30 Years Ago
Thar She Blows
When an earthquake shakes Washington’s Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, it explodes with a blast that takes 1,314 feet off the volcano’s top and shoots ash 80,000 feet into the air. The nine-hour eruption—which kills 57 people and levels 230 square miles of forest—is the most destructive in recorded United States history.
40 Years Ago
Four Dead in Ohio
At Kent State University, a weekend of confrontation between the Ohio National Guard and campus crowds protesting the Vietnam War and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia turns tragic on Monday, May 4, 1970, when, to disperse a rally, 28 guardsmen open fire on the demonstrators. Four students are killed and nine are wounded. Reaction includes a national strike by four million students. Subsequent trials will determine that the guards justifiably feared for their lives, but the shootings intensify the country’s polarization over the Vietnam War and the administration of President Nixon.
50 Years Ago
American physicist Theodore Maiman, 33, demonstrates the first optical laser at Hughes Research Labs in California, May 16, 1960. Racing many other labs to develop a working laser, a possibility predicted two years before, Maiman uses a synthetic ruby, a material rejected by other scientists, energized by a pulsing light source (instead of a continuous light others preferred). Once his success is announced, reporters repeatedly ask Maiman about his “death-ray,” but the scientist envisions largely peaceful uses, including long-distance communication, today a reality with fiber optics. Maiman dies in 2007.
50 Years Ago
The Food and Drug Administration approves Enovid, the first contraceptive pill, on May 9, 1960. Previously marketed for menstrual disorders, the progestin/estrogen combination drug had been tested in Puerto Rico, Haiti and Mexico, since laws in many U.S. states restricted birth control. The drug’s approval, says FDA Associate Commissioner John Harvey, is based on safety: “Our own ideas of morality had nothing to do with the case.” The pill helps propel the growing women’s rights movement, and today, some 12 million American women take oral contraceptives.
100 Years Ago
The approach of Halley’s comet—and the Earth’s passage through its tail—causes a commotion in May 1910. As sales of telescopes boom, widespread panic, fueled by yellow journalism speculation about the poison gas in the tail, prompts everything from prayer meetings to suicides. Chicagoans stuff keyholes with cotton; a Cleveland man, believing the world will end, is reportedly driven insane by fear. On May 19, the Earth spends six hours in the comet’s tail with adverse effects limited to “comet neck” from rooftop viewing parties. The comet, which last visited in 1986, is due back in 2061.