After winning the amateur Golden
Gloves championship in 1959 and 1960, Cassius Clay became Olympic light-heavyweight
champion in 1960. He immediately became a professional and within four years he was the
heavyweight champion of the world.
He then became a Muslim and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Because of his beliefs, he
refused to be called up into the army to fight in the Vietnam War. His world title was
taken away from him and he was banned from boxing from 1967 to 1970. He returned to the
ring in the 1970s and, although he lost his title twice, he became the first heavyweight
boxer to win the world championship three times.
Ali was very confident in his own skills, and often made up short songs about himself and
his talents. At the peak of his fame he claimed that he was the best-known person on the
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Louis Armstrong was born into a very poor
home. He was a cheerful, mischievous lad, but one day when he was 13 he went a bit too
far. He took a pistol out of the house and fired it in the street. It was meant as a
harmless prank, but he ended up being taken to a children's home. It was at the home that
he had his first music lesson and learned to play the cornet.
He left the home as a teenager and gradually started to earn a living playing his cornet.
In the 1920s, after playing in other bands, he formed various small groups of his own,
such as The Louis Armstrong Hot Five, and made some records. These recordings brought him
world-wide fame among jazz fans.
But Armstrong was more than just a cornet player. His big smile and his antics on stage
made him into something special. In 1936 he appeared in his first film, Pennies from
Heaven, with Bing Crosby. From then on he gradually became a popular singer, his gravelly,
cheerful voice having an attraction all of its own.
His biggest popular song hits were Hello Dolly, (1964) and What a Wonderful World (1968).
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Neil Armstrong was very interested in flying
when he was a young man. He was awarded his pilot's licence at the age of 16, even before
he had learnt to drive a car. The following year he became a naval air cadet, and went on
to fly in the Korean War. Later in the 1950s, he became a test pilot for NASA (National
Aeronautics and Space Administration) before joining the US space programme in 1962. His
first mission in space, on Gemini 8 in 1966, ended earlier than expected when he had to
make an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean.
In July 1969 Armstrong joined fellow astronauts Edwin Buzz Aldrin and Michael
Collins on the Apollo 11 mission. They took four days to reach the Moon. On 20 July
Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon. As he stepped off the
Eagle (the lunar landing module), he said, That's one small step for (a)
man, one giant leap for mankind.
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Billy the Kid
There is some confusion over Billy the Kid's
real name. At his trial he used the name William Bonney, but as a child he was known as
By the age of 12, Billy the Kid was already a gambler and card player, and had knifed a
man for insulting his mother. When he was just 16, he and a partner murdered three Native
Americans and stole the furs they were carrying. In 1877, after more murderous exploits,
he became involved in a war between two cattle-ranching families. As leader of
one of the gangs, he was in one gun battle after another. He returned to cattle thieving
and murder when that war was over.
A sheriff called Pat Garrett was determined to catch him, and he finally succeeded in
1881. Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang, but he managed to escape. Two months later,
Garrett cornered him and shot him dead. Films have been made which show Billy the Kid as a
hero, but in reality he was a criminal who murdered at least 21 people.
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Like many other people in the Wild
West, William Cody had little schooling and could just about write his name. From
the age of 11, he helped to support his family, working as a mounted messenger on wagon
trains travelling to the West, and looking after livestock. These jobs helped him become a
very good rider. After serving in the American Civil War (18611865) he made his
living supplying buffalo (bison) meat to railway workers. At that time great herds of
buffalo roamed the American prairies, and Cody's skill at shooting them gave him his
nickname of Buffalo Bill.
Because of his riding and hunting skills, and also his knowledge of Native American ways,
Buffalo Bill was in demand in the 1870s as a scout with the cavalry who were fighting the
Native Americans. His skill at this and his various adventures it is said that he
killed and scalped a young chief called Yellow Hair made him famous as a Western
In 1872 he started appearing in stage shows about himself. Then from 1883, he started
organizing his Wild West Show. This exhibition included horsemanship, shooting skills,
mock battles, a buffalo hunt and lots of cowboys and Native Americans. The show featured
such stars as Annie Oakley and, from 1885, Chief Sitting Bull. Buffalo Bill continued to
star in this show until just two months before his death.
