August 7, 2007

UFO Sighted in Basel Switzerland

At dawn on August 7th, 1566, UFO's were sighted over Basel, Switzerland.

A contemporary report by Samuel Coccius, in the city's gazette, read:

  • At the time when the sun rose, one saw many large black balls which moved at high speed in the air towards the sun, then made half-turns, banging one against the others as if they were fighting a battle out a combat, a great number of them became red and igneous, thereafter they were consumed and died out.

Illustration: a 16th century woodcut illustrating the event, public domain.

August 5, 2007

The First Electric Traffic Light

The first electric traffic light was installed in Cleveland Ohio, at the intersection of Euclid and East 105th Street on August 5th, 1914. It employed red and green lights and "stop" and "move" directives. It was manually controlled, and the design was patented by James Hoge.

Was it the first traffic light? Well, that depends on what aspects you're considering. As early as 1868, a "traffic semaphore" was installed in London to control horse-drawn traffic and protect pedestrians near the British House of Commons. This device was manually operated and featured red and green lights (a gas lamp with red and green lenses) and signs directing the traffic.

The first automated street control device was patented by Earnest Sirrine of Chicago which used the non-illuminated words "stop" and "go".

A device using red and green electric lights was invented by Lester Wire of Salt Lake City in 1910, but he did not apply for a patent.

The red-amber-green pattern that is so familiar to us today was adopted from the color system used by the railroads, and made its appearance in Detroit in 1920. William Potts, a Detroit policeman, was the inventor of the (unpatented) device, which he constructed from a $37 sign flasher. After his retirement from the police force, Potts became an analyst for the Automobile Club of Michigan.

Photo Credit: Davide Guglielmo,

August 4, 2007

Dom Perignon Invents Champagne

"Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!"

Dom Perignon is credited with having exclaimed this in 1693, when he discovered the effervescent beverage we now know as champagne. It's a nice story, but almost certainly untrue.

Wines from the Champagne region of France had been well-known since early medieval times, but there is no evidence that the area was the first to develop sparkling wines. There were more likely developed in either England or Russia.

England would seem to have a particularly strong claim for the honor, due to two important advantages in technology. First, England had developed a stronger bottle, which could bear up to the pressures created by the second fermentation of the wine inside the bottle. The reason English glass was stronger was due to the use of coal fires by English glassmakers, instead of the charcoal fires of the French artisans. (The English King James I had prohibited the use of charcoal burning in order to preserve the nation's forests for shipbuilding.) Secondly, English vintners rediscovered the use of corks -- they had been used by the ancient Romans, but the practice had fallen out of use -- about 130 years before the French did. French winemakers were still using wooden bungs wrapped in hemp, which could not hold up anywhere near as well to the internal pressure of the fermenting wine.

Dom Perignon was a real person, however. He was a Benedictine monk who served as the cellar master for the Abbey of Hautvillers near the town of Epernay, France. He had actually been given the charge of reducing the refermentation within the wine bottles (which gives champagne its characteristic effervescence) -- exploding bottles were both a physical and economic danger, and could destroy as much as 90% of a wine cellar's stock if not checked.

Perignon introduced important reforms to the Abbey's winemaking process, many of which are still part of the standard of champagne making today, including the blend of grapes, pruning and harvesting standards, and a curtailing of the use of any foreign substances. His efforts must have been appreciated -- he was buried in a section of the Abbey that was normally reserved only for abbots.

Photo Credit: M. MacKenzie,

August 3, 2007

First Known Use of a Letter Closed With Sealing Wax

On this date in 1554, Gerrard Herman, in England, wrote a letter to Philip Francis von Daun of Germany. What is unusual about this letter is that it contains the earliest known use of sealing wax to close a letter.

Sealing wax had been around for a long time. Prior to the 16th century, however, it had been used as a means to prove the authenticity of a document -- a signature, in a manner of speaking. The inclusion of a government seal on a document, for example, was proof that the document was sanctioned by the reigning monarch, for who else would have access to the Great Seal? On a more personal level, a personal seal or signet ring could prove that a letter did indeed come from the person who was purported to have written it. Privacy was not the issue.

Sealing wax goes back at least as far as the Old Testament, where Jezabel is said to have stolen Ahab's seal in order to counterfeit documents. Edward the Confessor of England ordered the creation of the first Great Seal of England. State seals were often handed down from monarch to monarch, to emphasize the legitimacy of the reign, but individual's seals were commonly destroyed when the owner died (which is why so few of the truly old ones exist today.)

What was sealing wax made of? Well, only the very earliest medieval sealing waxes actually contained wax -- bee's wax, to be specific, along with "Venice turpentine", a resin extracted from the European larch tree. The very earliest were uncolored, although later they were sometimes colored with vermilion, a reddish-orange pigment otherwise known as cinnabar or mercuric sulfide. By the 16th century, trade with the Indies had led to a better class of ingredients -- normally shellac, turpentine, resin, chalk or plaster, and a coloring agent. The color was usually red (vermilion or red lead), but later black was used also (usually lamp black).

By at least 1554, when Herr von Daun received his letter from England, sealing wax was also being used to protect the confidentiality of the letter. Was this the earliest such use? Almost certainly not, although we can never be certain just when it was first use. The opening of the letter normally destroys the seal; after all, that was the whole point.

Photo Credit: Friman, Wikimedia Commons, released by creator into the Public Domain