Monday, September 27, 2010

August 6th in History: Happy Birthday World Wide Web

Leaning Tower of Pisa

1284    Italian city of Pisa is defeated in the Battle of Meloria by Genoa, ruining its naval power - and stopping the construction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. 

This also affected the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, which was under construction.  Construction began in August, 1173, with an inadequate foundation on unstable soil.  By 1178, the incomplete tower/campanile had already begun to lean to one side. Construction halted for the next 100 years because of the continuing conflict between Genoa and Pisa.  During that time, the unstable soil settled somewhat, which presumably kept it from tipping over.  Construction was restarted in 1272, instead of starting over; to compensate for the lean, the architect built the floors higher on one side.  This caused the tower to have a curve to it; and the new construction caused the tower to begin leaning the other way, making the floors which had been higher on one side now lower.

Leaning Tower of
Bad Frankenhausen

The final levels were constructed and campanile bells added between 1319-1372, with the last bell added in 1655.  At the end of the last millennium, the tower was structurally strengthened, and it is undergoing restoration of the exterior.  Instead of its deficiencies destroying it, they have made it a major landmark and tourist attraction.  It was from the Leaning Tower of Pisa that Galileo did his famous experiment dropping two differently sized cannon balls.  The Tower was nearly destroyed when the Allies considered calling an air strike against it while the Nazis used it for an observation position.  In the 1960s the Tower was in danger of falling over completely; it has been closed from time to time as too dangerous for tourists, and the campanile bells were removed in an effort to reduce the tipping risks by lightening the weight at the top of the tower.

Leaning Tower of Suurhusen

The tower was anchored with cables, slightly straightened, and the base excavated and reinforced, so that the tower could be stabilized - but still lean, so it would remain a tourist attraction.

There are other leaning structures, it has been a category for the Guinness Book of World Records. Other historic medieval  badly engineered but endearing structures are the Bell Tower of Bad Frankenhausen from the 14th century which leans because of salt mine sink holes affecting the foundation after it was built; it leans more than the Pisa Tower.  The Leaning Tower of Suurhusen dates from the 15th century; it leans from rotted foundations after swamps were drained.  Dating from the 12th century, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is oldest but not the leaning-est.  The Suurhusen Tower actually leans the most of the three, but it is attached to the rest of the church it serves as a bell tower.  It is curious to note that all of these leaning towers are church bell towers, and that all have undergone stabilization and restoration to allow them to continue leaning.

1787   Sixty proof sheets of the Constitution of the United States are delivered to the Constitutional Convention.

1806   Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor, abdicates ending the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

1809   Birth of Alfred Lord Tennyson, English poet (d. 1892).

1881   Birth of Alexander Fleming, Scottish scientist, Nobel laureate (d. 1955), scientist who discovered penicillin.

illustration of Kemmler in
the Electric Chair

1890   At Auburn Prison in New York murderer William Kemmler becomes the first person to be executed by electric chair. Just as France originated the guillotine in an attempt to find a more humane method of execution, the development of the electric chair was intended to be a more humane alternative to hanging, which sometimes tore the victims' heads off.  High voltage alternating current was intended to cause unconsciousness and brain death, with the second jolt ending life by disrupting the other vital organs, especially the heart.  Used at one time by about half the states in the U.S., the chairs acquired macabre nicknames: "Old Smokey", "Old Sparky", "Yellow Mama", "Gruesome Gertie",  "Sizzling Sally", "Ol' Lightning", and "the Hot Seat".  

The very first use, on Kemmler, did not go well; the first voltage did not kill him as expected.  The second jolt was delayed because of equipment problems, and when finally administered caused his blood vessels to explode, and bleed profusely, and then his body caught on fire.  Kemmler was not the only 'botched' electric chair execution. During World War II, Winston Churchill is reputed to have suggested that if Adolf Hitler was captured, the Allies should initiate a lend-lease agreement, like those for military equipment, for an electric chair for Hitler's execution, in the belief that it would be a more painful death. There were quite a few instances of badly botched electrocutions, many of them involving the victim bursting into flames.

In the very first electric chair execution, Kemmler's lawyers tried to appeal that the method of execution was cruel and unusual punishment, supported by George Westinghouse.  Thomas Edison lobbied more effectively in support of the method of execution, and won out. Neither Westinghouse or Edison appear to have had an interest in Kemmler, rather it was part of their AC /DC Current Wars.  To test the electric chair, they first electrocuted a horse successfully, to confirm the intensity of the current needed.  Unfortunately, Kemmler was not so fortunate as the horse.