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Alphonse Capone claimed that he was born in
New York but it is more likely that he was born in Italy and emigrated with his family to
the USA when he was a child.
Capone turned to crime very early, and was involved in New York street gangs when he was a
teenager. He was a natural leader and soon had many gangsters and hoodlums following him.
In 1919 the Congress of the United States voted to ban all sales of alcoholic drinks, and
this became law the following year. This ban lasted for 13 years, and was called
Prohibition. During Prohibition, many criminals made fortunes because a lot of people
still wanted to drink beer and other alcoholic drinks, and only criminals could supply
them. Capone operated in Chicago during this time, running various illegal schemes
including the selling of alcoholic drinks. He became rich and influential through crime,
and was not arrested because he bribed many policemen and other officials. He was very
brutal and was involved in the murder of seven members of a rival gang in what became
known as the St Valentine's Day massacre.
Eventually, in 1932, Capone went to prison for not paying taxes. After only a few years,
he came out a sick man and died while still in his forties.
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Custer, George Armstrong
George Armstrong Custer grew up in a large,
boisterous family. He decided to be an army officer, but was almost expelled from the US
Military Academy at West Point. A friend wrote at the time, He is always connected
with all the mischief that is going on, and never studies more than he can help.
After West Point, Custer fought for the Union Army of the northern states in the American
Civil War from 1861 to 1865. His commanding officer called him gallant but
reckless. The newspapers called him the Boy General because he was
only 23 when he was promoted. He raced his cavalry to victory after victory and became a
legendary hero for his courage.
After the war, Custer was sent to fight the Native Americans who still roamed the Great
Plains. He often fought rashly and did not treat his men well, but the newspapers praised
him for his success.
Then, in 1876, Custer and all 266 of his troops were killed at Little Bighorn, South
Dakota, by a force of over 3000 Sioux led by Chief Sitting Bull. The only survivor was one
horse, which was found wandering by itself at the scene of the massacre.
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James Dean's mother died when he was just 5
years old, and he grew up on his uncle's farm. At school he loved acting, and went on to
perform on stage and television before becoming a star at the age of 24 in East of Eden
(1955). Within a few months he made two more films, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant
(1956), but before they appeared in cinemas he had an accident in his sports car and died.
Dean became a hero for teenagers who were angry at the way adults misunderstood them, just
like the character he played in Rebel Without a Cause. Many years after his death, his
face can still be seen on millions of posters, T-shirts and photographs bought by young
people all over the world.
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Walter Disney grew up on a Missouri farm,
and enjoyed sketching the animals around him. He later drew advertisements for an
advertising agency, before starting on cartoon films for the Laugh-o-Gram company in
Kansas. He created Mickey Mouse in 1928 and Donald Duck in 1934. These quickly became the
world's favourite cartoon characters. He then started making full-length animated films,
including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940) and Bambi (1942).
Sometimes he was criticized for changing famous stories to suit his cartoons.
His film company became the biggest producer of cartoons, but it also made children's
films with real actors such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and films such as Mary
Poppins (1964) which combined cartoon characters and real actors. Disney is now one of the
most successful film companies in the world, making films for adults as well as children.
In 1954 Walt Disney opened Disneyland, the huge amusement park in California. The even
bigger Disneyworld in Florida opened five years after his death, and Disneyworld near
Paris, France, opened in 1992, originally under the name of EuroDisney.
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Edison, Thomas Alva
When Thomas Edison was only 7 years old, he
was expelled from his school because the headmaster thought he was too slow to learn. His
mother then taught him at home and encouraged his interest in science. By the time he was
10 he had made his own laboratory. At the age of 12 he began to sell newspapers and sweets
in the carriages of the new railway trains. He set up a laboratory in the luggage van so
that he could do experiments while the train was in the station. He later started working
as a telegraph operator, but he continued doing experiments in his spare time.
