Isolating Isletin

On this day in history, two men discovered a cure for a condition that was previously considered fatal: diabetes. This innovation in medical science happened less than a century ago, in the summer of 1921.

Banting and Best discover insulin

Dogs used in insulin discovery

Many researchers had previously connected the pancreas to diabetes, but Dr. Banting and his medical student assistant, Charles Best, were the first to successfully isolate and use insulin to improve diabetic dogs. In 1922, one year after the initial extraction was achieved, a diabetic teenager was given an injection of what was then called “isletin” and showed dramatic improvement. Suddenly, a disease that once inevitably led to death had become treatable.

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The Conch Republic

Now that summer’s in full swing, it’s time for vacation! Perhaps you seek out beaches, sunshine and nice ocean views? Look no further than the United States’ very own Key West, Florida. This hot spot for tourists boasts attractions such as gardens, boat excursions, Ernest Hemingway’s former home, and the Conch Republic—a satirical micronation that mock-seceded from the U.S. in 1982.

Conch Republic

Yes, it’s true—what started as a legitimate protest against the inconvenience of U.S. Border Patrol roadblock checkpoints quickly became a unique (and ultimately effective) attention-grabber.

The Rebels of the Conch Republic

Basically, U.S. Border Patrol officials put an inspection checkpoint on the only roads out of Key West to search for narcotics and illegal immigrants, leading to wait times that would put the DMV to shame. This would be an irritation under any circumstance, but to an island city that runs on tourism the roadblock was an actual detriment to their economy. When the usual avenues of protest against this annoyance got citizens nowhere, the “Conchs”—people of Key West—faux seceded. Mayor Dennis Wardlow was proclaimed Prime Minister of the new republic, which proceeded to declare war on the United States, surrender, and apply for foreign aid all in less time than it took to wait in line at the checkpoint that started it all.

Blowing the conch and raising the flag of the Conch Republic

The secession may not have been real, but the publicity it brought did the trick—the checkpoint was removed soon after the Conch Republic declared their independence. Unfortunately you’ll have to wait until next year to join in the still-observed Independence Day celebration—festivities take place the week of April 23rd. It would seem that, in the end, the roadblock didn’t hurt the Key West tourism economy one bit.

PM of Conch Republic, 1988

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Getting on Board with Board Games

Board games are a well-loved staple of group entertainment. They have been so for centuries in the world at large, but in younger countries—like the United States—they came around much more recently. So when did board games cross the ocean and become the popular pastimes they are today? What game has the distinction of being the first in America?

First American Board Game

First U.S. published board games

The Traveller’s Tour through the United States is considered to be the first U.S. board game. In an era of Puritan values dice were considered a vice associated with gambling, so players traveled across a map of the states with the help of a spinning, multi-sided top called a tetotum. The object: guess the names of cities and significant places—and in later versions, name their populations. That’s quite the social studies test, even for a time when Louisiana was the country’s western border.

The Mansion of Happiness was exactly what it sounds like: a game all about using good, virtuous values to reach your just reward. It was created in Europe, but appeared in the United States in the 1840s. It was one of the first commercially produced board games in the U.S. and had the added benefit of being morally robust—very important for children and adults alike.

Description of the Mansion of Happiness

Of course, what would board games be today without the quintessential (and frequently ire-inspiring) Monopoly? The first version of this American claim-to-board-game-fame was created in the nascent years of the 20th century by Elizabeth Magie, who was quite an interesting woman even outside of her game-making. She patented a design that looks very similar to the version of Monopoly we play today. It too was educational in nature, but not in regards to cities or morality. Instead it focused on the evils of land owned by private monopolies. It was called The Landlord’s Game.

The Landlord

The Landlord’s Game went through several more creators and variations over the next 30 years, until the Parker Brothers released their version of the game in 1935 and called it Monopoly. Now it boasts hundreds of variations and themes and is perhaps the best-known board game in the world.

Find more about the history of United States’ board games, known and unknown, on Try a search on your old family favorite or browse through specific papers for other articles of interest to you.

Le Quatorze Juillet

On this day in 1789, members of the Third Estate of France’s États-généraux—representing the common people—stormed the prison-fortress known as the Bastille.

First Fete de la Federation

Bastille Day

Over 100 people were killed, almost exclusively on the attacking side, but the fortress was taken. Bernard-René de Launey, governor of the Bastille, was beaten to death by the enraged crowd after the fight had ended.

The day has since taken on a special significance as a major tipping point in the French Revolution. First celebrated in 1790 as the Fête de la Fédération, it is now simply known as Bastille Day, a day of French Independence celebrated nationwide to honor peace and unity.

Commemoration of the Destruction of the Bastille

French Independence Day

The article below shows a suggested inscription for a monument built on the site of the Bastille, published in the year following the conflict.

Proposed inscription for the fall of the Bastille

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Paul Wittgenstein—One-armed Virtuoso

Paul Wittgenstein is a fine example of pushing past limitations to pursue your passion, no matter how much seems to stand in your way.

Paul Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein grew up in a musical household with aspirations of becoming a concert pianist. But when he lost his right arm in what was then called “the World War,” his friends and family lamented the talent he would lose with it.

But Wittgenstein would have none of that. He was a pianist, one-armed or not. While imprisoned in a Siberian war camp after the hospital was captured by enemy forces, he practiced constantly on an upright piano provided to him by a surprisingly generous guard. When he made it home, his talent only continued to grow.

Eventually he was commissioning one-handed pieces for the piano and performing them with expert acuity. His abilities impressed audiences and composers, the latter of whom began to see one-handed piano playing in a new light. He even got Maurice Ravel, internationally-renowned French composer of the time, to write him a left-handed concerto.


