As the new year begins I thought it would be interesting to see what was happening at intervals in years past. Here are the biggest events from 20, 50 and 100 years ago.
George W. Bush Begins Second Term
In January, George W. Bush began his second term as US President, after a sometimes acrimonious election campaign the year before. Bush’s opponent was Democrat John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam war veteran whose service record was called into question.
A group calling themselves ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’, after the light naval craft both Kerry and the group members served on, claimed that Kerry had exaggerated his war record, and may even have committed war crimes. Kerry denied the allegations, but the debate undermined his campaign.
In the aftermath of 9-11, Bush campaigned largely on National Security and won a solid victory in the electoral college, 286 votes to Kerry’s 251. He also won the popular vote, the only Republican candidate since 1984 to do so.
On February 4, Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg launched a website from his dorm room that brought our digital future closer to reality. Originally called ‘thefacebook’, Zuckerberg and his co-creators (Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes) creation was based on online student directories common on American campuses, and earlier attempts at social networking like ‘friendster’ and ‘myspace’.
Facebook originally distinguished itself with a clean, simple interface, and lack of advertising. It was also exclusive: to join you needed to have an email address at an approved school.
The restrictions quickly came off, and the site expanded dramatically. It reached 1 million active users after only 10 months, and a year later had 6 million. The company went public in 2012 and now has a market capitalisation of $900 billion; Zuckerberg is history’s youngest billionaire.
His company has also generated enormous controversy, accused of privacy breaches, anti-competitive behaviour and facilitating electoral interference.
The Final Episode of Friends
In May, long running sit-com ‘Friends’ aired its 236th and final episode. The two part finale, titled ‘The Last One’, saw Monica and Chandler move to the suburbs to start a family, and Rachel and Ross finally declare their love for each other.
Wrapping up a beloved show can be tricky: final episodes of popular programs from the era like ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘The Sopranos’ brought howls of outrage from dissatisfied fans. The team behind ‘Friends’ decided to lean into the sentimentality of the moment, eschewing plot twists in favour of emotion, an approach that got to the cast; the tears on camera in several scenes were reported to be real.
The episodes were well received. The very last was watched by an estimated audience of 52 million people, making it the fifth most watched final episode in TV history, and the most watched episode of scripted television for the decade.
Also in May, Australian Mary Donaldson married Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark, and became ‘Princess Mary’. Originally from Hobart, Donaldson had studied commerce and law before working in advertising, both in Australia and overseas.
She met Frederick at the ‘Slip Inn’ bar in Sydney (a well known hook up spot for the upwardly mobile) during the Olympics in 2000. Frederick was holidaying in Australia with some friends, one of whom knew Donaldson’s housemate and provided an introduction.
The pair hit it off and began seeing one another, the relationship continuing long distance when Frederick returned home. They became engaged in 2003 and were married the following year at Copenhagen Cathedral.
The Danish Royal family comes from the House of Glucksberg, which has ruled Denmark since the 15th century. At the end of 2023 the monarch, Queen Margrethe II, announced she would be abdicating in favour of Frederick, meaning Mary would shortly have a new title: Queen Consort.
The Boxing Day Tsunami
On Boxing Day morning, a powerful earthquake rocked the sea floor off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, causing one of the worst natural disasters in history. The 9.1 magnitude quake triggered a series of tsunamis that inundated the surrounding coasts, the impact felt as far away as East Africa.
The worst hit area was Sumatra’s Aceh region, where waves up to 9 metres high arrived with no warning, causing widespread flooding and considerable physical damage. When the water finally receded, it left a chaotic turmoil of collapsed buildings, live electric wires and dangerous debris.
Videos quickly circulated on the internet, showing terrified tourists and locals fleeing walls of muddy water. Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and the Maldives were also badly effected, more than 225 000 people were killed and millions displaced.
In the aftermath, a new tsunami warning system would be set up across the south Pacific and southeast Asia.
The Terracotta Army
On March 29, a group of Chinese farmers were digging a well near Xi’an, in central China, when they came across several pottery fragments. Believing them to be of value they reported their find to the local authorities, little realising they had stumbled onto one of history’s greatest archaeological discoveries.
Excavations at the site uncovered thousands of life-sized human figures, buried in underground chambers. The ‘Terracotta Army’, as it came to be known, had been created 2 000 years beforehand, at the behest of Emperor Qin.
Qin, born Ying Zhen, was the first Chinese Emperor, uniting the country in 221 BCE after a long series of civil conflicts. His rule was relatively short, 11 years, but in that time he expanded Chinese territory, issued nationally recognised currency, and began construction of the Great Wall.
He died in 210 BCE, having laid the groundwork for a modern Chinese state.
Construction of his mausoleum had begun during his lifetime. The Terracotta Army was designed to protect the Emperor in the afterlife; each of the estimated 8 000 figures is an individual, with unique features, and are thought to be based on real people.
Four pits have been uncovered to date, although more are thought to remain buried. Emperor Qin’s nearby tomb is also yet to be excavated.
ABBA Wins Eurovision
Starting in 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest has become one of the world’s best-known music competitions. Drawing entrants from across Europe (and sometimes other parts of the globe) the event is famed for its energy and campy aesthetic.
The 1974 edition was held in Brighton, England, in April. Seventeen countries participated; Sweden’s entry was the then largely unknown group ‘ABBA’.
Comprising Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, ABBA (an acronym of their first names) had formed in 1972, although the band members had known each other prior, and had performed in different bands together.
Seeing Eurovision as a way to raise their profile, in 1973 they attempted to qualify with their song ‘Ring Ring’, but had not been selected. In 1974 they tried again with a new song, ‘Waterloo’, sweeping not only the Swedish qualification, but winning the contest outright (beating Olivia Newton-John, representing Great Britain, into 2nd place).
ABBA would go on to become one of the highest selling music artists of all time; ‘Waterloo’ was later voted the best song ever performed at Eurovision (watch their winning performance, here).
The First Bar Code Scanner
On June 26, retail took a step into the future when the first barcode scanner was introduced at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio. This seemingly simple innovation had been decades in the making: Joe Woodland, an inventor and electronics engineer, had first conceived the idea in 1949.
But barcodes could not work in isolation, and Woodland’s notion stalled until complementary technology was also invented: the laser (first demonstrated in 1960), required to scan the barcode, and the microcomputer, developed steadily after WWII, required to understand the results.
The idea came to life again in the late 1960s, with different firms competing to develop the first fully functional system. NCR, an Ohio based technology company, readied their barcode scanner in 1973, and tested it successfully in a local supermarket the following year.
The first item scanned: a pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum.
Until this time, retail check outs had been a fully manual process, with individual prices attached to each item, and input into the register by clerks. Scanners ushered in an era of faster customer service, with further efficiency gains in stock management and accounting.
Richard Nixon Resigns
On August 8, Richard Nixon became the first, and to date only, US President to resign from office. The catalyst was the ongoing ‘Watergate’ investigation, examining a break in at the Democratic National Headquarters in 1972.
Initially dismissed as an amateur burglary, journalists would eventually uncover a complicated web of conspiracy, linking the perpetrators to the Republican Party. Nixon denied any knowledge of the crime, or subsequent coverup, but each additional break in the case connected him more closely to events.
On August 5, the White House, under subpoena, released a tape of Nixon discussing Watergate with his Chief of Staff a few days after the break in; he had originally asserted he had not even been aware of it until nearly a year later.
Caught in an obvious lie, Nixon’s supporters melted away. Congress had already been considering impeachment, those plans were now accelerated; Nixon resigned to avoid being removed from office.
His successor, Vice President Gerald Ford, immediately granted him a full Presidential pardon, preventing any future prosecution.
At Christmas, Cyclone Tracy passed over Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia, wreaking havoc on the small city. The cyclone had formed a few days beforehand and had originally been predicted to miss the city, before changing course.
The storm made landfall at 10pm on Christmas Eve, with the full brunt felt in the small hours of December 25. Winds were recorded at a peak of 217 km/hour, before local instrumentation failed.
The impact on the city was dramatic. Many of Darwin’s buildings were lightly constructed, made of wood and metal sheeting, and were completely destroyed; aerial photos taken afterwards were akin to a saturation bombing.
71 people were killed in the disaster, and half of the city’s inhabitants left homeless. More than 30 000 people were subsequently evacuated south, and the remainder were supplied by the armed forces for months afterwards.
Adolf Hitler Imprisoned
On February 26, Adolf Hitler went on trial for his role in a failed coup in Munich the previous year. Known as the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’, Hitler had led 2 000 members of the fledgling Nazi Party into the Munich town square, with the aim of overthrowing the local government.
The uprising had only been put down by force; police clashed violently with Hitler’s supporters, leaving dozens of people dead.
Arrested for treason, Hitler turned his trial into a political circus, making long speeches outlining his philosophy when called to testify. The trial was extensively covered by the press, turning Hitler into a national figure.
His guilt was not really in doubt, but the judges had Nazi sympathies and sentenced him to 5 years in a minimum-security facility. He served only 8 months and was released before the end of the year.
While incarcerated, Hitler dictated ‘Mein Kampf’ to his faithful deputy Rudolph Hess (also imprisoned for his role in the coup). Upon his release the book, part autobiography and part manifesto, became a runaway best seller.
The Founding of MGM
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, one of Hollywood’s best known movie studios, was founded in April. The new company was the brainchild of Marcus Loew, an early cinematic entrepreneur who owned a nationwide chain of cinemas.
Loew had difficulty consistently sourcing new films of reasonable quality and saw MGM as the solution. He bought three existing businesses – Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures – and merged them with his own company, installing Mayer as the first head of the studio.
Based in Hollywood, then still emerging as the centre of America’s film industry, MGM quickly established themselves with a prolific output: they produced 100 feature films in their first two years of operation.
They also had an eye-catching logo. Created by Howard Deitz, it featured a lion (known as ‘Leo’), giving a roar while surrounded by a ring of celluloid, inscribed with the text ‘Ars Gratia Artis’; Art for Art’s Sake.
MGM thrived in Hollywood’s golden age, producing all time classics like ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Its fortunes in more recent years were mixed; changing ownership several times since the 1970s, the studio is currently owned by Amazon.
Compulsory Voting in Australia
In October, a significant change to Australian democracy was made, with the passing of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924. This amendment to earlier legislation made voting in Australian elections compulsory.
The bill was introduced by Senator Herbert Payne, a conservative member from Tasmania. Payne had long championed electoral reform, and was spurred into action by the turnout at the 1922 Federal election, where only 59% of eligible voters participated (a record low in Australia).
Payne was not a member of the government, so his amendment was submitted as a private members bill. It was passed unanimously by both houses of Parliament, one of only three private members bills that had been approved to that time (they remain uncommon).
After his success Payne said, perhaps optimistically, he hoped that compulsory voting would provide, ‘a wonderful improvement in the political knowledge of the people.’
The Expanding Universe
Our understanding of the universe, and place within it, dramatically increased in November, when astronomer Edwin Hubble announced the discovery of other galaxies. These had been suggested by some scientists as far back as the 18th century, but the limitations of optical technology had meant they remained unconfirmed.
The mainstream scientific view still held that the entire universe was contained within our own Milky Way galaxy.
Hubble made his breakthrough on the Hooker Telescope at Mount Wilson, California, then the world’s largest. He observed examples of stars known as ‘Cepheid Variables’; very bright, pulsing objects, with known luminosity values that could be used to calculate their distance from Earth.
Hubble found that two of these, the Andromeda Nebula and Triangulum Nebula, were vastly further away than previously thought; too far, to be contained within our own galaxy.
His findings immediately stirred controversy and were rejected by most astronomers. It was only when more of these objects were found, and their distance confirmed, that Hubble’s conclusions were accepted.
The universe was infinitely larger than we had thought.
In 1929, Hubble made a further astonishing discovery, when he found that most of these new galaxies were rushing away from us at top speed. A surprise finding that would eventually lead to the Big Bang theory, for the origin of the universe.