Edison set up his own telegraph company before setting up a research laboratory, which he
called his invention factory. He used to boast that this laboratory made a
small invention every ten days and a big one every six months. In total, Edison patented
over 1000 inventions. One of the most important was the world's first machine for
recording sounds, the phonograph. The whole of our modern recording industry, for both pop
and classical music, developed from this invention.
Edison also helped to invent the electric lamp. The English inventor J. W. Swan had
pioneered the work on electric lamps some 20 years earlier. The lamp consisted of a wire
inside a glass bulb from which all the air had been taken out to create a vacuum. When an
electric current was passed through the wire, called a filament, it glowed white hot and
so gave out light. While he was experimenting, Edison found that a current could also flow
across the vacuum to a plate inside the bulb. He did not understand why, but we know today
it is due to electrons escaping from the filament: it is known now as the Edison effect.
This discovery led to the invention of the electronic valve (used before transistors and
microchips) and was really the beginning of the whole of our modern electronics industry.
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Henry Ford was born on his family's farm,
but he did not like farming. When he was 15, he became an apprentice in a machine shop,
and at night he worked repairing watches.
In 1893 Ford built his first car. It had two cylinders, two forward gears and a reverse
gear. He drove it for a thousand miles, then sold it and built two bigger cars. Then, in
1903, he started the Ford Motor Company.
Using light, strong vanadium steel, he built cheap, cars for everyone to buy. In 1908, he
built the first Ford Model T, the Tin Lizzie, which sold for $825.
By June, he was selling a hundred cars a day. By 1927, 15 million Model Ts had been made,
and the Ford Motor Company was worth 700 million dollars.
The cars were made on an assembly line: as they slowly moved the 300 metres through the
factory, workers completed simple single tasks on them. It was boring work, but Ford paid
the highest wages in the industry, and once, when he advertised for more workers, the
police had to control the crowd who came looking for jobs.
Ford went on to produce many fine cars in America and in Europe. They were simple, cheap
and reliable: You can afford a Ford was one slogan. However, keeping things
simple sometimes meant less choice. You can have any colour you like, said
Henry Ford of his Tin Lizzie, so long as it's black.
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As a young man, Benjamin Franklin tried a
number of jobs in America and England. Then, back in America, he set up his own printing
business, and by the age of 23 he was printing all the banknotes for Pennsylvania. In 1753
he became the postmaster for that colony.
He was always interested in science, and wanted to prove that lightning was just a giant
electrical spark. He took the risk of flying a kite up into a thundercloud and showed that
an electrical spark would jump from a key tied to the wet string. This famous experiment
led to the development of the lightning conductor or rod.
In 1757 Franklin became the representative of Pennsylvania in London. Later he spoke in
Parliament against the British government's tax policies towards the American colonies.
Then, after helping Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he
served in Paris where he persuaded France to support the rebels in the American
Revolution. He was very popular in France, and when he died a French writer said, He
snatched the lightning from the skies and the sceptre from tyrants.
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Michael Jackson was hailed as a singing and
dancing child genius from the age of 6. He began his show business career in 1968 when he
and his brothers formed a group called The Jackson Five. They had a string of hits in the
USA and Europe. Jackson's style was similar to that of such vocalists as Stevie Wonder and
Diana Ross, the singing star who encouraged him in his early days. In 1971, while still
singing with The Jackson Five, he also began a solo career which brought him further
While filming The Wiz, a 1978 remake of The Wizard of Oz with a black cast, Jackson met
producer and composer Quincey Jones. They worked closely together after that. Jackson's
first album with Jones was Off the Wall (1979), which sold 19 million copies. This was
followed by Thriller (1982), which sold 38 million copies and became the biggest selling
album ever, Bad (1987), Dangerous (1991) and HIStory (1995).
Over the years, Jackson developed a distinctive singing voice and his high-speed dancing
drew praise from experts such as Fred Astaire. His spectacular stage shows were one of the
main show business attractions of the 1980s. However, rumours of plastic surgery to
reshape his face, his bizarre pets and the fact that he lives hidden away in a luxurious
Hollywood mansion, led to Jackson being called Wacko Jacko by some newspapers.
