The United States remains a young country in relation to the rest of the world, its oldest shrines and historical places but recent stepping stones in the march of time. St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continuously occupied city on the North American continent, was founded by the Spanish in 1565. That same year a Swiss physician documented an improvement over the writing sticks used since the times of the Roman Empire. Rather than using a lead stick to leave marks on papyrus, Conrad Gesner described the use of graphite encased in wood, making the humble pencil at least as old, and most likely older, than the European settlement of what became the United States. Such overlaps of history abound and many are eye-opening, to say the least.
Most people today would assume that the Japanese company Nintendo is a relatively new business entity, one of the many which were born of the video-gaming age which developed at the end of the twentieth century. In truth, Nintendo was created in Japan in 1889 as a playing card company, the year after the murders attributed to the London serial killer known as Jack the Ripper. Nintendo is thus older than the Panama Canal, through which so many of its consoles and games are shipped to the United States and Europe. The company was born the same year as the Wall Street Journal, which today reports on its business operations, and is older by months than the statehood of both Dakotas, Montana, and Washington. It is also older, by several weeks, than the first coin-operated musical playback machine, known colloquially today as the juke box. Here are some examples of the overlap of historical events which may surprise you.
10. Oxford University in England was created before the emergence of the Aztec Empire in modern Mexico
The Aztec civilization in Mesoamerica, so often referred to as ancient, was about three centuries old when it was encountered by the Spanish explorers and conquistadores. In the early 16th century the Spanish made short work of the thriving civilization, driven by the twin desires of obtaining their gold and silver riches and by converting the natives to Christianity and servitude. By the 1530s the Aztec Empire was all but destroyed, its cities and temples converted by conquest to ruins, and the Spanish Empire was emerging as the world’s most powerful. Growing Spanish wealth and power was viewed with alarm by its European rivals, which rapidly began to find the means to rival the Spanish position in the New World. England, an island nation, became a both military and religious enemy of Catholic Spain.
English scholars were among the world’s leaders of knowledge, many of them having completed their education at Oxford, which had been conducting classes of what was then considered to be higher learning for nearly five centuries by the time Cortes and his followers arrived in Mexico. Oxford first conducted classes in 1096, only thirty years following the Battle of Hastings, one of the seminal events of the history of Britain. Born as a rival, Cambridge University existed before the Spanish conquest of Mexico as well, yet neither English school is as old as Italy’s University of Bologna. By comparison, the oldest university in the United States, Harvard, was started in 1636, well over five centuries after the first classes were conducted at Oxford, but less than a century and a half after the conquest of the Aztec Empire in Mexico.
9. Tiffany & Company is older than the nation of Italy
Italy is, in most American minds, indelibly linked with the ancient world through the ruins of the Roman Empire. Italy is viewed as a romantic destination, for centuries a land of beauty and history thrust like a discarded boot into the blue Mediterranean. While the image is justified, most Americans are astonished to learn that Italy, as a nation, is younger than the United States. In fact, Italy is younger than one of America’s own symbols of luxury and romance, the iconic jeweler Tiffany & Company, long symbolic of style, taste, and little blue boxes famous for their ability to grab the attention of one’s beloved. Less well known is that Tiffany’s was founded not in New York but in Connecticut, and not as a jeweler, but rather as a stationer in 1837. The company moved to New York the following year, and did not become firmly associated with high end jewelry for another fifteen years.
Italy, on the other hand, was a collection of rival principalities, duchies, patron states, Papal States, and other entities, as it had been since before the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent Congress of Vienna at the time Tiffany’s first opened its doors. Italian history is far too complicated to be described in one or two paragraphs, but the basis of today’s Italian Republic did not emerge until decades (in 1861) after the New York jeweler established its reputation as the world’s final word in the profession. As of 2019, Tiffany’s operates stores in Venice, Florence, Verona, Milan, Bologna, and Rome, all of which were cities in which Italian was spoken, but which were under separate governments, at the time the company was born in the United States.
8. The Titanic sank the same month that Boston’s Fenway Park opened for business
On April 20, 1912, Boston’s mayor, John F. Fitzgerald (known as Honey Fitz around town) arrived at the brand-spanking new Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch inaugurating the park and the 1912 baseball season. Honey Fitz undoubtedly joined in the conversation which dominated the day, not the prospects for the Red Sox’s success that year, but the shocking loss of another brand new feat of construction just days before when RMS Titanic sank. The Boston club prevailed that day over the team from New York known as the Highlanders, though the newspapers paid little heed, concentrating instead on the still evolving lists of the dead and missing from the tragedy at sea.
