THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 3, 1879

U.S. Geological Survey Created

geological-survey-week-in-historyBy providing scientific information on water, biological, energy, and mineral resources to the public, legislators, and policy makers, the U.S. Geological Survey carries out its mission of enhancing and protecting Americans’ quality of life.

In 1879 President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the congressional bill providing funding for the establishment of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) within the Department of the Interior. Industrial growth in the years immediately following the Civil War had produced a significant strain on the nation’s natural resources. In an 1866 report Joseph Wilson, commissioner of the General Land Office, indicated that proper management of mineral resources in the West was vital to further development of the United States. Following up on Wilson’s recommendations, Congress authorized a geological survey of the West, largely following the path of the newly finished transcontinental railroad. Clarence King and Ferdinand Hayden were placed in charge of the project and by 1870 had presented a plan to Congress for the survey. Additional surveys were privately sponsored as well.

Downturns in the American economy resulted in Congress looking for more efficient alternatives for mapping the West. In 1878 Congress requested that the National Academy of Sciences, which had been established in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, develop a plan for surveying and mapping western territories. The academy’s recommendations included the establishment of the USGS, the purpose of which would be to oversee the study of geological and mineral resources in the public domain.

King was appointed first director of the USGS, and in 1879 a comprehensive study of mining districts in Nevada and Colorado was begun, as well as similar studies of iron and copper resources in other parts of the country. The study was completed prior to King’s resignation from the position of director in 1881.

The duties assigned to the USGS underwent significant expansion during subsequent decades. In 1882 Congress authorized the creation of a comprehensive geological map of the United States, with the result that topographic mapping became the largest program within the USGS. The agency’s geological studies also benefited with the inclusion of scientific research into the origins of ore deposits as well as newly introduced fields such as glacial ecology and studies of rock classes. Western droughts during the 1880’s resulted in the addition of research concerning irrigation and water utilization within the USGS before the beginning of the new century. By 1904 the USGS had completed topographic maps covering more than 25 percent of the United States and Alaska. That year Congress also authorized mapping of areas of potential fossil fuels, including both coal and oil deposits.

Although the divisions within the USGS have undergone changes over the years, the agency has remained largely unchanged in its focus. Its areas of responsibility have grown over time to include the monitoring of seismic and magnetic activity throughout the world and the examination of the geological features of worldwide earthquake zones and volcanoes.

Adler, R. (2016). U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Salem Press Encyclopedia 


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: FEBRUARY 21, 1948

NASCAR Founded

nascar-founded-history-daytonaNASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) is the sanctioning organization responsible for the United States’s most popular automobile racing series. Although production automobiles raced long before NASCAR’s incorporation in 1948 and still compete under its auspices, the acronym has come to stand for stock car racing in the United States. From its origins in the South in the 1940s, NASCAR has grown to become the second-most-watched professional sport (after football) with 75 million fans and designs on international growth.

According to popular legend, early stock car racers were bold, fast drivers who worked for moonshiners, outrunning federal agents to deliver untaxed liquor. In their spare time, these drivers began to compete for bragging rights on small dirt tracks throughout the South. The drivers and the spectators were predominantly white working-class men who reveled in the “outlaw” persona of the rough, tough man of honor. Although this image contains a grain of truth, it overlooks the facts that racing in the South crossed socioeconomic lines, and that other regions of the country also had thriving local stock car racing scenes.

Regardless of geography, many local races were organized by scam artists who often changed the rules in order to declare a particular winner and
sometimes absconded with the prize money. Furthermore, every track boasted its own “national champion.” To manage this chaos, a group of 35 drivers, car mechanics and promoters involved in stock car racing met at a hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida, on December 14, 1947. They established guidelines for organizing races as well as a points system for deciding a single national champion and on February 21, 1948, NASCAR was incorporated.

In addition to the codification of rules, two other important decisions were made at that meeting that would contribute to NASCAR’s survival. The first was the election of “Big Bill” France as president and second to race only American late-model passenger cars, rather than the more aerodynamically and technologically advanced racing machines used in “open wheel” racing series, including the Indianapolis 500. France was a mechanic from Washington, D.C., who had moved to Daytona, where he raced and promoted races on the beach. His knowledge of racing and its early personalities, his knack for savvy business decisions and his iron-willed determination enabled NASCAR to weather numerous economic and personnel crises in subsequent decades. It is no exaggeration to say that for its first 25 years, France was NASCAR.

Miller, J. D. (2013). NASCAR. In S. A. Riess (Ed.), Sports in America from Colonial Times to the Twenty-First Century: An Encyclopedia (pp. 757-762). Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: FEBRUARY 13, 1941

Penicillin First Used in Human

penicillin-week-in-historyOne of the major advances of twentieth-century medicine was the discovery of penicillin. Penicillin is a member of the class of drugs known as antibiotics. These drugs either kill or arrest (bacteriocidal or bacteriostatic effects, respectively) the growth of bacteria, fungi (yeast), and several other classes of infectious organisms. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. Prior to the advent of penicillin, bacterial infections such as pneumonia and sepsis (overwhelming infection of the blood) were usually fatal. Once the use of penicillin became widespread, fatality rates from pneumonia dropped precipitously.

