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February 3, 1959: The Day the Music Died

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On February 3, 1959, a plane crashed shortly after taking off from Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all four people aboard: pilot Roger Peterson and musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. The date became known as The Day the Music Died.

Charles Hardin Holley was born in Lubbock, Texas in 1936. He was only five years old when he earned his first money for singing, $5 at a local talent show. He formed a band in high school that performed on local radio and the country music circuit. They recorded several country songs for Decca in Nashville, but failed to find success. Holly (he dropped the "e" when his name was misspelled on the record contract) returned to Lubbock and played various venues, including opening for Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis Presley. Elvis suggested Holly forget country music and start playing rock-and-roll. Holly's band, now known as The Crickets, recorded "That'll Be the Day" as a demo, which got them a contract with Coral/Brunswick records. A string of hit followed in 1957 and '58, including "Peggy Sue" and "Oh Boy". Holly wrote the songs, but had to share credit on some with producer Norman Petty. Holly split from Petty and The Crickets in October of 1958. Legal hassles following the breakup led to money problems, which led to Holly signing onto a winter tour in late 1958. By then he had married Maria Elena Santiago, a girl he proposed to on their first date. Holly's life story was detailed in the 1978 movie The Buddy Holly Story. Holly was 22 years old when he died.

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Richie Valens was only 17 years old when he died. Born Richard Steven Valenzuela in southern California, he learned to play guitar at age eleven. Valens was influenced by Mexican folk songs, country music on the radio, and singing cowboy movies. He played for school assemblies and parties in high school. Valens joined a band called The Silhouettes and had locally steady work. A talent agent spotted him and brought him into Keen Records for an audition. The instrumental he played for that audition evolved into his first hit, "Come On Let's Go". It sold half a million copies in 1958. Valens' followup single was "Donna", a song written for his girlfriend, with a Mexican folk song called "La Bamba" on the flip side. Both songs were riding high on the charts when Valens signed on for a tour with Buddy Holly and two other acts. Valens life was the subject of the 1987 movie La Bamba.

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Jiles Perry Richardson recorded and toured under the name The Big Bopper. He was the oldest of the plane crash victims at 28. Richardson grew up in Texas where he was active in school music programs. He studied pre-law in college, then dropped out to work full-time as a radio disc jockey. He once stayed on the air for five straight days, breaking the record for continuous broadcasting. Richardson also served a stint in the army, married, and fathered a daughter. He took the name The Big Bopper for a radio show. According to some sources, The Big Bopper was the first person to use the phrase "music video". He was in the process of promoting a video business when he died. Meanwhile, Richardson was busy writing songs. He wrote 'White Lighting", a hit for George Jones, and "Running Bear", recorded by Johnny Preston. The Big Bopper recorded "Chantilly Lace" in 1958, which went to #6 nationally. The success of "Chantilly Lace" led to a slot on a winter tour with Buddy Holly.

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Valens, Richardon, and Holly were on tour with a show called "The Winter Dance Party Tour" with Dion and the Belmonts. The tour bus was so cold and miserable that one band member reportedly developed frostbite. Buddy Holly had had enough, and decided to charter a plane in Clear Lake to fly to Fargo, North Dakota for the next gig. Dwyer Flying Service was hired for $36 a seat, and the plane was ready to leave after the show at the Surf Ballroom. Waylon Jennings, a backup singer for the show, relinquished his seat on the plane to Richardson because he was running a fever. Another backup singer, Tommy Allsup, lost his chance to fly in a coin flip with Valens.

When Holly learned that Jennings wasn't going to fly, he said, "Well, I hope your old bus freezes up." Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your plane crashes." This friendly banter of friends would haunt Jennings for years.

The pilot, 21-year-old Roger Peterson, was not qualified to fly on instruments alone. The weather had been clear earlier, but a storm warning had been issued. Neither Peterson nor Dwyer Flying Service was aware of the weather alert. A blinding snowstorm enveloped the plane soon after takeoff, and it spun into the ground. Jerry Dwyer, owner of the plane was concerned that it hadn't landed in Fargo by morning. After the fog cleared, he searched by plane and found the crash about a quarter of a mile from the nearest road. You can see photos of the crash aftermath, but be warned there are bodies visible. All three musicians were thrown from the plane. The plane had to be cut to extract the pilot.

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Holly and Richardson both left pregnant wives behind. Maria Holly had a miscarriage shortly afterward. Born three months after the plane crash, J.P. Richardson Jr. performs under the name The Big Bopper Jr. He plays the role of his father in a tribute show called The Dance Party Tour.

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Buddy Holly and the Crickets inspired the names of both bands The Beatles and The Hollies. The 1971 song American Pie by Don McLean was written about the events of February 3rd, 1959. Candace Rich provides us with an explanation of the lyrics. The town of Clear Lake expects crowds of thousands to commemorate the anniversary of the first rock-and-roll plane crash. The community held concerts and a symposium with some of the victim's family members over the past few days. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designated the Surf Ballroom as one of its national landmarks. Holly, Valens, and Richardson had extremely short musical careers by today's standards, but their music and influences live on.

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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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