On the 25th May 1961, American President John F. Kennedy made the announcement to a joint session of Congress that he had set his sights on a manned moon landing before the end of the decade.
To many people, including some personnel at NASA, Kennedy’s address seemed ridiculous. The USA had only sent its first man into space 20 days earlier and, although Alan Shepard’s spaceflight aboard Freedom 7 was a huge success, the USSR’s Yuri Gagarin had already become the first man in space three weeks before that. Taking on the USSR at a technological game that they were already leading appeared reckless.
An underlying issue was that, as part of his election campaign, Kennedy had promised to outperform the Soviet Union in the fields of space exploration and missile defence. In his famed television debate with Richard Nixon, Kennedy had mocked the fact that Nixon was proud of the USA being ahead of the USSR in terms of colour television while trailing in terms of rocket thrust. Gagarin’s flight had proved to the world that the USSR was currently ‘winning’ the Space Race, and so put pressure on Kennedy to increase spending on the Apollo space program. Having received a memo from Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson in which he reported that the USA was unlikely to ever outperform the USSR under the current spending arrangements, Kennedy launched the largest peacetime financial commitment ever made.
The $24 billion dollars did work, however, and Apollo 11 achieved Kennedy’s goal by landing on the moon on 20th July 1969.
On the 21st May 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to make a solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic when he flew 3,600 miles from New York to Paris. On exactly the same date five years later, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic when she landed in Northern Ireland, having been forced to abandon her intended destination of Paris due to technical difficulties.
Lindbergh’s flight in The Spirit of St Louis earned him not only enormous fame but also the $25,000 Orteig Prize that had been offered by a French-born New York hotelier to the first person to make a non-stop flight between New York and Paris.
Earhart, meanwhile, did not fly in the hope of receiving prize money. She later said that she aimed to prove that women were just as good as men in “jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness, and willpower.” Interestingly, she already held the record as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but she did that as a passenger in 1928.
It’s worth noting that the very first non-stop transatlantic flight occurred in 1919. Two British aviators, John Alcock and Arthur Whiten Brown, flew a modified Vickers Vimy bomber aircraft from Newfoundland to Ireland in just under 16 hours. Their achievement won them the £10,000 Daily Mail aviation prize for the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. They received their prize from the then Secretary of State for Air, and future World War 2 Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
British inventor Edwin Budding went into partnership with foundry owner John Ferrabee to manufacture the world’s first lawn mower.
Edwin Budding grew up near the Gloucestershire town of Stroud, where he often saw teams of labourers using scythes to manually cut the lawns of the landed gentry. The labour-intensive nature of this work would later inspire him to create the ubiquitous machine.
Having begun work in an iron foundry as a pattern maker, Budding came across a mechanical napping machine created by John Lewis in 1815 that was used to trim fibres from the surface of woven cloth to produce an even finish. Later developments to this machine used a cylindrical cutting blade that directly influenced Budding’s lawn mower design.
Powered by a large iron roller and a series of gears that span the cutting cylinder close to a knife plate, Budding’s mower was pushed from behind. A second roller could be adjusted to alter the cutting height, while the clippings were flung into a collection box at the front.
On 18 May Budding signed an agreement with John Ferrabee, owner of the Phoenix Iron Works at the nearby town of Thrupp, to manufacture the machine. One of the first models was sold to Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens in London where the head gardener reported that the new lawn mower allowed two men to do as much work as six or eight men with scythes.
Ferrabee subsequently licensed other manufacturers to produce Budding mowers, while Budding returned to inventing. He went on to create the first adjustable spanner in 1842.
On the 11th May 1997, the IBM computer Deep Blue became the first computer to defeat a reigning world chess champion under tournament conditions when it beat Garry Kasparov 3½-2½ over six matches.
Deep Blue began life as a graduate research project at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Developed over 8 years by a team of eight computer scientists, it operated through brute force computing power. Ranked as the 259th most powerful computer in the world, Deep Blue was able to evaluate 200 million separate chess positions per second.
