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What in the World? January History Lessons You Can Teach at Home (Part 3)

by David Engle | Jan 15, 2021 | 12 min read

This is a fascinating world we live in. When you step back and look at it, something historic has happened literally every single day. Sure, some events are bigger and more important than others, but think about it…history is made every day.

In this regular blog series, we’re going to look at world history by month, with a few blog posts each month that list momentous events in the history of the world–and inspiration for lessons that you can teach your children at home!

We just finished the first and second parts of January. Next up is Part 3, so enjoy some more historic dates in January!

January 16, 1991: The war against Iraq begins. Known as Operation Desert Storm and the Persian Gulf War, the war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq began as Allied aircraft conducted a major raid against Iraqi air defenses. For the parents reading this, if you grew up in the 1990s, you undoubtedly recall quite vividly the live broadcasts by CNN and other networks of nighttime air raids on Baghdad. We learned the terms “shock and awe”, and we were all familiar with SCUD missiles, Patriot missiles, and the names of the American POWs. Why did the US–along with dozens of other allies–invade Iraq? Because Hussein and Iraq invaded the small Middle Eastern country of Kuwait, which was not strong enough to defend itself against the strong Iraqi forces. In retaliation to the US attacks, Iraq fired nearly 90 SCUD missiles into Israel and Saudi Arabia over the next six weeks, hoping for a military response by Israel. After five weeks of bombing and several hours of ground battle, President George H.W. Bush ended the fighting and declared that Kuwait had been liberated on February 28, 1991. On their way out of Kuwait, the Iraqis set fire to more than 700 oil wells.

As the Iraqis were retreating along the Kuwait-Iraq border, several bombs were dropped along what is now known as the “Highway of Death”. Possibly thousands of Iraqi troops were killed or wounded, and the rest were pushed by American, British, and French forces back to Iraq. While the war was not a lengthy one in comparison to others, it was important as it led to the liberation of a helpless country and set the stage for the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the introduction of democracy to Iraq. Dig deeper into the Persian Gulf War, the reign of Saddam Hussein, and the aftermath of the war.

January 17, 1706: Benjamin Franklin is born in Boston. Founding Father. Inventor. Printer. Author and publisher. Scientist. Diplomat. Philanthropist. If ever there was a Renaissance man, it was Benjamin Franklin. The list of Franklin’s accomplishments is nearly endless. Here are just a handful:

  • He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
  • He negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War.
  • He helped incorporate the first subscription library in America, the Library Company of Philadelphia, in 1731.
  • He ran the Pennsylvania Gazette, turning it from a floundering publication into the most widely read newspaper in the colonies.
  • He organized the volunteer Union Fire Company in Philadelphia.
  • He published Poor Richard’s Almanack for 25 consecutive years.
  • He helped found the American Philosophical Society.
  • He was a soldier in the Pennsylvania militia.
  • He invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, the armonica (a musical instrument), the rocking chair, the flexible catheter, and the American penny.
  • He discovered the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean.
  • He earned honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, the University of Oxford, and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
  • He helped create the foundation for the University of Pennsylvania.
  • He demonstrated how electricity worked and could be used, and invented the lightning rod, as well as terms such as battery, charge, conductor, and electrify.
  • He was a president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
  • He was a member of the Philadelphia city council, an alderman, and a representative to the Pennsylvania Assembly.
  • He helped overturn the British Stamp Act in 1766.
  • He served as the postmaster general of the colonies.
  • He was elected to the Second Continental Congress.
  • He served as America’s first ambassador to France.
  • He created the Great Compromise, which resulted in the proportional representation in the House of Representatives and equal representation by state in the Senate.

That’s quite a list of accomplishments. And they truly tell the story of Benjamin Franklin and his importance to the foundation and democracy of our country. He died at the age of 84 and is buried in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia, where you can’t turn your head without seeing the impact he had on the City of Brotherly Love–the Benjamin Franklin Bridge that connects Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, the Franklin Institute Museum, his burial site at Christ Church, the house where he lived, Franklin Square, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Franklin Field–just to name a few. And, of course, his bust graces the American $100 bill. Pick a few of Mr. Franklin’s many accomplishments and learn more about this fascinating man.

