This Week in History, May 25 - May 31
May 25, 1977
Star Wars opens. On this day in 1977, Memorial Day weekend opens with an intergalactic bang as the first of George Lucas' blockbuster Star Wars movies hits American theaters. The incredible success of Star Wars--it received seven Oscars, and earned $461 million in U.S. ticket sales and a gross of close to $800 million worldwide--began with an extensive, coordinated marketing push by Lucas and his studio, 20th Century Fox, months before the movie's release date. "It wasn't like a movie opening," actress Carrie Fisher, who played rebel leader Princess Leia, later told Time magazine. "It was like an earthquake." Beginning with--in Fisher's words--"a new order of geeks, enthusiastic young people with sleeping bags," the anticipation of a revolutionary movie-watching experience spread like wildfire, causing long lines in front of movie theaters across the country and around the world.
May 26, 1897
Dracula goes on sale in London. The first copies of the classic vampire novel Dracula, by Irish writer Bram Stoker, appear in London bookshops on this day in 1897. A childhood invalid, Stoker grew up to become a football (soccer) star at Trinity College, Dublin. After graduation, he got a job in civil service at Dublin Castle, where he worked for the next 10 years while writing drama reviews for the Dublin Mail on the side. In this way, Stoker met the well-respected actor Sir Henry Irving, who hired him as his manager. Stoker stayed in the post for most of the next three decades, writing Irving's voluminous correspondence for him and accompanying him on tours in the United States. Over the years, Stoker began writing a number of horror stories for magazines, and in 1890 he published his first novel, The Snake's Pass.
May 27, 1941
Bismarck sunk by Royal Navy. On May 27, 1941, the British navy sinks the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic near France. The German death toll was more than 2,000. On February 14, 1939, the 823-foot Bismarck was launched at Hamburg. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler hoped that the state-of-the-art battleship would herald the rebirth of the German surface battle fleet. However, after the outbreak of war, Britain closely guarded ocean routes from Germany to the Atlantic Ocean, and only U-boats moved freely through the war zone.
May 28, 1961
Appeal for Amnesty campaign launches. On this day in 1961, the British newspaper The London Observer publishes British lawyer Peter Benenson's article "The Forgotten Prisoners" on its front page, launching the Appeal for Amnesty 1961--a campaign calling for the release of all people imprisoned in various parts of the world because of the peaceful expression of their beliefs. Benenson was inspired to write the appeal after reading an article about two Portuguese students who were jailed after raising their glasses in a toast to freedom in a public restaurant. At the time, Portugal was a dictatorship ruled by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Outraged, Benenson penned the Observer article making the case for the students' release and urging readers to write letters of protest to the Portuguese government. The article also drew attention to the variety of human rights violations taking place around the world, and coined the term "prisoners of conscience" to describe "any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing…any opinion which he honestly holds and does not advocate or condone personal violence."
May 29, 1953
Hillary and Tenzing reach Everest summit. At 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa of Nepal, become the first explorers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, which at 29,035 feet above sea level is the highest point on earth. The two, part of a British expedition, made their final assault on the summit after spending a fitful night at 27,900 feet. News of their achievement broke around the world on June 2, the day of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, and Britons hailed it as a good omen for their country's future.
May 30, 1431
Joan of Arc martyred. At Rouen in English-controlled Normandy, Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who became the savior of France, is burned at the stake for heresy. Joan was born in 1412, the daughter of a tenant farmer at Domremy, on the borders of the duchies of Bar and Lorraine. In 1415, the Hundred Years War between England and France entered a crucial phase when the young King Henry V of England invaded France and won a series of decisive victories against the forces of King Charles VI. By the time of Henry's death in August 1422, the English and their French-Burgundian allies controlled Aquitaine and most of northern France, including Paris. Charles VI, long incapacitated, died one month later, and his son, Charles, regent from 1418, prepared to take the throne. However, Reims, the traditional city of French coronation, was held by the Anglo-Burgundians, and the Dauphin (heir apparent to the French throne) remained uncrowned. Meanwhile, King Henry VI of England, the infant son of Henry V and Catherine of Valois, the daughter of Charles VI, was proclaimed king of France by the English.
May 31, 1859
Big Ben goes into operation in London. The famous tower clock known as Big Ben, located at the top of the 320-foot-high St. Stephen's Tower, rings out over the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, for the first time on this day in 1859.
After a fire destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster--the headquarters of the British Parliament--in October 1834, a standout feature of the design for the new palace was a large clock atop a tower. The royal astronomer, Sir George Airy, wanted the clock to have pinpoint accuracy, including twice-a-day checks with the Royal Greenwich Observatory. While many clockmakers dismissed this goal as impossible, Airy counted on the help of Edmund Beckett Denison, a formidable barrister known for his expertise in horology, or the science of measuring time.