THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: NOVEMBER 21, 1934

Ella Fitzgerald Wins Amateur Night At the Apollo

ella-fitzgerald-apolloKnown as the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996) was an accomplished jazz musician who charmed audiences and critics alike from the time she won the Apollo Amateur Night in 1934 to her final concert in 1992. She lent her voice, characterized by impeccable pitch, superb diction, and a sweet and clear quality, to a range of musical styles that appealed to a variety of audiences. By one count, she recorded 1,117 different songs.

Fitzgerald was born April 25, 1917, to the unwed couple of William Fitzgerald and Tempie Williams Fitzgerald in Newport News City, Virginia. By the time she was four, her father had left, and her mother was living with Portuguese immigrant Joseph Da Silva. The family moved to Yonkers, New York, where Fitzgerald grew up listening to popular music and especially adored Louis Armstrong and Connee Boswell, an early and innovative white jazz singer whom Fitzgerald strove to emulate at her first Apollo appearance.

Fitzgerald’s mother died in 1932. Her mother’s sister, Virginia, soon removed her from her stepfather’s home, fearing she was being mistreated. Her half-sister soon joined them when Da Silva died as well. Fitzgerald found work running numbers and alerting a prostitution house to police presence. The authorities caught her and sent her to a reform school, where at the time black girls were placed in the worst housing, beaten, held in basements, and perhaps even tortured, according to a 1936 government report and a 1990s journalistic investigation. Fitzgerald later became known for her work on behalf of children and helped establish the Ella Fitzgerald Child Care Center in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1977.

In the fall of 1934, Fitzgerald escaped from the reform school and lived homeless in New York City to evade the authorities. By November 21 of that year, she was on stage at the Apollo, where, as the story goes, she planned to dance but decided at the Monday screening to sing. Her top prize of a week’s worth of singing engagements was not honored, possibly because of her appearance from living on the streets. Her unkempt condition later reportedly put off bandleader Fletcher Henderson. It also put off bandleader Chick Webb when he first met her. His male singer, Charles Linton, persuaded him to try her out in front of an audience.

Webb quickly came to see Fitzgerald as key to his aspirations to greater commercial success. In 1935, Fitzgerald and his band made her first record, “Love and Kisses,” and after that, Webb barely recorded without her. In 1938, Fitzgerald had her first big hit with “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a nursery rhyme she wanted to record against the judgment of Decca recording executives. She continued to write many of her own novelty songs — with such names as “Gotta Pebble in My Shoe” and “Chew, Chew, Chew, Chew Your Bubble Gum”— and in 1940 became one of the youngest members of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). In 1939, Chick Webb, whose growth had been stunted and back hunched from a childhood disease, died of spinal tuberculosis at age 30. Fitzgerald became the leader of her own big band, an astounding feat for a female or for a vocalist, though trumpeter Taft Jordan took over most of the traditional duties. The band split up in 1942 as the big band heyday drew to a close.

Fitzgerald became interested in the emerging bop sound exemplified by Dizzy Gillespie, and indeed, biographer Stuart Nicholson calls her the only musician to successfully cross over from swing to bop. Her record “Flying Home” (1945) combined scat singing—popularized by Louis Armstrong—with bop sensibilities and became a landmark of scat, and her records “Smooth Sailing” and “How High the Moon” also exemplified bop. Such recordings also demonstrate why musicians praised the hornlike quality of her voice.

In the Down Beat readers poll for top vocalist, Fitzgerald placed first from 1937 to 1939 and again from 1953 to 1970. In the magazine’s critics poll, instituted later, she placed first from 1953 to 1971 and again in 1974. In 1974, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore named its performing arts center after her, and in 1979, she received a Kennedy Center Honors Medal. She won 14 Grammys, and in 1989, the Society of Singers named its lifetime achievement award the “Ella.”

Sherrard, Brooke. “Fitzgerald, Ella.” Encyclopedia of African American History. Ed. Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C. Rucker. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010. 196-198. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: NOVEMBER 17, 1749

Birth of  Nicolas Appert, the Father of Canning

nicolas-appert-father-of-canningNicolas Appert (1749-1841) may not have understood the science behind food preservation, yet his canning process is directly responsible for the multitude of prepared foods that sit on grocery store shelves around the world.

Nicolas Appert was born on November 17, 1749 at Chalons-sur-Marne, France. The son of an inn-keeper, he received no formal education. He had an interest in food preservation and, at an early age, learned how to brew beer and pickle foods. Appert served an apprenticeship as a chef at the Palais Royal Hotel in Chalons, France. In 1780, he moved to Paris, where he excelled as a confectioner, delighting customers with his delicious pastries and candies.

During the late eighteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte expanded his quest to conquer the world. As French troops invaded neighboring countries, it soon became apparent to the government that world conquest would not be within its grasp without the ability to carry foods for an extended time without spoilage. The executive branch, known as the Directory, offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a practical means of preserving food for the army during its long forays.

Appert began a fourteen-year quest, determined to win the prize. Chemistry at this time was a little known science and there was virtually no knowledge of bacteriology. Appert’s experiments on the preservation of meats and vegetables for winter use was conducted through trial-and-error. He had little reference on which to rely since there was only one published work on food preservation through sterilization, written by Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799). Appert based his process on heating foods to temperatures in excess of 100o degrees Celsius (212o degrees Fahrenheit), the temperature at which water boils. To do this, Appert used an autoclave, a device that uses steam under extreme pressure to sterilize foods.

