12 August 30 BC

After learning that her lover Mark Antony has been defeated and killed, Cleopatra, effectively the last Egyptian pharaoh, commits suicide by forcing an asp to bite her.


12 August 1762

Birth of George Augustus Frederick, the eldest son of King George III and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He became prince regent in 1811 following the illness of his father, and succeeded to the throne as King George IV in 1820.

12 August 1851: Singer’s sewing machine is born

A simple invention becomes a ‘must-have’ appliance

For years Isaac Merritt Singer lived in obscurity. The son of German immigrants who had settled in New York, Singer had little formal education. He was a chancer, drifting from job to job but dreaming of a life on the stage. When he was 28 he invented a machine to drill through rock, sold it to a canal-building company, and ploughed $2,000 into a theatrical troupe called the Merritt Players.

When the money dried up, Singer fell back on his mechanical wheezes. He now had eight children to support; desperate for funds, he tried to sell a machine for cutting wooden blocks. There were few takers. But when Singer was exhibiting his machine in Orson C Phelps’s Boston machine shop, he had a stroke of luck. Phelps made and repaired sewing machines, and one day he gave Singer a broken machine and asked him to fix it.

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Singer set to work. Eleven days later, he had not only repaired the machine, he had added a crucial modification, with the shuttle moving in a straight line (not a curve) using a straight needle. On 12 August 1851 he secured a patent for his machine – and the rest was unalloyed success. With Phelps’ backing, he set up a hugely successful company to sell cheap machines for domestic use, investing heavily in mass production.

The sewing machine became the emblematic appliance of the Victorian era; by the 1860s Singer had factories in Europe and agencies all over the world. He built an opulent mansion in Devon, which had its own private theatre, and drove around New York in a grotesque yellow and black carriage, drawn by six horses. It had 31 seats and its own water closet, which was probably just as well since Singer fathered at least 18 children by four women. By most people’s standards he was a pretty bad man, but he made owning a sewing machine a reality for thousands of people. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

12 August 1960

Launch of Echo 1A, NASA’s first communications satellite. A large metallised balloon, it was used to reflect telephone, radio and television signals and at night it was visible to the naked eye.

12 August 1969

Catholic residents clashed with the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the Bogside area of Derry. The three days of rioting that ensued became known as the battle of the Bogside and led to the deployment of British troops to restore order.


12 August 1981

At a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria ballroom in New York, IBM launched its 5150 Personal Computer with a price tag of $1,565.

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