Monthly Archives: August 2014

A Whale of a Tale–Did the CIA Use a Whale Carcass in a Covert Cold War Mission?

Fin_whale_from_airCold War paranoia birthed its fair share of odd stories. The people of East Germany and other Warsaw Pact states were convinced that a common pest was the result of a nefarious CIA plot. The Communists were not the only ones to let propaganda and rumor to taint their world view, however. Many believe that two Italian brothers, working with surplus American equipment, were able to hear disturbing secret broadcasts revealing the deadly blunders of the Soviet Space Program.

Perhaps the strangest tale of Cold War shenanigans is that of Goliath the whale. The Biblically named cetacean caused a stir when it toured Hungary in the early sixties. However, some whispered that the mounted whale was cover for a bizarre CIA scheme to test Communist preparedness for nuclear war.

 

The legend

Goliath’s corpse measured 22 meters long and weighed in at a bulky 68,200 kilos. The carcass was transported, no surprise, on a very large truck. Interestingly enough, the whale’s tour was allowed to extend beyond the Iron Curtain into Hungary. That is where the legend began–the whale was cover for a CIA scheme to test Hungarian roads, to see how they could cope with the massive weights of missile carrying vehicles.

Their evidence? The truck supposedly resembled a ballistic missile carriage. As for the whale itself, it would easily weigh as much as one or more missiles, and it would be much less suspicious to cart around a dead sea critter than mock missiles. And so, Goliath toured all of Hungary, his handlers taking careful notes about the roads as they went.

 

Goliath was real, and had two companions to boot

Goliath no legend, himself. Although he is barely remembered today, he and two companions–Jonah and Hercules—toured Europe all through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. All three were fin back whales, caught by Norwegians in the early 50s. They were preserved and toured around Europe to promote the whaling business. Remember, Europe was still recovering from the devastation of World War II, and desperate to find means of economic development. Whaling, then, might seem a viable industry, as reviled as it is today.

The idea that Goliath the whale was a giant spy tool is nothing but Cold War paranoia. The whales toured not only to advertise whaling, but as educational tools and circus attractions. The legend probably began because Hungary was steeped in suspicion toward the West, and so this exhibition of Western origin had to be driving through the country for underhanded reasons.

So the legend is nothing but that–a story with a small kernel of truth in the center. But what about the whales? Goliath and Hercules are gone, but Jonah still remains in private ownership. Perhaps one day, he will take to the road again, an old time sideshow draw given new life in the 21st century.

 

Sources:

Deput, Steve. “Jonah the whale travels inland.” BBC.co.uk. July 27, 2009. BBC News. July 14, 2014. http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/sheffield/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8170000/8170553.stm

“Urban Legends–The Whale of the CIA.” Funzine.hu. Funzine. July 14, 2014. http://www.funzine.hu/2012-03-urban-legends-the-whale-of-the-cia/

Nuclear Paranoia: The Windshield Pitting Panic of 1954

By Seattle Municipal Archives (Flickr: 76th and Aurora, 1953) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Seattle Municipal Archives (Flickr: 76th and Aurora, 1953) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Cold War was the most dangerous time in history. The two world super powers – the US and the USSR – competed to outdo each other in terms of weapons and technological prowess. This race for supremacy was characterized by both sides building, testing, and stockpiling vast arsenals of nuclear weapons. These doomsday weapons could wipe out an entire city (or in some cases, an entire region) in an instant. The fortunate would be killed instantly; those left behind would suffer the horrors of a radioactive nuclear hellscape.

As if these weapons merely existing wasn’t bad enough, people lived with the constant fear that they might be used at any time. These fears were not entirely unfounded, what with the tensions between America and the Soviet Union growing day by day. This constant anxiety was palpable in daily life and took many forms, from regular “duck and cover” drills to the bunker building fad of the 1950s and 60s, where private citizens built bomb shelters in their back yards, private arks in which their family would ride out the apocalypse.

The anxiety over the ever present threat of nuclear death sometimes took stranger forms during the long, dark years of the Cold War. One of the oddest incidents associated with nuclear paranoia occurred from March to June of 1954, when citizens across the US and Canada reported mysterious pits forming in their windshields.

 

Castle Bravo mushroom cloud.

Castle Bravo mushroom cloud.

Castle Bravo: America’s biggest bomb

But before we dive into the outbreak of windshield pitting, we need to look at the event that formed the backdrop against which the drama played out. In the 1950s, the US military was busy developing and testing nuclear weapons of various types. The fission bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were quickly becoming firecrackers compared to the weapons being detonated in the 50s. This was because the military had literally begun to create stars on Earth, if only for a split second. The biggest tests of the 50s focused on so-called thermonuclear devices, weapons powered by fusion reactions, which are the same nuclear reactions that power the sun.

Obviously, star-making is messy business. It isn’t something you want to do on your home soil if you can help it. While many tests were performed in the deserts of Nevada and Utah, the largest were performed at the Bikini Atoll, an archipelago nestled in the endless waters of the Pacific. One of these tests, dubbed Castle Bravo, released power unprecedented in human history up to that time.

The device, dubbed “the Shrimp”, was a thermonuclear device utilizing an experimental fusion fuel composed of about 40% lithium-7. The remainder of the fuel was lithium-6, which was thought to be inert. With a predicted yield of 6 megatons (1 megaton is the equivalent of the detonation of 1 million tons of TNT), the weapon would made a big boom to say the least. But the explosion proved to be a lot bigger than expected, releasing a mind bending 15 megatons of energy, and producing a mushroom cloud that reached 130,000 feet into the atmosphere.

The immense power obliterated the island the test weapon rested on, kicking up a huge cloud of radioactive dust and debris. The unexpected yield came from what is now known as the “tritium bonus.” Basically, lithium-6 was not as inert as scientists thought. When it was bombarded by neutrons from the initial fission reaction used to “kick start” the fusion reaction, the lithium-6 split into tritium (a hydrogen isotope with 3 neutrons in its nucleus) and helium. The tritium contributed to the fusion reaction, resulting in a huge yield of energy and a massive explosion.

But at the time figuring out just why the boom was bigger than expected was the least of anyone’s worries. They were more concerned about the radioactive fallout falling like deadly snow all around them. The cloud of radioactive death spread far and wide beyond where the experts had predicted, falling over Navy ships and populated islands alike.

The Fifth Lucky Dragon

The Fifth Lucky Dragon

But perhaps the most infamous victim of the cloud, and the one most widely reported on by the media of the day, was the crew of a Japanese fishing boat named Fifth Lucky Dragon. Of the 23 fisherman, 22 were sickened and 1 later died due to radiation exposure. The incident resulted in a diplomatic row with Japan, who were understandably not happy with their citizens once again falling victim to America’s nuclear whims. The two countries very nearly severed diplomatic ties.

All of this happened early in March of 1954. Newspapers were abuzz with talk of fallout, radiation sickness, nuclear tests, and the like. Then, in Washington state, residents began to report strange pits forming in their windshields.

 

Ghostly beginnings

The strange occurrence began in the town of Bellingham, Washington. Locals reported strange pits appearing in their windshields. Police speculated at the time that the culprit was a group of vandals using a pellet gun to shoot at windshields, probably as an adolescent prank. With no physical evidence to go on, though, they could do little more than guess. Even so, 1500 reports of damage flooded in.

Residents of Bellingham began to place newspapers, rugs, and sheets of plywood over their windshields to protect from the suspected hoodlums. However, as April wore on and the police were no closer to nabbing a suspect, news media began to speculate on other causes for the alleged pitting. They honed in on the Castle Bravo tests, specifically. In a public already fearful of the effects of radioactive fallout, the idea took hold.

