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10 Surprising Historical Markers Hidden in Plain Sight

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ProhibitOnions via Wikimedia // Public Domain

History is all around us, and yet we don’t always notice historical markers in our midst. These markers, whether they’re a bronze plaque or something more inventive, can reveal world firsts, places of birth or death, the locations of momentous discoveries, or other major events that occurred in a particular location. But some are more interesting than others, especially when they're located in a place you might not expect.

1. ST. PETER’S SQUARE, VATICAN CITY // ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT ON THE POPE

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In 2006, a marble flagstone was laid in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City to mark the spot where, on May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot by a Turkish gunman in a failed assassination attempt. The historical marker, which includes John Paul’s coat of arms and the date of the attack in Roman numerals, replaced some cobblestones and is set into the floor of the famous square.

On the fateful day, Turkish criminal Mehmet Ali Ağca shot the pope four times, causing grievous injuries. Ağca ran off, but was apprehended by a Vatican security guard, some bystanders, and a nun. John Paul survived the attack and attributed his recovery to the prayers he offered to the Madonna of Fatima, whose feast day is celebrated on May 13. John Paul later traveled to the shrine of the Madonna at Fatima in Portugal, and one of the bullets that was recovered from his body was placed inside the crown of the statue of the Virgin at the shrine. Remarkably, John Paul later publicly forgave Ağca and secured a pardon for him.

2. MARTINEZ, CALIFORNIA // BIRTH OF THE MARTINI

As with many great recipes, the precise origins of the martini remain obscure, with a number of people and locations vying for the honor of being home to the cocktail. But that hasn’t prevented the town of Martinez, California from putting up a plaque to proclaim itself the birthplace of the Martini. According to the plaque, situated at 911 Alhambra Avenue, the very first Martini was mixed on that spot. The plaque records the story as follows:

“On this site in 1874, Julio Richelieu, bartender, served up the first Martini when a miner came into his saloon with a fistful of nuggets and asked for something special. He was served a ‘Martinez Special.’ After three or four drinks, however, the ‘Z’ would get very much in the way. The drink consisted of 2/3 gin, 1/3 vermouth, a dash of orange bitters, poured over crushed ice and served with an olive.”

3. THE EAGLE PUB, CAMBRIDGE, UK // THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE DISCOVERY OF DNA

The Eagle Pub in Cambridge was established in the 16th century. It was here on February 28, 1953 that Francis Crick and James Watson burst into the pub to announce “We have found the secret of life!” Their discovery of the double-helix shape of DNA has been vital to medicine ever since and has led to numerous scientific advances; in 1962, the pair were awarded the Nobel Prize. The pub has since become associated with this momentous discovery, and so one of English Heritage’s blue plaques was affixed to a wall in 2003 to memorialize this historic moment.

The historical markers inside the pub do not stop there, as in 2013 a second plaque was added to the interior, remembering the role of Rosalind Franklin, who had also been researching the secret of DNA at King’s College, London, and in 1952 had successfully taken the first x-ray photo of DNA, revealing the structure. Unbeknownst to Franklin, her photograph, which became known as “Photograph 51,” was passed on to Crick and Watson’s team, much aiding their research. Sadly, Franklin died of ovarian cancer just five years later, and in her lifetime never gained the recognition she deserved for her part in the discovery. The small plaque in The Eagle reminds drinkers that the discovery of DNA, like many other leaps forwards, was a team effort.

4. PLACE DE LA CONCORDE, PARIS // OFF WITH THEIR HEADS

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The Place de la Concorde was called the Place Louis XV until 1792, when amid the fervor of the French Revolution, the statue to Louis was pulled down and the site renamed Place de la Revolution. It was here that the new-fangled beheading contraption, the famous guillotine, was situated. This efficient machine allowed the puppet-masters of the revolution, led by Robespierre, to systematically and quickly dispatch enemies of the state in what became known as the Reign of Terror.

There were three guillotines across Paris, but it was this machine that took the heads of King Louis XVI, his wife Marie-Antoinette, and up to 1200 other individuals. In a twist of fate, Robespierre himself was later beheaded on this guillotine for crimes of tyranny and dictatorship. Since 1830 the site has been renamed Place de la Concorde to move on from its revolutionary past, and a small plaque now lies in the western center of the square, marking the spot where the guillotine once stood.

5. CUBA, NEW YORK // FIRST OIL DISCOVERED IN AMERICA

Seneca Oil Spring 2009-05-12

New York is not usually associated with the American oil industry, and yet it was in this Allegany County town that the very first oil was discovered in America by a European. In 1627, a French Catholic missionary named Joseph de La Roche d' Allion was led to a small natural petroleum creek by the Native Americans. The missionary recorded the incident in a letter home to France, providing the first account of oil in North America. Today, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sign stands at the edge of the road along State Highway 446 at the intersection with Cuba Lake Road, revealing the significance of this spot.

