Monthly Archives: October 2014

A Miracle in India: The Mumbai Sweet Water Incident

"Mahim creek". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Mahim creek”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

A miraculous happening occurred in India in 2006, near the city of Mumbai. On Friday, August 18, fishermen noticed that the water of the Arabian Sea behind the Mahim Mosque had become “sweet” (meaning it was fresh instead of salty.)

Word of the supposed miracle spread quickly, and people flocked to the area to taste the sweet water, this despite the fact it was contaminated with industrial chemicals and human sewage draining from Mahim Creek and the Mithi River. Health officials and police were horrified to see whole families wading into the tainted water. Some filled bottles and plastic bags with the ‘miracle’ water to bring back to family and friends who could not make it to the event, even as trash and waste floated by.

The belief spread that the sweet water was a miracle from Makhdoom Ali Mahtmi, a 13th century Sufi saint. It was believed to have healing powers. But by Saturday even the divine power of a saint could no longer make salt water fresh. The water had become salt again, and the outbreak of collective delusion ended.

Like the Milk Miracle before it, the Mumbai Sweet Water outbreak was perceived as a miracle by believers due to their ignorance of the very real, tangible causes behind it. The water in the bay became sweet due to something as routine in India as the day/night cycle: seasonal monsoons.

Monsoons had caused Lake Vehar, Mumbai’s water source, to overflow. The excess water flowed into Mahim Bay down the Mithi River. Since fresh water is less dense than salt water, the water from Lake Vehar formed a layer over top of the sea water. By Saturday this layer of fresh water had mixed thoroughly with the water of the Arabian Sea and become salty.

The only real miracle in this case is that none of the victims of the collective delusion became ill from drinking water brimming with industrial chemicals and human sewage. Officials tested the water and found it contained e. Coli, an intestinal bacteria present in feces that can cause severe illness.




“Hundreds Drink ‘Sweet Sea-Water.’” August 19, 2006. BBC News. March 11, 2014. <>


“People Taste ‘Sweet’ Sea Water in Mumbai.” August 19, 2006. The Times of India. March 11, 2014. <>


“People Defy Health Warning, Continue to Taste ‘Sweet’ Water.” August 20, 2006. dna. March 11, 2014 <> News Service. “Indian Scientists: ‘Sweet’ Sea Water No Miracle; Tests Show Pollution, Sewage.” August 22, 2006. March 11, 2014 <>


The Hungarian Peasant Revolt and the Grisly Fate of its Leader, Gyorgy Dozsa

Viktor Madarasz's imaginary portrait of Gyorgy Dozsa, from 1913.

Viktor Madarasz’s imaginary portrait of Gyorgy Dozsa, from 1913.

Rebellions and revolutions are a long standing feature of history. Throughout most of history, governments have been despotic, with power in the hands of the wealthy few. This left the vast majority of people lower on the economic and political ladder, often with barely enough resources to survive. Unlike today, they could not write their local representative and complain. The only other option was revolt, be it by violence or through less conventional means.

Rebels and freedom fighters throughout history have attempted to throw off the shackles of oppressive social systems. From Spartacus to the Founding Fathers, the thirst for freedom has driven men to do daring deeds. However, victory is never assured, and most attempts to win freedom at the point of the sword failed miserably, with horrifying consequences for rebel leaders and their followers alike. Few, though, met as grisly a fate as Gyorgy Dozsa, who led the Hungarian peasant revolt of 1514.


Peasant fury runs out of control

The revolt grew out of a complex web of factors, as revolts tend to do. At the risk of oversimplifying, there were three main causal factors, two that increased the misery of the peasant’s lot and a third that allowed them a chance to vent their anger. The first was a series of wars against the Ottoman Turks, which led to a great deal of destruction among the peasantry, who suffered alike under the raids of the Turks and the depredations of their own armies. Second was that their king, King Vladislas II, was weak. His nobles ran the show, and could basically do as they pleased to the peasants who worked their land.

