This week in history: American economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman was born on July 31, 1912

Milton Friedman was considered one of the most influential economists of the mid- to late 1900’s. He is perhaps best known for helping to popularize the theory of monetarism. Monetarism is the idea that the state of a nation’s economy is determined by its money supply (the amount of money in circulation). To stimulate growth, for example, monetarists believe that the government should gradually and continuously increase a nation’s money supply and then take no further action. The forces of a free-market economy, according to Friedman, will efficiently solve most economic problems without government intervention. He explained his theories in the book A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (1963), which he co-wrote with economist Anna Schwartz.

Friedman and other monetarists disagreed with popular theories of the time supported by the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes and his followers. These economists, called Keynesians, favored regular, short-term government spending to control the economy. Monetarism gradually supplanted Keynesian ideas as the economic policy of the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1970’s.

In 1976, Friedman received the Nobel Prize in economics. The Nobel committee awarded the prize for his “achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory, and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy.” Friedman also received a number of other awards, including the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom and the United States National Medal of Science. He wrote or co-wrote a number of books, including A Theory of the Consumption Function (1957), Capitalism and Freedom (1962), and Free to Choose (1980). The theory of monetarism became less popular beginning in the 1980’s.

Friedman was born on July 31, 1912, in New York City, New York. After receiving a doctorate from Columbia University in 1946, he spent the next 30 years teaching economics at the University of Chicago. He retired from the university in 1977 and joined Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace as a senior research fellow. Friedman died on Nov. 16, 2006.

This Week in History: Gregor Mendel, who discovered the fundamental principles of genetics was born in 1822

It took the patience of a monk to unravel the basic laws of inheritance. For thousands of years farmers and herders selectively bred their crops and livestock to produce more useful varieties. However, this process was often unpredictable since no one understood the rules that governed heredity. These rules were finally discovered from painstaking breeding experiments carried out between 1856 and 1863 by an obscure Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel. Mendel’s experiments laid the foundation for the scientific study of heredity, called genetics. Today, Mendel is rightly known as the father of modern genetics.

Mendel was born on July 22, 1822, in Heinzendorf, Austria (now Hyncice, near Krnov, in what is now the Czech Republic). In 1843, Mendel entered the monastery of St. Thomas in Brunn, Austria (now Brno, the Czech Republic). He became a priest in 1847. In 1851, the monastery sent Mendel to study science and mathematics at the University of Vienna. He returned to the monastery in 1853. Mendel’s fame came from his experiments he conducted in the monastery garden.

In a series of now-famous experiments, Mendel patiently bred and crossbred thousands of pea plants and recorded the characteristics of each successive generation. Mendel concluded that plant traits are handed down through hereditary elements now called genes. He reasoned that each plant receives a pair of genes for each trait, one gene from each of its parents. Based on his experiments, he concluded that if a plant inherits two different genes for a trait, one gene will be dominant and the other will be recessive. The trait of the dominant gene will appear in the plant. For example, the gene for round seeds is dominant, and the gene for wrinkled seeds is recessive. A plant that inherits both genes will have round seeds. Mendel also concluded that the pairs of genes segregate (separate) in a random fashion when a plant’s gametes are formed. Thus, a parent plant hands down only one gene of each pair to its offspring. In addition, Mendel believed that a plant inherits each of its traits independently of other traits. These two conclusions are today known as Mendel’s Law of Segregation and his Law of Independent Assortment.

Mendel published his work in 1866, demonstrating the actions of invisible “factors”—what we now call genes —in providing for visible traits in predictable ways. Mendel’s research was with plants, but the basic underlying principles of heredity that he discovered also apply to people and other animals because the mechanisms of heredity are essentially the same for all complex life forms.

Gregor Mendel never enjoyed recognition for his scientific achievements in his lifetime. His published papers were largely ignored. Few scientists were willing to pay attention to the gardening experiments of an Austrian monk. But Mendel himself grasped the significance of his work even if others did not. Shortly before his death in Brünn on Jan. 6, 1884, Mendel said “My scientific studies have afforded me great gratification. I am convinced that it will not be long before the whole world acknowledges the results of my work.” However, it was not until 1900, when three different European scientists independently discovered the same principles governing inheritance, that the era of modern genetics began. Only later did scientists realize Mendel had made the same discovery decades earlier and grant him the recognition he never received in life.

This week in history: U.S. scientists test the first nuclear weapon

Photo of first atomic bomb explosion. © Shutterstock

Photo of first atomic bomb explosion. © Shutterstock

On July 16, 1945, at 5:30 A.M., a mushroom-shaped cloud of fire rose above the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. It was the world’s first nuclear explosion, known as the Trinity Nuclear Test. Far brighter than the sun, the weapon’s explosion vaporized the tower that held it up, melted the ground around it, and threatened to blind and poison the scientists gathered to observe the culmination of their work.

