THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 17, 1903

Wright Brothers Make First Powered Flight

wright-brothers-first-powered-flightWilbur and Orville Wright built and flew the airplane that made the first controlled, powered flight in December 1903. Their design was shaped both by their extensive knowledge of others work on aeronautics and by their own careful research on engines, propeller design, and control systems. They went on, 1908 to 1912, to play a key role in popularizing the new technology.

Born near Dayton, Ohio, during the last third of the nineteenth century, Wilbur and Orville Wright brought business acumen, mechanical skill, and disciplined minds to their experiments with flying machines. They closely followed the work of Otto Lilienthal and Samuel Pierpont Langley and, most importantly, corresponded extensively with Octave Chanute. Chanute, a French-born aviator living in Chicago, provided the Wrights not only with news of his own experiments with gliders but also with a connection to aeronautical work underway in Europe.

Simultaneously, the brothers began a systematic program of experiments and glider flights designed to give them first-hand knowledge. Unable to find reliable scientific data on the aeronautical properties of wings and propellers, they built a wind tunnel and compiled their own data to establish which shapes provide maximum lift and thrust. The brothers also built a series of full-size aircraft, flying them first as kites and then as gliders from the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The dozens of glider flights they made in 1901 and 1902 turned both Wrights into expert pilots — a comparative rarity among airplane designers of that era. The gliders also allowed them to experiment with different methods of controlling an aircraft in flight.

The end-product of this research program was the powered Flyer I, which rose into the air on December 17, 1903. It used the same basic design as their most advanced gliders, but added a pair of propellers driven by a lightweight, 12-horsepower gasoline engine of their own design. The first flight of the day, with Orville at the controls, lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 ft; the fourth and last flight, made by Wilbur, lasted a full minute and covered nearly 600 ft. Though witnessed by five reliable observers and documented in a photograph, the landmark flights of December 17 were ignored for nearly five years. An editorial acknowledgment in the prestigious magazine Scientific American began to turn the tide in 1906, but the Wrights began to receive full credit only in 1908.

“Wright Brothers.” Science and Its Times. Ed. Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Science in Context. Web.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 11, 1936

Edward VIII Abdicates

King-Edward-VIII-AbdicatesEdward was born in Richmond, Surrey on June 23, 1894, the first child of the duke and duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary). He was also known as Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, and in full, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David.

With the death of Edward VII (r. 1901–1910) and the accession of his father on May 6, 1910, Prince Edward (as he was officially known) became heir to the throne. On his sixteenth birthday, he was named Prince of Wales. After a stint as a midshipman with the Royal Navy, he matriculated in October 1912 at the University of Oxford. He left the university at the start of the war in 1914 and was commissioned in the Grenadier Guards on the Continent but did not see direct action. In civilian life, Prince Edward was noted for his charm, good looks, romantic liaisons, and unconventional wearing of hats. He became a leader of fashionable London society and something of a modern celebrity.

In January 1931, the prince met Wallis Simpson, an American citizen then living in London with her second husband. By 1934, the prince had cast aside his other lovers and saw in Mrs. Simpson his natural life partner.

George V died on January 20, 1936, and the Prince of Wales was proclaimed King Edward VIII on January 21. Once on the throne, Edward VIII showed a marked indifference toward public affairs and the intricacies of state business.

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin belatedly learned of the king’s hopes to marry Mrs. Simpson, who had begun divorce proceedings against her second husband. By early November, Baldwin’s cabinet was discussing the constitutional problem of a king’s potential marriage to a divorcée. For many ministers, the Simpson affair illuminated wider uncertainties about Edward’s competency to be king. Public opinion was strongly hostile to the marriage, and he faced opposition from both the Church of England and Parliament.

On December 10, the king signed the instrument of abdication and left for Europe the next day. Edward VIII was the only British monarch ever to have resigned the crown. His reign lasted from January 20 to December 10— 327 days — the shortest of any recognized monarch since Edward V. George VI then titled him “his royal highness the duke of  Windsor.”

“Edward VIII (1894–1972).” Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction. Ed. John Merriman and Jay Winter. Vol. 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. 932-934. World History in Context. Web.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: DECEMBER 1, 1959

The Antarctic Treaty Signed — Reserving Antarctica for Scientific Research

antarctic-treaty-scientific-researchThe Antarctic Treaty, which entered into force in 1961, established an international administrative system for the continent. The impetus for the treaty was the international geophysical year, during 1957 and 1958, which had brought scientists from many nations together to study Antarctica. The political situation in Antarctica was complex at the time, with the following seven nations having made sometimes overlapping territorial claims to the continent: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. Several other nations, most notably the former Soviet Union and the United States, had been active in Antarctic exploration and research and were concerned with how the continent would be administered.

Negotiations on the treaty began in June 1958 with Belgium, Japan and South Africa joining the original nine countries. The treaty was opened for signature in December 1959 and took effect in June 1961. It begins by “recognizing that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.” The key to the treaty was the nations’ agreement to disagree on territorial claims. Signatories of the treaty are not required to renounce existing claims; nations without claims have an equal voice as those with claims, and no new claims or claim enlargements can take place while the treaty is in force. This agreement defused the most controversial and complex issue regarding Antarctica in an unorthodox way. Among the other major provisions of the treaty are that the continent will be demilitarized; nuclear explosions and the storage of nuclear wastes are prohibited; the right of unilateral inspection of all facilities on the continent to ensure that the provisions of the treaty are being honored is guaranteed; and scientific research can continue throughout the continent.

The treaty runs indefinitely and can be amended only by the unanimous consent of the signatory nations. Provisions were also included for other nations to become parties to the treaty. These additional nations can either be acceding parties, which do not conduct significant research activities but agree to abide by the terms of the treaty, or consultative parties, which have acceded to the treaty and undertake substantial scientific research on the continent. Sixteen nations have joined the original twelve in becoming consultative parties, including Brazil, China, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Peru, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay.

“Antarctic Treaty (1961).” Environmental Encyclopedia. Gale, 2011. Science in Context. Web.


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