As with some of the difficulties associated with the use of the Guillotine, the Electric Chair was a less humane alternative than the hanging it replaced, however well intentioned.

Electrocution has become less popular as an exit from this mortal coil than lethal injection.  Just as the guillotine was invented by a medical doctor, (Dr. Antoine Louis, not actually Dr. Guillotin), the electric chair was invented by a dentist, who combined the idea of his dental chair with the idea that a drunken man had a relatively painless accidental death from touching a power line. 

Two of the great geniuses of electricity contributed to the design of the electric chair - Nikola Tesla of Westinghouse, and rival Thomas Edison.  Edison favored the adoption of direct current (DC electricity) in the United States - so he favored alternating current for the chair, hoping it would make people frightened of alternating current electricity for home use.  It was one of Edison's engineers who came up with the design for the chair.  To promote the idea, Edison's staff performed electrical current execution demonstrations on animals for the press, including a circus elephant, coining the word electrocution, a combination of electro for electricity, and the suffix of execution.  But Edison first tried to get "to Westinghouse" used as a verb for electrical execution, as a slam against his rival.  In retaliation, Westinghouse refused to sell the project an alternating current generator, and the Edison group had to resort to deception to acquire one from Westinghouse, by pretending to be researchers from a University, and had the generator shipped to their facility by way of South America.

In some states, as in Nebraska in 2008, the electric chair has finally been determined to be a cruel and unusual punishment, and its use outlawed by state Supreme Courts. The only other country to use the Electric Chair has been the Philippines.

1912    The Bull Moose Party meets at the Chicago Coliseum.  The Bull Moose Party was formed by a split faction of the Republican Party, to elect Teddy Roosevelt President.  It was also known as the Progressive Party.  Woodrow Wilson won the election.  Despite being widely regarded as one of the best presidents in the history of our country, Teddy Roosevelt couldn't get re-elected.  While the Bull Moose Party was considered somewhat more liberal than the current Tea Party, it is similar in representing a Republican / Conservative division.  In 1912, that kind of division was considered to have cost Roosevelt the election.

1914   World War I: First Battle of the Atlantic – two days after the United Kingdom had declared war on Germany over the German invasion of Belgium, ten German U-boats leave their base in Helgoland to attack Royal Navy warships in the North Sea.  Serbia declares war on Germany; Austria declares war on Russia.

1926   Gertrude Ederle becomes first woman to swim across the English Channel.   In New York City, the Warner Brothers' Vitaphone system premieres with the movie Don Juan starring John Barrymore, one of the first 'talkies', beginning the end of the silent movies.
 And, Harry Houdini performs his greatest feat, spending 91 minutes underwater in a sealed tank before escaping.

1930   Judge Joseph Force Crater steps into a taxi in New York and disappears. It becomes one of the most famous unsolved disappearances in U.S. history.

1945 World War II: Hiroshima is devastated when the atomic bomb "Little Boy" is dropped by the United States B-29 Enola Gay. Around 70,000 people are killed instantly, and some tens of thousands die in subsequent years from burns and radiation poisoning.

A monument erected by those who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, the 509th Air Force, reads:
"The loss of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, are especially recognized in this memorial for their sacrifice to mankind's struggle for a more peaceful world. May this monument stand as a symbol of hope that mankind will reason and work together for the ultimate goal of world peace."

Prometheus Tree

1960   Cuban Revolution: in response to a United States embargo, Cuba nationalizes American and foreign-owned property in the nation.

1964   Prometheus, a bristlecone pine and the world's oldest tree, is cut down. The tree was approximately 5,000 years old; it was cut down by a graduate student for study;  it was dated by dendrochronology.

1965   US President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

1988 The Tompkins Square Park Police Riot in New York City spurs reform of the NYPD, who were responsible for the melee that transpired the night of August 6-7. The riot is commemorated with an annual concert and community celebration.

Tim Berners-Lee

1991   Tim Berners-Lee releases files describing his idea for the World Wide Web. WWW debuts as a publicly available service on the Internet.

Speaker Doi Takako

 Doi Takako, chair of the Social Democratic Party (Japan), becomes Japan's first female speaker of the House of Representatives.

1996   NASA announces that the ALH 84001 meteorite, thought to originate from Mars, contains evidence of primitive life-forms.

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