Remember a couple days ago I mentioned the launch of the HMS Warrior in 1860 — the ship that changed long-standing naval battle tactics? If they had only delayed the launch for two days, it would have occurred on the 358th anniversary of the day those very tactics were first used. It was in the First Battle of Cannanore in India in 1501. The battle pitted a Portuguese fleet trying to return home against a much larger number of Indian ships trying to blockade the Portuguese armada inside the harbor. In prior naval battles the idea was to have more soldiers on your ships, board the enemy ships, and fight them hand to hand. But in Cannanore, admiral João da Nova reasoned that although his fleet was badly outnumbered, he had the advantage of superior weaponry. So he navigated his ships into what would come to be called a “line of battle” and relied on cannons and his crews’ ability to aim and reload. The Portuguese forces prevailed, ushering in centuries of similar naval tactics.
Ships also played a role in a December 31 in 1687. The Huguenots were a Protestant religious group that formed in France somewhere around the late 1400s or early 1500s. By the mid-1500s they were being persecuted by the Catholic majority. The persecution continued in spite of the 1598 Edict of Nantes, an order from King Henry IV. That would be the Henry IV of France, not the Holy Roman Emperor of 1050, the Henry IV who was King of England in the late 1300s, or the numerous other Henry IVs who have been dukes, princes, counts, and other nobility around Europe for the past thousand years or more. Anyway, the Edict of Nantes granted the Huguenots rights more or less equal to everyone else’s in France, and attempted to separate religious differences from social unity. It was an early foray into the idea of freedom of religion, and it was intended to end the French Wars of Religion that had been going on for decades.
The Edict didn’t have its hoped-for effect, and in 1685 Henry IV’s grandson, Louis XIV, tossed it in the bin, revoking it with his Edict of Fontainebleau. The Huguenots could see what was coming next, but they were also aware that various Protestant denominations were welcome in England and Dutch colonies. So on December 31, 1687, the first of many boarded ships to emigrate to the new Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. Once there they established the first vineyards in that part of the world. So if you happen to enjoy a glass of wine from South Africa, it’s partly due to December 31 and the Huguenots.
The Island of the Missing Day
There’s probably going to be a glass of wine or two enjoyed tonight at New Year’s Eve parties around the world. It’s probably the most widely celebrated international holidays of all. Parties all around the world continue until at least midnight, which marks the beginning of a new year. The Line Islands of the Republic of Kirabati are about the first to see in the New Year, since they’re so close to the International Date Line in the Pacific. The New Year progresses around the world, time zone by time zone, and about the last ones to mark the change are in Samoa.
The first 100% solar-powered nation on Earth.
There’s an interesting story about Samoa and the New Year. Up until 2011 Samoa had been one of the first parts of the world to ring in the New Year. But that year they changed their time zone (which resulted in the International Date Line moving) so they shifted from the beginning of the global day to its end. And that had a strange effect: in 2011, there was no December 30 in Samoa — they went directly from the 29th to the 31st. Exactly the same thing happened, at the same time, in Tokelau, another group of Pacific islands. And don’t forget Kiribati; they swapped time zones and dates in 1994, but the day they skipped was…today! December 31, 1994, never happened there. One of the time zone swappers, Tokelau, has another claim to fame: it’s the first 100% solar-powered nation on Earth.
If we’re talking about Sun energy and Earth, we’ve already covered two of our three most important astronomical objects. The other, of course, is the Moon. And December 31 has some lunar events to boast about too. In 2009, December 31 featured a blue moon. That’s an extra full moon within a single season. Blue moons can occur zero, one, or two times in a given year. But in 2009 there was a double feature: it was also a total lunar eclipse. The combination of the two gave us this view:
The next time there’s a combination of a blue moon and a total lunar eclipse on New Year’s Eve will be December 31, 2028. But it won’t be visible everywhere; you’ll have to be in the right time zone.
We’re not done with the Moon yet, though. It was December 31, 2011 that the the first of two Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory satellites entered orbit — lunar orbit. There were two satellites on the mission, and, it being a NASA effort, they of course had an acronym: GRAIL. GRAIL A and B orbited the moon for more than a year mapping gravity fields by making precise measurements of minute differences in the distance between them, and between the Moon and Earth.
They say Guinness is Good For You. Of course, it’s Guinness saying that…
One of the best times and places discuss the gravity of that and other situations is with your friends over, say, a pint of Guinness. And wouldn’t you know, December 31 plays a part in the story of Guinness too. The Guinness brewery was founded by Arthur Guinness, who started brewing in 1759. His brews were a success, and it was December 31, 1759 that he signed a lease on a four-acre plot including an idle brewery. The annual rent was £45, which was probably reasonable for the time. But the Guinness brewery — at least that original one — isn’t going to have to relocate for a while yet; the lease Arthur Guinness signed doesn’t expire for nine thousand years. The business looks pretty solid so far, at least; they can still afford that £45 per year.
Although you’d think there wouldn’t be much business or administration done on December 31, evidently many government offices around the world have generally been open today. Baltimore, Maryland — where the first post office system in the US was established — was incorporated on December 31, 1796. There were already plenty of people living there; the incorporation was basically a legal documentation process. On another December 31, in 1999, another legal documentation process took place: the US handed over the Panama Canal to Panama after the lease had expired. I wonder if anybody grumbled about not having one lasting 9,000 years?
December 31 is also the anniversary of the day that the last remaining USSR institutions finally closed down — five days after the Soviet Union was officially dissolved (remember the December 26 episode?). Something else sort of dissolved on December 31, this time in 1983. It was the AT&T Bell System corporation, and the US Justice Department split it into 8 separate companies. Just to show that trying to do anything with corporations is like nailing jelly to a tree, four of the 8 companies have been reacquired by none other than AT&T, three others are now Verizon, and the only other one is now called “CenturyLink.” And speaking of corporations, it was December 31 all the way back in 1955 that one of the infernal things became the first to make over $1 billion in a year. It was General Motors — you remember them, that’s the car company that today is worth less than one one-hundredth of Tesla.
But by far the leading event in December 31 history happened in 1853 in London. It was just a couple years after the Great Exhibition of 1851, and in the wake of that, the Crystal Palace exhibition hall was going to be relocated to a park. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was a sculptor, primarily of subjects in nature, and he was selected to create life-sized models of dinosaurs (which were a new fad at the time) to be placed in and around the new location for the Crystal Palace. As for that December 31, 1853 event? It was a dinner party, hosted inside the iguanadon! Happy New Year!