Thursday, December 1, 2011

This Day in History: Dec 1, 1990: Chunnel makes breakthrough

Shortly after 11 a.m. on December 1, 1990, 132 feet below the English Channel, workers drill an opening the size of a car through a wall of rock. This was no ordinary hole--it connected the two ends of an underwater tunnel linking Great Britain with the European mainland for the first time in more than 8,000 years.

The Channel Tunnel, or "Chunnel," was not a new idea. It had been suggested to Napoleon Bonaparte, in fact, as early as 1802. It wasn't until the late 20th century, though, that the necessary technology was developed. In 1986, Britain and France signed a treaty authorizing the construction of a tunnel running between Folkestone, England, and Calais, France.

Over the next four years, nearly 13,000 workers dug 95 miles of tunnels at an average depth of 150 feet (45 meters) below sea level. Eight million cubic meters of soil were removed, at a rate of some 2,400 tons per hour. The completed Chunnel would have three interconnected tubes, including one rail track in each direction and one service tunnel. The price? A whopping $15 billion.

After workers drilled that final hole on December 1, 1990, they exchanged French and British flags and toasted each other with champagne. Final construction took four more years, and the Channel Tunnel finally opened for passenger service on May 6, 1994, with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and France's President Francois Mitterrand on hand in Calais for the inaugural run. A company called Eurotunnel won the 55-year concession to operate the Chunnel, which is the crucial stretch of the Eurostar high-speed rail link between London and Paris. The regular shuttle train through the tunnel runs 31 miles in total--23 of those underwater--and takes 20 minutes, with an additional 15-minute loop to turn the train around. The Chunnel is the second-longest rail tunnel in the world, after the Seikan Tunnel in Japan.

Also on This Day

American Revolution
Washington establishes winter quarters at Morristown, 1779
Ford's assembly line starts rolling, 1913
On this day in 1913, Henry Ford installs the first moving assembly line for the mass production of an entire automobile. His innovation reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to two hours and 30 minutes. Ford's Model T, introduced in 1908, was simple, sturdy and relatively inexpensive--but not inexpensive enough for Ford, who was determined to build "motor car[s] for the great multitude." ("When I'm through," he said, "about everybody will have one.") In order to lower the price of his cars, Ford figured, he would just have to find a way to build them more efficiently. Ford had been trying to increase his factories' productivity for years. The workers who built his Model N cars (the Model T's predecessor) arranged the parts in a row on the floor, put the under-construction auto on skids and dragged it down the line as they worked. Later, the streamlining process grew more sophisticated. Ford broke the Model T's assembly into 84 discrete steps, for example, and trained each of his workers to do just one. He also hired motion-study expert Frederick Taylor to make those jobs even more efficient. Meanwhile, he built machines that could stamp out parts automatically (and much more quickly than even the fastest human worker could). The most significant piece of Ford's efficiency crusade was the assembly line. Inspired by the continuous-flow production methods used by flour mills, breweries, canneries and industrial bakeries, along with the disassembly of animal carcasses in Chicago's meat-packing plants, Ford installed moving lines for bits and pieces of the manufacturing process: For instance, workers built motors and transmissions on rope-and-pulley–powered conveyor belts. In December 1913, he unveiled the pièce de résistance: the moving-chassis assembly line. In February 1914, he added a mechanized belt that chugged along at a speed of six feet per minute. As the pace accelerated, Ford produced more and more cars, and on June 4, 1924, the 10-millionth Model T rolled off the Highland Park assembly line. Though the Model T did not last much longer--by the middle of the 1920s, customers wanted a car that was inexpensive and had all the bells and whistles that the Model T scorned--it had ushered in the era of the automobile for everyone.  
Civil War
Lincoln gives State of the Union address, 1862
Cold War
Antarctica made a military-free continent, 1959
Defense presents its case in Hamptons murder trial, 2004
Students die in Chicago school fire, 1958
General Interest
Presidential election goes to the House, 1824
Sergey Kirov murdered, 1934
Rosa Parks ignites bus boycot, 1955
Trailblazing comic Richard Pryor born, 1940
Due date for Victor Hugo, 1830
Bette Midler is born in Honolulu, Hawaii, 1945
Old West
Elfego Baca battles Anglo cowboys, 1884
Congress decides outcome of presidential election, 1824
Lee Trevino is born, 1939
Vietnam War
Johnson Administration makes plans to bomb North Vietnam, 1964
Situation in Cambodia worsens, 1971
World War I
New state declared in the Balkans, 1919
World War II
Stettinius succeeds Hull as secretary of state, 1944

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