Category Archives: Technology

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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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 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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December 10th – The Nobel Prize is awarded for the first time

The medal awarded as part of the Nobel Prize. Nobel laureates also receive a diploma recognizing their achievement along with a monetary prize.

The medal awarded as part of the Nobel Prize. Nobel laureates also receive a diploma recognizing their achievement, along with a monetary prize.

On this day in 1901, the Nobel Prize was awarded for the first time in Stockholm, Sweden. Since its inception over 100 years ago, a total of 835 individuals and 21 organizations have been awarded with the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prize takes its name from Alfred Nobel, a prominent Swedish engineer and inventor. Besides the award that contains his name, Nobel is known as the inventor of dynamite, one of the greatest paradoxes in history. Upon his death in 1896, Nobel’s last will specified that his wealth be used to fund a series of prizes for those who contribute the “greatest benefit on mankind” in the fields of physics, chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature. Almost $190 million (current day monetary value) was used to establish these Nobel Prizes.

On December 10th, 1901, five years to the day after Alfred Nobel passed away, the first Nobel Prizes were handed out. Amongst the inaugural class of Nobel laureates were Wilhelm Röntgen (Physics) for his discovery of X-rays and Henry Dunant (Peace) for founding the International Red Cross. Here are some other fun facts:

  • The Nobel Prize for Economics was not one of the original five prizes, and was only awarded after 1969.
  • Only two individuals have multiple Nobel Prizes in different fields. These individuals are Marie Curie for Physics (1903, for her work in radiation phenomenon) and Chemistry (1911, for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium) and Linus Pauling for Chemistry (1954, for his work on the nature of the chemical bond, more specifically orbital hybridization) and Peace (1962, for his work in campaigning against nuclear weapons testing).

A total of 23* Canadians have won a Nobel Prize. The asterisk indicates that some of these individuals were not born in Canada nor were Canadian citizens, but performed much of the work the Nobel Prize recognized while in Canada. Here are five notable Canadian individuals who have won:

  1. Ernest Rutherford for Chemistry (1908). You may know him as the scientist behind Bohr-Rutherford diagrams from high school chemistry class. Rutherford’s work on the half-life of radioactive substances while at McGill University in Montreal was the basis of his Nobel Prize (Rutherford was, in fact, a Kiwi, having been born in New Zealand).
  2. Frederick Banting for Physiology/Medicine (1923). Banting was rewarded the Nobel Prize for his work in (co)discovering insulin while a the University of Toronto. Prior to his arrival at Toronto, Banting was a faculty member at the University of Western Ontario, teaching orthopedics and anthropology.
  3. Lester B. Pearson for Peace (1957). The future prime minister of Canada won his Nobel Prize for his role in defusing the Suez Crisis through his work at the United Nations.
  4. John Polanyi for Chemistry (1986). This Hungarian-born scientist won his Nobel Prize for work on chemical kinetics. Today, Polanyi still teaches chemistry at the University of Toronto.
  5. Alice Munro for Literature (2013). This year’s Nobel laureate in literature received her prize for her work on the short story. Munro is a fellow alumnus of the University of Western Ontario (Go Mustangs!), having studied English and journalism during her time here as an undergraduate student.

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November 26th – Last Flight of the Concorde

A British Airways Concorde in flight

A British Airways Concorde in flight

Welcome to the first post in my blog “What Happened Today in History”! Everyday I hope to write about an interesting historical event that occurred on this date. I will try to remain unbiased towards any specific cultural or nation’s history, and seek to present a diversity of events. Hope you enjoy!

On this date in 2003, the Concorde (or le Concorde en français) took its final flight and flew, effectively, into the history books. For those who do not know what the Concorde was, it was the world’s most famous supersonic commercial airplane. I do say ‘most famous’, and not ‘only’, because there was one other supersonic commercial airplane: the Russian built Tupolev Tu-144.

As a supersonic airplane, the Concorde was capable of flying faster than the speed of sound, reaching a cruising speed of Mach 2.04 (2173 km/h, over twice the speed of sound) and flying at an altitude of 60000 feet (over 11 miles high)! Interestingly, as the Concorde reached supersonic speeds, the body of the Concorde would stretch anywhere from 6 to 10 inches due to the immense heat of the plane’s frame. The speed of the Concorde also accorded for the fastest time recorded for a transatlantic flight: from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in 2 hours, 52 minutes and 59 minutes! This record holds to this day!

Beginning commercial service in 1976, primarily with British Airways and Air France, a total of twenty Concordes were built. The Concordes remained in service until 2003, with the final commercial flight flying from New York’s JFK Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR). By 2003, the Concorde fleet had proven expensive to upkeep and the state of the commercial airline industry post-9/11 dictated the retirement of this aircraft. The last ever flight of the Concorde took place on November 26th from Heathrow Airport to an airfield in Bristol – the very airfield where it was built.

Interesting fact: While the plane was originally called Concorde, the British prime minister at the time of constructing the aircraft, Harold MacMillan, officially dropped the –e from the end of the name, to make it appear “less French” (Concorde vs. Concord). Under the succeeding government to MacMillan, Minister for Technology Tony Benn reinstated the –e, much to chagrin of British nationalists. Benn quickly rectified the situation by claiming the ‘e’ stood for “Excellence, England, Europe and Entente (as in the Entente Cordiale of 1904)”. Scots quickly took protest to Benn’s pronouncement however, stating that parts of the Concorde were in fact made in Scotland, not solely in England. Benn then announced the ‘e’ also stood for Écosse, the French word for Scottish. Who knew the name of a plane would cause so much trouble?

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