The third factor leading to the revolt came when Pope Leo X commanded Cardinal Tamas Bakocz to assemble a crusading force in east-central Europe to fight against the Ottoman threat. He arrived in spring of 1514, with a papal bull in hand and promising salvation for any who fought and damnation for anyone who obstructed the holy work. Nobles were not happy, not wanting their serfs to join the crusade before the spring planting was complete. This did little to endear the nobility to the peasants. A rumor began to circulate, oddly enough encouraged by Franciscan friars, that the nobility had been excommunicated.

Something like 15,000 peasants, soldiers, and students joined the crusading force. Bakocz placed Gyorgy Dozsa, a minor noble and hero of the Turkish wars, in charge of the mob. However, the rumors combined with the actions of the nobility in trying to curtail the crusade had led to an explosion of peasant anger. Reports began to filter in from the countryside of serfs rising up and killing their masters. Bakocz tried to disband his crusading army, but the peasantry ignored the cardinal.

The rebellion spread across Hungary, although Dozsa himself, now the nominal leader of the insurgency, operated largely in the eastern and central part of the country. His force, swelling with new recruits, managed to take several towns and cities. Nobles were killed, their mansions were burnt, and in one case a bishop who organized a force to try and put down the rebels was impaled.

While the peasants raged across the countryside, the nobles gathered their forces. While the peasants had fury born of decades of oppression on their side, the nobles could call up decades of fighting experience, not to mention reserves of wealth and better equipment. Their more organized forces began to push back against the mobs.

The end of the revolt came at the castle of Temesvar. Dozsa’s army had the castle surrounded, but the stubborn defenders thwarted their efforts to take the fort. This gave the noble forces, led by a Translyvanian noble (and future king of Hungary) Janos Szapolyai to strike hard at the rebels and break their ability to fight.


Dozsa’s horrible fate

Contemporary engraving of Dozsa's execution.

Contemporary engraving of Dozsa’s execution.

Dozsa was captured. What happened to him next is among the most gruesome fates in all of history. Reports of his torture vary somewhat, but they agree on key points. On the day of his execution, Dozsa was stripped naked and forced to sit on a red hot iron throne. A heated iron scepter was forced into his hand, symbolizing his pretense at kingship. A red hot iron crown was placed on his head.

Then, fourteen of his followers were brought before him. They had been starved for more than a week before this point. Some accounts said that they were commanded to eat his flesh, or be drawn and quartered. They then set on him like rabid dogs, tearing the flesh from Dozsa’s bones with their teeth. Other accounts claim that they were offered freedom if they would eat Dozsa’s flesh, which was torn from his body with red hot pliers. Those who refused were cut to pieces right in front of their former leader. Whatever might have been the case, the rebel leader soon died of his horrific injuries.

The stoic resolve he showed in the face of his torture impressed his captors, but did little to help his former followers. The nobility cracked down on the peasant class in the wake of the revolt, proclaiming the Diet of 1514, which condemned all Hungarian peasants to “real and perpetual servitude.” They were bound permanently to the soil, were forced to work more days for the lords, heavily taxed, and forced to pay for damage done during the rebellion.

Despite his crushing failure and ignoble death, Dozsa has become a national hero in Hungary. His name and likeness have been invoked by subsequent rulers, most notably the Hungarian Communists after World War II. They renamed the main avenue of Budapest after him. Small comfort for a man who met such a grisly fate.



Godkin, Edwin Lawrence. “The History of Hungary and the Magyars.” Oxford University. 1853. Digitized April 28, 2006. pgs 136-137.


The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Dozsa Rebellion.” Encyclopedia Britannica.


Roman, Eric. “Austria-Hungary and the Successor States: A Reference Guide from the Rennaissance to the Present.” Infobase Publishing. January 1, 2009. pg 465.




Soviet Climate Engineering: The Communist Plan to Dam the Bering Strait

Satellite image of the Bering Strait. The Soviets wanted to build a dam across this huge span.

Satellite image of the Bering Strait. The Soviets wanted to build a dam across this huge span.

