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18 November 2008


I have an assignment to write over the next couple of weeks. As a result the regular 'On this day in history' posts will not be appearing every day (if at all). Apologies to my regular readers, but rest assured that normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

17 November 2008

On this day in history: Suez Canal opened, 1869

In the late eighteenth-century, Napoleon Bonaparte charged a survey team with the task of discovering the remnants of an ancient waterway that once joined the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Their findings appeared in the series of publications known as Description de l'Égypte published between 1809 and 1826. Although engineers deemed the route unsuitable for a new canal, the benefits of such a waterway inspired the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps to secure a concession from the viceroy of Egypt, Said Pasha, to form a company construct a ship canal.

This authorisation, secured in 1854, granted a ninety-nine year lease on the land for the canal operators Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez ("The Suez Canal Company"), which incorporated in 1858. International scepticism resulted in most of the available shares being bought by French citizens. The Egyptian state purchased the remaining forty-four percent of the shares in the company in order that the project progress.

The construction began in 1859 employing tens of thousands of workers, most of whom were Egyptian forced labourers. Fearing a challenge to their domination of world trade, the British sent armed Bedouin to lead a revolt of the labourers. The viceroy condemned the use of slavery, halting work on the canal until the practice of involuntary labour ceased.

Following ten and a half years construction, on 17th November 1869 workers breached the barrage on the Suez plains reservoir filling the canal with water. Later that day the first ships sailed the 199 miles (192km) of canal joining the two seas. Ten days later the Egyptian Khedive, Ismail Pacha, officially opened the waterway.

15 November 2008

On this day in history: Only spaceflight of Buran, 1988

In 1974 engineers of the Soviet Union began work on the Buran ("Blizzard") project, which was a response to NASA's Space Shuttle programme. The Russian engineers favoured a design for a lighter reusable spacecraft where the entire body of the craft created lift, but the military leadership demanded that they copy the delta-wing design of the American Shuttle. Six years later, construction commenced on the spacecraft, with the first full-scale prototype reaching completion in 1984 and the first of the two completed production vehicles appearing in 1986.

As with the NASA design, in order to achieve space flight the Buran needed an external source of thrust that would be jettisoned when no longer needed. Buran employed an Energia rocket supplemented by four smaller liquid-fuel Zenit booster rockets, unlike the Shuttle, which uses two solid-fuel booster rockets connected to a fuel tank. The Energia made a successful test-launch in May 1987, paving the way for an unmanned test-flight of Buran.

At 3am local time on 15th November 1988 orbiter OK-1.01 lifted off from the launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome. The space flight lasted 206 minutes, during which Buran orbited the Earth twice before making a successful automatic landing on a runway back at Baikonur despite of a powerful cross-wind. Nevertheless, the success of the test flight was not enough to save the project, which was mothballed due to lack of funds and the shifting political situation in the Soviet Union before President Bosis Yeltsin officially cancelled the project in 1993.

14 November 2008

On this day in history: Philosopher G.W.F. Hegel died, 1831

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born on 27th August 1770 in Stutgart, which was then part of the Duchy of Württemberg where his father served as a revenue officer. Hegel learnt Latin from his mother at a young age and later attended the Stuttgart Gymnasium. At his father's suggestion he embarked on a career as a protestant clergyman, enrolling at the University of Tübingen seminary in 1788.

On completing his studies in 1793, Hegel decided not to become a man of the cloth and started work as a private tutor in Berne, Switzerland. He had developed an deep interest in philosophy and began to study the works of Immanuel Kant and Johann Fichte. Nevertheless, he had not abandoned his study of religion as demonstrated by his writings of that time: Life of Jesus and The Positivity of Christian Religion.

In 1796, Hegel co-wrote The First Programme for a System of German Idealism with his friend the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. The next year he left for Frankfurt to take up a new tutoring job, but the bequest he then received following his father's death enabled him to return to education. In 1801, he found an non-salaried position at the University of Jena where he continued his studies, wrote and lectured.

