May 25, 1977: Star Wars is released.
Before the release of his first Star Wars film, George Lucas was convinced that his genre-busting space opera epic would flop at the box office, so he made a bet with Steven Spielberg, whose science-fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind was also set to release that year. If Spielberg’s film made more money than his own, he would collect a percentage of whatever profit Close Encounters made, and vice versa. Spielberg’s sci-fi classic made an impressive $337 million by the end of its run, but Star Wars made nearly $800 million which, adjusted for inflation, makes it the third highest-grossing film of all time (it also spawned a franchise which, according to some estimates, has yielded a total revenue of $27 billion). Needless to say, Spielberg lost the battle of films but won the bet, and reportedly continues to benefit from that bet today.
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May 24, 1743: Jean-Paul Marat is born.
Jean-Paul Marat was one of the infamous and radical figures of the French Revolution. Born in Switzerland, he moved to Paris in 1776, two years after Louis XVI ascended the throne of France; there, he served as a doctor, and his reputation in his practice made him a sought-after physician among the aristocracy. Comfortably wealthy and endlessly opinionated, he criticized Newton, conducted scientific research that won him admirers that included Benjamin Franklin, and published works on judicial reform and philosophy.
As the French Revolution drew near, Marat directed his efforts toward another purpose: he started a newspaper — several, in fact, but the principal was L’Ami du peuple, or “The Friend of the People”, through which he remained a mostly non-aligned party dedicated to advocating the rights of the lower classes and exposing those he believed to be “the enemies of the people”. Those he attacked were often powerful, rich citizens and groups, and in 1790 Marat went into hiding in the sewers of Paris, where the conditions may have given him or aggravated the skin disease that would confine him to a bathtub for much of his later life. In 1792 he was elected (still party-less) to the National Convention; he harshly criticized and feuded bitterly with the less radical Girondist faction of the government, who attempted to bring him before the Revolutionary Tribunal. He was, and he was acquitted of all charges brought against him, to widespread celebration.
Marat helped to bring down the Girondins in a political purge in the summer of 1793, but he was soon after stabbed to death in his own bathtub by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin sympathizer who confessed at her trial to killing “one man to save 100,000”; to her and the conservative Girondins, Marat symbolized the excesses and violent distortion of the Revolution, which would only worsen when the Reign of Terror began, with his calls for blood and for “the cutting off of heads”. To his supporters, Marat was a passionate and relentless champion of the rights of the lower classes. Marat’s assassination was immortalized in Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat (pictured center).
May 22, 1945: Operation Paperclip begins.
On May 22, 1945, Major Robert B. Staver transmitted a telegram to the Pentagon stressing the need for the U.S. government to initiate an evacuation of select German scientists, at the time mostly men involved in the German rocket program. This took place approximately two weeks after Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II, although the project and the basic idea of interviewing/interrogating German scientists was conceived during the war. The name Operation Overcast was designated in the summer of 1945 until it was replaced by the better-known name “Operation Paperclip”; the project formally began in August of 1945 with two objectives: to learn more about advances made by German scientists and researchers during the Nazi era, and to apply these advances and the minds of German scientists and researchers to achieve American goals. World War II begot significant advances in technology, as bloody and brutal wars are wont to do; on the German side, specifically, scientists created the first rocket-powered planes, the first modern assault rifle, an early cruise missile, and the world’s first ballistic missile. It was therefore in the country’s best interest to acquire and employ the minds behind these technologies, and to deny the Soviet Union these resources.
Under Operation Paperclip, over 1,500 scientists and technicians working in a variety of fields were recruited from Germany to the United States. It was administered by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency, which also circumvented Harry Truman’s orders to disqualify any scientists with Nazi sympathies from the program by falsifying records and backgrounds. Wernher von Braun, who was instrumental in the development of the American space program, was also a self-proclaimed non-political member of the NSDAP during the war, and yet he was also complicit in the V-2 rocket program’s extensive use of slave labor, even admitting that he had personally picked out concentration camp prisoners to use as workers. Other prominent German scientists who found work in the United States under Operation Paperclip included Walter Dornberger, another V-2 scientist who in the postwar period worked on the development of guided missiles; Kurt Blome, who was saved from a war crimes conviction at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial in exchange for his expertise on biological warfare; and dozens of other German rocket scientists.
Wernher von Braun was indisputably the most famous of them all; for both his work in Germany and in the United States, he was known as the “Father of Rocket Science”. America’s first ballistic missile, the PGM-11 Redstone, was based on his V-2 rocket, as were the rockets used in the the launching of Explorer 1 and the Freedom 7 spaceflight. In July of 1969, a Saturn V rocket designed under the direction of Wernher von Braun and a group of German scientists launched three American men into space on the Apollo 11 spaceflight, the climax of the Space Race.
May 21, 1979: The White Night riots begin.
On November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk - San Francisco’s first and one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials - was shot and killed by San Francisco supervisor Dan White (also killed in the attack was Mayor George Moscone). White and Milk had served together (and often clashed on issues while serving together) on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors under Dianne Feinstein for around ten months before White, citing his disgust at the corruption of city politics and his need for a higher salary, resigned his position as supervisor. After Moscone declined his request for re-appointment to his position at Milk’s (and others’) urging, White assassinated both men at San Francisco City Hall.
White’s trial officially began on May 1, 1979. The jury announced its verdict three weeks later after 36 hours of deliberation — White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years in prison; his defense team had successfully argued that, because of White’s spiral into depression (as evidenced by his change in diet from healthy foods to junk food), he would have been unable to premeditate murder, therefore making it impossible for him to be charged with first degree murder. Instead, White’s assassination of Milk and Mayor Moscone was defined as third degree murder, a “heat of passion” crime, and the least severe conviction White could have managed to leave the courtroom with, despite the fact that White had admitted to planning the assassinations of Carol Ruth Silver and Willie Brown.
The “White Night riots” began in the Castro District (where Harvey Milk began his work as a gay rights activist) as a gathering of several hundred people, mostly members of the Castro’s LGBT community. Enraged over White’s light sentence, thousands of protesters erupted into violence, and riots broke out near City Hall. By the end of the incident, during which policemen indiscriminately attacked rioters and vice versa, sixty-one policemen and around 100 protesters were hospitalized. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, tensions between San Francisco’s conservative elements and its growing minority populations increased as the latter groups gained political and economic influence - this hostile divide was apparent within the Board of Supervisors, in the conflict between White (who was relatively conservative) and Milk, and in the White Night riots, which pitted the city’s police department, which had raised money for White’s defense, against the city’s gay community, which had been revitalized under Milk’s leadership and by his election.
In 1985, Dan White committed suicide. Harvey Milk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.