It Just So Happened - an alternative history show

Stand-up comedians at live festival events present short historical ‘on this day’ pieces then discuss some historical topics or people connected to the location where the live show recording takes place. This was a touring show across UK festivals in 2019. In 2020 live videocasts are taking place while Covid-19 restrictions remain in place. Regular podcasts are due to resume in 2021. Find us at @ItJustSo1 on Twitter.

On This Day - Archive

1st February

Buster Keaton died on this day in 1966.

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Born Joseph Frank Keaton in 1895 and known professionally as Buster Keaton, was an American actor, comedian, film director, producer, screenwriter, and stunt performer, is best known for his silent films, in which his trademark was physical comedy with a consistently stoic, deadpan expression that earned him the nickname "The Great Stone Face".

Keaton began performing with his parents in The Three Keatons from the age of three, first appearing on stage in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1899.

Keaton served in the American Expeditionary Forces in France with the United States Army's 40th Infantry Division during World War I.

In February 1917, Keaton met Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios in New York City. Keaton was asked to jump in and start acting and he was such a natural when making his first film The Butcher Boy he was hired on the spot.

In 1920, The Saphead was released, in which Keaton had his first starring role in a full-length feature.

In the first Keaton pictures with sound, he and his fellow actors would shoot each scene three times: one in English, one in Spanish, and one in either French or German. The actors would phonetically memorize the foreign-language scripts a few lines at a time and shoot immediately after.

Keaton also appeared in a comedy routine about two inept stage musicians in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (released in 1952), recalling the vaudeville of The Playhouse. With the exception of Seeing Stars, a minor publicity film produced in 1922, Limelight was the only time in which the two would ever appear together on film.

Keaton's last commercial film appearance was in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which was filmed in Spain later in 1965. He amazed the cast and crew by doing many of his own stunts.

In 1996 Keaton was recognized as the seventh-greatest film director by Entertainment Weekly, and the American Film Institute ranked him in 1999 as the 21st greatest male star of classic Hollywood cinema.

 

4th February

On this day in 1962 Jeane Dixon predicted the end of the world (Spoiler: it didn't end that day!).

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Jeane Dixon was one of the best-known American self-proclaimed psychics and astrologers of the twentieth century. Dixon reportedly predicted the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the Parade Magazine issue of 13th May 1956 she wrote that the 1960 presidential election would be "dominated by labor and won by a Democrat" who would then go on to"(b)e assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term".

However, this premonition was reversed in 1960 when, as the election date neared, she incorrectly predicted that Nixon would instead win the election. She later admitted; "during the 1960 election, I saw Richard Nixon as the winner", and at the time made unequivocal predictions that JFK would fail to win the election.

John Allen Paulos, a mathematician at Temple University, coined the term 'the Jeane Dixon effect', which references a tendency to promote a few correct predictions while ignoring a larger number of incorrect predictions. Many of Dixon's predictions proved erroneous, such as her claims that a dispute over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu would trigger the start of World War III in 1958, that the second child of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his young wife Margaret would be a girl (it was a boy), and that the Soviets would be the first to put men on the moon.

She also claimed cancer would be cured by 1967 and in her 1971 book The Call to Glory, Dixon predicted that an apocalyptic "war of Armageddon" would occur in 2020.

Dixon suffered cardiac arrest and died at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. on 25th January 1997.

Fun fact: Before her death, she uttered the words "I knew this would happen."

 

5th February

John Boyd Dunlop, inventor of pneumatic tyres, born.

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He was born on a farm in Dreghorn, North Ayrshire, an inventor and veterinary surgeon who spent most of his career in Ireland. Familiar with making rubber devices, he re-invented pneumatic tyres for his child's tricycle and soon had them made commercially in Scotland.

Willie Hume demonstrated the supremacy of Dunlop's tyres in 1889, winning the tyre's first-ever races in Ireland and then England. The captain of the Belfast Cruisers Cycling Club, he became the first member of the public to purchase a bicycle fitted with pneumatic tyres, so Dunlop suggested he should use them in a race. On 18 May 1889 Hume won all four cycling events at the Queen's College Sports in Belfast, and a short while later in Liverpool, won all but one of the cycling events.

