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14 Surprising Facts About Robert F. Kennedy

George Freston/Getty Images
George Freston/Getty Images

Most Americans will know Robert F. Kennedy as the younger brother of our 35th president, a U.S. attorney general on the vanguard of civil rights, the junior Senator from New York who fought against poverty, and a Democratic candidate for president in 1968. Sadly, his life was cut short by an assassin 50 years ago today, on June 5, 1968, after celebrating his California primary victory at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Here are 14 little-known facts worth remembering about RFK.

1. HE WORKED FOR SENATOR JOE McCARTHY, AND ALMOST HAD ROY COHN'S JOB.

RFK's father Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the former U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, had asked Senator McCarthy to appoint his son as chief counsel of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy opted instead for Roy Cohn, who had helped convict atomic bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951. RFK was named assistant counsel in December of 1952, but resigned the following summer. In early 1954, he rejoined the committee when the Democrats appointed him minority counsel.

2. HE MAY HAVE PREVENTED A RIOT AFTER MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. WAS KILLED.

On April 4, 1968, RFK was campaigning in Indianapolis, Indiana when he heard that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. He told a largely African-American crowd at his campaign stop the news, and in a personal, improvised speech [PDF], defused some of the tension that in other cities led to violent riots. "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.”

3. HE WASN'T ABOVE A BAR FIGHT.

RFK was known to have a hot temper. "Shortly after his 21st birthday, Kennedy celebrated by buying his first beer. Soon he was buying rounds for everyone in the bar," Evan Thomas writes in Robert Kennedy: His Life. "Some of the patrons began singing 'Happy Birthday' to someone else, and Kennedy, inebriated for the first time in his life, became enraged at their ingratitude. He smashed a beer bottle over one man's head and refused entreaties by [Kenneth] O'Donnell to apologize."

4. HE INSPIRED JERRY SPRINGER (THE MAN, NOT THE SHOW).

Before Jerry Springer became the host of his eponymous show, he served as the mayor of Cleveland and unsuccessfully ran for Congress—events that might not have happened if it weren't for RFK, then the Senator from New York. In 1968, during RFK's campaign for president, Springer met the candidate at a dinner meeting and was impressed by his desire for social change. Springer signed up for the campaign, and after Kennedy's assassination, kept the slain candidate's mission alive in his career in public service.

5. HE DEBATED RONALD REAGAN IN 1967.

On May 15, 1967, the giants of the left and right met on CBS News. The topic: "The Image of America and the Youth of the World." Students from around the world who were studying at British universities submitted the questions from London.

"To those unfamiliar with Reagan's big-league savvy, the ease with which he fielded questions about Vietnam may have come as a revelation," Newsweek gushed. "Political rookie Reagan ... left old campaigner Kennedy blinking when the session ended." A 2007 article in the conservative-leaning magazine National Review commented that "Kennedy himself conceded defeat to Reagan, telling his aides after the debate to never again put him on the same stage with 'that son-of-a-bitch.' Kennedy was heard to ask immediately after the debate, 'Who the f—- got me into this?' Frank Mankiewicz was that aide." Later, Mankiewicz would announce Kennedy's death in the early hours of June 6, 1968.

6. HE WAS THE FIRST TO CLIMB MOUNT KENNEDY.

In 1965, on an excursion sponsored by the National Geographic Society, RFK and a team of climbers reached the summit of the 14,000-foot Canadian mountain. He had no previous climbing experience. Up to that point, Mount Kennedy was the highest unclimbed peak in North America. It had been named after President John F. Kennedy months earlier.

Later, RFK was zinged by his brother Ted in a quote given to UPI: "I wish to point out for the record he is not the first Kennedy to climb a mountain. I climbed the Matterhorn in 1957, which is higher, and I didn't need the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

7. HE TRIED TO TALK LBJ OUT OF THE VP JOB HE'D ALREADY ACCEPTED.

With RFK as his campaign manager, John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination for president in 1960 with just enough votes, despite a last-ditch effort by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson and his supporters to stop him. To smooth relations in the party, JFK asked Johnson to be his vice president—and, according to RFK, Johnson shocked the Kennedy campaign by accepting. "Now what do we do?' JFK supposedly asked his brother. Although historians differ as to his motivation, RFK went to Johnson's hotel room to talk him out of it, but that awkward move only intensified the animosity. Finally, JFK called Johnson to say he really did want him on the ticket, and that Bobby didn't know what he was talking about.

8. HIS HOUSE WAS A ZOO.

In August of 1962, The New York Times wrote about Attorney General Kennedy's dog Brumus, who was a regular visitor to the Justice Department. (The article states he is "a Labrador dog," but other sources claim he was a Newfoundland.) "He usually stays at home with the children," Kennedy told the paper. "But the children are away on vacation and he gets very lonely. So I bring him down here and get pretty girls to take him for walks." In addition to Brumus (spelled Brumis in some accounts), The Times mentions the rest of the Kennedy family pets: "two other dogs, ponies, horses, geese, a burro, a sea lion, Hungarian pigeons, 20 goldfish, rabbits, turtles and a salamander."