Meanwhile, the reports of pitted windshields crept closer to Seattle, about eighty miles from Bellingham. By April 14, the madness took the Emerald City by storm. Police responded to 242 calls from concerned citizens. Altogether, over 3000 cars were effected, with whole parking lots swept by the mysterious phenomenon.

That day, with the panic at its height, Alan Pomeroy, the Mayor of Seattle, requested emergency assistance from both the governor of Washington and then president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like in the case of the Gorbals Vampire, the panic touched the highest halls of power. But there was little even the President of the United States could do.

Even without presidential intervention, the strange occurrences began to disappear. In the following days, reports took a nose dive. Police logged 46 on the 16th, and another 10 on the 17th. Afterwards, no doubt relieved police officials received no further reports.

 

The panic spreads, and bizarre theories emerge

Example of a sand flea. Some believed their eggs were responsible for the pitting in Seattle and other areas.

Example of a sand flea. Some believed their eggs were responsible for the pitting in Seattle and other areas.

By April 18, the panic had spread well beyond Washington. Citizens of Oregon, California, Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky reported pits in their windshields as well. Bizarre theories emerged to explain the epidemic.

Police in Portland, Oregon favored the original explanation: that a set of vandals, perhaps inspired by the nationwide panic, were using a pellet gun to shoot up unsuspecting citizen’s windshields. A more widespread explanation was that the pits resulted from sand flea eggs hatching inside the glass. This came after witnesses claimed to have watched pits in their windshields expand from about the size of a pinprick to the size of a dime. No one tried to explain just how sand fleas were able to lay eggs in tempered auto glass.

In Seattle, where the epidemic had hit the national scene, citizens hypothesized that electromagnetic rays from a nearby naval base were the culprit. Other guesses included micro-meteors, chemicals in rain water, and cosmic rays.

A particularly strange explanation came from a woman who claimed that the pits were the result of a psychic attack from her neighbors. She claimed that she could see her neighbor’s faces in the pits.

Psychic attacks and cosmic rays were fringe explanations. Most believed the damage resulted from nuclear fall out. Of course, this ignored the fact that the Castle Bravo tests were conducted thousands of miles away from the United States, and that by the time the fall out reached the shores of the Lower 48 it would have been diffused to the point it was relatively harmless.

It turns out that they were only partially right. The real cause of the damage was regular wear and tear. But what caused the panic was anxiety about the nuclear tests. This anxiety fixated on the pits when people began to stare at their windshields rather than through them. This was the case especially after the media reports began to link the pitting in Bellingham to radioactive fallout.

The incident acted as a release valve for Cold War tensions. It made an abstract and misunderstood fear –that of radioactive fallout, something that many people didn’t understand very well – concrete and actionable. Calling the police was cathartic; it made people feel like they were doing something about the fall out issue.

 

Sources:

Evans, Hillary. Bartholomew, Robert E. Outbreak!: The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior. Anomalis Books, LLC. 2004. Pgs 728-731.

 

“Operation Castle.” NuclearWeaponArchive.org. May 17, 2006. The Nuclear Weapon Archive. March 1, 2014. <http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Tests/Castle.html>

Program No. 7: Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy

NASA photo of Lake Chagan, the Atomic Lake. The lake is at the top. The large water body in the second picture is a reservoir attached to it.

NASA photo of Lake Chagan, the Atomic Lake. The lake is at the top. The large water body in the second picture is a reservoir attached to it.

As often happened during the Cold War, the two superpowers leap frogged each other in terms of their projects. While the US plunged ahead with Operation Plowshares, the Soviet Union lagged behind in the business of peaceful nukes. A lot of this was for political reasons—the Soviets favored a comprehensive nuclear test ban and engaging in nuclear tests, even for peaceful purposes, would have undermined that position.

So the US had a good seven or eight year head start when the Soviets established Program No. 7: Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy. In a broad sense, Program No. 7 mirrored its US counterpart. It investigated the use of nuclear power for industrial applications such as excavation, oil and gas stimulation, canal building, and the discovery of novel isotopes.

While the Soviets took longer to adapt the use of peaceful nukes, when they did they went at it with an enthusiasm that made the US program look halfhearted. Much of this had to do with the political differences between the two countries; basically, the Soviets did not have to worry about such pesky things as public opinion or environmental concerns, two things that eventually killed Project Plowshares. Over a twenty-four year period, the Soviets detonated 122 nuclear devices at 115 test sites scattered throughout the Soviet Union.

The Soviet version of Project Plowshares came to an end in 1989 when the Soviets imposed a moratorium on nuclear explosions—including those for peaceful purposes—on themselves. This was in support of a Soviet call for a world wide ban on weapons testing. Not long later, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Soviet nuclear program was no more, ending any chance that Program 7 would be resurrected.

Since Program 7 was in broad strokes similar to its US counterpart, we will not go into as great a detail describing its ins and outs. Instead, we will focus on two specific aspects of the program, one that reared its head in a surprising way in recent years: Chagan, which birthed a radioactive lake, and the use of nukes on four occasions to attempt to stop runaway gas well leaks.

 

Lake Chagan

The Soviets kicked off their peaceful nuclear program in 1965 with the Chagan test, a near copy of the US Sedan test. The test was conducted at the Semipalatinsk Test Range in what is now Kazakhstan. The device detonated was a low-radiation thermonuclear device with a primary fission device yielding 5-7 kilotons. The remainder of the device’s 140 kiloton yield would come from clean fusion fuels, likely lithium and deuterium. The device was sunk about 178 meters below the surface of the dry bed of the Chagan River. The lip of the resulting crater was expected to form a dam when the river reached its highest flow period early the next spring.Once the bomb was detonated, it formed a crater with a diameter of 408 meters and a depth of 100 meters. Bulldozers were used to make a channel through the lip of the crater so the river could flow in.

The intention to build a dam using a nuke was ultimately a success—spring melt water flooded the crater and the reservoir behind it, forming what is known locally as Laka Chagan (also known as Lake Balapan.) They exist today largely in the same configuration as when they were excavated in 1965, although now with the addition of a water control structure that regulates the flow of water into the reservoir.

Insane as it sounds, the nuclear lakes were (and still are) put to practical uses, mostly to provide water for cattle grazing. While most would avoid swimming in a lake made by a nuclear bomb, Efrim P. Slavskiy, Minister of the Medium Machine Building Ministry, which oversaw the whole Soviet nuclear program, was the first to take a dip. No word on whether he contracted cancer from his ill-advised swim.

Interestingly enough, the Chagan test caused a bit of a stink in its day. While the device was designed to be low yield in terms of radioactive fallout, some of that inevitably escaped into the atmosphere. Some of this radiation was detected over Japan, in violation of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. The US asked the Soviet Union for an explanation, asking if this was the result of a high yield underground weapons test. The Soviets responded that the test was conducted far enough underground that the quantity of radioactive fallout should be miniscule and thus wouldn’t violate the test ban. After some back and forth, both sides dropped the issue and the Soviet Union went on to happily explode nukes throughout its interior for industrial purposes.

 

Nukes extinguish gas fires

Deepwater Horizon oil slick. The nuclear option was considered to stop the leak, based on the Soviet's successfully using nukes to stop natural gas well leaks.

Deepwater Horizon oil slick. The nuclear option was considered to stop the leak, based on the Soviet’s successfully using nukes to stop natural gas well leaks.

