Monday, March 31, 2008

1989: Denmark allows gay civil unions

In Denmark, civil unions with the same rights as marriage have been performed since 1989, and other Nordic countries followed in the 1990s.

The Dutch were the first to eliminate any distinction between gay and straight in the marriage laws. Belgium soon did the same.

Canada jumped to the forefront of gay rights in North America in 2004 when it announced plans to legalize same-sex marriages. Many same-sex couples streamed north to marry in Ottawa and British Columbia after courts in those provinces authorized weddings.

In most of Africa, homosexuality is illegal and gay marriage unthinkable. But in South Africa, gay rights were enshrined in the post-apartheid constitution and some groups are lobbying for the right to marry.

In Japan homosexuality is no longer considered a mental illness, but many gays still feel pressure to go through a sham heterosexual marriage. Japan is more progressive than most of Asia.

Strongly Roman Catholic countries such as Spain and Italy refuse to recognize gay couples, following the Vatican's abhorrence of homosexuality. But there are important exceptions.

In Portugal, and in Spain's Navarra and Basque regions, gay couples who live together long enough receive the same benefits as heterosexuals under common law unions. In Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires, gay couples can register for a civil union.

France and Germany have civil union laws, and Britain is in the process of adopting them.

The Dutch have watched the hoopla in the United States with some bemusement. Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen, who married six couples at the stroke of midnight on April 1, 2001, when the Dutch law took effect, sent a note of support to Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco mayor who set off a rush to California when he performed same-sex ceremonies. (info from CBS)

Blogger's Note: I have a grand-niece who has been to more weddings with two brides, than with a bride and a groom.

Friday, March 28, 2008

1922: first American Bat Mitzvah ceremony

Jewish males become Bar Mitzvah ("son of the commandment") and assume adult responsibilities and privileges at age 13, often with a special ceremony in a synagogue, and often with a celebration.

On Saturday morning, March 18, 1922, 12-year-old Judith Kaplan, daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, walked to the front of her father’s synagogue in New York City. She recited prayers, read a portion of the Torah in Hebrew and English and shocked "a lot of people," she later recalled, "including my own grandparents and aunts and uncles." This was the first known American Bat Mitzvah ("daughter of the commandment") ceremony.

Except in Italy, before 1922 there was no ritual for girls parallel to a boy's Bar Mitzvah ceremony. The Orthodox Jewish Italian rite for becoming Bat Mitzvah made a great impression on Rabbi Kaplan, who was originally Orthodox, became Conservative, and then founded Reconstructionist Judaism.

Through Kaplan's influence at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Jews from all branches of non-Orthodox Judaism learned about and emulated the Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Most Orthodox rabbis strongly rejected it, despite the Italian Orthodox origin.

Judith Kaplan earned degrees in music education from Columbia University, and taught musical education and the history of Jewish music at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. In 1959, at age 50, she entered the School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College, obtained her Ph.D. and taught there until 1979. By the time of her death in 1996, she had composed a significant body of original liturgical music, created a radio series on the history of Jewish music and wrote several books. (Info from Jewish Virtual Library, Wikipedia and other sources.)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

1893: first nation allows women to vote

New Zealand was the first nation to give women the right to vote, in 1893.

The US didn't get around to it until 1920.

Saudi Arabia and Vatican City still don't allow women to vote.

Bhutan permits one vote per house. Mostly men vote. A proposed new constitution may make it better for women.

In Brunei no one votes, because the country is governed by an absolute monarchy.

In Lebanon, proof of elementary education is required for women who want to vote, but not for men. Voting is compulsory for men but optional for women.

(info from Wikipedia)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

1880: first country with standard time

Britain was the first country to set the time throughout a region to one standard time. The railways cared most about the inconsistencies of local time, and they forced a uniform time on the country.

The original idea was credited to Dr. William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828) and was popularized by Abraham Follett Osler (1808-1903). The Great Western Railway was the first to adopt London time, in November 1840. Other railways followed suit, and by 1847 most (though not all) railways used London time.

On September 22, 1847, the Railway Clearing House, an industry standards body, recommended that GMT be adopted at all stations as soon as the General Post Office permitted it. The transition occurred on December 1 for several railways.