The scientists were fine, having taken proper precautions. Many of them had been more concerned that the weapon wouldn’t work at all. Nuclear science at the time was cutting edge, highly theoretical and largely untested.

The mission to build a nuclear weapon, codenamed the Manhattan Project, had begun three years earlier in 1942, a year after the United States had entered World War II (1941-1945). Led by the American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, tens of thousands of people throughout the United States worked on the project, including other top scientists, military personnel, and workers at secret factories that produced uranium and plutonium, two types of atoms with massive, unstable nuclei (cores) that could be made to split apart in fission explosions.

The Trinity test weapon used an implosion design. It held a core of plutonium, surrounded by non-nuclear explosives that detonated all at the same time. The explosions compressed the plutonium core, triggering a fission reaction that spread rapidly among the plutonium nuclei. The Trinity weapon had an explosive yield (power) of 22 kilotons—that is, about the same power as 22,000 tons of TNT.

The success of the Trinity test paved the way for nuclear war. On August 6, the United States detonated a nuclear bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This bomb had a different design than the Trinity weapon, and a smaller yield of 13 kilotons. Three days later, the United States dropped a 22-kiloton Trinity-type bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Between 70,000 and 100,000 people died at Hiroshima. Roughly 40,000 died at Nagasaki, which had a hilly terrain that shielded more people from the bomb’s deadly effects. More people died later from radiation poisoning. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, ending World War II.

But nuclear testing did not end with the war. The United States tested more than a thousand nuclear weapons, exploding them in the sky, underwater, underground, and even in outer space. The Soviet Union also conducted hundreds of nuclear tests. Some of these weapons were hundreds of times more powerful than the Trinity bomb. Since the 1990’s, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union has tested any more nuclear weapons. But Pakistan, India, and North Korea have.

Many scientists involved with the Trinity nuclear test have grappled with moral doubts about the destructive forces they unleashed. Reflecting years later, J. Robert Oppenheimer said the Trinity explosion he oversaw brought to mind a line from the Hindu poem The Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” In the Gita, these words are spoken by the god Vishnu, who tries to persuade the story’s hero to put aside his doubts and perform his duty—waging warfare. People still debate whether the nuclear weapons used against Japan helped save more lives than they killed on the balance, since many more people could have potentially died if World War II had continued. But scientists are largely in agreement that a major nuclear war could indeed destroy our world’s ability to support life.

This week in history: Aaron Burr fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804.

Portrait of Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn,1802. © Alamy Images

Portrait of Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn,1802. © Alamy Images

Aaron Burr, the sitting vice president, and Alexander Hamilton, the first United States secretary of the treasury and the face on today’s 10-dollar bill, weren’t fond of each other, to put it mildly. Both men were lawyers and veterans of the American Revolution (1775-1783), and both were exceedingly stubborn and proud. But the pair’s political rivalry had long before morphed into personal enmity.

Hamilton, for his part, had never been one to shrink from confrontation. At the age of 12, he became an orphan on the Caribbean island of Nevis, and his rough childhood shaped his combative nature. A charmer with a quick wit with a sharp tongue, he was always ready to defend his views and skewer his enemies. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were frequent targets of Hamilton’s barbs. In private correspondence, Hamilton occasionally took pains to portray his opposition as political and not personal in nature. But his behavior suggested otherwise, especially when it came to Aaron Burr.

Burr and Hamilton had known each other for decades, and they’d been rivals from the start. As young officers, they had served under General George Washington. Hamilton won Washington’s admiration and rose to become the general’s secretary and assistant. Washington passed over Burr for a promotion after it became known that Burr had been reading Washington’s private correspondence.

Politically, Burr—a Democratic-Republican—was at odds with the Federalist Hamilton. Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyer, in a 1791 election for the U.S. Senate. In 1800, Hamilton maneuvered to ensure Jefferson’s victory over Burr in a run-off election for president of the United States.

In the spring of 1804, a newspaper printed that Hamilton had spoken some unkind words about Burr’s character and integrity. About the same time, Hamilton had worked to bring about Burr’s defeat in an April election for New York governor. Burr had had enough. After Hamilton refused to apologize, Burr challenged his rival to a duel.

On July 11, 1804, the men faced each other with pistols in Weehawken, New Jersey. The pair chose the site because New York had outlawed dueling. Hamilton shot first, missing Burr—possibly on purpose. But Burr fatally wounded Hamilton with one shot. Hamilton died the next day.