One of the more controversial topics in the modern world is global warming. Every year we hear how it seems that the northern ice sheets cover less and less area than years before, thanks to subtle warming of the global climate due to an insulating blanket of CO2 and other gasses produced by human activity.  The dangers of a steadily warming world are slowly dawning on both the scientific community and the public at large, as more worrying  reports about potential harm come to light. Many still have their heads buried in the proverbial sand, but before long the harsh realities of a warming world will be too much for even the staunchest denier to ignore.

In the middle of the last century, however, the concept of global warming was far from everyone’s mind. In fact, for Soviet scientists the current state of affairs would not go far enough. They envisioned not trying to curb the melting of the ice a the North Pole, but rather engineering deliberate ways to encourage it. To do this, they called for nothing less than reworking the entire climatological system of the planet by building a gigantic dam across the Bering Strait.


Crops in Siberia and grass in the Sahara

Russia is a famously cold place. her brutal winters foiled invasion attempts by both Napoleon and the Nazis. While the quirks of Russia’s climate makes it ideal for fending off invaders, the brutal cold in areas such as Siberia make accessing the country’s rich natural resources difficult if not impossible. Large Swaths of the land are basically useless for agriculture because they are covered in a year round layer of frozen ground called permafrost.

This was not always the case. About 5000 years ago, Siberia was warmer, and some parts of now former Soviet states in middle Asia were tropical climates. Humans in the region successfully practiced agriculture across wide swaths of what would become the Soviet Union, with less fear of frost and drought than their modern counterparts. Soviet Climatologists believed it might be possible to return to what they saw as more favorable climatic days, by reworking the flow of ocean currents to the Arctic.

The key current Soviet scientists looked into was the Gulf Stream, which brings warm waters from the equator far north. the warm waters flow north, carrying their heat with them, and eventually sink beneath the lighter arctic waters due to higher salinity. This system gives Northern Europe its relatively warm climate.

The Soviets envisioned a way to drive this current further north, bringing the warm water from the equator to the roof of the world. To do this would significantly increase temperatures in northern latitudes. Siberia would thaw for the first time in centuries, opening up new frontiers for human exploitation. Polar ice sheets would recede, revealing more opportunities to exploit fossil fuels deep under northern oceans (something happening on a less grand scale today.)

Not only would northern areas be effected, but the climate of the entire world would shift. Global ocean temperatures would increase, as would the rates of evaporation. More rain would fall on the continents, including places like the Sahara that get little rain during the year. They predicated that grass would sprout on the Sahara for the first time in more than 10,000 years.


Dam the Bering Strait!

These vast changes would be achieved by an appropriately massive engineering project. The centerpiece of the project would be the before mentioned dam across the Bering Strait, a 55 mile long behemoth of a structure. The dam would be tethered to a depth of about 200 feet. It would block the cold waters of the arctic from seeping into the northern Pacific, allowing warmer Pacific currents to creep north, while a massive atomic powered pumping station would pump warm pacific water north creating what would amount to an artificial version of the Gulf Stream.

The dam would be built of 250m sections of pre-stressed ferro-concrete floated into position on pontoons. The innards of the dam–power stations, floodgates, and the like–would be anchored to the ocean bottom by pilings or drilling, depending on conditions on the ocean floor in the local area. A five mile causeway connecting Alaska to Russia would also be built over the dam. Constructing such a massive building would require not only the cooperation of the US and the Soviet Union, but all of their allies as well. It would have truly been a global effort.


Doable, but not practical

While there was evidently enthusiasm among Soviet climatologists, their American counterparts were less than ecstatic. They had no doubt that the dam could be built, but the costs of the project would be astronomical. Many doubted that the Soviets were even serious about the project, believing they were using the project as a form of propaganda.

There lay one of the fundamental problems with the dam project. It was a political nonstarter. Building such a mammoth structure would require not only the two superpowers working together, a dicey proposition at best, but the cooperation of other powers as well. They would all have to commit vast amounts of resources to a plan that worked on paper but had no other way of being tested outside of the hypothetical until it was completed. It was not clear just how the rest of the world was supposed to benefit from the vast project, other than the vague promises of warmer climates, more rain, and more access to hydroelectric power from higher water flow due to more rain. Russia would see the most immediate benefit, and the US was not likely to sign up to give its biggest rival access to more arable land and fossil fuels.

