This summer the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo dominated Historyland: a real life reenactment in Belgium, a real time reenactment on-line, thousands* of new books on the subject, and a gazillion Waterloo-related blog posts on topics as large as the Congress of Vienna and as small as false teeth. It was a big, flashy anniversary that served as shorthand for a number of important events related to the end of twenty-three years of almost constant warfare between France and pretty much everyone else in Europe.
But a historical year is more than just its biggest anniversary, no matter how much ballyhoo it gets. Here are a few of the high points (or low points, depending on your perspective) of 1815:
- The Battle of New Orleans ended the War of 1812,** changed power dynamics on the North American continents (again), and inspired a catchy tune written by Arkansas teacher/folk singer Jimmy Driftwood and recorded by Johnny Horton. (You can thank me for the earworm in the comments.)
- [Reminder to those of you who receive this via e-mail,*** you may need to go to your browser to hear the video.]
- Cornish chemist Sir Humphrey Davy invented the first miner’s safety lamp, perhaps in part due to his experiments with batteries. This may not seem like a big deal in a world where industrial safety regulations are commonplace, if not always followed. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, this was huge.
- Someone in Switzerland founded the first commercial cheese factory. And while I love my artisanal cheeses as much as the next foodie, I must admit that a world with access to more cheese strikes me as a better world.
- On April 5, Mount Tambora, located in what was then the Dutch East Indies, erupted, killing more than 90,000 people and triggering the twelve months of extreme weather, crop failures, famine, and apocalyptic fears known as the Year Without Summer.
*Okay, dozens. It only felt like thousands to this overwhelmed history nerd.
**Which was both the second American War of Independence and an unimportant side show in the Napoleonic Wars, depending on which side of the Atlantic you were standing on.
***And if you aren’t, feel free to subscribe using the handy box in the upper right hand corner.