Monthly Archives: March 2014

March 31st – The Eiffel Tower is opened

The Eiffel Tower, in midst of construction.

The Eiffel Tower, in midst of construction.

On this day in 1889, 125 years ago, the Eiffel Tower opened. One of the most well-known landmarks worldwide, the Eiffel Tower has come to symbolize the city of Paris and France, and is the most visited paid monument in the world (almost 7 million visitors each year). For almost 40 years after its opening, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world, eclipsed by the Chrysler Building in New York City in 1930.

Interestingly, the Eiffel Tower was never meant to be a permanent fixture in the cityscape of Paris. In honour of the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution (1789), the city of Paris decided to hold an international exposition and the construction of a monument on the Champ-de-Mars in central Paris. The city decided on Gustav Eiffel’s design, a 984 feet tall open-lattice iron-wrought tower that would be the tallest structure in the world. Eiffel was a famed architect who had only three years ago designed the framework of the Statue of Liberty.

In general, Parisians were skeptical of the design of the Eiffel Tower on the city. The French arts establishment published the following in Le Temps:

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower…To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years…we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal”

Regardless, work on the tower began on January 28th, 1887. The construction of the tower featured an iron framework supported by four masonry piers, from which four columns arose to form a single vertical tower. Three platforms exist in the Eiffel Tower, each with an observation deck. Elevators ascend up the piers along a curve, which were not completed until after the tower’s opening. On March 31st, 1889, Gustav Eiffel climbed all the tower’s stairs to reach the top of the tower, where he raised the French tricolour, with fireworks set off from the second platform, and a 21 cannon salute at ground level. Later on in May, the International Exposition opened, exposing the Eiffel Tower to the world at large. Interestingly, the city of Paris had only granted the Eiffel Tower a 20 year lease on the land it was on, and consequently in 1909 was subject for demolition. However, the Eiffel Tower proved to be highly valuable as an antenna for radio transmission, and was therefore preserved. Bonne fête Tour de Eiffel!

Here is the official site for the Eiffel Tower, with information for visiting:

And here are some interesting facts concerning the Eiffel Tower:

  • There are 5 billion lights on the Eiffel Tower.
  • The French nickname for the tower is La Dame de Fer, the Iron Lady (how Thatcherite!)
  • Gustav Eiffel installed a meteorological laboratory on the third floor of the tower, which was available for scientists to use for studying anything from gravity to electricity.
  • In order to give the appearance of an uniform colour on the tower, paint is used in a graduated manner to counteract the effect of atmospheric perspective. Consequently, the bottom of the tower is actually painted lighter than the top. The Eiffel Tower is covered with 60 tonnes of paint every seven years to protect against corrosive forces.
  • The names of 72 French scientists are inscribed on the exterior of the first floor of the Eiffel Tower. Scientists honoured include Georges Cuvier, Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, Louis Le Chatelier, Léon Foucault, Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, and Louis Daguerre.
  • In February 4th, 1912, the Austrian tailor Franz Reichelt tested his wearable parachute design by jumping from the Eiffel Tower to deploy the suit. Infamously, and tragically, Reichelt was proven wrong, when his parachute failed to deploy upon jumping from the tower, sending him crashing to the floor. Footage was taken of his perilous jump live, and can be seen here:
  • In 1914, a radio transmitter located on the Eiffel Tower jammed German radio communications, which served to hinder the German advance on Paris. In essence, the Eiffel Tower contributed to the Allied victory at the First Battle of the Marne.
  • In 1940, just before France fell to Nazi Germany, the lift cables for the Eiffel Tower’s elevators were cut by the French, to prevent the occupying German forces and Hitler from using them to enjoy the city view of Paris. When Hitler went to visit Paris after the Fall of France, der Fuhrer chose to stay on the ground.
  • Almost 30 replicas of the Eiffel Tower have been built around the world.
  • One of the Hollywood clichés is that in any movie featuring Paris, you are able to see the Eiffel Tower out the window. In reality, city zoning restrictions limit the height of most buildings in Paris to only seven stories, therefore only a few taller buildings exist that would allow for a clear view of the Eiffel Tower.

