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31 January 2009

On this day in history: Battle of George Square, 1919

In the 1910s and 1920s the urban sprawl around Glasgow, including the towns Clydebank, Greenock, and Paisley were centres of working class radicalism. This era, known as 'Red Clydeside' involved strikes and other forms of labour unrest as well as opposition to the First World War and rent strikes. After the end of the war the Clydeside trades unions organised a campaign for the reduction of the working week to forty hours from fifty-four to improve conditions and create jobs for the returning troops who swelled the ranks of the unemployed.

The Scottish Trade Union Congress and the Clyde Workers' Committee called a strike and organised a large rally on 31st January 1919 in George Square, Glasgow. A crowd of between sixty- and ninety-thousand gathered to hear the result of a meeting between of strike leaders and the Lord Provost. During the meeting scuffles broke out between the strikers and the police. Various causes have been attributed to the outbreak of violence including an unprovoked baton charge by the police, and the continued use of trams through the square during the meeting.

Whatever the cause, the delegation themselves became caught up in the pitched battles when they left the meeting to attempt to calm the strikers. Police attacks on the crowd, which included women and children, were met with the retaliation of strikers and their improvised weaponry that included stones, bottle and iron railings. Running battles continued for hours through central Glasgow in what became known as 'Bloody Friday.'

In the aftermath, not only did the authorities arrest the leaders of the strike, but they also sent around 10,000 English soldiers to Glasgow along with a number of tanks. The authorities confined Scottish troops to their barracks for fear that they may join their fellow Scots in open revolt. Since it was only fourteen months since the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the Coalition government may have feared that a similar insurrection was in the offing.

Tanks and soldiers in Saltmarket area of Glasgow

Ten days after the riot, the strike leaders called off the action after securing a 47-hour week. Those who the police took into custody faced trial at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, which found them guilty. Manny Shinwell, William Gallacher and David Kirkwood each served several months in prison with each later being elected as Members of Parliament.

The University of Strathclyde website hosts a number of pages dedicated to Red Clydeside: A history of the labour movement in Glasgow 1910-1932.

29 January 2009

On this day in history: First gasoline-driven automobile patented, 1886

The German engine designer and automobile engineer Karl Benz was born on 25th November 1844 in Karlsruhe, Baden, to Josephine Vaillant. A few months after he was born, his mother married his father, a locomotive driver named Johann George Benz, who died in a railway accident when Karl was only two years old. The death left the family in financial difficulty, but Josephine managed to provide her son with a quality education.

Karl was an excellent student, attending the local grammar school and technical college before gaining a place at the city's university to study mechanical engineering at the age of fifteen. He graduated in 1864 at the age of nineteen and spent the next seven years moving between jobs where he received professional training. In 1871 Benz opened a mechanical workshop in Mannheim with August Ritter.

Ritter turned out to be a liability. The business only survived when Benz's fiancee, Bertha Ringer, used her dowry to buy Ritter's shares. The business continued to struggle financially, so from 1878 Benz started working on patenting various innovations in engine design, including the two stroke engine, an ignition system using sparks from a battery, spark plugs, the carburetor, the clutch, the gear shift, and the water radiator. Nevertheless, the high production costs of Benz's Gas Factory resulted in the local banks demanding that his business become incorporated.

The creation of the joint-stock company Gasmotoren Fabrik Mannheim in 1882 left Benz with only five per cent of the shares in the business. He also became marginalised when it came to designing new products. Dissatisfied, a year later he left the company that he had built to enter into a partnership with the owners of a bicycle repair business, Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger.

The company called Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik produced a successful range of industrial machines and quickly expanded. The success of the business enabled Benz to start developing his ideas for a horseless carriage that he had been considering since his youth. In 1885 he produced the Benz Patent Motorwagen. A three wheeled vehicle powered by a 0.8hp four-stroke engine with a top speed of 16 km/h (10 mph).

On 29th January 1886, Benz patented his Motorwagen. Over the next few years Benz tested his design on public roads, refined his design and produced two more models of his Motorwagen, which he made available for sale to the public. In 1888 he made his first sales, including one to the Paris-based bicycle manufacturer Emile Roger. Roger had previously produced Benz's engines under license, now he also started manufacturing the automobiles and selling them to Parisians.

Benz continued to produce innovative designs of motor vehicles. In 1894 he produced the Velo, which many regard as the first production automobile and a year later he designed the first truck. He died in 1929 at the age of eighty-four as one of the key figures in the development of the automobile industry.

