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France Sends Anti-German Ambassador to Russia

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 96th installment in the series. 

December 23, 1913: France Sends Anti-German Ambassador to Russia, Federal Reserve Created

Aside from the foreign minister, the most important job in the French diplomatic universe was ambassador to Russia. As guardian of the sacred Franco-Russian Alliance, the French minister to St. Petersburg was responsible for shoring up the key pillar of French national security, which meant reassuring the Russians of French commitment while politely extracting more concrete guarantees from the Russians.

The appointment of Theophile Delcassé as ambassador to the court of the Tsar in February 1913 sent a clear message to friend and foe alike. A former foreign minister and one of the main architects of the Franco-Russian Alliance, Delcassé was convinced that France was on a collision course with Germany, leading Kaiser Wilhelm II to call him “the most dangerous man for Germany in France.” Before leaving for Russia Delcassé told Maurice Paléologue (top), the foreign ministry’s (also ferociously “anti-German”) political director: “We are inevitably headed toward a great European conflict, and it will be France which will bear the first blow… for make no mistake about it, Germany will attack us through Belgium… It is necessary, therefore, that the Russian ally be in such a state to be able to launch a full-scale offensive in the shortest possible time…”

Over the course of 1913, Delcassé (along with French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre and President Raymond Poincaré) firmed up the Russian alliance, resulting in a new military convention, signed in September 1913, confirming and elaborating their plans for near-simultaneous attacks on Germany; this included a personal promise from Tsar Nicholas II to invade East Prussia within 15 days of mobilization (M+15) in hopes of forcing the Germans to divert forces from their attack on France.

But in the winter of 1913 Delcassé, complaining of ill health (and nursing political ambitions back home) let it be known that he would like to return to France. Opportunistic as always, on December 23, 1913, Poincaré seized the chance to cement his control over French foreign policy by nominating his friend Paléologue to replace Delcassé in St. Petersburg—thus sending someone who was perhaps even more virulently anti-German than Delcassé, if that were possible, to represent the Republic in Russia. 

Paléologue’s appointment was especially significant in the context of the continuing Liman von Sanders Affair, which the Russians viewed as a test of French solidarity in the face of German bullying. President Poincaré had previously hinted he might support Russia’s claims to control the Ottoman capital Constantinople and the Turkish straits, and Paléologue—whose family claimed (probably spurious) descent from Byzantine emperors—would support Russian claims to the ancient city in the coming conflict, helping pave the way for the disastrous Gallipoli Expedition. 

Paléologue’s appointment further consolidated the Franco-Russian Alliance during the final countdown to war, as both partners signaled their determination not to tolerate German bullying, relying on their mutual defensive agreement for strength. Bidding farewell to Paléologue in January 1914, French Prime Minister Gaston Doumergue left no doubt about the main thrust of his mission to St. Petersburg: “War can break out from one day to the next… Our allies must rush to our aid.” Meanwhile, Tsar Nicholas II echoed Poincaré’s earlier calls for a firm line against Germany, warning the departing Delcassé, “We shall not let ourselves be trampled upon.” 

Federal Reserve Created

On December 23, 1913, Congress passed and President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act, creating a new national bank and massively increasing the government’s power to intervene in the economy by setting interest rates and controlling the supply of money. 

The United States had had national banks before: In 1791, Congress chartered the First Bank of the United States at the urging of Alexander Hamilton, who wanted the federal government to assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states to stabilize their finances and foster adherence to the new nation. But the national bank faced fierce opposition from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other critics who feared official corruption and federal aggrandizement. In 1833, Andrew Jackson shut down the Second Bank of the United States (the successor institution chartered in 1816), which he accused of favoring northeastern industrial interests over small farmers on the frontier. To “democratize” the financial system Jackson transferred the national bank’s funds to state banks (“pet banks”) mostly selected for political loyalty to Jackson and his allies in the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, “wildcat” banks free from federal regulation sprang up around the country and began issuing huge amounts of bank notes with little or no backing, resulting in financial collapse and the Depression of 1837. 

