On a normal news day, a record-setting female aviator, a terrifying explosion at an industrial plant or the death of a sexy TV icon probably would grab a lot of headlines. Not to mention the discovery of a signal from space that might possibly come from an extraterrestrial civilization.
Yet, when all of these events happened, they got amazingly little coverage from the media and even less attention from the public. It was almost as if they didn't even happen.
Why did all of these events go so unnoticed? Because they had the bad luck to occur either on the same day or around the same time as some even-bigger, more spectacular happenings. Like the sinking of a supposedly unsinkable ocean liner or a much-awaited royal wedding. Whether we're talking about the front pages of old newspapers or trends on Twitter, humans seem to have a limited capacity to focus upon multiple events at once.
Without further ado, here are headline-making 10 events that were overshadowed by even bigger happenings.
In 1911, just eight years after the airplane was invented, Harriet Quimby became the first U.S. licensed female pilot. She was so accomplished that she earned as much as $1,500 for performing in air shows. In addition to being skillful, Quimby, 36, was so cool and collected that even when her engine quit during a flight to Mexico, she was able to glide safely to a landing [source: Tyson].
In the spring of 1912, she came up with an idea for a spectacular feat. She would be the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Louis Bleriot had been the first man to do this three years earlier [source: Daniels, Hyslop and Brinkley].
As she had planned, Quimby took off from Dover, England, on the morning of April 16, 1912, and despite the fog, completed the flight and touched down on a French beach just 59 minutes later [source: Daniels, Hyslop and Brinkley, page 282]. Unfortunately, nobody paid much attention, because of the sinking of the Titanic the day before [source: History.com]. Sadly, in July of the same year, Quimby was killed in a plane crash while flying from Boston to New York [source: Tyson].
By all rights, Dec. 8, 1941, should have been a day that lived in infamy, to borrow a phrase from President Franklin Roosevelt. On that date, a force of Japanese warplanes attacked American military bases in the Philippines, and bombed Manila, that nation's biggest city [source: Campbell].
Leon Long, a U.S. serviceman who worked in aircraft maintenance, recalled in a 2013 interview that he was coming back from a lunch break with a friend when they saw 50 warplanes descend upon their airfield and open fire. After an hour of bombing and strafing, most of the American bombers and fighter planes on the ground were destroyed, and 100 U.S. personnel were dead. Long somehow survived, and eventually crawled out from under the bodies of two dead airmen [source: Campbell].
But the sneak attack on the Philippines, a prelude to a brutal Japanese invasion and occupation of that country, has long been overshadowed by the event that happened just a few hours earlier, on the other side of the international date line — the Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack on the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. In that incident, 2,403 people died [source: Campbell].
April 16, 1947, was a bad day in Texas City, a port in Galveston Bay on the gulf coast of Texas. Longshoremen were loading a ship, the SS Grandcamp, with cargo that included tobacco, peanuts, government-owned ammunition and ammonium nitrate. The latter was a chemical that in World War II had been used as an explosive, but subsequently was put to use as a fertilizer [sources: History.com, Moore Library].
At 9:12 a.m. that day, the ammonium nitrate aboard the ship suddenly detonated. Fireballs streaked across the sky and could be seen for miles around, as red-hot melted pieces of the ship were blasted out of the pier. The explosion was so intense that it caused a 15-foot-high (4.6-meter-high) tidal wave that flooded the area and shattered windows in Houston, 40 miles (64 kilometers) away. The explosion also destroyed a Monsanto chemical plant a few hundred feet from the ship. In all, 581 people were killed and 3,500 injured. The accident was attributed to a lit cigarette [sources: History.com, Moore Library].
But the Texas City blast, one of the worst industrial disasters ever, didn't get the attention it deserved. That's because the day before, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson became the first player to break baseball's color barrier [source: Heyman].
