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29 December 2009

On this day in history: First Spanish Republic ended, 1874

In February, 1873 King Amadeo I abdicated from the Spanish throne. Three years earlier, following the revolution against Queen Isabella II, the Spanish parliament, the Cortes Generales, had elected Amadeo, an Italian prince, as King to reign as a constitutional monarch. Political infighting within the Cortes hampered his ability to respond to successive disasters: uprisings in support of the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, known as Carlists; republican revolts; and even assassination attempts. Amadeo finally gave up and returned to Italy as the Duke of Aosta, after the increasingly radical government forced him to sign a decree to sack a group of artillery officers who had refused to take orders from their new commander.

The day after the abdication, the Cortes voted that Spain become a republic but could not agree on what form it should take, some preferred that Spain become a federation while others wanted a unitary republic. The divisions in Spanish society undermined the republic as they had done with the constitutional monarchy. In January, 1874 the Captain General of Madrid, Manuel Pavía, declared his opposition to the federalism, which resulted in the formation of a unitary government without the federalists and monarchists.

With the Cortes disbanded the fate of the nation rested in the hands of the military forces of the various factions. The republican army managed to reverse the territorial gains made by the Carlists before deciding not to oppose Brigadier Martínez Campos when he declared his support for the Bourbon Prince Alfonso, son of Isabella, on 29th December 1874. Having lost control of their armed forces the government of the first republic collapsed, paving the way for the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.

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Restoration of the Portuguese monarchy: 1st December 1640
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23 December 2009

On this day in history: Voyager landed after record flight, 1986

In 1980, a former United States Air Force pilot called Dick Rutan met fellow pilot Jeana Yeager (no relation of Chuck Yeager) at an airshow in Chino, California. Romance blossomed between the two, and Yeager became a test pilot at Rutan's aircraft company, which he ran with his aerospace designer brother, Burt. Over lunch one day at the Mojave Inn in 1981, the three of them discussed making an aircraft capable of being the first aircraft to circumnavigate the World without landing or refueling.

Over the next five year's they refined the initial design that Burt sketched on a napkin to create Voyager. The aircraft had a lightweight fuselage made from carbon fiber, fiberglass and Kevlar. Engines powered propellers at the front and rear, with the front only used to provide the extra power for takeoff and the early part of the flight.

At 8.01am local time on 14th December 1986, Dick and Jeanna lifted off from the runway at Edwards' Air Force Base, California, to embark on their record-breaking flight attempt. Despite a tricky takeoff, in which Voyager's wingtips sustained damaged, and course changes necessitated by the weather and a lack of permission to fly in Libyan airspace, over the next five days the pair flew their westward course around the World. Approaching California one of the fuel pumps failed; nevertheless, they successfully landed back at Edwards' on 23rd December, having flown 26,366 miles (42,432 km) in nine days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds.

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Montgolfier Brothers first public balloon flight: 4th June, 1783
First Zeppelin flight: 2nd July, 1900
First successful powered aeroplane flight: 17th December 1903
First flight around the world: 28th September, 1924
Charles Lindbergh arrived in Paris: 21st May, 1927

22 December 2009

On this day in history: First gorilla born in captivity, 1956

In January 1951, a hunter called Bill Said brought three gorillas to Columbus Zoo in Ohio. Two of the apes, Millie Christina and Baron Macombo, stayed at the zoo as a mated pair. On 22nd December 1956, a female gorilla was born to them, the first gorilla to be born in captivity.

That morning, a young veterinary student and zoo-keeper called Warren Thomas noticed a change in Millie's usual behaviour, investigating further he found a baby gorilla still in the amniotic sac. He took the baby to the kitchen where broke open the sac to find the infant struggling to breathe. Thomas cleared the mucous from the baby's mouth and engaged in mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Even though the zoo staff overcame the initial crisis the baby still needed round-the-clock attention, spending time in an incubator. While she spent her time growing in strength zoo and city administrators decided to hold a competition to find a name for the infant gorilla. Their initial prize of $50 was boosted by a $100 donation from the actor Clark Gable. Nineteen people submitted the winning entry, Colo, derived from Columbus, Ohio.

