This is a series of articles that has grown out of the daily listings of what happened "On This Day". Many of the events, particularly those related to science, seemed to us to need some more information than is possible in the daily listing format. Still others had amusing or informative anecdotes associated with them that we felt were worth sharing with our Visitors. The series is designed for browsing and dipping into and we have therefore set up a comprehensive system of links to make this as easy and as enjoyable as possible.
This series of articles will present occasional anecdotal, amusing and factual notes behind the people and events in history digests. People are indexed according to their family or surnames whereas kings, popes, emperors etc. are listed according to their regnal names- e.g. Charles Boycott would be found under B, Pope Gregory under G and Queen Mary Tudor under M. Other items are indexed by the most significant word in the title, for example Artificial Ice will be found under I but Sad Iron will be found under S.
Within the series there are two sets of links. At the top of each page there will be a table of links to the other indexing letters to allow browsing by individual pages. That also appears on this page. At the bottom of each page you will also find a set of links which will allow you to scroll backward (Previous) and forward (next) through the pages. The pages are looped so the "Previous" link from A will be to Z and the "Next" link from Z will be to A. There will also be a central link back to the introduction page whose main content is an alphabetic list of the complete set of entries. From here, you will be able to browse the titles of the individual entries and jump directly to those that interest you.
Johann Salamo Christoph Schweigger (1779-1857) was a German physicist who invented the galvanometer in 1820. This is a device which measures the strength of an electric current. He developed the principle from the results of an experiment which Oersted (1777-1851) had made in 1819. This showed that an electric current in a wire will deflect a compass needle. Schweigger realized that this could be the basis of measuring instrument because stronger currents would produce larger deflections. He set about his own experiments and increased the effect by winding the wire many times in a coil around the magnetic needle. He named this instrument in honour of Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), the professor who gave Volta (1745-1827) the idea for the first battery. Seebeck (1770-1831) named the innovative coil, Schweigger's multiplier. It became the basis of moving coil instruments and loudspeakers.
Philippe Lebon (1767-1804) was the French engineer and chemist who invented illuminating gas. He was born in the charcoal-burning town of Bruchay an in 1797 he began the work that led to his invention of the first gas lighting. He found that heating sawdust in a glass tube over a flame produced a flammable gas. However it was smoky and had a terrible smell. He then proceeded to distil the gas from wood itself and this produced a much cleaner product. This he used in his Thermolampe [heat lamp] which he patented and exhibited in 1799. For several months during 1801 he exhibited a large version of the lamp in a Paris hotel. On the day of Napoleon's coronation in 1804, Lebon was robbed and stabbed to death. William Murdoch, working independently in Scotland at the same time, produced, purified and stored gas. He went on to introduce widespread gas lighting.
Walter M. Elsasser was a German-born American physicist who made a variety of contributions to science. He is best remembered for his explanation of the origin and properties of the Earth's magnetic field (the geomagnetic field) using a "dynamo model." In this model, the rotation of the earth causes a dynamo effect in the molten metal of the core. The English scientist Faraday was the first to describe the intimate relationship between electric current and magnetic fields. One of his insights was the fact that a moving electric current always has a magnetic field associated with it and a moving magnetic field will always produce an electric current. From this we get the dynamo effect and Elsasser successfully demonstrated that it would explain 80% of the geomagnetic field. We now know that the other 20% is caused by highly localised disturbances which actually allow us to date archaeological features.
John Goodricke (1764-1786) was the English astronomer who was the first to notice that some variable stars were periodic. He was born a deaf-mute but, after a proper education, he was able to read lips and to speak. He was the first person to calculate the period of Algol to 68 hours and 50 minutes, where the star was changing its brightness by more than a magnitude as seen from Earth. He was also the first to correctly propose that the distant sun is periodically occulted by a dark body. At the very young age of 21 he was admitted to the Royal Society on 16 April 1786. However, he died four days later at York, from pneumonia and nevr knew of the honour done him.
