Monthly Archives: April 2014

Fordlandia — Henry Ford’s Plan to Plop a Slice of Michigan in the Middle of the Amazon Rainforest

Henry Ford, the man who believed he could tame the Amazon. Naturally, that didn't work well.

Henry Ford, the man who believed he could tame the Amazon. Naturally, that didn’t work out too well.

The history of the twentieth century is littered with the husks of grand plans that didn’t quite pan out. Whether it was the plan to dam the Mediterranean or for a weapon to end all war, some plans were flawed from the get go. However, those two plans were only drawn out on paper; no one got around to actually building them, often because the money wasn’t there.

But there were plenty of wacky and ambitious ideas from that time period conceived by men for whom money was not an issue. Henry Ford was one of those men. The man who revolutionized modern life with the assembly line and the first affordable automobile — the Model T — was not one to rest on his laurels. In the late 1920s he turned his sights toward a part of the automotive business often taken for granted–tires. Especially the rubber that made those tires. At the time, the biggest chunk of the necessary material came from the European colonies in Southeast Asia, where rubber trees could be cultivated free from the parasites and pests that plagued them in their native Amazon.

Ford was not content to let this state of affairs continue, however. He envisioned securing a rubber supply for America that was free of European intermediaries. To further this end, he concocted a plan to buy up big plots of land in Brazil and form his own rubber plantation: Fordlandia.

 

Good idea, terrible execution

Fordlandia was not as terrible an idea as, say, building a giant orbital death ray. It was actually a pretty good idea; securing a rubber supply in South America would allow Ford to import the crucial material at lower costs, not to mention secure it from the vagaries of overseas politics. However, that was about as far as good sense went with the whole scheme.

This was in part because Ford did not only wish to produce rubber; he sought to revolutionize the lives of the workers he employed. Now in America that wasn’t such a bad thing; the jobs that Ford’s company provided gave many people access to a standard of living they would not have otherwise been able to achieve. However, Dearborn, Michigan is an entirely different place than the Amazon rainforest. This didn’t much matter to Ford, who ordered his engineers to design a little slice of Michigan smack in the middle of the rainforest.

This didn’t sit well with the locals who were hired to work the plantation. They found the American style housing deplorable. The boxy homes were close and stuffy in the sweltering jungle heat, and they were not built off the ground like native homes so they wound up infested with insects and other creepy crawlies. They also found the indoor bathrooms disgusting.

450px-Rubber_tree_plantation

Rubber trees on a plantation in Malaya

Besides the lodging, local workers were upset by the hours they were expected to work. They were accustomed to working early in the morning and late in the evening, to avoid the hottest part of the day. But their new employers expected them to work 6am to 3pm, straight through the most sweltering daylight hours. In addition, they disliked the food provided by their employers. It turns out that a typical American diet differed quite a bit from an Amazonian diet. Workers were plagued with digestive complaints. Another unpopular gastronomic rule involved Ford’s prohibition on alcohol, which was mostly ignored by plantation residents.

There were some perks to the arrangement that kept workers coming in from all parts of the Amazon. The promise of free lodging, steady pay –at double the going rate, no less–and access to top notch healthcare at the Fordlandia hospital drew workers in droves. Regular paid work was rare in the Amazon at the time, but even these benefits did not keep down worker discontent. The Fordlandia plantation was plagued with work stoppages and violence. In one incident, workers rioted when the plantation authorities attempted to introduce cafeteria style meals. It might not sound like a big deal, but being served at a table was a cultural norm. The perceived slight of having to serve themselves food they didn’t particularly care for pushed the workers over the edge. They stormed the cafeteria with machetes in hand, while the Michigan management bolted for the docks. They took to boats and waited out the riot in the middle of the river. Brazilian authorities arrived and quelled the rebellion. More violence broke out when management brought in workers from Barbados, hoping they would be more amenable to Ford’s vision.

With all this trouble, barely any work got done. The crops meant to sustain the community refused to grow in the poor soil. Worse, the rubber trees failed to yield any of their precious sap. In nature, rubber trees grow in clumps interspersed with other tree species. This provides them some defense from the various parasites and diseases that plague them in their native Amazon. Ford ignored the horticulturalists who recommended he mimic nature, and the managers of Fordlandia had the trees planted in tight rows to promote easier harvest. This made sense in Malaya, where the tree had no natural predators, but no in the Amazon. The whole crop was soon infested and worthless. Fordlandia never produced rubber on any appreciable scale.