By 1855, the vast majority of public clocks in Britain were set to GMT (though some, like the great clock on Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford, were fitted with two minute hands, one for local time and one for GMT). The last major holdout was the legal system, which stubbornly stuck to local time for many years, leading to oddities like polls opening at 08:13 and closing at 16:13. The legal system finally switched to GMT when the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act took effect on August 2, 1880.

Standard time in time zones was instituted in the U.S. and Canada by the railroads on November 18, 1883. (info from (photo from

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

1956: first computer with a hard drive

In 1956, IBM introduced the 305 RAMAC computer, which was the first computer to include a disk drive. Prior to this, computers stored data with core memory, tape, or drums. The magnetic disk provided more storage in less space.

The 350 Disk File consisted of a stack of fifty 24" discs. The capacity of the entire disk file was about 4.4 MB, which was an enormous capacity for 1956. IBM leased the 350 Disk File for $35,000 per year.

Now you can get a two-TeraByte hard drive (with nearly 500,000 times the capacity of the original IBM drive) for just $499. (info from CEDmagic, NexTag)

Monday, March 24, 2008

1869: first transcontinental railroad in the US

The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, with a ceremonial golden spike driven at Promontory, Utah, after track was laid over a 1,756 mile gap between Sacramento and Omaha by the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad.

Friday, March 21, 2008

1980: first married Catholic priests in modern era

For many years, Catholic priests were allowed to marry, but the rules for Roman Catholics changed in 1139, under Pope Innocent II. (Priests in Eastern Rite Catholic churches may marry prior to ordination.)

On July 22, 1980, the rules for Roman Catholics changed again. Married non-Catholic clergy were allowed to remain married after converting to Catholicism and being ordained as Catholic priests.

Thus, a current Catholic priest who wants to get married must choose between marriage and the priesthood, while a married Lutheran minister or Episcopal priest can become a Catholic priest and keep his wife. This seems unfair to some Catholic priests who left the clergy to marry. Some priests who married continue to function as priests, defying the Vatican.

Many of the apostles were married. Seven popes were married. Thirteen popes were sons of priests. Six popes fathered children after the 1139 Celibacy Law. Pope Alexander VI had grandsons who became cardinals. (Info from, and other sources. Photo from Sydney Morning Herald)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

2005: first baby from commercial frozen egg bank

Eight-pound, 2-ounce Avery Lee Kennedy, born on the last day of 2005, is apparently the first baby born after being conceived with a frozen donor egg from a commercial egg bank.

The parents couldn’t conceive on their own, and learned of a new technology in which women’s eggs can be frozen and stored in much the same way as donor sperm, which has been available for decades.

The couple turned to a company that billed itself as the world’s first commercial donor egg bank, Cryo Eggs International. The technology to freeze women’s eggs allows women to select someone with similar characteristics, from donor eggs. The eggs can be shipped anywhere to be thawed, fertilized and transferred as an embryo to the woman who wishes to experience the pregnancy and birth. (info from

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

31,827BC: first man to eat a lobster

During a fall harvest festival in 31,827BC, a 22-year-old caveman named Fnork killed, cooked and ate a lobster he found crawling on a beach in southern France.

Before that meal, lobsters were considered to be spawn of the devil (and high in cholesterol), and many people praised Fnork as the bravest man in the world.

According to interpretations of a cave painting, Fnork ate the lobster boiled, with melted butter and mashed turnips. Fnork's lobster bib was made of goat hide, and he used a goat's femur bone to crack the claws. Fnork said the boiled lobster was OK, but he wanted to try it stuffed with crabmeat in the future.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

1783: first flight with human passengers

French Brothers Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier were paper makers who observed that smoke tended to rise, and that paper bags placed over a fire expanded and also rose. They concluded that if they could capture what they thought was a unique gas inside a lightweight bag, the bag would rise.

Their original test balloon was made of paper and linen and open at the bottom. When flaming paper was held near the opening, the bag, called a balon, slowly expanded with the hot air and floated upward.

The brothers tested balloons of various sizes that rose as high as 600 feet. They built a large cloth and paper balloon about 33 feet in diameter that rose over 6,500 feet above the marketplace in Annonay on June 4, 1783.