Colo is now the oldest captive gorilla in the World, becoming a great-great-grandmother in 2003.

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21 December 2009

On this day in history: Rochdale Pioneers opened their first store, 1844

In 1844 a group of twenty-eight artisans in Rochdale, near Manchester, established the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. While not the first co-operative in England, the Rochdale Pioneers set out a set of principles by which they hoped to avoid the problems of earlier such schemes and which formed the basis for the modern co-operative movement. In October 1844 they drew up these democratic secular principles in Laws and Objects of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, summarising them as follows:

The objects and plans of this Society are to form arrangements for the pecuniary benefit, and the improvement of the social and domestic condition of its members, by raising a sufficient amount of capital in shares of one pound each, to bring into operation the following plans and arrangements.

The establishment of a store for the sale of provision and clothing, &c.

The building, purchasing or erecting a number of houses, in which those members desiring to assist each other in improving their domestic and social condition may reside.

To commence the manufacture of such articles as the society may determine upon, for the employment of such members as may be without employment, or who may be suffering in consequence of repeated reductions in their wages.

As a further benefit and security to the members of this society. the society shall purchase or rent an estate or estates of land, which shall be cultivated by the members who may be out of employment, or whose labour may be badly remunerated.

That as soon as practicable, this society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education, and government, or in other words to establish a self-supporting home-colony or united interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies.

That for the promotion of sobriety a Temperance Hotel be opened in one of the society's houses, as soon as convenient.

Eventually they raised £28 capital and on 21st December 1844, they opened their first store on Toad Street (now the Rochdale Pioneers Museum) to sell a meagre selection of goods including butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and candles. They soon expanded their stock to include tea and tobacco. While they did not achieve all their goals, the Pioneers store was a model that many other followed inspiring a co-operative movement of over 1,000 stores within a decade.

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20 December 2009

On this day in history: Electricity generated by nuclear power for the first time, 1951

In 1934 the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi produced nuclear fission for the first time for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physics four years later. After receiving his prize, Fermi emigrated to the United States with his Jewish wife, Laura, to escape Mussolini's increasingly anti-semitic fascist regime in his homeland. He worked at Columbia University where he continued experimenting on nuclear fission before joining the project at the University of Chicago constructing the world's first nuclear reactor.

Following America's entry into the Second World War, the experimental work conducted on Chicago Pile-1 became part of the Manhattan Project, which was engaged in creating nuclear weapons. Following the end of the war, development began on more peaceful applications of reactor research, including the generation of electricity. To this end the United States government established the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS) - now called the Idaho National Laboratory - in the Idaho desert in 1949.

That year construction work began on the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 (EBR-1) at NRTS. Walter Zinn, who had also worked on the Manhattan Project, and his team at the Argonne National Laboratory designed EBR-1 as an attempt to prove that it was possible to create a breeder reactor rather than to become a working power plant. A breeder reactor is one that creates nuclear fuel at a rate that is greater than it can consume it.

On 24th August 1951 the reactor went critical for the first time. At 1:50pm on 20th December 1951, the power station produced electricity for the first time. It generated enough electricity to illuminate four 200watt light bulbs. The next day the scientists repeated the experiment, producing enough electricity for the EBR-1 building.

Two years later, it successfully began producing fuel as a breeder reactor. Experiments continued on the EBR-1, even after the reactor suffered a partial meltdown in November 1955, until it was deactivated in 1964. The following year EBR-1 became a National Historic Landmark.

To learn more about the reactor see the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 fact-sheet available as a pdf file from the Idaho National Laboratory site.

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First French nuclear test: 13th May 1960
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19 December 2009

On this day in history: Emily Brontë died, 1848

Born on 30th July 1818 at the Parsonage in Thornton, near Bradford, Yorkshire, Emily Jane Brontë was the fifth of six children of Revd. Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria. Nearly two years after her birth, Emily's family moved to the small industrial town of Haworth where her father had accepted the post of curate, which offered greater financial security. Unfortunately, a year and a half after the family relocated, Maria died.