6. ACROSS EUROPE // REMEMBERING HOLOCAUST VICTIMS

One of the largest decentralized memorials in the world began in 1992, when the artist Gunter Demnig started laying “Stolperstein,” or stumbling stones, to remember individuals persecuted by the Nazis. Each stone, which is just 3.9 x 3.9 inches and covered with a brass plaque recording the name and dates of the victim, is embedded in the street in front of their last chosen place of residence. Today, there are over 56,000 Stolperstein in 22 European countries, the quiet yet powerful markers reminding us of the scope and horrors of the Nazi era.

7. THE WHITTINGTON STONE, LONDON, UK // LEGEND MEETS REALITY

The folklore tale of Dick Whittington and his trusty cat has long been tied to the history of London, and is based on the true-life figure of Richard Whittington (c.1354–1423), a wealthy businessman and Lord Mayor of London. The legend tells that Whittington grew up in poor circumstances yet managed to find a home with a wealthy merchant, who took pity on him and gave him a job in his kitchen. Dick’s sleeping quarters were plagued with mice and rats, so he saved his hard-earned money and bought a cat to deal with the pests. But when the merchant went on a long voyage and offered to sell household items for cash, Dick offered up the cat for sale. Unfortunately, without his cat, the mice and rat problems returned, so Dick fled London. But as he reached Highgate Hill, he heard church bells chiming, which seemed to say “Turn again Whittington, thrice mayor of London.” Of course, after hearing this promise of a great future, he returned to the merchant’s house, who by coincidence had just returned from his travels after securing a huge pile of gold for the amazing rat-catching cat. Suddenly Dick was rich, and he went on to use his money so wisely he was named Lord Mayor of London three times.

The Whittington Stone on Highgate Hill in London marks the spot where Dick Whittington supposedly heard the bells calling “turn again,” and was said to have originally been placed there by the man himself. The current stone, carved in 1821, replaced an old stone that historians think was broken in two and used to mend the sidewalk. In 1964 a limestone cat was added to the marker in honor of the little cat who supposedly made Whittington’s fortune.

8. OHIO CITY // SITE OF THE FIRST AUTOMOBILE CRASH

A small sign attached to a wooden pole at the side of a main street in Ohio City marks the spot of the world’s first car crash. In 1891, inventor James William Lambert had recently built an early single-cylinder gasoline automobile and decided to take it for a spin with his friend James Swoveland. But as the pair motored along the highway—which would have been a far cry from the smooth surface we enjoy today—the automobile hit a tree root and careered off the road and into a hitching post. Fortunately, the two passengers escaped with only minor injuries, and Lambert was not discouraged from his love of motoring. He went on to patent over 600 further inventions, most of which were associated with automobiles.

9. EIFFEL TOWER, PARIS // FIRST RADIO BROADCAST IN FRANCE

This marker, commemorating a key moment in French broadcast history, is easily overlooked because it’s on the top balcony of the Eiffel Tower, where tourists tend to be somewhat distracted by the views.

When the Eiffel Tower was first built for the Paris World's Fair in 1889, it was only intended to stand for 20 years, and so its creator, Gustave Eiffel, was constantly trying to find ways to keep the structure from being demolished. As a result, he allowed many scientists to perform experiments from the top of the tower, proving its use as one of the highest points in Paris. On November 5, 1898, Eugène Ducretet successfully carried out the first trials of wireless telegraphy in France when he sent a signal between the Eiffel Tower and the Pantheon more than two miles away. A small plaque now recognizes this feat. Ducretet’s experiments proved the possibilities of telegraphy, and by 1899 he had managed to send waves from the Eiffel Tower all the way across the Channel to England.

10. MARBLE ARCH, LONDON // EXECUTION SITE

John D. Smith via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

In the middle of an unprepossessing traffic island on one of the major roads in London lies a circular marker revealing the gruesome history of this seemingly ordinary location. Back in 1196 at this spot the first execution at Tyburn (which was then just a small village outside London) was carried out, the beginning of a long history as one of the most notorious execution sites in Britain. In 1571 a triangular gallows was erected, which became known as the Tyburn Tree. The “tree” was capable of hanging 24 people simultaneously, although it rarely executed that many at once.

Hangings at that time were a popular spectator sport, and noted diarist Samuel Pepys recorded that at the execution of Colonel James Turner in 1664 at least 12,000 to 14,000 people turned out to watch. The huge, baying crowds soon became unwelcome as Marble Arch became a fashionable address, and so in 1759 the gallows were taken down and state executions moved to Newgate prison.

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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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