On September 19 in Versailles, the Montgolfiers flew the first passengers in a basket suspended below a hot-air balloon: a sheep, a rooster and a duck. The flight, which lasted eight minutes, took place in front of about about 130,000 people, including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the French court. The balloon flew nearly 2 miles before returning the animals safely to earth.

The next major milestone occurred on October 15, when the brothers constructed a tethered hot-air balloon that rose 84 feet and flew for nearly four minutes with human passengers.

On November 21, two men made a free ascent in a balloon and flew from the center of Paris to a suburb, going about 5.5 miles in 25 minutes. (info and illustration from the US Centennial of Flight Commission)

Monday, March 17, 2008

2007: first female president at Harvard

Traditionally, Harvard University was for boys and Radcliffe College was for girls. In 1999 Radcliffe was merged into Harvard, and in 2007 Harvard named historian Drew Gilpin Faust as its first female president. The seven-member Harvard Corporation elected Faust, a noted scholar of the American South and dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, as the university's 28th president.

Faust recognized the significance of her appointment.

"I hope that my own appointment can be one symbol of an opening of opportunities that would have been inconceivable even a generation ago," Faust said at a news conference on campus. But she also added, "I'm not the woman president of Harvard, I'm the president of Harvard."

With Faust's appointment, half of the eight Ivy League schools had a woman as president. The others were Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, Shirley M. Tilghman of Princeton University, and Ruth J. Simmons of Brown University.

The Ivy League schools had only male students until the early 1970s. The Harvard class of 2008 was the first where women outnumbered men in gaining admission under the Early Action program.

"This is a great day, and a historic day, for Harvard," said James R. Houghton, chairman of the presidential search committee.

Faust is the first Harvard president who did not receive an undergraduate or graduate degree from the university since Charles Chauncy, an alumnus of Cambridge University in England, who died in office in 1672. She attended Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania, where she was also a professor of history.

The Harvard presidency is perhaps the most prestigious job in higher education, offering a pulpit where remarks resonate throughout academic circles; and unparalleled resources, including a university endowment valued at nearly $30 billion.

Born to a privileged family in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Faust wrote that a conversation at age nine with the family's black handyman and driver inspired her to send a letter to President Eisenhower pleading for desegregation. She then began to question the rigid Southern conventions where girls wore "scratchy organdy dresses" and white children addressed black adults by their first names.

"I was the rebel who did not just march for civil rights and against the Vietnam War but who fought endlessly with my mother, refusing to accept her insistence that 'this is a man's world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that, the better off you'll be,'" she writes. (info from and Harvard University Gazette)

Friday, March 14, 2008

1892: first women's college basketball game

Women began playing basketball less than a year after the game was invented in 1891.

The only body parts women exposed to the public were fingers, necks and heads. Miniskirts were a thing of the future. Proper women wore floor-length dresses everywhere, including the basketball court. That led to a few proper broken bones and proper black eyes, because women had a tendency to trip over their hems.

But it was a great moment in the infancy of women's basketball when bloomers were introduced at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans by Clara Gregory Baer, in 1896. They were championed by, of all things, a man.

Dr. Edward Morton Schaeffer wrote a ringing diatribe against the corset, calling it a "figure and health-wrecking contrivance." He urged active modern women to "burst all confining fetters and curtail necessary impediments of costume," and to adopt a divided skirt to ease locomotion when exercising. After all, Schaeffer pointed out, ancient women of the Far East invented trousers in the first place. Men didn't start wearing them until conquering Persians took them from women. So these WNBA players today, in their fashionable pants, are wearing what belonged to them in the first place. A woman in pants, Schaeffer argued, is "simply receiving stolen property."

A Smith College girl, Senda Berenson, was the foremother of women's basketball - the visionary responsible for bringing basketball to the kinder, gentler sex. James Naismith invented the game because his superiors at a Springfield Massachusetts YMCA school ordered him to create an indoor activity for his overly aggressive young students during harsh winter months when they had no outdoor outlet available for the venting of massive amounts of testosterone.

Berenson read an article that Naismith wrote and wondered if the game would be a good activity for women. At the time, those words "gender equity" didn't exist. It was another three decades before women were allowed to vote for a president.