Their mother's older sister Elizabeth Branwell stayed on with the family after nursing Maria during the last months of her life. While the older Brontë girls clashed with their aunt when she extolled the virtues of fastidiousness and self-discipline, Emily did not. As well as learning domestic skills the girls also received instruction in more academic subjects along with their brother Branwell.

The four oldest girls were sent to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, a newly founded institution that provided a formal education to the daughters of less wealthy Anglican clergymen. The poor conditions at Cowan Bridge resulted in a number of pupils contracting illnesses, including Emily's oldest two sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, both of whom contracted tuberculosis, wcich caused their deaths in 1825. Revd. Brontë brought Emily and her sister Charlotte home where he and Miss Branwell continued to educate them.

The four remaining siblings became a close-knit group, developing imaginary worlds that they began writing about. The four were separated when Charlotte attended Roe Head school in Mirfield. She later returned as a teacher there accompanied by Emily who went there as a pupil. After only three months Emily became so ill that she had to return home to be replaced at Roe Head by her sister Anne.

Divided from her sister Anne, with whom she was closest, Emily became more self-reliant and remained apart from the rest of her family. Much of her time was spent secretly writing poetry until she took the position of teacher at Law Hill girl's school near Halifax in 1838. She remained there for six months before another illness required that she return to Haworth.

Charlotte had the idea of setting up a school and persuaded their aunt to pay for her and Emily to attend a school in Brussels. Emily struggled through nine months of being the oldest pupil in a school where lessons were taught in French - a language she was not well versed in - before her father summoned her and Charlotte home because of the death of their aunt.

In 1845, Charlotte discovered one of Emily's poetry books, much to the annoyance of the younger sister. In spite of Emily's anger, the other Brontë children persuaded her to allow them to select poems to be submitted for publication along with other poems written by her sisters. A year later two girls published the collection called Poems pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (Charlotte, Emily and Anne respectively).

Two years later, Emily, again under the name Ellis Bell, published the work for which she became famous: Wuthering Heights. This epic tale of the Earnshaws of Wuthering Heights and the Lintons of Thrushcross Grange confounded the critics of the day because of its innovative style. The publishers demanded that Emily contribute towards the publishing costs, even though they were using the Bell name to cash in on the success of Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte under the name Currer Bell.

The following year, Emily's brother Branwell died of tuberculosis - the symptoms of which had been masked by his alcoholism. At his funeral Emily contracted a cold that resulted in her own death on 18th December 1848. Following her death, Charlotte edited the two part Wuthering Heights into a single volume that was published under her real name.

The Project Gutenberg site hosts Poems and Wuthering Heights as well as other works by the Brontës.

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18 December 2009

On this day in history: First European landing on New Zealand, 1642

Born in 1603 in the Dutch province of Groningen, Abel Tasman entered the service of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company). By the mid-1630s Tasman was serving as a mate on a trading ship out of Batavia (modern day Jakarta). In 1634 he became master of the Mocha, a small trading ship, and served as second in command on a mission of exploration of the North Pacific.

After a series of journeys to various locations on the Pacific coast of Asia, Tasman commanded a fleet sent to search for the "Unknown Southland and Eastland" believed to be in the South Atlantic. In August 1642 he set sail for Mauritius where he turned south-east for then little known Australia. In November he sighted the island that now bears his name, which he claimed for the Netherlands on 3rd December.

Tasman intended to turn north to explore the east coast of Australia, but strong winds took the fleet on an easterly heading. On 13th December the explorers sighted land: the north-west coast of the Southern Island of what is now known as New Zealand. While exploring the coast, the fleet had a number of encounters with the Maori including an attack on one of the Dutch ships, which goes some way to explaining why the fleet only made a brief landing on the 18th December.

The fleet continued to explore the islands before returning to Batavia via the Tongan and the Fiji islands. Tasman made another voyage of discovery in 1644 before becoming a senior official in Batavia. He continued to serve there until his death in October 1659, apart from a period of suspension as a result of him passing a death sentence on a man without trial.

Abel Janszoon Tasman's Journal of his Discovery of Van Diemen's Land and New Zealand in 1642 is available on the Project Gutenberg Australia site.

