This Week in History: The RMS Titanic sank on its maiden voyage.

Source: ThinkStock

Source: ThinkStock

The British ocean liner Titanic was on its maiden (first) voyage, from Southampton, England, to New York City, when it struck an iceberg at about 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912. About two and a half hours later, on the morning of April 15, the ship broke in two and sank into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. More than 1,500 people died in the disaster—historians are not precisely sure how many, because we do not have any perfect records of how many people were originally on the ship. We do know that 705 people survived, mostly women and children. A ship from a rival cruise line, the RMS Carpathia, rescued the survivors.

The RMS Titanic—RMS stands for “Royal Mail Ship or Steamer”—was supposed to be unsinkable. Its hull was divided into 16 watertight compartments. Even if two of those compartments flooded, the ship could still float. The White Star Line emphasized safety as its top priority—at least publicly. But speed and pleasure were more attractive marketing features to travelers. The ship was the most luxurious ever built at the time, but it carried only enough lifeboats to hold half of its passengers and crew. And its captain drove the ship at top speed, despite warnings from other ships that the route he sailed was filled with icebergs.

When the ship hit the iceberg, the impact burst riveted seams in the ship’s hull. The 16 watertight compartments proved to be not so watertight, because the vertical walls that separated the compartments did not extend to the upper decks. Seawater flooded the bow (front) of the ship. Like a seesaw with weight on one side, the ship tilted. As the flooded bow sank, the stern (back) was lifted high up. Eventually, the angle increased until the stern was nearly vertical—and then the stern’s weight caused the ship to break in two. The two halves quickly plunged into the icy depths.

Evacuating the ship was difficult in the chaotic dark night. Famously, the ship’s band played music during the evacuation, possibly to help calm the passengers. Many wealthy and famous passengers perished. They included the millionaire John Jacob Astor, the department store owner Isidor Straus, and the businessman Benjamin Guggenheim, all of the United States. The Titanic’s captain, Edward J. Smith of England, went down with the ship.

The Titanic was not the most deadly shipwreck in history, nor was it the only ship to sink on its maiden voyage. Even so, it is probably the best known shipwreck in history. In September 1985, a team of French and American scientists found the wreckage of the Titanic. In 2012, around the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, artifacts taken from the shipwreck were put up for sale at auction.



In Today’s News: Warmer Temperatures Increase Malaria Cases

Warmer temperatures, associated with global warming, are causingmalaria to become more common at higher altitudes, according to a report in the latest issue of the journal Science. A study of malaria in the highlands of Africa and South America by an international team of scientists found that generally higher temperatures in the future may well lead to millions of additional people exposed to the mosquito-borne disease.

Malaria, a disease common in tropical and subtropical regions, is caused by infection with parasites called Plasmodia. The parasites are one-celled organisms called protozoans. They are transmitted to human beings through the bite of the female Anopheles mosquito.

“The impact in terms of increasing the risk of exposure to disease is very large,” stated the lead author of the study, Mercedes Pascual of the University of Michigan. Pascual noted that in the past, higher altitudes provided  protection against this devastating disease because both the malaria parasite and the mosquito that carries it do not thrive in cooler air.

Malaria parasites appear in pink and blue in a false-color image. (c) CNRI/SPL from Photo Researchers

Pascual and her team studied densely populated areas in the highlands ofColombia and Ethiopia, where scientists have kept detailed records of both temperature and malaria cases from the 1990’s to 2005. The team found that malaria shifted higher into the mountains in warmer years and stayed at lower elevations in cooler years. “We have estimated that, based on the distribution of malaria with altitude, a 1-Celsius-degree (1.8-Fahrenheit-degree) rise in temperature could lead to an additional 3 million cases in people under 15 years old,” stated Pascual. Climatologists predict that Earth’s surface temperature could rise by as much as 1 Celsius degree by 2030.

The World Health Organization estimates that there were about 207 million cases of malaria in 2012 leading to approximately 627,000 deaths. Children living in Africa are particularly hard hit by the disease.


This Week in History: The first Barbie doll hit store shelves in 1959

Barbie, the teenage fashion doll, was an almost instant success when she was first introduced in 1959. Today, she is an American icon and one of the most popular dolls in the world. The American toy company Mattel Inc., one of the world’s largest toy companies, makes the Barbie doll. Barbie was the brainchild of Ruth Handler, who with her husband, Elliot Handler, co-founded Mattel in 1945.