Having exhausted the legacy from his father, in 1807, Hegel moved to Bamberg to take the position of editor of the Bamberger Zeitung newspaper. A year later he received the appointment of headmaster at a Gymnasium in Nuremberg. By this time he had published his first solo philosophical work, Phänomenologie des Geistes ("Phenomenology of Mind"), in which he detailed his dialectic method.

While teaching in Nuremberg, Hegel published the first part of his Wissenschaft der Logik ("Science of Logic") in 1812. The last part entered print in 1816, the same year that he received various offers of university professorships. He chose to take up the appointment from the University of Heidelberg, but two years later he became the chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he published his Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts ("Elements of the Philosophy of Right") in 1821.

In 1830, the sixty-year-old Hegel became rector of the university and during the following year King Frederick William III of Prussia decorated him in recognition of his services to the state. Later that same year Hegel left Berlin during a cholera epidemic. Nevertheless, he died in his lodgings in Kreuzberg on 14th November 1831.

The German texts of a number of Hegel's works are available on Project Gutenberg. To learn more about Hegel's thought see his entry on the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy site.

13 November 2008

On this day in history: The Brezhnev Doctrine, 1968

On 13th November 1968, the soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev made a speech at the Fifth Congress of the Polish United Workers' Party reiterating the new foreign policy of the USSR. This policy first appeared in a September issue of the newspaper Pravda in an article entitled “Sovereignty and the International Obligations of Socialist Countries” written by Sergei Kovalev. Known in the West as the 'Brezhnev Doctrine', the policy amounted to the USSR reserving the right to use military force to prevent any socialist country from turning to capitalism.

The Soviet leadership used the doctrine to justify their invasion of Czechoslovakia earlier that year (as well as the invasion of Hungary in 1956). In effect the policy could be used to limit the independence of any country within the Warsaw Pact and to prevent reform or deviation from the Russian model of socialism by governments in the Eastern bloc and beyond. In 1979 the Soviet leadership applied the doctrine during their invasion of Afghanistan to prop-up the socialist government there; however, ten years later Mikhail Gorbachev effectively ended the doctrine when he chose not to use military intervention to halt the reform movements in eastern Europe.

The text of Brezhnev's 1968 speech follows.

The might of the socialist camp today is such that the imperialists fear military defeat in the event of a direct clash with the chief forces of socialism. Needless to say, as long as imperialism exists, the danger of war that imperialist policy entails can on no account he disregarded. However, it is a fact that in the new conditions the imperialists are making increasingly frequent use of different and more insidious tactics. They are seeking out the weak links in the socialist front, pursuing a course of subversive ideological work inside the socialist countries, trying to influence the economic development of these countries, attempting to sow dissension, drive wedges between them and encourage and inflame nationalist feelings and tendencies, and are seeking to isolate individual socialist states so that they can then seize them by the throat one by one. In short, imperialism is trying to undermine socialism's solidarity precisely as a world system.

The experience of the socialist countries’ development and struggle in these new conditions during the past few years, including the recently increased activity of forces hostile to socialism in Czechoslovakia, reminds the communists of socialist countries with fresh force that it is important not to forget for one moment certain highly important, time-tested truths.

If we do not want to retard our movement along the path of socialist and communist construction, if we do not want to weaken our common positions in the struggle against imperialism, we must, in resolving any questions of our domestic and foreign policy, always and everywhere, maintain indestructible fidelity to the principles of Marxism-Leninism, display a clear-cut class and party approach to all social phenomena, and deal a resolute rebuff to imperialism on the ideological front without making any concessions to bourgeois ideology.

When petit-bourgeois leaders encounter difficulties, they go into hysterics and begin to doubt everything without exception. The emergence of difficulties makes the revisionists ready to cancel out all existing achievements, repudiate everything that has been gained, and surrender all their positions of principle.