In 1804, Appert opened the world’s first canning factory in the French town of Massy, south of Paris. By 1809, he had succeeded in preserving certain foods and presented his findings to the government. Before awarding the prize, the government required that his findings be published. In 1810, he published Le Livre de to us les Menages, ou l’Art de Conserver pendant plesieurs annees toutes les Substances Animales et Vegetables. (The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years). Upon publication, the Directory presented him with the 12,000 franc award. His work received critical acclaim and a gold medal from the Societe d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale. (Society for the Encouragement of National Industry.)

“Nicolas Appert.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Vol. 20. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 18-19. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 

THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: NOVEMBER 8, 1895

rontgen-discovers-xray

Rontgen Discovers X-Rays

Although Wilhelm Röntgen is credited with the discovery of x-rays, he was almost certainly not the first to observe them, since they were readily produced using cathode ray devices. Many earlier scientists may have noticed but ignored such strange effects around their laboratories as glowing lights and foggy or overdeveloped photographic plates while experimenting with cathode rays, but probably dismissed or ignored them. It was Röntgen who recognized x-rays as a new type of radiation.

Born in a small German village, Röntgen decided at an early age to study science, rather than follow his father as a cloth merchant. As a student, however, he preferred the outdoors to a classroom, and he was expelled from high school for assisting in a prank which had offended one of the instructors. Reputed to be insubordinate, Röntgen found the doors to the universities all but closed to him, and he was forced to apply to a local Technical School. Still, he completed his undergraduate studies in 1868, and in 1869 received his Ph.D. in philosophy. Röntgen then moved to Zurich, Switzerland and became an assistant to German physicist August Kundt (1839-1894) who introduced him to the world of physics.

It was not until he was fifty years old that Röntgen began the work that made him internationally famous. While studying the effects of cathode rays emitted by luminescent chemicals, Röntgen noticed something very strange: when he turned on the power in his cathode ray tube, a sample of barium platinocyanide across the room glowed even though the tube was enclosed in black cardboard thick enough to prevent cathode rays from escaping. He deduced that the rays crossing the room must be of a completely new variety and many times more penetrating than cathode rays. He moved the barium platinocyanide sample away from the tube, finding that it glowed even when placed in the next room.
Röntgen, having discovered what was at that time the most powerful radiation known to science, was understandably excited. He knew that, in order to gain recognition, he must publish his findings before someone else discovered these rays. He spent the next seven weeks exhaustively researching and observing his new rays, which he named x-rays, since “x” is the mathematical symbol for an unknown. During this period he found that x-rays were completely invisible, traveled in a straight line, could be neither reflected nor refracted, and were unaffected by magnetic fields. Never before or since has there been a more dramatic reaction among the scientific community as well as the general populace as that which followed the publication of Röntgen’s x-ray research in December, 1895. He delivered his first public lecture on x-rays in January, 1896 and demonstrated therein the rays’ ability to photograph the bones within living flesh. Less than twenty days later, an x-ray machine was used in the United States to locate a bullet within a patient’s leg. Newspapers world-wide printed astounding photos of “living skeletons.” Physicians proclaimed it a modern miracle, while doomsayers predicted an end to privacy, envisioning devices that could peer through walls, doors, and clothing.

The repercussions of Röntgen’s discovery spread exponentially. Henri Becquerel used x-rays as the springboard for his own discovery of radioactivity, a discovery that ultimately led to a greater understanding of the atom and that opened the door to the nuclear age. Scientists today consider the discovery of x-rays to be the beginning of the Second Scientific Revolution (just as Galileo’s discoveries sparked the first).
Röntgen received numerous accolades for his discovery, including the very first Nobel Prize for physics, but he invariably declined or donated any monetary prizes that would accompany his awards. He strongly believed that science belonged to everyone, and that all nations should benefit from its advances; he also refused to patent any facet of x-rays or their production. Thus, he was without substan-tial savings when the years following World War I brought hyperinflation to the German economy. He died in poverty in 1923 from intestinal cancer, probably caused by prolonged exposure to x-rays.

“Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen.” World of Health. Gale, 2007. Science in Context. Web.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: NOVEMBER 1, 1512

Sistine Chapel Ceiling Opens to the Public

this-week-in-history-2016-1The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, one of Italian artist Michelangelo’s finest works, is exhibited to the public for the first time.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, the greatest of the Italian Renaissance artists, was born in the small village of Caprese in 1475. The son of a government administrator, he grew up in Florence, a center of the early Renaissance movement, and became an artist’s apprentice at age 13. Demonstrating obvious talent, he was taken under the wing of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of the Florentine republic and a great patron of the arts. After demonstrating his mastery of sculpture in such works as the Pieta (1498) and David (1504), he was called to Rome in 1508 to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—the chief consecrated space in the Vatican.

Michelangelo’s epic ceiling frescoes, which took several years to complete, are among his most memorable works. Central in a complex system of decoration featuring numerous figures are nine panels devoted to biblical world history. The most famous of these is The Creation of Adam, a painting in which the arms of God and Adam are stretching toward each other. In 1512, Michelangelo completed the work.

After 15 years as an architect in Florence, Michelangelo returned to Rome in 1534, where he would work and live for the rest of his life. That year saw his painting of the The Last Judgment on the wall above the altar in the Sistine Chapel for Pope Paul III. The massive painting depicts Christ’s damnation of sinners and blessing of the virtuous and is regarded as a masterpiece of early Mannerism.

Michelangelo worked until his death in 1564 at the age of 88. In addition to his major artistic works, he produced numerous other sculptures, frescoes, architectural designs, and drawings, many of which are unfinished and some of which are lost. In his lifetime, he was celebrated as Europe’s greatest living artist, and today he is held up as one of the greatest artists of all time, as exalted in the visual arts as William Shakespeare is in literature or Ludwig van Beethoven is in music.