This week in history: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born on Aug. 30, 1797

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who was born on Aug. 30, 1797, became famous in literary history as the wife of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and as the author of Frankenstein, perhaps the most famous horror novel in Western literature.

Portrait of Shelley. © GL Archive/Alamy Images

Portrait of Shelley. © GL Archive/Alamy Images

Mary was born in London to two famous parents. Her mother was the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father was the political philosopher William Godwin. She was largely educated at home within the stimulating intellectual environment in her parents’ household. This environment largely shaped Mary’s independent spirit as an adult.

Mary met Percy Shelley in 1812, and over a period of time they fell in love. She eloped with Shelley to France in July 1814, and they were married in 1816, after Shelley’s first wife committed suicide. After her husband was drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822, Mary returned to England and devoted herself to publicizing his writings. She published Shelley’s Posthumous Poems (1824) and edited his Poetical Works (1839). Mary’s published notes on her husband’s works as well as her Journal and letters have provided literary historians with a rich source of biographical information about her and her celebrated husband.

Mary published Frankenstein in 1818. Its full title was Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The novel reflects a popular literary style of Mary’s day called Gothic romance. The book is credited with introducing science fiction into English literature.

In the book, Victor Frankenstein is a Swiss student of science who creates an artificial man from pieces of corpses and then brings his creature to life. The creature, who is never given a name, is despised and rejected for his terrifying appearance. It learns human ways but never finds companionship. The creature haunts Frankenstein and insists that he create a female companion. Frankenstein at first agrees but ultimately cannot go through with the creation. The creature eventually turns to evil and destroys Frankenstein.

Mary conceived the story on a stormy June night in Geneva, Switzerland, during a ghost-writing contest with friends. The novel immediately captured the imagination of English society. It was discussed in newspapers, inspired political cartoons, was adapted into dramas, and even was debated in Parliament. The nameless creature became the most famous monster in Western literature. Many critics claimed a woman could not have written such a novel and credited her husband as the author.

Mary Shelley wrote several other novels, including Valperga (1823), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), the autobiographical Ladore (1835), and Falkner (1837). Many scholars consider The Last Man (1826) as her finest work. The novel is an account of the future destruction of the human race by a plague. Her travel book History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817) tells about the continental tour she and Shelley took in 1814 following their elopement as well as a description of the summer the couple spent in 1816 in Geneva, where Frankenstein was born. She also wrote many essays, book reviews, short stories, and poems.

Mary Shelley had four children, but only the fourth, her son Percy Florence Shelley (1819-1889), survived her. The first three died in infancy. Mary died on Feb. 1, 1851.

This week in history: FDR signed the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935

Roosevelt signs Social Security Bill. Credit: Library of Congess

Roosevelt signs Social Security Bill. Credit: Library of Congess

Eighty years ago, on Aug. 14, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act, which formed the basis of the U.S. Social Security system. Implemented as part of FDR’s New Deal, the act set up a system of unemployment compensation and old-age and survivor’s insurance. The law also provided payments for people with disabilities and for needy children. The act was key among the New Deal programs that helped pull the United States out of the Great Depression in the 1930’s. However, of the many laws enacted during the Roosevelt presidency, the Social Security Act has had the greatest long-term impact on the country’s economy. Controversial upon being signed into law, the Social Security Act still faces challenges today.

Many opponents argued that the act would kill jobs. In addition, when the act was originally passed, it provided cash benefits only to retired workers in commerce and industry. By exempting farm and domestic workers, the law excluded two-thirds of the African American labor force from benefits. The act also excluded many women from receiving benefits. In 1939, Congress amended the act to include benefits for wives and dependent children of deceased workers. In 1950, the act began to cover many farm and domestic workers, nonprofessional self-employed workers, and many state and municipal employees. Coverage became nearly universal in 1956, when lawyers and other professional workers came under the system. Congress added disability insurance to the system in 1956 and set up Medicare in 1965.

