Monthly Archives: January 2014

January 25th – First Winter Olympics are held

Official poster for the 1924 Winter Olympic Games at Chamonix, France.

Official poster for the 1924 Winter Olympic Games at Chamonix, France.

With the countdown towards the start of this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia less than two weeks away, I thought this topic was apt. On this day in 1924, the first Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France (in the French Alps). Originally known as the “International Winter Sports Week”, or en françaisLa Semaine Internationale des Sports d’Hiver, these Olympic Games lasted from January 25th to February 4th, with 16 nations participating and 258 athletes competing in total.

The Winter Olympics had many antecedents. In 1901, five years after the birth of the modern Olympics at Athens, Sweden held the first organized international competition in winter sports. Called the Nordic Games, this competition was exclusive to Scandinavian nations. Interestingly, the first time that winter sports were staged at the Olympics were in 1908 (London, UK) for figure skating, and 1920 (Antwerp, Belgium) for men’s ice hockey. As a separate Winter Olympics event did not exist at the time, both the figure skating and ice hockey events were held months after the Summer Olympics were held.

In 1924, the French Olympic Committee decided to host a Winter Olympics in the foothills of the French Alps, in conjunction with the Summer Olympics that were to be held later in the year in Paris. On January 25th, 1924, the first Winter Olympic games were held, with the following six sports being played: bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, military patrol (known today as the biathlon), skating (both figure skating and speed skating), and Nordic skiing (cross-country skiing, Nordic combined, and ski jumping). The sixteen nations participating were: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Finland, France, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Switzerland, Sweden, the United States, and Yugoslavia.

Here are some interesting facts about the First Winter Olympic Games:

  • Norway won the most medals at the games, with 4 gold, 7 silver, and 6 bronze for a total of 17 medals. Finland won the second most medals, with 4 gold, 4 silver, and 3 bronze (total of 11).
  • These Olympic Games in the winter of 1924 marked the first time that the host country failed to win any gold medals. At Chamonix, France won 3 bronze medals, and no gold. Since Chamonix, this feat has only occurred four other times, at St. Moritz, Switzerland (Summer, 1928), Montreal, Canada (Summer, 1976), Calgary, Canada (Winter, 1988), and Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (Winter, 1984).
  • Oddly enough, in 1974 the last medal of the 1924 Winter Olympics was handed out. Anders Haugen of the United States was awarded the bronze medal in a ski jumping event, after Olympic officials had discovered that a scoring error had occurred, placing Haugen incorrectly in fourth place. By the time Haugen received his bronze medal in 1974, he was 86 years old. I hope by that age he was not ski jumping any longer…
  • From 1924 to 1992, Winter and Summer Olympics were held on the same year, every four years. A decision in 1986 however by the International Olympic Committee placed the Summer and Winter Games on separate four-year cycles in alternating even-numbered years. Consequently, the next Winter Olympics after 1992 (Albertville, France) were held in 1994, at Lillehammer, Norway.
  • Canada won its first Winter Olympics gold medal in men’s ice hockey, uniquely defending their title from the previous Summer Olympics. Women’s ice hockey would not be added to the Olympic until 1998, at Nagano, Japan. Here’s to another ice hockey gold medal (in both men’s and women’s mind you) this year at Sochi, 90 years after Chamonix! 🙂

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January 22nd – The British are defeated at the Battle of Isandlwana

The Battle of Isandlwana, as depicted by Charles Edwin Fripp.

The Battle of Isandlwana, as depicted by Charles Edwin Fripp.

On this day in 1879, the British Army was defeated by the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana. The loss at Isandlwana marked the worst military defeat sustained by the British Armed Forces against a technologically inferior indigenous force, with the Zulu forces outnumbering the British almost 10 to 1.

In an effort to consolidate its rule over southern Africa, the British committed to war against the Zulu Kingdom on January 11, 1879. Taking place during the “Scramble for Africa”, where various European powers sought control over unclaimed lands of Africa, Victorian Britain believed that the war against the Zulus would be easy work and a matter of putting down token tribal resistance. The British commander-in-chief in South Africa, Lord Chelmsford, had much experience in dealing with wars on the African continent, and it was believed he would be able to satisfactorily win victory for the British yet again. This was not to be the case, however.

