonholing him “to prevent him from moving away”.
Source: Robert A. Cato, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (2003), pp. 587–90, 959–60
1956: Geologist M. King Hubbert’s prediction that American crude oil production would peak in the next 10 to 15 years was met with scepticism, but in 1970, on cue, output reached a record high of 9.6 million barrels per day, and then went into decline.
Source: David Strahan, The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man (2007), chap. 2
1955: Leonard Marraffino of New York State applied to patent a device capable of “dispensing two or more paste-like materials of different character, for example, different color, in the form of a striped stream”. A striping dispenser, he called it. That led, a few years later, to the appearance of striped toothpaste.
1954: Did the Eisenhower administration really offer to drop atomic bombs on the Vietminh troops besieging the French at Dien Bien Phu? Nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, did the Americans contemplate once again using their nuclear arsenal in combat? Howard Simpson thought so. “The relevant documents remain classified,” he wrote in Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot, “but enough has seeped out through personal comments and written memoirs to suggest that such a proposal was seriously considered.” Fortunately for the men on the ground, the idea was abandoned; any attack would have wiped out attackers and defenders indiscriminately.
Source: Martin Windrow, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam (2004), pp. 568–9
1947: When Harvard University’s Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator started playing up on 9 September, operators discovered a moth trapped between the points of a relay. “Bugs” had bothered machines before; this was the first recorded instance of a “computer bug”.
1941: William Marston claimed that, while still a psychology student at Harvard, he had been the first person to measure blood pressure as a means of lie detection. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s he lobbied unsuccessfully for the use of the polygraph in court cases. In 1941 he created the comic-book heroine Wonder Woman, who used a magic lasso to ensnare criminals and to extract confessions.
1940: The American broadcaster William Shirer found it difficult to read the minds of Berliners thronging the Unter den Linden on Easter Sunday afternoon. “Their faces looked blank. Obviously they do not like the war, but they will do what they’re told. Die, for instance.”
Source: William L. Shirer, Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934–1941 (1941), p. 241
1934: Pearl Buck had lived so long in China that on her return to America she found she was a foreigner in her own country. Like most Chinese, Buck ate little meat and avoided dairy products altogether. She quickly noticed that white Americans smelled. The milk, butter and beef they consumed gave them “a rank wild odor, not quite a stink, but certainly distressing”.
Source: Pearl S. Buck, My Several Worlds: A Personal Record (1955), p. 315
1923: Clara Bow, the “It Girl” of Hollywood silent movies, made her first screen appearance in Down to the Sea in Ships. Her mentally ill mother, who regarded heavily made-up actresses as no better than prostitutes, had threatened to kill her to keep her out of films. “You ain’t goin’ inta pictures,” she had ranted. “You ain’t gonna be no hoor.”
Source: David Stenn, Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild (1989), pp. 13, 22–3
1918: The American state of Georgia raised the age of consent from 10 to 14.
Source: Charles Scruggs and Lee VanDemarr, Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History (1998), p. 28
1907: Between 1900 and 1907, typhoid broke out in seven wealthy New York households where Mary Mallon was employed as a cook. Mallon appeared healthy enough, but she was a carrier of the disease. When she used the toilet, typhoid bacilli got on her hands and then contaminated the food she prepared. She infected an estimated 22 people; one died. As soon as her role in the outbreaks had been established, the authorities decided that she was a threat to public health, and detained her at an isolation hospital.
1999: Although the crunching collisions of American football are absent from soccer, the game is not without its perils. Between 1979 and 1999, 18 children died and 14 were seriously injured in the United States when movable soccer goals fell on them.
Source: Simon P.R. Jenkins, Sports Science Handbook: The Essential Guide to Kinesiology, Sport and Exercise Science (2005), vol. 1, p. 140
1993: Measles-related deaths in the United States: 462 in 1953; 364 in 1963; 23 in 1973, thanks to vaccination; four in 1983; and none in 1993.
1991: Vicki Childress, from Key West in Florida, kept two items beneath her pillow: an inhaler in case she had an asthma attack, and a .38 revolver to protect against intruders. Just before midnight on 21 October, she needed her inhaler. Half-asleep, she reached under her pillow. You can guess what happened next. The following day she was in hospital recovering well, but with several shattered teeth.