From the 1980s, Dunlop was commemorated in Northern Ireland when his image featured on the £10 banknote issued by the Northern Bank as part of its Inventor Series.

Fun fact: an avenue in the city of Campinas, in southeast Brazil, is named after him, because a Dunlop tyre factory was established there in 1953.

 

7th February

On this day in 1935, Lewis Grassic Gibbon died.

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Lewis Grassic Gibbon was the pseudonym of James Leslie Mitchell, author of the trilogy A Scots Quair, set in the north-east of Scotland in early years of the 20th century, the first novel of which (Sunset Song) is widely regarded as an important classic. It was voted Scotland's favourite book in a 2005 poll and Scotland's favourite novel in the BBC Love to Read campaign in 2016.

He grew up in Stonehaven and served in Iran, India and Egypt with the Royal Army Service Corps before enlisting in the RAF to work as a clerk, spending some time in the Middle East.

He died on this day in 1935 of peritonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer. On the brink of literary success at the time, he was aged just 33.

 

9th February

On this day in 1657, Miles Sindercombe was found guilty of high treason.

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Miles Sindercombe was the leader of a group that tried to assassinate Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell during the period of the Protectorate in 1657.

He had joined fellow-Leveller Edward Sexby in a plot to assassinate Cromwell in hope of restoring the Puritan republic as they saw it and they gathered a group of co-conspirators.

For the first assassination attempt, Sindercombe rented a house in King Street in Westminster, where the plan was to shoot Cromwell when he rode past in his coach. However, the group noticed that it would be a difficult place to escape from after the attempt, so they abandoned the plan.

Next, Sindercombe rented another house near Westminster Abbey, using the name "John Fish". He intended to shoot Cromwell on his way from Westminster Abbey to Parliament on 17th September 1656. However, when a large crowd gathered outside, One of the group, Boyes, panicked and left, and the attempt had to be abandoned.

Sindercombe's group then intended to shoot Cromwell when he left for Hampton Court, as he customarily did every Friday. They intended to shoot at Cromwell's coach while it was going through a narrow passage. As it happened, Cromwell changed his mind on that particular Friday, and the plotters waited in vain.

The next idea was to shoot Cromwell when he was walking in Hyde Park. They broke the hinges of the park gates to facilitate their escape, and John Cecil began to follow Cromwell and his entourage. However, Cromwell became interested in Cecil's horse and called him over. Cecil lost his nerve and could not shoot him. He afterwards claimed that the horse was ill and that he could not have escaped.

Sindercombe's next idea was to burn down Whitehall Palace and the Lord Protector with it. One of the plotters made an explosive device out of gunpowder, tar and pitch, and the group planted it in the palace chapel on 8th January 1657. However, John Toope, one of the plotters who was also one of Cromwell’s Life-Guards, had had a change of heart, and revealed the plan to authorities. When the plotters left, guards disarmed the bomb.

Cromwell’s spymaster John Thurloe gave an order to arrest the plotters. Sindercombe fought the guards until one cut off part of his nose. He was sent to the Tower and found guilty of high treason on 9th February 1657. Before he could be hung, drawn and quartered his sister brought him poison which he drank and which led to his death. His body was still dragged to the gallows and buried beneath it by the hangman.

 

11th February

On this day in 1964, the Beatles played their first concert in the US.

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From 1961 to 1966, the English rock band the Beatles performed all over the Western world. Their first live performance was in Litherland on 5th January 1961. They performed almost daily and almost exclusively in the Liverpool area throughout 1961 and 1962 until their visit to Hamburg, West Germany in December 1962.

1963 saw the band touring widely throughout the UK as well as in Sweden. But in January 1964 they did a tour of France before arriving in the U.S. in February 1964. Their televised performances on The Ed Sullivan Show were viewed by approximately 73 million people propelling them to stardom.

2 days later the Beatles made their U.S. concert debut on 11th February, in Washington, D.C. They had arrived from New York by train at Union Station in the middle of a snowstorm.

The show took place at the Washington Coliseum, about a mile north of the U.S. Capitol building. The seating plan for the arena was in its configuration for boxing, with the Beatles setting up on the unroped ring in the middle. This meant that the group were only facing 25 percent of the 8,092 fans in attendance at any given time. In between songs, they moved the amplifiers, microphones and Ringo Starr's drum riser one-quarter turn clockwise.