A facsimile of Benz's 1886 German patent No. 37435 is available to download in pdf format.

28 January 2009

On this day in history: Foundation of first permanent British colony in the Caribbean, 1624

In 1493, Christopher Columbus led the first European exploration of the islands located where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. He named each of the islands of the Lesser Antilles including one which he dubbed San Jorge ("Saint James"). Later explorers misinterpreted Columbus' charts and the island became known as San Cristobal ("Saint Christopher") or, more commonly, Saint Kitts.

In the sixteenth century, French Huguenots refugees founded a colony on the island, naming it after their home-town: Dieppe. Only months after its establishment, the Spanish raided the settlement and deported all its inhabitants. The next attempt to colonise the island did not occur until the next century with the arrival of the English under Thomas Warner.

Warner was the son of a Suffolk landowner and former captain in the bodyguard of King James I and lieutenant of the Tower of London. In 1620 he set off with Captain Roger North to help found a colony in Guiana, but James revoked their charter and recalled North, to placate the Spanish, leaving the colonists to fend for themselves. In the meantime, Warner had met Thomas Painton who suggested that he found a colony on St Kitts or another of the smaller Caribbean islands.

Warner returned to England to find support for this venture. In 1623 he set off with his family and fourteen other colonists for Virginia, from where they sailed for the Lesser Antilles. The group arrived on St Kitts on 28th January 1624. Undaunted by initial setbacks - a hurricane destroyed their first tobacco crop and many of their houses - the settlement grew and in September 1625, Warner transported their first tobacco crop back to England. While in England, Warner received letter patent from James' recognising the colony and giving it Royal protection. Warner also received the title of lieutenant of St Kitts (or ‘Merwar's Hope’ as it was called in the document, referring to himself and one of the major investors, the London merchant Ralph Merifield), Nevis, Barbados, and Montserrat.

He secured more investment and returned to the colony with around one-hundred more settlers and sixty slaves. When he arrived he found that the French had also established a colony on the island. The colonists had welcomed the French probably because they offered mutual protection against the local Carib population should they attack.

As it was, the Europeans made a pre-emptive strike against the Caribs, killing their King, taking a number of the women as slaves, and driving the rest of the survivors from the island. In 1627, the English and French then concluded a treaty formalising their mutual protection pact against both the Caribs and the Spanish. The terms of the treaty also divided the island between the two groups, with the English taking the territory middle and the French occupying either end.

26 January 2009

On this day in history: Cullinan Diamond discovered, 1905

On 26th January 1905, Frederick Wells noticed something catching the light of the setting sun while making a routine inspection of the Premier Mine in the Transvaal Colony, South Africa where he worked as a superintendent. He climbed up the side of the mineshaft and removed what appeared to be a diamond crystal of such a size that he initially suspected that it was piece of glass. It turned out to be the largest gem-quality diamond ever discovered.

The 3,106.75 carat crystal weighed just over 621 grammes (roughly 1.4 pounds). It became known as the Cullinan Diamond, after the owner of the mine, Sir Thomas Cullinan, who sold it to the Transvaal Government. They presented it to the British King, Edward VII, to mark his 66th birthday on 9th November 1907.

In order that the diamond be transported safely from South Africa to Britain, a team of British detectives travelled on the steamer that - rumour had it - would carry the stone. The 'diamond' on the ship was actually a fake. The real diamond was sent to London by parcel post in a plain package.

Asscher Brothers of Amsterdam received the contract to finish the rough diamond. Joseph Asscher's first attempt to cleave the crystal failed when the steel blade broke leaving the stone undamaged. He succeeded on his second attempt cutting the diamond into two pieces as planned.

The nine largest pieces of the Cullinan Diamond

In all Asscher cut nine major gems and 96 smaller brilliants from the Cullinan Diamond. The largest of these became part of the British Crown Jewels: Cullinan I (530.2 carats), or the Great Star of Africa, is mounted on the Sceptre with the Cross; Cullinan II (317.4 carats), known as the Lesser Star of Africa, is part of the Imperial State Crown; Cullinan III (94.40 carats) is in the finial of Queen Mary's Crown. The other major gems became dress jewellery worn by members of the Royal Family.