On January 20th, a column of the British force made camp on Isandlwana Hill, and using other columns, Chelmsford sought to scout out the locations of the Zulu army. Chelmsford was unable to locate the Zulu force, which had snuck around Chelmsford on its way to attack the British at Isandlwana, until it was too late. Though the Zulu were only armed with spears and shields (though it should be noted they did have muskets, however were ill-equipped and trained to operate these weapons) and the British with their top-of-the-line Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles and artillery, on January 22nd, 1879, the British were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Zulu soldiers at Isandlwana and defeated.

Upon returning to Isandlwana after the battle, Chelmsford was devastated. The defeat at Isandlwana damaged the psyche of the British military and nation, with vows to avenge the loss in Zululand. More resources and attention were consequently placed by the British into the Anglo-Zulu War, resulting in British victory later on in July.

The following are some British links that may be of interest for further reading:–tunic-button.html – Remains of British soldier who died in first battle of Zulu war identified after 130 years. – A nice write-up of the events of the Anglo-Zulu War and the controversy behind Lord Chelmsford.

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January 18th – Germany is unified as a nation

Painting by Anton von Werner of the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on January 18th, 1871. Otto von Bismarck is depicted in the white uniform.

Painting by Anton von Werner of the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on January 18th, 1871. Otto von Bismarck is depicted in the white uniform.

Ah one of my favourite historical topics. On this day in 1871, Germany was unified as a nation, following the German victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War. With the proclamation of the German Empire and Kaiser Wilhelm I as German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, an united Germany soon became the economic and industrial powerhouse of Europe.

For hundreds of years, the lands that we know today as Germany existed as multiple independent states. In fact, prior to 1806 (Holy Roman Empire times), Germany was made up of over 300 small states. Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the Congress of Vienna, many of these smaller states were consolidated together and a general collection of German-speaking states formed, called the German Confederation. Similar to today’s European Union, states with the German Confederation had their own independence and autonomy, however decisions concerning the Confederation as a whole were decided in a parliament in Frankfurt. Within the German Confederation, two nations emerged as the most powerful within the association: Austria and Prussia.

The topic of German unification is rather lengthy and complex, so I will try to be as “to-the-point” as I can from here on out. The power struggle between Austria and Prussia would play a central role in German unification. Under the leadership of the Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck, Prussia and Austria allied to take on Denmark for the duchy of Schlewsig in 1864. Emerging victorious over Denmark, Prussia and Austria soon disputed the status of Schleswig and went to war against each other in 1866. Prussian victory against the Austrians confirmed that Prussia, under the leadership of Bismarck, was now the dominant German state and would lead the way for German unification.

By 1871, Prussia had succeeded in uniting much of Northern Germany as the North German Confederation, however the southern German states of Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria remained outside of the unified German state. Bismarck, through his diplomatic prowess, decided to orchestrate a war that would unify all Germans, both in the North and South, against a common enemy. In 1871, war broke out between Prussia and France, and through Bismarck’s statescraft, convinced the south German states to come to Prussia’s aid. Emerging victorious in the critical Battle of Sedan, united German victory over France was the catalytic event in German unification. On January 18th, 1871 the unified German Empire was proclaimed, with the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, declared the German Emperor at the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

The rest is history as some would say. The unified German nation soon became, arguably, the most powerful nation on the European continent. An unified Germany would figure as a dominant player in the world wars, and found itself re-divided after the end of the Second World War into West and East Germany. Re-unification of West and East would happen on October 3rd, 1990 following the symbolic downfall of the Berlin Wall an year beforehand. Interestingly it is that date, October 3rd, which is celebrated today in Germany as its national holiday, rather than January 18th, the date that the modern German state that we know was first created.

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January 15th – The Great Molasses Disaster of Boston

Front page from the Boston Globe, the day after the Great Molasses Flood

Front page from the Boston Globe, the day after the Great Molasses Flood

On this day in 1919, a large molasses storage tank burst, sending a wave of molasses flowing down the streets of the North End of Boston. Known as the ‘Great Molasses Flood’ or the ‘Great Boston Molasses Tragedy’, while seemingly comical, this disaster resulted in the deaths of 21 and injured 150.