Ticket prices ranged from $2 to $4.

Fans threw jelly beans at the group because they had once mentioned liking jelly babies. Paul McCartney recalled that it was unsettling as they were hard and were being thrown from everywhere.

Fun fact: Former Vice President Al Gore, who was 15 years old and the son of a U.S. Senator, attended the concert.

 

12th February

12th February is International Darwin Day.

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Charles Darwin was born on this day in 1809. He was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution.

His proposition that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors is now widely accepted, and considered a foundational concept in science. In a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding. Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history, and he was honoured by burial in Westminster Abbey.

At one point in July 1838 he scrawled some rambling thoughts about marriage, career and prospects on two scraps of paper, one with columns headed "Marry" and "Not Marry". Advantages under "Marry" included "constant companion and a friend in old age ... better than a dog anyhow", against points such as "less money for books" and "terrible loss of time." After his deliberations he decided in favour of marriage.

The celebration of Darwin's work and tributes to his life have been organised sporadically since his death in 1882.

 

14th February

14th February 1562 - a Valentines Day indiscretion in Fife.

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18-year-old Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland in 1561 from France, where she had lived from the age of 5, after the death of her husband King Francis II.

One of the courtiers who accompanied her on the journey was the youthful French poet Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard. According to the unreliable memoirs of Pierre de Bocosel, Seigneur de Brantome, the young poet and the Queen exchanged verses, and the Queen encouraged greater intimacy.

Whether or not this was indeed the case, the English diplomat Thomas Randolph tells us that Chastelard was found hiding under the Queen's bed at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. For the devout Catholic queen this was seen as an outrage, yet one he repeated while they were staying at Rossend Castle in Burntisland, Fife - his indiscretion was discovered on St Valentine's Day 1562.

The Queen demanded on this second occasion that her half-brother, the Earl of Moray, kill Chastelard on the spot. However, the poet was taken instead to St Andrews for trial.

Chastelard insisted he had been in the Queen's privy, not under her bed but this cut no ice with the court, and Chastelard was beheaded at the Market Cross in St Andrews.

 

15th February

15th February 1971 was Decimalisation Day.

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Prior to 1971, there were 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. There were guineas, half crowns, threepenny bits, sixpences and florins. This old system of currency, known as pounds, shillings and pence or lsd, dated back to Roman times when a pound of silver was divided into 240 pence, or denarius, which is where the ‘d’ in ‘lsd’ comes from. (lsd: librum, solidus, denarius).

To prepare the nation for the changeover in currency systems, the Decimal Currency Board (DCB) was set up, running a public information campaign in the two years prior to the switchover on Monday 15 February 1971. Three years before changeover, new 5p and 10p coins were introduced; these were the same size and worth the same amount as the one and two shilling coins. In 1969 a new 50p coin was introduced to replace the old 10 bob (shilling) note.

The banks were closed for four days before changeover to enable all outstanding cheques and credits in the clearing system to be processed and customers' account balances to be converted from £sd to decimal. In many banks, the conversion was done manually, as few bank branches were then computerised.

Currency converters were available for everyone, and prices in the shops were shown in both currencies.

Originally it was planned that old money would be phased out of circulation over eighteen months, but as it turned out, the old penny, halfpenny and threepenny coins were officially taken out of circulation as early as August 1971.

In 1704, Russia became Europe’s first country to adopt a decimal currency (China had been using a decimal currency for more than 2,000 years), followed by the 1795 introduction of the franc in the wake of the French Revolution.

As far back as 1824 Parliament had considered decimalising the British currency but little progress was made apart from the introduction of the double florin or four shilling piece in 1887 but this failed to gain acceptance and was struck only between 1887 and 1890.

There are now only two countries in the world who officially continue to use non-decimal currencies. Mauritania still employs the ouguiya, which is equal to five khoums and Madagascans use the ariary, which is equal to five iraimbilanja. However, in reality the khoum and iraimbilanja sub units are so small in value that they are no longer used and the rest of the world’s currencies are either decimal, or use no sub units.