It all started in the early 1950’s, when Ruth saw her daughter, Barbara, playing with paper dolls of adult women and imagining herself in different grownup roles. Ruth noticed that her daughter played with the grownup dolls just as much as she played with her baby dolls. But at the time, the only grownup dolls were all made of paper or cardboard. Ruth got the idea to make a three-dimensional adult doll that girls could play with and fantasize about what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Ruth decided to make a teenage doll with lots of pretty clothes. She designed a doll similar to a German one called Bild-Lilli. Ruth named the new doll “Barbie,” after her daughter. At first Ruth had a hard time convincing the male-dominated Mattel company to back her idea. People said it was too expensive, and that there was no market for such a doll. Finally, Mattel agreed to the concept. Barbie was introduced as an 11 ½-inch (29-centimeter) vinyl doll at the American International Toy Fair in New York City.

Barbie’s debut as a teenage fashion model shocked toy critics. Controversy erupted immediately, because the doll had the figure of a grown woman. Barbie was super-thin, buxom, had a tiny waist, and wore high-heeled shoes. Many parents felt she sent the wrong message to girls. But despite the outcry over Barbie’s body image, little girls all over the country clamored for the doll, and Barbie flew off store shelves. Two years later, Mattel introduced Barbie’s “boyfriend,” Ken. The Ken doll was named after the Handlers’ son. Mattel also developed other dolls as Barbie’s “friends” and “family.”

Over the years, Barbie underwent many changes. At various times, she was a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. She was African American, Asian, and Hispanic. Her career choices included fairy, princess, astronaut, doctor, racecar driver, and even presidential candidate. Since 1959, more than a billion outfits and accessories have been sold to complete her look. In the 1990’s, Mattel made Barbie’s body a little more realistic. The change somewhat appeased moms who worried that Barbie caused girls to view their own bodies in a negative way.

Although Barbie remains a popular toy, there are signs the iconic fashion doll may be losing her appeal. She has strong competition from a relatively new line of dolls that sport tattoos, neon-colored hair, and trendy fashions and have cute, scary pets. But Mattel is fighting back. In February 2014, Mattel launched a campaign encouraging girls to be like Barbie, “unapologetic” about the way they look. The campaign includes an appearance by Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine’s 50th anniversary swimsuit issue. Barbie wears a black and white swimsuit reminiscent of the first outfit she was sold with in 1959.

So, whatever controversy pops up in the future regarding the Barbie doll, clearly Barbie is Barbie…no apologies, thank you. 



This Week in History: Napoleon escapes from Elba in 1815

Portrait of Napoleon in exile. Credit: © Thinkstock

Portrait of Napoleon in exile. Credit: © Thinkstock

Napoleon I, also known as Napoleon Bonaparte, became emperor of France in 1804. From 1805 to 1809, Napoleon’s armies won a string of victories over the armies of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The French Empire expanded to cover nearly all of Western Europe. However, serious military setbacks in 1812 and 1813 badly depleted Napoleon’s army, his empire, and his power. After a bruising defeat at Leipzig, Germany, in the Battle of the Nations, Napoleon retreated into France. By March 1814, the French army was so reduced that it could not protect Paris, and the city fell to an alliance of enemies. In April, Napoleon abdicated (gave up) the imperial throne. In May, Napoleon was exiled to Elba, an Italian island some 12 miles (20 kilometers) off the coast of Tuscany. There he ruled the small island and its few thousand people as emperor.

After a brief period of depression, Napoleon set about organizing Elba. He created a government and ordered the construction of hospitals, roads, and water systems. He introduced methods to improve the island’s agriculture and iron mining. For himself, Napoleon built a small navy and drilled the few hundred soldiers who had volunteered to accompany him. He spent time with his mother, his sister, and his mistress. He also arranged concerts, balls, and theater performances.

Napoleon claimed to be content to live out his days on the sleepy little island. However, he appeared to grow bored with the place. A man of adventure, ambition, conquest, politics, and war does not slow down easily. Napoleon’s guardian, British Colonel Neil Campbell, grew bored with Elba too. He found the Italian mainland much more interesting than his work on Elba, and he spent much of his time in Florence and Livorno. The British Royal Navy screened ships coming to and from Elba. Floating aimlessly on the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the sailors probably grew bored as well.

Being something of a tourist attraction, Napoleon entertained many visitors. Most of his visitors were merely curious (and wealthy). But some were also spies for European governments meant to keep track of Napoleon’s every move. Napoleon, however, used his visitors—and his spies—to keep track of moves and political currents in Europe. He learned of the rather unrevolutionary actions of his royal replacement in France, King Louis XVIII. Napoleon also learned of his own enduring popularity in France. Rumors eventually reached Napoleon that his enemies—too many to count—considered Elba too close to France for comfort. They intended to send him much farther away to the barren South Atlantic island of St. Helena. Napoleon could tolerate exile no longer.

On Feb. 26, 1815, with Campbell away on the mainland, Napoleon and his followers eluded Royal Navy patrols and sneaked away from Elba. On March 1, they landed on the sunny French Riviera. Napoleon and his entourage began marching to Paris, gathering supporters and troops along the way.

Marshal Michel Ney, once one of Napoleon’s best and most trusted officers, had pledged himself to the new regime in Paris. Determined to prove himself to Louis XVIII, Ney gathered a force to stop Napoleon. The opposing forces met at Auxerre, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Paris. Instead of fighting, however, Ney’s troops flocked to Napoleon. Reluctantly, so did Ney—and everyone else. Louis XVIII, acutely aware of his desperate situation, fled France as Napoleon approached.

On March 20, Napoleon entered Paris and was carried on the shoulders of cheering crowds. His restoration as Empereur des Français began the “Hundred Days,” one of many electric, bloody, and chaotic periods in French history. With his enemies preparing to invade France, Napoleon struck first. He marched into Belgium where he “met his Waterloo” on June 18. Defeated, Napoleon was again dethroned. On July 8, Louis XVIII returned to Paris with the “baggage train of the enemy (British troops),” ending the Hundred Days. Napoleon then got his fill of dreary St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

In Today’s News: Snowy Owls

She was only one of the more than 2,500 snowy owls that left the Arctic for the United States and Canada this winter. But thanks to an encounter with a city bus and an SUV, she became a media star. On January 30, the owl, which had appeared in Washington, D.C., some days earlier, suffered a broken toe and a head injury in a traffic accident. Rushed to a city wildlife facility, she was treated successfully and moved to comfortably cold rooms for her recuperation. Apparently, she enjoyed the food—white mice—served at the facility. But as she improved, she became increasingly dissatisfied with her small accommodations. So earlier this week, her caretakers moved her to larger quarters at an undisclosed location. Bird experts there hope she will be healthy enough for release in spring, when snowy owls traditionally return to the Arctic.

Snowy owls are graceful birds of prey that usually live on the Arctic tundra in Canada, where they feed mainly on lemmings. The owls reach about 23 inches (58 centimeters) long and have mostly white plumage with brown markings. Adult females have more brown markings than the adult males.  In addition to lemmings, the owls may feed on mice, voles, ducks, and hares.

The call of the snowy owl features several rough notes and sounds somewhat like a dog’s bark. (Alan D. Carey, Photo Researchers)


Although snowy owls migrate south every winter, this year’s invasion has been one of the largest in memory, scientists said. Bird watchers working with eBird, an online citizen science project run by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, have reported spotting the owls in 25 states and 7 Canadian territories. The project (at uses sightings collected by bird watchers in more than 115 countries to create maps showing where species can be found. Unlike most owls, snowy owls are active during the day, making them easier to observe. Usually, the younger birds make the trek south, chased out of their home range by older birds after fresh snow starts to fall. The lemmings take advantage of the cover to drop out of sight, significantly reducing the food available to the owls.