Because of Wittgenstein’s persistence, there now exist hundreds of left-handed piano pieces that are a worthy challenge for any piano player, one-handed or otherwise.

One-Armed Pianist


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Weehawken. Dawn. Guns. Drawn.

On this day in history, Alexander Hamilton was fatally wounded by in a duel with Aaron Burr.

Alexander Hamilton killed in duel

The duel came as a result of fierce election politics. Hamilton, who found Burr to be an untrustworthy opportunist, maligned Burr’s character while the latter was running for the office of President of the United States. After losing the election, Burr settled into the role of a barely-successful Vice President with little support from Thomas Jefferson, who had won the presidential race. Determined to defend his reputation, Burr challenged the man who ruined his career to a duel.

Your Obedient Servant

Turns out that nothing ruins your career quite like killing a man as nationally respected as Alexander Hamilton. Burr shot him in the stomach and he died the following day.

We have received the following melancholy information:

Burr’s reputation never recovered after that fateful day in Weehawken, New Jersey, and he continues to be primarily remembered as Hamilton’s killer.

Read more about Hamilton, Burr, the duel, and other related subjects on Try a search or browse through newspapers from the early years of the United States.

Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle

In 1911 a book was published about a young man named Tom Swift. He had a weapon called an electric rifle that shot invisible bullets like bolts of lightning. With his trusty electric rifle at his side, Tom was able to save the lives of himself and his friends time and time again.

Half a century after the book was published, aerospace scientist Jack Cover dreamed of a non-lethal weapon that could be used by law enforcement. So what did he invent? Thomas A. Swift’s electric rifle, or the TASER. Development began in 1969, and by 1974 the Taser was a real-life electrical weapon.

Taser Stun Gun

Taser Name

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Today We Celebrate Our Independence


It’s the Fourth of July, which means parades, barbecues and fireworks will be the order of the day. But what’s the deal with fireworks anyway? How did independence lead to the use of explosives as a celebration?

Fireworks as entertainment had been around long before the U.S. became their own country. The grandeur and spectacle of things exploding in the sky naturally attracted crowds to the displays. Founding father John Adams seems to have been a fan: he imagined the loud sky-blossoms as part of the festivities before the first Independence Day had even happened.

Fireworks always a part of John Adams plans

John Adams and Fireworks

As there weren’t too many regulations on fireworks back then the general public began to get their hands on big explosives. This did not turn out too well, and soon Independence Day was known as much for its hospitalizations and death toll as it was for its history. Eventually the big-time fireworks were banned from public use, limited to those with the license to set them off—though most anyone can still purchase and enjoy common home fireworks.


Fireworks were not always the colorful affair we’re used to seeing now. In their early years, they were exciting but colorless explosions, and it was not until the 17th century that ways were found to add a little something to the displays. One comical writer has some great advice for showing off your firework knowledge this Fourth of July:

Handy advice

Fireworks have long since become a staple in the United States’ Independence Day celebrations, despite the many injuries and innovations that have happened since they first decorated our skies. If you’ve been wondering how that came to be, now you know—it’s all John Adams’ fault.

Now you have a chance

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Le Tour de France

The Tour de France is an internationally-known competition that draws out the best and boldest in bicycle racing, but it wasn’t always so. In fact, its existence is a prime example of that old adage, “necessity is the mother of invention.”

In the years leading up to the turn of the century France had one sports paper, Le Vélo. But in 1899 a new rival popped up on the scene. This newspaper was called L’Auto, and in its early years it really struggled to compete with the more established competing paper.

What’s a struggling paper to do? Create an intense bicycle race to sell more copies, of course.First Race

The new race circled the country, leading to the name “Le Tour de France.” It took an already popular sport and magnified it to a larger scale than had ever been attempted. So large, in fact, that only 15 people entered, undeterred by the missed days of work and small reward. L’Auto‘s editor, Henri Desgrange, decided to change things up a bit; the race would be fewer days, each competitor would get a daily stipend that equaled pay for a day’s work, and the reward for those who placed would be significant. The number of race entrants tripled.

First Tour de France

The race was brutal, and not just because of the length and terrain: there were reports of cheating by the competitors. But at the end of the race, the first Tour de France had a clear winner: Maurice Garin. He won three of the four legs of the race and came in first hours ahead of the runner-up, the largest margin of victory the race has ever had.

Newspaper reproduction of 1903 tour de France winner Maurice Garin

Since 1903 the Tour de France has occurred every year, halting only for the years of the two World Wars. It has garnered a lot of positive attention and called to the most competitive of cyclists, but according to one article, not everybody loved the existence of this particular competition.

Aversion to the tour de France bicycle race


Oh, and that other paper, Le Vélo? It went out of business in 1904, a year after the first Tour de France. Meanwhile, L’Auto‘s successor, L’Equipe, is still going strong today.

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Queen Victoria

On this day in 1838, 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. She became known as Queen Victoria and reigned for 63 years, a span of time we now call the Victorian Era after her majesty.

Coronation took place on the day appointed

Queen Victoria, Coronation

The Young Queen, as she was frequently called, moved into Buckingham Palace and adopted her responsibilities with vigor. She was frugal, involved herself in her country’s politics, and loved her dogs. One story from her coronation day is summarized in the clipping below:

Queen Victoria

And take a look at this clipping—a nice round-up of facts about Victoria:

Queen Victoria in a nutshell

Aside from the years following her husband’s death, Victoria remained a popular and beloved queen to her people. She acquired a maternal presence during her later years on the throne, with a strong focus on morality and family that endeared her to many.

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