 

19th February

On 19th February 1856, Conrad Heyer died.

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Heyer was an American farmer and veteran of the Revolutionary War. He is notable for probably being the earliest-born American to have been photographed alive.

He had been born on 10th April 1749, possibly the first white child to have been born in the settlement of Broad Bay, Massachusetts.

During the American Revolution, Heyer fought for the Continental Army under the command of George Washington. He was discharged in December 1777.

In 1852 Heyer posed for a daguerreotype portrait. He would have been 103 years old in 1852 and would have therefore become the earliest-born person of whom a photograph is known to exist.

The claim is not without dispute, however, as at least four other people have been photographed who may have been born even earlier, although their claims include an enslaved man who was supposedly 115 years old when he died in 1852.

 

20th February

On 20th February 1600 Thomas Dobbie was punished for committing suicide.

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Being dead was no reason not to be punished for killing yourself. A contemporary chronicler recorded that: "Thomas Dobbie drowned himself in the Quarry Holes, besyde the Abbet [at Holyrood]; and upon the morn he was harilt [hauled] through the town backward, and thereafter hangit on the gallows."

 

21st February

On 21st February 1804 the world's first steam-powered railway journey took place.

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The world's first steam-powered railway journey took place when Trevithick's unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales.

 

23rd February

On 23rd February 1965 Stan Laurel died.

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Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston in 1890 to parents who were both active in the theatre. He attended schools in Bishop Auckland and Tynemouth, then moved to Glasgow.

His father managed Glasgow's Metropole Theatre, where Laurel began work. He gave his first professional performance on stage at the Panopticon in Glasgow at the age of sixteen.

He toured the Netherlands and Belgium with Ted Desmond in 1912 before leaving for America after being offered a spot with a touring troupe. He registered for military service in WW1 but was not called up.

Laurel first worked briefly alongside Oliver Hardy in the silent film short The Lucky Dog in 1921 before they appeared in a string of films together. Laurel appeared exclusively with Hardy from 1927 onwards and retired in 1957 when Hardy died.

In 1960, Stan Laurel was given an Academy Honorary Award "for his creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy." He had been involved in nearly 190 films. He lived his final years in a small flat in the Oceana Apartments in Santa Monica, California. Laurel was gracious to fans and spent much time answering fan mail. His phone number was also listed in the telephone directory and he would take calls from fans.

At his funeral, Buster Keaton said, "Chaplin wasn't the funniest. I wasn't the funniest; this man was the funniest."

 

24th February

On 24th February 2001 Claude Elwood Shannon died.

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Shannon was an American mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer, known as "the father of information theory".

Shannon is noted for having founded information theory with a landmark paper, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication", that he published in 1948.

He is also credited with the introduction of sampling theory, essential in enabling telecommunications to move from analog to digital transmissions systems in the 1960s and later.

The perspective introduced by Shannon's communication theory (now called information theory) was considered the foundation of the digital revolution, and every device containing a microprocessor or microcontroller is a conceptual descendant of Shannon's publication in 1948.

Neil Sloane, an AT&T Fellow who co-edited Shannon's large collection of papers in 1993 said: "He's one of the great men of the century. Without him, none of the things we know today would exist. The whole digital revolution started with him."

 

 

JANUARY

1st JANUARY

Andrew Blain Baird, Scottish aviator, was born on this day in 1862.

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He was from Galloway and a blacksmith by trade. For a while he also worked as a lighthouse keeper on Lismore. He made the first Scottish heavier-than-air plane and flight on 17th September 1910 at Ettrick Bay beach.

The Buteman newspaper described him as: "A valiant Scotsman with a creative mind. His hand was ever open and against no man. A man of mettle".

 

3rd JANUARY

Josiah Wedgwood, potter, died on this day in 1795.

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Born in Burslem, Staffordshire, a bout of childhood smallpox left Josiah with a permanently weakened knee which prevented him from working the foot pedal of a potters wheel. Concentrating instead on pottery design, Josiah founded the Wedgwood company. His company specialized in making fine earthenwares and stonewares. These were much cheaper to produce than porcelain yet had many of the same qualities.