Women were thought of - even by women - as wilting and subservient. If women had suggested that they could play a man's game like a man, it would have outraged men and women alike.

Even Berenson worried that women might suffer from "nervous fatigue" if games were too strenuous. So she adapted the rules to make it easier for women to play and more acceptable for society matrons to embrace. She divided the court into three sections and required the players to stay in their assigned areas. To insure womanly decorum among her pupils, Berenson forbade snatching the ball, holding it for more than three seconds, or dribbling it more than three times. In this way, Berenson hoped to prevent a young lady from developing "dangerous nervous tendencies and losing the grace and dignity and self respect we would all have her foster."

But for all of Berenson's antique-sounding notions, she was actually a progressive woman for her time, Berenson recognized that one of the most common arguments against giving women equal pay at work was that they were prone to illness. "They need, therefore, all the more to develop health and endurance if they desire to become candidates for equal wages," she said.

Barely 11 months after Berenson introduced the game at Smith, the first official game between two institutions took place when the University of California-Berkeley played the Miss Head's school. By 1893, the women of Mt. Holyoke and Sophie Newcomb were playing, too. By 1895, the game was played all across the country, most prominently at Wellesley, Vassar and Bryn Mawr. The rules depended on where it was played and committees met endlessly to discuss regulations.

Sometimes they used men's regulations; other times they used the curtailed versions played by Smith. Technique also varied. The one-hand set shot was considered the most elegant form of shooting among southern girls at Sophie Newcomb. The two-handed throw was declared a foul because it caused the shoulder to fowardly incline, "with a consequent flattening of the chest."

But no sooner had basketball taken hold in women's colleges that an outcry arose that it was eroding sacred concepts of womanhood. Previously well-bred young ladies could be seen running and falling, shrieking in excitement and, worst of all, calling each other by nicknames. (Yo, Queenie! Take her out!)

Games would end with handkerchiefs and hair pins scattered all over gymnasium floors. It befuddled some of the sports writers. One article in the Los Angeles Times had a headline that said: "Sweet Things Have Scrap." It went on to furnish details of a high school game that included a lot of hair-pulling, tumbling and sliding. The reporter wrote: "There was something disquieting in the grim and murderous determinations with which the young ladies chased each other all over the court."

This masculine behavior was so scandalous a development that parents forbade their daughters to participate, and medical doctors and physical education instructors wrote long worried studies about the psychological and physical effects of the sport, calling for it to be abolished.

A physical education teacher named Agnes Childs complained of these tendencies in 1905 in a Spalding guide to women's basketball. "There is an irresistible temptation when a ball is rolling along the floor for the players in the vicinity to go sliding after it; and nothing makes a game more rowdyish in appearance and causes more adverse criticism that this most natural temptations to go after the ball by the quickest means."

Another leading physical education authority of the time, Agnes Wayman, proposed still more rule restrictions to make the game more compatible with popular views of femininity. She espoused "neatly combed hair, no gum chewing or slang, never calling each other by last names and never lying or sitting down on the floor."

Berenson, too, recognized that if the game did not improve its reputation for womanliness, women might not be allowed to play it. She also struck on the ideas of aligning games to social affairs, serving refreshments or even elaborate dinners afterwards. This was known as the "Cookies and Milk" strategy.

Ann Meyers revolutionized the game in the 1970s. A four-time All-America at UCLA, she signed a one-year, $50,000 contract with the NBA's Indiana Pacers. Meyers received a tryout, but did not make the team. She is the first four-time Kodak All-American, male or female, and led the UCLA Bruins to the 1978 NCAA title. She also competed in volleyball and track and field in college. She earned a silver medal as part of the first women's US Olympic Basketball team in 1976 and was the first high school player to make the women's national team. She is a scratch golfer and considered playing on the LPGA Tour. Ann has also done broadcast commentary for men's and women's basketball, softball, tennis, volleyball and soccer. She has been inducted into the UCLA Sports Hall of Fame, the Women's Sports Hall of Fame, the National Basketball Hall of Fame and the National High School Hall of Fame.