While it sounds counter-intuitive, the Soviet Union discovered that thermonuclear weapons could be used to stop runaway fires at natural gas wells. The discovery came after an accident on December 1, 1965, when an accident occurred at well 11 at the Utrabalck gas field in Southern Uzebekistan. The fire occurred at a depth of 2450 meters. For three years, engineers tried various conventional techniques to stop the fire or plug the leak. But their efforts failed and the fire continued unabated, burning off 12 million cubic meters of gas a day.

After Program 7 began, authorities, at a loss to stop the massive leak, decided to try using a nuke to plug the stubborn leak. They drilled two 13.5 inch diameter holes at an angle toward the stricken well. The closest drill hole, hole 1c, came within 35 m of the main well at a depth of 1450m. The two holes neared each other in a layer of clay 200m thick. The hope was that the force of the explosion would pinch off the damaged well, stopping the leak.

Hole 1c was cooled in preparation for a specialized 30 kiloton nuclear device to be slid inside. The hole was cooled to insure the proper working of the device. The device was detonated and the force of the blast pinched off the well as expected, extinguishing the fire within seconds. This was proof of concept: the seemingly crazy idea of using nukes to extinguish gas fires worked surprisingly well. The technique was used successfully three more times in various oil fields around the Soviet Union.

The final attempt to seal a well using nukes occurred in 1981 in the European coast of Russia near the mouth of the Pechora River. Operators lost control of the well on November 28, 1980. It burnt off 2,600,00 cubic meters of gas every day. In an attempt to stop the leak, a 37.6 kiloton nuke was detonated at a depth of 1511 meters. While details are sketchy—Soviets weren’t well known for admitting to failures—the attempt appears to have failed. There’s no further documentation of efforts to cap the well.

Remarkably, every gas-capping attempt was “clean.” Meaning, no radiation leaked to the surface. All in all, the nuclear option appears to be a successful method to cap otherwise uncappable wells. However, the hazards and expense of using nuclear devices make it impractical for anything but the most dangerous leaks. Such a leak seemed to have occurred in 2010 during the now infamous Gulf Oil Spill, when a hole in a deep ocean oil well leaked millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. After several unsuccessful attempts to cap the well, the idea to use a nuclear device to fix the problem surfaced out of the outpouring of advice from bloggers, experts, and politicians.

Some championed the idea enthusiastically, but it was never seriously considered by the Obama administration for several reasons. One was that the Deep Horizon leak was fundamentally different than the ones encountered by Soviet engineers. It was crude oil, not natural gas, and taking place deep under the ocean, not underground. The Soviets never tested the effectiveness of nuclear well capping under those conditions. There was a real fear that the attempt would fail and the Gulf Coast would have an even bigger disaster on its hands; not just crude oil washing up on its shores, but radioactive crude oil. To use such an extreme measure without a reasonable expectation of safety, let alone success, would have been wildly irresponsible. While that sort of behavior might have flown during the Cold War, it does not today.

Besides all of that, the nuclear option was a political nonstarter to begin with. The US had pushed for a comprehensive test ban treaty, meant to end the development of nuclear weapons of all types, globally. President Obama was also pressing for new global treaties and rules to quell further development of nuclear arms, especially those under development by “rogue nations.” In an odd parallel to the Soviet union, who delayed its own peaceful nuclear program due to its advocating for a test ban treaty, the United States would have undermined its own position by detonating a nuclear weapon, even to stop a growing disaster. So, no one in the administration seriously considered the nuclear option, and the well was eventually capped by conventional means.

 

Sources:

Broad, William J. “Nuclear Option on Gulf Oil Spill? No Way, US Says.” Nytimes.com. June 2, 2010. The New York Times. May 15, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/03/us/03nuke.html?_r=0

Nordyke, Milo D. “The Soviet Program for Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Explosions.” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. July 24, 1996.

 

Aerial Aggression–The Odd Story of the Paris Balloon Duel of 1808

An example of a 19th century balloon.

An example of a 19th century balloon.

Dueling was something of a hobby among fashionable fellows of the 18th and early 19th centuries. While today it might seem crazy, to people of those times it seemed like a viable way for gentlemen to solve their differences. In fact, when laws began to be considered banning the practice, defenders came forward claiming that the violent confrontations actually decreased violence, as it gave a very formal outlet for what could well become indiscriminate violence.

Despite having set rules and procedures, sometimes duels could get very weird. Typically duels were fought with swords or pistols, but in one case from 1808, the opponents took to the skies to solve a conflict as old as humanity.

Two men fighting over a woman. From mopey teen love stories about vampires and werewolves to anime to high dramas, it’s a common trope in fiction, probably because it happens so often in reality. The quarrel between M. Granpree and M. Le Pique that led to one of the weirdest duels in history resulted from that very basic conflict. The lovely Mademoiselle Tirevit, an opera dancer no less, was “kept” by Granpree but discovered in a dalliance with Le Pique.

To solve the issue, the two agreed to duel. For some reason, they agreed this duel should take place in balloons. On May 3rd, crowds gathered, curious to see what they thought would be a balloon race. What they saw instead was Granpree and Le Pique and their seconds climb into baskets suspended beneath the balloons, each armed with a blunderbuss (a sort of 19th century shotgun).

At 9am, the cords were cut. The balloons hovered to a height of about 900 yards above the city, and were about 80 yards apart. Le Pique fired first, but his shot went wide. Granpree returned the fire, and his shot tore a hole in his adversaries balloon. Le Pique’s balloon plummeted to the earth, and the wayward lover and his assistant met their ends on the roof of a house. Granpree landed about seven leagues away, his honor restored.

 

Sources:

“The First Duel Fought in Hot Air Balloons—Paris, 1808.” BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk. August 24, 2012. The British Newspaper Archive. August 16, 2014. http://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/2012/08/24/the-first-duel-fought-in-hot-air-balloons-paris-1808/

 

The Moai of Easter Island–Mute Monuments of a Bygone Era

640px-Moai_Rano_rarakuFew structures capture the imagination the same way as the moai of Easter Island. The structures average about 13 feet tall and weigh in at about 13.8 tons, although the largest could be far more massive. Planted on stone platforms, they have watched over the remote flyspeck of land dubbed Easter Island (known to inhabitants as Rapa Nui, “The Navel of the World”) for hundreds of years. The prevailing thought is that they were carved in the likeness of powerful  chiefs and respected ancestors. They bore witness to the collapse of a once thriving culture, and inspired awe in subsequent explorers, who wondered how people with Stone Age technology managed to carve, transport, and erect such massive structures.

Naturally, some assumed that it was impossible, and guessed that aliens did the deed. However, no serious scholars give any weight to that notion. What has emerged in recent years are two contradictory views of the moai and their construction: either the moai‘s construction was responsible for the ecological devastation that swept across the island, or they bore mute witness while more complex causes resulted in the island’s destruction.

 

Moai and the collapse of Easter Island

"Hodges easter-island" by William Hodges - National Maritime Museum, London - reproduction from art book. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hodges_easter-island.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hodges_easter-island.jpg

“Hodges easter-island” by William Hodges – National Maritime Museum, London – reproduction from art book. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hodges_easter-island.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hodges_easter-island.jpg

The standard view of Easter Island is that it is a classic story of a civilization that overstretched its natural resources. The resulting collapse was almost wholly self inflicted, and resulted from almost criminal mismanagement of the local ecology. This hypothesis was put forward in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse (which is a very eye opening read by the way.)