On Feb. 3, 1959, Soviet border guards stopped a convoy of four U.S. Army trucks headed from West Berlin, on a routine trip from the free section of the divided German capital, through communist territory to East Germany. After the Americans refused an inspection, the Soviets seized the trucks, along with five American personnel, and held them captive overnight. New York Times correspondent Arthur J. Olsen wrote this kidnapping "appeared to be a planned test" of the U.S. ability to support a garrison in West Berlin [source: Olsen].
It took a high-level official protest from the U.S. embassy in Moscow to get the Soviets to finally release the prisoners and let their trucks through the checkpoint more than two days later [source: Olsen 2].
On a different day, the Soviet provocation might have dominated the newspapers. But a plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson also took off from Mason City, Iowa, and crashed, killing the rock 'n' roll stars and their pilot, Roger Peterson. Feb. 3 became known as "The Day the Music Died," not a day when Cold War tensions simmered [source: Mead].
C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley had a few things in common. Both were well-known 20th-century writers who had been educated at Oxford and lived in England at least for a time. Lewis was the author of "The Chronicles of Narnia," a series of seven classic children's novels that are still read widely today. Several of them have been made into popular films, including the 2005 "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." He also wrote numerous books for adults, on themes as diverse as science fiction, Christian apologetics and medieval literature [source: Biography.com].
Meanwhile Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel "Brave New World," set in the London of the future, depicted a dystopian society in which technology and mind-altering drugs suppressed dissent and free will. He went on to write other books, screenplays and a collection of essays called "The Doors of Perception." Jim Morrison borrowed the title for his rock group The Doors [source: Biography.com].
And here's one other thing Lewis and Huxley had in common: Both died on the same day, Nov. 22, 1963, Lewis of renal failure and Huxley of cancer. That coincidence, coupled with their literary achievements, might have gotten a lot of attention. But instead, their deaths weren't even reported until days later, because of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas [source: Garth].
A former Ohio State University electrical engineering and astronomy professor named Jerry Ehman, who was working as a volunteer at the university, glanced at computer printouts from the "Big Ear." The latter was a radio telescope that was scanning the cosmos in hopes of picking up communications from an extraterrestrial civilization. Up to that point, it hadn't found anything at all.
But to Ehman's shock, on Aug. 15, 1977, he saw an unusually strong signal. Instead of the typical random numbers, there was a stream of both letters and numbers telegraphing a radio transmission 30 times louder than the background buzz of deep space. Ehman was so amazed he circled the code and wrote the word "wow!" next to the printout.
You'd think that a discovery like that would have made the headlines, or at least graced the covers of supermarket tabloids. Unfortunately for space buffs, it occurred the day before the death of music legend Elvis Presley [source: Adams]. No one can compete with Elvis.
Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, at least partly due to his promise that he'd stimulate the economy by reducing too-high federal taxes. After his inauguration, his Republican allies in Congress introduced legislation to make that promise a reality, slashing individual tax rates by 25 percent and cutting levies on businesses and oil producers.
Democratic opponents saw the tax cut as a budget buster that would mostly benefit the wealthy. But in a deft piece of political strategizing, the Republicans managed to peel off enough support from conservative Southern Democrats to make resistance futile, and Democratic leaders had to accept defeat. On July 30, 1981, the Reagan tax cut passed the U.S. Senate by a resounding 89-11 vote, and in the House, by 323 to 107.
President Reagan issued a statement that the "first real tax cut in nearly 20 years" had "removed one of the most important remaining challenges to our agenda for prosperity" [source: Cowan].
While Reagan did make headlines, people preferred to watch another event unfold: The wedding of Britain's Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer attracted an estimated 750 million TV viewers worldwide [source: Hill].
In a nation with a warrior tradition, Ahmed Shah Masoud was a legend. As the leader of forces against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, he made such a name for that he was depicted in "Rambo III."
But after Masoud helped drive out the Soviets, Afghanistan fell into disorder and eventually was taken over by an extremist movement, the infamous Taliban. Masoud helped lead the resistance against that terrorist group, too.