But real communists confidently clear the path ahead and seek the best solutions to the problems that have arisen, relying on socialist gains. They honestly acknowledge the mistakes made in a given question and analyse and correct them so as to strengthen the positions of socialism further, so as to stand firm and refrain from giving the enemies of socialism one iota of what has already been won, what has already been achieved through the efforts and struggle of the masses. ln short, it can confidently be said that if the party takes a firm stand on communist positions, if it is faithful to Marxism—Leninism, all difficulties will be overcome.

Experience shows most convincingly the exceptional and, one might say, decisive importance for successful construction of socialism that attaches to ensuring and constantly consolidating the leadership role of the Communist party as the most advanced leading, organizing, and directing force in all societal development under socialism.

Socialist states stand for strict respect for the sovereignty of all countries. We resolutely oppose interference in the affairs of any states and the violation of their sovereignty.

At the same time, affirmation and defence of the sovereignty of states that have taken the path of socialist construction are of special significance to us communists. The forces of imperialism and reaction are seeking to deprive the people first in one. then another socialist country of the sovereign right they have earned to ensure prosperity for their country and well-being and happiness for the broad working masses by building a society free from all oppression and exploitation. And when encroachments on this right receive a joint rebuff from the socialist camp, the bourgeois propagandists raise the cry of "defence of sovereignty" and “non-interference." It is clear that this is the sheerest deceit and demagoguery on their part. In reality these loud-mouths are concerned not about preserving socialist sovereignty but about destroying it.

It is common knowledge that the Soviet Union has really done a good deal to strengthen the sovereignty and autonomy of the socialist countries. The CPSU has always advocated that each socialist country determine the concrete forms of its development along the path of socialism by taking into account the specific nature of their national conditions. But it is well known, comrades, that there are common natural laws of socialist construction, deviation from which could lead to deviation from socialism as such. And when external and internal forces hostile to socialism try to turn the development of a given socialist country in the direction of restoration of the capitalist system, when a threat arises to the cause of socialism in that country — a threat to the security of the socialist commonwealth as a whole — this is no longer merely a problem for that country's people, but a common problem, the concern of all socialist countries.

It is quite clear that an action such as military assistance to a fraternal country to end a threat to the socialist system is an extraordinary measure, dictated by necessity; it can be called forth only by the overt actions of enemies of socialism within the country and beyond its boundaries, actions that create a threat to the common interests of the socialist camp.

Experience bears witness that in present conditions the triumph of the socialist system in a country can be regarded as final, but the restoration of capitalism can be considered ruled out only if the Communist party, as the leading force in society, steadfastly pursues a Marxist-Leninist policy in the development of all spheres of society's life; only if the party indefatigably strengthens the country's defence and the protection of its revolutionary gains, and if it itself is vigilant and instils in the people vigilance with respect to the class enemy and implacability toward bourgeois ideology; only if the principle of socialist internationalism is held sacred, and unity and fraternal solidarity with the other socialist countries are strengthened.

Let those who are wont to forget the lessons of history and who would like to engage again in recarving the map of Europe know that the borders of Poland, the GDR and Czechoslovakia, as well as of any other Warsaw Pact member, are stable and inviolable. These borders are protected by all the armed might of the socialist commonwealth. We advise all those who are fond of encroaching on foreign borders to remember this well!

Source: The Current Digest of the Soviet Press (Columbus, Ohio, 1968)

12 November 2008

On this day in history: Sir Thomas Fairfax died, 1671

Thomas Fairfax was born in January in 1612 at Denton Yorkshire. He was the eldest son of Ferdinando Fairfax, the second Lord Fairfax of Cameron, and his wife, Mary Sheffield, who died while Thomas was still a boy. After attending St John's College, Cambridge, Thomas entered the military, serving in campaigns in France and the Low-Countries.

Fairfax was a commander in King Charles I's armies during the bishop's wars against the Scots in 1639 and 1640, including their humiliating defeat at Newburn. The following year the king bestowed a knighthood upon Fairfax; however, the two men soon found themselves in opposing camps. As tensions mounted between king and Parliament, Fairfax supported the parliamentarians who charged him with delivering a petition to the king to request that he cease raising a personal army.