January 17, 1942: Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) is born in Louisville, Kentucky. Sure, Muhammad Ali was a boxer–a great one, at that. But he was so much more to so many people. Born as Cassius Clay, he grew up in the segregated South and endured racism throughout his childhood. He channeled his anger into boxing and won his first amateur bout at age 12. Young Cassius Clay won a handful of Golden Gloves tournaments shortly after, leading him to a spot on the United States Olympic team in 1960, and ultimately a gold medal in the light heavyweight division. A star was born.

And that star commanded the spotlight like no other athlete. In 1964, Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In 1967, after being drafted into the military, Ali refused to serve on the grounds that he was a Muslim minister whose religious beliefs prevented him from fighting in a war. Upon that announcement, he was arrested, charged with a felony, and stripped of the world championship he had earned by beating Sonny Liston in 1964. The US Department of Justice charged Muhammad Ali and sentenced him to five years in prison, though he remained free while he appealed his conviction. During this time, Ali missed three years of what should have been the prime of his career. He finally returned to the ring in 1970 and had his conviction overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1971. This is when Ali’s career really took off. In 1971, Ali and “Smokin’” Joe Frazier battled for 15 rounds in what was called “The Fight of the Century”–the judges awarded the bout to Frazier, resulting in Ali’s first loss in 31 fights. In 1974, Ali pulled off a huge upset of heavyweight champion George Foreman during the “Rumble in the Jungle,” held in Zaire, Africa. In this bout, Ali used his famous “rope-a-dope” technique to wear Foreman down before scoring an eighth-round knockout. Fast-forward to 1975, when Ali and Frazier battled in a rematch, famously known as the “Thrilla in Manila,” which Ali won after 14 brutal rounds. Muhammad Ali fought until 1981, dropping his final bout to Trevor Berbick before retiring at the age of 39 with an impressive record of 56 wins, 5 losses, and 37 knockouts.

Muhammad Ali’s persona took on an almost-mythical quality, with his boasts of being “The Greatest” and boasting “I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”…among other famous quotes. Not long after his retirement, in 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He continued to battle the disease as well as spinal stenosis as he turned his efforts toward philanthropy. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Ali supported the Special Olympics as well as the Make-A-Wish Foundation; one of his highlights was his emotional lighting of the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Games. Throughout his retirement, he traveled to several countries to offer his help, and in 1998, Muhammad Ali was selected to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace thanks to his work in developing nations. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005 as well as the President’s Award from the NAACP for his public service work in 2009. Muhammad Ali, a global icon, passed away in 2016 at the age of 74, leaving behind an athletic, political, and philanthropic legacy that’s worth further exploration.

January 18, 1966: Robert Clifton Weaver is sworn in as the first African American cabinet member in American history. Having earned a B.A. and Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University, Robert C. Weaver set out on a trailblazing career in politics. Throughout the New Deal era, Mr. Weaver served as an advisor on minority affairs for several federal agencies. He went on to teach at Northwestern University, Columbia University, and New York University from 1947 until 1951 and after a few other positions, he was named the vice chairman of the New York City Housing and Redevelopment Board in 1960. Shortly thereafter, President-elect John F. Kennedy asked Mr. Weaver to serve as his administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA). He continued his HHFA work through the Johnson administration after President Kennedy’s assassination, drafting all of the administration’s housing and urban renewal programs.

In September of 1965, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was created, and Mr. Weaver was appointed as its first secretary in January 1966. This made him the first African American appointed to a cabinet position in US history. Despite many initiatives and programs, urban decay in America continued, which led to Mr. Weaver’s resignation from his position on January 1, 1969. He later became the president of Bernard Baruch College and then a professor at Hunter College. Mr. Weaver passed away in 1997, but not before paving the way for other minorities to be deservedly hired into high-level government positions. Take a look at other prominent Black politicians, including President Barack Obama, the late Congressman John Lewis, and Vice President Kamala Harris.

