This Day in History – August 19th

1839 – France presents Louis Daguerre’s invention, daguerreotype photography, as a free gift to the world – Born in France in 1787, Louis Daguerre grew up as an apprentice learning about cutting edge practices in art and architecture. Though he made important contributions to theatre, inventing the diorama theatre, which made us of mirrors and light to set the scene, he is best remembered for his contribution to photography, the daguerreotype, an early photographic process that bears his name. In 1829, Daguerre began working with French inventor Nicéphore Niépce, who is credited with taking the world’s oldest surviving camera photograph in the mid 1820s. Niépce died in 1833, but Daguerre carried on his work, developing the photographic process and experimenting with other light-sensitive materials including silver salts and iodine crystals. Some downsides of daguerreotypes compared to our photography today include that Daguerre’s exposure process took a much longer time than the cameras most of us grew up with in the 20th century – several minutes or more – and that, since the images were displayed on sheets of polished, silver-plated copper, they could only be reproduced by taking a picture of a previous image. But still, his resulting portrait and landscape images caused a sensation when they were first shown in 1835. Daguerre kept his process secret until, in 1839 at a joint meeting of the French academies of Sciences and the Fine Arts, the process was announced. Rather than patenting his invention, as was the usual way for inventors to make a profit, Daguerre made an arrangement with the French government that it would acquire the rights to the daguerreotype process in exchange for a lifetime pension for he and his family. France presented the daguerreotype process and detailed instructions on how it was done “free to the world” as a gift on this date in 1839. Other inventors, such as Henry Fox Talbot, kept up experimenting with photography, introducing photos printed on paper and photos that could easily be copied in the years that followed. Daguerre died in 1851 and, by 1860, few photographers were still using his methods, but his legacy was not forgotten. Today, he is one of 72 French scientists, engineers and mathematicians to have their names engraved on the Eiffel Tower.

1942 – Allied troops, including 5,000 Canadians, launch an unsuccessful raid on Nazi-controlled Dieppe, France – Nazi Germany held a firm grip over much of Western Europe in 1942. Its advanced Luftwaffe air force refused to be lured out over the sea where British fighters would have an advantage, instead, the German pilots would only fight over land, where Allied planes would be outnumbered and low on fuel. In the Soviet Union, though Germany’s initial offensive had been beaten back, Stalin was desperate for his western Alllies to attack, so as to divert some of the German forces that were advancing towards Stalingrad in southwestern Russia. As a way to address both of these concerns, Allied authorities began planning Operation Jubilee, an amphibious attack on the German-occupied French port of Dieppe, less than 200 km southeast of London. The raid would serve as a test to gauge if it would be possible to hold ground on the French coast while also, hopefully, putting some German planes in the English Channel. Fearing heavy bombardment might kill French civilians in the area, the Allies refrained from bombing the area by air or by sea. This proved to be one of the main reasons for the failure of the Dieppe Raid, which took place on this date in 1942. Of the over 6,000 Allied troops who made it ashore, over 3,000 were killed, captured or injured. Among the Canadian casualties were 907 killed, 586 wounded and 1,946 captured. Many Canadians of the Royal Regiment of Canada were mowed down on the shore by German machine guns after finding themselves pinned against a tall, barbed wire covered seawall. All 27 of the tanks that made it to shore were destroyed. Allied troops were pulled back after just nine hours of fighting in what was, at the time, the war’s largest operation to include the army, navy and air force. It’s been said that the only consolation of Dieppe was that it provided an important lesson on what to do when landing on hostile beaches. It was a lesson that proved useful almost two years later, on June 6, 1944. Speaking about the unsuccessful raid, British Fleet Admiral Lord Mountbatten said “For every soldier who died at Dieppe, 10 were saved on D-Day.”

1960 – In Moscow, captured American U-2 pilot Gary Powers is sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage – Some of the real life events that inspired the 2015 Steven Spielberg drama “Bridge of Spies” took place at the height of the Cold War on this date in 1960. Gary Powers was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force before being recruited by the CIA in 1956. In May of that year, he began training on flying the high-tech U-2 spy planes. As a U-2 pilot, Powers was expected to fly espionage missions at altitudes of over 70,000 feet – safely above Soviet air defences – photographing and gathering information about Soviet military installations. On May 1, 1960, Powers took off from a military base in Pakistan for a mission over central Russia. His route would take him deeper into Russia than any American pilot had gone before. Powers was shot down by a state-of-the-art Soviet surface-to-air missile at around 68,000 feet near the city of Sverdlovsk. In such a situation, Powers was expected to set off a self-destruct sequence so the Russians wouldn’t be able to analyze the U-2. As a spy, he was also expected to commit suicide using poison he had been issued. Powers managed to do neither. He was captured shortly after parachuting to the ground and taken to prison in Moscow. The United States immediately claimed that a weather plane had strayed off course, however as the wreckage of the U-2 was recovered by the Russians this was known to be false, and Powers was vigourously interrogated for any confidential information he might have. His trial for espionage began on Aug. 17, 1960 and, on this date two days later he was convicted of espionage. He was sentenced to 10 years confinement, three of which would be in prison, while the other seven would be in a labour camp. He wound up serving just under two years as, on Feb. 10, 1962 Powers was returned into United States hands, along with American student Frederic Pryor, in a “spy swap” in Berlin. In exchange, Russia received Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher, also known as Rudolf Abel, who had been captured by the FBI in 1957. British actor Mark Rylance won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Abel in “Bridge of Spies.”

1991 – Communists fearful about the breakup of the Soviet Union stage a short-lived coup in Moscow – On this date in 1991, news coming out of Russia proclaimed that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had been overthrown after a coup by Communist hardliners. At the time, Gorbachev was placed under house arrest at his holiday home in Crimea. Taking over the airwaves, those behind the coup began broadcasting news that Gorbachev was unfit to fulfill his duties due to health reasons, and then began denouncing his policies. The eight men behind the plot, including leaders in the army, KGB and police, said that they were saving the country from a “national catastrophe.” Since he had taken power in 1985, Gorbachev had been focused on economic reform and transparency (perestroika and glasnost). By 1991, there was fear from some that his policies would lead to more republics in eastern Europe seceding from the Soviet Union, as Georgia and the Baltic States did. In early 1991 in Latvia and Lithuania, pro-Soviet forces attempted to overthrow the national governments. Then, on this date in 1991, Russian communists did the same, spurred on by the scheduled Aug. 20 signing of a new treaty that would make the Soviet Union a federation of independent republics. The so-called State Committee of the State of Emergency, or GKChP, leaped into action, banning most newspapers and sending out tanks to patrol the streets of Moscow. Despite this, thousands of people came out to demonstrate against the takeover, including the Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin described the coup as a “new reign of terror” and called for civil resistance against it. Yeltsin nor any other opposition leaders were arrested by the organizers of the coup – a definite oversight. Soon, the army turned against the new regime and less than three days after the coup, which has become known as the August Putsch, the leaders of the uprising were attempting to flee Russia. Seven of the eight leaders were arrested while the eighth committed suicide. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had been replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States.

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