As women's basketball grew out of its infancy, women continued to struggle with somehow balancing femininity with athleticism. As the sporting woman gained acceptance, old passive definitions of beauty presented a dilemma. Men still wanted women to be beautiful, and women cared about their appearances, too.

In a comprehensive history of the game, a book called A Century of Women's Basketball: From Frailty to Final Four, another extraordinary story illustrates the tension between athleticism and femininity. In 1936, a team of gifted women called The Red Heads toured the country playing exhibitions against men's teams. Team members were required to wear makeup, look beautiful and play well. They were also required to either wear red wigs or dye their hair red.

Obviously, progress was a long time coming. But it got here, inevitably. Not until 1924 did women self-govern their basketball competitions. The three-section court wasn't reduced to two sections until 1938, which was two years after men began playing basketball in the Olympic. Women started 40 years later.

In 1971, women were finally considered robust enough to play a full-court game, and in 1985, Senda Berenson became the first woman to make the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. (info from an article by Sally Jenkins for WNBA, and

Thursday, March 13, 2008

2004: first governor resigns in gay sex scandal

In 2004, New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey, a one-time rising Democratic star and twice-married Roman Catholic, announced his resignation with the startling disclosure that he was gay and had an extramarital affair with a man whom he said threatened to undermine his "ability to govern."

"My truth is that I am a gay American," McGreevey said at a news conference with his second wife by his side. He described decades of sexual confusion that dogged him through two marriages and ultimately led him to an act he called "wrong, foolish and inexcusable."

"Given the circumstances surrounding the affair and its likely impact upon my family and my ability to govern, I have decided the right course of action is to resign," he said, without elaborating on what the circumstances were.

McGreevey refused to answer questions. He said "it makes little difference that as governor I am gay," but added that staying in office and keeping the affair and his sexual orientation secret will leave the governor's office "vulnerable to rumors, false allegations and threats of disclosure."

Across New Jersey, people listened to their radios or gathered around TV sets to listen to McGreevey's live news conference. Many were left in shock, although rumors had been circulating for several years that McGreevey was gay.

"It's a shame," said Jim Nerney, of Middletown. "He brought a lot of passion to the governor's office, but the fact is that it's not accepted in today's society and he's paying the consequences."

"His sexual orientation doesn't matter to me. I feel he's done a good job, holding the line on taxes," said Donald Bowman, of Kearny, a school district worker in Newark. (info from Fox News)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

1974: first US president resigns

Richard Milhous Nixon (1913 – 1994) was the 37th President of the US, from 1969 to 1974. Prior to being elected President, Nixon served as the 36th Vice President in the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961. During the Second World War, he was a Navy lieutenant commander in the Pacific, before being elected to Congress, and later serving as Vice President. After an unsuccessful presidential run in 1960, Nixon was elected in 1968.

Under President Nixon, the US followed a foreign policy marked by détente with the Soviet Union and by the opening of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. Domestically, his administration faced resistance to the Vietnam War. As a result of the Watergate scandal, Nixon resigned the presidency in the face of likely impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate. His successor, Gerald Ford, issued a controversial pardon for any federal crimes Nixon may have committed. Nixon is the only person to be elected twice to the offices of the presidency and the vice presidency, and is the only president to have resigned the office of president.

Spiro Theodore Agnew was Nixon's first Vice President. He resigned in 1973 after he was charged with tax evasion.

After he became president in January 1969, Nixon appointed John Mitchell attorney general while making an unprecedented direct appeal to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that the usual background investigation not be conducted. Mitchell remained in office from 1969 until he resigned in 1972 to manage Nixon's successful reelection campaign. As attorney general, Mitchell believed that the government's need for "law and order" justified restrictions on civil liberties. He advocated the use of wiretaps in national security cases without obtaining a court order and the right of police to employ the preventive detention of criminal suspects. In 1975, Mitchell was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury and sentenced to prison for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up.

Nixon suffered a stroke on April 18, 1994 and died four days later at the age of 81.