The night before their encounter, Hamilton had recorded his thoughts on the duel and his feelings about Burr:

It is also my ardent wish that I may have been more mistaken than I think I have been, and that he by his future conduct may shew himself worthy of all confidence and esteem, and prove an ornament and blessing to his Country.

Alas, Hamilton’s own efforts had already succeeded in muting Burr’s political power, and Jefferson had made it clear that Burr would not serve another term as his vice president. Burr was indicted for murder for his role in the duel, but he was never arrested.

After his vice presidency, Burr engaged in a number of questionable activities—chief among them a plot to invade Mexico and possibly detach part of the southwestern frontier from the United States to make a new nation. For this plan, Burr was tried for treason in 1807. He was found innocent of the charges, but he later went to Europe and tried to arouse support for the Mexican scheme. Burr eventually returned to the United States and prospered as a lawyer in New York City.

This Week in History: American businessman Éleuthère Irénée du Pont was born in 1771

Portrait of E.I. du Pont. © Shutterstock

Portrait of E.I. du Pont. © Shutterstock

Most Americans, and many people around the world, are familiar with the huge American company commonly known as DuPont. But few know that the company was begun by a young Frenchman who liked things that exploded.

Éleuthère Irénée du Pont was born in Paris on June 24, 1771, the younger of two sons in the family. His father, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, had been a watchmaker. He had also studied medicine, but in time he had become involved in economics and politics. Pierre du Pont was an aristocrat who held moderate views on the French monarchy. Such views were not popular with those supporting the French Revolution (1789-1799).

While he was a boy in France, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont (often known as E.I., or Irénée) was far more interested in explosives than in the subjects his tutors attempted to teach him at his father’s estate. In his early teens, he wrote a report for his father about gunpowder. At age 14, he began study in the College Royal in Paris. Two years later, E.I. became a student of the famous French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, a friend of his father’s, at the French government agency that manufactured gunpowder. E.I. left the agency in 1791 to work in the publishing house his father had opened in Paris.

In the dangerous atmosphere of revolutionary Paris, Pierre and E.I. du Pont aided in the escape of King Louis XVI from a mob invading his palace in 1792. They barely escaped themselves as others in their group were killed. Not long after his printing presses were attacked by a Parisian mob in 1797, Pierre decided it was time to leave France for the United States. In 1799 the family sailed across the Atlantic, arriving in their new country on the first day of the new century. They set up a business office in New York City, though they were uncertain what type of business it would be.

While hunting with a friend, E.I. was amazed at the poor-quality but expensive gunpowder that was available in the United States. The family decided to use French techniques of gunpowder manufacture to start a business selling a better product in America. E.I. and his brother Victor traveled to France in 1801 to gather machinery and investment. The French government aided them, hoping to undercut the British supply of gunpowder to the United States. Helped by influential friends in America, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, E.I. du Pont broke ground for the firm that would bear his name on July 19, 1802. It was called E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, the formal name it retains today. Du Pont erected his gunpowder mill on Brandywine Creek, near Wilmington, Delaware. This mill formed the basis of Delaware’s great chemical industry, and the du Pont company eventually became the biggest supplier of explosives to the U.S. government.

Du Pont became a U.S. citizen in 1804, about the same time he was granted his first patent. His firm’s sales increased steadily from 1804 to 1811. In 1810, du Pont’s firm purchased land and expanded its facilities, just in time to take advantage of the demand for gunpowder in the War of 1812. After spending a number of years in France, E.I.’s father returned to America in 1815. Pierre was astonished at his son’s success and proclaimed him “a great man.” Along with gunpowder, E.I. became involved with the production of wool and cotton. In addition to his manufacturing work, E.I. served as a director of the Second Bank of the United States during the 1820’s, under his friend Nicholas Biddle, the bank’s president.

Du Pont suffered an apparent heart attack while in Philadelphia on business in 1834. He died the next day, on October 31. After his death, his company went on to produce explosives, lacquers, adhesives, plastics, synthetic fibers such as nylon, and many other products. Today DuPont is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of chemicals and chemical products.

This week in history: John Wesley, a founder of Methodism, was born in 1703

Portrait of John Wesley. © Shutterstock

Portrait of John Wesley. © Shutterstock

John Wesley, a clergyman of the Church of England, originally did not intend to create a new Protestant denomination. However, circumstances resulted in a new Protestant tradition known as Methodism in the late 1700’s. Wesley and his brother Charles began a reforming movement within the Church of England, the church into which they were born, in the 1720’s. Eventually, with the aid of John’s impressive organizational skills, the movement spread throughout the United Kingdom and to America. The movement became an independent denomination with strong roots in Anglicanism, the tradition that includes the Church of England.

