December 27 looks like a day of gritty determination. One of the biggest, longest-lasting examples dates back nearly 1500 years. In December 27, 537, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was inaugurated. If a building can display gritty determination, this one definitely has. It’s built on a site where at least two previous churches had been, both of which burned. The second one, the Church of Theodosius II, had been torched on purpose by rioters in the Nika Revolt. They were rebelling (or at least trying to) against the current Roman Emperor, Justinian, who had aroused their ire by, among other things, raising taxes. Justinian was unmoved, though, and just a few weeks later ordered work started on a new basilica (something like a multi-use building) that was to be much grander than what it replaced. For that matter, it was intended to be larger and more impressive than anything in Constantinople.
The structure, designed by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, delivered in spades. It was clad in white marble with some features gilded in gold, which alone made it stand out from nearly everything else in the city. The building was also enormous. It took more than ten thousand workers over five and a half years to complete. Its signature feature was its huge dome; bigger than anything else of its day. When earthquakes damaged the dome a few years later, Justinian was still Emperor and had the building restored. At that point the design of the dome was changed to make it stronger — which evidently worked, as the dome is still standing.
The building has been through quite a lot, though, including more earthquakes that damaged some of the smaller domes and collapsed some of the arches that abound throughout the structure. The emperor Basil II had another restoration done in 994. Then in 1203 European Crusaders sacked Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia, stealing all the metal ornamentation and any of the gilding they could reach. The building itself survived, though it gradually declined. In the 1340s more earthquakes exacted additional damage, which another ruler, Andronicus (the Byzantine Emperor) had repairs made again.
Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 and the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Sultan Mehmed II, the Ottoman leader, ordered the building renovated. The renovations included a minaret. More minarets were added over the years, sometimes after earthquakes had collapsed the previous ones. The Hagia Sophia was structurally improved in the late 1500s by the order of Selim II. Then in the mid-1800s a thorough renovation was directed by Sultan Abdulmejid I — that operation occupied over eight hundred workers, and again strengthened the domes and columns. The dilapidated mosaics inside the Hagia Sophia were cleaned and restored, too.
Turkey became a republic in 1923, and its first President, Mustafa Ataturk, converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum. That involved additional renovation work, although it was incomplete, and the building deteriorated slowly over the years until the 1990s when the World Monuments Fund paid for structural improvements and restoration through a set of grants. In 2020, the building was converted back into a mosque, although visitors are allowed when prayers are not in session. The building itself remains as one of the most impressive examples of Byzantine construction anywhere. Gritty determination indeed!
When you think of determination, though, people come to mind more often than buildings. It was December 27, 1831 that Charles Darwin set sail aboard the HMS Beagle on the voyage he described in his book The Voyage of the Beagle. As for determination, it was an expedition that was planned to last two years, but ended up taking almost five. Darwin was present on the ship as a naturalist, and the captain, Robert FitzRoy, wanted Darwin to collect specimens of practically everything (including rocks) and investigate the geology as well as the plants and animals of the lands they visited. Darwin made the voyage as a private citizen — in fact, he (well, actually his father) had to pay for his passage. The advantage to that, though, was that anything he collected was owned by him, not the navy. He certainly needed to rely on determination throughout the trip, as he tended to get seasick and didn’t really have the expertise to analyze many of the types of samples he was collecting. In many cases he simply took careful notes about where and when he obtained a sample, and shipped them back to England to be examined by experts.
Darwin began the voyage when he was still a student; in 1831 he was only in his early twenties. Our image of him tends to be quite different; most of the pictures we’ve seen show him in middle age or later. His most famous work, On the Origin of Species, wasn’t published until 1859, decades after his voyage. That he managed to complete it at all is another good example of our December 27 theme: determination.
His work had to include casting horoscopes.
By the time he returned home, though, he was something of a celebrity in scientific circles thanks to the notes and samples he had sent back to England. He had the family money to become a “gentleman scientist”, and spent years working on various studies and publications (he was a prolific writer) and struggling with health problems. Modern doctors speculate that the symptoms he described suggest he may have suffered from Chagas disease, a cardiac illness caused by a parasite. It eventually killed him.
