Category Archives: History

In Remembrance – D-Day: June 6, 1944

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“We do not know or seek what our fate will be. We ask only this, that if die we must, that we die as men would die, without complaining, without pleading and safe in the feeling that we have done our best for what we believed was right.”

Lt. Col. Robert L. Wolverton, Commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 506th Paratroop Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

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“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

Bertrand Russell

 

D-Day.

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Exxon Valdez at 25

The usual victims: a worker tries to save a bird after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

The usual victims: a worker tries to save a bird after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

On this day in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground at Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska and spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil.  The oil spread along 1,300 miles of otherwise pristine coastline.  It remains one of the worst peacetime oil spills in world history, second only to the 1979 Ixtoc I disaster, and its effects linger to this day.  One of those effects is that Exxon never fully accepted responsibility, and the people whose lives were impacted the most never received the financial compensation they were due. We can expect that from a multinational conglomerate with trillion-dollar reserves.

In an age before the Internet and Twitter, news of the calamity still spread fast.  At first, many thought it was just a technical issue.  The crew of a gigantic oil tanker, traveling at night, misjudged the topography of the area and slammed into some rocks.  It wasn’t that simple. Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood had left the navigation bridge around 11 P.M. local time the night before the accident and returned to his stateroom.  He left two subordinates in charge of commandeering the vessel.  When the accident occurred, U.S. Coast Guard officials immediately took Hazelwood into custody and began questioning him.  They also detected the odor of alcohol on his breath and compelled him to undergo a Breathalyzer exam.  His blood alcohol level registered .061, and Hazelwood later admitted to consuming “two to three vodkas” in the hours before the ship slammed into the shoreline.  In 1990, however, a jury in Anchorage found Hazelwood not guilty of public intoxication and two other charges, but convicted him of “misdemeanor oil discharge;” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. Hazelwood did lose his job, and the Coast Guard stripped him of his maritime master’s license.

But, the reaction from Exxon’s then-CEO, Lawrence G. Rawls, only intensified the anger and showed the disconnect corporate executives often have from their own company’s daily operations. Rawls remained aloof for nearly a week after the disaster and then spoke publicly only out of seeming reluctance. He refused to visit the site of the accident and even meet with then-Alaska Governor Steve Cowper who had just taken office four months earlier.

In some ways, Exxon paid the price for its almost-flippant response. Cleanup efforts alone cost the company $2.5 billion, and it paid out an additional $1.1 billion in various settlements. But, when asked how Exxon intended to pay for the mess, one executive merely said it would raise gas prices.

Aside from the livelihoods of coastal residents who depended on fishing to survive, Alaskan wildlife suffered the greatest impact. Responders estimated that as many as 3,000 otters perished within the first year after the spill and have only now seen their numbers replenished to pre-Valdez times. The population of herring also suffered, but their numbers haven’t recovered. Another species that hasn’t recovered is the pigeon guillemot. Their numbers were already in decline before the spill, but the disaster pushed them even further to the brink of extinction. The sight of a large brown bear stumbling along the rocky shoreline, trying to lick its paws clean of the sticky oil, is one particular image that remains with me. Oil-saturated birds struggling for air is another.

Exxon’s reputation suffered as well, but not nearly as much. In 1999, the company merged with Mobil; an $81 billion deal that made it one of the large oil monopolies in the world. In 1994, complicated litigation to make Exxon pay financially for the spill was settled in four phases for a total of $2.5 billion. But, the company, of course, prolonged its appeals, and in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court reduced the punitive damage award to $500 million. In the interim, Exxon (now Exxon Mobil) has reaped extraordinary profits. It hasn’t really suffered. Big corporations never really do. The effects still linger.

10 Worst Oil Spills in World History

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Still Lost

A Northwest DC-4 plane, like Flight 2501.

A Northwest DC-4 plane, like Flight 2501.

As military and airline officials from ten countries search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, many people wonder how such a large aircraft with 239 people aboard could literally vanish.  If the MH777 was over open water, the answer is easily.  Water covers roughly 71% of the Earth’s surface.  Countless planes have disappeared over oceans and seas in aviation’s 100-plus-year history.  We know more about the surface of the moon than we do the depths of our planet’s oceans.

