Momentous or Merely Memorable
50 Years Ago
On September 12, 1958, Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby demonstrates the first microchip, designed while he tinkered through a company vacation. His "integrated circuit," layered onto a sliver of semiconductor material, eliminates the need to connect discrete components. With improvements by Robert Noyce, who patents a similar idea, the microchip makes more complex circuits—and modern electronics—possible. Kilby wins the Nobel Prize in 2000.
70 Years Ago
The Lesson of Munich
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the leaders of France and Italy make a pact with Adolf Hitler in Munich, September 30, 1938, to let Germany annex a portion of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a promise of peace. When Hitler reneges and invades Poland in 1939, the Munich agreement is decried as futile appeasement, and World War II is on.
80 Years Ago
Moldy but Goody
Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming returns to St. Mary's Hospital in London from a holiday on September 3, 1928, to find mold growing on one of his staphylococcus cultures. Noting that no staphylococci are growing near the mold, Fleming investigates. He names the "mould juice" penicillin, for the penicillium mold that produces it. Fleming publishes his discovery in 1929, but it will be a decade before Oxford scientists Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain isolate and purify it for use as an antibiotic. Fleming dies in 1955 at age 73.
120 Years Ago
"You press the button, we do the rest," George Eastman promises buyers of his Kodak box camera, patented September 4, 1888. Loaded with Eastman's flexible, rolled film—far less bulky than glass plates—the easy-to-use $25 camera and its clever marketing make photography a medium for the masses. Users mail the whole box back to Kodak to get their snapshots—and a reloaded camera, ready to click.
170 Years Ago
Free at Last
Frederick Douglass, born a slave in 1818, escapes from bondage in a Baltimore shipyard on September 3, 1838. Disguised in seamen's clothes and carrying the borrowed papers of a free sailor, Douglass jumps, ticketless, onto a northbound train. Speaking "like an 'old salt,'" he convinces the conductor that the papers are his. A day later he is in New York City, where he marries Anna Murray, his free fiancée. Douglass, who recounts slavery's horrors in a best-selling autobiography in 1845, founds several newspapers and is a vocal advocate for equal rights for all people. He dies in 1895 at age 77.