25 January 2009

On this day in history: London Corresponding Society founded, 1792

The parliamentary constituencies of eighteenth century Britain had a variety of ways of electing their Members of Parliament. The Westminster constituency in London was of the 'Scot and Lot' type where those adult males paying a form of local property tax could vote for the constituency's two MPs. In the city of Bath only the twenty or so members of the Corporation could vote for the city's two MPs. Meanwhile, some northern towns had no representation at all.

In the latter half of the century a number of people called for reform of the electoral system to make it more uniform and more representative, but all these attempts failed. On 25th January 1792 a shoemaker called Thomas Hardy held a meeting at The Bell tavern on Exeter Street, near the Strand, where he and a group of eight other men formed the London Corresponding Society (LCS). Their aim was parliamentary reform, especially the extension of the franchise to include all men.

In spite of its humble beginnings the LCS quickly grew and by May that year the Society had nine divisions, each with at least thirty members paying the penny a week subscription. The LCS leadership formed fraternal bonds with other working-men's societies with whom they shared common aims, including those in Sheffield and Norwich. They also cultivated links with predominantly middle-class reformers such as the Society for Constitutional Information.

As the French Revolution became increasingly radical and following the declaration of war by the French against Britain in 1793 many Britons became fearful of revolution spreading across the Channel. The LCS became the target of government investigation and attacks from loyalist societies and 'Church and King' mobs. In May 1794 the authorities arrested the leaders of the LCS and other reform organisations. Later that year, Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall stood trial on charges of treason, but the jury acquitted them through lack of evidence.

Official repression of working class reform movements did not stop there. That same year the government suspended Habeas Corpus, enabling detention without trial. Five years later in 1799 Parliament passed the Corresponding Societies Act, making the LCS an illegal organisation, effectively bringing it to an end. Nevertheless, calls for reform of parliament continued in the eighteenth century culminating in the Chartist movement and the Great Reform Act of 1832, which Hardy lived just long enough to witness as he died later that same year.

23 January 2009

On this day in history: Principality of Liechtenstein created, 1719

The Princely family of Liechtenstein took their name from a castle in Austria that they owned in the twelfth- and thirteenth-centuries (the name means "bright stone"). This wealthy dynasty acquired lands across the Holy Roman Empire, but they only held these territories as fiefdoms
under superior feudal nobles, to whom they often acted as close advisers. The Third Prince, Hans-Adam I, occasionally worked for the Imperial Court as a financial advisor when he wasn't acquiring a substantial fortune for himself.

Hans-Adam used his fortune to fulfil a dynastic ambition: to hold lands directly under the Imperial throne and thus gain the power associated with a seat in the Imperial diet, called the Reichstag. He purchased the domain of Schellenberg in 1699 and the county of Vaduz thirteen years later just before he died. On 23rd January 1719 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV decreed that the two lands were united as a Fürstentum ("principality") with the name Liechtenstein in honour of the Fifth Prince Anton-Florian, who had served the Emperor as Chief Intendant and Prime Minister when he was Archduke of Austria.

22 January 2009

On this day in history: First live radio broadcast of a soccer match, 1927

On New Year's Day 1927, the British Broadcasting Company Ltd received a Royal Charter and became the publicly funded British Broadcasting Corporation. Two weeks later the BBC made the first ever live radio broadcast of a sporting event - a Rugby Union international match between England and Wales at Twickenham. A week later, on 22nd January, BBC radio broadcast the first live coverage of an association football match between Arsenal and Sheffield United.

The game was a First Division fixture played at Arsenal's ground, Highbury, in North-London. The commentator was Captain Henry Blythe Thornhill Wakelam, a former rugby player who commentated on the rugby international the week before. The producer of the show, Lance Sieveking, came up with an idea to help the listeners keep track of the action. The Radio Times magazine of that week included a diagram of the pitch that was divided up into numbered sections. As Wakelam described the action, a fellow broadcaster, C.A. Lewis, told the listeners which sector the ball was in.

Bad visibility hampered the commentators but they still managed to keep their listeners informed of the goals. On an icy pitch, Arsenal took the lead when Charlie Buchan headed home with ten minutes to go. The Sheffield United captain, Billy Gillespie, soon equalised and the match ended as a 1:1 draw.

