June 30, 1520: Faced with an Aztec revolt against their rule, forces under the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés fight their way out of Tenochtitlan at heavy cost. Known to the Spanish as La Noche Triste, or “the Night of Sadness,” many soldiers drowned in Lake Texcoco when the vessel carrying them and Aztec treasures hoarded by Cortés sank. Montezuma II, the Aztec emperor who had become merely a subject of Cortés in the previous year, was also killed during the struggle; by the Aztecs or the Spanish, it is not known.
Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325 A.D. by a wandering tribe of hunters and gatherers on islands in Lake Texcoco, near the present site of Mexico City. In only one century, this civilization grew into the Aztec Empire, due largely to its advanced system of agriculture. The empire came to dominate central Mexico and by the ascendance of Montezuma II in 1502 had reached its greatest extent, reaching as far south as perhaps modern-day Nicaragua. At the time, the empire was held together primarily by Aztec military strength, and Montezuma II set about establishing a bureaucracy, creating provinces that would pay tribute to the imperial capital of Tenochtitlan. The conquered peoples resented the Aztec demands for tribute and victims for the religious sacrifices, but the Aztec military kept rebellion at bay.
Meanwhile, Hernán Cortés, a young Spanish-born noble, came to Hispaniola in the West Indies in 1504. In 1511, he sailed with Diego Velazquez to conquer Cuba and twice was elected mayor of Santiago, the capital of Hispaniola. In 1518, he was appointed captain general of a new Spanish expedition to the American mainland. Velazquez, the governor of Cuba, later rescinded the order, and Cortés sailed without permission. He visited the coast of Yucatan and in March 1519 landed at Tabasco in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche with 500 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 16 horses. There, he won over the locals and was given an enslaved woman, Malinche—baptized Marina—who later bore him a son. She knew both Maya and Aztec and served as an interpreter. The expedition then proceeded up the Mexican coast, where Cortes founded Veracruz, mainly for the purpose of having himself elected captain general by the colony, thus shaking off the authority of Velazquez and making him responsible only to King Charles V of Spain.
At Veracruz, Cortés trained his army and then burned his ships to ensure loyalty to his plans for conquest. Having learned of political strife in the Aztec Empire, Cortés led his force into the Mexican interior. On the way to Tenochtitlan, he clashed with locals, but many of these peoples, including the nation of Tlaxcala, became his allies after learning of his plan to conquer their hated Aztec rulers. Hearing of the approach of Cortes, with his frightful horses and sophisticated weapons, Montezuma II tried to buy him off, but Cortes would not be dissuaded. On November 8, 1519, the Spaniards and their 1,000 Tlaxcaltec warriors were allowed to enter Tenochtitlan unopposed.
Montezuma suspected them to be divine envoys of the god Quetzalcoatl, who was prophesied to return from the east in a “One Reed” year, which 1519 was on the Aztec calendar. The Spaniards were greeted with great honor, and Cortés seized the opportunity, taking Montezuma hostage so that he might govern the empire through him. His mistress, Marina, was a great help in this endeavor and succeeded in convincing Montezuma to cooperate fully.
In the spring of 1520, Cortés learned of the arrival of a Spanish force from Cuba, led by Panfilo Narvaez and sent by Velazquez to deprive Cortés of his command. Cortés led his army out of Tenochtitlan to meet them, leaving behind a garrison of 80 Spaniards and a few hundred Tlaxcaltecs to govern the city. Cortés defeated Narvaez and enlisted Narvaez’ army into his own. When he returned to Tenochtitlan in June, he found the garrison under siege from the Aztecs, who had rebelled after the subordinate that Cortés left in command of the city massacred several Aztec chiefs, and the population on the brink of revolt. On June 30, under pressure and lacking food, Cortés and his men fled the capital at night. In the fighting that ensued, Montezuma was killed—in Aztec reports by the Spaniards, and in Spanish reports by an Aztec mob bitter at Montezuma’s subservience to Spanish rule. He was succeeded as emperor by his brother, Cuitlahuac.
During the Spaniards’ retreat, they defeated a large Aztec army at Otumba and then rejoined their Tlaxcaltec allies. In May 1521, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan, and after a three-month siege the city fell. This victory marked the fall of the Aztec empire. Cuauhtemoc, Cuitlahuac’s successor as emperor, was taken prisoner and later executed, and Cortés became the ruler of vast Mexican empire.