Charles refused to accept the petition, his horse nearly trampling Fairfax underfoot as he rode away. Britain slid into open civil war and Parliament raised their forces. Thomas' father became commander of the northern army with Thomas as his second-in-command and general of horse. Father and son commanded with great distinction despite being outnumbered by royalist forces.

In 1643, while his father defended Hull, Sir Thomas took the cavalry to join up with the forces of Oliver Cromwell and the earl of Manchester in Lincolnshire, since the mounted soldiery would be of little use defending a city. By this time, Sir Thomas had achieved a reputation as one of the Parliamentarian's most able commanders entrusted to command important campaigns across the North of England, including the command of 4000 troops at the battle of Marston Moor in July 1644, which proved to be a key parliamentarian victory.

The following December, Parliament passed the self-denying ordinance, an act that excluded all members of both houses from all military commands. Parliament created a new force from their three existing armies, which was soon to be known as the New Model Army. The House of Commons also voted that the thirty-two year old Sir Thomas Fairfax should be its commander-in-chief.

Sir Thomas' decisive victory at the battle of Naseby in June 1645 was instrumental in the collapse of the king's cause. Thomas then became embroiled in the political negotiations that occupied the various parties that had fought the war, including his own officers, who were becoming a potent political force in their own right. Injuries sustained in battle and general ill-health caused him to retire to Bath to recuperate, sparing him from some of the political machinations.

In spite of his position of authority, Sir Thomas found himself at odds with his subordinate officers and the republicans within the Parliamentarian camp. While he agreed that the king should be forced to surrender or resign, he did not support the execution of Charles I and was troubled by the war between Parliament and the Scots, who had taken up the royalist cause. Resolved to resign his post, his last act as commander-in-chief was to suppress a mutiny of radicals within the New Model Army in at Burford May 1649.

Now the 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron (his father having died the year before), he retired to his home in Nun Appleton in Yorkshire on a sizable pension of £5000 per year. Following the death of Oliver Cromwell and the ending of the Protectorate, the Rump Parliament sat again with Fairfax representing Yorkshire. Tensions grew between the Rump and the army under General John Lambert resulting in General George Monck bringing his army south from Scotland to defend Parliament.

In his last military command, Fairfax accepted Monck's invitation to join his army at the head of a force of Yorkshiremen. When news reached Lambert's forces of Fairfax's appearance, 1200 cavalrymen deserted Lambert to join up with the Rump's forces. Monck's victory paved the way for the restoration of the British monarchy.

Fairfax returned to his retirement at Nun Appleton avoiding the vengeful punishment meted out to the regicides by King Charles II's government. He spent his retirement reading, writing and engaged in religious duties. Ill-health marred the remaining eleven years of his life, which ended on 12th November 1671.

A biography of Sir Thomas Fairfax at David Plant's excellent British Civil Wars, Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1638-60 site.

11 November 2008

On this day in history: Signing of the Armistice ended the Great War, 1918

After over four years of war, in the Autumn of 1918 the forces of the Central powers began a slow retreat from the Western Front following a series of Allied advances. The German troops still engaged in strong rearguard actions and the occasional counter-attack. Nevertheless, the situation looked hopeless for the Germans as their allies in the other theatres of the Great War.

As winter approached the German high command were faced with two choices, annihilation or surrender. They chose the latter option and decided to bring matters to a swift conclusion in order to prevent an impending revolution. On 7th November, the acting commander in chief of the German forces, Paul von Hindenburg, sent a telegram to the supreme commander of the Allied armies, General Ferdinand Foch, requesting a meeting.

Allied troops escorted the German delegation in the five staff cars across the border before joining a train to travel to their secret destination: Foch's railway carriage in Compiègne Forest, northern France. The representatives of the Allies were in no mood to negotiate. The three days of discussion centered on their terms of surrender, to which the Germans only managed to achieve a few minor modifications and to officially register their protest at the harshness of the terms.

Following the abdication of their Kaiser the day before and the failure of a last-ditch effort to stall the process, at 5am on the 11th November 1918, the German representatives signed the Armistice document. The ceasefire came into effect at 11am that day, now known as "the eleventh of the eleventh of the eleventh." The belligerents settled the final peace accords the following year at the conference in Paris that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles.