During the Civil War, Congress created a new system of “national banks” to finance the war and introduce the first uniform national currency, but stopped short of creating a new central bank, so the new national banks (which mostly operated like state banks) lacked the backing of a “lender of last resort” to supply emergency funds in the event of a financial crisis. That’s what happened in 1907, when a failed attempt to corner the stock of the United Copper Company on Wall Street triggered financial panic and bank runs across the U.S. Total financial collapse was averted by the frantic efforts of J.P. Morgan and bank presidents, essentially acting as an improvised central bank, but the public’s confidence was badly shaken and a steep economic downturn ensued. 

The Panic of 1907 laid the groundwork for the formation of the Federal Reserve System, beginning with the creation of a National Monetary Commission in 1908, followed by a top-secret meeting of bankers hosted by Delaware Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury A.P. Andrew at Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1910, where they agreed on an outline for a National Reserve Bank. In January 1911 the National Monetary Commission formally recommended the formation of a National Reserve. After two years of debate over the balance between political and private control, the bill to create the Federal Reserve System – composed of regional Federal Reserve Banks owned by private banks, supervised by an independent Board of Governors, and backed by the “full faith and credit” of the United States—was introduced in the House of Representatives on August 29, 1913, passed by the Senate on December 18, approved by a joint conference committee on December 22 and 23, and immediately signed by President Wilson on the latter date.

During the First World War, the Federal Reserve helped protect the U.S. and world financial system from the initial shocks of the war, then became a key financier of the U.S. and Allied war efforts, with the New York Fed leading the way. To facilitate this process in 1916 and 1917, Congress lowered the amount of “real” money the Fed had to hold as collateral for loans, and also changed the rules so government debt could serve as collateral; this helped increase the money supply to fund the war effort, but also resulted in major inflation, with the purchasing value of the dollar decreasing by roughly half from 1914 and 1920. After the war the Fed’s “easy money” policies helped fuel the economic expansion of the “Roaring 20s,” but also contributed to the credit bubble that finally popped in 1929, triggering the Great Depression. 

See the previous installment or all entries

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James Cameron is Making a Documentary to Reassess the Accuracy of Titanic
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20th Century Fox

While making the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, James Cameron was a stickler for the details. The writer-director wanted his homage to the tragic ocean liner to be as historically accurate as possible, so he organized dives to the site, solicited experts to analyze his script, and modeled the set off photographs and plans from the Titanic's builders. He even recreated the ocean liner’s original furnishings, right down to the light fixtures. Now, 20 years after the film’s release, E! News reports that Cameron will scrutinize the film’s authenticity in an upcoming National Geographic documentary.

Titanic: 20th Anniversary is slated to air in December 2017. It will feature Cameron and a team of experts who, together, will evaluate the film's accuracy using new historical and scientific insights about the ship's fateful sinking on April 15, 1912.

"When I wrote the film, and when I set out to direct it, I wanted every detail to be as accurate as I could make it, and every harrowing moment of the ship's final hours accounted for," Cameron said in a statement. "I was creating a living history; I had to get it right out of respect for the many who died and for their legacy. But did I really get it right? Now, with National Geographic and with the latest research, science, and technology, I'm going to reassess."

It's not the first time Cameron has revisited his Oscar-winning epic; in 2012, the director made some tweaks to the film for its 3-D re-release after receiving some criticism from renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“Neil deGrasse Tyson sent me quite a snarky email saying that, at that time of year, in that position in the Atlantic in 1912, when Rose is lying on the piece of driftwood and staring up at the stars, that is not the star field she would have seen," Cameron explained. “And with my reputation as a perfectionist, I should have known that and I should have put the right star field in." So he changed it.

In the case of Titanic: 20th Anniversary, Cameron and his team will give viewers an updated interpretation of the Titanic’s sinking, and reexamine the wreck using new underwater footage, computer-generated simulation, and research. They’ll also scrutinize some of the film’s most famous scenes, and provide biographical context about the filming process.

We’re sure fans, historians, and, of course, Kate and Leo, will approve.

[h/t Mashable]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
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Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
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Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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