9. HE REPEATED THE THIRD GRADE.

An unauthorized biography of Ethel Kennedy, RFK's wife, relates an event at which she revealed her husband's elementary school shortcomings. "In Berlin, at the German-American community school, Ethel urged a group of third-graders not to be discouraged if they did not always do well at their lessons. 'After all, Bobby had to repeat third grade,' she said brightly," author Jerry Oppenheimer wrote.

10. HE WAS ONE OF AMERICA'S 10 OUTSTANDING YOUNG MEN OF 1954.

Time listed the honorees named by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, which started off with 29-year-old RFK. The chamber praised his work as the minority counsel of Joe McCarthy's Senate Subcommittee on Investigations (see #1), and specifically for "assembling the facts which persuaded owners of 242 vessels not to trade with Iron Curtain countries."

11. HE AND TED EMBARRASSED THE FAMILY AT JFK'S WEDDING.

"At his brother Jack's wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier in September 1953, Bobby had behaved like a naughty teenager, stealing a policeman's hat," Thomas writes in Robert Kennedy: His Life. "Joe Kennedy was furious. He summoned Bobby and his co-conspirators, his brother Teddy and some younger cousins, and gave them a lecture about disgracing the family name."

12. HE'S BEEN PORTRAYED BY EVERYONE FROM MARTIN SHEEN TO ANDREW McCARTHY.

Martin Sheen, in The Missiles of October, and Andrew McCarthy, in the TV movie Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, are just two of the many actors to play RFK. Lesser-known stars include Stephen Culp (Thirteen Days and Norma Jean & Marilyn), Zeljko Ivanek (TV movie The Rat Pack), John Shea (1983 miniseries Kennedy; Martin Sheen played JFK in this one), and Robert Knepper (The Women of Camelot).

13. HE SHARED AN INTEREST IN STAMP COLLECTING WITH FDR.

Eleven-year-old RFK was a budding philatelist, a hobby he shared with then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Your dad has told me that you are a stamp collector and I thought you might like to have these stamps to add to your collection. I am enclosing a little album which you may find useful," Roosevelt wrote to Bobby on July 12, 1935. "Perhaps sometime when you are in Washington you will come in and let me show you my collection."

Bobby replied, "I liked the stamps you sent me very much and the little book is very useful. I am just starting my collection and it would be great fun to see yours which mother says you have had for a long time. I am going to frame your letter and I am going to keep it always in my room." The letters are now in the National Archives.

14. SOME SAY HE GOT AROUND.

Like with his brother, the trashier histories of RFK link him romantically to several prominent figures, such as Marilyn Monroe, Candice Bergen, sister-in-law Jackie, and even ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. But these stories are debated, because many of the so-called witnesses were either second-hand storytellers or had a beef with the Kennedys.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain
The 19th Century Poet Who Predicted a 1970s Utopia
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain

In 1870, John Collins dreamed of a future without cigarettes, crime, or currency inflation. The Quaker poet, teacher, and lithographer authored "1970: A Vision for the Coming Age," a 28-page-long poem that imagines what the world would be like a century later—or, as Collins poetically puts it, in "nineteen hundred and threescore and ten.”

The poem, recently spotlighted by The Public Domain Review, is a fanciful epic that follows a narrator as he travels in an airship from Collins’s native New Jersey to Europe, witnessing the wonders of a futuristic society.

In Collins’s imagination, the world of the future seamlessly adheres to his own Quaker leanings. He writes: “Suffice it to say, every thing that I saw / Was strictly conformed to one excellent law / That forbade all mankind to make or to use / Any goods that a Christian would ever refuse.” For him, that means no booze or bars, no advertising, no “vile trashy novels,” not even “ribbons hung flying around.” Needless to say, he wouldn’t have been prepared for Woodstock. In his version of 1970, everyone holds themselves to a high moral standard, no rules required. Children happily greet strangers on their way to school (“twas the custom of all, not enforced by a rule”) before hurrying on to ensure that they don’t waste any of their “precious, short study hours.”

It’s a society whose members are never sick or in pain, where doors don’t need locks and prisons don’t exist, where no one feels tempted to cheat, lie, or steal, and no one goes bankrupt. There is no homelessness. The only money is in the form of gold and silver, and inflation isn't an issue. Storms, fires, and floods are no longer, and air pollution has been eradicated.

While Collins’s sunny outlook might have been a little off-base, he did hint at some innovations that we’d recognize today. He describes international shipping, and comes decently close to predicting drone delivery—in his imagination, a woman in Boston asks a Cuban friend to send her some fruit that “in half an hour came, propelled through the air.” He kind of predicts CouchSurfing (or an extremely altruistic version of Airbnb), imagining that in the future, hotels wouldn't exist and kind strangers would just put you up in their homes for free. He dreams up undersea cables that could broadcast a kind of live video feed of musicians from around the world, playing in their homes, to a New York audience—basically a YouTube concert. He describes electric submarines (“iron vessels with fins—a submarine line, / propels by galvanic action alone / and made to explore ocean’s chambers unknown") and trains that run silently. He even describes climate change, albeit a much more appealing view of it than we’re experiencing now. In his world, “one perpetual spring had encircled the earth.”

Collins might be a little disappointed if he could have actually witnessed the world of 1970, which was far from the Christian utopia he hoped for. But he would have at least, presumably, really enjoyed plane rides.

You can read the whole thing here.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

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