August 18, 2022

#ThrowbackThursday – 18 August

In the words of US biochemist John Jacob Abel, “Greater even than the greatest discovery is to keep open the way to future discoveries.”

New strides are made every day in various fields, from technological inventions to innovations that improve humankind’s living conditions and moral/ethical standards. And by doing so, there’s scope – and hope – for such inventions and innovations to pave the way for more discoveries to be made.

With that said, here are three events that went down in history on 18 August:

1817 – Sea Snake Scare

Almost 1 253 years after the Loch Ness Monster was “discovered” in Scotland, several sea serpents were reportedly spotted across the pond.

Off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishermen were flummoxed and afraid when they saw what looked like giant, multi-humped serpents breaking the surface of the Atlantic sea water.

One fisherman described one such serpent: “I should judge him between eighty and ninety feet 24m to 27m] in length, and about the size of a half barrel, apparently having joints from his head to his tail. His head formed something like the head of a rattlesnake, but nearly as large as the head of a horse.”

Another fisherman added to the scary picture: “I saw, at no time, more than eight distinct portions … I believe the animal to be straight, that the apparent bunches were caused by his vertical motion.”

An investigation by the Linnean Society, an academic group dedicated to natural history, was subsequently carried out. Per their findings, the creatures – named “Scoliophis Atlanticus” – only appeared when on days when both weather and waters were calm (indeed, 18 August had both). Insofar as we know, however, they have never been seen again.

Whatever remains were left behind, only the dark depths of sea have them now, and it will be a long, long time before the sea shares more of its secrets.

1868 – Here’s to Helium

Helium has a multitude of uses: cooling satellite instruments, cooling magnets in MRI scanners, and, most popularly, filling up party balloons (and using it to make your voice sound squeaky à la Chipmunks).

Although helium has been around for … well, probably since nature’s creation, its presence was only discovered in 1868 by a French astronomer named Pierre J.C. Janssen. While camping out in Guntur, India to measure the solar spectrum during a total eclipse, he noticed a yellow line in that very same spectrum.

After carrying out several experiments, Janssen determined that this yellow line was an undiscovered element. His contemporary, English astronomer Joseph Norman Lockyer, came to the same conclusion when he sighted the same line in October while making scientific observations of the sun – Lockyer dubbed this new element “helium”, taken from the Greek word “helios”, which means “sun”.

Over the course of the next 30 years, various scientists would discover the physical presence of helium on the planet, from inside uranium ore to the volcanic gases emitted by Mount Vesuvius in Italy.

1920 – Mother Knows Best

The 19th century saw the rise of the women’s suffrage movement, resulting in changes for women that many people would take for granted today. Come 1920, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was certified, allowing both men and women the right to vote – and it’s partly thanks to one man and his mother.

At 24-years-old, Harry T. Burn was the youngest member of the Tennessee state legislature. During this time, the Suffragettes were calling for the US Congress to approve the proposed 19th Amendment which would allow women to vote – 35 states had already voted to ratify the move. It would take the votes of 36 states for ratification to occur.

With the other states rejecting the proposed amendment or not even considering it, the only state left was Tennessee, whose House of Representatives were stalling on the vote. Following intense protests from Suffragettes, hostility from anti-suffragists, and heated politicking, the legislators finally voted, only for it to end in a 48-48 tie.

Called on to cast the final ratification vote, Burn – who wore a red rose in his lapel, a symbol of the anti-suffrage movement – was expected to proclaim “Nay”. Instead, to the surprise of the assembly and to the delight of many Suffragettes present, he uttered “Aye”.

That’s because, sitting in his suit pocket was a letter from his mother, Phoebe Burn, which read: “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet.”

She then ended the letter by asking her son to be a “good boy” by voting for the amendment to pass.

Although Burn initially declared that the US had a “moral and legal right to ratify” the 19th Amendment, he later admitted that “a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow.”