In Today’s News: Canadian Fossil Site Thrills Scientists

The discovery of a site in Canada containing hundreds of ancient fossils is being heralded as one of the most important discoveries in paleontology in the past 100 years. The huge fossil site, located in Marble Canyon inKootenay National Park in southeastern British Columbia, contains hundreds of magnificently preserved fossils of early animals from theCambrian, a period in Earth’s history that lasted from about 543 million to 490 million years ago. So far, scientists have found the fossils of more than 50 invertebrate (animals without backbones) species, about a dozen of which have never been seen before. The site rivals the famous Burgess Shale formation, a 505 million-year-old site discovered in 1909 in Yoho National Park about 26 miles (42 kilometers) northwest of Marble Canyon. For now, the exact location of the fossil deposit is being kept secret to protect the delicate fossils from collectors. The Marble Canyon site was discovered in 2012 by scientists fromt the Royal Ontario Museum, the Universities of Toronto and Saskatchewan in Canada, Pomona College in California, and Uppsala University in Sweden.

During the Cambrian Period, the region lay at the bottom of a shallow ocean. Fine-grained mud that accumulated over time preserved in exquisite detail the soft-bodied invertebrates that lived and died in this ocean over millions of years, giving paleontologists an excellent view of theiranatomy. Many of the animals can be identified as types of worms andarthropods (animals with jointed legs). Among them are trilobites, an extinct group of arthropods related to modern crabs and lobsters. Some of the fossil animals appear similar to invertebrates alive today, while other are unique and are new to science.

A mold preserved the three-dimensional form of a trilobite after its body decayed. ((c) Sinclair Stammers, Science Photo Library; Photo Researchers)


The Cambrian Period was an important time in the history of life on Earth. Many major types of animals first appear in fossils from the early Cambrian Period. Scientists often refer to this sudden, dramatic increase in the variety of animal fossils as the Cambrian Explosion. During the Cambrian Explosion, animals evolved (developed gradually) into many new forms and spread throughout Earth’s oceans. They also began interacting with one another and their environment in more complex ways. Animals began eating other animals, growing skeletons for protection, and burrowing into sea-floor sediments for food and shelter.

The fossils unearthed from the Marble Canyon site will help researchers better understand the conditions of the marine ecosystem that spurred the rapid diversification of animal forms during the Cambrian Period. For example, some of the invertebrate species found at Marble Canyon are also known from fossil sites in Asia about the same age. This indicates that some species had spread throughout the world, while others may have been limited to particular habitats.

This Week in History: Grant Wood, American artist, was born in 1891

Grant Wood, who was born on Feb. 13, 1891, was a popular American artist. Wood primarily portrayed the people and landscape of Iowa, where he lived most of his life. He is best known for American Gothic (1930), one of the most famous paintings in American art.

American Gothic portrays a farmer and his daughter posing against a farmhouse with a Gothic style window. The man and woman are plain people, the woman wearing an apron and the man dressed in overalls and holding a pitchfork. The artist used his sister and his dentist as models. When it was first exhibited, American Gothic created considerable controversy. Many people complained that it was an insulting caricature of ordinary rural people. However, Wood’s intent was to create an appreciative view of the virtues of his native Iowa and the Midwest in general, with its strong religious values and its work ethic. The controversy quickly died out and the painting became one of the most popular in American culture. It hangs today in the Art Institute of Chicago.

With Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, Wood was a founder and leading figure in the Regionalism movement that was prominent in American art during the 1930’s. Wood believed that artists should remain in their home communities and paint from personal experience based on their local and national heritage.

Wood’s paintings show the influence of German and Flemish art of the 1400’s and 1500’s in their realism, precise details, and enamellike surfaces. His compositions are based on simple geometric shapes with sharp contours rendered in bright but earthy colors.

In addition to American Gothic, Wood’s best known paintings include The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931), which made good-hearted fun of Paul Revere’s legendary ride by moving the setting from New England to a hilly Iowa landscape. Arbor Day (1932) praises the values of domestic life in rural America. Wood also painted Daughters of Revolution (1932), a satirical portrait of three smug women who claimed to be descendants of the heroes of the American Revolution.

Wood was born near Anamosa, Iowa. At first he painted in an Impressionist style. In 1927, he received a commission to make stained glass windows for the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building. While in Germany in 1928 to supervise the manufacture of the windows, Wood became exposed to Flemish and German painting, which became the turning point in his career. Wood taught painting at the University of Iowa School of Art from 1934 to 1941, where he supervised mural painting projects as well as producing a variety of his own works. He died on Feb. 12, 1942, one day before his 51st birthday.