The Deep Blue team used records of Kasparov’s previous games to program the computer with his previous strategies. The programmers were also allowed to tweak the computer’s algorithm between rounds to take account of the last game. Kasparov, meanwhile, was playing blind since this model of Deep Blue hadn’t played any previous tournament games.
Kasparov was unnerved by the behavior of Deep Blue in the first match. Although the computer lost the match, Kasparov believed it showed ‘superior intelligence’ when it sacrificed a piece. However, IBM later claimed that the sacrifice was a result of a bug in the software resulting in the computer playing a fall-back move. However, this illogical move unsettled Kasparov and put him at a psychological disadvantage for the remaining games. He refused to accept the defeat, accusing IBM of human intervention which they strenuously denied. IBM also refused his requests for a rematch.
On the 3rd May 1830, the world’s first timetabled steam-powered passenger service began operating on the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway. Due to Whitstable being a seaside town, the line became affectionately known as the Crab and Winkle line, and continued to operate a passenger service for just over a hundred years before becoming goods-only.
It’s important to add some clarification to the Crab and Winkle line’s claim to fame. Firstly, it wasn’t the world’s first passenger railway – that was the Stockton and Darlington railway in the north of England – but the Stockton and Darlington only used steam locomotives for goods transportation. Horses were used to pull passenger carriages along the tracks. What made the Canterbury and Whistable Railway unique was the steam locomotive ‘Invicta’. Built by George and Robert Stevenson in Newcastle, and transported to Whitstable by sea, ‘Invicta’ was the first steam locomotive to haul passengers on a public railway line.
However, even ‘Invicta’ wasn’t used for the entire journey. The locomotive only transported passengers over a short, flat, section of the line. Due to steep inclines, and the very low power of ‘Invicta’ – it was rated at just 9hp – stationary steam engines hauled carriages that were attached to long cables for the majority of the 6 mile journey.
However, the line was significant for the 757 metre long Tyler Hill Tunnel, which Isambard Kingdom Brunel studied while designing his landmark tunnel through Box Hill for the Great Western Railway.
The 25th April 1792 saw the world’s first use of the guillotine as a method of execution. Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a French highwayman found guilty of killing a man during one of his robberies, was the guillotine’s first – but by no means last – victim.
Pelletier’s status as a common criminal was significant. Prior to the French Revolution, beheading as a form of execution had been reserved for the nobility. Commoners were usually subjected to longer and arguably more painful deaths through hanging, or worse. To end the privilege of the nobility, the National Assembly therefore made decapitation the only legal form of execution.
It was recognised that manual beheading was, however, still a gruesome form of execution. On 10th October 1789, physician Joseph Guillotin argued that every execution should be swift and mechanical. The National Assembly agreed, acknowledging that capital punishment should simply end life, not purposefully cause pain as well.
Another physician, Antoine Louis, was appointed to lead a committee to develop a quick and efficient decapitation machine. Although Guillotin was a member of this committee, it is actually therefore Antione Louis who is credited with the device’s invention, even though it carries the Guillotin’s name.
As for the highwayman Pelletier, his execution went smoothly – much to the disappointment of the crowd who expected better ‘entertainment’. Excited to see the new machine in action, they were disappointed at its speed and efficiency.
Put on for an audience of 200 invited attendees at the “Society for the Development of the National Industry”, the reaction to the moving black-and-white pictures caught the brothers by surprise. They had attended the conference to share Louis’ recent work on colour photography and only showed the 45-second film La Sortie des Usines Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory), as a novelty after Louis’ lecture.
The machine used to project the film had been patented by the brothers the previous month. Their father owned a photographic materials factory in Lyon and told his sons about the Edison kinetoscope that he had seen in Paris in 1894. Inspired by their father’s enthusiasm they invented the Cinématographe which combined a camera, developer and projector into a single unit. Its drive mechanism was based on the “presser foot” used in sewing machines, and used a clawed gear to engage with perforations in the side of a roll of film. As the gear rotated, individual frames moved in front of the lens to capture the moving image at a rate of 12 frames every second. The same mechanism could later be used to project the captured images.