 

A move up river, and an end to a dream

After years of struggle, Ford finally hired an expert, Dr. James Weir, a plant pathologist, to look into the matter. His survey revealed a more favorable plot of land eighty miles upstream from Fordlandia, A new plantation named Belterra was founded at the site. Fordlandia’s strict regulations were relaxed, and high-yield, disease resistant rubber tree strains were planted there. These reforms made the site much more successful than Fordlandia, and most operations were moved upstream. The new plantation yielded about 750 tons of rubber annually. A great success, but still far short of the 38,000 tons needed to make the venture profitable. Despite the more resistant tree strains, the plants were still falling to leaf blight and fungal infections. When World War II began, Far East rubber supplies were cut off. This should have been a chance for Ford to step into the breach, but problems–from fungus to labor disputes–still plagued the operation.

By the end of the war, the discovery of synthetic rubber and the reopening of the rubber plantations in the Far East both convinced Ford to throw in the towel. Ford gave up his rubber interests in Brazil for a mere $250,000. Belterra is still used to produce small amounts of rubber, and it also acts as a horticultural lab. Fordlandia, on the other hand, has been abandoned. The jungle slowly reclaims its own.

 

Sources:

Dempsey, Mary A. “Fordlandia.” MichiganHistoryMagazine.com. March 4, 2008. Michigan History Online. April 26, 2014 <http://wayback.archive-it.org/418/20080304195857/http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/extra/fordlandia/fordlandia.html>

“Ford Motor Company’s Brazilian Rubber Plantations.” TheHenryFord.org. Benson Ford Research Center. April 26, 2014. <https://www.thehenryford.org/research/rubberPlantations.aspx>

“Fordlandia: The Failure of Ford’s Jungle Utopia.” NPR.org. June 6, 2009. NPR. April 26, 2014 <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105068620>

 

An Omen of Plague–The Rat King

Wood cut of a rat king from the 1500s

Wood cut of a rat king from the 1500s

Mummies come in a variety of forms. Jeremy Bentham had his head preserved while his skeleton was dressed in his clothes and propped up in a mobile glass case for all to see. Elmer McCurdy never asked to be mummified, but a small town funeral parlor owner took that matter into his own hands and produced a mummy that had a pretty strange after-life. Other mummies wound up ground up and slurped down by sick Europeans who believed it would cure what ailed them.

But mummies don’t have to be human. Animals too could be preserved, whether by accident or otherwise. A particularly strange type of animal mummy can be found in European museums. They consist of several rats, from nine to as many as thirty, joined together at the tail. These macabre conglomerations of critters are known as Rat Kings, and they have a strange history all their own.

 

Signs and portents

The first historical report of a Rat King occurred in 1564. In those days, the phenomena was seen as a bad omen. Especially, it was a portent of a coming plague, mostly because it occurred most often with black rats, a species associated with the bubonic plague. The term “Rat King” originally referred to political figures or anyone who lived off the hard work of others.

The term came to describe the rats who would find themselves in the unfortunate position of being entangled with their fellows. People at the time saw Rat Kings as a kind of super organism, one animal with many bodies. Others theorized that there was literally a Rat King who sat on the knotted tails and directed the whole group.

 

A real phenomena?

About 58 Rat King specimens have been preserved in various museums in Central Europe. It is not clear exactly how they form, and for a long time it was not clear whether they formed naturally in the first place. It would be easy for a hoaxster to fake a Rat King, although it isn’t clear exactly why someone would want to go through the time to do so.

A case from Estonia in January 2005 confirmed that Rat Kings are natural occurrences, and gave a bit of insight into how they form. An Estonian farmer found a cluster of 16 rats clumped together in the sandy floor of a shed. Nine were alive when the rat king was found. The farmer’s son killed the live ones. Intrigued by what he found, the farmer put the rat king on display for neighbors to see. A local reporter happened by and saw the strange mummified mass. He contacted a zoologist for comment, which led the rat king to eventually be analyzed at The Natural History Museum in Sartu.

The analysis concluded that the rat king probably formed when the rats huddled together for warmth and their tales froze together in the sandy soil. Blood, feces, and food matter could also serve to cement the rat kings together in other cases. As the rats wiggled their tales in an attempt to escape, their tails became entangled to the point where even melting the frozen soil could not separate them.

Black rats have long, slender tails. Thus, they are more likely to become tangled together. That is why rat kings are predominantly made up of black rats. It is no coincidence that reports of rat kings began to drop off as brown rats became more common in Europe; their tails are shorter and less flexible, so they’re less likely to tangle. Also, rat kings form in areas where it is cold. The Estonian rat king formed after a sharp drop in temperature. Cold winters and the presence of black rats explains why the phenomena is predominately found in Central and Eastern Europe. Southern Europe, despite the presence of black rats, has mild winters. Northern Europe has very few black rats.