Politics aside, even with the less sophisticated climatological knowledge of the day, most scientists grasped that tweaking the vast system that effected everyone on earth was probably a bad idea. There are too many variables to account for, and too many things that could go wrong. Current thought would say that the consequences would would have been catastrophic, resulting in massive sea level rise and runaway global warming as greenhouse gasses locked in the permafrost vented into the atmosphere. Basically, the project could have brought about what today is regarded as the worst case scenario of a world with a changing climate.

There is some irony there. The Cold War was characterized by weapons that could destroy civilization as we know it, and yet a project meant to better the lot of many people in the world and requiring the cooperation of deadly rivals would have almost certainly ended the world as we know it. The road to hell truly is paved with good intentions.



Borisov, P.M. “Can we Control the Arctic Climate?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. March 1969. Vol. 25. No.3 pg 43-48.

“Ocean Dams Would Thaw North.” Popular Mechanics. June 1956. pg 135

Project 1794–An American Flying Saucer

The Avrocar.

The Avrocar.

Flying saucers are the stuff of B-grade science fiction from the 50s and 60s. While many today believe that these alien craft actually exist, most remain skeptical. However, a saucer shaped design could have many features that would make it more useful than conventional craft. A saucer craft could easily slice through the air, and could turn on a dime in any direction. With those features in mind then, it might not seem so crazy to discover that the US Air Force funded an experimental design for such a craft in the late 1950s. Dubbed Project 1794, it was an ambitious plan to build a supersonic flying saucer that could shoot down Soviet bombers bent on wreaking destruction on the US homeland.


The Avrocar, a prototype

The mind behind the saucer was Jack Frost. Hired by Avro Canada in 1947, he worked on a supersonic aircraft called the Avro Arrow. Part of his work at Avro focused on what is known as the Coanda Effect, which is the tendency for airflow to “stick” to gently curved surfaces.

Frost believed this effect could be harnessed to create a cushion of air beneath a saucer-craft, allowing it to hover. This, he believed, could lead to a supersonic aircraft that could fly at Mach 4, soar 100,000 feet into the air, and have a range of 1,000 miles. His focus on on a flying saucer came from later falsified reports that the Nazis had experimented with their own flying saucers. He worried that the technology could have fallen into Soviet hands in the mad scramble to secure Nazi scientists and technology that followed the war.

To the US military, always looking to get a leg up over the Soviets, Frost’s saucer must have sounded like a dream come true. They were already looking for a supersonic aircraft, preferably one that could take off from anywhere, that could intercept Soviet bombers en route to the US mainland. A saucer with vertical take-off abilities would fit that bill nicely.

The project was conducted under the utmost secrecy at the Avro plant in Malton, Ontario. Fears of Soviet spying were widespread, and well founded. A soviet spy had been discovered attempting to obtain information about the Arrow program, although their name was never released.

Company literature depicting the Avrocar as a replacement for the Jeep, the Army's work horse at the time.

Company literature depicting the Avrocar as a replacement for the Jeep, the Army’s work horse at the time.

Expectations for the program were high. It was, after all, the 1950s–everything seemed possible with the right technology. The reality was much more sobering. By November 1959, Avro had managed to scale down the original design for a 30,000lb craft to a 5680lb prototype. The prototype looked more like a giant aluminum cough drop than a flying saucer. The 18ft wide contraptions was powered by three engines, half as many as would be on the final version. Known as the Avrocar, it was tested between a pair of buildings on the Avro grounds by Wladyslaw “Spud” Potocki, who had received a British distinguished Flying Cross during World War II. Having tested the Avro Arrow, the veteran pilot was not strapped into the company’s strangest contraption to date.

Spud Potocki fired up the prototype’s engines for the first untethered test of the craft. Engine’s screaming, the aluminum craft lifted off the ground. A promising start, but as soon as it reached three feet the craft started to wobble uncontrollably. Potocki killed the engine and set the craft down.