Milhouse Mussolini Van Houten is a fictional character in the animated television series The Simpsons. He is Bart Simpson's best friend in Mrs. Krabappel's grade class at Springfield Elementary School. Milhouse was named after Nixon, whose middle name was Milhous. The name is said to be the most "unfortunate name (Simpsons creator) Matt Groening could think of for a kid." (Info from Wikipedia)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

1978: first spam email

The first spam in computer history was sent on May 1st 1978 by a Digital Equipment Corp. employee. Over 400 people received his promotional message via the Arpanet network (a precursor of the Internet). (info from Wikipedia)

Monday, March 10, 2008

1937: last state provides unemployment insurance

Great turbulence, marked by periods of economic dislocation and grassroots movements for social insurance programs, has characterized Chicago's unemployment history.

In 1819, Illinois enacted "poor laws" that provided for overseers of the poor. However, recurrent panics brought unemployment and poverty so severe as to require municipal attention. In the depression of 1857, 20,000 Chicago workers and their dependents faced starvation, and relief was inadequate. On Christmas Day, in the depression year of 1873, police dispersed crowds of unemployed begging for food at the Relief and Aid Society.

Four years later, during the “great” railroad strike, unemployed workers joined strikers to battle police and US troops. The American Federation of Labor Convention in Chicago in 1893 resolved that the government had a duty to provide jobs when economic conditions, like then, made them difficult to find.

In the spring of 1894, Jacob Coxey, an Ohio businessman and reformer, organized the jobless into “Coxey's Army” and led a march on Washington DC. Declaring Coxey a “demagogue,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized that “action must be taken at once to suppress” his movement. That call was followed by two decades of intermittent violence and confrontation between Chicago police and the unemployed. During these same years, however, police stations provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of homeless people, many of them unemployed workers.

In 1899, Illinois became the fifth state to establish a State Employment Service. Compulsory unemployment insurance became an objective of reformers. A committee at the University of Chicago sponsored by the American Association for Labor Legislation called in 1912 for a state or national unemployment insurance program.

Labor's agitation for the abolition of unemployment was the strongest in Illinois, where the Illinois Federation of Labor and the powerful Chicago Federation of Labor, under the progressive leadership of John Fitzpatrick, formed the core for a local, state, and national labor party movement. In the spring of 1919, Chicago leaders ran state and local tickets on a reform manifesto called “Labor's Fourteen Points,” which demanded full pay for the jobless and comprehensive social insurance.

Unions also attempted to set up their own system of unemployment insurance between 1919 and 1928, as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union adopted progressive unemployment insurance plans. The depression of 1920–22 terminated these “Chicago Plan” developments, but the unions managed to pay reduced unemployment insurance through the mid-1930s.

The stock market crash of 1929 brought new turmoil and organization. Almost half a million in Illinois were unemployed by the end of 1930. By mid-1932, the Communist-led Chicago Workers Committee on Unemployment had organized 25,000 jobless in 60 locals to fight for jobs and adequate relief.

They marched on relief stations in the city and in industrial suburbs like Melrose Park. Early in 1933, the unemployed planned a statewide hunger march to Springfield. More than a thousand relief demonstrators from Chicago and Rockford formed a cavalcade of automobiles and trucks ultimately repulsed by state police.

Despite this burgeoning right-to-work movement, there was no nationwide organization of the unemployed until April 1936, when the Workers Alliance of America was formed, merging with the Unemployed Council, the Unemployed League, and some independent organizations. The alliance's protest activities served to support increased appropriations for the New Deal's work programs, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), created by executive order of the president in 1935.

The Wagner-Peyser Act in 1933 established the federal-state system of public employment services and the Veterans' Employment Service. The Social Security Act of 1935 mandated unemployment insurance in the United States. Illinois was the last state to adopt the unemployment insurance law in 1937.

Unemployment nationally dropped to an all-time recorded low of less than 2 percent during World War II. Postwar national economic stabilization policies prevented massive unemployment, but joblessness remained a major problem, especially as the burden of unemployment shifted.

Relatively fewer workers were out of work, but for longer spells, and young people and minorities were increasingly affected. Their plight was cited as a major factor behind rioting during the 1960s; federally funded jobs programs mitigated the problem but failed to solve it.