The Great Stink
The summer of 1858 was unusually hot and dry in London. However, far from basking in the sunshine, the city's inhabitants were overwhelmed by an insupportable stench caused by the combination of the weather and the effect of the sewers that emptied directly into the Thames. The stench was so bad that nobody went near the river unless compelled to and the windows of the Houses of Parliament were draped with curtains soaked in chloride of lime so that the Members could breathe. Tons of chalk lime, chloride of lime and carbolic acid were poured into the river but had little effect.
The root cause went back to the Metropolitan Building Act of 1844 which did away with the 270,000 cesspits which lay beneath London's floor boards and replaced them with a system of drains leading to the main sewers. The result was disastrous. The Thames was suddenly filled with the waste produced by three million people and became a massive open sewer. A total of 369 sewers emptied either directly into the rive or onto the foreshore only at low tide. As the tide rose twice a day these outlets were blocked and the sewage dammed back and became stagnant. To make matters worse, the sludge carried away on one tide was regurgitated by the next incoming tide. As the river was the main source of water for the city's pumps it is not difficult to see why cholera was such a problem in the city in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Great Stink was the climax and in the same year a Bill for the Purification of the Thames was passed. The chief Metropolitan Engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, was the man charged with the Herculean task and he immediately set out to give London, north and south of the river, a properly planned drainage system. He devised a scheme in which network of sewers at three different levels took the sewage from the existing system, by a combination of gravity flow and strategically placed pumping stations, to outfalls twenty-six miles down river at Beckton on the north bank and Crossness on the south. Here the methane from the sewage was used to drive the pumping turbines, the sewage itself was treated chemically to render it harmless and the residue was carried out to the North Sea on special ships and dumped sixty miles out in the Black Deep. When completed, Bazalgette's system added up to 1,300 miles of sewers.
The pumping stations constructed as part of the system at Deptford, Stratford, Pimlico and Crossness can still be admired. The Crossness Engines (close to where this is being written) have recently been wonderfully restored by a team of volunteers. The four beam engines are named Prince Consort, Victoria, Albert Edward and Alexandra and are exquisite examples of Victorian engineering at its best a small sample of which can be seen in the photograph. The site is open to visitors at special times and appointments are necessary for the present. Full details can be found on the trust's website.
Pope Gregory I (The Great) died on March 12th 604. Born around 540 into a wealthy patrician family with a mansion on the Caelian Hill at Rome and extensive estates in Sicily. Little is known about his early life but he appears to have gone through a course of legal studies and embarked upon a public career since, about the year 573, when little more than thirty years old, he held the important office of prefect of the city of Rome. Probably in 574 he abandoned public life and became a monk. His Sicilian estates were given up to found six monasteries there, and his home on the Caelian Hill was converted into another under the patronage of St. Andrew. Here he himself took the cowl, so that "he who had been wont to go about the city clad in the trabea and aglow with silk and jewels, now clad in a worthless garment served the altar of the Lord".
Eventually, he became abbot of St Andrew's and was widely known for his piety and wisdom, serving as the chief adviser and assistant to Pope Pelagius II. Then, in February, 590, as the plague swept through Rome, Pelagius died. The choice of a successor lay with the clergy and people of Rome, and without any hesitation they elected the Abbot of St. Andrew's. Gregory shrank from the prospect and when the election was confirmed he attempted to flee. He was seized, however, carried to the Basilica of St. Peter, and there consecrated pope on 3 September, 590.
He instigated many reforms of the Roman Liturgy and amongst these was the place and use of plain song (or chant) within it. There is some dispute amongst scholars about his precise relationship the development of the latter but tradition is adamant that what we know as Gregorian Chant was developed and institutionalised during his papacy.
Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) was the French physician who invented the guillotine as a more humane way of execution condemned persons. He first promoted a law that required all executions, even those of commoners, to be carried out by means of a
machine that beheads painlessly. After a series of experiments on cadavers taken from a public hospital, the first of these machines was put up in the Place de Gr ve in Paris on the 4th of April 1792. The first execution in which it was used was that of a highwayman, on the following 25th of April. It gained its notoriety during the Terror of the years 1792-94. Known first as the "machine", the beheading of Louis XVI saw it the name la Louisette or le Louison. After 1800 the term la Guillotine became established and is now the universal name for the instrument.
Scroll through the series: