Mar 21 1788: The Great Fire of New Orleans

fire N O 1788

The massive scale of historic urban fires really makes you appreciate unsung amenities like smoke alarms and fire hydrants. Back in the olden days, when a fire started in one building, the whole block often went up, perfectly fueled by plenty of dry timber.

In the case of New Orleans, the city in fact weathered two great fires, just six years apart. 1788 was the first one. Then, after the city managed to mostly rebuild itself, another huge blaze tore through it in 1794.

The 1788 fire was by far the worse of the two. It started in a private home — that of army paymaster Don Vincente Nunez — on Good Friday around 1:30pm. While there doesn’t seem to be any explanation anywhere of how the fire started (a lit candle probably had something to do with it), historical accounts do note that “A wind from the south, then blowing with fury, thwarted every effort to arrest its progress.”

The flames quickly raced from building to building, and might have been brought under control had the local Catholic priests not decided that, given the day, church bells could not be used as a fire alarm. 

We can take consolation in the fact that, of the 856 buildings that went up in smoke — of 1,100 in total — the Catholic church was one of them.

The Great Fire of London, 1666  “The people of London who had managed to survive the Great Plague in 1665 must have thought that the year 1666 could only be better,” observes the website Historic UK. However, while the 1666 fire was indeed a doozy — leaving only one-fifth of the city standing — in fact, London’s fire of 1212 was far worse in terms of fatalities, killing upwards of 3,000 people. Amazingly, only six people died in 1666. This clever animated mini-documentary tells us how the fire of 1666 happened.  (3 min, 42 sec)

Great Fire of Toronto, 1904  As a near-lifelong Torontonian, I had to give my fair city a nod with this actual footage of the blaze that someone managed to capture long before phone cameras. Here’s an interesting tidbit from Wikipedia on where the blaze started: “The flames were rising from the elevator shaft of the E & S Currie Limited’s neck wear factory at 58 Wellington Street West, just west of Bay Street (now the TD Bank Tower). The factory was situated in the centre of a large industrial and commercial area. The exact cause of the fire was never determined, but a faulty heating stove or an electrical problem is suspected.”  (2 min, 30 sec)

Kantō Fire of Tokyo, 1923  In a list of top-10 worst-ever fires, this was number one. Much of Tokyo had been flattened by an extreme (8.2) earthquake, and fires erupted across the city in its wake. Whipped into a frenzy by high winds, the fires became a giant blazing twister that tore through the city and killed tens of thousands of people. (1 min. 54 sec)

Mar 1 1873: the typewriter goes into production


The good ole typewriter may seem archaic now, but imagine how it felt to write out War and Peace or the King James Bible by hand. While various typing machines had been in the works since the 1700s — and Gutenberg invented the printing press back in the 1400s — it wasn’t until the late 1800s that printing was essentially brought to the masses through the typewriter.

Its invention is attributed to several people — Americans Latham Sholes, Frank Haven Hall, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule. The company that brought it to market is the Remington Standard Typewriter Company (the same company behind Remington guns).

Early versions of it forced people to type ‘blind’, with the paper tucked into the machine so that you couldn’t read what you’d typed until you were finished.

It eventually was improved, and in the early 1900s, electrified models began to appear.

A century later, we can see countless examples of how the typewriter changed the way we work — and became a fixture in popular culture.

Ode to the Typewriter  This fun little montage zips through some great movie (and cartoon) clips showing typewriters in action.  (3 min, 15 sec)

California Typewriter   Did you know Tom Hanks loves typewriters? He actually wrote a book about them — called Uncommon Type — and he’s one of the celebrities featured in this documentary about a business called California Typewriter that fixes typewriters (Serving California since 1949). This is the trailer:   (1 min, 27 sec)

The Typewriter concerto  Yes, an actual concerto with a full symphony — and a typewriter.  (4 min, 23 sec)

Jagged Edge: the typewriter scene   If you’ve seen Jagged Edge, you know this scene. Consider yourself spoiler-alerted if you haven’t seen it. I apologize in advance for this version of the movie — dubbed in (rather squeaky) Italian. Luckily, the scene in question has no dialogue. A quick set-up: Glenn Close is an ambitious attorney in San Francisco defending newspaper tycoon Jeff Bridges in the brutal murder of his wife. Over the course of the trial, Close falls in love with Bridges, and eventually gets him acquitted. It’s now the morning after the verdict, and while an elated Bridges is at home outside tending to his horses, Close is inside tending to last night’s bed sheets. She ventures into the linen closet looking for fresh ones, when she finds, tucked at the back of a shelf, a vintage Smith Corona. Which is interesting, because during the trial, she received typed notes from the killer — notes in which every ‘t’ was slightly raised.   (Fast-forward to 1:18:50)

Feb 21 1964: 24,000 rolls of Beatles wallpaper shipped to the U.S.