The Boston Molasses Tragedy occurred at the Purity Distilling Company facility on 529 Commercial Street. The tank holding the molasses was 15 metres tall and 27 metres in diameter, containing almost 2300000 gallons of molasses on the day of the spill. Around 12:30 pm, the tank collapsed, unleashing molasses on the city of Boston. In addition to the injuries and fatalities, much property was destroyed by the molasses, with many city blocks flooded in molasses up to a metre high. The amount of molasses spilled was so great that many of the dead were so glazed over and covered in molasses that they were extremely difficult to identify.

Multiple theories have been offered as to what caused the storage tank to collapse, including:

  1. Fermentation within the tank increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the tank, increasing the internal pressure of the tank.
  2. A sudden rise in the temperature in Boston from the day before (from -17° to 5°C) also contributed to a rise in the internal pressure of the tank.
  3. A fatigue crack at the base of the tank.
  4. Basic safety tests were neglected. When the tank was filled with water and found to be leaky prior to the disaster, the company owners painted the tank brown to help hide the leaking molasses from showing through.

Ultimately, it took the city of Boston almost two weeks to clean up from the aftermath of the Great Molasses Flood. Boston Harbour remained brown in colour from the molasses until the summer. The Purity Distilling Company was sued in a class-action lawsuit, and through out-of-court settlements, the company paid out almost $600000 to victims of the flood (almost $12 million today). The Purity Distilling Company decided to not rebuild the storage tank following the flood, and today the site of the Great Molasses Flood of Boston is a public baseball field. Local folklore suggests that on hot summer days in Boston today, you can still smell a sweet odour in the air, all coming from the molasses that flooded the streets of Boston on January 15th, 1919.

Here are some links on the Great Molasses Disaster of Boston if you would like to explore further:

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January 10th – Mind the Gap! The London Underground opens for the public

The famous London Underground roundel

The famous London Underground roundel

On this day in 1863, the London Underground, then known as the Metropolitan Railway, opened for the first time to the public. The ‘Underground’ or ‘the Tube’ is oldest operating subway system in the world, well ahead of New York City (1868 elevated, 1904 underground) and Paris (1900). An icon of London, the Underground is as evocative as the Big Ben or double decker buses of the British capital.

As the centre of the burgeoning British Empire, there was a desire amongst city planners to alleviate the chaotic traffic that existed on London’s roads. In 1854, a decision was made to construct the ‘Metropolitan Railway’, linking various railway stations together (Paddington Station/Bishop’s Road –> Edgware Road –> Baker Street –> Portland Road –> Gower Street –> King’s Cross Station –> Farringdon Street), at a total length of 6 km.

By the end of 1862, work was completed on the Metropolitan Railway, at a cost of £1.3 million. On January 10th, 1863, the Metropolitan Railway was opened to the public to great fanfare. On the opening day, 38000 passengers were carried on the system. By the end of the year, 9.5 million passengers were carried, and by two years, 12 million passengers. Over time the underground railway network would expand from the original 6 km track to become the London Underground that we know today.

Here are some interesting facts about the London Underground and its history:

  • The first subway trains moving on the Metropolitan Railway

    The first subway trains moving on the Metropolitan Railway

    The first trains running on the system in 1863 were powered by steam. Powered by coal, it made for smoky journeys underground. The first electric train began running in 1890, however steam-powered trains remained in use until the 1960s!

  • Prime Minister Gladstone’s funeral procession went through the London Underground. Following Gladstone’s death in 1898, many called for a public funeral to be arranged on his behalf. Gladstone’s coffin was moved through the London Underground on a train towards Westminster Abbey, with Edward VII and George V serving as honorary pallbearers. It is fitting that Gladstone took the Underground to his own funeral, as Gladstone was one of the first individuals to ride on the system (1862), before the Underground opened for the public.
  • The London Underground system served as a massive air-raid shelter for Londoners during the Blitz (1940-41) by the German Luftwaffe. Thousands of Londoners would descend into the Underground at night, leading officials to install bunk-beds in the Tube and handing out numbered tickets to the system to prevent overcrowding. Trains would continue to run as Londoners sought shelter, some even delivering food and tea to those seeking shelter. Underground lines not used during the Second World War were converted to factories for aircraft production, and even storage space for precious items evacuated from the British Museum!
  • Some icons of the London Underground came about through the system’s history. The famous red circle roundel first appeared in 1908, the Tube Map (based on electrical circuits, originally deemed too radical for Londoners to comprehend) in 1933, and the “Mind the Gap” warning first heard on trains in 1968.
  • For a look at the London Underground through its 151 years of existence, take a look at this collection of photographs documenting the Tube’s history. Fascinating!

