Thursday, May 31, 2012

This Day in History: May 31, 1859: Big Ben goes into operation in London

The famous tower clock known as Big Ben, located at the top of the 320-foot-high St. Stephen's Tower, rings out over the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, for the first time on this day in 1859.


After a fire destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster--the headquarters of the British Parliament--in October 1834, a standout feature of the design for the new palace was a large clock atop a tower. The royal astronomer, Sir George Airy, wanted the clock to have pinpoint accuracy, including twice-a-day checks with the Royal Greenwich Observatory. While many clockmakers dismissed this goal as impossible, Airy counted on the help of Edmund Beckett Denison, a formidable barrister known for his expertise in horology, or the science of measuring time.
Denison's design, built by the company E.J. Dent & Co., was completed in 1854; five years later, St. Stephen's Tower itself was finished. Weighing in at more than 13 tons, its massive bell was dragged to the tower through the streets of London by a team of 16 horses, to the cheers of onlookers. Once it was installed, Big Ben struck its first chimes on May 31, 1859. Just two months later, however, the heavy striker designed by Denison cracked the bell. Three more years passed before a lighter hammer was added and the clock went into service again. The bell was rotated so that the hammer would strike another surface, but the crack was never repaired.

The name "Big Ben" originally just applied to the bell but later came to refer to the clock itself. Two main stories exist about how Big Ben got its name. Many claim it was named after the famously long-winded Sir Benjamin Hall, the London commissioner of works at the time it was built. Another famous story argues that the bell was named for the popular heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt, because it was the largest of its kind.

Even after an incendiary bomb destroyed the chamber of the House of Commons during the Second World War, St. Stephen's Tower survived, and Big Ben continued to function. Its famously accurate timekeeping is regulated by a stack of coins placed on the clock's huge pendulum, ensuring a steady movement of the clock hands at all times. At night, all four of the clock’s faces, each one 23 feet across, are illuminated. A light above Big Ben is also lit to let the public know when Parliament is in session.


Taken from: [31.05.12]

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

This Day in History: May 30, 1431: Joan of Arc martyred

At Rouen in English-controlled Normandy, Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who became the savior of France, is burned at the stake for heresy.

Joan was born in 1412, the daughter of a tenant farmer at Domremy, on the borders of the duchies of Bar and Lorraine. In 1415, the Hundred Years War between England and France entered a crucial phase when the young King Henry V of England invaded France and won a series of decisive victories against the forces of King Charles VI. By the time of Henry's death in August 1422, the English and their French-Burgundian allies controlled Aquitaine and most of northern France, including Paris. Charles VI, long incapacitated, died one month later, and his son, Charles, regent from 1418, prepared to take the throne. However, Reims, the traditional city of French coronation, was held by the Anglo-Burgundians, and the Dauphin (heir apparent to the French throne) remained uncrowned. Meanwhile, King Henry VI of England, the infant son of Henry V and Catherine of Valois, the daughter of Charles VI, was proclaimed king of France by the English.

Joan's village of Domremy lay on the frontier between the France of the Dauphin and that of the Anglo-Burgundians. In the midst of this unstable environment, Joan began hearing "voices" of three Christian saints—St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret. When she was about 16, these voices exhorted her to aid the Dauphin in capturing Reims and therefore the French throne. In May 1428, she traveled to Vaucouleurs, a stronghold of the Dauphin, and told the captain of the garrison of her visions. Disbelieving the young peasant girl, he sent her home. In January 1429, she returned, and the captain, impressed by her piety and determination, agreed to allow her passage to the Dauphin at Chinon.

Dressed in men's clothes and accompanied by six soldiers, she reached the Dauphin's castle at Chinon in February 1429 and was granted an audience. Charles hid himself among his courtiers, but Joan immediately picked him out and informed him of her divine mission. For several weeks, Charles had Joan questioned by theologians at Poitiers, who concluded that, given his desperate straits, the Dauphin would be well-advised to make use of this strange and charismatic girl.

Charles furnished her with a small army, and on April 27, 1429, she set out for Orleans, besieged by the English since October 1428. On April 29, as a French sortie distracted the English troops on the west side of Orleans, Joan entered unopposed by its eastern gate. She brought greatly needed supplies and reinforcements and inspired the French to a passionate resistance. She personally led the charge in several battles and on May 7 was struck by an arrow. After quickly dressing her wound, she returned to the fight, and the French won the day. On May 8, the English retreated from Orleans.
During the next five weeks, Joan and the French commanders led the French into a string of stunning victories over the English. On July 16, the royal army reached Reims, which opened its gates to Joan and the Dauphin. The next day, Charles VII was crowned king of France, with Joan standing nearby holding up her standard: an image of Christ in judgment. After the ceremony, she knelt before Charles, joyously calling him king for the first time.

On September 8, the king and Joan attacked Paris. During the battle, Joan carried her standard up to the earthworks and called on the Parisians to surrender the city to the king of France. She was wounded but continued to rally the king's troops until Charles ordered an end to the unsuccessful siege. That year, she led several more small campaigns, capturing the town of Saint-Pierre-le-Moitier. In December, Charles ennobled Joan, her parents, and her brothers.