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March 26th – Jonas Salk announces his polio vaccine

Jonas Salk in his laboratory, inoculating a patient against polio.

Jonas Salk in his laboratory, inoculating a patient against polio.

On this day in 1953, Jonas Salk announced to the world that he had successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes polio. A highly infectious disease, especially to children, the polio virus attacks the nervous system of victims, causing various degrees of paralysis. Major polio epidemics started appearing in the late nineteenth century in both Europe and North America, and soon enough, became one of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the twentieth century. By 1952, a year before Salk’s announcement, polio was killing the most children over any other communicable disease. Until Salk’s vaccine was released, there was no viable cure or vaccine to combat polio. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s well-known affliction with polio raised national consciousness of the disease, and the massive fundraising campaigns of the March of Dimes Foundation, the search for a vaccine for polio was underway.

Jonas Salk began his scientific work on viruses in the 1930s while a medical student at New York University (NYU). During the Second World War, Salk assisted in developing flu vaccines for overseas soldiers. By 1948, Salk’s experience as a virologist allowed him to receive a grant at the University of Pittsburgh to study the polio virus and come up with a potential vaccine to the virus. In 1950, Salk had come up with an early version of his polio vaccine, however was unable to come forward to the public about it without testing its efficacy. Consequently, Salk conducted human trials of his vaccine on former polio patients and on himself and his family, and found that the vaccine worked. On March 26th, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced on a national radio show that he found a vaccine to prevent polio and would be holding field trials of the vaccine across America.

Starting in 1954, clinical field trials of the vaccine started throughout America, with an estimated two million American school children involved. Interestingly, a 1954 Gallup Poll showed that more Americans knew about these field trials than they knew the first name of the current President of the United States (that is Dwight, mind you). In 1955, Salk concluded that the vaccine was safe and effective, and a nationwide inoculation campaign was initiated. Similar inoculation campaigns were started throughout the world, drastically reducing the number of polio cases worldwide. Building on Salk’s work and success, Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine to polio, greatly enhancing the ease of distribution of the vaccine. In honour of his work on the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, the highest civilian award in the United States. Salk died in La Jolla, California in 1995. Thanks to Salk and his vaccine, polio was almost globally eradicated in the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the World Health Organization has reported that a few cases of polio have appeared in Syria in 2013, no doubt influenced by the inability to vaccinate children during Syrian Civil War.



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March 25th – Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Tragedy occurs in New York City

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911.

On this day in 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. The factory was located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood, and the building is currently designated a National Historic Landmark (click here to see where the building is located). In total, 146 lives were lost in the tragedy, either from the fire itself, smoke inhalation, or falling/jumping to their deaths. The vast majority of the victims were female Jewish or Italian immigrants, aged as young as 14 years of age. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire opened Americans’ eyes to the unsafe conditions of many of the country’s workplaces, leading to improved factory safety regulations and better conditions for factory workers.

Hundreds of shirtwaist (a blouse that resembled a man’s shirt) factories existed in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the largest of the factories, employing over 500 people, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants to America. Work conditions at the factory were extreme, despite the immense profits that factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris brought in. Women (and children) worked 9 hours a day on weekdays and 7 hours on Saturdays, making only $7-12 a week. Workers at the Triangle Factory had few breaks at work, were followed to the bathroom and were rushed back to work, and worked in overcrowded environments. Important to this story, few safety regulations existed in the factory: cotton textile scraps (flammable of course) littered the factory floor, no sprinkler system was installed, and the fire escape ladder was shoddy and only reached down to the second floor. As well, the factory owners Blanck and Harris were afraid that their workers would steal equipment or merchandise from the factory floor. Consequently, Blanck and Harris mandated that one of the two doors to the factory be locked while the factory was running, so that the workers would have to take a specific exit while the factory was closing to be searched for stolen products. This single exit was partitioned to allow only one worker at a time to leavefor inspection. Even at this time, Blanck and Harris’ policy of locking a door was against fire regulations in New York City.