He was a prominent abolitionist, producing the "Am I Not a Man And a Brother?" anti-slavery medallion.

He was also a member of the Darwin–Wedgwood family - his grandson was Charles Darwin.

 

7th JANUARY

Sophia Jex-Blake, doctor, died on this day in 1912.

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Jex-Blake was the 1st practising female doctor in Scotland and a leading campaigner for medical education for women.

She was born in Hastings in 1840. Whilst travelling in the United States to learn more about women’s education she realized her vocation was to become a doctor. Applying to Harvard University’s Medical School she was rejected on the grounds that "There is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university."

On the death of her father she returned to England and applied to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, in 1869. Along with 6 other women, the so-called ‘Edinburgh Seven’ became the first women admitted to study at a British university. Hostility to them included an angry mob confronting them at Surgeon’s Hall where they were due to sit an anatomy exam. With the matter taken to court it was ruled that the women who had been awarded degrees should not have been allowed to enter the course and so their degrees were withdrawn.

With changes to legislation opening up the way for women to qualify as doctors Sophia Jex-Blake became the third registered woman doctor in the country, in 1877. She retired in 1889.

The Edinburgh Seven were each awarded a posthumous honorary MBChB by the University of Edinburgh in July 2019.

 

8th JANUARY

Thomas Aitkenhead died, the last person to be executed for blasphemy in Britain.

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In 1696, while in his third year at Edinburgh University, Aitkenhead (the son of an apothecary) was summoned before the Privy Council, accused of uttering religious opinions so heterodox as to be blasphemous, and sent for trial.

The prosecution was conducted by the Lord Advocate, Sir James Stewart, and the charges against Aitkenhead asserted that 'the prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-inverted nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras'. Furthermore, the indictment continued, Aitkenhead had 'ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra's fables', and had 'railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magic in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles'.

In addition, 'he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ... said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Mahomet to Christ'. What was more, he claimed that 'the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admitted the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them'. Finally, he was said to have maintained that Christianity would 'be utterly extirpat' within 100 years or so.

Despite the fact that Aitkenhead had made a full recantation before his trial, which took place on 23rd December 1696, the Lord Advocate demanded that he 'ought to be punished with death... to the example and terror of others', Airkenhead having shaken off 'all fear of God' and vented 'wicked blasphemies against God and our Saviour Jesus Christ'.

Aitkenhead was found guilty and sentenced to hang, but appealed to the Privy Council, pleading his 'deplorabe circumstances and tender years'. The Privy Council ruled that they would only offer him a reprieve if the Church interceded on his behalf. In a spirit of Christian charity, the General Assembly considered that only a 'vigorous execution' of the sentence could curtail 'the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land'. Following his public hanging, onle minister declared that 'God was glorified by such ane awful and exemplary punishment'.

 

9th JANUARY

James Tytler, balloonist, died (1804).

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Taking off from Comely Gardens in Edinburgh, James Tytler made the first manned flight in Britain aboard his 'Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon' in August 1784. Once the balloon was inflated Tytler stepped into the small wicker basket, wearing a cork jacket to cushion his body should he fall.

As he had no means of taking the coal brazier aloft, his flight was short, but he did manage to rise to a height of more than 300 feet, landing safely at Restalrig, about half a mile away.

In 1785 he was declared bankrupt (not for the first time), and two years later his estranged wife sued for divorce. In 1788 he had to leave for England to shake off his creditors, and did not return to Edinburgh for another three years.

It was perhaps his personal sense of injustice that led Tytler towards the radical politics that swept Scotland in the wake of the French Revolution. In 1792 he published a handbill in which he condemned the House of Commons as a 'vile junto of aristocrats', and called for sitting members to be replaced by MPs of 'good understanding and character'.

In the atmosphere of paranoid reaction then prevalent among the ruling classes, Tytler was charged with seditious libel, but before he could be tried he left Edinburgh for Belfast, and from thence, in 1795, he emigrated to Salem, Massachusetts, where his continuing lack of success as a hack writer plunged him deeper into despondency and alcohol dependency. It was while stumbling home from a drinking session on 9th January 1804 that he fell into the sea and drowned.

 

12th JANUARY

First bitcoin transaction received (2009).