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First Europeans sight Tahiti: 18th June 1767
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17 December 2009

On this day in history: First successful powered aeroplane flight, 1903

At the dawn of the twentieth-century, the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright left their cycle manufacturing business in Dayton, Ohio and travelled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to undertake experiments with flying machines. Over the next few years they made their annual pilgrimage to the sands of Kitty Hawk to refine the design of their manned gliders. Following successful test flights in the 1902 Glider, the brothers added an engine designed and built by one of their employees, Charlie Taylor, to their next model: the Wright Flyer I.

In December 1903, the brothers returned to North Carolina and assembled the Flyer while performing flight tests with the 1902 Glider. On the 14th, the brothers tossed a coin to decide which of them should pilot the Flyer for its maiden flight. Wilbur won, but he stalled the plane after pulling up too sharply.

Fortunately the aircraft did not suffer any major damage and was ready for another test flight within days. On 17th December 1903, Orville took his chance to make history. The flight lasted for twelve seconds in which time he covered a distance of 36.5m (120 feet). According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale this was the World's first "sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight."

The Smithsonian Institution refused to recognise the Wright's flight, preferring to give the accolade to one of their former secretaries, Samuel Pierpont Langley. Following Orville's unsuccessful attempt blackmail the Smithsonian into recognising the Wright's achievement by threatening to allow another museum to have the Flyer, the aircraft become an exhibit at the Science Museum in London, in 1928. Fifteen years later, Orville allowed the aircraft to be relocated to the Smithsonian after he received assurances that no other successful flight will be recognised by the Institution on a date prior to that of the brothers.

To learn more about these pioneering auronauts and their aircraft, see the Wright Experience site.

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Montgolfier Brothers first public balloon flight: 4th June, 1783
First Zeppelin flight: 2nd July, 1900
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Last commercial Concorde flights: 24th October, 2003

16 December 2009

On this day in history: Last recorded eruption of Mount Fuji, 1707

On 16th December 1707, Mount Fuji in Japan erupted. While this Hōei Eruption (as it became known) did not produce a lava flow, during its two week duration the eruption sporadically released hundreds of millions of cubic metres of volcanic ash into the atmosphere. This ash fell like rain on the nearby provinces of Izu, Kai, Musashi and Sagami, and witnesses recorded ash falling on Edo nearly 100km (60miles) away.

The eruption resulted in the opening of three new vents on the easterly side of the mountain and a small crater formed by a secondary eruption. Over the next year many effects of the eruption were felt including a flood of the Sakawa river caused by the fallen ash adding to the existing sediment in the riverbed. Mount Fuji has not erupted since Hōei, although it has yet to be declared inactive.

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15 December 2009

On this day in history: Fats Waller died, 1943

Thomas Wright Waller was born in New York City on 21st May 1904. His mother, Adeline, taught him to play the reed organ with which he later accompanied his father, the Reverend Edward Waller, an Abyssinian Baptist Church lay preacher. At school he played piano and at the age of 15 he started work as the organist at the Lincoln Theatre on 135th Street, in Harlem.

When his mother died in 1920, Waller moved in with pianist Russell B. T. Brooks and his family. Waller developed under the tutelage of James P. Johnson, who also recommended him for a vacancy at Leroy's nightclub, where he became an all-round entertainer. In 1922, Johnson took Waller to QRS ("Quality Reigns Supreme") to record piano rolls. On these rolls, Waller developed ragtime into what became known as stride piano.

That same year, the eighteen year old Waller started his audio recording career with Okeh, recording two solos: "Muscle Shoals Blues" and "Birmingham Blues". He also recorded as an accompanist for a number of blues artists. He became a huge success not only through his piano playing and song-writing on numbers such as "Squeeze Me", "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose", but also because of his stage personality as a loveable rogue.

While touring in Chicago in 1926, Waller was kidnapped and taken to the Hawthorne Inn, owned by Al Capone. There he found a party in full swing: it was Capone's birthday party and he was the surprise performer. Forced to play piano at gunpoint he later left the party, drunk and thousands of dollars better off, having received tips from Capone and other party-goers.

In the mid-1930s, while working on the West Coast, Waller appeared in two movies: Hooray for Love! (1935) and King of Burlesque (1936). He continued to tour, taking his band to Europe in 1938 and again in 1939; although, the outbreak of war cut the tour short. While in Britain he recorded his London Suite, six thematically linked solo piano pieces that demonstrated his aspirations as a serious composer.