21 January 2009

On this day in history: Louis XVI executed, 1793

The position of King Louis XVI and his family became increasingly tenuous following his attempt to escape revolutionary France in June 1791. The authorities arrested them at Varennes-en-Argonne, returned them to Paris and placed them under house arrest at the Tuileries Palace. The royal houses of Europe became increasingly concerned about the fate of Louis and as a result the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, the Austrian brother of Queen Marie Antoinette, and King Frederick William II of Prussia made the Declaration of Pilnitz in August, after consulting French émigré nobles.

The Declaration warned the revolutionaries that they could expect swift reprisals should any harm befall the French royal family. Hoping to restore favour with his people, Louis accepted the Legislative Assembly's declaration of war against the Holy Roman Empire in April 1792. The French army, devastated by revolution, faired badly resulting in a Prussian invasion. In July, the commander in chief of the allied forces, the Duke of Brunswick, declared that the Austrians and Prussians intended to restore Louis to his full powers, effectively undoing the revolution.

While the Duke and his émigré advisers hoped that this declaration would ensure the safety of the King, the actual effect was the opposite of this. Many saw this as collusion between Louis and the foreign powers and the on the night of 10th August supporters of the hard-liner municipal government in the capital, the Paris Commune, besieged the Tuileries. The King sought sanctuary with the Legislative Assembly, which suspended the monarchy. Three days later the authorities arrested the King for High Treason and other offences against the State, imprisoning him in the Temple fortress.

The Legislative Assembly also created a National Convention to draw up a new constitution. When it first met on 20th September it became the de facto executive power in France and the next day it abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. On 11th December the King was brought before the Convention to face the charges brought against him. The King's counsel, Raymond Desèze detailed Louis' defence on the 26th, speaking for three hours he explained that the charges were unconstitutional and questioned the right of the Convention to sit as judge and jury over the monarch.

On 15th January 1793 the 721 deputies of the Convention made a decision on the verdict; 693 of them voted that he was guilty, none of them voted for an acquittal. The next day they voted on the King's punishment; 361 voted for his immediate execution, 72 voted for delayed execution on certain conditions and, 288 voted for an alternative punishment. When the Convention voted down a motion to grant a reprieve the next day - 380 to 310 - the King's fate was sealed.

On Monday 21st January 1793, stripped of all titles Citizen Louis Capet ascended the scaffold at the Place de la Révolution (formerly the Place Louis XV, now the Place de la Concorde). He started to make a speech to the jubilant crowd in which he declared his innocence and pardoned those that had sent him to his fate. Louis continued to speak but a general in the National Guard, Antoine-Joseph Santerre, cut him short by ordering a drum-roll. Accounts suggest that the guillotine blade did not sever the neck on the first attempt. Following the decapitation many members of the crowd dipped handkerchiefs in Louis' blood as a memento of that fateful day.

20 January 2009

On this day in history: John F. Kennedy inaugurated as President, 1961

During the night before the inauguration of the thirty-fifth President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, heavy snow fell on Washington D.C. Nevertheless, on the morning of 20th January 1961, snow ploughs and gangs of workers cleared the processional route so that the ceremony could go ahead. Meanwhile, Kennedy attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown before joining President Eisenhower to travel in procession to the Capitol.

Hundreds of thousands of people watched as Cardinal Cushing of Boston delivered the Invocation prayer, the first time a Roman Catholic had done so. The eighty-six year old poet Robert Frost intended to read a poem he had written for especially for the occasion called Dedication, but the glare of the sun prevented him from doing so. Instead he recited another of his poems, The Gift Outright, from memory.

Following the swearing in of Vice President Johnson by Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Chief Justice Earl Warren administered the presidential oath of office to Kennedy. The youngest ever President of the United States then delivered his inaugural address. After giving his address, Kennedy processed to the White House where he witnessed a parade, which had peace as its central motif.

Newsreel footage of Kennedy's inauguration

The full text of John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address is available on Wikisource.

18 January 2009

On this day in history: King Naresuan killed Crown Prince Minchit Sra, 1591

Born in April 1555, Naresuan was the son of Prince Maha Thammaracha, who later became King Sanphet I of Ayutthaya (part of modern day Thailand). At that time the Burmese occupied the Kingdom of Ayutthaya and as such they took the seven year old Naresuan as hostage to ensure the fealty of his father. For the next nine years the Burmese King Bayinnaung raised Naresuan as a prince in his palace at Pegu, until Narusuan returned home in exchange for his sister Princess Suphan Thewi. Soon after his return, Naresuan became Governor of Phitsanulok at the instigation of his father, who was now King.