 

Sources:

Miljutin, Andrei. “Rat Kings in Estonia.” Short Communications. Proc. Estonian Acad. Sci. Biol. Ecol., 2007, 77-81. Retrieved from: http://www.kirj.ee/public/Ecology/2007/issue_1/bio-2007-1-7.pdf

“Rat king (folklore).” Wikipedia.org. April 1, 2014. Wikipedia. April 4, 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rat_king_%28folklore%29>

The Strange True Story Behind the Legend of the Bunnyman Bridge

The infamous Bunnyman Bridge, in daylight.

The infamous Bunnyman Bridge, in daylight.

Now and then, bits of legend enter the cultural consciousness and get passed off as real history by uninformed or unscrupulous parties. Whether it’s stories of Soviet ape soldiers or ancient super weapons, these stories are more fluff than fact. But now and then the opposite happens and something that is laughed off as nothing more than a silly story turns out to be rooted in fact. Ask anyone under the age of twenty out in Fairfax County, Virginia if something lurks in the night under the Bunnyman Bridge, and they will tell you most assuredly that something does. Be he a flesh and blood maniac or a being of a more ghostly variety, the Bunnyman is said to haunt the Colchester Overpass, now better known as Bunnyman Bridge.

 

Legend of the Bunnyman

The legend began somewhere around 1970, and the information that I have seen claims that it has spawned upwards of fifty-four variants(!). The most common version of the story goes as follows. Around 1904, the residents of Clifton, Virginia successfully petitioned to have the local asylum/prison shut down. Since you can’t just release a bunch of violent crazy folks out into the countryside, the prisoners were to be transported to another facility. All went well, at least until the transport crashed, killing several of the prisoners and allowing the rest to escape. All but one of the escapees were rounded up. Skinned, half eaten rabbit carcasses left hanging from trees and the Colchester Overpass began to appear soon after. Officials then found the body of Marcus Wallster, left hanging from the Underpass in a similar manner to the rabbits.

Understandably concerned, the police ramped up their efforts to find the madman and soon discovered that the culprit was none other than Douglas A. Grifin, who had been put in the asylum for killing his family on Easter Sunday. When the climactic confrontation came between the authorities and the madman, Grifin was hit by an oncoming train in an attempt to escape. Ever since, around Halloween when the veil between our world and the spirit world is thin, locals claim to see rabbit carcasses hanging from the Colchester Overpass. Some have even claimed to see a figure standing there in the shadows. Nobody ventures beneath the Underpass to see who it is though because the Bunnyman makes no distinction between rabbits and people–many variants of the legend have our costume-clad friend going Jason Vorhees on curious teenagers who come calling on Halloween Night, leaving their mutilated corpses dangling from the Colchester Overpass like Marcus Wallster so many years before.

 

The strange truth

Of course, this is all sorts of urban legend-y fun but how much of it is true? Is this story, like Cropsey, more of a way to scare teens and preteens away from danger? As you might suspect, the bulk of this story is false. There never was an insane asylum in Clifton, and county records have no men named Marcus Wallster or Douglas A. Grifin on record as ever having lived.

However, there are some elements of the story which are true. Namely, there really was a crazy guy dressed in a bunny suit terrorizing (actually more like confusing the hell out of) people in Fairfax County. Two separate incidents from 1970 report a man dressed in a bunny suit yelling at people he felt were trespassing on his property. In one incident he tossed a hatchet through a car window, and the other he attempted to chop down a porch post with a long handled axe. No suspect was ever detained, but in one related incident a man calling himself the “Axe-Man” accused a representative of the Kings Park West Subdivision of dumping trash on his property. To this day no one knows the mysterious costumed man’s identity.

Not coincidentally, after these events in 1970 the Bunnyman story took wing. It isn’t often in researching folklore and urban legends that you find their origin, but in this case it seems that the truth really was stranger than fiction.

Sources:

Bunny Man–Wikipedia

The Clifton Bunnyman–Castle of Spirits

The Bunnyman Unmasked

The Mars Bluff Incident — The Story of the Only Nuke Ever Dropped on American Soil

An MK-6 Nuclear Bomb like the one dropped on Mars Bluff.

An MK-6 Nuclear Bomb like the one dropped on Mars Bluff.

The specter of nuclear death hung like a pall over the middle part of the last century. With the Soviet Union detonating bigger and bigger bombs, and the US deploying nuclear weapons of various sizes to the European border with the Communist superpower, the threat of nuclear annihilation was a very real one.