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January 6th – Olympic hopeful Nancy Kerrigan is attacked

Nancy Kerrigan, shortly after being attacked by Shane Stant in Detroit, Michigan.

Nancy Kerrigan, shortly after being attacked by Shane Stant in Detroit, Michigan.

On this day in 1994, Nancy Kerrigan was attacked at a Detroit ice rink following a skating practice two days before the 1994 Olympic tryouts. Kerrigan was attacked on the back of her knee in a plan hatched up by Tonya Harding, Kerrigan’s main rival for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating team.

In December 1993, Tonya Harding and her now ex-husband Jeff Gillooly began devising a plan to remove Nancy Kerrigan from the Olympic trials. Gillooly met with Derrick Smith and Shane Stant who agreed to attack Kerrigan in exchange for pay.

On January 6th, after a skating practice at a local rink in Detroit, Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the right knee by Shane Stant with a police baton. Stant got away with Smith driving the getaway car, leaving Kerrigan injured, grabbing her knee, wailing “Why, why, why?” The injury to her right knee left Kerrigan unable to participate in the qualifying competition for the Olympics, however the United States Figure Skating Association ruled that Kerrigan deserved one of the two positions on the Olympic team. Tonya Harding won the qualifying competition and was consequently the second member of the Olympic team.

After Smith and Stant came forward and confessed to the attack, Gillooly was charged with conspiracy to attack Kerrigan. Gillooly made a deal with prosecutors however to implicate Harding as the mastermind of the whole attack. Faced with these allegations, Harding refused to give up her spot on the Olympic team, threatening to sue the United States Olympic Committee if they kicked her off the team. Both the attacker and attackee would compete against each other at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, setting an bizarre dynamic to the competition and ratings records for the Games.

At Lillehammer, Harding placed 8th, after the lace on her skates broke and being allowed a restart. Kerrigan on the other hand rebuilt her strength from the attack and was able to win a silver medal at the 1994 Olympics. Kerrigan’s performance was so exemplary that many believed she should have won the gold medal. Back in the United States, Harding plead guilty to conspiracy to attack Nancy Kerrigan, and was fined $100000, sentenced to probation and 500 hours of community service.


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January 3rd – Tech giant Apple is incorporated

The first Apple computer, 'Apple I'.

The first Apple computer, ‘Apple I’.

On this day in 1977, Apple Computer was incorporated in Cupertino, California. Almost thirty-five years later, Apple has since diversified from just creating its Mac computers (as reflected in the removal of the word ‘Computer’ from the company’s name in 2007). In addition to its iMacs and MacBook lines, Apple is well known for other products such as the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and the iTunes Store. In 2013, Apple was ranked 6th on the annual Fortune 500 list, recognition of the company’s clout and stature in the world’s technology sector.

A year before, in 1976, Apple was founded by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne. These three individuals intended to sell their Apple I personal computer, with a market price of $666.66 ($2735 today, adjusted for inflation). Interestingly, shortly after the release of the Apple I, Ronald Wayne sold his shares in Apple for $800. At the time, Wayne was going through severe financial strain, which would have jeopardized the future of the company had creditors decided to pursue his assets. Had Wayne kept his share of Apple (10% at the time), and not sold it back in 1976, his share of the company would have been worth almost $35 billion in 2011. On January 3rd, 1977, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (sans Ronald Wayne) went on to incorporate Apple Computers, and the rest as they say, is history.

Interesting fact: The name of the company apparently came from a visit by Steve Jobs to an apple orchard. At the time, Jobs was undergoing a fruitarian diet (that is a diet constituted completely out of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds). Jobs believed that ‘Apple’ would make a great name for the new company, believing it sounded “fun, spirited, and non-intimidating”.

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