Three years after the death of the King Bayinnaung, Naresuan's father declared that he was no longer a vassal of the Burmese. During the ensuing war Crown Prince Naresuan led his father's forces as well as those he recruited from neighbouring regions. Rather than fight a defensive campaign he decided to take the fight to the enemy occupying Lanna, a buffer states between the two countries.

In 1590, Naresuan's father died and he became King Sanphet II. One year later the Burmese invaded and again Naresuan went on the offensive in spite of the numerical superiority of the Burmese forces. On 18th January 1591, along with his younger brother, Prince Ekatosrost, he led a small force in an attempt to lure the opposing army into a trap. The Burmese forces took the bait, chasing Naresuan's small force into an ambush at Nongsarai.

During the battle, Naresuan spotted the Burmese Crown Prince Minchit Sra, who he challenged to single combat. The two fought atop their war elephants until Naresuan killed Minchit Sra with a blow from his lance. So demoralised were the Burmese that they retreated with the body of the Prince, effectively ending the Burmese aggression against Ayutthaya.

The date of the battle is celebrated today in Thailand as Royal Thai Armed Forces Day.

17 January 2009

On this day in history: Cold Sunday, 1982

On 17th January 1982 much of the United States experienced the coldest temperatures since records began. A high pressure system of Arctic proportions formed over the Canadian province of Saskatchewan where recent snowfall had left the land with no way to retain its heat. Consequently temperatures plummeted creating a mass of cold air that moved south across the US on what became known as "Cold Sunday."

Meteorologists measured record low temperatures the length of the country. These included temperatures of −27°F (−33°C) in Chicago, −26°F (−32°C) in Milwaukee, −5°F (−21°C) in Washington, DC and −2°F (−19°C) in Birmingham, Alabama. The lowest temperature of −52°F (−47°C) was recorded near Tower, Minnesota.

US National Weather Service: High and Low temperature map (Fahrenheit)

16 January 2009

On this day in history: Ivan the Terrible crowned Tsar, 1547

Born in August 1530, Ivan became the Grand Prince of Moscow at the age of three following the death of his father, Vasili III. Initially, his mother Elena Glinskaya acted as regent, but she too died (possibly from poisoning) when Ivan was only eight years old. Members of the aristocratic Shuisky family took over as regents until Ivan became old enough to take the reigns of power in 1544.

On 16th January 1547, he became Ivan IV when he had himself crowned Tsar of all Russia with the Monomakh's Cap at the Cathedral of the Dormition, Moscow. In the early part of his reign, Ivan embarked on the process of modernising the state. He reformed the legal code, created an assembly of the three estates of the realm called the Zemsky Sobor and a council of nobles, established a standing army, opened new trade routes and ordered the construction of St Basil's Cathedral to commemorate his conquest of the Khanates of Kazan.

Ivan was also capable of violent outbursts, possibly due to mental illness. These may explain why he became known as 'Ivan the Terrible' - a translation of his Russian nickname, Ivan Grozny, which some suggest may be better translated as 'Ivan the Fearsome'. He ordered the assassinations of a number of nobles who he suspected were plotting against him, including Philip II, Metropolitan of Moscow, and Prince Alexander Gorbatyi-Shuisky.

In a fit of anger Ivan killed his son and chosen heir the Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich. The young Tsarevich had witnessed the Massacre of Novgorod, where his father had ordered the killing of thousands of denizens of the city. The Oprichniki, a repressive force created by Ivan, carried out the massacre as well as being responsible for the murder of thousands of suspected opponents of the Tsar and for conscripting peasants for the disastrous Livonian War.

Ivan died on 18th March 1584, probably while playing chess with one of his advisers Bogdan Belsky. Following the opening of his tomb in the 1960s, scientists discovered that his body contained large amounts of mercury, suggesting that he had been poisoned. Ivan was succeeded by his pious but reputedly mentally deficient son Feodor I who died childless, thus ending the Rurik dynasty.

15 January 2009

On this day in history: The British Museum opened to the public, 1759

Over the course of his life the physician and president of the Royal Society Sir Hans Sloane built up a large collection of books, natural specimens, antiquities and other curiosities. Some of these he collected himself, starting with his voyage to Jamaica; others he received from friends. He also bought other collections to add to his own, which he made available to learned visitors.

