March 1

1870, 1896


Pennsylvania became the first state to abolish slavery, today in 1870.

An important date for American almanacs, I have no doubt; but need to point out that, not even needing a Civil War to achieve it, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in the British Parliament in July 1833, applicable in most British colonies (America one of the obvious exceptions, though not the only one), freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa as well as a small number in Canada. It received Royal Assent on August 28th, 1833, and took effect on August 1st, 1834. And what's more, unlike most American states to this day - it was fully implemented.


Radioactivity discovered, apparently by somebody named Henri Becquerel, today in 1896.

I say "apparently", and not only because, let's be honest, had you ever heard of Henri Becquerel until I mentioned him? Marie Curie, surely, is the name attached; she won the Nobel prize for it in 1903 (no, that can't be right, she won the Nobel prize for discovering Polonium and Radium in 1911... no, you can't be serious... two Nobel prizes... that's ridiculous... for anyone, but especially... a woman), and it was she who coined the term. There was also Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, who discovered x-rays back in 1895 (see November 8), and Monsieur Curie may also have played a minor role, as men generally do, behind or alongside his innately superior spouse (that's the Becq in the middle of the pic, with Polonium Curie on the left and Radium Curie on the right).

Becquerel shared the first of those two prizes with the Curies, his contribution not just the original discovery, but also the documented proof that Roentgen's x-rays were actually rather different from radioactivity. He would probably have won the second time as well, but sadly he died in 1908 (aged just 56, probably from cancer caused by... you can fill in the rest yourself...), before the work on Polonium and Radium was finished.

And then, because I love these things so much, the tale of how he made this world-changing discovery - by pure chance, consequent upon pure error. This is how it gets told in the Chemistry text-book my AP students used in Baltimore:

Henri Becquerel learned of Roentgen's discovery of x-rays through the fluorescence that some materials produce. Using a method similar to that of Roentgen, Becquerel surrounded several photographic plates with black paper and florescent salts. With the intention of further advancing the study of x-rays, Becquerel intended to place the concealed photographic paper in the sunlight and observe what transpired. Unfortunately, he had to delay his experiment because the skies over Paris were overcast. He placed the wrapped plates into a dark desk drawer. After a few days Becquerel returned to his experiment unwrapping the photographic paper and developing it, expecting only a light imprint from the salts. Instead, the salts left very distinct outlines in the photographic paper suggesting that the salts, regardless of lacking an energy source, continually fluoresced. What Becquerel had discovered was radioactivity.
A bit like going out in search of India, and assuming you must have got there, only to discover that you've discovered America instead.

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