He continued to tour extensively and returned to Hollywood to lead an all-star band in Stormy Weather in 1943. By that time his touring regime, his overeating and heavy drinking were taking a toll on Waller. He died of pneumonia on 15th December 1943, aged 39, while on a train near Kansas City, Missouri.

A 1941 promotional film of "Your Feet's Too Big"

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13 December 2009

On this day in history: John Sinclair released from prison, 1971

Born in Flint, Michigan, in 1941, John Sinclair became a major figure in the late 1960s counter-culture movement. He wrote for the underground press, organised free festivals and managed the garage rock band MC5. In 1968 he co-founded the White Panther Party with Lawrence Plamondon and his partner Leni Arndt, in response to an interview in which the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton, asked what white people could do to support the Panther's cause.

In July 1969, Sinclair was convicted of giving two marijuana joints to an undercover policeman. The presiding judge, Robert Colombo, sentenced him to between nine-and-a-half and ten years in prison. While incarcerated he wrote books, continued to direct activities of the White Panther Party, and engaged in an appeal against his conviction, questioning the constitutionality of Michigan's draconian marijuana laws.

His cause attracted widespread support, culminating on on 10th December 1971 with the "Free John Now Rally" at the Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor. The event was opened by the beat port Allen Ginsberg and featured music from John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs and Bob Seger. Abbie Hoffman (co-founder of the Youth International Party), Jerry Rubin (social activist), Bobby Seale (chairman of the Black Panthers) all made speeches, as did Sinclair himself, via a remote hookup.

The day before the event, the Michigan Senate had approved a bill to cut the maximum penalty for marijuana from ten years to ninety days. As a consequence the 15,000 who attending the eight hour concert were confident that Sinclair would soon be released. Indeed, on 13th December 1971, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favour of Sinclair and he was released from prison.

The Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan houses the John and Leni Sinclair Papers, and hosts a biography of John Sinclair on its website.

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11 December 2009

On this day in history: First trans-oceanic yacht race, 1866

At 1pm on 11th December 1866, three schooners sailed from Sandy Hook, Connecticut, their destination was the Needles, near Cowes in the Isle of Wight. The three yachts taking part in 'The Great Atlantic Yacht Race' were the Henrietta, owned by New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett, Jr., George A. Osgood's Fleetwing, and the Vesta, owned by the tobacco manufacturer, Pierre Lorillard. Each owner wagered $30,000 on what was the first ever trans-oceanic yacht race, and while Osgood and Lorillard remained in New York, Bennett set sail with his crew.

A flotilla of sailing craft escorted the three yachts from New York to the docks at Sandy Hook, which were lined with a cheering throng. One day into the race, the Henrietta opened a lead on the other two craft and later the Vesta, under the command of Captain Dayton, parted company with the Fleetwing commanded by Captain Thomas. The trailing yacht ran into trouble on the eighth day of the race when she encountered a heavy gale that caused six men to be washed overboard, all of whom were lost along with the yacht's jibboom.

The Henrietta won the race and the $90,000 prize (more than $2 million in today's money), taking 13 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes to complete the crossing. In spite of her earlier tragedy, the Fleetwing came second due to a navigational mistake by the pilot who joined the crew to guide them safely to their goal. Due to misty conditions, he mistook the lighthouse at St. Katherine for the one at the Needles.

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10 December 2009

On this day in history: The 300 Million Yen Robbery, 1968

On the morning of 10th December 1968, four bank workers from the Kokubunji branch of the Nihon Shintaku Ginko were transporting 294,307,500 yen (then over $800,000) in a company car. The cash was to be the bonus payments for the employees of Toshiba's Fuchu factory. Usually, only two staff would have been used as couriers, but since it was such a large amount the bank managers decided that they needed extra security.

As they reached the Tokyo Fuchu prison a young man in a traffic police uniform stopped the car. The man told the bank staff that their branch manager's house had been blown up, and that they had received a warning that another bomb had been placed on their car. They believed the man's story as they were aware of threatening letters that their manager had recently received.