In 1753 Sloane died and as part of his will he bequeathed his collection to King George II for the nation in return for payment of £20,000 to his daughters. Since he wanted the collection to be kept together, if the King showed no interest then the collection would be offered to other centres of learning abroad under the same conditions. While George II showed indifference to the proposal, a number of Members of Parliament - led by the Speaker, Arthur Onslow - were interested in aquiring the collection on behalf of the nation.

After Sloane's former curator valued the collection at between £80,000 to £100,000, Parliament passed an act in July of that year establishing the British Museum. The act enabled them to purchase the collection with money raised by a public lottery. To Sloane's collection they added the Cotton collection of manuscripts, which he bequeathed to the nation in 1700, and the Harleian collection of manuscripts, which they bought for £10,000. In 1757, the King donated the 'Old Royal Library' to the Museum.

On 15th January 1759, the British Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time. The seventeenth-century mansion Montagu House, in the Bloomsbury district of London, housed the collection on the site of the present buildings. Parliament appointed a Board of Trustees to administer the collection, which the public could now view for free.

The British Museum's website includes a number of pages about its history.

13 January 2009

On this day in history: Colored National Labor Union founded, 1869

The end of the American Civil War and the resultant emancipation of slaves produced economic changes, which brought about a growth in interest in trade unions. In 1866 Andrew Cameron founded the National Labor Union (NLU) to provide a national organisation for local worker associations. The NLU proved ineffective when it came to defending the rights of black workers, who were not even permitted to attend NLU conferences.

On 13th January 1869, 214 African Americans assembled in Washington D.C. where they founded their own workers' association, the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU), in pursuit of equal representation in the workplace. The foundation of the CNLU soon had an effect: the NLU invited its first president, Isaac Myers, to speak at their conference later that year, which was also attended by eight other black delegates. Under Myers the CNLU also successively petitioned Congress to give some southern public lands to African Americans.

12 January 2009

On this day in history: Sicilian Revolution of Independence, 1848

1848 was a year of revolution around the World, but particularly in Europe. The first uprising of that tumultuous year started on 12th January in Sicily. The Congress of Vienna, held in 1815 following the defeat of Napoleon, reunited the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily for the first time since the thirteenth century as the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

The administration of the island was brutal, corrupt and inefficient. As a result many Sicilians longed for the liberal constitution of 1812, which the island's nobility had persuaded the beleaguered Bourbon court to accept while resident on the island, but which King Ferdinand I abolished following his restoration three years later. Dissatisfaction spilled over into open revolution three times between the creation of the kingdom in 1816 and 1848.

On 9th January 1848 political agitators in Palermo circulated a pamphlet written by Francesco Bagnasco, who had been active in the revolution of 1820, in which he called on all Sicilians to rise up against the Bourbons on January 12 - Ferdinand's birthday. Despite the arrest of eleven radicals on 10th January, the people took to the streets and following clashes with soldiers and police in which some demonstrators died they built barricades around Fieravecchia, Palermo's poorest quarter, where Baron Giuseppe La Masa formed a committee to direct the revolution.

The next day the rebel's ranks swelled when peasants and bands of brigands from the surrounding countryside joined the rebellion, while the six thousand Bourbon soldiers withdrew to the fortress of Castellamare from where they bombarded Palermo rather than face the inferior insurrectionary force in the city streets. The five thousand reinforcements who arrived on the 15th were not enough to prevent the revolutionaries taking control of the city and then the whole island, except the heavily fortified city of Messina, by the middle of Ferbruary. Ferdinand had little choice but to negotiate with the revolutionary government, which now included many of the islands nobles.

Attempts at a diplomatic solution continued for the next eighteen months during which time the literate Sicilian males elected a parliament with Ruggero Settimo, the Prince of Castelnuovo, as president. Finally, in May 1849, Bourbon forces recaptured the island while over forty of the leaders of the revolution went into exile. Nevertheless, the forces unleashed by the Sicilian Revolution had an impact across Italy culminating in the unification of Italy ("il Risorgimento")") during the 1860s.

11 January 2009

On this day in history: East Pakistan renamed Bangladesh, 1972

As a result of their victory over the French during the Seven Years War, the British East India Company gained control of Bengal in 1757, and installed their own local governor, or Nawab. The British consolidated their control of the region after defeating the former Nawab and his Mughal allies at the Battle of Buxar in 1764. The East India Company governed Bengal until 1858 when control was transferred to the Crown, which ruled until 1947 when the British government granted independence to their imperial possessions on the sub-continent.