Another scientific luminary, Joannes Kepler, was born on December 27, 1571. He was an astronomer in the days before there really was such a science — in fact, when he became the “imperial mathematician” to Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, a great deal of his work had to be dedicated to casting horoscopes to predict the future. Kepler didn’t think much of astrology, but that was the job, and he was (ahem) determined to do it. His astronomical work proceeded as well. His observations and theories about planetary motion, which he published in his books Astronomia nova, Harmonice Mundi, and Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae, were major influences for Isaac Newton in formulating the theory of gravitation.
Another December 27 birthday, in 1822, is Louis Pasteur, who discovered vaccination and the eponymous process of pasteurization. He laid the foundation for the science of bacteriology, and his research involved patient experimentation into the conditions and situations in which bacteria are present, spread, and can be eliminated. One of the prevalent notions of the day was the “spontaneous generation” theory, which held that living creatures could form out of inert substances. If that were true, it wouldn’t matter how careful you were storing your food; bacteria could contaminate it out of nowhere. Pasteur proved that wasn’t the case, and provided the basis not just of modern bacteriology but for much of our food preservation techniques too.
Building foundations always calls for determination, whether you’re working on a basilica, at science, or on new types of ships. It was December 27, 1922, that a completely different kind of naval vessel was commissioned for the first time. The ship was the Hōshō, the Japanese aircraft carrier that was the first of its kind anywhere. It was pretty small compared to later versions of aircraft carriers — just 552 feet long and 59 feet wide. On the other hand, the airplanes it carried were also pretty small and slow compared to what came later. The idea of an aircraft carrier wasn’t limited to Japan; the British were also working on an aircraft carrier at the same time, the HMS Hermes. But the Hōshō was finished first.
It took quite some experimentation to find the best way to “catch” the airplanes as they landed on deck — fifteen different systems were tried before a set of wires was chosen. Unlike modern carriers, though, the wires didn’t lay across the deck to stop the planes’ forward motion. The airplanes (or “airplanes”) of the day were slow, but very light, so they were apt to get blown sideways off the ship. The wires, consequently, were laid longitudinally along the deck, and held the planes from moving sideways, not front or back.
Unison movements of the military are nothing compared with a highly skilled chorus line.
The Hōshō was involved in several military conflicts, including the “Shanghai Incident” of 1932, which involved Japan and China, the Sino-Japanese War of 1937, and she played a small role in the early days of World War II. But by the 1940s the ship’s small size meant the airplanes she carried were old and obsolete, and by about 1942 the Hōshō was just used as a training ship.
Military training usually involves, in part, large groups learning to move in unison, whether marching or performing other controlled actions. But the unison movements of the military are nothing compared with a highly skilled chorus line like the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall in New York. The Radio City Music Hall, in fact, opened on December 27, 1932. It just missed the opportunity to present the first Radio City Christmas Spectacular, the annual show that originated the following year, 1933. Radio City did open with a show, though. It was a huge extravaganza featuring loads of acts — sometimes two or three performing simultaneously on the enormous stage — and it lasted six hours, from 8pm to 2am. It was, to put it bluntly, a flop. Nevertheless, through sheer determination, Radio City adapted, creating what became their signature format of a feature film along with a (much shorter) stage show featuring the Rockettes. By the way, the Rockettes didn’t debut at Radio City. They had already been performing at the Roxy Theatre as the “Roxyettes” when the Radio City Music Hall opened and they moved to the new venue.
Radio City stayed busy for decades after that, but closed for five days in 1965 for an unheard-of event: its first full cleaning. The place had been swept and vacuumed, of course, but not much more than that for more than 30 years. The ceiling was repainted, the curtains were replaced (for the first time), and the whole place was freshened up. Since then the Music Hall has sort of lurched from one problem to the next. Its closure and bankruptcy were announced several times, only to be staved off at the last minute every time, maybe thanks to gritty determination in action! It was made a New York City landmark in 1978, partially to protect it, and it was included later that year on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s still going today, in spite of pandemic-related closures and restrictions. At this point there’s even a plan to add a rooftop terrace. Just goes to show that you can always add on as long as you were determined enough at the outset to create a solid foundation.