In May 1430, the Burgundians laid siege to Compiegne, and Joan stole into the town under the cover of darkness to aid in its defense. On May 23, while leading a sortie against the Burgundians, she was captured. The Burgundians sold her to the English, and in March 1431 she went on trial before ecclesiastical authorities in Rouen on charges of heresy. Her most serious crime, according to the tribunal, was her rejection of church authority in favor of direct inspiration from God. After refusing to submit to the church, her sentence was read on May 24: She was to be turned over to secular authorities and executed. Reacting with horror to the pronouncement, Joan agreed to recant and was condemned instead to perpetual imprisonment.

Ordered to put on women's clothes, she obeyed, but a few days later the judges went to her cell and found her dressed again in male attire. Questioned, she told them that St. Catherine and St. Margaret had reproached her for giving in to the church against their will. She was found to be a relapsed heretic and on May 29 ordered handed over to secular officials. On May 30, Joan, 19 years old, was burned at the stake at the Place du Vieux-Marche in Rouen. Before the pyre was lit, she instructed a priest to hold high a crucifix for her to see and to shout out prayers loud enough to be heard above the roar of the flames.

As a source of military inspiration, Joan of Arc helped turn the Hundred Years War firmly in France's favor. By 1453, Charles VII had reconquered all of France except for Calais, which the English relinquished in 1558. In 1920, Joan of Arc, one of the great heroes of French history, was recognized as a Christian saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Her feast day is May 30. 
 Taken from: [30.05.12]

Monday, May 28, 2012

This Day in History: May 28, 1937: Volkswagen is founded


On this day in 1937, the government of Germany--then under the control of Adolf Hitler of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party--forms a new state-owned automobile company, then known as Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH. Later that year, it was renamed simply Volkswagenwerk, or "The People's Car Company."

Originally operated by the German Labor Front, a Nazi organization, Volkswagen was headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany. In addition to his ambitious campaign to build a network of autobahns and limited access highways across Germany, Hitler's pet project was the development and mass production of an affordable yet still speedy vehicle that could sell for less than 1,000 Reich marks (about $140 at the time). To provide the design for this "people's car," Hitler called in the Austrian automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche. In 1938, at a Nazi rally, the Fuhrer declared: "It is for the broad masses that this car has been built. Its purpose is to answer their transportation needs, and it is intended to give them joy." However, soon after the KdF (Kraft-durch-Freude)-Wagen ("Strength-Through-Joy" car) was displayed for the first time at the Berlin Motor Show in 1939, World War II began, and Volkswagen halted production. After the war ended, with the factory in ruins, the Allies would make Volkswagen the focus of their attempts to resuscitate the German auto industry.

Volkswagen sales in the United States were initially slower than in other parts of the world, due to the car's historic Nazi connections as well as its small size and unusual rounded shape. In 1959, the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach launched a landmark campaign, dubbing the car the "Beetle" and spinning its diminutive size as a distinct advantage to consumers. Over the next several years, VW became the top-selling auto import in the United States. In 1960, the German government sold 60 percent of Volkswagen's stock to the public, effectively denationalizing it. Twelve years later, the Beetle surpassed the longstanding worldwide production record of 15 million vehicles, set by Ford Motor Company's legendary Model T between 1908 and 1927.

With the Beetle's design relatively unchanged since 1935, sales grew sluggish in the early 1970s. VW bounced back with the introduction of sportier models such as the Rabbit and later, the Golf. In 1998, the company began selling the highly touted "New Beetle" while still continuing production of its predecessor. After nearly 70 years and more than 21 million units produced, the last original Beetle rolled off the line in Puebla, Mexico, on July 30, 2003

Taken from: [28.05.12]

Friday, May 25, 2012

This Day in History: May 25, 1977: Star Wars opens



On this day in 1977, Memorial Day weekend opens with an intergalactic bang as the first of George Lucas' blockbuster Star Wars movies hits American theaters.

The incredible success of Star Wars--it received seven Oscars, and earned $461 million in U.S. ticket sales and a gross of close to $800 million worldwide--began with an extensive, coordinated marketing push by Lucas and his studio, 20th Century Fox, months before the movie's release date. "It wasn't like a movie opening," actress Carrie Fisher, who played rebel leader Princess Leia, later told Time magazine. "It was like an earthquake." Beginning with--in Fisher's words--"a new order of geeks, enthusiastic young people with sleeping bags," the anticipation of a revolutionary movie-watching experience spread like wildfire, causing long lines in front of movie theaters across the country and around the world.

With its groundbreaking special effects, Star Wars leaped off screens and immersed audiences in "a galaxy far, far away." By now everyone knows the story, which followed the baby-faced Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as he enlisted a team of allies--including hunky Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and the robots C3PO and R2D2--on his mission to rescue the kidnapped Princess Leia from an Evil Empire governed by Darth Vader. The film made all three of its lead actors overnight stars, turning Fisher into an object of adoration for millions of young male fans and launching Ford's now-legendary career as an action-hero heartthrob.

Star Wars was soon a bona-fide pop culture phenomenon. Over the years it has spawned five more feature films, five TV series and an entire industry's worth of comic books, toys, video games and other products. Two big-screen sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983), featured much of the original cast and enjoyed the same success--both critical and commercial--as the first film. In 1999, Lucas stretched back in time for the fourth installment, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, chronologically a prequel to the original movie. Two other prequels, Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) followed.


The latter Star Wars movies featured a new cast--including Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen--and have generally failed to earn the same amount of critical praise as the first three films. They continue to score at the box office, however, with Revenge of the Sith becoming the top-grossing film of 2005 in the United States and the second worldwide.


Taken from: [25.05.12]