A police investigation into his private life in 19941995 developed into a media
frenzy. Nevertheless, he still remains popular with his millions of fans and continues to
have hit records all over the world. In 1994 he married Lisa-Marie, the daughter of Elvis
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Michael Jordan was a leading college
basketball player at the University of North Carolina. He then began an outstanding career
with the Chicago Bulls, becoming the National Basketball Association's most valuable
player in 1988.
Jordan is renowned in professional American basketball for his high scoring. By 1992 he
had achieved a record average of 32.3 points in 589 games for the Bulls. He is known as
Air Jordan because of the height he can leap.
He competed in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 with the Dream Team. This US
team consisted of top millionaire professional players instead of the usual college
amateurs. Not surprisingly, the team easily won the Olympic gold medal.
Jordan announced his retirement from professional basketball in 1993, but less than two
years later he decided to resume his career.
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King Jr., Martin Luther
At the age of 15, Martin Luther King Jr.
went to college on a special programme for gifted students. He gained a divinity degree in
1948 and then trained to be a Baptist minister. In 1953 he married Coretta Scott, a fellow
In 1955 he became a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama and joined the struggle for black
people's rights. Led by King, the blacks organized a boycott of the buses in Montgomery.
This was because the buses had separate seats for blacks and whites, and blacks were
supposed to stand to let white people sit. The black people shared cars or walked to work
until the bus company gave in and allowed all passengers to sit where they liked.
This victory convinced King that the best way for black people to win equal rights was to
break laws in a non-violent way. In Atlanta and Birmingham he led sit-ins by
blacks in whites only eating places. In spite of being attacked and
imprisoned, King and his followers kept up their campaign. They gained so much support
that in August 1963, 200,000 people joined their march on Washington. It was at the rally
at the end of this march that he gave his famous I have a dream speech which
inspired millions of people throughout the world to campaign for civil rights. Here is an
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its
creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal. I have a
dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of
former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have
a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be
judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
The next year the Civil Rights Bill was made law and King was awarded the Nobel Peace
Prize for his work. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racial discrimination in public
places was forbidden. It also called for equal opportunity in employment and education.
The following year, King and his followers were involved in protests in Alabama against
the attempts by some white officials to prevent black people from voting. Within a short
time the US government made a law which ensured that all black people could vote.
In 1966 King became involved in a civil rights campaign in Chicago. He was committed to
peaceful methods. However, other black leaders began to oppose him because they believed
blacks should fight violence with violence, and they began using the slogan Black
Power. He also became unpopular with some people, especially the government, because
he opposed the war in Vietnam.
In April 1968 King visited Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike by black refuse
collectors. He was killed by a sniper. Only the night before his death, King had told his
audience: I may not get to the promised land with you, but I want you to know
tonight that we as a people will.
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Lee, Robert E.
Robert Edward Lee grew up to love the state
of Virginia where he was born. As a young man he went to the US Military Academy at West
Point. He graduated with honours in 1829 and then became an army officer. He fought in the
US war with Mexico (18461847) and his bravery made him famous.
Many years later, when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Lee decided to return to
Virginia to share the miseries of my people.
In April of that year, he resigned from the US army and trained the Confederate army of
the South. They won several victories, but they were poorly equipped: they did not have
enough guns and they had very little food.
At the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Lee's forces were outnumbered and defeated. For the
next year and a half they were forced back on the defensive, and they became more and more
ragged and hungry. Finally, at the beginning of April 1865, Lee surrendered to General
Ulysses S. Grant, the commander of the Union forces of the North, at Appomattox Court
Lee spent the last five years of his life as president of Washington College, Virginia. He
also urged Southerners to accept the outcome of the war and to keep the peace, thus
helping to heal the split between North and South.
