This week in 1801, astronomer-priest Giuseppe Piazzi discovered a new astronomical body between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. He named it Ceres Ferdinandea. Ceres was the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and motherhood – the Latin version of the Greeks’ Demeter, mother of Hades’ wife Persephone. So in choosing Ceres, Piazzi followed tradition: naming astronomical bodies after Roman gods (e.g., Venus, Jupiter, Saturn). In choosing Ferdinandea, however, Piazzi departed from tradition. The name honored Ferdinand III, king of Piazzi’s homeland, Sicily – who was also Ferdinand IV of Naples. The astronomers of other nations declined to honor King Ferdinand, so only the name Ceres stuck. Piazzi originally reported Ceres as a comet, but he suspected it was a planet, and other astronomers soon agreed. By the 1850’s, however, star-watchers had discovered many other small astronomical bodies orbiting between Jupiter and Mars, and they coined a new terms for the whole group: asteroids. Ceres has been considered an asteroid ever since. But Ceres stands out from its crowd, since it’s the biggest asteroid and the only one to be rounded (globe-shaped), due to its own gravity. As a result, Ceres’ status changed again in 2006, when astronomers demoted Pluto from planet status and created a new category: dwarf planet. Dwarf planets are globe-shaped bodies that don’t orbit a planet – they’re not moons – but that have not cleared their orbit of other objects, the way full planets do. Pluto’s demotion outraged many astronomy fans, but Ceres had been promoted. Today, it’s the only object classified as both an asteroid and a dwarf planet. Continue reading “This week in history: Ceres”
This week in 537, eastern Roman emperor Justinian I finished construction of the Hagia Sophia: the great cathedral of his capital, Constantinople. Upon completion and for centuries thereafter, it was the largest building in the world. Justinian’s realm was the remainder of the Roman Empire: the original mega-state’s eastern half, which survived the fall of the West and which we call the Byzantine Empire. And the Hagia Sophia became the central cathedral of the eastern region of the Roman Christian Church, not to mention the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Eventually, the two great sections of the church broke into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church — the latter led by the Patriarch of Rome, a.k.a the Pope. The Hagia Sophia remained the central cathedral of the Eastern church and the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when Constantinople fell to Muslim invaders and became the capital of the Turks’ new Ottoman Empire. The conquerors turned the cathedral into a mosque and added its now-iconic minarets: the slender towers you see on many mosques, used for the call to prayer. In the 1930s, however, the new, secular state of Turkey closed the mosque and transformed it into the Ayasofya Muzesi, or the Museum of the Hagia Sophia. You can visit the museum to this day, in Istanbul: the Turkish name for Constantinople. Continue reading “This week in history: Hagia Sophia”
This week in 1773, the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Native Americans, boarded British ships in Boston Harbor, and dumped 342 chests of tea into the water. Continue reading “This week in history: The Boston Tea Party”
This week in 1768, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell of Scotland published the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. It had just 3 volumes—quite a contrast to the thirty-two volumes of the fifteenth and final edition, published in 2010. Despite small beginnings, Britannica quickly gained a reputation for excellence and was soon considered the most authoritative English language encyclopedia. Ironically given the name, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. has become an American company. Sears Roebuck bought the rights in 1920, and the company now operates out of Chicago. Continue reading “This week in history: Encyclopaedia Britannica”
This week in 1852, Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte became Emperor of France. His father was the younger brother of the original Napoleon. And his mother was the daughter of the famous Josephine – the long-term mistress and eventually wife of the first Napoleon — by her other (first) husband. To capitalize on his famous uncle’s reputation, the new emperor took the name Napoleon III. (In theory, the first Napoleon’s four-year-old son had ruled for about two weeks in 1815, as Napoleon II.) Continue reading “This week in history: Napoleon III”
This week in 1558, Elizabeth Tudor was declared queen of England and Ireland, following the untimely death of her half-sister, Queen Mary. Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII by his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Her first and most important job as queen was to marry and produce an heir. Her sister Mary had married the King of Spain (leading to an unhappy long-distance marriage), and Elizabeth could have chosen a foreign royal too. Many of her advisors, on the other hand, preferred a noble English husband. Either way, conventional wisdom demanded marriage, since a kingdom without an heir is unstable, and since a mere woman can’t reign alone. Yet after Elizabeth had flirted with various foreign and English suitors for years, it became clear the queen would never marry. It’s not that Elizabeth disliked men. In fact, she apparently had a taste for big, athletic bad boys. Rather, the queen probably felt that, in a man’s world, a husband would steal some of her authority. And for an energetic, forceful, and smart ruler like Queen Elizabeth, that was unacceptable. So she reigned alone and became known and loved as the Virgin Queen (though her actual virginity seems doubtful). And she ruled well, blazing her own trail as a ruling queen without husband or heir. Her forty-five-year reign saw a steady rise in English might and witnessed the defeat of Europe’s greatest power – as Elizabeth’s navy (and bad weather) foiled a Spanish invasion and destroyed the Spanish Armada, in 1588. The Elizabethan era also saw a great flowering of English culture, including the rise of English drama and the start of Shakespeare’s career. Continue reading “This week in history: Queen Elizabeth”
On October 24th 1901, Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to “raft” over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. She accomplished this feat on her 63rd birthday with the intent of securing her finances, through speaking engagements and other publicity. Unfortunately, she never made much money from the venture – mostly because her associates swindled her during post-stunt publicity tour. Annie did write a memoir that briefly improved her finances, but not for long. She died in 1921 in relative obscurity. Today, however, Kathleen Ordiway portrays Taylor at the “Encounter Niagara” tour at the falls, ensuring the survival of her legacy.
On this day in 1610, Louis XIII was crowned King of France, following the assassination of his father, Henry IV. The new king was only nine, so his mother, Marie de’ Medici, ruled as regent. Her mismanagement, however, along with widespread hostility toward her Italian favorites, led the teenage Louis XIII to take over in 1617. He then exiled his mother and execute several of her followers. Louis XIII ruled well, thanks in large part to his brilliant chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu. The king died in 1643 and was succeeded by his son, Louis XIV, a.k.a. the Sun King, who made France the greatest power in Europe.
This week in 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. chief executive to fly in an airplane. More than 10,000 people attended the event at Kinloch Field in St. Louis. The pilot, Archibald Hoxsey, flew Roosevelt around the field twice, for a distance of about three miles, in a flight lasting three minutes and twenty seconds. Roosevelt greatly enjoyed the experience and waved to the crowd from the circling airplane. Hoxsey, on the other hand, suffered great anxiety, fearing what might happen if the former President were injured or killed. But the plane landed with both pilot and passenger in great spirits.
On this day in 1822, Jean-Francois Champollion announced that he had deciphered the Rosetta Stone, 23 years after its discovery. The Rosetta Stone records a 196 BC decree from the reign of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes of Egypt, and it’s written in 3 different languages. That made it the key to translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, as well as the Egyptian demotic script. The bottom language was Ancient Greek, which was well-known in the 1800’s, and the demotic and hieroglyphic scripts were inscribed above. So Campollion used the ancient Greek version of the decree to translate the other two, giving historians the key to reading hieroglyphs and demotic script on temple walls, ancient manuscripts, and everywhere else. Much of what we know about the ancient Egyptians—including those from far before 196 BC—comes to us thanks to Campollion’s work.