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Bitcoin transactions are 12 years old today. Hal Finney received the first bitcoin transaction - he downloaded the bitcoin software on its release date, and on 12th January 2009 received ten bitcoins from Nakamoto (a pseudonym for the person or people who designed the original bitcoin protocol in 2008 and launched the network in 2009).

Effectively worthless back then, by 2011 bitcoins had reached parity with the US Dollar. On 30th November last year 1 bitcoin was worth an all-time high of nearly $20,000 but as of last week 1 bitcoin was trading at approximately $40,000.

 

13th JANUARY

The largest ever US jackpot (2016).

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The largest ever US jackpot (cash and annuity) was paid out for a win on this day 5 years ago.

The jackpot was in a Powerball game and amounted to $1,586.4m * . Although the jackpot money was shared between 3 tickets (to residents in California, Florida and Tennessee) it was still the ninth largest cash value per ticket.

* calculated as 'cash and annuity' - the cash value was a mere $983.5m

 

14th JANUARY

Greyfriars Bobby buried (1872).

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Greyfriars Bobby was a Skye Terrier who became known in 19th-century Edinburgh for spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner until he died.

Jan Bondeson wrote a book advancing the view that fundamental facts about the dog and its loyalty are wrong. Bondeson stated as background that in 19th-century Europe, there were over 60 documented accounts of graveyard or cemetery dogs. They were stray dogs, fed by visitors and curators to the point that the dogs made the graveyards their home. People began to believe that they were waiting by a grave and so the dog was looked after. Bondeson claimed that after an article about Bobby appeared in The Scotsman, visitor numbers to the graveyard increased, which supposedly created a commercial benefit for the local community. Bondeson also speculated that in 1867, the original Bobby died and was replaced with a younger dog, which explains Bobby's supposed longevity.

 

15th JANUARY

The Boston molasses tsunami (1919).

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On this day 102 years ago in Boston, Massachusetts, the crude molasses inside a 90-foot wide cast-iron tank expanded after a sudden rise in temperature the night before and this led to the tank exploding.

2.5 million gallons of the stuff was released at a height of up to 15 feet traveling at speeds of 35 mph. The sticky tsunami destroyed buildings, carried off vehicles, and drowned people and horses.

In total, 21 people were killed and 150 people were injured, arriving at the hospital looking, as witnesses described them, like toffee apples.

It took weeks for the city to clean up the mess, and people swore they could still smell molasses in the air during hot weather for years afterwards.

 

16th JANUARY

Hangman hanged (1682).

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A certain Alexander Cockburn was put on trial for the murder in his own house in Edinburgh of a Bluegown (licensed) beggar called Adamson. The evidence was largely circumstantial: although others swore that it was so, Cockburn had denied that the beggar had been in his house the day of his death. However, on that day groans had been heard, and bloody clothes found in the house, and Cockburn was condemned to the gallows on the basis of this slender evidence. But as Cockburn was himself the hangman of Edinburgh, a substitute had to be found to carry out the office. The vacancy was gladly filled by one Mackenzie, whom, Sir John Lauder tells us, 'Cockburn had caused to lose his place of hangman at Stirling'.

 

17th JANUARY

Prohibition began in the US (1920).

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The Eighteenth Amendment (Amendment XVIII) of the United States Constitution established the prohibition of "intoxicating liquors" in the United States. The amendment was proposed by Congress on 18th December 1917, and was ratified by the requisite number of states on 16th January 1919.

The National Prohibition Act, known informally as the Volstead Act, was enacted to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment.

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But prohibition ultimately failed because at least half the adult population wanted to carry on drinking, policing of the Volstead Act was riddled with contradictions, biases and corruption, and the lack of a specific ban on consumption hopelessly muddied the legal waters.

The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment on 5th December 1933, the only amendment to the U.S. Constitution ever to be repealed in its entirety.

 

18th JANUARY

Oliver Hardy was born (1892).

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An American comic actor and one half of double act Laurel and Hardy (with comedy partner Stan Laurel), an act that began in the era of silent films and lasted from 1927 to 1955. Together, they appeared in a total of 107 short films, feature films, and cameo roles.