The Spanish conquistador led an expedition to Honduras in 1524 and in 1528 returned to Spain to see the king. Charles made him Marques del Valle but refused to name him governor because of his quarrels with Velazquez and others. In 1530, he returned to Mexico, now known as New Spain, and found the country in disarray. After restoring some order, he retired to his estate south of Mexico City and sent out maritime expeditions from the Pacific coast. In 1540, he returned to Spain and was neglected by the court. He died in 1547.
Jean Francois Gravelet, a Frenchman known professionally as Charles Blondin, becomes the first daredevil to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. The feat, which was performed 160 feet above the Niagara gorge just down river from the Falls, was witnessed by some 5,000 spectators. Wearing pink tights and a yellow tunic, Blondin crossed a cable about two inches in diameter and 1,100-feet long with only a balancing pole to protect him from plunging into the dangerous rapids below.
It was the first in a series of famous Niagara tightrope walks performed by “The Great Blondin” from 1859 to 1860. These “ascensions,” as he advertised them, always had different theatrical variations, including doing tightrope walks blindfolded, in a sack, with his manager on his back, sitting down midway to cook an omelet, and pushing a wheelbarrow across while dressed as an ape. In 1861, he performed at the Crystal Palace in London, turning somersaults on stilts on a rope stretched 170 feet above the ground. He died in 1897.
Considered one of the world’s greatest ballet dancers of all time, Soviet virtuoso Mikhail Baryshnikov choreographs his own Cold War-era defection from the U.S.S.R. after four years of planning.
Known as “Misha” to his admirers, Baryshnikov, then 26, finished a performance with the Leningrad-based Kirov Ballet in Toronto while on a Canadian tour, and then evaded his KGB handlers, disappearing into the crowd outside, hopping into a waiting car and hiding out until he was officially granted political asylum in Canada. Soon after, he received political asylum in the United States, where he became principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. He became a U.S. citizen on July 3, 1986.
Baryshnikov called the defection an artistic choice rather than a political one.
“When I was in Toronto, I finally decided that if I let the opportunity of expanding my art in the West slip by, it would haunt me always,” he told The Globe and Mail in his first post-defection interview. “What I have done is called a crime in Russia … But my life is my art and I realized it would be a greater crime to destroy that. I want to work with some of the West’s great choreographers if they think I am worthy of their creations.”
Baryshnikov told People magazine in 1985 that the defection unfolded like a thriller.
“It was arranged secretly through friends,” he said. “I was running, the getaway car was waiting a few blocks away as we were boarding on the group’s bus. KGB was watching us. It was actually funny. Fans are waiting for me outside the stage door, and I walk out and I start to run, and they start to run after me for autograph. They were laughing, I was running for my life. It was very emotional moment, I tell you.”
The Far West had been leased by the U.S. Army for the duration of the 1876 campaign against the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne tribes of the Northern Plains. Under the command of the skilled civilian Captain Grant Marsh, the 190-foot vessel was ideal for navigating the shallow waters of the Upper Missouri River system. The boat drew only 30 inches of water when fully laden and Marsh managed to steam up the shallow Big Horn River in southern Montana in June 1876. There, the boat became a headquarters for the army’s planned attack on a village of Sioux and Cheyenne they believed were camping on the nearby Little Big Horn River.
On June 28, Captain Grant and several other men were fishing about a mile from the boat when a young Native American on horseback approached. “He wore an exceedingly dejected countenance,” one man later wrote. By signing and drawing on the ground, the tribesman managed to convey that there had been a battle but the men did not understand its outcome. In fact, the Native American was Curley, one of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s Crow scouts. Three days earlier, he had been the last man to see Custer and his 7th Cavalry battalion before they were wiped out during the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
The following day, Grant received a dispatch from General Terry, who had found Custer’s destroyed battalion and the surviving soldiers of the 7th Cavalry. Terry ordered Grant to prepare to evacuate the wounded soldiers. Slowed by the burden of carrying the wounded men, Terry’s force did not arrive until June 30. Grant immediately received the 54 wounded soldiers and sped downstream as quickly as possible. With the Far West draped in black and flying her flag at half-mast, Grant delivered the wounded to Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, North Dakota, at 11:00 p.m. on July 5.
The fast and relatively comfortable transport of the wounded by steam power undoubtedly saved numerous lives. Yet, Grant was also the bearer of bad news. From Fort Abraham Lincoln, General Terry’s report of the disaster was telegraphed all over the country. Soon the entire nation learned that General Custer and more than 200 men had been killed along the Little Big Horn River.