But, the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner recalls another mysterious disappearance nearly 64 years ago.  On June 23, 1950, a Northwest Airlines DC-4 plane vanished over Lake Michigan – and has never been found.  En route from New York City to Seattle, Northwest Flight 2501, carrying 55 passengers and 3 crew members, had a scheduled stop in Minneapolis.  As the plane reached Benton Harbor, Michigan, it encountered a line of thunderstorms.  Captain Robert Lind asked for permission to reduce altitude from 3,500 feet to 2,500 feet.  The Civil Aviation Authority (now the Federal Aviation Administration) couldn’t grant permission because of flight congestion in the area.  That’s the last anyone heard from Flight 2501.

With a total area of 22,394 square miles (58,000 km²) and a total volume of 1,180 cubic miles (4,918 km³), Lake Michigan is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the Western Hemisphere.  Like the other four Great Lakes, it’s actually more of an inland sea.  That can make it treacherous, especially in stormy weather.

A number of people later reported hearing a plane sputtering overhead, near where Northwest Flight 2501 disappeared.  A few actually saw a bright flash just after midnight, just shortly after Captain Lind radioed to CAA.  When officials realized the plane had never made it to Seattle, they launched an intense search across Lake Michigan.  Oil streaks and debris found along the surface initially gave hope, but searchers later determined the material did not belong to Flight 2501.

After an extensive investigation, however, the CAA could only list the cause of the disappearance as “Unknown.”  The debacle was the worst civil aviation disaster of its time.  And, despite its weight of 71,000 pounds and a wing span of 117 feet, no remnant of the craft has ever been found.

In 2006, author and shipwreck hunter Clive Cussler joined the search.  Cussler had located more than 80 shipwrecks across the globe and financed an extensive search of Lake Michigan.  But, after reaching up to 200 feet beneath the surface, even he couldn’t find anything.

Considering the number of vessels that have met a tragic fate in its expansive waters, Lake Michigan is not prone to revealing its secrets too easily.

A “Detroit Free Press” cover story from June 25, 1950 gave false hopes about the missing plane.

A “Detroit Free Press” cover story from June 25, 1950 gave false hopes about the missing plane.

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A Quarter Century of Webs

Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 template for what would become the World Wide Web.  Image courtesy: World Wide Web Consortium.

Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 template for what would become the World Wide Web. Image courtesy: World Wide Web Consortium.

On this day in 1989, the Internet, as we know it, was born – at least on paper.  Like film, radio and television before it, the Internet technically had a slew of birth parents.  But, for the most part, one man figures critically in its creation: Tim Berners-Lee.

Born in London in 1955, Berners-Lee graduated from Oxford University with a degree in physics.  Immediately after graduating, he went to work for a printing firm, but in 1980, he began working as an independent contractor for CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland.  There, he had to consult with other scientists and researchers from across the world, which presented unique challenges with varying time zones, languages and communication methods.  To facilitate the process, Berners-Lee began working on a project based on the use of hypertext, a data-specific language developed by Ted Nelson, an American scientist, in the 1960s.

Born in New York in 1937, Nelson apparently was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) as a child.  His frenetic thought patterns (a hallmark of ADD sufferers) probably led him to create the hypertext system.

Berners-Lee called the prototype of his program “Esquire.”  He has been smart and gracious enough, though, to give credit to all of his computing predecessors, such as Nelson.  The concept of electronic mail (email), for example, was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a simple file-sharing system and first demonstrated in 1961.  That evolved into a system of message transmission MIT dubbed “Mailbox.”

Another early similar program was called “SNDMSG.”  That functioned in conjunction with another system called “Advanced Research Projects Agency Network” (ARPANET), which first appeared in 1971.

Accolades must also go to Douglas Engelbart who invented the computer mouse in 1963 and first demonstrated it five years later.  Like most inventors, Engelbart envisioned his creation in the usual manner: doing something completely unrelated.  In his case, he was driving to work when he imagined “people sitting in front of cathode-ray-tube displays, ‘flying around’ in an information space where they could formulate and portray their concepts in ways that could better harness sensory, perceptual and cognitive capabilities heretofore gone untapped.  Then they would communicate and communally organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility.”  But, even he can’t explain why he called his device (first made of wood) a “mouse.”