Unfortunately, Masoud's notoriety and comfort with media coverage was exploited by his enemies. On Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. officials announced that Masoud has been assassinated in his camp by a suicide bomber, who had posed as a television cameraman to get close to the rebel leader [source: Wright and Watson].
Normally a story of an antiterrorist leader being killed by a suicide bomber who posed as a TV cameraman would have been big news. But Masoud's murder happened the same day as the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York. So nothing else mattered in the news.
The Los Angeles Times called her "a generation's favorite pinup." But even if you weren't a teenage boy in the late 1970s with her sexy swimsuit poster on your bedroom wall, you knew all about Farrah Fawcett. As co-star of "Charlie's Angels," the hit TV series about a trio of beautiful private investigators, Fawcett was one of pop culture's most recognizable figures. Her striking physical beauty and trademark mane of feathery frosted blonde hair made her a sex symbol.
But Fawcett also was a talented actress who earned three Emmy nominations. Her portrayal of a battered wife in the thought-provoking 1984 TV movie "The Burning Bed" earned her accolades from critics [source: Nelson].
After Fawcett was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2006, her struggle to survive the disease earned her even more admiration from the public. So it would be reasonable to expect that her death on June 24, 2009, would have been big news — even though another TV star, Johnny Carson sidekick Ed McMahon, passed away that same day.
On May 1, 2011, a massive crowd of Roman Catholics from all over the globe poured into Vatican City and cheered as then-Pope Benedict XVI personally declared his late predecessor, John Paul II, to be "blessed." Beatification, as that gesture is called, is the step that comes before official sainthood.
John Paul, the first Polish pope, had become a folk hero for his opposition to communism in his native land and for his travels to more countries than any other pontiff.
His ceremony was a memorable one. The crowd was shown a vial of John Paul II's blood, and Vatican officials unveiled a huge tapestry portrait of the late pontiff, before calling in both English and Polish for believers to pray silently. Benedict proclaimed that in heaven, the saints and angels were celebrating, too [source: CNN].
But the event didn't dominate the news that weekend. The following evening, U. S. President Barack Obama announced that Navy SEALs had secretly slipped into Pakistan and killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the man behind the Sept. 11 attacks [source: Politico].
The Black Panthers were considered either heroes or dangerous Communists, depending on who you asked. Learn about the Black Panthers at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Monumental Moments That Were Overshadowed by Other Events
This assignment hit home with me, because I've actually seen it happen on a smaller, personal scale. I turned 20 on the day that Elvis Presley died — I was on a birthday road trip at the time, and it took me a while to figure out why every station on the radio seemed to be playing Elvis music. Years later, a journalist friend of mine authored a moving family memoir and sold it to a major publisher. It might even have become a best-seller, except that the release date was just before the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, which kept it from getting the attention it deserved.
More Great Links
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- Associated Press. "Soviets in Germany Detain U.S. Convoy." Nytimes.com. Feb. 4, 1959. (Oct. 3, 2016) http://nyti.ms/2dMuIN9
- Biography.com. "Aldous Huxley. Biography.com. (Oct. 3, 2016) http://www.biography.com/people/aldous-huxley-9348198#synopsis
- Biography.com. "C.S. Lewis." Biography.com. (Oct. 3, 2016) http://bit.ly/2dMwG07
- Campbell, Steve. "Pearl Harbor Wasn't Only Surprise Attack that Day." Military.com. Dec. 7, 2013. (Oct. 3, 2016) http://www.military.com/daily-news/2013/12/07/pearl-harbor-wasnt-only-surprise-attack-that-day.html
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- Kawa, Barry. "The Wow! Signal." Cleveland Plain Dealer. Sept. 18, 1994. (Oct. 3, 2016) http://bit.ly/2dO4k5C
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- Olsen, Arthur J. "Soviet Still Detains U.S. Convoy, Action Believed Test on Berlin." The New York Times. Feb. 4, 1959. (Oct. 3, 2016) http://nyti.ms/2dB7Z5
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