Try as they might, the engineers at Avro could not overcome the instability inherent to the saucer design. They tried different shaped nozzles, spoilers, skirts, and vents. In frustration, they slapped a tail on it at one point, defeating the point of a flying saucer in the first place. None of it made any difference. The Avrocar never flew more than than three feet off the ground, topping out at a speed of 30 knots, a far cry from the Mach 4 Frost envisioned for his saucer-craft.


A Problem of Power

Despite its powerful engines, the Avrocar suffered a lack of power. The problem lay in how the air was pumped through the saucer. Air was forced through a system of ducts, resulting in a lot of friction that significantly restricted the power of the system. This problem would be resolved in an aircraft now famous for vertical take-offs: the British Harrier Jump Jet. The Harrier solved the problem simply by moving the aircraft’s exhaust nozzle.

One other concept that might have saved the Avrocar would have been to integrate flight control processors into the system. Modern aircraft rely on computers to make minute adjustments to nozzles and flight surfaces. Working in concert, pilots can use this assistance to fly machines that might be impossible to operate with only human hands. Strangely, such a system was developed for the Avro Arrow, but it was never considered for use with the Avrocar.


End of the Saucer Era

While the US military would fund and build many odd looking aircraft during the Cold War, it would never again fund a flying saucer prototype after the failure of the Avrocar. It pulled funding from the program in 1961, after investing about $3 million ($26 million in today’s dollars) into the project. Avro closed its doors a year later. The two prototypes resulting from the ill-fated project remain in government hands. One is in pieces at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. The second is on display in the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

The Avrocar might have been a non-starter, but failures have their place in the long march of technology. The mistakes made laid the groundwork for technology that would prove successful in other crafts. And while no on in the modern world zooms around in flying saucers, the Avrocar remains as a testament to an era when anything, no matter how ridiculous it might seem to the jaded 21st century, seemed possible.



Chandler, Graham. “The Pentagon’s Flying Saucer Problem.” May 2003. Air & Space Magazine. May 16, 2014.

Pappalardo, Joe. Fecht, Sarah. “America’s Secret Saucer.” Popular Mechanics. February 2013, vol. 90 issue 2. p. 52-61

“Project 1794: Final Development Summary Report.” Avro Aircraft Limited. April 2, 1955 –May 31, 1956.

Onion, Rebecca. “The Government Tested a Flying Saucer in 1956. Here’s the Full Report.” July 11, 2013. Slate. May 16, 2014.

The Milk Miracle of 1995

A statue of Ganesh.

A statue of Ganesh.

Outbreaks of collective delusion do not always have to involve phantom slashers or mad gassers. These outbreaks of mass mental illness often take the form of supposed miraculous events, especially in countries where people are devoutly religious.

One such alleged miracle occurred September 21, 1995, when Hindu faithful witnessed statues of the Lord Ganesh, an elephant headed god revered in India, apparently drinking milk offerings. Faithful held the milk offerings up tot he deity’s lips, and witnessed the liquid disappear. Some reported hearing loud slurping noises. The belief spread like wildfire through the Hindu community, by word of mouth bur primarily through media reports.

The frenzy drew mobs of faithful to temples all around the world. From the first reported case in India, miracle reports spread to places as far afield as London, New York, and parts of Africa.

However, by Sunday, September 24, dejected Hindus began to claim that the statues rejected their offerings. As quickly as it had come, milk miracle mania disappeared.

By the end of the outbreak, a few people were hurt in stampedes as excited crowds rushed Hindu temples, eager to view the miracle. Stores in districts populated primarily by Hindus were stripped clean of milk, and many work places were forced to stop their normal operation as devout skipped work to witness the supernatural happenings.

The event also left a lot of head-scratching in its wake. What actually happened during those few days in September, when the world seemed to witness a miracle?


No miracle, just science

Miracles are, by definition, events that defy natural explanation. They are usually recorded in religious texts that describe the feats of divine beings. The most well known miracles among Americans would be the supernatural exploits attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. From turning water into wine to resurrecting three days after his execution, millions of people around the world believe that Jesus literally performed these feats. Millions more believe that tales of his exploits are greatly exaggerated.

