MARCH 31

ON THIS DATE in 1925, Cecil Phillips was born. The North Carolina native began his cryptanalysis (the study and deciphering of codes) career at eighteen and was soon assigned, with a handful of others, to work on “the Russian Problem” — the U.S. government suspected the Soviets of trying to steal military secrets. The code-breaking enterprise known as “the Venona project” was so hush-hush that only a select few working in wartime intelligence knew of its existence.

In November of 1944 Phillips, nineteen, made a key breakthrough in solving the code used by the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, to disguise the true content of messages sent to and from the U.S. It took about two more years for some of the encrypted Soviet dispatches to be deciphered enough to reveal that about 200 American-based spies had been employed by the Soviets. A U.S. ally against Germany in World War II, the Soviet Union had been searching for secret information on the construction of the first atomic bombs, which were completed in 1945.

The most publicized spies revealed by the Venona project were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a husband-and-wife team convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets and executed in 1953.

MARCH 30

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MARCH 30

Above: Ingvar Kamprad in front of his first IKEA store, located in Älmhult, Sweden.

ON THIS DATE in 1943, seventeen-year-old Ingvar Kamprad registered the name IKEA. The Swedish youth started out peddling wallets, watches, and other small items, with IKEA gradually emerging as the world’s largest furniture retailer. The key was an innovation that allowed the company to efficiently ship unassembled chairs, tables, and other products. By 2003, the founder of a one-man business had become the richest man in the world, according to Reuters, but Kamprad’s admitted involvement with pro-Nazi groups in the 1940s caused some to question his legacy.

Kamprad created the IKEA name by combining the I and K in his initials with the E for Elmtaryd, his family’s farm, and the A for Agunnaryd, a nearby village. His small-time business grew after he added furniture to his product line and he saw a great surge in sales when he began using “flat packs” to ship his wares in the 1950s. The flat packs resulted in furniture that could be broken down, shipped at low cost, and re-assembled by customers.

Strictly a mail-order business through most of the 1950s, IKEA opened its first store in Sweden in 1958 and its first store in Norway five years later. By 2011, there were 332 IKEA stores in 38 countries.

In 1994 Kamprad was linked to involvement with pro-Nazi groups in the mid-1940s. The furniture magnate called his Nazi activities “a part of my life which I bitterly regret.”

MARCH 29

Gauss

Gauss

ON THE MORNING of March 29, 1796, an eighteen-year-old German math prodigy constructed a polygon in which all 17 sides and all the angles created by those sides are equal (aka, a heptadecagon). Carl Friedrich Gauss constructed the heptadecagon using a compass and unmarked straight-edge in the radius of a circle, which was a big deal in the world of mathematics. “It was so surprising,” math historian Bill Bunham told the Knight-Ridder News Service in 1996. “The fact that you can do one with exactly 17 sides had slipped through the cracks for thousands of years.”

How did Gauss’s discovery change the world? It didn’t. “You could liken it to a sonnet in poetry,” said Bunham, then a a professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “It may not put bread on the table. But it’s a beautiful creation.” Mostly, it marked the emergence of a brilliant mathematical mind. Many rank Gauss with Archimedes and Sir Isaac Newton as the three greatest mathematicians of all time.

MARCH 27

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MARCH 27

Above: McLeod and Hammond battle German planes in a painting by Merv Corning.

THE YOUNGEST CANADIAN to receive the Victoria Cross was a pilot who laughed at danger. Literally. “After getting out of a very tight corner by sheer piloting, with six or seven (German planes) on our tail, he would turn round to me and laugh out loud,” said one lieutenant who served on Alan McLeod’s bomber flights.

Alan McLeod

Alan McLeod

McLeod’s finest hour came on March 27, 1918, when the eighteen-year-old pilot and his observer, A. W. Hammond, took on eight German Fokker triplane fighters in northern France. Hammond shot down three enemy planes and received six wounds, and McLeod took five bullets before a German shot the plane’s gasoline tank, igniting the aircraft. McLeod made a crash landing and braved a machine-gun assault from the Germans while pulling Hammond from the burning wreckage of the plane. Struck by shrapnel from an exploding bomb, the pilot managed to drag his observer to safety before collapsing from what his Victoria Cross citation described as “exhaustion and loss of blood.” When soldiers of the South African Scottish Regiment came across the two bodies, “both smelt terribly of burnt flesh.”

The two survived, and McLeod traveled to London’s Buckingham Palace to receive the Victoria Cross. Back home in Canada, the war hero contracted influenza and died in November of 1918. It’s possible that smoke inhalation during his heroic flight and rescue had weakened his lungs and made him susceptible to the disease.

MARCH 26

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MARCH 26

Above: A stained glass window by Tom Holdman of “The First Vision,”
located in the Palmyra, New York, Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

MANY MEMBERS of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints date the birth of their religion to this date in 1820. According to Mormon history, fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith saw two visions in a grove near his home in Palmyra, New York, on March 26, 1820. After asking the figures which church he should join, Smith was told “that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight.”

Although “hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision,” Smith believed in what he saw and heard in the grove. He said he met an angel named Moroni three years after his first vision who told him about a hidden record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas. According to his writings, Smith retrieved those records, engraved on gold plates, in 1827. He finished translating the Book of Mormon in 1830, and organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Fayetteville, New York, that year.

Facing persecution from the start, the Latter-day Saints moved to Ohio, then Missouri, then Nauvoo, Illinois, where Smith died in an 1844 mob shooting. His role as head of the church passed to Brigham Young, who took the Latter-day Saints to Utah in 1847. Today there are more than 14 million Mormons in the world

MARCH 25

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MARCH 25

ON THIS DATE in 1938, seventeen-year-old Bruce Hobbs rode his mount, Battleship, to victory in the prestigious Grand National steeplechase. A 40-to-one longshot, Hobbs and Battleship edged an Irish horse, Royal Danieli, by a head in a thrilling finish at England’s Aintree Racecourse. The rider from Long Island, New York, was the youngest jockey in the race and easily the tallest at 6-foot-3, yet his horse, owned by American millionaire Marion duPont Scott, was the smallest mount in the four-and-a-half-mile race.

Hobbs rode 35 winners during the 1937-38 season and became the first jockey to win three Grand Nationals in one year. Later in 1938 he broke his spine during a crashing fall from a horse and was told he’d never ride again. He defied the odds by returning to the saddle before serving in World War II.