Fun fact: His father Oliver was a Confederate veteran who had been wounded at the Battle of Antietam in 1862.

 

19th JANUARY

The Silvertown explosion (1917).

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The Silvertown explosion occurred at a munitions factory in Silvertown (now part of the London Borough of Newham, in Greater London). Approximately 50 tonnes of TNT intended for Britain’s war effort exploded in a highly populated area, killing 73 and injuring 400. The plant purified TNT in a process which the inventor F.A. Freeth described as ‘manifestly very dangerous.’

The explosion was caused by a fire which couldn’t be put out in time. Damage included the TNT plant itself, many buildings and railway goods wagons carrying some of the TNT. A gasometer was damaged, creating a gas fireball, and warehouses covering 17 acres. The chancel and church hall of the local church, St Barnabas', were also destroyed.

The loss of life would have been much greater had it not been for the time of day when the explosion happened – it was at 6:52pm - meaning the factories were largely empty.

The blast was heard up to 100 miles away, in Norfolk and along the Sussex coast.

 

20th JANUARY

Sentencing of Giordano Bruno (1600).

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Giordano Bruno was an Italian Dominican friar and also a mathematician and poet. His cosmological theories conceptually extended the then-novel Copernican model.

He proposed that the stars were distant suns surrounded by their own planets, and he raised the possibility that these planets might foster life of their own, a cosmological position known as cosmic pluralism. He also insisted that the universe is infinite and could have no "centre".

Because of these proposals, which went against the Catholic teachings of the day, Pope Clement VIII declared Bruno a heretic, and the Inquisition issued a sentence of death, on this day in 1600.

According to the correspondence of Gaspar Schopp of Breslau, he is said to have made a threatening gesture towards his judges and to have replied: Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam, meaning "Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it."

Fun fact: The SETI League (SETI = the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) makes an annual award honouring the memory of Giordano Bruno to a deserving person or persons who have made a significant contribution to the practice of SETI. The trophy which is presented is called a Bruno.

 

21st JANUARY

Captain Eric Melrose Brown was born (1919).

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Captain Eric Melrose "Winkle" Brown was a renowned naval aviator and test pilot. He was born in Leith, near Edinburgh on this day in 1919.

He holds the record for the largest number of different aircraft types flown by a single person (487). This official record only counted basic types of aircraft so doesn’t account for the 14 versions of the Spitfire and Seafire he flew, for example, and also only includes aircraft flown by Brown as "Captain in Command". Brown was of the entirely reasonable opinion that he didn't think this record would ever be broken.

He also holds the record for the largest number of aircraft carrier take-offs and landings performed by a single person, 2,407 and 2,271 respectively.

In 1936 Brown's father took him to see the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Through his father’s contacts he met and took up the offer of a flight with WW1 fighter ace Ernst Udet who encouraged him to learn to fly and learn to speak German fluently. He did both, and this meant that after WWII he could help interview many high-ranking Germans in advance of the Nuremberg trials including Wernher von Braun, Hermann Göring, Willy Messerschmitt, Ernst Heinkel and Kurt Tank.

He was the most-decorated pilot in the history of the Royal Navy and was widely acknowledged by others later in life as "the greatest pilot ever".

 

23rd JANUARY

Pope Boniface VIII consecrated (1295).

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This pope was crowned in the Vatican Basilica on this day in 1295.

He founded Sapienza University in Rome in 1303. And in 1300 formalized the custom of the Roman Jubilee. By one estimate 200,000 pilgrims came to Rome for the event, providing a great source of income as well as political support, although the Jubilee later became a source of scandal as well as profit to the church.

He stated that it is "absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff."

After his election in 1294, he erected statues of himself all over Rome.

He said that sleeping with boys was no more problematic than "rubbing one hand against the other."

The entire city of Palestrina (east of Rome), owned by the Colonna family, was destroyed and salted because of the pope's personal political feud with the family.

An envoy from the King of Aragon wrote that "the cardinals all desire his death and are weary of his devilries." He died of a 'violent fever' in October 1303.

Fun fact: Boniface VIII makes an appearance in the eighth circle of hell in Dante's "Inferno."