The four exited the car while the policeman searched the underside of their vehicle. As they watched him, smoke and flames started to emanate from the bottom of the car and he shouted a warning that it was about to explode. The bank staff backed away from the vehicle only to see him get into the car and drive it away, leaving a smoke bomb on the road.

There followed the largest police investigation in Japanese history involving over 170,000 law enforcement officials. Nobody was ever convicted of the robbery and no money was recovered. In 1975 the statute of limitations on the crime passed and in 1988 all civil liabilities also ceased. The perpetrator has yet to make himself known, even though he has no fear of legal repercussions.

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9 December 2009

On this day in history: Publication of The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson, 1854

On 9th December 1854, the weekly magazine The Examiner included a poem written by the poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson called "The Charge of the Light Brigade". The narrative poem tells of a disastrous cavalry charge during the Battle of Balaclava on 25th October that year as part of the Crimean War. The battle pitched combined British, French and Ottoman forces against the Russian fortified port of Sevastopol.

Because of a breakdown in communication, over six-hundred British light cavalrymen, led by the Earl of Cardigan, received orders to capture a heavily armed Russian redoubt (small enclosed fort) at the other end of a valley. The army commander, Lord Raglan, actually wanted them to prevent the Russians from removing naval guns from another complex of redoubts that they had captured. As it was, the Light Brigade lost over 150 men, either killed or taken prisoner, and around 120 men were injured. Over 300 horses were either killed in battle or destroyed afterwards because of their wounds.

News of the charge reached Britain weeks later. On reading about it in The Times, Tennyson was immediately inspired to write a poem about the engagement, according to his grandson, Sir Charles. The piece not only extolled the bravery of the troops but also reflected public dismay at the apparent futility of the charge; consequently, it quickly achieved popular acclaim, even being distributed to the troops serving in the Crimea.

The text of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is available on Wikisource.

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8 December 2009

On this day in history: Greeks vote to abolish monarch, 1974

On 21st April 1967, a group of right-wing army officers seized power in Greece, fearing increased influence of left-wing politicians following the upcoming elections. King Constantine II initially supported the coup d'etat, but in December that year he led a failed counter-coup, which resulted in his exile. In May 1973 a number of naval officers mutinied against the military regime, providing the leader of military regime, Georgios Papadopoulos, with the pretext to declare a republic with himself as president in June, blaming the king for the revolt. A plebiscite held the next month confirmed his decision; although, many polling irregularities led to accusations that the vote had been rigged.

Papadopoulos' presidency did not last long. A student protest in November gave a hard-line member of the junta, Dimitrios Ioannidis, the opportunity to depose Papadopoulos. The counter-coup resulted in a loss of support for the regime from military officers, as did Ioannidis decisions to support a coup in Cyprus, which resulted in a Turkish invasion of the island in July 1974. Before the end of that month, a meeting of politicians and military officers established a national unity government to run Greece until elections could be held.

The elections, held in November, resulted in a win for the New Democracy party, confirming Konstantinos Karamanlis as Prime Minister. Karamanlis called for a referendum to decide whether Greece should be a republic or a monarchy. Even though he had been a supporter of royal authority in the past, Karamanlis made no attempt to persuade the people to vote for a monarchy.

On 8th December 1974, over four and a half million Greeks voted in the referendum, the majority of whom (69.18%) decided that Greece should be a republic. The result was met with massive celebrations and led to the creation of the Third Hellenic Republic. The former king would remain in exile until the government allowed him to make a short visit in 1981, to attend the funeral of his mother.

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England declared a republic: 19th May 1649
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6 December 2009

On this day in history: First edition of Encyclopædia Britannica published, 1768

Two Edinburgh businessmen, a bookseller and printer called Colin Macfarquhar and the engraver Andrew Bell, decided to publish a new encyclopaedia in response to the Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. They contracted a 28-year-old scholar called William Smellie to edit the publication. paying him £200. Smellie abridged and edited articles from other sources, producing longer articles of grouped subjects as well as the usual shorter articles. Bell produced engravings for the 160 illustrations and Macfarquhar printed the texts at his Nicolson Street premises.

