Mental Floss

This Weekend in History

Chris Higgins
YouTube / British Pathé
YouTube / British Pathé / YouTube / British Pathé

What happened this weekend in decades past? The telegraph was patented, the first Ferris wheel was ridden, LP records were released, and more. Read on!

1840 – Samuel Morse Patents Telegraph

On June 20, 1840, Samuel Morse was granted the patent for the telegraph. Entitled "Improvement in the Mode of Communicating Information by Signals, by the Application of Electro-Magnetism," the patent included the first version of Morse code, which at first only included numbers. The idea was that telegraph operators would look up numerical codes and match them to words; this was quickly modified by Morse's assistant Alfred Vail, who created the alphanumeric system of Morse code, which is still used today.

Although the first message sent via Morse's telegraph was rather pedestrian, the most famous early telegraph message was "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT," sent to inaugurate the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line.

1893 - The First Ferris Wheel

The Ferris wheel at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago // Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

On June 21, 1893, Americans got a taste of the first Ferris wheel. Demonstrated at Chicago's Columbian Exposition, the invention of George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. delighted visitors, who could see incredible views from its 264-foot peak height.

1948 - The First Commercial LP Record

Prior to June 21, 1948, the state of the art in recorded sound for consumers was the 78 RPM phonograph record. There were plenty of problems with 78s, but the biggest was a play time of a little under five minutes per side (!). That meant that if you wanted a bunch of songs, you had a bunch of records, typically sold in a box, called a "record album."

Columbia Records introduced the Long Play (LP) record at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. The LP could run for 20 minutes a side (in its first version), while retaining high musical fidelity. This eventually led to what we now call simply an "album," a single disc containing a collection of songs arranged in order on the A and B sides.

1963 - Agreement to Create "Red Telephone" Between United States & Soviet Union

On June 20, 1963, the "Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link" was agreed upon, though it wasn't installed until August 30. You'd know it better as the "red telephone" or simply the "hotline" linking the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union. It was installed after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the two nations came perilously close to a catastrophic nuclear war, in part because of slow communication via diplomatic telegram.

Contrary to popular belief, the red telephone is not red, and is not a telephone. Initially it was an encrypted teletype machine, then moved to a satellite system, then a fax system, and finally email.

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick's film Dr. Strangelove (based on the novel Red Alert) depicted a form of telephone hotline between the nations. If you've seen the film, you'll understand why the real red telephone was not a voice communication device; chatting with a rival global superpower can get tricky in a hurry.

1993 - Fermat's Last Theorem Proven (Mostly)

On June 21, 1993, English mathematician Andrew Wiles began a multi-day event in which he demonstrated his proof for Fermat's last theorem. Soon, the proof was found to be incomplete in some cases, so Wiles went back to the drawing board, working with Richard Taylor, and by late 1994 had a complete proof, which was fully vetted and published by 1995.

Fermat's Last Theorem was a conjecture written by Pierre de Fermat in 1637 in the margin of the book Arithmetica. This problem was so complex, it took more than 350 years to (re)discover the proof. For more details, check out the video above or check out this explanatory video.