January 19, 1809: Edgar Allan Poe is born in Boston. One of the most influential writers in American history, Edgar Allan Poe created work that spanned genres. He’s well known for poetry, such as his famous works “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” but Poe is also considered the “Master of the Macabre” thanks to legendary short stories such as “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Masque of the Red Death,” all of which told horror stories with psychological depth and insight rarely seen before. Perhaps overshadowed by his masterful works of horror, Poe was actually an early pioneer of the science fiction genre, writing stories about new inventions as well as science. Poe was actually quite adept with detective stories as well, such as his famous “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Poe’s life was as mysterious as his writing. What is known is that he was orphaned by the age of three and went on to live with John and Francis Allan in Richmond, Virginia. He attended the University of Virginia before enlisting in the US Army in 1827. He returned to Virginia briefly before being accepted into the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he excelled in academics but was expelled after a year due to substandard performance at his duties. Upon leaving West Point, Poe moved from city to city, residing in New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Richmond. He struggled to earn a living while writing, but he received the break he needed when one of his short stories won a contest sponsored by a Baltimore publication. He continued publishing short stories and soon landed a job as an editor for the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond in 1835. He worked for other magazines and published his most famous works (though not truly recognized for their greatest until later) from the late 1830s through the early 1840s before moving to New York City in 1844–just a year later, the publication of “The Raven” gained Poe literary recognition that had been so elusive to that point. Yet he still struggled financially and in the autumn of 1849, his health started failing. His final days remain a mystery all these years later. He was found in Baltimore on October 3 in terrible condition and died in a hospital four days later. Some experts believe that Poe’s alcoholism led to his early death, while other theories such as rabies, carbon monoxide poisoning, and epilepsy surround his mysterious demise. The mystery fits the legendary writer and his work; use those famous stories to learn more about Edgar Allan Poe as well as the influence he had on many writers and genres.

January 20, 1981: Ronald Reagan is inaugurated as president of the United States at age 69. Former actor and governor of California Ronald Reagan was elected as the 40th president of the United States in 1980 and immediately made a huge impact on America and the world. Before he became an icon of the Republican Party, Mr. Reagan was actually a Democrat until 1962. Just a few years later, in 1966, Mr. Reagan won the gubernatorial election in a landslide, going on to serve two terms as governor of the Golden State. While he had eyes on the presidency since 1968, Mr. Reagan made a committed run for the Republican nomination in 1975 but lost the spot to Gerald Ford in 1976. His strong showing, however, empowered Mr. Reagan to run again in 1980, this time beating incumbent President Jimmy Carter quite handily. Mr. Reagan, with George H.W. Bush as his vice president, assumed office on January 20, 1981; only two months later, Mr. Reagan was shot in the chest in an assassination attempt. After surgery, President Reagan made a full recovery and appeared before Congress less than a month later, where he received a lengthy standing ovation–as well as overwhelming support for his economic package, which included cuts in taxes and social programs as well as an increase in defense spending. A highlight from his first term was the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the US Supreme Court, making her the first female justice. On the flip side, by 1982, the country was suffering through its worst recession since the Great Depression. Would voters push back in the 1984 election? Not even close. President Reagan obliterated Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, capturing 525 electoral votes.

On January 20, 1985, President Reagan became the oldest to ever be sworn into office at the age of 73. During his second term, notable events include TWA Flight 847 being hijacked by terrorists, with many of its passengers held hostage in Lebanon for 17 days; and he and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev holding talks in hopes of ending the Cold War. But it was in November 1986 that Reagan’s legacy began to take a hit. It was then that he admitted to sending weapons to Iran, but disputed that it was an arms-for-hostages deal. In what became the Iran-Contra affair, it was determined that between $10 million and $30 million of profits from the sale of weapons to Iran was funnelled to Nicaraguan Contras for their efforts in overthrowing the Nicaraguan government. This scandal dragged into 1988, when the guilty parties (Colonel Oliver North and National Security Adviser John Poindexter) were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiring to defraud the government. But by the end of President Reagan’s second term, the good outweighed the bad, and he left office as the highest-rated president since FDR. After his exit, the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 and the USSR dissolved in December 1991–neither of these historic events would have occurred without the groundwork President Reagan helped lay while in office. Ronald Reagan died on June 5, 2004 at the age of 93. Take a look at the history-making events that occurred during his time as Commander in Chief.