Berners-Lee took all of these ideas and materials and composed “Information Management: A Proposal” that he presented to CERN on March 12, 1989.  From that, he ultimately created the “World Wide Web.”  With the help of Robert Cailliau, a Belgian computer scientist, he presented the first version in 1990 and put it online the following year.  The first web page address was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html.

His initial goal was merely to help CERN be more productive.  But, while Berners-Lee visualized a grander purpose for the “Web,” even he couldn’t predict the impact his creation would have on the world.

Douglas Engelbart presents the first computer mouse on December 9, 1968.

Tim Berners-Lee interview with C-Net.

World Wide Web Consortium

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“Steamboat Willie” Goes for a Ride

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On this day in 1928, Walt Disney premiered the first cartoon with synchronized sound, “Steamboat Willie.”  Crude by today’s standards, it was innovative for its time.  Walt Disney himself performed all the voices, although the dialogue is often hard to understand.  The cartoon was a parody of the Buster Keaton film, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” which was a reference to a 1911 song, “Steamboat Bill,” performed by Arthur Francis Collins.  The film lasts all of 7 minutes and 23 seconds and came out as the film industry was making the inevitable and sometimes difficult transition to sound.  “Steamboat Willie” also marks the first appearance of that Disney icon, Mickey Mouse.  With an estimated budget of $4,986, there were some initial concerns about the believability of cartoon characters producing their own sound.  Thus, Disney arranged for a preview of the film even before the sound track was produced.  The audience responded positively to it and subsequent audiences liked it even better with the sound.  The film would later become the subject of controversy because of perceived animal cruelty, including one scene where Willie swings a cat around by its tale.  But, it was just a product of its time.  Regardless, it remains a landmark of early sound cinema and a true pioneer in both animation and overall filmmaking.

A poster produced for the film’s 50th anniversary.

A poster produced for the film’s 50th anniversary.

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Old Wounds

The ancient fort of Dura-Europos in Syria – possibly the site of one of the world’s first chemical attacks.

The ancient fort of Dura-Europos in Syria – possibly the site of one of the world’s first chemical attacks.

With Syria in the news lately, the specter of chemical warfare once again rears its despicable, gassy head.  If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad really did attack a select number of his own civilians with mustard gas, sarin, or another agent, it actually won’t be the first time such an event has occurred in the region.  Archaeology Magazine reports that around A.D. 256, Roman soldiers at a fort in Dura-Europos – a part of the Sasanian Empire – fell victim to a chemical attack.  There’s no written account of the battle, but recent analyses of remains unearthed in the 1920s and 1930s substantiate claims made by University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James in 2009.

Until then, scientists thought the soldiers had died when the tunnel they apparently tried to utilize to enter the fort collapsed.  Now, according to James, sulfur residue found along in a jar near several of the bodies reveals a bloodier truth.  The Sasanians had strategically placed fire pits throughout the tunnel.  As the Romans encroached, the Sasanians added sulfur crystals and bitumen to the fires.  The invaders inhaled the toxic fumes and perished alongside their armor.

Defining ancient chemical attacks is obviously difficult, if not impossible.  But, in this case, the remains of that sulfur makes it pretty clear what happened.  More importantly, it shows that while we modern folks think we’ve invented everything, history always upstages us.

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“March on Washington” at 50

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington,” a seminal event in modern civil rights history – one that changed the cultural direction of this nation.  Officially titled the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” its initial impact surprised even its organizers.  In a time before cell phones and personal computers, word of the event spread quickly and attracted more than 200,000 people to the U.S. capital as a steamy summer neared its end.  Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was the highlight of the march and remains its signature hallmark.  But, it was more than a showcase for King; it was about a movement and a people – the American people.  It was a call for the U.S. to uphold its constitutional values that all citizens are created equal.  People will forever debate its merits.  But, there’s no doubt it became a critical force in moving this nation forward; a real catalyst for positive change and opportunity.

The fight actually continues in relentless calls for economic and social justice.  Battles like this are never won so easily.

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Official program.

Photos from the event.

Top image courtesy of United Liberty.

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