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Charles Lindbergh always had an ambition to
fly aeroplanes. To please his mother he went to college in 1920, but he soon left so that
he could learn to fly. After a time in the Army Air Service in Texas, he got a job flying
the mail across America.
In 1926 a prize of $25,000 was put up for the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic
Ocean from New York to Paris. Several famous airmen decided to attempt this, and some were
killed in the attempt. On 20 May 1927 Lindbergh took off in a specially built aeroplane
called the Spirit of St Louis, named after the town where his employers had their
headquarters. He landed at Le Bourget Airport in Paris 33.5 hours later, having flown 5800
Lindbergh became a tremendous hero on both sides of the Atlantic, and went on to be an
important adviser during the growth of long-distance air travel. Then, in 1932, Lindbergh
and his wife suffered a great tragedy when their two-year-old son, Charles Augustus Jr.,
was kidnapped from their home and murdered. This was the most publicized crime in the USA
during the 1930s.
Towards the end of his life, Lindbergh became interested in conservation. He was firmly
opposed to the development of supersonic aeroplanes because he believed they would have a
bad effect on the Earth's atmosphere.
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Madonna Louise Ciccone is the most
successful female singer of the 1980s and 1990s. She initially studied dancing, and then
combined her dancing skills with pop singing after moving to New York. Some of her
outrageous clothes attracted as much attention as her singing.
Her hits, including Into the Groove (1985), Like a Virgin (1986), Like a Prayer (1989) and
Vogue (1990), had simple dance tunes, but unusual words and images. One of her albums,
True Blue (1986), was the No. 1 album in 28 countries. She has also acted in several
films, including Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Dick Tracy (1990), and Evita (1996).
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Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jean
Mortenson. Because her mother was mentally ill and unable to look after her, Monroe had a
miserable childhood in Los Angeles foster homes.
After working as a model and then acting in minor film roles, she found fame in the film
Niagara in 1953. Two of her best-known films, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Some
Like it Hot (1959), show she was a fine comic actress. However, she also took serious,
dramatic roles in films such as Bus Stop (1956) and The Misfits (1961), her last film.
Monroe's private life was not always happy. She was married three times: her husbands
included the baseball star Joe DiMaggio and the playwright Arthur Miller. However, even
now, many years after her death from a drugs overdose, she is remembered as one of the
most beautiful stars of cinema history.
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Kurt Cobain grew up in Aberdeen, a logging
town in Washington state in the north-western USA. He escaped from boredom through music,
firstly through listening to The Beatles and Punk Rock and later from helping a local band
on tour. While touring Kurt met Chris Novoselic and they decided to form a band.
Nirvana began in 1987. Their first single Love Buzz/Big Cheese was released in 1988 and
their first album Bleach appeared in 1989. However, it was not until Dave Grohl (their
sixth drummer) joined in 1990 that the Nirvana line-up stabilised ready for the recording
of the landmark album Nevermind. Nevermind was released in October 1991 and with the
phenomenal success of the opening track and single Smells like Teen Spirit it catapulted
the band to international stardom although it took until 1993 for Nevermind to
reach to the top 20 in Britain.
The band was fraught with controversy mostly about Kurt Cobain. The anxiety and
energy which is evident in his songs was also present in his private life. Media
speculation about drug abuse surrounded his marriage to Courtney Love(the lead singer of
the band Hole) and the birth of their baby Frances Bean. Alongside this, Kurt was arrested
and detained by police in Seattle following a domestic dispute with his wife which had
arisen from an argument over his gun collection.
The band continued to produce music and their second album, InUtero, went straight to
number one on both sides of the Atlantic. This success was repeated by the release of
Unplugged in New York a recording of acoustic arrangements of their songs performed
in front of a live audience. Unplugged in New York was released after the singer's death
from self inflicted gunshot wounds.
Nirvana's energy-driven sound combined the elements of angry punk and the melody of pop
music and heralded the early 1990s grunge style of music and fashion.
In the wake of Nirvana's break-up, Dave Grohl has formed The Foo Fighters, Chris Novoselic
has formed Sweet 75 and Courtney Love has continued with her own band Hole which has
produced Live Through This, the follow up to their first album Pretty On the Inside.
