The fourth of July is well-known around the world as an American holiday. Specifically, it’s recognized as the birthday of the United States. It’s a day where we bar-b-cue, set off fireworks and drink beer. It’s a patriotic excuse for us to relax and enjoy some time off in the summer.
Well, the rest of the world needn’t feel left out. Plenty has happened on that auspicious day. Whether you’ve an eye to the sky, a love of literature or just need a reason to be wry and contradictory, there’s a little something for everyone if you look hard enough. Here’s just a few things I found that we can celebrate together.
– Chinese, Japanese and Arabian astronomers see the birth of the Crab Nebula.
“I humbly observe that a guest star has appeared; above the star there is a feeble yellow glimmer. If one examines the divination regarding the Emperor, the interpretation is the following: The fact that the star has not overrun Bi and that its brightness must represent a person of great value. I demand that the Office of Historiography is informed of this.” ~Yang Weide
These are the words of an ancient Chinese astronomer. The “guest star” to which he is referring is now known as SN 1054. It was a star that appeared in the sky on July 4th, 1054, was bright enough to be seen in the daytime, and disappeared less than two years later. It was seen as a sign of great things. We now know it was a star exploding.
That explosion spawned the Crab Nebula, a beautiful cosmic occurrence amateur astronomers love to discover since it can be seen with just a pair of binoculars if the light is low enough. That connection was figured out by some very smart people, including Jan Oort (the namesake of Oort clouds) and Edwin Hubble. They used clues from old Chinese texts to help them figure it out, and for years it was thought that most of the world missed it.
Eventually texts from all over were figured out to correspond to that supernova. Many of them found it to be an auspicious sign. Chances are, most people awake that night got a look at it. The Chinese get the credit for it because they kept the best records. Japanese and Islamic astronomical records have since been uncovered that corroborate the occurrence.
While the actual birth of the Crab Nebula happened around 6,500 years earlier (it took the light that long to travel to us), we can still celebrate the news reaching us. It’s not often we can say with such accuracy where the cosmic cocoon of a far off star opens itself so destructively we feel the need to record it. Happy birthday, little nebula!
And happy death day, poor star.
– World’s first long-distance railway, Grand Junction Railway, opens between Birmingham and Newton Junction, England.
On July, 4th, 1837, the Grand Junction Railway officially opened for business. With a track length of 82 miles (132 km), it was the then longest steam-powered railway in the world, and the first to go any considerable distance. It wouldn’t hold onto that record for long (later in the year the first long-distance rail in the US would open up and span 136 miles (219 km)), it would only stay in existence 13 years, and its record is full of asterisk-worthy hyphenate-laden qualifiers, but it signifies a whole lot more than a day trip up north.
Human progress has been a slow and steady wins the race scenario for most of our existence. Technological innovations and cultural shifts are traditionally measured in centuries, and if you go back far enough, millennia. That is, until you reach the point that Britain being Britain begets the Industrial Revolution. The evolution in textile manufacturing, the establishment of infrastructure, the development of automated work, machinery, factories, canals, railways – these and more begin to force us to measure progress in decades, sometimes years.
By 1837, the first Industrial Revolution was waning. Humankind needed something more to spur on their collective innovation. That kick in the tuckus came in the form of long-distance, semi-automated, speedy transportation.
The Grand Junction Railway was designed to connect to another long-distance railway. It was part of a project that quickly covered the Isle of Britain. The rest of the world followed suit. Much of the world was already in the process of making it happen.
But it happened there first. So, happy birthday, Second Industrial Revolution!
– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is first told in a small boat.
All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.
Those six lines open the poem “All In the Golden Afternoon,” the preface to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The poem tells the story of a leisurely outing on a beautiful day, during which the narrator tells a story to three young girls. Ostensibly, one is led to believe that the story being read is the same story.
In fact, that’s exactly what it is. That boat ride was taken on July 4th, 1862. The three girls are Alice, Lorina and Edith Liddell, and they were on an outing with a family friend, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll’s real name). The day wasn’t sunny – it was actually overcast with a bit of chill in the air – but it was filled with what was the basis for one of the most beloved children’s story.
It was published a few years later, once he’d fleshed it out. Alice Liddell got the first, hand-written copy. The Queen of England was a big fan. As soon as people started making movies, Alice got the silent treatment. As soon as people started making movies with sound, her story was done again. And again. And again.
A century and a half later, it’s a story that everyone grows up with.
Happy birthday, Wonderland!
– Samoa gets two July 4ths.
Every list needs an entry that’s a little strange, and this is that entry. You see, if you would have asked Samoan King Malietoa Laupepa in 1893 what he did on the Fourth of July the previous year, his likely response would have been “which one?” July 4th, 1892 is special on the Samoan Islands, because it happened twice.
Samoa lies in the South Pacific, a bit northeast of New Zealand. To the east lies a whole lot of empty, which is why they traditionally kept time with countries like Australia, Japan and China. They were the original land of the rising sun, as they got to greet each new day first.
In 1892, United States influence had grown enough on the islands to change that. Merchants out of San Francisco argued that it was disorienting trying to deal with the day shift that happens from crossing the International Date Line. Instead, they proposed Samoa draw the line on the other side of the island, making them the last place on Earth to see the sunset. As such, the evening of July 4th, 1892 was met by the morning of July 4th, 1892, take two.
In 2011, Samoa realized that setting the time by North American standards was a bit silly, them being on the other side of the ocean and all, so they deleted a Friday from their calendar and went back to the way it was a century earlier. The tourist board put up a bit of a fight (they liked being the last sunset on Earth…it made for good copy), but it was otherwise unproblematic. Now, they’re able to more conveniently deal with the business hours of the nations they’re closest to.
American Samoa, however, didn’t change with them. Because, of course.
Happy déjà vu day, Samoa!
– The Philippines gains Independence – from the United States!
In the Republic of the Philippines, Independence Day is a special day. There are parades, speeches, festivals. Really, it isn’t too much different than Independence Day in the US, except for the flavor. And the date. The Philippines celebrate their Independence on June 12, even though that isn’t the date the international community recognizes.
You see, June 12, 1898, was the day that the Philippines freed itself from the oppression of tyrants. The Spanish-American War had begun, Spain was losing territory all over the globe at an alarming pace, and nobody seemed to care too much about a bunch of islands a long way away. The people could be free to rule themselves!
After the Spanish lost the war, they gave the Philippines to the United States. The United States went to let them know, and the Philippine–American War happened. It’s a war that Americans always seem to forget happened. The Philippines don’t forget it, though, because it was a bit of a slap in the face. Nobody recognized their independence then.
Arguably, the US did some good during the next five decades. They helped centralize and unify the government. They began developing urban areas, modernizing infrastructure. Culturally, the islands leapt into action, establishing cinema and music and literature traditions that still remain. When WW2 broke out and the Japanese decided to be dicks to the people of the Philippines, American troops were there to help push them back.
Arguably, the US could have still done all that by being a good ally and trade partner.
Regardless, shortly after the second world war, the US deigned to recognize Philippine independence. They made it official on July 4th, 1946, because who wouldn’t want their Independence Day to be on that day? After all, the US finally gave the Philippines what they’d already had for more than a century and a half.
For two decades, the Philippines celebrated Independence Day on the fourth of July. Then they stopped, because they never wanted to do that in the first place, and started celebrating it on June 12th, instead.
Now, July 4th is Republic Day in the Philippines. Also known as Philippine–American Friendship Day, it’s rarely paid attention to, but it has some relevance. But it still is a real thing, even if nobody gets the day off for it.
Happy Philippine-American Friendship Day!