This viewpoint hinges on the idea that the construction of the moai was directly responsible for the destruction that would follow. The conventional timeline of settlement of Easter Island has colonists arriving in 800AD. As the population grew, they began to exploit the native resources, particularly the Easter Island Palm, a slow growing variety of palm tree native to the island. While the island appeared to be a garden of Eden, it hid a secret. The soil was actually very poor, relying on wind blown volcanic ash and bird droppings to maintain its fertility. This thin soil was held in place by the trees.

Soon, however, the locals began to exploit birds for food, taking away their valuable contribution to the island’s fertility. In addition, they began increasingly to use the trees in the construction of massive statues, cutting them down to build sleds to drag the massive structures to their final homes, often on the other side of the island from where they were  carved. What followed was a building frenzy, with chiefs trying to one up each other in terms of the size and quality of their statues. Eventually, this frenzy stripped the island of all its trees, which led to soil erosion and agricultural failures. Society collapsed, leading to civil war and, some say, cannibalism. When Europeans arrived in the 1720s, they discovered a civilization that had somewhat stabilized, but was still very near the brink. European diseases and the slave trade shrunk the population further, until at one point only 118 natives lived on the island.

In this view, the island stands as a warning to the world at large. Isolated, with limited resources and no help coming from outside, Easter Island is a microcosm of our Earth, and a frightening warning of what could happen to the whole world if our civilization does not change its habits.

 

A new story emerges

Could this little guy have destroyed Easter Island? "Pacific rat" by Cliff from Arlington, VA, USA - Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pacific_rat.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Pacific_rat.jpg

Could this little guy have destroyed Easter Island?
“Pacific rat” by Cliff from Arlington, VA, USA – Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pacific_rat.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Pacific_rat.jpg

Easter Island natives don’t necessarily buy into the notion put forth by Diamond. Certainly they agree that the island suffered a massive collapse–nobody is disputing that. They disagree with the means that were used to move the moai. Islanders have always adamantly held that the island’s most famous features walked to their current locations. Two archeologists–Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University Long Beach–tested that viewpoint by devising a system that used only ropes to “walk” a model statue. With some modifications, they discovered a system that worked, and would allow a team of only 18 men to move an average sized statue. The method involves basically rocking the statue back and forth, walking it across the island as a person might walk a heavy peace of furniture they can’t lift themselves. No elaborate sleds or deforestation required.

If this method is how the moai were moved, and it seems plausible, given the folklore surrounding the statues, it would fundamentally change how the story of the island’s collapse played out. Lipo and Hunt paint a rosier picture of the islanders, pointing to them as conservation minded farmers whose collapse came not out of a building frenzy, but at the paws and teeth of an animal they introduced as a foodstuff–the Polynesian Rat. The rats would have decimated the local bird populations, not to mention that they feasted on palm nuts, ensuring that the slow growing palms could not replace themselves and dooming the island in the process.

The pair also argue that the island was settled far later than was originally believed. Evidence suggests the first colonists arrived in 1200AD, too late, they argue, to destroy the island ecology all on their own. They point to the Rapanui’s stone gardens as evidence of their ingenuity and sustainable farming methods (to be fair, Diamond did the same in his book.) These stone gardens would protect crops from wind erosion, and volcanic rock mulch served to fertilize land and protect seeds.

This argument doesn’t contend that a collapse didn’t happen; it simply says that the collapse wasn’t the direct result of the Rapanui’s actions. Rather, it was mostly predicated by an invasive specie.

While this view is gaining ground, many are cautious in following these assertions. Probably the truth lays somewhere between the two theories, allowing for both invasive species and the actions of the humans who brought them. Easter Island plays her secrets close to the chest, and the island will continue to mystify for centuries to come.

 

Sources:

Bloch, Hannah. “If They Could Only Talk.” NationalGeographic.com. July 2012. National Geographic. August 16, 2014. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/easter-island/bloch-text?source=news_easter_island_story

 

Lovgren, Stefan. “Easter Island Settled Later, Depleted Quicker Than Thought?” NationalGeographic.com. March 9, 2006. National Geographic. August 16, 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/03/0309_060309_easter.html

 

National Geographic Staff. “Easter Island Mystery Solved? New Theory Says Giant Statues Rocked.” NationalGeographic.com. June 22, 2012. National Geographic. August 16, 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120622-easter-island-statues-moved-hunt-lipo-science-rocked/

 

Nukes for Peace: Operation Plowshares

Photograph of Sedan, a shallow underground test conducted during Project Plowshares.

Photograph of Sedan, a shallow underground test conducted during Project Plowshares.

By the 1950s, the world was painfully aware of how destructive nuclear weapons could be. While bigger and bigger nuclear bombs were being tested, scientists with the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) and the DOE (Department of Energy) began to explore ways in which the boundless power of the atom might be used for peaceful purposes. the project, began in 1958 and lasting until May of 1973, was dubbed Operation Plowshares, after the Biblical injunction against war.

Operations Plowshares looked to use nukes to perform industrial work. The project fell into two categories: harnessing the explosive power of nuclear weapons for excavation, including such tasks as excavating harbors, canals, lakes, cuts through mountains, and open pit quarries. The second category was using nuclear weapons to blow open large cavities in underground rock formations, to be used for storage and to detect new radioactive isotopes. In addition, the underground explosions could be used to stimulate the production of oil and gas. To test these possible uses, the US detonated 35 devices of various sizes over the fifteen year period of the project.

 

Development of Operation Plowshares

The dream of a potential peaceful use of the vast destructive power of nuclear bombs was discussed well before their horror was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In November, 1956, Herbert York, director of Lawrence Radiation Laboratory-Livermore, made a proposal to scientists at Los Alamos and Sandia Laboratories to discuss the concept of using nukes for industrial and scientific purposes. With AEC approval, the scientists gathered for a conference at Livermore in February 1957. While they hashed out the details for using doomsday weapons peacefully, the issue of secrecy arose. While the industrial devices would be “clean”–thermonuclear weapons that used the smallest fission “kickstart” possible–they would be very similar to devices used in weapons. While the devices would hypothetically be used by civilian industries, the decision was made to keep certain parts of the devices classified.

Project Chariot plans.

Project Chariot plans.

With these problems ironed out, the AEC approved Operation Plowshares in the Division of Military Application in June of 1957. By July, the project formally began at the Lawrence Livermore Labs. Two months later, the first nuclear detonations were triggered. Project Rainier marked the first time the US detonated a nuke underground. the test was contained, meaning no radioactive gasses leaked out of the resulting cavity, and it gave initial data about how nuclear weapons may be used to excavate underground cavities.

The successful test allowed scientists wit the project to push for a bigger budget and broader scope. The AEC was eager to give into the scientist’s demands. In June of 1958, the AEC formally announced Operation Plowshares to the public.

Meanwhile, politics would intervene in the scientific work. The Soviet Union and the US entered into a moratorium on nuclear tests in 1958 that would last for three years. Plowshares scientists kept busy by laying the groundwork for future testing. These included Project Chariot, which was eventually slated to use 200 kiloton device to excavate a harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska, with four 20 kiloton devices being used to dig a channel to connect the harbor to the ocean. Another was Project GNOME, which would consist of a 10kt device detonated in a salt dome, in order to study isotopes and energy production. The third was Project DITCHDIGGER, which would consist of testing the feasibility of using clean devices for building sea level canals. These preparations included surveying for potential environmental impacts and conducting high explosive tests to understand variables involved in working with different types of soil.