Limited education, inadequate transportation, and persistent hiring discrimination have brought substantial long-term unemployment to many minority communities, causing high poverty rates, housing abandonment, and other problems. Economic downturns in the 1970s and 1980s exacerbated these problems, which, coupled with technological innovation and foreign competition, devastated some long-established industries and the industries dependent on them. (info from The Encyclopedia of Chicago)

Thursday, March 6, 2008

1982: last Checker taxi

In the early 1900s, Morris Markin, a Russian-born clothier in Chicago became the owner of an auto body maker when its owner defaulted on a loan. The facility made bodies for Commonwealth Motors which sold taxicabs under the Mogul name.

Checker Taxi – a privately-owned cab company in Chicago — had placed a large order for Mogul cabs with Commonwealth, which was nearly bankrupt. Markin merged the two companies in order to honor the contractual commitment with the Chicago Checker Taxi. Markin named the new business the Checker Cab Company.

John Hertz began in the taxi business in 1910, both building Yellow Cabs and operating the cab service. Because of plant overproduction, Hertz used the excess cars by renting them to patrons through his "Yellow Drive-Ur-Self" division (the forerunner of Hertz Rental Car). Seeing Hertz's success, Markin bought Checker Taxi Cab in 1937.

Markin also followed Hertz's business plan in having drivers open doors for the fares, and outfitted each driver with a uniform. Competition for fares was fierce in the 1920s, and the drivers began fighting between trips. The fighting between the two cab companies escalated to the point where Markin's home was firebombed. This prompted Markin to buy a factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan and relocate Checker.

Under Markin, Checker became the first cab company to hire African-American drivers and the first to require that drivers pick up all fares, not just white ones.

Hertz had sold his Yellow Cab to the Parmalee Transportation Company, but in 1929, after a suspicious fire at his stables killed his prized race horses, Hertz left the cab business, with Markin buying Hertz's shares and then acquiring another one-third in the company from Parmalee, thus taking control of both Parmalee and Yellow Cab.

While Hertz had sold off the cab business, the manufacturing arm went to General Motors, which wanted to sell it, and made Markin an affordable offer. Markin refused. Rather than eliminate the capacity of Yellow Manufacturing, General Motors entered the taxicab business as Terminal Taxi Cab, and a second fare war broke out, with Checker and Terminal fighting in New York City. To end this dispute, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker created the New York Taxi Cab Commission, which ruled that all cabs in New York had to be purpose-built cabs, not consumer car conversions.

Markin sold Checker Cab to E.L. Cord, but bought it back agin in 1936. In 1940, Parmalee (including Yellow and Checker Cab) became the largest cab company in the United States. Eventually, the cab company revenues exceeded those of Checker's automotive building division, and the company decided to enter the passenger car business in 1961.

In 1964 the State of New York pursued Markin and Checker on antitrust charges, alleging that it controlled both the taxi service and manufacture of taxis, and thus favored itself in fulfilling orders. Rather than allow Checker drivers to begin buying different brands of cars, Markin began selling licenses in New York City.

In 1977, seven years after the death of Morris Markin, retired GM President Ed Cole bought into Checker with the intent of re-energizing the company and developing a new, more modern Checker. Cole's plan was to purchased partially completed Volkswagen's from VW's new factory in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. Cole was going to ship the VW's to the Checker Motor's factory in Kalamazoo, cut them in half, insert a section to lengthen the VW, raise the roof and then sell the reconfigured vehicle as a taxi. Shortly thereafter, however, Cole was killed is a plane crash.

The iconic Checker "Marathon" model was introduced in 1961 and used for cab service in many cities, and was frequently seen in movies and on TV. The company even produced a civilian version that achieved cult status.

The Marathon design dated back to the mid 1950's, which caused a number of problems later on. Impact absorbing bumpers were added when required by federal law and then the steering column/wheel were changed when a collapsible column was also required for safety reasons. The rear fold-down jump seats were also removed as they failed all safety tests. The car had very poor gas mileage as the tall front end and hood made for poor aerodynamics. Many body stamping dies were worn out after over 20 years of continuous use, requiring manual body adjustments to make the parts fit.