Fortunately, although there were several incidents like the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis where the world came very close to an all out nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR, the US has never had a nuclear bomb dropped on it in anger, outside of a test site. I say “in anger” because on March 11, 1958, a nuclear bomb was dropped on American soil quite by accident.

 

An unfortunate accident

What has become known as the Mars Bluff incident began with 4 B-47E bombers taking off from Hunters Air Force Base near Savannah, Georgia. The four planes were on route to England to take part in a mock bomb run as part of a mission called Operation Snowflurry. The bombers would fly to England and pretend to deploy bombs, while electronic receivers on the ground picked up data that could be used to refine the accuracy of the planes’ targeting systems.

While the mission was a mock run, each plane carried a very real MK-6 nuclear bomb on board, just in case World War III broke out while they were en route and they had to take part in a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. The core of the nuclear device was kept separate from the casing, in a storage case known as a “bird cage.”

Everything was going according to plan as the group of planes made their way toward the Atlantic Ocean. However, they were passing over the area outside Florence, South Carolina when the co-pilot of the third plane pulled the lever meant to engage a locking pin on the MK-6’s harness. A light flipped on indicating that the pin had not engaged. The co-pilot dispatched navigator Bruce Kulka back to inspect the problem. Bruce was a short man, and the MK-6 was a big bomb (10 feet long and 7000 pounds big). He climbed up to inspect the locking harness, but while doing so he pulled the emergency bomb release lever by mistake. The bomb dropped down and slammed into the bomb bay doors. The combined weight of Bruce and the bomb forced open the bomb bay. Bruce barely managed to save himself, but he could only look on helplessly as the MK-6 plummeted to Earth.

 

A big (conventional) explosion

Walter Gregg and his family were enjoying a bright, pleasant day on their family farm situated on Mars Bluff about six and a half miles from Florence, South Carolina.. When Gregg heard a B-47Es flying overhead, he thought nothing of it. But the next moment their peaceful afternoon became a maelstrom of chaos. The bomb hit behind the home in what had been the family garden, and the high explosives that would have kick started the nuclear reaction had the core been in place detonated, excavating a 50 foot by 70 foot crater. The explosion flattened nearby pine trees and shifted the Gregg family home off its foundation, destroying nearly everything inside. The blast totalled both of the family’s cars. The cloud of dust and debris was visitable from the courthouse roof, about eight miles away. Luckily, the family only suffered relatively minor injuries from flying shrapnel and other debris.

Within a few hours, the Air Force descended on the site and established a two mile perimeter. They asked locals to turn in any pieces of the bomb that they happened to come across. Air Force officials stated unequivocally that there was no threat of radiation from the detonation, because the bomb had not been armed with its nuclear payload. This was before revelations about nefarious government activities of various sorts, so people then were more trusting of those in authority than they are today. So, locals accepted the explanation and did as they were asked.

While the government promised to repair the damage and pay the family for its trauma, it never did fill in the crater and only offered a paltry sum of $44,000 in compensation. The family demanded more, and for good reason. Their lives were turned upside down in the wake of the accident. The Gregg children suffered nightmares and bouts of bedwetting after the explosion. Walter Gregg himself suffered hearing loss, while his wife had chronic headaches. Their cleaning woman had unusually long lived and painful menses after the blast, while Walter Jr. developed crossed eyes. In addition to all that, the family’s home was still destroyed and there was a swimming pool sized crater in their back yard. The family left the farm and moved into Florence. After a series of offers, counter offers, and law suits, the family finally settled out of court for $56,000. The crater is still visible today, although it is overgrown and starting to erode away in the fifty-six years since it was created one fateful March day, when American accidentally nuked itself.

 

Sources:

Dittrich, Luke, “A Perfectly Understandable Mistake.” Esquire.com. May 1, 2005. Esquire. April 6, 2014. <http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ0505BOMB_122>

Klepper, David. “Man Recalls Day a Nuclear Bomb Fell on His Yard.” The Sun News. November 24, 2003. Retrieved from: http://www.rense.com/general45/Manrec.htm

“Mars Bluff Bomb.” FlorenceMuseum.org. The Florence County Museum. April 6, 2014. <http://www.florencemuseum.org/artifacts/mars-bluff-bomb/>

 

 

 

 

Glowing Wounds at the Battle of Shiloh: The Strange Facts Behind the Legend of the Angel’s Glow

800px-Battle_of_Shiloh_Thulstrup

The Battle of Shiloh

Wars breed blood and death on a massive scale. They also breed their share of strange stories. The American Civil War was no exception to this rule. Whether it was the governor who wanted to arm his troops with pikes on battlefields dominated by rifles and artillery, or the doctor who plotted to use biowarfare on Northern cities, the War Between States had its fair share of strange factual stories.