Beatles wallpaper

Did you even know they even made Beatles wallpaper? Yes, they did — and there were people who wanted to buy it.

It was early 1964 and Beatlemania had made its way across the pond. I Want To Hold Your Hand hit the top of the U.S. Billboard chart February 1st, and on February 7th, the boys started their North America tour. Two days later, they played for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show.

That February 9th appearance brought the Beatles to the masses, and kicked the Fab Four frenzy into high gear. It’s estimated 73 million people watched that show — about 38 percent of the U.S. population at the time. It even had been suggested that crime levels dropped dramatically during the broadcast, but that was later disproved.

A second Ed Sullivan performance, pre-taped, was slated to air February 23rd. Two days before that show — when millions of crying, screaming, fainting teen-aged girls just couldn’t get enough of the lads from Liverpool — 24,000 rolls of Beatles wallpaper landed in the U.S. Wallpaper was just one of a near-endless variety of Beatles-branded items you could buy if you were so inclined — from wigs and lunchboxes to boots and oil paintings. According to News of the Odd, “By 1966, Northern Music, in the UK, was exporting $1 million worth of “Beatleware” to the US annually.” (FYI: I managed to find a link on eBay for ‘Rare Beatles Wallpaper’: it was sold out.)

The first appearance on Ed Sullivan  One YouTube commenter summed up this performance nicely: “Everything changed for the boys after this night and there could be no looking back.The ESS was the launching pad for it all. There was The Beatles before The Ed Sullivan Show and The Beatles after The Ed Sullivan Show.”  (2 min, 50 min)

The opening of A Hard Day’s Night  While I’ve never seen this entire movie, I had to include it here, because when my husband and I took a Beatles walk during our last U.K. visit in September 2018, the guide took us through London’s Marylebone Station — the location for the opening of the film.  (Watch the opening credits.)

The Beatles break up  The news stunned and saddened people around the world, and to this day, no band has quite captured the trippy, melodic vibe of the Beatles. This montage of news clips includes interviews with their publicist on the break-up, and reaction from their fans.  (22 min, 6 sec)

Free as a Bird  This song was released in 1995 as part of the Beatles Anthology, and accompanying it is what must be one of the most magical, bittersweet music videos ever. Its dreamlike quality and nod to a bygone era — all beautifully interspersed with cameos of John, Paul, George and Ringo — have me riveted every time I watch it.  (4 min, 58 sec)


Feb 13 1942: Germany cancels the invasion of Britain

Operation Sea Lion

It was called Operation Sea Lion by the Nazis (Unternehmen Seelöwe), and it was Hitler’s plan to invade Britain in the early days of World War II. Launched in 1940, it marked the height of Hitler’s ruthless rampage across Europe. Country after country had fallen to the Germans. By May, France was being crushed, and the English troops were taking a beating at Dunkirk.

Hitler assumed Britain would now surrender. He was wrong. His proposal of peace negotiations (which included absolute air and naval rule of the English Channel) were met with one of Winston Churchill’s many famous quotes: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

What followed was a summer of bombings and blackouts — the Battle of Britain, one of the most iconic eras of the war, when the German Luftwaffe would execute its nightly raids across the Channel, blowing the hell out of England’s military and manufacturing hubs.

While it would be two years before Hitler would officially call the invasion quits, in fact, by September 1940, the writing was on the wall. Wikipedia notes that “with air losses increasing, Hitler postponed Sea Lion indefinitely on 17 September 1940 and it was never put into action.”  