Source: Tampa Bay Times, 23 October 1991
1990: The retired Iowa farmer Charles Osborne finally stopped hiccuping, more than six decades after he had started. The hiccups had begun one day in 1922, when Osborne had been hanging up a hog for butchering. “I picked it up and then I fell down. I felt nothing, but the doctor said later that I busted a blood vessel the size of a pin in my brain.” Once the hiccups started, they wouldn’t stop. For the next 68 years, Osborne hiccuped 20 or even 40 times a minute – several hundred million hiccups altogether.
1987: Japan’s former agriculture minister Hata Tsutomu told a luncheon on Capitol Hill that the United States should not expect his country to suddenly step up imports of American beef.
Hata cited as “fact” that Japanese people find it more difficult to digest beef as they have longer intestines than Americans. Centuries of eating a diet heavily reliant on grains had lengthened Japanese digestive tracts, Hata claimed; consequently any beef consumed would remain in the intestines longer and be more likely to spoil.
1984: Over a five-month period, the Animal Medical Center in New York dealt with 132 cats that had fallen from the city’s windows and roofs.
Wayne Whitney and Cheryl Mehlhaff, who gathered and analyzed data from the clinic, found that the shortest fall was two stories, the average fall 5.5 stories and the longest fall 32 stories. Four of the cats had fallen previously; two cats fell together. Most of the cats fell directly on to concrete but, despite this, 44 of them didn’t need treatment. One-tenth of the cats that did require treatment died, but nine-tenths survived. Treatment was mainly for respiratory problems, facial wounds and bone fractures.
1983: American President Ronald Reagan didn’t mince his words. The previous year, he had predicted that the West would consign Marxism and Leninism to the “ash heap of history”. In March 1983, he labelled the Soviet Union “an evil empire”.
Also in March, Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, intended to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. In April, the United States Navy conducted a large fleet exercise in the northern Pacific. An important NATO exercise was planned for Europe in November, around the same time that Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles were to be deployed in West Germany.
Viewed from Moscow, all this bellicose rhetoric and activity was highly alarming. Was it the prelude to a sneak attack on the Soviet Union?
1981: Alexander Haig announced that the United States was in possession of “physical evidence” that the Soviet Union was supplying its Southeast Asian allies with biological warfare agents for military use against their opponents. According to the Secretary of State, the Soviet Union was providing Laos and Vietnam with mycotoxins – poisonous compounds synthesized by fungi.
The “physical evidence”? Hmong villagers, refugees from fighting in Laos, had seen low-flying aircraft spraying what the Hmong called “yellow rain”, an oily liquid that left a residue of yellow spots on leaves, rocks and rooftops. Villagers caught in these chemical showers exhibited symptoms that included blurred vision, breathing difficulties and skin burns. Between 10 and 20 per cent of victims died.
1965: Toy maker Mattel gave Barbie a spacesuit 18 years before NASA put the first American woman in space.
Source: Marco Tosa, Barbie: Four Decades of Fashion, Fantasy, and Fun (1998), p. 116
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
1959: Between 1950 and 1959, black widow spiders killed 63 people in the United States.
Source: American Family Physician, January 1992
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
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
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:
Source: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, ed. Emily Morison Beck (1980), p. 727
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
1943: The Royal Air Force lost 55,000 men during the bomber offensive against Europe, and the Americans, 26,000. Aircrews were gloomily aware of the odds against them. “If you live on the brink of death yourself,” the pilot Denis Hornsey pointed out, “it is as if those who have gone have merely caught an earlier train to the same destination. And . . . you will almost certainly be catching the next one.”
Source: Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979), pp. 220–2
1934: Charles Johnson’s Shadow of the Plantation laid bare the poverty of black people in rural Alabama. Seventy years after the abolition of slavery, many still lived in ramshackle cabins (“Do it leak in here? No, it don’t leak in here, it jest rains in here and leak outdoors”), many endured ill-health (“All my chillen is fond of having fevers”) and many despaired of anything better (“Ain’t make nothing, don’t speck nothing no more till I die”).
Source: Charles S. Johnson, Shadow of the Plantation (1934), pp. 99, 126, 194