 

Moratorium ends, and nuclear testing begins again

The moratorium on nuclear testing ended on September 1, 1961. In December, the first of 27 nuclear tests planned during the moratorium was executed. Project GNOME was reduced to a 3 kt blast, which was detonated in an underground salt bed near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The bulk of the nuclear tests conducted over the life of the project–23 total–were conducted at the Nevada Test Site. two gas stimulation tests were conducted outside Nevada. They were GASBUGGY, at Farmington New Mexico in December 1967, and RULISON in September 1969 at Grand Valley, Colorado. The final nuclear test was conducted in 1973. Dubbed RIO BLANCO, it consisted of the detonation of three 33kt devices near Rifle, Colorado, to stimulate the production of natural gas.

 

End of an era

Cavity excavated by Project GNOME. Arrow points to a man standing in the cavity.

Cavity excavated by Project GNOME. Arrow points to a man standing in the cavity.

Worries about environmental and health hazards associated with Operation Plowshares dogged the project throughout its long life. some of the more ambitious projects, such as the harbor excavation in Alaska, were scrapped due to worries over fallout and environmental degradation. While scientists working on the project were confident that the detonations could be conducted safely, the public and Congress were not so sure.

Budget concerns were also a chronic issue. Few outside the project were convinced that using nukes to perform work that had been previous done with high explosives. Explosives were cheaper, could be used without danger of leaking sensitive secrets, and did not spit radioactive fallout into the environment. The public was concerned that underground tests could trigger earthquakes, foul groundwater, or that radioactive gasses could escape from excavated cavities. Public pressure over these concerns would eventually force the project to close.

About the only real success from the program came from the use of nukes in natural gas stimulation. while initial testing proved it was at least feasible, there were problems. one of the biggest concerns was the potential for radioactive tritium to contaminate the natural gas as it entered the cavity resulting from a nuclear blast.

In addition, it turned out that using nukes to stimulate gas was costly and cumbersome. By the time RIO BLANCO was detonated, $82 million had been pumped into nuclear gas stimulation research. Estimates put that after 25 years of gas production, between 15-40% of the investment could be recovered. More conventional methods, like the now controversial hydraulic fracking–were more cost effective and less likely to contaminate the final product.

The era of nuking for peace came to an end due to all of these concerns. While the Soviet version of the program would continue for several years, the last nuclear detonation under the auspices of Operation Plowshares occurred in 1973. The project officially ended in 1975.

 

Sources:

“Executive Summary: Plowshare Program.” US Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information.  https://www.osti.gov/opennet/reports/plowshar.pdf

Project A119—The Air Force Plan to Nuke the Moon

A replica of Sputnik 1, the little satellite that caused big trouble.

A replica of Sputnik 1, the little satellite that caused big trouble.

Satellites are another wonder of modern technology that we take for granted in the 21st century. They orbit far over our heads, transmitting our cellphone calls, our television shows, and the other important facets of modern life. Many of us would quite literally be lost without them, since GPS is powered by a system of satellites.

However, it wasn’t all that long ago that satellites were a new concept. During the Cold War, the United States and the USSR competed with one another for supremacy in space. The Soviets took an early lead in the Space Race when they launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite ever put into orbit. While the Soviets rejoiced over this monumental achievement, the United States—public and government alike—were terrified. The idea that Ivan could do something that the US was not capable of bruised the American ego. Some among the public were terrified of Sputnik, convinced that the satellite would be used to rain nuclear death over the American heartland (this despite the fact that the Sputnik was only about the size of a basketball.) On a more practical level, it meant that the Soviets had rocket engines powerful enough to reach orbit. Those missiles would be powerful enough to be launched from the Soviet Union to the United States. In an era of Cold War paranoia, that was enough to put a chill down the spine of even the most stalwart general.

The demoralized country needed something to bolster its confidence, and to show the world—and the Soviet Union—that the US wasn’t out of the race yet. It needed a big gesture, something that would make the world stand in awe of US power.

As far as grand gestures go, a country couldn’t go too far wrong with a mushroom cloud. With that in mind, Air Force planners dreamed up an idea that would make a Bond villain cackle maniacally. It was dubbed Project A119, and it involved nothing short of detonating a nuclear bomb on the moon for all the world to see.

 

A Show of Force

The year was 1958. The US had managed to launch its own satellite, a piddly ten and a half pound device. While it was a triumph of American engineering, it didn’t matter because the Soviets had already done it. The Air Force wanted something far bigger, and they commissioned a group of physicists to draw up the plan to put a mushroom cloud on the moon. Interestingly enough, Carl Sagan, who would become famous for his show Cosmos and his work to popularize science, was a part of the project.

The plan called for an atomic bomb with about the same yield of the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima thirteen years before. The 12 kiloton device would have been large enough to produce a blast visible from Earth, but it would have been small enough to feasibly be launched atop the rockets available at the time. It also would not be large enough to distort too many of the features of the moon.

640px-Moon_nearside_LROA suitable rocket for the mission was not available when planning started, but the Air Force was slated to produce an ICBM capable of making the 238,000 mile journey to the moon in 1959. Designed to rain nuclear bombs on Soviet cities, the guidance system of the rocket would have been accurate to within two miles.

Finding a suitable target for the moon-bound nuke was relatively simple. The bomb had to go off where it was most visible, so the scientists working on the project figured that the edge of the moon’s disk would be a suitable spot. The dust cloud resulting from the explosion would be back-lit by sunlight, making it clearly visible from Earth. While on Earth the nuclear explosion would have formed the iconic mushroom cloud that haunted the dreams of the paranoid Cold War public, the moon was a different story. Lacking an atmosphere, and with a much smaller gravitational pull than Earth, the moon would make any explosion act oddly to an Earth-bound observer’s eyes. Rather than a neat mushroom cloud, the debris would be flung haphazardly here and there and everywhere. The incredible energies of a nuclear blast combined with the low gravity of the moon would scatter radioactive moon dust everywhere. The explosion and the widespread debris would have ruined the iconic man in the moon.

There was at least a veneer of scientific inquiry over the whole project. Scientists believed at the time that the Moon might harbor microbial life. Carl Sagan in particular championed this view. He suggested that organic particles might be detectable within the debris cloud. Also, the cloud might give scientists a glimpse into the composition of Earth’s only natural satellite.

The whole plan sounds absurd today, but for at least a year it was seriously considered, even if it never reached the implementation phase. There would be better, less explosive means to boost the public morale. It wasn’t even clear that the project would have its intended effect; after all, the public might not be keen on having the Air Force rearrange the Man in the Moon’s face. Scientists worried about destroying the pristine lunar environment with radiation and the destruction a nuclear detonation would cause.

Strangely enough, the Soviet Union considered a similar plan at the same time as their American counterparts. Their plan was not to produce a cloud visible from the Earth, but rather to produce a flash that astronomers around the world could observe. While they toyed around with the idea briefly, the Soviet establishment eventually rejected the notion. The problem went back to the Moon’s lack of atmosphere; a nuclear detonation would not produce a flash the same way as it did on earth. They feared that the explosion might not register on film.

 

What might have been

Had Project A119 been executed, it would have fundamentally altered the direction of the Space Race. Space exploration, while still in its infancy, would have taken on a distinctly militaristic bent. Certainly, technology developed for space exploration was used for military purposes, and vice versa, but space technology was not made for explicitly military purposes. Had the US detonated a nuke on the moon though, it would have sent clear signals that the militarization of space was an American priority, and the Soviets would have responded in kind. A race to build bigger and badder space based weapons systems might have ensued, and the Cold War might have looked a lot different and a lot more dangerous.

