40 Years Ago
In The Beginning
Three days after launch, the crew of Apollo 8—astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders—become, on December 24, 1968, the first humans to leave Earth's gravity and orbit the moon. "The moon" says Lovell, in the first close-up report, "looks like plaster of Paris or a sort of a grayish beach sand." The astronauts make six live TV broadcasts from space, including a Christmas Eve reading from the book of Genesis that reaches 100 million households. After ten orbits, they splash down December 27.
40 Years Ago
Of Mice and Men
Computer engineer Douglas Engelbart gives the first public demonstration of an "X-Y position indicator for a display system" at the Fall Joint Computer Expo in San Francisco, December 9, 1968. The computer mouse, as the gadget becomes known—the original had the cord coming out the back like a tail—begins infesting the world when Apple makes it standard equipment for its Macintosh in 1984, and the verb "click" takes on a whole new meaning.
70 Years Ago
Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a curator at the East London Museum in South Africa, spies an unusual fish when combing trawler captain Hendrick Goosen's catch for specimens December 22, 1938. Five-feet long, 127 pounds, with fins that look like limbs, the find is determined to be a coelacanth, a fish previously known only from fossils and presumed extinct for 65 million years. Coelacanths have a hinged skull and an electrosensory organ unknown in other living fish. Now endangered, they are most often found in the Indian Ocean at depths of more than 300 feet.
100 Years Ago
Jack Johnson, 30, becomes the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World when police stop his pounding of Canadian Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, December 26, 1908, after 14 rounds. The flamboyant Johnson, a magnet for racist anger, successfully defends his title against former champ and "Great White Hope" James Jeffries in 1910. Johnson wins 77 of his 123 fights. He dies in 1946, age 68.
200 Years Ago
A Fifth For Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven conducts the première of his Symphony No. 5 in C minor in Vienna, December 22, 1808. The hall is unheated, the orchestra shaky and the concert four hours long; the work is not an instant hit. But the piece, which an increasingly deaf Beethoven had begun in 1804, gets a rave—"immeasureably noble and profound"—from E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1810 and soon becomes an orchestral standard. Its opening da-da-da DUM, four of the most famous notes in classical music, will be used for everything from symbolizing Allied victory in World War II (it is Morse code for V) to a cellphone ring tone.