“We shall never surrender”  In 2017’s Darkest Hour, Prime Minister Winston Churchill (an Oscar-winning performance by Gary Oldman) rallies Parliament — and the British people — with what would become the most famous war speech of all time. (4 min, 55 sec)

“You prisoner of war”  If you watch only one war movie in your life, make it Hope and Glory. This brilliant, funny, very touching film follows an average London family trying to survive “the battle at home” during the Blitz. This particular scene catches the family mid-air raid, during which a lone German pilot lands in the middle of the street. (3 min, 17 sec)

What’s happened to William?  William Beech is a main character in the movie Goodnight Mr. Tom. This wonderful film tells the story of a young evacuee from the east end of London who lands on the doorstep of a crusty curmudgeon in a country village. When the young lad is called back to the city by his mother, and then isn’t heard from, ‘Mr. Tom’ (played by the wonderful late John Thaw) goes looking for him. (2 min, 14 sec)

May 27 1679: Habeas Corpus enacted

The Verdict.JPG

At first glance, the term Habeas Corpus might seem a bit Latin and dull, but in fact, the Habeas Corpus Act, which became law in Britain this day in 1679, was a revolutionary piece of legislation that prevented people from being thrown in prison without just cause. At its core, the Act “demands that a prisoner be taken before the court, and that the custodian present proof of authority, allowing the court to determine whether the custodian has lawful authority to detain the prisoner.” (Thank you Wikipedia.) In other words, everyone has the right to a fair trial.

I think that deserves a blog post — and a nod to some classic courtroom dramas. (I will say up front that there are lots more good ones that aren’t here — from A Few Good Men to Witness for the Prosecution; there are too many to include in one post.) 

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)  Where to begin with To Kill a Mockingbird? This was one of the very few books I read in high-school English that I enjoyed, and then later when I saw the film, I was blown away. This is a pivotal scene in the movie, where we see alleged rape victim Mayella Ewing on the stand being questioned by Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch. (3 min, 29 sec)

Twelve Angry Men (1957)  This is the granddaddy of courtroom movies. It stars Henry Fonda as the one doubting juror who’s just not sure a young Puerto Rican man accused of murder is guilty. The whole cast is a 1950s Hollywood who’s who, and this scene is especially telling. (2 min, 32 sec)

The Verdict (1982)  The Verdict is one of my favourite movies of any kind, which makes it my number-one courtroom drama. Paul Newman is SO DAMNED GOOD as a washed up, ambulance-chasing, alcoholic lawyer who gets a chance to turn his career around when he’s handed a case of medical negligence — in Boston, where the alleged negligence involves the city’s preeminent Catholic hospital. (Okay, now I’ve gotta go watch it.) (2 min, 40 sec)

Silk (BBC series)  If you’re a fan of any kind of British drama, chances are you’ve watched Silk. It  aired from 2011 to 2014, and was on Netflix for awhile — you can now buy it on YouTube. The term ‘silk’ refers to the gowns worn by Queen’s Counsel lawyers in the U.K. — Queen’s Counsel is a merit-based designation awarded to lawyers by their peers. This excellent TV series follows the lives of the lawyers in a busy London practice vying to ‘take silk’. Along the way, there’s lots of politics, intrigue, love, sex — and that’s outside the courtroom. Here’s a clip released before it aired on PBS: (1 min, 20 sec)

Law & Order  I think I spent the 1990s either watching Law & Order, getting ready to watch it, or just having finished watching it. And in fact, I went into labour with my daughter while watching it.  (Sitting in bed… a warm July night… trying to get comfortable… watching Chris Noth and Jerry Orbach do their thing… and suddenly I’m wondering if I have a bladder issue. Turns out it wasn’t my bladder….) Here, I’ve posted just the theme song, because it’s such a cool, memory-inducing tune: (1 min, 16 sec)


May 11 1969: Monty Python is formed

Monty Python opening

“And now for something completely different.” If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, you almost certainly know that statement, and that it was made famous by (cue acid-trip animation) Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Graham Chapman met while students at Oxford and Cambridge. There, they cut their comedic teeth, drawing in large part from the priviledged, raised-pinky social circles in which they’d grown up — and could parody so perfectly. From the process-for-the-sake-of-process Ministry of Silly Walks, to the bland monotones of “Yes, it was the middle one” (in How Not to be Seen), the Pythons could absolutely nail Britishisms like no one had before. (Little Britain does a very good job of it today, IMHO, albeit in quite a different way.)

I actually was not a die-hard Python fan (as much as some people I knew), and in fact wasn’t aware until now that several of the guys wrote and produced a children’s program from 1967 to ’69 called Do Not Adjust Your Set. (Forgive me for telling any hardcore Python fans something they no doubt already know.) It was the success of that show that prompted ITV to give them a crack at late-night comedy.