Luckily, both sides came to their senses. Nuking the moon is a pretty stupid idea when you take a few minutes to think about it, after all. There’s a reason it was only considered for a year before being scrapped. Project A119 is little more than a bizarre footnote in the history of the Cold War.

 

Sources:

The Associated Press. “US Weighed A-Blast on Moon in 1950s.” articles.latimes.com. May 18, 200. Los Angeles Times. April 26, 2014. http://articles.latimes.com/2000/may/18/news/mn-31395

Barnett, Anthony. “US planned one big nuclear blast for mankind.” TheGuardian.com. May 13, 2000. The Guardian. April 26, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2000/may/14/spaceexploration.theobserver

Broad, William. “US Planned Nuclear Blast on the Moon, Physicist Says.” NYTimes.com. May 16, 2000. The New York Times. April 26, 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2000/05/16/us/us-planned-nuclear-blast-on-the-moon-physicist-says.html

Tanner, Adam. “Russia Wanted Nuclear Bomb on Moon.” iOL.co.za. July 9,1999. iOL News. April 26, 2014 http://www.iol.co.za/news/world/russia-wanted-nuclear-bomb-on-moon-1.4078#.U9uQhWOGf4U

The Leaky Toilet That Sunk a Nazi U-Boat

U534

An example of a WWII German Uboat, of a different type but similar to U1206.

U-boats were perhaps the most menacing weapon of World War II. Especially in the early years of the war, German U-boats dominated the Atlantic Ocean, destroying millions of tons of Allied shipping. U-boats were responsible for deadly attacks off the East Coast of the US, not long after Pearl Harbor.

For as famed and feared as the Nazi U-boats were, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that they were complex machines operated by imperfect people. Mistakes did happen. The most embarrassing of these flub ups occurred on April 14, 1945, when a leaky toilet downed a formidable war machine.

 

A complicated contraption

As the war progressed, Nazi U-boats were forced to dive deeper and deeper to escape Allied patrols. Designers discovered that the typical toilets used at shallower depths didn’t work in deep water, so newer model type VIIC submarines were outfitted with a new toilet that could cope with the high pressures. However, it was a complicated contraption that required a trained engineer–dubbed the “shit-man” by crews–to operate.

The U-1206 was underway, sailing in about 200 feet of water, when Captain Karl-Adolf Schlitt had to hit the head. The proud captain didn’t feel the need to call the shit-man, that is until he couldn’t operate the toilet system. He called the engineer to help, but the engineer opened the wrong valve. Seawater (and other less…pleasant substances) flooded the boat. Soon, the water reached batteries located beneath the toilet (seems like a design flaw), and the boat began flooding with chlorine gas.

Schlitt ordered his men to surface. They began forcing air into the cabin to disperse the fumes. Allied aircraft appeared and began to launch an attack on the stricken boat. Schlitt ordered his men to abandon ship, and the U-boat was scuttled. Thirty-seven crewmen were taken prisoner; three were drowned. To make the debacle worse, it was Schlitt’s first command. Weeks later, the war in Europe ended.

 

The wreck, found

The wreck of U-1206 was discovered on May 27, 2012, nearly 67 years after the unfortunate incident that led to it being sunk. The wreck was spotted 12 miles off the Scottish coast. It was a rare case where historians actually knew the history of a wreck before diving on it. The story of the U-1206 remains as both an amusing incident in an otherwise horrific war, and as a caution to a tech obsessed culture that, no matter how advanced a gizmo might be, it only takes one tiny mistake to break it.

 

Sources:

Long, Tony. “April 14, 1945: Tweaky toilet Costs Skipper His Sub.” Wired.com. April 14, 2011. Wired. August 9, 2014. http://www.wired.com/2011/04/0414toilet-malfunction-sinks-u-boat/

Munro, Alistair. “Found After 70 years, the wreck of U-1206.” TheScotsman.com. May 29, 2012. The Scotsman. August 9, 2014. http://www.scotsman.com/news/scotland/top-stories/found-after-70-years-the-wreck-of-u-1206-1-2323750

“The Hunt for U-1206.” mathison.freeserve.co.uk. Buchan Divers. August 9, 2014. http://www.mathison.freeserve.co.uk/id25.htm

 

A Noxious Assailant – The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

A British couple wearing gas masks in their living room in 1941. Fears of gas attacks ran high during World War II both in Great Britain and the US.

A British couple wearing gas masks in their living room in 1941. Fears of gas attacks ran high during World War II both in Great Britain and the US.

In 1944, the small city of Mattoon, Illinois was plagued by a series of bizarre incidents. Locals claimed that an “anesthetic prowler” was on the loose, using a pump apparatus to pump a poisonous gas into their homes. The incident brought state police down on the normally sleepy town and had its citizens patrolling the streets armed with shotguns and hunting rifles. The attacks tapered off until they ended completely, leaving behind a mystery. What really happened in September of 1944? Was it hysteria, or was it really the work of a madman?

 

Mattoon and the war years

The city of Mattoon was a typical Midwestern city. Home to a little over 15,000 people, the town was made up of hard working folks: factory workers, farmers, and shop owners. The town saw a modest boom during the tumultuous years of World War II, when the government issued contracts for war materiel to local factories.

It is essential to note that the incidents for which Mattoon became famous occurred against the backdrop of the Second World War. Newspapers were splashed with headlines about the war, and every day news came home from the fronts of sons, husbands, uncles, and brothers who would never return home.

In addition, there was the very real threat of attack by the Axis powers on the American homeland. The Japanese had already launched the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and had invaded some of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Not long after Pearl Harbor, the Nazis conducted a devastating series of U-Boat attacks off the East Coast. By 1944, the odds of a full scale invasion by either Japan or Hitler’s Germany were nil, but that didn’t mean that either power couldn’t deploy what we now know euphemistically as “weapons of mass destruction.” The devastation of the First World War was still fresh in people’s minds even as the second ravaged the world. Particularly terrifying was the prospect of a return to the poison gas attacks that added to the horror of World War I. While no gas attacks had been reported up to that point, as the Axis powers grew increasingly desperate, it seemed more and more likely that they might turn to the unthinkable in order to turn the tide of the war.

It was in this climate of fear that the Mad Gasser of Mattoon reared his head.

 

The First Victims

The evening of September 1, 1944 was hot and muggy, but otherwise unremarkable. The Kearney household was settling in for the night. Mr. Kearney was working his job as a taxi driver. Mrs. Kearney was home with her two daughters, her sister, and her nephew. Shortly after 11pm that night, Mrs. Kearney and one of her daughters went to bed together. The others were elsewhere in the house.

Shortly after climbing into bed, Mrs. Kearney smelled a sickly sweet odor wafting in from the open bedroom window. At first, she thought that the smell was coming from the flower bed outside. Soon, however, the scent became overwhelming, and the terrified Mrs. Kearney found she couldn’t move her legs.

She screamed for her sister, who rushed into the room. The sister later reported that she too noticed the sickly sweet smell. She went to the neighbor’s house and had him call the police. When the police officer arrived, the neighbor helped them search the property, but neither turned up any physical evidence of an assailant.

Mr. Kearney heard about his wife’s plight, and returned home around 12:30am. Upon pulling into the driveway, he later reported to police that he saw a prowler lurking by the bedroom window. He chased the man, who he later described as a tall man dressed in dark clothig with a tight fitting cap, but the assailant escaped. Police returned to the scene but were unable to locate the prowler.