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Elvis Aron Presley was born into a poor
family in Mississippi. As a teenager, he spent much of his time with black musicians,
learning a lot about blues and gospel music. In 1953 he paid to make a record for his
mother's birthday at Sun Records in Memphis. The owner liked his unusual mixture of
country, blues and gospel styles, and offered him professional recording work.
His first local hit was That's All Right in 1954, and he created a sensation on television
by swivelling his hips while singing. Adults were outraged, but teenagers loved it. By
1956 he was a national star, making huge hits such as Hound Dog, Blue Suede Shoes and
Heartbreak Hotel. Known as the King of Rock'n'Roll, he eventually recorded 94
gold singles and over 40 gold albums. He also starred in 27 films.
By the mid-1960s, he was being challenged by other stars such as The Beatles, but he
continued touring and recording. His appearances in Las Vegas in 1969 were particularly
successful. In the 1970s he spent more and more time in Graceland, his huge mansion in
Memphis. He died there of heart failure in 1977.
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Rockefeller, John D.
John Davison Rockefeller was working as a
businessman when the first oil well was drilled in the USA in 1859. Four years later he
started an oil refinery near Cleveland, Ohio. By 1870 his company had become the Standard
Oil Company, which began to buy up many other oil companies.
By 1882 Rockefeller's company had become almost the only refiner of oil in the USA, with
95 per cent of all business. This monopoly made him into a multimillionaire. Once he had
made his fortune he began to look for good and useful ways to spend it. In 1891 he paid
for the University of Chicago to be set up. Later he also set up the Rockefeller Institute
for Medical Research (which became Rockefeller University) in New York City. In 1913,
after he retired from the oil business, he began the Rockefeller Foundation to finance
many charitable activities.
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Bruce Springsteen began his career playing
in small clubs and bars around America, but later became one of the most popular live
entertainers ever. Although he had great successes with albums like Born to Run (1975),
The River (1980) and Born in the USA (1984), it was his live shows that his fans
remembered best. In 1984, now nicknamed The Boss, he set off on the hardest
and longest rock tour ever, playing 158 shows in 61 cities in 11 different countries of
the world. On this tour he played and sang to nearly 5 million people altogether and
earned millions of dollars.
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Annie Mae Bullock was always a fine singer,
but her career began when she went on stage for a dare to sing with the rhythm'n'blues
group, Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm. She later married Ike, and together they had many
hits, such as River Deep, Mountain High (1966) and Nutbush City Limits (1973).
After she divorced Ike in 1976, she struggled to develop a solo career and in 1983 she had
a hit again with Let's Stay Together. Her new approach to records and live shows, blending
her soulful vocals with rock guitars, resulted in What's Love Got to Do With It (1984)
becoming record of the year in the USA and establishing her as a major star of
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Neither Wilbur nor Orville Wright had a
proper education, but they were both interested in mechanics and had a real determination
to succeed. Orville was a champion cyclist and he and Wilbur made and sold their own
bicycles. They were also interested in kites and were fascinated by some gliding
experiments that had taken place in Germany. They built three gliding craft of their own
before deciding to try and build a powered aircraft.
By 1903 the Wright brothers had built The Flyer. It was a biplane (with two sets of wings)
and the pilot lay flat across the lower wing. A series of bicycle chains and gears
connected the engine to two propellers. On 17 December 1903, at Kitty Hawk in North
Carolina, Orville Wright made a 12-second flight over a distance of 36 metres. This was
the first aeroplane flight in history. Later that morning, Wilbur flew for nearly a
minute. However, only five people saw the flights, and there was no general interest in
what the Wright brothers had done.
They carried on building better aeroplanes and in 1905 Wilbur flew 38 kilometres in a
half-hour flight. Three years later he flew for two hours and twenty minutes. Other people
in Europe and America began building planes, but the Wright brothers sued many of them for
using the special system that they had designed.
Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912, and Orville gave up building planes a couple of
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