 

26th January

On this day in 1908 the 1st Glasgow Scout Group was registered. This is the earliest known certificate for a scout group.

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27th January

On this day in 1756 the classical composer Mozart was born.

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Mozart was born in Salzburg and christened as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart.

He was gifted from a very early age and composed masterpieces in opera, choral works, concertos, symphonies, chamber music, solo songs and sonatas.

He married Constanze in 1782 and they had 6 children of whom only two survived infancy, Karl Thomas and Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart. Both Karl and Franz were gifted pianists. Neither married nor had any children of their own.

Mozart died at the age of 35 and was buried in a pauper's grave in a cemetery in Vienna.

 

28th January

On this day in 1661 the body of Oliver Cromwell was exhumed and taken to the Red Lion Inn, Holborn.

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With the restoration of the Stuart monarchy under King Charles II in 1660 those ‘regicides’ who had participated in the trial and execution of his father Charles I were put on trial, convicted and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered i.e. dragged through the streets on an unwheeled sledge or hurdle, hanged by the neck and cut down live, disembowelled while alive, beheaded and dismembered (cut into four quarters).

Parliament also ordered the posthumous execution of 3 further individuals: Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw (former President of the High Court of Justice) and Henry Ireton (former general and son-in-law of Cromwell). The bodies of Oliver Cromwell (dead since September 1658) and Henry Ireton (dead since 1651) were exhumed and taken to the Red Lion Inn, Holborn.

They were joined the following day by Bradshaw’s body (he had died in October 1659) before all three were taken to Tyburn for execution, on 30th January 1661.

All three heads were placed on spikes above Westminster Hall. Cromwell’s remained in situ until the late 1680s when a great storm broke the pole with his head on it.

Fun fact: the Red Lion was rebuilt in its present form in 1899 but the upstairs room of the current Red Lion Inn is known as the Cromwell Bar.

 

29th January

On this day in 1951 Henrietta Lacks went into hospital.

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Henrietta Lacks was suffering from an aggressive cervical cancer and died later that year.

Months earlier, doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, had taken samples of her cancerous cells while diagnosing and treating the disease.

They gave some of that tissue to a researcher. In the laboratory, her cells turned out to have an extraordinary capacity to survive and reproduce - they were, in essence, immortal.

The cells from the cancerous sample were shared widely by the researcher with other scientists and eventually became known as the HeLa immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line in contemporary biomedical research.

Today, work done with HeLa cells underpins much of modern medicine. They have been involved in key discoveries in many fields, including cancer, immunology and infectious disease. One of their most recent applications has been in research for vaccines against COVID-19.

The research was not without controversy as the original sample was taken without Lacks’s knowledge or consent.

 

30th January

On this day in 1975 an application was submitted to patent the Rubik's Cube.

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Hungarian Ernő Rubik applied for a patent in his native country for his "Bűvös kocka" or "Magic Cube". Patent number HU170062 was granted later that year.

More than 350 million Rubik’s Cubes have been sold worldwide and is one of the best-selling toys of all time.

At one stage in 1981, three of the top ten best-selling books in the US were books on solving Rubik's Cube.

Fun fact: The cube has over 43 quintillion combinations in which it can be rearranged.

 

31st January

Mungo Park sails from Portsmouth for The Gambia on this day in 1805.

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Mungo Park was a Scottish explorer of West Africa. After an exploration of the upper Niger River around 1796, he wrote a popular and influential travel book titled Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa in which he theorized the Niger and Congo merged to become the same river.

He set sail in 1805 for The Gambia but was killed during this second expedition the following year, having successfully travelled about two-thirds of the way down the Niger. Park's death meant the idea of a Niger-Congo merger remained unproven but it became the leading theory among geographers.

The mystery of the Niger's course, which had been speculated about since the Ancient Greeks and was second only to the mystery of the Nile source, was not solved for another 25 years, in 1830, when it was discovered the Niger and Congo were in fact separate rivers.

If the African Association was the "beginning of the age of African exploration" then Mungo Park was its first successful explorer; he set a standard for all who followed. Park was the first Westerner to have recorded travels in the central portion of the Niger, and through his popular book introduced the public to a vast unexplored continent which influenced future European explorers and colonial ambitions in Africa.

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