But another thing that warfare breeds is folklore. These apocryphal stories seem too good to be true. Once such bit of folklore that was largely dismissed as wishful thinking came from the Battle of Shiloh, which took place on April 6-7, 1862. The bloodiest battle up to that point in the war, two days of fighting produced 23,000 casualties on both sides. The battlefield itself was a boggy, mud soaked hellhole. Medical services on both Confederate and Union sides were woefully unprepared for the scale of the slaughter, and many wounded were left to fend for themselves among the watery morass.

When help finally managed to reach those poor souls, their rescuers noticed something odd. Their wounds gave off a faint glow in the night! Furthermore, the wounded whose injuries glowed had a better survival rate than their peers whose wounds did not. At a loss to explain what was happening, the flummoxed soldiers dubbed the strange phenomena “Angel’s Glow,” because it truly did seem to be the work of angels.

For a long while, the story was regarded as little more than folklore. That is, until seventeen year old Bill Martin heard the story, and asked his mother, Phyllis Martin, who is a microbiologist, if the bioluminescent soil bacteria she was studying, photorhabdus luminecens, might be responsible for the strange tale. She encouraged her son and his friend, John Curtis, to do further research and experiment to uncover the answer (because that’s what happens when mom is a scientist.) What they found was a remarkable explanation behind a story that was long regarded to be little more than a legend.

 

Photohabdus luminescens‘weird lifestyle

A false color micrograph of a soybean cyst nematode and an egg.

A false color micrograph of a soybean cyst nematode and an egg. The species that lived symbiotically with P. luminescens would have looked similar.

P. luminescens is an unlikely saviour. The bacteria hangs out in the guts of various nematode worm species, living in an odd symbiosis. The nematodes are predators of the soil, hunting down insect larva which they devour with P. luminescens’ help. The nematodes burrow into the unfortunate larva’s bloodstream, where they puke out their bacterial payload. P. luminescens releases toxins that kill the bug in short order, giving the nematode quick access to an insect buffet. These toxins also inhibit the growth of bacteria that would decompose the insect corpse, letting the germ and the worm have plenty of time to feast and multiply in their prey’s carcass.

It is this toxin that was likely responsible for helping the soldiers survive their horrific wounds. The hypothesis that Martin and Curtis developed claimed that the glowing bacteria entered soldier’s wounds when nematodes attacked the insect larva who are naturally attracted to such injuries. The resulting infestation would wipe out any of the normal, disease causing bacteria found in wounds.

The only problem with the hypothesis was that P. luminescens cannot survive at human body temperatures. The teenage scientists came up with a novel way to approach this problem.

 

For once, hypothermia was a good thing

Their answer lay in the muddy battlefield itself. The battle took place in early April, when temperatures were relatively low. Adding to the misery, it rained on and off throughout the battle. Injured men were left exposed to the elements for two days in some cases. By that time, hypothermia would have set in. That would have given P. luminescens time to take hold and kill off harmful bacteria. Then, when the soldiers were taken in and warmed back up, their bodies would have naturally killed off the bug. For once, hypothermia was a good thing.

With that, the teenagers managed to present a plausible explanation for the Angel’s Glow, a phenomena that was long thought to be little more than fanciful thinking by desperate men. The exact nature of the toxin the bacteria uses to perform its medical miracles has yet to be identified, but the duo are working to isolate it. Perhaps the bacteria that saved lives 150 years ago might be able to save even more today.

 

Sources:

“Glowing Wounds.” sciencenetlinks.com. AAAS ScienceNetLinks. March 15, 2014. <http://sciencenetlinks.com/science-news/science-updates/glowing-wounds/>

Byme, James. “Photorhabdus luminescens: The Angel’s Glow.” TheNakedScientists.com. February 25, 2011. The Naked Scientists. March 15, 2014. <http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/articles/article/angel-glow/>

“Shiloh.” CivilWar.Org. Civil War Trust. March 15, 2014. <http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/shiloh.html>

Weaver, Mark. “Angel’s Glow at the Battle of Shiloh.” AmericanCivilWarStory.com. American Civil War Story. March 15, 2014. <http://www.americancivilwarstory.com/angels-glow-shiloh.html>

A Man and His Cheese: Why Samuel Pepys Buried His Parmesan Cheese During The Great Fire of London

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys

Disasters bring out both the best and worst in people. History is littered with stories of people performing both acts of great heroism and despicable deeds while the world collapses around them. Another thing disasters show about people is what they hold dear. Nowadays it is such a popular conundrum that it has become cliche: if the worst happened, what would you take with you?