John Wesley was born on June 17, 1703, in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England. His father, Samuel, was an Anglican clergyman. Samuel and his wife, Susanna, were committed to the Church of England. However, both came from Nonconformist families that had left that church. Thus, John appreciated both the importance of the organized church, and of a Puritan tradition of inward religion and a direct relationship with God. In the 1720’s, John attended Oxford University, where he eventually became a fellow (governing member) of Lincoln College. In 1728, Wesley was ordained a priest in the Church of England. At Oxford, Wesley and his brother Charles organized small groups of students to help one another to be disciplined and methodical in their study, spiritual devotion, and practical good works. They drew ridicule from other students, who called them “The Holy Club.” They also gained the nickname “Methodists,” which stuck. Their practice of accountability in small groups became the basic model of later Methodism.

In the 1730’s, John and Charles spent several years as missionaries in Savannah, Georgia. There, they were influenced by some Moravian Brethren, German Protestant missionaries who stressed personal faith and disciplined Christian living. After returning to England in 1738, John experienced a kind of conversion during a religious society meeting in London. He wrote about this experience in his journal: “…I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Not long after this experience, Wesley began “field preaching,” or preaching in the open air. This method of preaching became characteristic of Methodism. Wesley’s preaching stressed the need for life-changing religious experience and living a holy life. His message invited all to respond to God’s gracious reconciliation through Jesus Christ. Wesley’s ministry drew many people. He organized his followers into Methodist societies, which expanded and developed as a well-structured movement. As the movement grew, Wesley enlisted lay (unordained) preachers as assistants. In 1744, he started an annual conference to deal with matters of doctrine and practice. Wesley’s unconventional ministry drew criticism from Anglican clergy, as well as from other evangelical reform movements. It sometimes met with public hostility, and even violence.

Wesley wanted Methodism to remain a reforming movement within the Church of England. But the need to provide pastoral supervision for his followers in America led to a separation from the church. In 1784, Wesley made Thomas Coke the first superintendent of the Methodist church in America. That same year, the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in the United States, with Coke and Francis Asbury as its first bishops. By the time of Wesley’s death on March 2, 1791, Methodism had expanded to include 294 preachers and 71,668 members in Britain; 19 missionaries and 5,300 members in mission stations; and 198 preachers and 43,265 members in America. It is no wonder the movement grew as it did. A tireless preacher, Wesley is estimated to have traveled some 250,000 miles and preached over 40,000 sermons in his lifetime. Throughout his career, he also worked to help the poor and was concerned with such social issues as education, prison reform, and slavery. Wesley is buried in London.

This week in history: Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, was born

Tim Berners-Lee speaking at 2012 conference. © Shutterstock

Tim Berners-Lee speaking at 2012 conference. © Shutterstock

The Internet is a bewildering place, filled with bizarre cat videos, obscure Twitter hashtags, and other cultural artifacts our ancestors could not have dreamed up. But before the 1990’s, the Internet was bewildering in a very different way: almost nobody knew how to use it. Even if you had access to an Internet-connected computer, you practically needed to be a computer scientist to make use of the Internet. That changed in 1991, when a British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web.

The Web is not the same as the Internet. The Internet consists of a network of computers linked together with wires and radio waves. Electronic files, e-mails, and other data move from computer to computer according to a system of rules called protocols. But before 1991, there was no such thing as a “website.” To find information on the Internet, you needed to hunt for files on another Internet-connected computer and download them, or you needed to know someone who could e-mail them to you.

Berners-Lee came up with the idea of hypertext—a word or an image that acts like a magic portal to computer files on the Internet. Instead of hunting for files one by one, Internet users could link files to one another and just click their way from file to file. This “web” of interlinked files is the World Wide Web. The files are web pages, organized into larger structures called websites.

Berners-Lee created a system of rules called hypertext markup language, or HTML for short. HTML determines how web pages appear when viewed on a computer. A program called a web browser acts like a gateway into the World Wide Web, enabling users to find and interact with HTML-based web pages. With web browser and a meaningfully connected structure of web pages, one did not need to be a computer scientist to explore the Internet. During the 1990’s, ordinary people began “surfing the Web,” and Internet use exploded.

Just as the Internet laid the foundation for the World Wide Web, the Web laid the foundation for many other innovations—such as Amazon’s online store, Google’s Web-based search engine, and social networking websites such as Facebook, to name a few.

Berners-Lee was born on June 8, 1955, in London. He earned a degree in physics from Oxford University in 1976. In 1980, he worked at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland. Berners-Lee originally conceived the Web as a means for physicists around the world to link their own computer files with those at CERN. In 2004, he became Sir Tim Berners-Lee when Queen Elizabeth II knighted him.