Momentous or Merely Memorable
20 Years Ago
Seven weeks of protests by students and dissidents to spur democratic reforms in China end in violence June 3 and 4, 1989, when Chinese soldiers open fire on demonstrators gathered in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Deaths are estimated in the hundreds, casualties in the thousands. The action ushers in an era of political repression and economic reforms.
50 Years Ago
Four years after British engineer Christopher Cockerell used a cat-food tin inside a coffee can to test an idea for a vehicle that could move over land and water on a cushion of air, his hovercraft debuts June 11, 1959, on the waters near England's Isle of Wight. Built by Saunders Roe Ltd., the SRN.1—which "huffs and puffs like a vacuum cleaner in reverse," according to one newspaper—flies through maneuvers at 25 knots. Weeks later the "flying saucer," as it is quickly known, crosses the English Channel. More than 80 million people will make the same trip by hovercraft before service ends in 2000.
90 Years Ago
British pilot John Alcock, 26, and navigator Arthur Brown, 32, crash-land their modified Vickers Vimy biplane in a swamp near Clifden, Ireland, June 15, 1919—16 hours and 12 minutes after departing St. John's, Newfoundland. The pair thus become the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean, eight years before Lindbergh does so alone. The two struggled in dense fog and snow. "Once...we saw the green Atlantic only 30 feet below," Alcock relates. They win £10,000 and are knighted by King George V. Alcock dies in a plane crash later that year, Brown in 1948.
140 Years Ago
Taking Their Cue
American printer John Wesley Hyatt and his brother Isaiah, inspired by a contest to make a synthetic-ivory billiard ball, patent a method for making "solid collodion" June 15, 1869. They lose the contest, but the method, tweaked over the next few years, yields celluloid, the first commercially successful plastic, which the Hyatts market for use in billiard balls and other products, from dental plates to piano keys. By the 1890s, strips of the stuff will become the basis for a photographic revolution: film.
150 Years Ago
Thousands of spectators flock from Buffalo to Niagara Falls June 30, 1859, to watch French funambulist Jean François Gravelet, a.k.a. the "Great Blondin," become the first person to cross the Niagara River gorge on a tightrope. After coolly sitting down halfway across the 1,150-foot-wide chasm for a drink, Blondin finally attains the Canadian shore. "I have got safely over. I see you are very glad. So am I," he tells the crowd before heading back the way he came. He dies—in bed—in 1897, age 73.