The text of the Armistice document is available on Wikisource.

10 November 2008

On this day in history: Stanley found Livingstone, 1871

On 8th December 1840 Dr. David Livingston sailed from Britain to embark on missionary work in southern Africa. The month before he left he had received a medical licence from the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, and been ordained as a minister of the Congregational Union of England and Wales. In March 1841 he arrived in Cape Town where he stayed for a few weeks before heading north to take Christianity and western medicine to the Africans.

Over the next fifteen years he made several trips of exploration into the interior of the continent returning to Britain in 1856 to find that his accounts of his journeys had given him celebrity status. Over the next two years he wrote a book about his exploits entitled Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, and embarked on a speaking tour. In 1858 he became a member of the Royal Society and had an audience with Queen Victoria.

Later that year, he embarked on an expedition up the Zambezi and Shire rivers to assess the prospects for trade in that area. Livingstone's six and a half years spent in Africa proved expensive and less successful than expected. His team spent less than eighteen months actually exploring the interior as the project was dogged by illness and logistical nightmares. He returned home in 1864 to a much less rapturous welcome than before.

Livingstone set off on another expedition in 1865 to establish a trading outpost on Lake Tanganyika, to continue his missionary work, and to seek the source of the River Nile. His journey through south-west Africa proved difficult and dispiriting. Sickness ravaged his party, who also bore witness to the evidence of the work of slavers. Livingstone often had to take detours to avoid local conflicts and within a year he had lost contact with the outside world.

In October 1868, the publishing editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, assigned the task of interviewing Livingstone to the journalist Henry Morton Stanley. Over the next three years Stanley travelled the world hoping to hear news of Livingstone to no avail. Finally, he decided to mount an expedition to find the missionary himself.

In March 1871, Stanley set off with a well-armed party numbering about two-hundred. The journey proved long and arduous with the expedition becoming embroiled in local wars and weakened by the ever-present diseases. Nevertheless, on (a date now thought to be) 10th November 1871, Stanley arrived at Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika where he doffed his cap and uttered the immortal phrase, ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’ Stanley provided Livingstone's party with much needed supplies and stayed with them for four months.

The two men developed a close friendship while they explored the region, but Livingstone politely declined the offer of returning with Stanley. In 1872, Stanley returned to Britain to find himself the subject of controversy. Many people doubted his claim that he had found Livingstone. Nevertheless, his book in which he gave account of his expedition, How I Found Livingstone, sold well. Dr. Livingstone died in April 1873 from malaria and internal bleeding caused by dysentery.

Project Gutenberg hosts a number of works by and about Dr. David Livingstone, including The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa, from 1865 to His Death, Vol. II, 1869-1873.

9 November 2008

On this day in history: First issue of Rolling Stone published, 1967

In 1966 Jann Wenner dropped out of Berkeley and sought work as a journalist. His friend and mentor the music critic Ralph J. Gleason found him a job working at the sister newspaper of the San Francisco based Ramparts magazine, where he was a contributing editor. Gleason resigned from his post after a disagreement Ramparts' editor, Warren Hinckle, criticised the burgeoning hippie scene.

Together Wennner and Gleason decided to found their own magazine. Wenner raised $7500 in loans from his family and that of his fiancee. On 9th November 1967 they published the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine in San Francisco, with Beatle John Lennon on the cover. Initially the magazine reported on the city's counterculture but maintained a distance from the underground press.

Wenner took the roles of publisher and editor - positions that he holds to this day, while Gleason contributed articles to the magazine until his death in 1975. As well as reporting on cultural matters, the magazine began reporting on political issues for which it gained a growing reputation, not least because of the work of Hunter S. Thompson. As well as the self confessed gonzo journalist, Rolling Stone also gave breaks to many other popular writers including Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire), Joe Klein (Primary Colours), and P.J. O'Rourke (Parliament of Whores).