As for Mrs. Kearney and her daughter recovered from their symptoms within about half an hour of the alleged attack. No one else in the house, including Mrs. Kearney’s sister, suffered any ill effects. Nothing was stolen from the house, and no physical evidence could be located.

The next morning, the local daily paper, The Daily Journal Gazette, reported the story under the headline “Anesthetic Prowler on the Loose!” with the byline “Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims.”

Surely enough, in the coming days more attacks would follow.

 

The first physical evidence in the case

The next case to be reported in the papers was the attack on Mrs. Cordes. She and her husband arrived home on Tuesday night. They entered the home through the back door. When they had been sitting in the living room for a few minutes, Mrs. Cordes noticed a white cloth jammed against the screen door. She picked up the cloth and, on impulse, sniffed it.

Something like electricity coursed through her. Like Mrs. Kearney before her, she experienced paralysis in her legs. She screamed, and her husband helped her to a chair. Soon, her lips began to swell and her throat burned. When she began to spit up blood, her husband called a doctor. Her symptoms lasted for two hours, and when she spoke to a reporter with The Daily Journal Gazette the next day, her lips were still swollen.

According to reports from the paper, Mrs. Cordes found a skeleton key and a mostly empty tube of lipstick on the sidewalk near the porch. The key showed signs of having been used quite often. As for the mysterious white cloth, the police tested it for any potential chemicals. Nothing was found.

Curiously, a man was detained for questioning that night. He was picked up a block away from the Cordes home, only a short while after the alleged attack. The man told police he was lost. He was soon released and wasn’t considered a suspect.

A lipstick tube, a skeleton key, and a white cloth. They mark the first physical evidence in this strange case. Could they have anything to do with the alleged Mad Gasser? Or were they merely random objects?

 

Gasser-Mania!

In the wake of these two well publicized attacks, gasser-mania swept over Mattoon. The same night that Mrs. Cordes sniffed the white rag, another woman reportedly smelled gas and was partially paralyzed.

On the sixth, police responded to reports of three more attacks. The next night, the mysterious assailant evidently decided to take the night off. No attacks were reported. He must have been resting himself for the next three nights. They marked the most active nights of the whole strange affair. There were four attacks on the 8th, five on the 9th, and seven on the 10th.

After this spurt of activity, reports of attacks dropped to nil on the 11th. The last reported attack occurred on the 12th of September. After the 12th, the strange affair ended as suddenly as it began.

The attacks and the inevitable headlines in The Daily Journal Gazette put Mattoon into a panic. Police were stretched to their limit. The entire department only numbered ten officers. The overwhelmed department called in the Illinois State Police to assist. A new piece of technology was also brought to bear against the menace; two way radios. These dramatically increased response time, allowing both the state and local officials to descend on a stricken home and thoroughly search the area for any gas-wielding madmen.

In spite of this, no culprits were ever apprehended. After calling in the state police, officials began sending gas victims to local hospitals. No physical causes for the symptoms were found, and in four cases doctors diagnosed the victims, all women, with hysteria.

While it was becoming more and more clear to police and other town officials that the panic in Mattoon did not have a physical cause, many citizens continued to believe they harbored a mad man in their midst. Armed patrols armed with shotguns and hunting rifles took to the streets. Men sat on their porch with shotguns in hand, eyes peeled for any prowlers. It got to the point where the police chief wrote a request, which was printed in the paper, for all of the vigilantes to stand down before anyone got hurt.

In the end, no one suffered lasting harm. All of the gas attack victims recovered, and after that strange September, Mattoon was never again tormented by a strange, gas-wielding prowler.

 

The Human Attacker Hypothesis

Poison gas attack during WW1. This was fresh on the minds of the military and civilians alike during WW2. Similar agents were suspected in the Mad Gasser case, but none fit the symptoms experienced by victims.

Poison gas attack during WW1. This was fresh on the minds of the military and civilians alike during WW2. Similar agents were suspected in the Mad Gasser case, but none fit the symptoms experienced by victims.

While many of the victims continued to insist that they had fallen victim to crazed man with an odd choice of weapon, the facts of the case tend to rule out the human prowler hypothesis.

To begin with, the action of the supposed anesthetic fits no known chemical. A gas would have to be strong enough to cause the observed effects, but it would have to dissipate fast enough to have no effect on anyone else in the house. In the first case, Mrs. Kearney and her daughter were the only ones in the house who were effected by the supposed gas. No one in the house showed any ill-effects, and when Mrs. Kearney’s sister entered the bedroom, she smelled the same strong scent but did not suffer paralysis or any other symptoms. If the scent had been caused by an actual agent lingering in the room, her sister would have suffered the same effects as well.

In addition, victims reported variable scents which they attributed to the Mad Gasser’s attacks. Some reported a musty scent, others smelled flowers, and still others reported smelling perfume. Other victims never reported a smell at all. Despite this, all of the victims (with the exception of Mrs. Cordes) reported the same symptoms: palpitations, paralysis in their legs, nausea, and vomiting. If a gas was employed, likely the scent would have been uniform. Different formulations of gas would have had different effects, potentially wildly different in different people.

While there was physical evidence reported in the case, their presence near the scene of an attack could easily have been incidental. The skeleton key has no bearing on the attacks whatsoever, because no one reported the alleged prowler having entered their home. All of the victims were near a window or door when the onset of symptoms began. It is just as likely that someone happened to drop their skeleton key on the sidewalk earlier in the day, and Mrs. Cordes associated this unusual item with her unusual experience. The same process likely occurred with the nearly empty lipstick tube.

As for the white rag, it is admittedly odd that it was jammed against the screen door. However, no chemical was found on it that could explain Mrs. Cordes’ symptoms. So, while its presence isn’t easily explained, it is not positive evidence in favor of an “anesthetic prowler.”

In addition to the lack of physical evidence, there seems to be no plausible motive for anyone to commit these attacks. If the attacker were some foreign agent, it does not seem likely that they would strike in some minor town in the middle of America. Also, if such a strike were to take place, it would not have been random or haphazard, but targeted and deadly. An argument could be made that the attacker might have been a German sympathizer, but then no attempt was made to claim credit for the attacks. Also, as has been shown, the alleged “gas” was of no known type. Such a gas would have been too complex for a lone wolf to have synthesized on his own, if it could be made at all.

Political motivations aside, if the supposed assailant was motivated by greed, they made a poor job of it. Nothing was ever reported stolen, and no one reported the prowler attempting to make their way into the house. If no real attempt at theft was made, greed can be ruled out.

The only possible remaining motivation that could be pegged to the Mad Gasser would be deriving some sick sort of thrill out of tormenting his victims. Since no one came forward to claim credit for the attacks, or sent cryptic messages to the police and newspapers warning of future attacks and stoking the flames of panic, like the Zodiac Killer in the 1970s, it seems sensible to rule out even the sadistic madman. Also, if the motivation was sadistic thrills, a madman could find much simpler and more effective methods than a gas that resulted in at best half an hour of inconvenience.

 

Mass Hysteria in Mattoon

While the evidence in the Mad Gasser case does not fit a human assailant, it fits the parameters of an outbreak of mass hysteria. Point of fact, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon has become quite literally a textbook case of mass hysteria.

For starters, the symptoms victims suffered are commonly reported in mass hysteria outbreak. Palpitations, temporary paralysis, nausea, and vomiting. The only outliers symptom wise were dry mouth and burned lips. These symptoms lasted between one half hour and two hours before fading away. Victims showed no lasting health effects from their ordeal. As was discussed, there were no plausible environmental causes for the symptoms. Rather, the symptoms resulted from victims unconsciously converting their anxieties into physical symptoms.