The Titanic was soon relegated to history. Overshadowed by losses of other liners during the First World War, it was a resurgence of interest after Dr. Robert Ballard’s expedition found the wreck in 1985 that restored its myth in the public imagination. Fenway Park soon developed a mythology of its own, the home of a baseball team forever doomed by the Curse of Babe Ruth until it managed to exorcise its demons in 2004. And Honey Fitz’s name returned to fame decades later, when it was used for the presidential yacht favored by his grandson, President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Kennedy was an experienced sailor and the former commander of a US Naval PT boat – PT 109 – lost to the Japanese during World War II. In 2002, Dr. Ballard found the wreckage of that lost vessel as well.
7. The guillotine was still in use when Jimmy Carter was President of the United States
The beheading machine known as the guillotine, long the official means of state executions in France, is often erroneously described as being the invention of Dr. Joseph Guillotin, who was himself sent to meet his maker via its descending blade. Neither is true. Guillotin neither invented the machine nor died on it. As a physician who opposed capital punishment, he nonetheless reluctantly endorsed its use in executions as being the most humane means available at the time, leading to his name being attached to the machine. Its efficiency is undoubted, as demonstrated during the French Revolution when thousands died upon it, often hundreds in a single day. Have the victim lie down, drop the blade, dispose of the headless corpse by rolling it to the side. Over the period of its use for executions, debate over whether the severed head retained consciousness for a time raged, though it was never fully resolved.
The use of the guillotine may be forever linked to the French Revolution, but it completed its purpose far more recently. The death penalty in France was abolished in 1981. In 1977 the machine saw its final use, beheading child killer Hamida Djandoubi in Marseille on September 10. At the time, Han Solo and his compatriots were dispatching Stormtroopers using blasters on movie screens around the world. There is only one documented instance of a guillotine being used in North America, on the island of Sainte Pierre in 1889, though as recently as 1996 it was proposed to augment the electric chair as the means of state sponsored executions in the American state of Georgia. The choice of which device to use was to be left to the condemned, but the matter was never taken up for a vote.
6. The bicycle evolved years after the steam engine revolutionized locomotion
The bicycle is seemingly, at least at its most basic, a simple design for self-propelled travel. In fact, in its earliest forms it was an elongated board with wheels at each end, astride of which the user moved by walking, with each thrust of alternating legs sending person and carriage forward. Braking was by using the feet, sort of like the Flintstones stopping their car. It was decades before the bicycle propelled by pedals and chain evolved. The actual date and inventor is disputed, but the system resembling the modern safety bicycle, with pedals and chain for driving the rear wheel, first appeared with regularity around 1860 in France. Safety brakes and pneumatic tires followed. By the 1890s, bicycling was considered a new sport among the genteel in Europe and America.
Locomotion driven by a steam engine, mechanically far more complex than bicycle propulsion, predated the latter by many years. The use of steam to move road vehicles was under development as early as 1800, and its use on marine vehicles was relatively common by the 1820s. The steam locomotive wasn’t far behind in development and deployment. Steam locomotion developed long before the use of bicycles as transportation was common. In truth, the far more efficient steam turbine was well into development before the safety brake made bicycling relatively safe. Despite the late start, bicycles are, by far, the most common means of conveyance available in the world today, with well over 1 billion having been manufactured, and with more added to the total daily in virtually all of the world’s nations.
5. The first man to achieve powered flight lived to see it accomplished at speeds faster than sound
In December, 1903, Orville Wright, a bicycle mechanic by trade, became the first human being to fly in a powered, heavier than air craft. The flight itself was over a distance of 120 feet, and Orville achieved a speed of about 35 miles per hour (though due to prevailing headwinds, his speed over the ground was only about 7 miles per hour). Over several more flights during the course of the day, Orville and his brother Wilbur finally achieved a distance of over 800 feet, though their speed remained relatively modest. Their experiments that day ended when the aircraft was wrecked by contrary and unpredictable winds with which they had contended all day.
Just less than 44 years later Orville Wright was understandably amazed at the progress made by aviation, which included the airplane being the supreme weapon of war, a miracle of mass transit, a device which was making the world smaller in many ways. In October, 1947, American Chuck Yeager used an airplane which was as much a missile as it was the former and became the first man to travel faster than the speed of sound. Orville had last flown as a pilot in 1918, but his entire life was active in aviation, and he was awestruck that the sound “barrier” had been broken in his lifetime. As a comparison, America first landed on the moon during the summer of 1969. Despite the predictions offered at the time regarding humanity’s future in space, since the Apollo missions no one has ventured further from the earth, and there is little promise one will in the foreseeable future.
4. The last American pensioner from the Civil War died in the 21st century
The American Civil War seems to have occurred in a distant world barely recognizable today, long before cities were linked by highways and when communications were slow and unreliable. In truth, many of the features of modern life were present, albeit in somewhat primitive forms. The telegraph, railroads, scheduled shipping connections, and other links to the present day could be found without much search. Still, the war took place more than a century and a half ago, and any links to it by the end of the 20th century were through books, or museums, or films, or preserved battlefields. Faded sepia toned photographs were thought to be as close as anyone could come to America’s greatest crisis by the time George W. Bush became President of the United States.
