This Day in History – May 6th

Desc: View of Exposition Universelle (Universal Exhibition), Paris, France, 1889, engraving ¥ Credit: [ The Art Archive / MusŽe Carnavalet Paris / Dagli Orti ] ¥ Ref: AA371361

1889 – On the first day of the Exposition Universelle in Paris, the Eiffel Tower is officially opened to the public – In France in the mid-1880s, event planners and engineers were getting excited thinking about all of the ways they would showcase Paris to the world during the Exposition Universelle in 1889, a world’s fair that would also commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution. One such engineer was Gustave Eiffel, whose employees had dreamt up what they thought would be a fitting centrepiece for the fair: a wrought iron lattice tower that would be the tallest man-made structure in the world, to symbolize the present century of industry and science. Eiffel signed a contract to build the tower in January 1887. When word got out, many French artists protested, calling the proposed structure “useless and monstrous” and comparing it to a “gigantic black smokestack.” The main structural work was completed in March 1889, safely in time for the opening of the fair, which took place on this date in 1889. The tower served as the fair’s entrance arch, through which about 28 million visitors passed, including such historical figures as the future King Edward VII and his wife, Princess Alexandra, authour Henry James, artist Edvard Munch, and inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Attractions at the fair included Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” with Annie Oakley, the Imperial Diamond, and a reconstruction of the Bastille prison fortress, but decorated in fleur-de-lys and used as a ballroom. The Eiffel Tower remained the world’s tallest man-made structure from its construction until the Chrysler Building in New York City surpassed it in 1930. It is still one of the world’s most famous attractions; almost seven million people paid the Eiffel Tower a visit last year.

Roger Bannister about to cross the tape at the end of his record breaking mile run at Iffley Road, Oxford. He was the first person to run the mile in under four minutes, with a time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.   (Photo by Norman Potter/Central Press/Getty Images)
Roger Bannister about to cross the tape at the end of his record breaking mile run at Iffley Road, Oxford. He was the first person to run the mile in under four minutes, with a time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. (Photo by Norman Potter/Central Press/Getty Images)

1954 – Roger Bannister becomes the first person to run a mile in under four minutes – It was on this date in 1954 that British medical student and middle-distance runner Roger Bannister, then 25 years old, became the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes. His time was three minutes and 59.4 seconds. The feat occurred at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, England and was viewed by about 3,000 spectators. Bannister, who had once been president of Oxford’s Amateur Athletic Association, was running for his old school during their annual match. He accomplished the time with the help of two other runners, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, who helped him set the pace. When the announcer declared “The time was three…” the crowd broke out in raucous cheers. Australian athlete John Landy had been another star athlete trying to eclipse the four-minute mark at the time, and the two were seen as rivals, however it was Bannister who edged out Landy in setting the record. Landy improved on Bannister’s time 46 days later, running a time of three minutes and 57.9 seconds on the same track, but Bannister will always be remembered as the record-breaker. At the Empire Games in Vancouver Aug. 7, 1954, the two famously took part in the “Miracle Mile” race with other athletes from Canada, New Zealand and England. Landy led for three-quarters of the competition, before being passed and beaten by Bannister in the final leg. Both men were under four minutes. Canadian Rich Ferguson placed a distant third. The current record holder for the fastest mile is Moroccan Olympian Hicham El Guerrouj, who ran a time of three minutes and 43.13 seconds in Rome, Italy, on July 7, 1999. Bannister went on to become a neurologist, and was knighted in 1975. Now retired, he celebrated his 87th birthday in March.

1986 – 10 days after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, three workers offer up their lives to prevent a further explosion – Before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, there was only one event in history classified as a “level 7” on the International Nuclear Event Scale. That event took place in the city of Pripyat in what is now Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, on April 26, 1986. An explosion and fire at the nuclear plant released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of the western USSR and Europe. During the accident, 31 people died, and many more in the region were later diagnosed with cancer or born with deformities. The USSR immediately went into disaster containment mode, thousands were evacuated and ultimately around 500,000 workers were involved in preventing a greater catastrophe. Three men in particular – Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov, and Boris Baranov – are remembered for the actions they took, on this date 30 years ago, to prevent a second massive explosion. Ten days after the initial explosion, a basement below one of the plant’s reactor cores, which was in meltdown, had become flooded with radioactive water. If the substance in the core – corium, a sort of molten concrete lava – leaked out and came into contact with the water, it would have set off a series of steam explosions that could have spread radioactive contamination farther than the initial disaster, endangering the lives of millions. The water would need to be let out, using valves located in the flooded basement. So, Ananenko, a plant engineer who knew where the valves were located, and the two others donned thick wet suits and plunged into the radioactive water. They were successful in their mission of draining the basement, however they all died of radiation poisoning within weeks. They, like those others who died at Chernobyl, were buried in lead coffins with the lids soldered shut.

1994 – Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Mitterand open the Channel Tunnel, or “Chunnel” – On Dec. 1, 1990, a project that had been considered, belittled, started and stopped for almost 200 years, finally reached a crucial milestone. Or, you might say, a milestone was smashed. After eight years of work, 10 construction workers’ deaths and cost overruns in the billions of pounds, on one side of a narrow rocky barrier stood Englishman Graham Fag; on the other, Phillipe Cozette of France. Both drilled away with jackhammers until the wall between them crumbled, linking the service tunnels that had been dug originating in England and France under the English Channel. The two men joyously shook hands as soon as they saw one another. Though an underground tunnel linking Britain to the rest of Europe had been first proposed in 1802, the Channel Tunnel, or “Chunnel” wasn’t officially opened until this date in 1994, when Queen Elizabeth II rode a passenger train through the tunnel and met France’s president Francois Mitterand, who had travelled from Paris, in Calais, France. Their trains met nose-to-nose. The tunnel, the first land link between Europe and Britain since the last Ice Age about 8,000 years ago, is 50.5 km in length and at its lowest point is 75 m deep. Inside, high-speed Eurostar passenger trains carry riders at 160 km/h, while the Eurotunnel Shuttle carries automobiles and other private vehicles, and international freight trains also carry goods back and forth.

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