At 4:40 pm on Saturday March 25th, 1911, right before the factory was closing for the day, a fire started on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. While the official cause of the fire has never been determined, fire officials at the time believed a lit cigarette ignited a trash bin full of cotton scraps next to a worker’s station. As alluded to earlier, cotton is quite flammable, and soon enough, the entire cotton-covered floor was up in flames, spreading up to the floors above. Efforts were made to try to extinguish the fire on the floor using a fire hose in the factory, however the hose had not been properly inspected and proved completely useless as little water pressure existed. The only course of action left for the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was to escape.

Tragically the options were limited for the workers trying to get out. As one of the two doors was locked, workers scrambled towards the other spatially-limiting door, often trampling and pushing others aside to get to the exit quickly. Other workers sought exodus through the passenger elevators, which ran up and down the building, trying to get as many workers out from the factory as possible. Some of the workers on the tenth floor were able to get to the roof of the building, where law students at nearby NYU (New York University) threw ladders over from adjacent buildings to get people out. Some workers took the fire escape ladder, which was so flimsy that, when people went to climb down the ladder, the ladder simply fell off the building, sending workers plummeting to their deaths. More drastic, and often ill-fated, attempts were made to leave the factory. Some workers tried to slide down elevator cables, ending up losing their grip and fatally falling. Sadly, many would jump out of the windows in a last-ditch attempt to escape the fire. Despite the arrival of the New York Fire Department, their ladders could only reach the 6th floor, and their fire nets proved too weak to catch the fall of workers. By this time, many onlookers had come and stood outside of the Asch Building, looking on in horror at the tragedy that lay in front of them. William Gunn Shepard, an eyewitness at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire commented on those jumping out from the windows: “I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture — the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk.”

The bodies from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire were recovered and taken to Charities Pier (also known as Misery Lane), for identification by friends and loved ones. The official death toll was 146, 123 women and 23 men. The victims were interned in sixteen different cemeteries. Interestingly, six victims of the fire remaining unidentified until 2011, 100 years after the fire occurred. While these six victims were originally buried together in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, a grave marker has now been placed with the identities of the victims.

Following the tragedy, Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter for their responsibility in the deaths resulting from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The trial lasted for three weeks, and ultimately Blanck and Harris were acquitted. The two factory owners were acquitted after the prosecution failed to definitely conclude that the door was locked and that the owners knew this, but also, that fewer people would have died had the doors been unlocked. On a positive note however, a commission was put in place after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to look into the conditions of factories throughout New York City. The findings of the commission concluded that many factories lacked many basic safety considerations, such as sprinklers, fire walls, fire doors. In the years after the tragedy, legislation was passed at the state and federal levels to strengthen workplace safety laws and regulations, improving the labour environment of workers throughout the country.

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March 7th – The University of Western Ontario is founded

Here is a picture of Western's campus back in 1933. From this picture, you can see the J.W. Little Football Stadium (now the present site of the South Valley Building). University College (then known as the Arts building) and the Natural Sciences Building (now known as the Physics and Astronomy Building) can be seen in the background.

Here is a picture of Western’s campus back in 1933. From this picture, you can see the J.W. Little Football Stadium (now the present site of the South Valley Building). University College (then known as the Arts building) and the Natural Sciences Building (now known as the Physics and Astronomy Building) can be seen in the background.

On this day in 1878, the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, my alma mater, was founded. With 12 faculties and professional schools, and three affiliated university colleges (Huron University College, Brescia University College, which is Canada’s only female university-level college, and King’s University College), the University of Western Ontario, Western for short, has approximately 30000 currently enrolled undergraduate students and 5300 graduate students from 107 countries around the world. Western is nationally and internationally well recognized as one of Canada’s prestigious and illustrious institutions.