Arguing for or against the existence of miracles is far beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, the belief in the miraculous is common throughout the world, even in industrialized countries. Miracles are matters of faith, and that belief in the miraculous is at the heart of the strange outbreak in September of 1995.

Simply put, the belief in miracles predisposes people to thinking that things they don’t understand are miraculous in nature. In ancient times, fire was revered as a gift from the gods. Nowadays, we know that flames result from combustion reactions. Their causes and behavior have been well documented.

It is the same with the milk drinking miracle. People saw something happening that they couldn’t explain, and perceived it as a miracle. However, the events described by Hindu faithful were based in simple science. Many statues of Ganesh and other deities were made out of ceramics or stone. Since both materials could have simply absorbed milk as it was held to the statue’s mouth. This occurred via capillary action, which is the tendency for fluids to flow up a narrow tube by the actin of surface tension at the top of the fluid column. Basically, liquids stick to the side of the tube and crawl up the sides of it as more fluid is pushed up behind.

The crack in the lips of the statues, or Ganesh’s trunk, which usually had a shallow hole in the tip, acted as tubes for the capillary action to work. Ceramic or stone statues might have retained the fluids for awhile, before releasing it when fully saturated. While copper or brass idols would not have been able to absorb the milk, capillary action still could have drew the liquid out of the spoon. It would have then ran down the sides of the statue. Many worshipers reported seeing the milk running down the sides of metal statues and pooling at the base.


A highly susceptible population

The population of India is highly susceptible to outbreaks of collective delusion, for a variety of reasons. Socioeconomic factors played a strong role in the outbreak. The vast majority of people in India are impoverished and poorly educated. Traditional beliefs and superstitions are woven deep into their daily lives. This includes a strong devotion to their gods. Hindus do not see their gods as distant figures, reclining in a luxurious heaven and ruling over the universe like kings over an empire. They see their gods as family members, as friends, as parts of themselves.

These factors all conspired together to produce the milk miracle. One devotee, believing not just in the reality of their god, but feeling an intimate relationship with them, saw what they believed was their god trying to communicate with them. This was of course something no more miraculous than, say dipping a paper towel into a puddle. But because the worshiper saw something they couldn’t understand, and were primed to see it as something supernatural, they interpreted the event as a miracle. Others similarly primed began to try the miracle for themselves, and upon seeing capillary action at work and not knowing how to explain it, also believed they’d witnessed a miracle. Word of the miracles spread, and others came to temple fully expecting to see a miracle. Their bias made them susceptible, just as the “victims” of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon were primed to believe they were going to be attacked. If a person looks hard enough for something, they will find it.

But as the outbreak wore on, both the media and the community took a more skeptical view of the strange happenings. Some of this was no doubt due to the frenzy surrounding the supposed miracle, the work stoppages, and the injuries from stampeding faithful. When the more skeptical mood took hold and experts started to come out in the media dismissing the miracle as fantasy, reports began to drop off. Some continued to believe that the miracle had actually occurred, but they explained away the skeptical explanation by claiming that the statues were beginning to reject the offerings.

The milk miracle was a classic example of mass wish fulfillment. People wanted to see their gods in action. And they did, even if the supposed miracle had a perfectly natural explanation.



Press Trust of India. “Idols ‘Drinking’ Milk is Pure Science.” August 26, 2006. March 8, 2014 <>


“Milk Miracle Vanishes.” Lawrence Journal-World. September 23,1995


Tayaraman, T. “Obscurantism vs. Science Behind the Milk-Drinking ‘Miracle.’” The Institute of Mathematical Sciences. <>


Bhardwaj, Prabha Prabhakar. “The Milk Miracle: Tales and Reflections.” December 1995. Hinduism Today. March 8, 2014. <>


Scripps Howard News Services. “Hindus Disappointed as Idols ‘Reject’ Milk.” Gainesville Sun. September 25, 1995. 8A


Persoud, Gitanjal. “Hindu ‘milk miracle’ Frenzy Hits Guyana.” Stoernek News. September 23, 1995 p. 32

Project Eldest Son: America’s Program to Sabotage Enemy Ammo During the Vietnam War

An example of an AK-47 round. These are the types of rounds the Green Berets were sabotaging during Project Eldest Son.

