May 20 Events in History

This article offers a concise overview of key historical events that occurred on May 20th, spanning from ancient milestones to modern breakthroughs.

Each entry highlights significant moments such as pivotal explorations, critical political changes, and major scientific advancements, illustrating how this day has been influential across various periods and contexts.

The narrative provides insights into the diverse ways in which May 20th has shaped global history, reflecting on its enduring impact and historical significance.

May 20th – On this Day in History

325 – The First Council of Nicaea is formally opened, starting the first ecumenical council of the Christian Church

The First Council of Nicaea was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in Nicaea, Bithynia (now İznik, Turkey). It was the first ecumenical council of the Christian Church, attended by approximately 318 delegates.

The council was primarily called to resolve disagreements in the Church of Alexandria over the nature of Jesus in relation to the Father; in particular, whether Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father or merely of similar substance.

Also Read: May 19 Events in History

This was the Arian controversy, and the council’s decision was to affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, declaring that Jesus was of the same substance as the Father. The council also issued the Nicene Creed, which laid out these beliefs clearly.

Vasco da Gama

1498 – Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrives at Kozhikode (formerly Calicut), India

Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama became the first European to reach India by sea, linking Europe and Asia by an ocean route. He arrived at Kozhikode on the Malabar Coast (modern-day Kerala, India). This voyage was significant as it opened the sea-based spice trade between Europe and Asia.

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Gama’s expedition was also monumental in establishing a sea route that would help the Portuguese Empire establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia, marking the beginning of European colonialism in the East.

1609 – Shakespeare’s sonnets are first published in London, perhaps illicitly, by the publisher Thomas Thorpe

The sonnets of William Shakespeare were published in London by Thomas Thorpe. The collection, titled “Shakespeare’s Sonnets”, consisted of 154 poems and is among the most profound and influential love poetry in English literature.

The identity of the “Mr. W.H.” to whom the sonnets are dedicated remains a mystery, leading to much speculation and literary investigation. These sonnets address themes such as love, beauty, politics, and mortality, and are notable for their emotional intensity and use of language.

1631 – The city of Magdeburg in Germany is seized by forces under the command of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, leading to the massacre of its inhabitants in the Thirty Years’ War

The city of Magdeburg in Germany was besieged and then sacked by troops under the command of the Catholic League during the Thirty Years’ War. After months of siege, on May 20, 1631, Imperial forces stormed Magdeburg and set it on fire.

The resulting massacre saw the death of about 20,000 of the city’s 30,000 residents, one of the most brutal incidents of the war. The Sack of Magdeburg had a profound impact on European Protestant opinion at the time and became a symbol of Catholic cruelty in Protestant histories.

1690 – England passes the Act of Grace, forgiving followers of James II

The Act of Grace, also known as the Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity, and Oblivion, was passed by the English Parliament under King William III and Queen Mary II.

This act was designed to reconcile the political divisions in England following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the subsequent Jacobite uprising in 1689 by pardoning the followers of the deposed King James II.

It was a remarkable gesture meant to ease political tensions and solidify the new regime by forgiving past offenses against the monarchy and government, although significant exceptions were listed, including notable Jacobite leaders.

civil war battle

1861 – North Carolina secedes from the Union during the American Civil War

As part of the broader secession crisis that enveloped the United States leading up to the Civil War, North Carolina voted to secede from the Union on May 20, 1861. It was the tenth of eleven states to declare its secession from the United States, an act that was largely motivated by the issues surrounding states’ rights and slavery.

The secession of North Carolina came shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter and President Abraham Lincoln’s subsequent call for troops to suppress the rebellion, which prompted the remaining undecided Southern states to join the Confederacy.

North Carolina would play a significant role in the Civil War, providing a large number of troops to the Confederate forces.

1873 – Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis receive a U.S. patent for blue jeans with copper rivets

On this day, Levi Strauss, a businessman, and Jacob Davis, a tailor, received a U.S. patent for an improvement in men’s work pants—reinforcing them with copper rivets. This invention marked the birth of one of the world’s most famous garments: blue jeans.

Originally designed for miners during the California Gold Rush, the durable construction featuring rivets at points of strain made these denim pants popular among manual laborers. Over time, jeans became an icon of fashion and youth culture and remain a staple of wardrobe choices around the world.

1882 – The Triple Alliance is formed between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy

The Triple Alliance was a military alliance formed on May 20, 1882, among Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, aiming to provide mutual support in the event of an attack by France or Russia. The alliance was part of the complex network of diplomatic and military agreements in Europe, which sought to balance power and prevent conflicts.

Although primarily defensive in nature, the terms and conditions of the alliance contributed to the tensions that eventually led to World War I. The alliance was periodically renewed until World War I broke out, by which time Italy had shifted its allegiance to join the Allied Powers against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

1891 – History’s first public display of Thomas Edison’s prototype kinetoscope (motion picture machine)

Thomas Edison’s prototype of the kinetoscope, an early motion picture exhibition device, was shown to the public for the first time on May 20, 1891.

This demonstration in Edison’s laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, to members of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, featured a 3-second clip of one of Edison’s employees pretending to sneeze.

The kinetoscope created the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter. This invention was crucial in the development of cinema, laying the groundwork for the motion picture industry.

1902 – Cuba gains independence from the United States

Cuba gained formal independence from the United States on May 20, 1902, with the termination of the American military occupation following the Spanish-American War. Tomás Estrada Palma took office as the first President of the Republic of Cuba.

This day, however, marked not just the end of American rule but also the beginning of the Platt Amendment era, whereby the U.S. retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and control its finances and foreign relations.