Everyone would answer this differently, of course, depending on what they value. When the Great Fire of London struck in September of 1666, a wealthy man by the name of Samuel Pepys was confronted by just that question. As the fire burned within sight of his home, he and his servants rushed to save his belongings.

A typical response, no doubt. But one thing Pepys did might seem odd to modern eyes. He recorded in his diary that, as the fire approached, he buried his wine and Parmesan cheese in a hole he’d dug in the garden. Why would someone go to such great lengths to save cheese?

 

A man and his cheesse

Most modern Americans only experience Parmesan cheese in the crumbly form we dump on our spaghetti at faux Italian restaurants. The food goes back much further than that, though. It has been produced in the Po Valley of Italy as far back as 2000 years ago. The cheese was produced from skim milk, and aged for two years before it was considered finished. It was produced in huge wheels, weighing anywhere between 84 and 200 pounds. These wheels could be quite valuable, because like a fine wine, Parmesan grows in value as it matures.

In Pepys’ time, the cheese was considered a delicacy among the noble and wealthy classes, so its price was quite high. So, when Pepys buried his cheese, it was the equivalent of a modern person burying a gold bar for safe keeping.

By the way, Parmesan is still considered very valuable. Banks in Italy hold 300,000 wheels of the stuff in their vaults, worth an estimated $200 million.

As for Pepys’ cheese, its fate remains unknown. His house survived the fire–Seventy thousand or more Londoners were not so fortunate– but he never recorded the fate of his prized Parmesan.

 

Sources:

“Why Did Pepys Bury His Parmesan Cheese?” HistoryHouse.co.uk. 2013. History House. March 3, 2014. <www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=8&ved=0CEkQFjAH&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.historyhouse.co.uk%2Farticles%2Fparmesan_cheese.html&ei=0KAUU6j8FIL4yQGCwoCQDw&usg=AFQjCNHKo8D0ILbPc4FO79FycyN1nzvaRg&bvm=bv.61965928,d.aWc>

Mummy Powder: A Gruesome Cure

An apothecary jar for "mumia," better known as mummy powder

An apothecary jar for “mumia,” better known as mummy powder

Medicine has come a long way in the last one hundred years. From penicillin to heart transplants to the latest work with stem cell research and other cutting edge treatments, our medical technology has far exceeded what our ancestors  ever dreamed was possible.

Prior to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, medicine was basically a crap shoot. Certainly, there were great thinkers who performed necessary research that laid the foundation for the standards of care we enjoy today. But by and large medicine was based on folklore, superstition, and magical thinking.

These fallacious thought processes led to many gruesome cures throughout history. One of the oddest, which was popular from the 12th to the 18th century in Europe, involved powdering the remains of the ancient dead.

 

A cure for what ails you

Mummy powder was obtained by raiding ancient tombs and plundering the corpses found inside. These could include the most famous mummies in history, Egyptian mummies, or other, less well known corpses. Once the appetite for mummy powder grew, manufacturers took to digging up any old corpse for their supply. Quite literally; any desiccated corpse would do, and buyers really could not tell the difference anyway.

Once the corpse was obtained, it would be ground down into dust. The powder could be mixed with various other substances and was prescribed to treat everything from headaches, stomach ulcers, to tumors. It could be taken orally or used as a plaster or salve. It was so popular that any apothecary worth its salt carried mummy powder among its stock.

 

Mistranslation and misconception

An Egyptian mummy seller, 1875.

An Egyptian mummy seller, 1875.

The odd idea that ground up corpse powder would somehow become a cure resulted from a misunderstanding. Bitumen is a naturally occurring petrochemical substance used in ancient times to treat arthritis, among other things. A Persian word for wax, mumia, was used to describe bitumen as well. The same word was used to describe a resin used by Egyptians during the mummification process, although that resin was not bitumen. Mumia is the root word for the modern term “mummy.”

If apothecaries (the ancient equivalent of a local pharmacy) could not get a hold of naturally occurring bitumen, they would source fake bitumen from mummies. Since the word for both substances were the same, bitumen became associated with mummies. In a case of mistaken association, the curative powers of mumia were associated with the corpse powder itself, rather than the stuff coating the dead body. Thus, the mummy powder industry was born.

 

Other odd cures

Mummy powder was not the only gruesome cure from history. It turns out that people have used human parts as medicine for as long as humans have had aches and pains. One cure for gout was rubbing human fat over the effected joints. The blood and liver of a hearty youth was seen as a cure of epilepsy in ancient Rome, leading to those who were afflicted to hang around the gladiatorial arenas. Some enterprising entrepreneurs sold fresh gladiator blood at refreshment stands for just such a purpose. Some doctors prescribed powdered skull in molasses for epilepsy.