In 1983, Congress passed legislation that sought to protect the financial health of the Social Security system over the next 75 years. For the first time, Congress reduced future benefits while it raised taxes to boost future revenue. From the mid-1960’s through the mid-1980’s, the taxpaying labor force was enlarged by the entry of the baby boom generation. Baby boomers are the group of people born during a period of high birth rates from 1946 to 1964. As a result, during the late 1900’s, the number of workers paying taxes into the Social Security system grew more rapidly than the number of retirees collecting from the system. As large numbers of baby boom retirees began collecting retirement benefits in the 2010’s, tax revenues began falling below program costs. Retirement age, which had been 65, is expected to reach 67 in 2022. The Social Security Administration estimates that if no further action is taken, trust funds will be exhausted in 2034.

In FDR’s public statement on the day he signed the act into law, he expressed concern for “young people [who] have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age.” Today, many younger workers are concerned that the benefits promised to them under the Social Security Act will no longer be available to them upon their retirement. In recent years, as U.S. government leaders and lawmakers have focused on reducing the country’s deficit, critics of the program have called for a reduction in Social Security benefits as well as an increase in the retirement age.

This Week In History: Edward Eyre, explorer of Australia, was born in 1815

Portrait of Eyre. © Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy Images

Portrait of Eyre. © Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy Images

Edward John Eyre was a British-born explorer who became the first European to cross southern Australia from east to west. With his Aboriginal companion Wylie, Eyre crossed the treeless Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide, South Australia, to Albany, Western Australia.

Eyre was born in Bedfordshire, England, on Aug. 5, 1815. As a young man, he emigrated from the United Kingdom to Australia. He arrived in Sydney on March 20, 1833. He soon began work herding sheep and cattle. In early 1838, he and his overseer and companion John Baxter searched for a direct route from Port Phillip Bay, near Melbourne, to Adelaide. The trek was unsuccessful, and the men were forced to take a more indirect route along the Murray River. In mid-1839, Eyre explored the Flinders Ranges. Later that year, he headed an expedition along the western coast of a peninsula now known as the Eyre Peninsula. He then explored and named the Gawler Ranges and Lake Torrens before returning to Adelaide. In January 1840, Eyre sailed to Albany, in Western Australia. There, he met an Aboriginal man named Wylie, who would prove to be a valuable companion. From Albany, Eyre drove a herd of sheep and cattle overland to the Swan River settlement.

Eyre made his most famous journey in 1840 and 1841. He offered to lead an expedition from Adelaide into Australia’s largely uncharted interior. Beginning in June, the group explored the Flinders Ranges, Lake Torrens, and the southern portion of what would later be named Lake Eyre. Eyre then decided to resupply the group and head west in search of an overland route for sheep and cattle. He sent Baxter to Streaky Bay, on the northwestern part of the Eyre Peninsula, and sent another member of the expedition to Adelaide for supplies and to secure official permission to continue the journey to the west. Eyre and the rest of the group traveled to Port Lincoln, on the southern end of the Eyre Peninsula. In November, the expedition gathered at Streaky Bay. From there, Eyre and his companions headed northwest along a bay called the Great Australian Bight. The group established a depot at what is now the town of Fowlers Bay.

The terrain was difficult, and water was scarce. Eyre decided to send most of the members of the expedition back to Adelaide. On Feb. 25, 1841, he continued the journey with Baxter, Wylie, and two other young Aboriginal men. The group trekked over the dry, difficult terrain of the Nullarbor Plain. The Aboriginal men showed Eyre and Baxter how to find water, but supplies were extremely limited. On April 29, the two young Aboriginal men murdered Baxter, took the remaining food and firearms, and fled. Eyre and Wylie continued the difficult journey. In June, they sighted a French whaling ship near Esperance. They rested on the ship for two weeks before continuing their journey. Eyre and Wylie reached Albany on July 7.

Eyre went on to have a prosperous political career in other British colonies. At different times, he served as lieutenant-governor of New Zealand, lieutenant-governor of St. Vincent (in the Caribbean), acting governor of the Leeward Islands (also in the Caribbean), and governor-in-chief of Jamaica. In October 1865, disputes between planters and workers in Morant Bay, Jamaica, led to a peasant revolt. Eyre declared martial law, and British troops forcefully put down the revolt. Eyre was recalled to the United Kingdom, where many people felt his crackdown on the rebellion was needlessly violent. Eyre retired from politics. He died near Tavistock, England, on Nov. 30, 1901.

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: 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.