Western’s founder, Bishop Isaac Hellmuth was born in Poland in 1819 and educated at the University of Breslau (present-day University of Wrocław). While Hellmuth was originally Jewish in faith, discussions with theologians at Breslau made Hellmuth question his faith, and upon moving to England in 1842, Hellmuth converted to Anglicanism. In 1844, he entered the ministry, and was then sent to the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. Following some time spent as a professor of Hebrew and rabbinical literature at Bishop’s University (in Lennoxville, Quebec), Hellmuth found himself in London, Ontario.

Once in London, Hellmuth recognized the need for an institution to educate and train clergy in the area. In 1861, Hellmuth set off for England to raise funds to establish this clerical training institution in London. After enough funds had been gathered, in 1863, Hellmuth founded Huron College, which remains to this day as one of Western’s affiliate colleges. In 1871, Hellmuth became the Bishop of the Diocese of Huron, and with his newfound clout, began pushing the provincial government for the establishment of a university in London, Ontario. Hellmuth would invest much of his own money to the procurement of a charter for the new school. Though legislation for the creation of an university in London met stiff resistance in provincial parliament, in 1878 a charter for Western was finally authorized, undoubtedly aided by the fact that Hellmuth was married to the sister-in-law of the Minister of Education, as well as support from Premier Oliver Mowat.

Beautiful picture of University College (Arts Building) and the Lawson Memorial Library (now known as Lawson Hall, home to the Department of History) in 1940.

Beautiful picture of University College (Arts Building) and the Lawson Memorial Library (now known as Lawson Hall, home to Western’s Department of History) in 1940.

On March 7th, 1878, ‘The Western University of London Ontario” was founded. Three years later, Western opened its doors to students for the first time, with degrees in four faculties: Arts, Divinity, Law, and Medicine. At this time, Western was still a religiously affiliated institution, and it was clergy members that served as faculty for the school, with Bishops of Huron serving as Western’s first chancellors. Only in 1908 did the school become non-denominational and secularized. In 1923, the university was officially renamed “The University of Western Ontario”. Contrary to what many current students and alumni believe, that name is still the institution’s official name; while in 2012 the university re-branded itself as “Western University”, that epithet is only the school’s marketing name and not its official legal name.

Here are some of the notable alumni/faculty to have passed through Western’s doors:

  • Sir Frederick Banting – Nobel laureate in Medicine, for co-discovering insulin
  • Roberta Bondar – first female Canadian astronaut
  • Margaret Chan – director-general of the World Health Organization
  • David Furnish – filmmaker and civil partner of Sir Elton John
  • Dr. Chil-Yong Kang – developer of an HIV/AIDS vaccine currently undergoing clinical trials
  • Silken Laumann – Canadian champion rower, Olympic medalist
  • Alice Munro – author, Nobel Laureate in Literature for “mastery of the contemporary short story”
  • Kevin Newman – previous anchor of Global National
  • Kevin O’Leary – chairman of O’Leary Funds, dragon and shark on CBC’s Dragons Den and ABC’s Shark Tank respectively
  • Michael Ondaatje – poet, novelist of The English Patient, which was adapted into multiple Academy Award-winning film of the same name
  • Adrian Owen – neuroscientist, the Brain and Mind Institute
  • John Robarts – 17th Premier of Ontario
  • Alan Thicke – actor in Growing Pains and father to Robin Thicke
  • Paul Wells – columnist and journalist for Maclean’s Magazine

So on this Founder’s Day fellow Mustangs, wear purple and white, and let us take pride in our school’s past and the exciting future that is yet to come. Happy 136th birthday Western! Go ‘Stangs go!