These cures have faded into history. While there is a huge interest in homoeopathic and other alternative medicines today, no one seems eager to go back to the days when grinding up dead people and choking down the resulting powder was seen as a sound medical practice.

 

Sources:

Abrahams, Marc. “Mmm, yummy…mummies!” theguardian.com. December 8, 2008. The Guardian. Accessed on: February 16, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2008/dec/09/improbable-research-mummies

Davis, Lauren. “Powdered Mummy, Gladiator Blood, and other Historical Medicines Made from Corpses.” io9.com. June 12, 2009. io9. Accessed on: February 16, 2014. Retrieved from: http://io9.com/5917027/powdered-mummy-gladiator-blood-and-other-historical-medicines-made-from-human-corpses

Dolen, Maria. “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine.” SmithsonianMag.com. May 7, 2012. The Smithsonian. Accessed on: February 16, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-gruesome-history-of-eating-corpses-as-medicine-82360284/?all

The Biggest Bomb Ever Built — The Tsar Bomb

The fireball resulting from the Tsar Bomb's detonation.

The fireball resulting from the Tsar Bomb’s detonation.

The Cold War was the most dangerous time in human history. The United States and the Soviet Union raced to see which side could build horrifyingly powerful weapons of all sorts. While both sides tested chemical and biological weapons (occasionally dousing their own people with them by accident), most Cold War fears centered around nuclear weapons, and with good reason. Their terrible power was demonstrated when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The weapons produced during the Cold War made the Fat Man and Little Boy look like fire crackers.

One such weapon was so stupendously powerful that, even today, it is a source of terrified awe. The dubious distinction of having produced the most powerful weapon in history went to the USSR, in the form of the test device the West nicknamed the Tsar Bomb.

 

The biggest man-made explosion in history

The Tsar Bomb was meant to be a show of force by the Soviet Union, to show that the Soviet weapons program was superior to its American counterpart, and boy did it ever deliver. The device was a three stage thermonuclear weapon. An initial fission reaction involving Uranium-238 (the fissile material used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) would kick start the fusion of hydrogen, which would then result in further fusion reactions that would release immense amounts of energy. The bomb weighed in at approximately 60,000 pounds (27 metric tons), measuring 26 feet (8 meters) long and 6.9 feet (2.1 meters) in diameter. It was so large that the plane carrying it, a Tu-95 heavy bomber, had to be modified in order to carry the bomb to the test site, a remote spit of land on the northern fringe of Russia. Designers initially intended the bomb to have a yield of 100 megatons, but they were afraid of excessive fall out and halved the yield to 50 megatons.

Whew. Those are a lot of numbers. Let’s put some things in perspective. A megaton refers to the explosive force of 1 million tons of TNT. That means the Tsar Bomb released energy equivalent to 50 million tons of TNT. To put some perspective on these numbers, that made the Tsar Bomb 1400 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

The day of the test, that much energy was unleashed 2.5 miles (4km) above the surface of the Earth. Everything within about 22 miles (35km) of the blast was annihilated. A fire ball about 2.5 miles (3.5km) high seared the sky, resulting in a mushroom cloud 25 miles (40km) wide at its base that stretched 40 miles (64km) into the atmosphere.

Buildings for hundreds of miles around were destroyed or severely damaged in the resulting shock wave. The blast wave shattered windows as far away as 560 miles (900 km) away. The heat generated by the blast was enough to cause 3rd degree burns 62 miles (100km) from the blast site, and the fireball was visible 620 miles (1000km) away. The shock wave circled the globe three times before finally dissipating. American analysts registered the blast as a 5.2 on the Richter Scale.

 

Ultimate destruction

The Tsar Bomb's mushroom cloud, seen from 99 miles away.

The Tsar Bomb’s mushroom cloud, seen from 99 miles away.

If a weapon as powerful as the Tsar Bomb were dropped over a populated area, the results would be unthinkable. The Tsar Bomb would annihilate a city the size of New York in the blink of an eye. The fact that the Tsar Bomb was the cleanest nuclear weapon ever detonated (the fission phase was limited to cut the production of radioactive fallout) would be of little comfort for those caught within its huge destructive radius. With only a few modifications, the Tsar Bomb could have been made to yield 100 megatons, which would have resulted in a much “dirtier” explosion and killed millions more if it were used as a weapon.

Luckily, the Tsar Bomb was not a feasible weapon. It was simply too large to be practical. A lot of the energy of the test explosion was released into the atmosphere — not exactly where you want it to go when you are trying to wipe out an enemy– and it was so heavy that there was no feasible way to deliver it.