8 November 2008

On this day in history: The Louvre opened as a museum, 1793

On 8th November 1793, as the Reign of Terror began in Revolutionary France the Palais du Louvre (Louvre Palace) first opened in its new role housing a national museum. The palace started life as a twelfth-century fortress, which successive generations of French monarchs altered and expanded. In the mid-eighteenth-century, King Louis XV accepted a proposal to use part of the palace as a gallery in which visitors could view part of the royal collection.

Following the execution of Louis XVI and the suppression of the Catholic Church their respective art collections became property of the French people, as did many works of art confiscated from émigrés (those who had fled the country as the Revolution progressed). The public could view the initial collection of 537 paintings and 184 other works of art for free on three days a week. The French government pledged to provide 100,000 livres per year to expand the collection, but the military successes of the Republic resulted in many works of art from across Europe being brought back to France - a process that continued during Napoleon's reign.

6 November 2008

On this day in history: First Sex Pistols gig, 1975

On 6th November 1975, one of the most infamous rock bands of all time played their first concert at St. Martin's College of Art in London. The Sex Pistols emerged from an earlier group called The Strand that the boutique owner and impresario Malcolm McLaren managed. Following a brief spell in the United States promoting the New York Dolls, McLaren returned to England with the plan to develop the punk scene he had witnessed emerging in Lower Manhattan.

After changes in personnel and a succession of band names, the Sex Pistols line up was in place. The original members from The Strand, Steve Jones on guitar and Paul Cook on Drums, were joined by Glen Matlock on Bass and Johnny Rotten (real name John Lydon) on vocals. In September 1975, McLaren arranged rehearsals for the group at the Crunchy Frog studio, near the London's docklands.

Matlock was a student at St. Martins where he secured their first gig in a support slot at the college, which set the scene for their later reputation. The organisers pulled the plug on the band before they finished their set resulting in a brawl. Undaunted, the band continued to play at colleges over the next year before performing at larger venues and finally receiving national notoriety following an incident during a legendary early evening live television broadcast in which they used strong language leading to a moral outcry in the press.

To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the gig in 2005 The Independent newspaper's web site featured an article entitled "The birth of punk" sharing the memories of those who were there.

5 November 2008

On this day in history: Nixon won presidential election, 1968

On 5th November 1968, Richard Millhous Nixon won the U.S. presidential election following a turbulent campaign that saw the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, as well violent protests on the issues of race and the Vietnam war. Nixon, the Republican candidate, received 301 votes from the Electoral College and 43.4% of the popular vote; the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey, received 191 Electoral College votes and 42.7% of the popular vote; an independent candidate George Wallace (the Governor of Alabama and former Democratic candidate who ran on a pro-racial-segregation ticket) received 46 electoral votes and 13.5% of the popular vote. Thus, Nixon was duly elected to be the 37th President of the United States, taking office on 20th January 1969.

Nixon's period in office is seen as a particularly divisive period in American history as opposition to the Vietnam war grew, especially after the bombing of Cambodia. Nevertheless, many of Nixon's policies were far from conservative: he continued the process of racial integration in schools; he expanded the role of the federal government by creating many new agencies; on the international stage, Nixon opened diplomatic links with China and achieved a degree of détente with the Soviet Union. In 1972 he won a second term in office following a landslide victory but resigned two years later following the Watergate scandal.

Richard Nixon's acceptance speech.

4 November 2008

On this day in history: Entrance to the tomb of King Tutankhamun discovered, 1922

In 1891, at the age of just seventeen, Howard Carter arrived in Egypt to work as an artist tracing the scenes on the walls of newly discovered tombs. While working for the passionate archaeologist W. M. Flinders Petrie at the excavation at Tell al-Amarna, Carter first felt the inspiration to become an archaeologist himself. Nevertheless, he continued to work as an illustrator until 1899 when Gaston Maspero, the director-general of the antiquities service of Egypt, gave him the position of chief inspector of antiquities in Upper Egypt in recognition of his managerial skills.