On 6th December 1768, the first part of the Encyclopædia Britannica or, a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences compiled under a New Plan went on sale, credited to "A Society of Gentlemen in Scotland". It was the first of one-hundred thick quarto pamphlets costing sixpence each (or eight pence for a version on finer paper). The last part appeared in 1771, and later that same year the whole 2,391 page encyclopaedia went on sale bound in three collected volumes for £12 per set.

The venture proved to be a success although not without controversy. The midwifery section included illustrations of female pelvises and foetuses, which proved upsetting to some readers, notably King George III, who commanded that the offending pages be torn from every copy. Nevertheless, Macfarquhar and Bell decided to produce an expanded second edition in 1776, and the encyclopaedia continues to be published to this day, making it the oldest English-language encyclopaedia still in print.

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5 December 2009

On this day in history: Battle of Leuthen, 1757

In 1740, the newly crowned King Frederick II of Prussia annexed the prosperous Austrian province of Silesia. He wanted to connect his own disparate lands in Silesia and also prevent other European rulers doing the same. Frederick found his pretext for the invasion in an obscure 1537 treaty by which his dynasty should have inherited a number of Silesian princedoms.

The ensuing conflict, known as the First Silesian War, formed part of the larger War of the Austrian Succession, during which the French and Prussians challenged the power of Hapsburg empire. The Second Silesian War also formed part of this larger conflict, during which the Austrians failed to reclaim the province. The war ended with the signing of the 1745 Treaty of Dresden, by which the Austrian ruler, Maria Theresa, recognised Prussian rule in Silesia, in return for Frederick's recognition of her husband as Holy Roman Emperor.

In 1756 the European powers took up arms once more in the Seven Years' War with the Austrians and Prussians again in opposing camps. Fearing that the Austrians would make another attempt to retake Silesia, Frederick led a pre-emptive strike against Austria's Saxon allies. While he campaigned in Saxony, the Austrian forces managed to capture much of Silesia; so, following the defeat of French and Austrian forces at Rossbach, Frederick turned his attention to retaking Silesia.

On 5th December 1757, Frederick's army found an Austrian force twice its size near the village of Leuthen (now Lutynia, Poland). Frederick marched his troops towards the larger army before ordering his cavalry to make a diversionary assault on a nearby village before forming up to face the Austrian right flank. He then marched his infantry to the south behind a line of hills.

The Austrian commander, Prince Charles of Lorraine, had deployed his men in very long lines, knowing that the flanking attack was Frederick's favourite tactic. When he saw the Prussian cavalry face his right flank, he suspected that they were about to act as the spearhead of just such an offensive move; consequently, he sent his reserve and his cavalry to strengthen his right. Then, when he saw the Prussian infantry marching, Charles assumed them to be retreating.

Rather than retreating, Frederick marched his men round to engage the Austrian left flank, which crumbled. Charles tried to reform his troops, but the length of his lines meant that this was a slow process. Nevertheless, The Austrian cavalry saw an opportunity to outflank Frederick, but they were intercepted by the Prussian cavalry and the ensuing melee careered into the back of the Austrian lines, which broke.

Frederick's army of approximately 36,000 men and 167 guns defeated an Austrian force of around 80,000 men armed with 210 cannon. The Prussians lost 1,141 men with 5,118 wounded, compared to over 3,000 Austrian fatalities and around 7,000 wounded. The Prussians captured something in the order of 12,000 Austrians, while the rest of Charles' army fled to join the Austrian withdrawal from Silesia.

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4 December 2009

On this day in history: Montreux Casino fire, 1971

The Montreux Casino opened in November 1881 to provide entertainment for visitors to the Swiss resort on the shores of Lake Geneva. The casino developed a reputation as a music venue, attracting Stravinsky and Ravel. In the late 1960s, it also started hosting concerts by jazz, blues and rock artists, becoming the venue for the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1967, under the direction of Claude Nobs.

On 3rd December 1971, Frank Zappa and the Mothers were playing a concert in the casino's ballroom when one of the audience fired a flare gun at the ceiling. The flare ignited the rattan covering of the ceiling and the fire soon spread, destroying the entire casino complex. Claude Nobs rescued several young people who had been sheltering in the casino. Fortunately, the fire caused only a few injuries and no fatalities.