Cuban Independence Day celebrates this historic moment, despite the complicated aspects of its independence and the significant influence the U.S. continued to wield over the island.

1927 – At 7:52 a.m., Charles Lindbergh takes off from Roosevelt Field in New York on the world’s first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean

On May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh took off in the “Spirit of St. Louis” from Roosevelt Field in New York, aiming for Paris in what would be the first solo non-stop transatlantic flight. The flight covered an impressive distance of approximately 3,600 miles (5,800 km) and took 33.5 hours to complete.

This monumental flight not only challenged the existing limits of aviation but also transformed Lindbergh into an international hero, demonstrating the potential of air travel and earning him the U.S. Medal of Honor for his pioneering spirit and bravery.

1932 – Amelia Earhart takes off from Newfoundland to begin the world’s first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean by a female pilot

Amelia Earhart, one of the world’s most celebrated aviators, began her solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean on May 20, 1932, from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, in her Lockheed Vega 5B.

She landed in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, approximately 14 hours and 56 minutes later, becoming the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic.

This flight occurred exactly five years after Charles Lindbergh’s historic journey. Earhart’s achievement not only broke barriers for women in aviation but also earned her the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress, recognizing her courage and pioneering achievements in aviation.

1940 – Holocaust: The Auschwitz concentration camp is established in Poland

The Auschwitz concentration camp was established on May 20, 1940, when the first prisoners—30 German criminal prisoners who were to be the camp overseers—arrived at the site. Located in occupied Poland during World War II, Auschwitz became the largest of the Nazi regime’s death camps and extermination centers.

Over the course of the war, it is estimated that 1.1 million people were killed there, with the majority being Jewish. Auschwitz has since become a primary symbol of the Holocaust and human suffering caused by the Nazi genocide policy.

1941 – World War II: Battle of Crete – German paratroopers invade Crete

The Battle of Crete began on May 20, 1941, with Nazi Germany launching an airborne invasion of Crete, codenamed Operation Mercury. This was the first mainly airborne invasion in military history, where Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) were dropped onto the Greek island to capture key airfields and locations.

Despite heavy losses, German forces eventually overcame the Allied defenders, consisting of Greek, British, Australian, and New Zealand troops. The battle marked a significant but costly victory for the Axis powers and resulted in a high number of casualties, leading Hitler to hesitate before approving other large airborne operations.

1965 – Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) successfully launches its seventh rocket in its Rehber series

Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) successfully launched its seventh rocket, named Rehber-II, on May 20, 1965.

This event marked an important milestone in Pakistan’s space program, which was established in 1961 with an objective to develop and advance space technology for peaceful and scientific research purposes.

The Rehber-II launch was part of early efforts that demonstrated the country’s interest and capability in space technology, helping Pakistan to join the ranks of countries capable of conducting such scientific experiments.

1980 – Referendum in Quebec, Canada, on sovereignty-association is defeated

On May 20, 1980, Quebec held a referendum to seek public approval for the provincial government’s proposal for sovereignty-association. This proposal entailed Quebec obtaining political independence while maintaining a close economic association or partnership with the rest of Canada.

The referendum was defeated with 59.56% voting against the proposal and 40.44% in favor. This was a significant event in Canadian history, reflecting the ongoing debates about the identity, language, and autonomy of Quebec within Canada. The defeat of the proposal led to continued discussions on Quebec’s status and later, another referendum in 1995.

1983 – The discovery of the HIV virus that causes AIDS is first reported by scientists in the United States and France

On May 20, 1983, the discovery of the HIV virus that causes AIDS was first reported in the journal Science by a team of French scientists from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, led by Luc Montagnier.

This publication followed an earlier one by Robert Gallo’s team in the United States, which had identified the same virus. The identification of the virus was a crucial step in understanding and fighting the AIDS epidemic, as it opened the door for diagnostic tests and research towards treatments and a potential cure.

This discovery has had profound implications on global health and has been central to the ongoing efforts to manage and prevent AIDS worldwide.

1989 – The Chinese government declares martial law in response to pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square

On May 20, 1989, the Chinese government declared martial law in response to the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

This decision marked a significant escalation in the government’s response to the protests, which had started in April 1989. Thousands of students and other citizens were demanding political reform, greater political freedom, and an end to systemic corruption.

The imposition of martial law led to the deployment of military troops and eventually culminated in the violent crackdown in early June, which resulted in a still-undetermined number of deaths, with estimates ranging from several hundred to thousands.

1990 – The first ever pictures of the solar system’s poles are taken by Voyager 1

On May 20, 1990, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, which had been launched in 1977 to study the outer Solar System, took the first-ever photographs of the solar system’s poles.

These images provided a unique perspective on the solar system, offering insights into the structures and dynamics of planetary atmospheres from a vantage point that had not been seen before.

The images were part of a broader mission that provided a wealth of data on Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons, significantly advancing our understanding of the outer solar system.

2013 – A devastating EF5 tornado strikes Moore, Oklahoma, resulting in 24 deaths and significant damage

A devastating EF5 tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013. With peak winds estimated at 210 miles per hour, the tornado covered a path of destruction over 17 miles long and 1.3 miles wide. It lasted for approximately 39 minutes, causing the deaths of 24 people and injuring 212 others.

The tornado destroyed 1,150 homes and resulted in approximately $2 billion in damages, making it one of the deadliest and most destructive tornadoes in the history of the United States. The Moore tornado is particularly notable for its intensity and the level of devastation it caused, highlighting the challenges of disaster preparedness and response in tornado-prone areas.