To further bolster the case for a mass hysteria outbreak, it is essential to look at the victims. The majority of victims in Mattoon were women. The majority of these women were not well educated – most had attained a high school diploma or less. They were also of low economic status. It is telling that no gas attacks were reported in the two highest income areas of Mattoon. Rather, the supposed prowler limited his activities to the poorer districts.

With these factors in mind, it is not difficult to see how mass hysteria could take root in Mattoon. All of these events took place against the backdrop of World War II. Everyone in town either had someone on one of the fronts or knew someone who had gone to war. Everyone read news from the fronts in the Daily Journal Gazette, the most widely circulated paper in town. Fears of actions by foreign agents were wide spread, and memories of poison gas use from the First World War were still fresh. Added to these stressors were the additional hardships imposed by rationing, on top of the normal economic stresses of small town life. These factors, in addition to the social and economic status of the victims, made gas attack victims more susceptible to the onset of hysteria.

But what vector spread the hysteria so quickly? Mass hysteria can be spread by sight and sound, by people seeing or hearing victims and then being overcome with symptoms themselves. However, the hysteria in Mattoon spread unevenly. Many of the victims were not in regular contact with one another, and the distribution of “attacks,” while clustered in the poorer parts of town, was irregular.

These victims did, however, have one thing in common. All of them were, most likely, regular readers of The Daily Journal Gazette. The local newspaper was a trusted source for news, so when they published lurid headlines about a mad prowler and his strange gas attacks, many took it as fact without question. Susceptible people with these headlines in their mind, and a whole heap of unspoken and unacknowledged anxieties, were only one sniff away from an attack from the mysterious prowler, if only in their minds.

 

Sources:

Johnson, Donald M. (1945) “The ‘phantom anesthetist’ of Mattoon: a field study of mass hysteria.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (40): 175-186

Millard, Reed. “The Madman of Mattoon.” Coronet Magazine. June 1953. Pg. 63-66

“Anesthetic Prowler on the Loose: Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims.” Daily Journal Gazette. September 2, 1944. Retrieved from: http://castle.eiu.edu/~localite/coles/mattoon/gasser/September%202.htm

“Anesthetic Prowler Adds Victim: Mrs. C. Cordes Burned; Ill Two Hours.” Daily Journal Gazette. September 6, 1944. Retrieved from: http://castle.eiu.edu/~localite/coles/mattoon/gasser/September%206.htm

“Many Prowler Reports; Few Real: City Calmer After Wild Weekend.” Daily Journal Gazette. September 11, 1944. Retrieved from: http://castle.eiu.edu/~localite/coles/mattoon/gasser/September%2011.htm

“To All Citizens of Mattoon.” Daily Journal Gazette. September 11, 1944. Retrieved from: http://castle.eiu.edu/~localite/coles/mattoon/gasser/September%2011.htm

“’Gas Calls’ at Vanishing Point: Police Get Two False Alarms During Night.” Daily Journal Gazette. September 13, 1944. Retrieved from: http://castle.eiu.edu/~localite/coles/mattoon/gasser/September%2013.htm

The Dutch Tulip Bubble

A tulip displayed in a 1637 Dutch catalog.

A tulip displayed in a 1637 Dutch catalog.

Money is a strange thing. Basically, we all agree that this “thing”, whether it’s a piece of paper or a giant stone disk, is what we will trade for other things. The value is fueled more by perception of value, rather than any value intrinsic to the object. The stone disks, or rei, mentioned above are a perfect example; the limestone that comprised the disks was unknown to the Yap, and when they found it they became enamored with it and ascribed to it great value, even though they didn’t necessarily use it for anything practical.

While it’s easy to mock the Yap as “primitive” for using stone currency, it’s no different than our own reliance on paper money or gold. Stone disks aren’t even the weirdest instance of money madness from history. After all, limestone could at least conceivably be used to build something. Flowers, on the other hand, are most often used for little more than ornamentation. The tulip was an especially coveted flower in 17th century Holland, where one of the strangest financial disasters in history took place.

 

A wondrous flower sparks a frenzy

Tulips didn’t reach Europe until 1559, when the first bulbs bloomed in Bavaria. No one in Europe had seen anything like it; the bulbs bloomed in brilliant colors. It took years for a bulb to produce flowers. A bulb might also produce two or three offshoots, or miniature bulbs that grew off the main bulb. The nature of tulip biology actually helped encourage the frenzy that would follow. The Dutch became enamored of the colorful flowers after they were introduced in 1593. Their novelty made them fetch a good price on the market, but their value sky rocketed when the flowers contracted a mosaic virus that made them produce a variety of bright “flames” of color on their petals (of course, no one knew what viruses were at the time; they just knew their flowers were suddenly a lot more exotic.) These new strains of tulip began to sell at a premium.

A cottage industry of bulb traders evolved as prices for the rarest strains of tulips soared. Eventually, even lower grade flowers–sold by the pound–began to sell for as much as twenty times their original price. The rarest bulbs could sell for a small fortune. People began to put up their estates, their homes, and their animals as collateral to purchase more bulbs. More often than not, the bulbs themselves were not actually traded; rather, a note giving the buyer the right to the bulb when it would be lifted the following summer would be exchanged. It was a speculative market; essentially, buyers were putting down money on the commodity, betting that the price would rise in the future, at which point they would sell and make their money.

 

Admiral_Verijck_(van_der_Eijck)The market collapses/Lessons learned?

The problem with a speculative market is that it works…until it doesn’t. The tulip bubble burst by 1637, when the inevitable panic set in. Someone refused to pay up, or some twitchy investors went ahead and sold to lock in their profits. Whatever the cause was, the tulip’s inflated value began to rapidly drop. Bulbs that could buy an estate months before were suddenly worth as much as an onion. Government commissions were established in the wake of the collapse to try and solve the mess (without it breaking into violence.) Buyers were forced to pay a small percentage of the original value of the bulbs, meaning that they were out that money and the sellers were out the expected value of their bulbs. Everyone lost.

Luckily, though, despite the tulip bubble being a devastating blow for the people involved, the Dutch Stock Exchange never got involved in the madness. Had they done so, the results would have been far worse, effecting large segments of the Dutch economy. As it stood, a relatively small number of people were harmed by the tulip bubble.

While the tulip bubble is often studied in economics, it’s hard to say if anyone has actually learned a lesson from it. The strange thing about humans is that we are afflicted with a special kind of insanity; the belief that we know better, that what happened to those people won’t happen to us. So, while the speculative bubble of the 17th century is strange, bubbles themselves aren’t all that uncommon. A huge one popped in 2008, plunging the world into economic turmoil that still plagues it to this day. The speculating during that collapse was on derivatives, especially so-called mortgage backed securities. At least tulips were tangible. Even today, many economics experts couldn’t even tell you what a mortgage backed security even is. And we would call the Dutch (or the Yap, for that matter) stupid!

 

Sources:

Beattie, Andrew. “Market Crashes: The Tulip and Bulb Craze.” Investopedia.com. Investopedia. August 3, 2014. http://www.investopedia.com/features/crashes/crashes2.asp

Frankel, Mark. “When the Tulip Bubble Burst.” BusinessWeek.com. April 24, 2000. Business Week. August 3, 2014. http://www.businessweek.com/2000/00_17/b3678084.htm

“Tulipmania.” uchicago.edu. August 8 2014 http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/aconite/tulipomania.html