An example of an AK-47 round. These are the types of rounds the Green Berets were sabotaging during Project Eldest Son.

Dirty tricks come part and parcel with the business of warfare. Anything that can give an army even a slight edge against an enemy is worth a try when it might help bring about a victory. These sorts of unconventional tactics go back to the ancient world. Archimedes developed a weapons system that could easily sink enemy ships and stymied the powerful Roman army for years. The US army developed a system that utilized bats to destroy Japanese cities, although that particular scheme never went beyond the testing phases. America’s enemies also got in on the act, hatching a plot to kill Prime Minister Winston Churchill using a bomb disguised as a chocolate bar.

Most of the dirty tricks used in warfare are far more subtle than the ones outlined above. A favorite is sabotaging enemy supplies. Doing so would not only inhibit the ability for an enemy to make war, it would also spread fear and confusion among enemy ranks. Perhaps one of the most audacious of these plans was executed by the United States during the Vietnam War. The operation was dubbed Project Eldest Son, and it involved US special forces sabotaging Vietnamese ammunition.


Project Eldest Son

Project Eldest Son was approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1967. The plan was as simple as it was devious: seize enemy supplies and sabotage some of the rounds by replacing powder in the rounds with high explosives. These would be strong enough to blow the bolt back through the skull of the soldier using the rifle. The CIA worked for a month to pry apart several thousand 7.62mm rounds, sabotage them with high explosives, and then erase any signs of tampering. Several 12.7mm machine gun rounds and about 2000 82mm mortar rounds were sabotaged as well.

Although the funny ammo would likely kill many Vietnamese soldiers, that was not the main aim of Project Eldest Son. The true goal was to destroy the Vietnamese’s confidence in their Chinese-made supplies. The hope was to drive a wedge between China and Vietnam, thus removing one means of supply for Vietnamese forces.

Green Berets sowed the booby trapped ammunition among enemy ammunition caches whenever they could. In addition, they would load one round of booby-trapped ammo in rifles dropped by dead soldiers. This was so the weapon would be destroyed and remove any trace of the sabotage. Soon, soldiers began to be blown up by their own weaponry.

As the casualties began, phase two of Project Eldest Son began. Forged Chinese and Vietnamese documents detailing the problem began to be spread, along with US intelligence briefs specifically designed for enemy eyes. Armed Forces Radio and TV PSAs about the dangers of using enemy weapons were broadcast, clearly meant for the enemy to see (and to protect US forces from accidentally being blown up by captured weapons.)

Project Eldest Son only lasted two years, ending when information was leaked to the press in 1969. It continued under the names Project Italian Green and Project Pole Bean, but these operations lacked the subtlety of the initial operation. Even if the methods were more crude, the results were the same: sowing fear and doubt among America’s enemies.


Continuing today?

While the Vietnam War has been over for decades, operations similar to Eldest Son allegedly continue to this day. There is some evidence that similar sabotage operations have been used in Afghanistan against Taliban and other radical forces, although the modern focus is more on mortar or RPG rounds than small arms ammunition. After all, there is no way to tell if a round is sabotaged, so these sorts of fake rounds could end up in the hands of innocents, say, a farmer who uses a rifle to protect his land. So, while sabotaged mortars make a bigger boom, they’re oddly enough more targeted than the small armed rounds.

But the modern equivalent of Eldest Son is shrouded in secrecy, and it isn’t really clear how extensive the program is. It is far more hush hush, likely learning from the exposure of Eldest Son in 1969.



Bourjaily, Phil. “Project Eldest Son: Cover Ammo Sabotage in Vietnam.” October 17, 2011. Field and Stream. October 12, 2014.


Chivers, C.J. “Dirty Tricks of Government Forces: Where Deception and Deadliness Meet Inside a Gun.” November 7, 2012. The New York Times. October 12, 2014.