Multiple inventors deserve credit for the technology, which had its origins in the 19th century.
The way people watch television has changed dramatically since the medium first burst onto the scene in the 1940s and ‘50s and forever transformed American life. Decade after decade, TV technology has steadily advanced: Color arrived in the 1960s, followed by cable in the ‘70s, VCRs in the ‘80s and high-definition in the late ‘90s. In the 21st century, viewers are just as likely to watch shows on cell phones, laptops and tablets as on a TV set. Amazingly, however, all these technological changes were essentially just improvements on a basic system that has worked since the late 1930s—with roots reaching even further back than that.
No single inventor deserves credit for the television. The idea was floating around long before the technology existed to make it happen, and many scientists and engineers made contributions that built on each other to eventually produce what we know as TV today.
Television’s origins can be traced to the 1830s and ‘40s, when Samuel F.B. Morse developed the telegraph, the system of sending messages (translated into beeping sounds) along wires. Another important step forward came in 1876 in the form of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, which allowed the human voice to travel through wires over long distances.
Both Bell and Thomas Edison speculated about the possibility of telephone-like devices that could transmit images as well as sounds. But it was a German researcher who took the next important step toward developing the technology that made television possible. In 1884, Paul Nipkow came up with a system of sending images through wires via spinning discs. He called it the electric telescope, but it was essentially an early form of mechanical television.
In the early 1900s, both Russian physicist Boris Rosing and Scottish engineer Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton worked independently to improve on Nipkow’s system by replacing the spinning discs with cathode-ray tubes, a technology developed earlier by German physicist Karl Braun. Swinton’s system, which placed cathode-ray tubes inside the camera that sent a picture, as well as inside the receiver, was essentially the earliest all-electronic television system.
Russian-born engineer Vladimir Zworykin had worked as Rosing’s assistant before both of them emigrated following the Russian Revolution. In 1923, Zworykin was employed at the Pittsburgh-based manufacturing company Westinghouse when he applied for his first television patent, for the “Iconoscope,” which used cathode ray tubes to transmit images.
In 1929, Zworykin demonstrated his all-electronic television system at a convention of radio engineers. In the audience was David Sarnoff, an executive at Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the nation’s biggest communications company at the time. Born into a poor Jewish family in Minsk, Russia, Sarnoff had come to New York City as a child and began his career as a telegraph operator. He was actually on duty on the night of the Titanic disaster; although he likely didn’t—as he later claimed—coordinate distress messages sent to nearby ships, he did help disseminate the names of the survivors.
Sarnoff was among the earliest to see that television, like radio, had enormous potential as a medium for entertainment as well as communication. Named president of RCA in 1930, he hired Zworykin to develop and improve television technology for the company. Meanwhile, an American inventor named Philo Farnsworth had been working on his own television system. Farnsworth, who grew up on a farm in Utah, reportedly came up with his big idea—a vacuum tube that could dissect images into lines, transmit those lines and turn them back into images—while still a teenager in chemistry class.
In 1927, at the age of 21, Farnsworth completed the prototype of the first working fully electronic TV system, based on this “image dissector.” He soon found himself embroiled in a long legal battle with RCA, which claimed Zworykin’s 1923 patent took priority over Farnsworth’s inventions. The U.S. Patent Office ruled in favor of Farnsworth in 1934, and Sarnoff was eventually forced to pay Farnsworth $1 million in licensing fees. Though viewed by many historians as the true father of television, Farnsworth never earned much more from his invention, and was dogged by patent appeal lawsuits from RCA. He later moved on to other fields of research, including nuclear fission, and died in debt in 1971.
Sarnoff, with his marketing might, introduced the public to television in a big way at the World’s Fair in New York City in 1939. Under the umbrella of RCA’s broadcasting division, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), Sarnoff broadcast the fair’s opening ceremonies, including a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
WATCH: The Machines That Built America, premieres Sunday, July 18 at 9/8c. Watch a preview now.
By the 1950s, television had truly entered the mainstream, with more than half of all American homes owning TV sets by 1955. As the number of consumers expanded, new stations were created and more programs broadcast, and by the end of that decade TV had replaced radio as the main source of home entertainment in the United States. During the 1960 presidential election, the young, handsome John F. Kennedy had a noticeable advantage over his less telegenic opponent, Richard M. Nixon in televised debates, and his victory that fall would bring home for many Americans the transformative impact of the medium.