I have very fond memories of staying up late to watch Monty Python (the opening theme — including the giant farting foot — is playing in my mind as I type this). Terry Gilliam’s animation gave it a wonderful childish quality, and even though I didn’t quite appreciate the full extent of the humour at the time, much of it was simply so ridiculous (“Tis but a scratch.” “Your arm’s off!” “No it’s not.”) that it was just fun to watch.

To get into the Python sketches in any detail would be too much to take on in one blog post. I will, however, say that my own personal favourite is the Philosophers’ Football Match. My God — what a brilliant sketch. (When the gun goes off, and they all simply start strolling and pondering… It cracks me up every single time.)

According to Wikipedia, “The Pythons’ influence on comedy has been compared to the Beatles’  influence on music… three of the six Pythons members were voted by fellow comedians and comedy insiders to be among the top 50 greatest comedians ever: Cleese at No. 2, Idle at No. 21, and Palin at No. 30.”

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink — say no more, say no more.

The black knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail  Does this need an introduction? (Digging up this clip, I realized I’d forgotten about the coconuts… still can’t stop laughing.) (4 min, 26 sec)

How Not to be Seen  The PSA intro. The nothing shot of trees. And John Cleese’s BBCesque monotone: “This is Mr. E. R. Bradshaw, from Napier Court, Black Lion Road, London, SE14.” Too perfect. (2 min, 35 sec)

The Philosophers’ Football MatchHegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics; Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination; and Marx is claiming it was offside.” (3 min, 47 seconds)

I’m a Lumberjack  As a Canadian, I had to include this one. I get a mild kick out of the reference to dressing in drag: the Brits always seem to love that. (2 min, 40 sec)

Camelot: it’s only a model  This little snippet is another Python fave of mine. (12 sec)

May 6 1994: the day the Chunnel opened


While riding the Chunnel train is on my bucket list, I have certain misgivings about being in a train roughly 150 feet below the bottom of the English Channel. Yes, the idea of it is incredible, and it’s not surprising that the Chunnel — a.k.a. Eurotunnel — is considered one of the man-made wonders of the world. At the same time, seeing those black holes boring into the earth at Folkstone, and knowing you don’t see sky again until France… well, I find it a bit daunting. (And I’m not the only one.)

Though it sure beats the idea Albert Mathieu, Napolean’s engineer, had in 1802: he wanted to build a tunnel for horse-and-carriage travel, with huge ventilation chimneys stretching up above the water. Thankfully, the plan went nowhere.

In 1880, a Colonel Beaumont actually dug a mile-long tunnel into the Channel, but eventually gave up.

Around this same time, London was starting to build tunnels under the Thames. The first one — it was the world’s first underwater tunnel — opened in the city’s east end in 1843. Others were built later in the century and into the next. Some were for foot travel, others for cars, and many were for trains, especially the tube. It was only a matter of time before that engineering knowledge and technology would be applied to the English Channel.  

While the Chunnel is probably the world’s best known ‘super tunnel’, in fact, the longer and deeper Seikan Tunnel in Japan could be considered more of an engineering feat: it is 330 feet below the seabed and 790 feet below the surface of Tsugaru Strait. To be clear, however, more of the Chunnel’s track is technically under water, making it truly ‘the world’s longest underwater tunnel’.

History Channel documentary  This well-done documentary (back when the History Channel made good documentaries) takes you through the history and construction of the Chunnel, even touching on the politics between England and France. (44 min, 59 sec)

London’s first Thames tunnel  This is a video of a walking tour through the tunnel completed in 1843. It’s especially interesting when the guide goes into detail on working conditions for builders, at 1:42. (6 min, 18 sec)

The world’s top 10 underwater tunnels  I love short top-10 lists, and this fits the bill. It even comes with jaunty, kind of mismatched but still interesting music (there’s no voice-over). (2 min, 1 sec)

When England and France meet in the Chunnel construction  This includes live footage of the moment on Dec 1 1990 when English and French construction workers come together below the English Channel. (6 min, 53 sec — fast-forward to 1:30)

The tire-changing scene in 28 Days Later  I had to include it — an absolute nail-biter. Lesson: Never go into a tunnel during a zombie apocalypse. (2 min, 42 sec)