The incident inspired Deep Purple to write "Smoke on the Water". They were in Montreux at the time, intending to record their new album in the casino using the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio as the tourist season ended. The band eventually managed to record their album, Machine Head, which included "Smoke on the Water" at the Montreux Grand Hotel. The rebuilt Montreux Casino reopened in 1975 with its place in rock history assured.

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3 December 2009

On this day in history: Elvis` comeback special aired on TV, 1968

Elvis Presley had enjoyed unprecedented success in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but by 1968 his career was on the wane. He had released his last studio album in 1962 and since then he had concentrated on movie soundtracks; however, sales of these were also declining: the soundtrack for Speedway only reached number 82 in the US album charts. He had also not topped the Billboard Singles Chart since "Good Luck Charm" in 1962.

Elvis' manager, "Colonel" Parker, signed a deal with NBC for one of television special. Parker intended that the show have a Christmas theme with Elvis singing carols; however, the show's director and co-producer, Steve Binder, had other ideas. Binder proposed that the show involve extravagant choreographed versions of Elvis' hits. The singer agreed and filming of the big production numbers took place between June 20th and 23rd at Western Recorders in Hollywood.

After filming the staged songs, Elvis and his band would wind down with improvised performances of old blues and rock'n'roll songs. Seeing this, Binder suggested that they include intimate live footage in the special. Elvis was a nervous about this at first (he had not performed live since 1961) but with Binder's support and encouragement he performed four shows to small audiences on June 27th and 29th at NBC's Burbank studios accompanied by musicians including the surviving members of his original backing band.

The finished show, simply called Elvis, aired on the NBC network on 3rd December 1968 attracting 42% of the viewing audience. It received favourable reviews and resulted in a number 12 hit single "If I had a dream", which was specially written for the show, and the soundtrack of the show peaked at number 8 in the album charts. Buoyed by the success of the special, over the next few years, Elvis returned to the studio to record a series of acclaimed albums and resumed performing live, including a four week stint at the new International Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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1 December 2009

On this day in history: Restoration of the Portuguese monarchy, 1640

In 1580, King Philip II of Spain became the ruler of Portugal as King Philip I, following the death of the heirless King Sebastian I of Portugal two years earlier. A personal union between the two countries appealed to the Portuguese nobles, enabling Philip to see of the rival claimants to the throne. Portugal remained largely autonomous, administered by the Conselho de Estado ("Council of State") in Lisbon, which advised a Spanish viceroy.

The accession of King Philip IV of Spain (Philip III of Portugal) resulted in a change of policy in Madrid. Under the influence of the Count of Olivares, Philip IV increased taxes in Portugal and gave government posts there to Spaniards in an effort to make Portugal a Royal province. The taxes mainly affected merchants, while the Portuguese nobility lost their power and influence.

In 1640, the Spanish demanded that a Portuguese army be raised to quell a revolt in Catalonia, creating further dismay among the country's nobility and landowners. In response, a group of Portuguese aristocrats and gentlemen met at the house of Antão de Almada on 12th October. They included Miguel de Almeida, Francisco de Melo and his brother Jorge, Pedro de Mendonça Furtado, Antonio de Saldanha and John Pinto Ribeiro. The vowed to recover Portuguese independence and charged Pedro de Mendonça Furtado to contact the Duke of Braganza and offer him the crown.

On 1st December 1640, four bands of well-armed men attacked the royal palace. They killed Miguel de Vasconcelos, who was Secretary of State, and confined the Philip's cousin, the Duchess of Mantua, who ruled on his behalf as Vicereine of Portugal. The coup attracted immediate popular support and the Duke of Braganza entered the city as King John IV of Portugal.

John was crowned on 15th December, but he had already set about making plans to protect his newly acquired throne, creating a Council of War four days earlier. The ensuing Portuguese Restoration War lasted nearly twenty-eight years, but did not escalate beyond border skirmishes and cavalry raids. In February 1688, John's youngest son, Peter II, secured his monarchy and Portuguese independence when Spanish representatives and he signed the Treaty of Lisbon.

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