The positive reception to the first film screening led the brothers to refine their invention and, on 28 December 1895, they staged their first public show at the Grand Café in Paris. Within less than a decade, however, the brothers withdrew from the motion picture industry and instead turned their attention to the development of colour photography, a technology that they went on to dominate for a number of years with their Autochrome process.
The economic bubble that is also referred to as the ‘dot-com boom’ was the result of investors speculatively pouring money into the numerous internet companies that were founded in the mid- to late-1990s. The exponential growth witnessed by the stock market was primarily based on overconfidence in new online businesses, many of which had a ‘.com’ suffix.
A large number of these companies raised enormous funds by selling shares in initial public offerings, despite the fact that some of them had not even begun to generate income, let alone make a profit.
Driven by a mixture of private investors and venture capitalists, both of whom hoped to make massive gains from the rapid growth of the internet, the stock value of many of the new dot-com companies increased exponentially. However the party couldn’t last and the market quickly declined after the NASDAQ Composite index, which includes many technology companies, peaked at 5,132.52 during trading on 10 March 2000.
Around this time some of the companies began to report huge losses. This bad news, combined with large sell orders of stocks by some of the larger tech companies, led to panic selling that made the stock market lose 10% of its value within just a few weeks. Without access to previously abundant capital other companies folded, bursting the dot-com bubble.
The dot-com crisis was exacerbated by a stock market downturn following the September 11 attacks in 2001. Yet, despite the broader collapse in the tech sector, a number of companies including Amazon, eBay, and Google, managed to survive and later flourish.
The Forth Railway Bridge stretches almost 2.5km across the Firth of Forth, a large estuary area to west of Edinburgh. The bridge, which features two main spans of over 500m each, continues to operate as vital rail link between Fife and the Lothians.
The Forth Bridge was designed by the English engineers Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker using the cantilever principle in which a central span is supported by the tension and compression of supporting arms that are only anchored at one end.
Before construction even began on the bridge in 1882, the contractor Sir William Arrol & Co. landscaped the shores on each side. They then constructed buildings such as workshops, as well as huts and houses to accommodate the more than 4,500 workers who worked on the bridge. Of these, 73 are known to have died in work-related accidents.
The bridge was finally completed in December 1889 and was tested the following month to ensure that it operated properly under load. Satisfied that the bridge was safe, the chairmen of the various railway companies involved in funding the £3.2 million construction travelled over it several times on 24 February. A week later the future King Edward VII formally opened the bridge and secured the last of 6.5 million rivets.
The bridge continues to carry more than 200 trains a day, and is an important symbol of Scotland. Thanks to the development of a new coating, it is also no longer necessary to continuously paint the bridge, a task that takes 10 years to complete.
Chappe was born into a wealthy family in 1763 and originally trained as a member of the church. However, the turmoil of the French Revolution meant that he was unable to continue in his position and he returned home to focus on science. Working with his brothers, Chappe began to experiment with optical telegraph designs.
Chappe was not the first person to attempt to create a system of long-distance communication. The English scientist Robert Hooke had presented a proposal a century earlier, but his idea was never implemented. Consequently the Chappe brothers were the first to successfully transmit a message when they demonstrated their system on 2 March 1791, covering more than 16km from Brûlon to Parcé.
Using what became known as the Synchronized System, Chappe was able to transmit the phrase ‘If you succeed, you will soon bask in glory’ in just four minutes. Two pendulum clocks had their faces modified with a series of symbols and, after being synchronised, were placed in the two locations alongside a telescope that pointed to the other. The transmitting station used black and white panels to alert the receiver to when the second hand of the clock was passing over the appropriate symbol, which they then recorded. The string of symbols, when decoded, produced the message.
Chappe soon abandoned synchronised clocks in favour of mechanical arms to portray the different symbols. When mounted on top of a tower, the arms could be seen through a telescope and their alignment either recorded or relayed onwards. A 230km semaphore line of these towers between Paris and Lille was installed in 1792.