January 21, 1976: The Concorde supersonic jet begins passenger service. Built jointly by manufacturers in Great Britain and France, the Concorde jet actually made its first transatlantic flight in September of 1973. But it made history on January 21, 1976 when it became the first supersonic jet to carry passengers, flown by British Airways from London to Bahrain and then by Air France from Paris to Rio de Janieiro. By May 1976, the Concorde was making regular flights to and from Washington, DC and then to and from New York City by November 1977. Why was the Concorde so historic? Because it reached top cruising speeds of 1,354 miles per hour, or Mach 2.04–more than twice the speed of sound. This speed reduced what would normally be a nearly seven-hour flight from London to New York City to only three hours. Unfortunately, the operating costs of the Concorde jet were unsustainable, and New York was the only destination that remained. On July 25, 2000, an Air France flight from Paris to New York suffered engine failure just after takeoff and burst into flames before crashing into a hotel, killing all 109 people on board as well as four on the ground. The Concorde’s final flights through Air France and British Airways occurred in 2003, but not before making history. Look at some other breakthroughs in transportation history, even if they weren’t long-term successes.

January 23, 1849: Elizabeth Blackwell becomes America’s first female doctor by earning an M.D. Inspired by the words of a dying friend who confided in her that she would have been treated better by a female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell faced a tough road toward becoming a physician. At that time, in the early to mid-19th century, no medical colleges accepted women, so Ms. Blackwell turned to teaching. While she was teaching, Ms. Blackwell stayed with two Southern physicians who mentored her before she made her way to Philadelphia in 1847 in hopes that her Quaker friends could help her get into medical school. Unfortunately, she was turned away but was eventually accepted into Geneva College in rural New York. As a woman, Ms. Blackwell faced prejudice and resentment at first–but she ultimately won over her professors and fellow students, graduating first in her class in 1849. It was at this moment that Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female doctor in American history. She continued her training in London and Paris, emphasizing personal hygiene and then returned to New York City in 1851, where she faced hurdles as she tried to practice medicine in hospitals and clinics. She solved that problem by opening the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857. In 1868, Dr. Blackwell opened a medical college in New York City and then returned to London, where she became a professor of gynecology at the new London School of Medicine for Women in 1875. She also helped found the National Health Society and publish several books. Discover more female pioneers and learn about what they went through to blaze the trail for all women who followed.

January 25, 1971: Idi Amin leads a military coup to oust Ugandan President Milton Obote. In 1962, Apollo Milton Obote led the African country of Uganda to independence from British rule and became the country’s first elected leader. Less than 10 years later, President Obote’s government was overthrown in a coup d’etat by the brutal Idi Amin Dada who, less than a month later, elevated himself to the rank of full general and suspended elections for at least five years. Sadly, this was one of the less harmful actions taken by Amin. Over the course of his eight-year reign of terror (1971-1979), Amin was considered an extreme nationalist and a tyrant. In 1972, Amin instituted a genocidal system that purged Uganda of its Lango and Acholi ethnic groups. He also expelled 60,000 Indians and Pakistanis because he believed that they were exploiting the economy. In 1976, Amin declared himself president for life and increased his suppression of ethnic groups and political opponents. But his reign wasn’t to last much longer–in 1979, Tanzania launched a counteroffensive with help from the Uganda National Liberation Front, a coalition of various armed Ugandan exiles. Amin and his deputies left Uganda, and Milton Obote returned to take over as the president of Uganda once again. But the damage was already done–it’s estimated that Amin was responsible for the murder of as many as 300,000 Ugandan citizens, and he never stood trial for his atrocities. A difficult lesson to be sure, but an opening to discuss past genocides and government coups.

That does it for the third part of historical figures and events for January. Stay tuned for the next part, coming soon! In the meantime, check out our partner site,, for more fun and factual lessons!

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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