The discovery of penicillin marked the beginning of a new era in fighting disease. Scientists had known since the mid-nineteenth century that bacteria were responsible for some infectious diseases, but were virtually helpless to stop them. Then, in 1928, Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), a Scottish bacteriologist working at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, stumbled onto what proved to be a potent antibacterial agent.

Fleming’s research centered on the bacteria Staphylococcus, a class of bacteria that caused infections such as pneumonia, abscesses, post-operative wound infections, and sepsis. In order to study these bacteria, Fleming grew them in his laboratory in glass Petri dishes on a substance called agar. In August, 1928 he noticed that some of the Petri dishes in which the bacteria were growing had become contaminated with mold, which he later identified as belonging to the Penicillum family.

Fleming noted that bacteria in the vicinity of the mold had died. Exploring further, Fleming found that the mold killed several, but not all, types of bacteria. He also found that an extract from the mold did not damage healthy tissue in animals. However, growing the mold and collecting even tiny amounts of the active ingredient–penicillin–was extremely difficult. Fleming did, however, publish his results in the medical literature in 1928.

Ten years later, other researchers picked up where Fleming had left off. Working in Oxford, England, a team led by Howard Florey (1898-1968), an Australian, and Ernst Chain, a refugee from Nazi Germany, came across Fleming’s study and confirmed his findings in their laboratory. They also had problems growing the mold and found it very difficult to isolate the active ingredient.

Another researcher on their team, Norman Heatley, developed better production techniques, and the team was able to produce enough penicillin to conduct tests in humans. In 1941, the team announced that penicillin could combat disease in humans. Unfortunately, producing penicillin was still a cumbersome process, and supplies of the new drug were extremely limited. Working in the United States, Heatley and other scientists improved production and began making large quantities of the drug. Owing to this success, penicillin was available to treat wounded soldiers by the latter part of World War II. Fleming, Florey, and Chain were awarded the Noble Prize in medicine. Heatley received an honorary M.D. from Oxford University in 1990.

Penicillin. (2007). In B. W. Lerner & K. L. Lerner (Eds.), World of Microbiology and Immunology. Detroit: Gale.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: FEBRUARY 8, 1828

Birth of Jules Verne

jules-verne-week-in-historyAt the age of thirty-five, Verne had found his life’s work. In his remaining forty-two years, he would write more than sixty “scientific romances,” averaging two books per year and winning the reputation of the founder of science fiction. Verne drew on two of his major loves in the writing of science fiction: geography and science.

Though he seldom traveled, Verne was an avid reader of travel books and was recognized as an accomplished amateur geographer. Early in his career, he wrote a popular history of geographical exploration from the Phoenicians to the nineteenth century, La Decouverte de la terre (1878; The Discovery of the Earth, 1878), while he also collaborated on an illustrated geography of France. This fascination with a sense of place gave Verne the ability to provide intimate and convincing details in his novels, even those set in remote places in the Americas and the Pacific. Of seafaring stock and as an accomplished yachtsman, Verne filled his novels that were set on the oceans with compelling data that would normally be known only to a sailor. Verne’s feeling for locale was consistently persuasive.

Although he was not an inventor, Verne was an avid reader of scientific literature and had the gift to see the technological application of many of the great discoveries of the nineteenth century. Verne’s writing anticipated that of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in this respect, for there is always a hard core of scientific fact inside his fantastic tales. Late in his life, when someone dared to compare his writing to that of the British author H. G. Wells, Verne protested, insisting, “I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine … his stories do not repose on very scientific bases … I make use of physics. He invents.”

As an author, Verne was a world celebrity within his own lifetime. As a French citizen, he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1870. As a resident of Amiens, he was active in municipal government. As a lover of the sea, he was a skilled yachtsman who sailed to Britain, Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea until that activity was prevented in 1886 through a wound inflicted by a madman, his nephew Gaston, who shot Verne in the foot at point-blank range. Later in life, Verne, an authentic workaholic, suffered from arthritis, blindness in one eye caused by a cataract, and increasing struggles with depression. His death on March 24, 1905, deprived the planet of a prophet and master storyteller, but Verne’s ability to entertain continued, for a number of successful motion pictures have been based on his movies, including Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1916, 1954, and 1997), The Mysterious Island (1929 and 1961), From the Earth to the Moon (1958), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and perhaps the most popular of all, Around the World in Eighty Days (1956 and 2004).

Fry, C. G. (2016). Jules Verne. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: FEBRUARY 1, 1884

The Oxford English Dictionary Debuts

oxford-english-dictionary-week-in-historyOn this day in 1884, the first portion, or fascicle, of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), considered the most comprehensive and accurate dictionary of the English language, is published. Today, the OED is the definitive authority on the meaning, pronunciation and history of over half a million words, past and present.