It is an indication of how young the United States as a nation is that the last pensioner from the American Civil War died during President Bush’s tenure in the Oval Office. It was 1956 when the last surviving veteran of the Civil War died, but the US government (and several states) continued to pay pensions to the widows of Civil War veterans, including those who married veterans years after the war ended. In the latter half of the 19th century, many young women married widowers whose wives had died, their being a shortage of marriageable young men in America in the aftermath of the war. In 2008, the last eligible widow of a Civil War veteran died. Pensions payable to surviving children and their spouses continued until at least 2017, meaning the United States was continuing to bear costs related to the Civil War over 150 years after Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
3. The Indianapolis 500 is older than the 50 star American flag (and the 48 star flag, too)
The annual motor racing event held over the Memorial Day Weekend known as the Indianapolis 500 was first run in 1911, over a racing surface paved with bricks. Ironically, most of the power used for moving and placing the bricks which were the original racing surface came from mules, with more than 300 employed to complete the project. Numerous events took place at the track in the years before the inaugural 500 mile event, including balloon races, motorcycle races, and automobile races of shorter duration. When the first 500 mile race was run in 1911, fans and participants saluted the American flag before the competition was run. Only 46 stars graced the blue field at the time.
Neither New Mexico nor Arizona were then states in the Union. They would be added the following year, leading to the creation of the 48 star flag, which flew over US territory throughout the Second World War. Later that summer of 1912 future actress, comedienne, and producer Lucille Ball was born. Another birthday that year was of John S. McCain Jr, who would rise to the rank of Admiral in the United States Navy. The son of another admiral, who commanded American aviation in the Pacific during the Second World War, he held major commands in the submarine actions against the Japanese which were so crucial in the victory against Japan. He was the father of yet another naval officer, John S. McCain III, a senator and candidate for President of the United States, who hailed from Arizona.
2. Woolly mammoths were still roaming the earth when the pyramids were built at Giza
The ruins at Giza were already ancient when they were discovered – or rather re-discovered – by ancient Roman invaders. Historians debate the impact of the pyramids on those Romans who actually saw them, as well as that on Roman society as a whole, but there is no dispute that the overall influence was substantial. The Romans had no way of dating the structures, nor of understanding their historical or archaeological influence. Nor could they grasp their religious significance. For many Romans, the ancient Egyptians became a culture which was at once legendary, mythological, and of necessity mysterious. Similar sensations were later encountered by those who discovered evidence (or in some cases the continuing existence) of ancient cultures in North America, Mesoamerica, and in the Polynesian Islands of the South Pacific.
One thing the Romans could not possibly have known was that at the time the oldest of the pyramids was built, woolly mammoths still roamed some places on earth. The great mammals, which were the antecedents of the Asian elephants, coexisted with humans for several thousand years, the last fading from earth approximately four millennia ago, at Wrangel Island, in the Arctic. The date of their final demise is several centuries after the construction of the pyramids, and though the Egyptians did not encounter them as they went about their work, the fact that they co-existed on the planet is a matter of archaeological record. Whether efforts to use DNA to reanimate, as it were, the specie will be successful is debatable, but efforts are ongoing to do just that.
1. Americans were on the moon before women in Switzerland were allowed to vote
Americans first landed on the moon in July 1969, completing a challenge thrust upon the nation by President John Kennedy in 1961 in response to Soviet progress in space. The first Americans on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, walked about their lunar base. So did Pete Conrad and Alan Bean, who followed on Apollo 12. Not until Apollo 15, in the summer of 1971, did the American astronauts do a singularly American thing. They brought a car with them, and cruised about the lunar surface in what NASA named the Lunar Roving Vehicle. Thus astronauts from the United States not only trod upon the lunar surface, they left behind tire tracks, using a vehicle which the astronauts and the public dubbed “moon buggies.”
Just a few short months before Americans drove on the moon, (during which excursions the astronauts routinely ignored speed limits imposed upon them by the sticks in the mud at NASA back on earth) Switzerland, land of chocolate and secret bank accounts, finally gave women the right to vote. An election held in October of that year (on Halloween) was the first time Swiss women were allowed to cast a ballot in federal elections. After the Americans left behind the lunar rovers used on the last three Apollo missions, several of the prototypes were given to museums for public display. After the Swiss election of October 1971, women continued to expand their voting rights and their political power in Switzerland. Americans have yet to return to the moon since Apollo 17 in late 1972. Swiss women have returned to the polls every year since 1971.