With the Marathon model thoroughly outmoded and no longer selling in viable quantities, and lacking the resources to develop a new model, Checker decided to leave the auto manufacturing business.The last models were produced for the 1982 model year. Checker Motors today operates as an automotive subcontractor, primarily for General Motors, building mostly body components. (info & photo from Wikipedia)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

About 1820: American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL; less commonly Ameslan) is the dominant sign language of the Deaf community in the United States, in the English-speaking parts of Canada, and in parts of Mexico. Although the United Kingdom and the United States share English as a spoken and written language, British Sign Language (BSL) is quite different from ASL, and the two sign languages are not mutually intelligible.

ASL is also used (sometimes alongside indigenous sign languages) in the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Mauritania, Kenya, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe. Like other sign languages, its grammar and syntax are distinct from any spoken language in its area of influence. While there has been no reliable survey of the number of people who use ASL as their primary language, estimates range from 500,000 to 2 million in the US alone

Congregationalist minister and deaf educator Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet is credited with popularizing the signing technique in North America. At the behest of a father who was interested in education for his deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell, Gallaudet was enlisted to investigate methods of teaching the deaf.

In the early 1800s he visited the Abbé de l'Épée's school in Paris and convinced one of the teachers, Laurent Clerc, to return with him to America. In 1817 they founded the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf), in Hartford, Connecticut, to teach sign language to American deaf students.

It was at this school that all these influences would intermingle, interact and what would become ASL was born. Many of the school's students were from Martha's Vineyard, and they mixed their "native" sign language with Clerc's OFSL. Other students probably brought their own highly localized sign language or "home sign" systems to the mix. Undoubtedly, spontaneous lexicon developed at the school as well. If there was any influence from sign language of indigenous people, it may have been here that it was absorbed into the language.

Interestingly, because of the early influence of the sign language of France upon the school, the vocabularies of ASL and modern French Sign Language are approximately 60% shared, whereas ASL and British Sign Language, for example, are almost completely dissimilar.

From its synthesis at this first public school for the deaf in North America, the language went on to grow. Many of the graduates of this school went on to found schools of their own in many other states, thus spreading the methods of Gallaudet and Clerc and serving to expand and standardize the language; as with most languages though, there are regional variations.

After being strongly established in the United States there was a bitter fight between those who supported oralism over manualism in the late 1800s. Many notable individuals of high standing contributed to this row, such as Alexander Graham Bell. The oralists won many battles and for a long time the use of sign was suppressed, socially and pedagogically. Many considered sign to not even be a language at all. This situation was changed by William Stokoe, a professor of English hired at Gallaudet University in 1955. He immediately became fascinated by ASL and began serious study of it. Eventually, through publication in linguistics journals of articles containing detailed linguistic analysis of ASL, he was able to convince the scientific mainstream that ASL was indeed a natural language on a par with any other.

The language continues to grow and change like any living language. In particular, ASL constantly adds new signs in an attempt to keep up with constantly changing technology.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

1892: first busy signal

For most of early telephone history, calls were completed by young men and women working at the phone company central office, where they used plug-in cords to connect callers to the people and businesses they wanted to communicate with.

Almond Strowger was an undertaker/inventor in Kansas City, MO, who was described as "eccentric, irascible and even mad." He was motivated to invent an automatic telephone system after having trouble with local Bell Telephone operators.

He thought the operators were sending calls to a competitor rather than to his business. The origin of this suspicion reportedly arose from an incident when a friend died and the family contacted a rival undertaker. Other stories claim that the wife or cousin of a competing undertaker was a telephone operator and Strowger suspected that the operators were telling callers that his line was busy or connecting his callers to the competition. Yet another story has him boasting of inventing "the girl-less, cuss-less telephone."

Convinced that callers -- not operators -- should choose who was called, Strowger first conceived his invention in 1888, and patented the automatic telephone exchange in 1891.

The Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange Company was formed, and it opened its first exchange in La Porte, Indiana in 1892, with about 75 subscribers. One subscriber, Dr. Jerome Rudolph, attempted to call his own office from La Porte Town Hall at the same time his secretary was calling a prescription to a pharmacy, and Dr. Rudolph heard what was apparently history's first busy signal. (Info from Wikipedia & other sources)

Monday, March 3, 2008

2006: More US homes have DVD players than VCRs

According to a Nielsen Media Research study released in December 2006, 81.2% of American households owned DVD players, compared to 79.2% of households with a VCR. Most of them were flashing "12:00."