Of course, that shouldn’t leave you feeling too relaxed. While no weapon today is as massive as the test device detonated in 1961, warheads with half that yield have been successfully mounted to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s) that can be launched to any point in the world within a few moments. As if that is not terrifying enough, there are ICBM’s mounted with multiple, targeted warheads that can carpet bomb a region with nuclear death. If anything, nuclear technology has become more deadly since the most powerful weapon in history was detonated.

 

Sources:

“Tsar Bomba.” Wikipedia.org March 27, 2014. Wikipedia. March 30, 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsar_Bomba>

“Big Ivan, The Tsar Bomb (“King of Bombs”)” NuclearWeaponsArchive.org. September 3, 2007. The Nuclear Weapon Archive. March 30, 2014. <http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Russia/TsarBomba.html>

Big Boom, Tiny Package: The Davy Crockett Nuclear Rifle

750px-DavyCrockettBombThe Cold War was characterized by the United States and the Soviet Union racing to outdo each other in terms of terrifying, species destroying weaponry. The general trend was toward more destructive nuclear weapons, although both countries also developed chemical and biological weapons as sides to the nuclear main course.

However, as nuclear weapons grew larger, they also shrunk. While both sides had developed weapons capable of leveling entire cities by the early sixties, less well known were the so-called tactical nuclear weapons. Designed to be used during a hypothetical Soviet invasion of Europe, they would be hard counters to the crushing weight of Soviet numbers.

The most bizarre of these tactical devices intended to be used during that nightmare scenario was the Davy Crockett Weapon System, the smallest nuclear device ever developed by the United States.

 

America’s smallest nuclear device

The nuclear warhead was housed in a projectile casing dubbed the XM-288, a stubby looking little projectile measuring a mere 30 inches long and 11 inches in diameter, and weighed in at about 76 pounds fully equipped. The heart of the system though was the W54 warhead. Weighing in at a paltry 51 pounds, the plutonium implosion device could pack a punch well outside its weight class. The explosive yield could be adjusted between .01 kilotons to up to 1 kiloton. For perspective, a 1 kiloton nuclear blast equals the the detonation of 1000 tons of TNT. At the .01 kiloton range, the weapon would have been five times more potent than the ammonium nitrate bomb that caused so much devastation during the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.

Two versions of the Davy Crockett were produce, a “light’ and “heavy” version. The designations can be a bit confusing, since the warhead remained the same on both models. The only difference was the width of the recoilless rifle. The light version was a 122-millimeter tube, while the heavy was a 155 millimeter tube. Both versions could be mounted on vehicles, or fired from tripods. The lighter version fired the nuclear warhead about 1.25 miles, while the heavy variant fired it 2.25 mile.

 

A ridiculously impractical weapon

If between one and two miles sounds like a really short range to lob a nuclear weapon…well, it is. While most sane people would not want to be on the same continent as a nuclear explosion, the military expected the operators of the Davy Crockett to stand a short walk away. Yes, the weapon had a relatively low yield as compared to, say, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but the blast itself was not the Davy Crockett’s main danger. The explosion would have relatively little effect on an enemy formation. The real danger came from the burst of ionizing radiation that would result from the fission reaction at the heart of the weapon. At close range the radiation dose would be enough to kill enemy soldiers within a few hours, if not instantly. The problem was that it would sicken or kill the weapon’s crew as well, especially on the highest setting, which would almost certainly have to be used in a combat situation for the weapon to have any real effect on an oncoming Soviet tank column.

As if that weren’t enough, the Davy Crockett wasn’t very accurate. It probably wouldn’t have been able to hit a fast moving column of enemy tanks. Even if it did, there was no guarantee of a knock out blow.

Despite these shortcomings, about 2100 Davey Crocketts were deployed in West Germany. Luckily for everyone, the only time the Davey Crockett was fired was during a test at the Nevada Test Site on July 17, 1962 during simulated battle maneuvers dubbed Operation Ivy. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and presidential advisor Maxwell D.Taylor were in attendance. The Davy Crockett test shot marked the last atmospheric test at the Nevada Test Site.

 

Sources:

“The Davy Crockett.” Brookings.edu. Brookings. March 13, 2014.  http://www.brookings.edu/about/projects/archive/nucweapons/davyc
Lewis, Jim. “M28 120mm Atomic Battle Group Delivery System (Light): M151A1D 4×4 Tactical Transporter / Launcher: ‘Davy Crockett’” GunTruck.com. Jim Lewis and GunTruck Studios. March 13, 2014 http://www.guntruck.com/DavyCrockett.html