The appointment surprised the archaeological community because Carter had no formal qualifications in the field; however, he proved a capable administrator working hard to preserve and protect existing antiquities, and overseeing new excavations. In 1904, Carter was transferred to lower Egypt but during the following year he resigned following a violent incident between a group of foreign visitors and Egyptian antiquities guards. After spending a couple of years barely supporting himself selling his watercolour paintings and working as a tourist guide, Carter formed a relationship with Lord Canarvon after being introduced to Maspero.

Canarvon provided the financial backing for a number of digs in Egypt, and before long Carter was supervising them all. Carter approached Canarvon for funding for a project of his own: the hunt for the tomb of Tutankhamun, a previously unknown pharaoh whose existence Carter had recently discovered. A number of years passed with little success and as a result the two agreed that the 1922 expedition would be the last.

On 4th November 1922 Carter located the steps leading down to Tutankhamun's tomb, the best preserved example of its type in the Valley of the Kings. The excavation work and removal of the artifacts took a decade to complete while Carter travelled the world presenting lectures that fuelled a period of egyptomania. Ill health prevented Carter from producing a complete scientific report of his discovery; he finally died aged 64 in 1939.

The Ashmolean Museum web-site hosts Howard Carter's records of the five seasons of excavations financed by Lord Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings 1915 - 1922.

3 November 2008

On this day in history: Last hanging at Tyburn gallows, 1783

The gallows at Tyburn in London were the site of the demise of many infamous characters. The first record of an execution there dates from 1196 when the leader of the London tax riots, William Fitz Osbern, along with nine of his accomplices were hanged from a gibbet. In 1499, Perkin Walbeck was convicted of treason and hanged at Tyburn: he had led the Cornish Rebellion two years before, claiming to be Richard IV, the younger of the two princes imprisoned in the Tower of London by their uncle King Richard III.

In 1571 the Elizabethan authorities constructed the "Tyburn Tree" a horizontal wooden triangle on three legs that enabled many people to be hanged at the same time. The religious strife of that period meant that many people were martyred at Tyburn including Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and John Southworth, all of whom were later made saints by the Roman Catholic church. Later, following the restoration of King Charles II to the throne, the bodies of the regicides John Bradshaw, Oliver Cromwell, and Henry Ireton were exhumed and symbolically hanged in an act of grisly revenge.

On 3rd November 1783, the highwayman John Austin became the last person to be hanged at Tyburn. He was convicted of robbing and wounding 'a poor man' called John Spicer in a field near the road in Bethnal Green. Reportedly Austin's last words were "Good people, I request your prayers for the salvation of my departing soul; let my example teach you to shun the bad ways I have followed; keep good company, and mind the word of God." The sight of the "Tyburn Tree" is marked today by three brass triangles where Bayswater Road meets Edgware Road.

The transcript of the trial of John Austin is available on the Proceedings of the Old Bailey web-site.

2 November 2008

On this day in history: BBC Television Service started broadcasting, 1936

The first television broadcast in Britain was made on 30th September 1929 using an electromechanical system pioneered by the Scottish inventor John Logie Baird. His Baird Television Development Company Ltd used the British Broadcasting Corporation's London transmitter to send images over the airwaves. The following year, with the introduction of the BBC's Brookmans Park twin transmitter, Baird was able to broadcast sound along with the pictures.

The BBC started their own experimental broadcasts in 1932, using Baird's thirty vertical line system. By 1936 Baird had improved his mechanical system to 240 lines; however, the BBC decided to alternate between it and Marconi-EMI's new completely electronic 405-line system for their regular broadcasts. So, on 2nd November 1936, the BBC television service started broadcasting for the first time from their new studios at Alexandra Palace using the Marconi-EMI system and the new VHF transmitter.

The 405-line broadcast was the first regular high-definition television service in the world. It proved so successful that after a few months of switching between the two systems on a weekly basis, the BBC stopped broadcasting using the Baird electromechanical system. While the official range of the broadcasts was twenty-five miles (40km), in practice they could be picked up much further away (on one occasion as far away as New York when RCA engineers were experimenting with a British TV-set).