Here is a video released by Western for this year’s Founder’s Day:

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March 6th – The city of Toronto is incorporated

Front Street in 1804. Today, the CN Tower, the Fairmont Royal York, and Union Station are found on modern-day Toronto. While Front Street was right next to Lake Ontario back in 1804, following late 19th and early 20th century land reclamation, the lake shore is now 800 metres south of Front Street.

Front Street, Toronto in 1804. The CN Tower, the Fairmont Royal York, and Union Station are found on modern-day Front Street. While Front Street was right next to Lake Ontario back in 1804, following late 19th and early 20th century land reclamations, the lake shore is now almost 800 metres south of Front Street.

On this day in 1834, 180 years ago, the city of Toronto was incorporated. Due to its key position on Lake Ontario and its access to many rivers (such as the Humber, Don, and Rouge), Toronto was a highly influential and important settlement throughout history and to this day. This post will largely cover Toronto’s history (albeit succinctly) up to the city’s incorporation.

Prior to English settlement, the area made up of present-day Toronto was inhabited by various First Nations peoples, including the Neutral, Seneca, Mohawk, Cayuga, Wendat, and Mississauga (from which the Toronto suburb is named after) nations. By the mid-1750s, the French had began exploring the northern shore of Lake Ontario where Toronto is today located. The French would build a trading post in this area name Fort Rouillé, located around Exhibition Place (where the Canadian National Exhibition, or The Ex is held every August) in 1750. By the 1760s however, the French abandoned Fort Rouillé after their defeat by the British in the Seven Years War.

It would be another war that would greatly influence Toronto’s history pre-incorporation. During the American Revolutionary War, Loyalists (roughly, those American colonists loyal to the British crown and did not want to be part of America) from the Thirteen Colonies settled in large numbers in the lands constituting modern-day Toronto. In 1787, the British negotiated the purchase of the lands constituting Toronto (almost a quarter million acres) from the Mississaugas of New Credit. Two years later, John Graves Simcoe declared this area to be known as “York”, functioning as the capital of Upper Canada (modern-day Southern Ontario, contrast with Lower Canada being the area of the province of Quebec situated along the St. Lawrence River).

Previously, Newark (mind you, not the one in New Jersey, but on the Niagara Peninsula, present day Niagara-on-the-Lake) was the capital of Upper Canada, but due to the threat of an American attack, York became the colony’s new capital. At the time, York was largely a bay formed by the Toronto Islands, with Fort York defended the settlement from attack. Simcoe also ordered the construction of military service roads to allow easy communication between York and Kingston, and York and Newark. Kingston Road (still exists in some form today) formed the eastern route out of Toronto, Dundas Street the western route (also exists in some form today, moving all the way through southwestern Ontario, through London and towards Windsor), and Yonge Street northwards to Lake Simcoe. Yonge Street still exists to this day; at almost 1896 km in length (counting the portion of the street known as Highway 11), it was popularly known as ‘the longest street in the world’.

Yet another war would influence Toronto’s history in its early days. In 1813 during the War of 1812 (I know, confusing), York was attacked and burned by invading American forces. Despite the presence of Fort York, the garrison was lightly manned, therefore unable to adequately repulse the Americans. Following this defeat, a stronger fort was constructed west of the fort’s original position, easily turning back the Americans after another attack in 1814. While originally on the city’s coast, this newer fort (that which exists to this day) is now hundreds of meters inland, due to land reclamation.

After York’s “baptism by fire” during the War of 1812, it was decided to further elevate the status of this important community. On March 6th, 1834, the town of York was incorporated, changing its name to Toronto to distinguish it from New York City, as well as remove its negative image as ‘dirty little York’ by the local inhabitants. Toronto is derived from the original Mohawk name for the area, tkaronto, meaning ‘where there are trees standing in the water’. William Lyon Mackenzie would be Toronto’s first mayor. It was Toronto’s first mayor that was grandfather to William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s prime minister through the Great Depression and the Second World War (and also the prime minister featured on the Canadian fifty dollar bill). Happy 180th birthday Toronto!


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