The British partitioned these possessions into two states, India and Pakistan, with the Bengal region divided between the two. Pakistan's land in Bengal, which was predominantly Muslim, was initially known as East Bengal, and then later as East Pakistan. Over 1000 miles separated the two parts of Pakistan as did differences in ethnicity, language and culture.

The frictions caused by these difference became evident after the first elections of the East Bengal Provincial Assembly in 1954. The ruling party of Pakistan, the Muslim League, won only nine seats whereas the United Front won 215 out of a possible 237. The United Front was an alliance of a number of political parties who shared the common goal of greater autonomy for East Pakistan.

The national government responded by dismissing the Provincial Assembly and installing a governor for a year, during which time the United Front failed to live up to its name: it divided into two factions. One of these factions, the secularist Awami League, won all the East Pakistan seats in the National Assembly during the 1970-71 elections putting them in position to possibly form a national government. The political negotiations between the Awami League and Pakistan Peoples Party, which had won a majority of the seats in West Pakistan broke down.

Faced with a political impasse and the break up of the nation, President Yahya Kahn indefinitely suspended the National Assembly resulting in massive civil disobedience in East Pakistan. Kahn responded to the revolt by sending in the Pakistan army to arrest the leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which precipitated a declaration of independence of Bangladesh by senior Bengali officers. The army's ruthless suppression of the political agitation not only cost the lives of three million people in the eastern province, but also resulted in a civil war that eventually drew in India.

The combined forces of Bangladesh and India defeated the Pakistan army which surrendered in December 1971 paving the way for the establishment of a new state. On 11th January 1972, East Pakistan formally renamed itself Bangladesh with Sheikh Mujib Mujibur Rahman as head of state. A new constitution came into force in December of that year and the first elections were held the following March.

10 January 2009

On this day in history: First underground railway opened, 1863

By the 1850s many of those commuting into central London by rail had to continue their journey by road because all but one of metropolis' seven railway termini were outside the City of London. Consequently, the idea of connecting London's major stations to the City with an underground railway grew in popularity, not only to alleviate the increased traffic congestion on the roads but also to make rail travel via London easier. In 1852 the Solicitor to the City of London, Charles Pearson, helped set up the City Terminus Company having been a vocal supporter of a number of proposals for underground railways, including one in which he suggested that the vehicles be pushed through the tunnels by compressed air.

Pearson failed to find any funding for his plans; however, the Bayswater, Paddington and Holborn Bridge Railway Company had more success. Founded in 1853, its directors secured funding from the Great Western Railway (GWR) and acquired the City Terminus Company. Later that year they received the approval of a Royal Commission for their plan, resulting in the passage of an Act of Parliament in the following year.

This act authorised the construction of an underground railway between Praed Street in Paddington (near the GWR's London terminus) and Farringdon in the City of London, to be known as the Metropolitan Railway. Although not a director of the new company, Pearson continued to promote the scheme, even managing to secure some £200,000 funding for the railway from the City of London Corporation. In February 1860 construction work finally began.

The work did not go smoothly: the cut-and-cover method favoured of tunnel construction by the chief engineer, John Fowler, involved digging up the streets that the line would follow causing a great deal of traffic congestion. At one point the Fleet Sewer burst filling the recently dug tunnels with London's effluence. Nevertheless, the work was completed in less than three years.

On 10th January 1863, the world's first underground railway opened to the public. On the previous day, the directors of the company travelled with several hundred invited guests in two trains from Paddington to Farringdon Street station where they had an elegant lunch. The line proved to be a great success with an average of over 25,000 passengers using the railway each day, but sadly Pearson was not one of them as he had died in September of the previous year.

You can read the Guardian's account of the Opening of the Metropolitan Railway to the public on the newspaper's website.

9 January 2009

On this day in history: Balloonmania reached the United States, 1793

In the years following the Montgolfier brothers' first successful balloon flights in 1783 'balloonmania' swept across Europe. One of the greatest promoters of this new form of transport was the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard. He made his first successful flight at Paris using a hydrogen filled balloon in March 1784. He then travelled around Europe demonstrating his balloons becoming the first to fly a balloon across the English Channel (accompanied by Dr. John Jeffries), as well the first to fly such devices in Belgium, Germany, Holland and Poland.