Plans for the dictionary began in 1857 when members of London’s Philological Society, who believed there were no up-to-date, error-free English dictionaries available, decided to produce one that would cover all vocabulary from the Anglo-Saxon period (1150 A.D.) to the present. Conceived of as a four-volume, 6,400-page work, it was estimated the project would take 10 years to finish. In fact, it took over 40 years until the 125th and final fascicle was published in April 1928 and the full dictionary was complete — at over 400,000 words and phrases in 10 volumes — and published under the title A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

Unlike most English dictionaries, which only list present-day common meanings, the OED provides a detailed chronological history for every word and phrase, citing quotations from a wide range of sources, including classic literature and cookbooks. The OED is famous for its lengthy cross-references and etymologies. The verb “set” merits the OED’s longest entry, at approximately 60,000 words and detailing over 430 uses. No sooner was the OED finished than editors began updating it. A supplement, containing new entries and revisions, was published in 1933 and the original dictionary was reprinted in 12 volumes and officially renamed the Oxford English Dictionary. Between 1972 and 1986, an updated four-volume supplement was published, with new terms from the continually evolving English language plus more words and phrases from North America, Australia, the Caribbean, New Zealand, South Africa and South Asia. In 1984, Oxford University Press embarked on a five-year, multi-million-dollar project to create an electronic version of the dictionary. The effort required 120 people just to type the pages from the print edition and 50 proofreaders to check their work. In 1992, a CD-ROM version of the dictionary was released, making it much easier to search and retrieve information. Today, the dictionary’s second edition is available online to subscribers and is updated quarterly with over 1,000 new entries and revisions. At a whopping 20 volumes weighing over 137 pounds, it would reportedly take one person 120 years to type all 59 million words in the OED.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: JANUARY 24, 1848

Gold Discovered at Sutter’s Creek

gold-discovered-sutters-creek-californiaA millwright named James Marshall discovers gold along the banks of Sutter’s Creek in California, forever changing the course of history in the American West.

A tributary to the South Fork of the American River in the Sacramento Valley east of San Francisco, Sutter’s Creek was named for a Swiss immigrant who came to Mexican California in 1839. John Augustus Sutter became a citizen of Mexico and won a grant of nearly 50,000 acres in the lush Sacramento Valley, where he hoped to create a thriving colony. He built a sturdy fort that became the center of his first town, New Helvetia, and purchased farming implements, livestock, and a cannon to defend his tiny empire. Copying the methods of the Spanish missions, Sutter induced the local Indians to do all the work on his farms and ranches, often treating them as little more than slaves. Workers who dared leave his empire without permission were often brought back by armed posses to face brutal whippings or even execution.

In the 1840s, Sutter’s Fort became the first stopping-off point for overland Anglo-American emigrants coming to California to build farms and ranches. Though sworn to protect the Mexican province from falling under the control of the growing number of Americans, Sutter recognized that his future wealth and influence lay with these Anglo settlers. With the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, he threw his support to the Americans, who emerged victorious in the fall of 1847.

With the war over and California securely in the hands of the United States, Sutter hired the millwright James Marshall to build a sawmill along the South Fork of the American River in January 1848. In order to redirect the flow of water to the mill’s waterwheel, Marshall supervised the excavation of a shallow millrace. On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall was looking over the freshly cut millrace when a sparkle of light in the dark earth caught his eye. Looking more closely, Marshall found that much of the millrace was speckled with what appeared to be small flakes of gold, and he rushed to tell Sutter. After an assayer confirmed that the flakes were indeed gold, Sutter quietly set about gathering up as much of the gold as he could, hoping to keep the discovery a secret. However, word soon leaked out and, within months, the largest gold rush in the world had begun.

Ironically, the California gold rush was a disaster for Sutter. Though it brought thousands of men to California, the prospectors had no interest in joining Sutter’s despotic agricultural community. Instead, they overran Sutter’s property, slaughtered his herds for food, and trampled his fields. By 1852, New Helvetia was ruined and Sutter was nearly wiped out. Until his death in 1880, he spent his time unsuccessfully petitioning the government to compensate him for the losses he suffered as a result of the gold rush he unintentionally ignited.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: JANUARY 17, 1781

Battle of Cowpens

battle-of-cowpensOn January 17, 1781, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton attacked Brigadier General Daniel Morgan’s troops, whose back and left flank were anchored by the Broad River. Morgan’s first line of 150 sharpshooters fired and then fell back to a second line of 300 militia. These fired two volleys and retired to the rear to regroup.

The British then pressed on to meet the main American line, which consisted of Continentals. A mistaken order caused a momentary retreat on the American right, but it was orderly and merely anticipated Morgan’s plan to draw in the British. When commanded, the Americans turned and subjected the British to withering fire. The shock of this volley was promptly followed with a bayonet charge.

This American counterattack was supported by dragoons, which struck the left flank and rear of the British Highlanders. The regrouped militia hit the Highlander’s right flank. Under this intense pressure, the Highlanders broke, causing panic throughout the British line. The British right was turned as well; therefore, Tarleton’s army experienced the disaster of a double envelopment. British casualties and prisoners numbered about 900. American casualties amounted to about 70.

Cowpens boosted American morale and destroyed a good deal of Lord Charles Cornwallis’s army. Morgan’s army was able to unite with Nathanael Greene’s and continue to contest the British for control of the south.

Benbow, P. K. (2016). Battle of Cowpens. Salem Press Encyclopedia.


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