Hernán Cortés was 34 years old when he led the Spanish Conquistador invasion of Mexico. The initial landing took place on the Yucatan Peninsula, in what was then Maya territory. Cortés’ force was only 500 strong, but they were armed with muskets and cannons, as compared to the arrows and spears used by their opponents.
Although initially peaceful, Cortés’ mission was one of conquest, and would eventually result in the destruction of the Aztec nation and its tributaries, and the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Charles Mason, a fellow of the Royal Society and noted astronomer, and his sometime assistant, land surveyor and amateur astronomer, Jeremiah Dixon, were hired by certain wealthy interests in what was then the British colony of America to conclude a number of difficult boundary disputes in the young colonies.
Landing in Philedelphia in 1763, Mason and Dixon spent the next four years painstakingly measuring and fixing the proper boundaries between the various colonies, ceasing their work on October 18, 1867. (A team of their subordinates completed the survey in 1787.)
The lines they laid down, although resurveyed since that time, formed the basic lines of the borders between the colonies (and later the states) of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Later, as these states took different sides in the Civil War, the line came to symbolise the political and cultural border between the southern and northern states.
An advance party for the First Fleet to colonise Australia entered Botany Bay on this day. The Governor of the colony, Arthur Phillip, sailed the armed tender Supply into the bay, and weighed anchor. Two days later, they were joined by the other ships of the Fleet. However, the poor quality of the soil led to the entire fleet decamping, and landing instead in Port Jackson 8 days later, at what was named Sydney Cove by the Governor.
The French explorer La Perouse entered Botany Bay on the same day, January 26, too late to claim the land for France. The British penal colony was, of course, never heard from again.
Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were a pair of English astronomers who were hired by Thomas Penn and Frederick Calvert, respectively the proprietors of Pennsylvania and Maryland, to resolve a boundary dispute between the two colonies in 1763. The two had worked together for two years before that, Dixon serving as Mason’s assistant.
The survey took three years to complete – and the pair remained in America for another two years after that, being admitted to the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge, in 1768, before they left American in the same way they had entered it: via Philadelphia.
Nat Tuner was a black slave in Virginia who believed he was divinely inspired to lead his people to freedom. The rebellion he led in 1831 is the single largest slave rebellion in the history of the United States of America, with a death toll of at least 160 people (100 of them black, including Turner himself, 60 of them white).
The rebellion was a bloody and vengeful affair on both sides, but in the end, Turner’s slaves – for the most part lacking horses and firearms – had little chance against the white establishment. Many of them were killed in the fighting, and the few surviving ringleaders were tried and hung – by people who believed they were divinely inspired to deny them their freedom.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s design for the SS Great Western, which he designed (with some assistance from Thomas Guppy and other members of the Great Western Steamship Company) for the company whose name it bore, was a revolutionary design, and a breakthrough in ship construction. Brunel’s key insight was that the carrying capacity of a ship increases as the cube of its dimensions, whilst the water resistance only increases as the square of its dimensions – which meant that a larger ship was disproportionately more effective in speed and fuel economy.
The SS Great Western would become the model for all successful paddle steamships in the Atlantic, and its owners were able to turn a profit from it even though it was the only ship they ran for several years. It was later sold off after the dissolution of the company, passing through various hands and seeing service as a troopship during the Crimean War. It was broken up for salvage in 1856.
The Thames Tunnel, connecting Rotherthithe and Wapping, was the first of its kind – the only tunnel up to that point to have been excavated beneath a navigable river. Construction on it began in 1925, by Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The two used a new invention created by the older Brunel and his associate Thomas Cochrane, called a tunneling shield. The shield’s purpose is to prevent mud, water or other liquids from flooding the tunnel.
Even with this shield, the tunnelling took years – by the time it finally opened to the public in 1843, after floods and other delays, many had given up on it. But the tunnel proved to be a wonder of its era. It was intended for horsedrawn carriages, but attracted so much pedestrian traffic that it was used solely by pedestrians until 1869. In that year, it was purchased by a railway company and tracks were laid. Services still run through the tunnel today.
Largely a repeal of the Black Tariffs put in place in 1842, the Walker Tariff (named for Secretary of the Treasury, Robert J. Walker, its creator), reduced tariffs from 32% to 25%, one of the lowest tariffs in US history. Coinciding as it did with the UK’s repeal of its Corn Laws, it led to an increase in trade between the two nations.
Subsequently, tariffs would be reduced still further in 1857 (to 17%), but then increased back to 26% in 1861 (and again later that year, and in 1865, the latter two increases largely as a result of the expense of the Civil War).
James Knox Polk was the eleventh President of the USA. In 1846, he approved a law restoring the Independent Treasury System, under which government funds were held in the Treasury and not in banks or other financial institutions.
This established independent treasury deposit offices, separate from private or state banks, to receive all government funds. The money belonging to the treasury could thus be separated from the market, ensuring that neither could influence the other. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be how it worked in practice, and the Independent Treasury System was eventually discontinued in 1921.
The Clifton Suspension Bridge was built more than a century after it had first been proposed, from a design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel that was completed by William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw after Brunel’s death in 1859. The bridge is particularly notable in that, unusually for a suspension bridge, the towers at each end are not symmetrical with each other.
The bridge operated as a toll bridge upon its opening and it remains one today, still in operation more than 150 years after its construction. It was also the site of the first modern bungee jump, in 1979