Blanchard then crossed the Atlantic and on 9th January 1793 he added to his records by making the first balloon flight in the United States. President George Washington observed Blanchard take to the air at around 10:10am from Philadelphia in Pennsylvania after having given the Frenchman a letter under his seal requiring that no US citizen hinder him. Also watching the launch were the future presidents John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. At 10:56am, Blanchard landed at Deptford in Gloucester County, New Jersey where he soon attracted a crowd of bemused onlookers who were not only impressed by the manner of his arrival but also by the President's letter.

Blanchard's Journal of my forty-fifth ascension, being the first performed in America, on the ninth of January, 1793 is available in a number of file formats on the Internet Archive site.

8 January 2009

On this day in history: Foundation of the African National Congress, 1912

In May 1910 the Union of South Africa came into being as unitary state comprising the former colonies of Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Orange River Colony, and the Transvaal. The colonists in this new Union were of British and Dutch extraction and much effort was expended bringing these two cultures together. As a result the African population of the country became marginalised and even repressed by the new white hegemony.

Following the foundation of the Union, many African intellectuals felt that there was a need for a new national movement to represent the native peoples. Not least among these was the lawyer, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, who advised that representatives of all the ethnic groups should meet to discuss their common welfare. Consequently, on 8th January 1912, delegates from all four provinces as well as from Botswana met in Bloemfontein under the banner of unity.

The delegates included tribal chiefs, intellectuals, religious leaders and other representatives of the various ethnic groups. During the keynote address Semi declared,

Chiefs of royal blood and gentlemen of our race, we have gathered here to consider and discuss a theme which my colleagues and I have decided to place before you. We have discovered that in the land of their birth, Africans are treated as hewers of wood and drawers of water. The white people of this country have formed what is known as the Union of South Africa - a union in which we have no voice in the making of the laws and no part in their administration. We have called you therefore to this Conference so that we can together devise ways and means of forming our national union for the purpose of creating national unity and defending our rights and privileges.

He then went on to propose the establishment of the South African Native National Congress. The proposal was met with unanimous support. This body later became known as the African National Congress (ANC) that, after the troubled years of Apartheid, came to power in South Africa following the first universal suffrage elections of 1994.

The ANC website includes a number of documents about the history of the organisation.

7 January 2009

On this day in history: First transatlantic telephone service, 1927

The earliest attempt at transatlantic telephony was in 1915 when the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (later known as AT&T) managed to transmit one-way voice signal between the Naval Wireless Station in Arlington, Virginia and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The limits of available technology and then the First World War brought an end to the experiments. Eight years later AT&T again demonstrated the feasibility of telephone calls between Europe and the United States by sending a speech signal from New York to New Southgate in London.

At that time the General Post Office (GPO) managed the British telephone system and its head, the Postmaster-General, was so impressed with the demonstration that he decided to cooperate with AT&T and the Western Electric Company to create a commercial transatlantic telephone service using radio signals. The GPO built a 200 kilowatt transmitter at the Post Office Station at Rugby and experiments began to improve transmission to such a point that it was commercially viable. Furthermore the telephone network infrastructure in Britain and the United States required substantial development.

In February 1926, the engineers achieved two-way voice communication between the two radio stations and a month later journalists gathered at the trunk exchanges in London and New York to take part in a demonstration of two-way voice communication. Finally, on 7th January 1927, the service opened with a call between Sir Evelyn Murray, the Secretary of the GPO and Walter S. Gifford, the president of AT&T, followed by calls between those subscribers who had booked calls for that day.

6 January 2009

On this day in history: Parliament authorised the trial of Charles I, 1649

Following their victory over the forces of King Charles I during the civil wars, the New Model Army became the most powerful political body in Britain eclipsing Parliament, which created the army. In the summer of 1647, the New Model Army took possession of the King, who had been held by the Parliamentarians, and then occupied London. In December 1648, the Army again occupied London and soldiers commanded Colonel Pride and Colonel Rich took up positions at the Houses of Parliament to prevent those members that opposed the Army from taking their seats creating the Rump Parliament.

Since negotiations with the Crown had failed (partly due to Pride's Purge), the Army's leaders and other militants decided to put the Charles on trial. On 6th January 1649, the Rump Parliament passed an ordinance permitting the trial to be presided over by a commission of 135 men: the High Court of Justice. In spite of the House of Lords' rejection of the motion and the (obvious) lack of consent from the King, the trial went ahead later that month.