40 Years Ago
Letting It Be
The Beatles give a surprise performance—their last public concert together—on the roof of Apple Records' London recording studio, January 30, 1969. Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, already beginning to go their separate ways but hoping to recapture the band's energy, film themselves—until police say "hello goodbye"— playing several songs from a new project. The album and film, reworked into Let It Be, record the tensions leading to the group's breakup in 1970. John Lennon is killed in 1980, but the three remaining Beatles reunite to record two songs in 1994. George Harrison dies in 2001.
50 Years Ago
Castro Seizes Power
Revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro, 32, overthrow the government of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, January 1, 1959, five and a half years after the 1953 attack on a military barracks that gives Castro's guerrilla 26th of July Movement its name. Batista flees Cuba, and Castro, who had declared himself "not interested in power," takes control of the Cuban government in February. He cuts ties to the United States, nationalizes private land, commerce and industry, embraces Communism and violently suppresses opposition. In February 2008, an ailing Castro passes leadership of the island nation to his brother, Raúl.
170 Years Ago
Members of the Academy of Sciences in Paris learn in January 1839 of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre's pioneering photographic process. It's the first method to achieve widespread success—Daguerre's light-sensitive copper sheets reduce exposure time from hours to minutes—and before it is supplanted in the 1850s, millions of daguerreotypes are taken annually. Daguerre dies, at 63, in 1851.
250 Years Ago
Auld Acquaintance Remembered
Scottish poet Robert Burns is born January 25, 1759, in his father's farm cottage in Alloway. He tries farming, but concluding that "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men" often go awry, turns to poetry. His 1786 book of poems, written in Scottish dialect, charms Edinburgh society, though it brings Burns more fame than fortune. He also collects, writes and rewrites hundreds of Scottish songs, and his A Man's a Man for a' That and his version of Auld Lang Syne are staples at New Year's Eve parties and Burns suppers centuries after his death, at 37, in 1796.
450 Years Ago
As She Liked It
Elizabeth Tudor is crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey on January 15, 1559, in the kind of "pompous ceremony" she deems a secret of good government. After parading four miles through London, courting the crowd and viewing pageants in her honor, she receives the Imperial Crown—which, at seven pounds, is too heavy for her and is replaced with another. She ably assumes the burdens of monarchy, however, restoring Protestantism to England, keeping Spain and France at bay, and lending her name to an age of literary flowering that ends with her death, at 69, in 1603.