Project Westford: The Plan to Give Earth a Ring

Westford needles, compared to a postage stamp.

Westford needles, compared to a postage stamp.

Today we take rapid telecommunications for granted. Phones and computers can link us up with people on the other side of the world in an instant. We demand this unprecedented amount of connectivity as a matter of course and heaven forbid if any event–natural or man made–interrupt it.

With this system so ubiquitous now, the thought that not long ago people lived without it is mind boggling. Fifty years ago the technology was science fiction. This was before the network of satellites that makes so much of our rapid communication possible today was in place. In a climate of paranoia, with the threat of nuclear war looming over the world, US planners had a problem–namely, the lack of reliable communications would make it difficult to coordinate far flung US forces should the worst happen. Long range radio communication relied on bouncing signals off the ionosphere, a fairly unreliable system at best and one that could be disrupted by a big enough nuclear attack. The US military needed something more reliable. To achieve this, the US military initiated Project Westford, which would in effect give earth an artificial ring of copper needles that could be used to bounce radio signals off of.


Rings Like Saturn

Project Westford consisted of two launches one conducted October 21, 1961 and the second two years later on May 9, 1963. Each launch vehicle carried special canisters filled with millions of tiny copper wires .7in long and .0007in in diameter. While individually tiny, the needles, a planned 480 million of them, would form a band orbiting 2200 miles above earth. Special installations on Earth could then bounce radio signal off the ring.

The first mission reached its intended orbit, but the needles failed to deploy properly. The needles were embedded in naphthalene gel that was supposed to evaporate as soon as it left the launch vehicle. However, the design allowed the needles to come in contact with each other, which caused them to clump. To be exact, they formed about seven clumps that remain in orbit today.

The second launch in 1963 was more successful, releasing  between 120-215 million needles into orbit. The needles were expected to remain in orbit for about two years before solar radiation pressures pushed them into the atmosphere, after which they would presumably be replaced by subsequent missions of the project became permanent. Many of the needles from the second launch feel back to earth, but about one hundred and forty-four objects associated with launch two, presumably clumps, remain in orbit today.


Criticisms and obsolescence

Astronomers were critical of Project Westford from the beginning. They feared that the ring of copper would interfere with observations from both radio and optical telescope arrays. there was also fear that the dipole band would interfere with satellites already in place. It was due to this pressure that project designers designed the dipole belt to decay relatively rapidly in its orbit. They did not anticipate the clumping problems mentioned above.

The partial success of the second mission allowed scientists at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the brains behind the project, to test the system. Using the partial ring, they were able to transmit up to 20kbps of voice and frequency shift key data from Westford, MA and Camp Parks, near Pleasanton, CA. Four months later, when the belt had extended, the capacity of the transmission dropped to a measly 100bits per second

With the less than stellar performance, a passive system of long distance communications started to look less attractive. In 1962, the first modern communications satellite, Telstar, was launched. It transmitted television signals across the Atlantic for two hours a day. It proved that active systems were more reliable and higher capacity than the passive system envisioned by Project Westford. The copper ring was obsolete before it could be fully implemented.

However, the legacy of Westford lives on. the remnants of the project still orbit far overhead. today, in part because of experiments like Westford, deliberately polluting the space around earth would be considered wildly irresponsible. Fifty years ago, the US operated under the Big Sky principle, the belief that space is big and it wouldn’t be likely for anything to bump into each other floating around in all that space. These days, that isn’t taken to be true.

Westford helped to spur a change in international space policy. this included a UN accord that called for nations looking to embark on potentially messy experiments like Westford to consult with other countries whose interests–scientific, military, or otherwise–might be effected. With these policies in place, it isn’t likely anyone else will try to put a ring around the Earth anytime soon.



Hanson, Joe. “The Forgotten Cold War Plan that put a Ring of Copper Around the Earth.” August 13, 2013. Wired. May 15, 2014.

MacLellan, Donald. “Looking Back: Space Needles.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology. May 15, 2014.

Martin, Donald. Anderson, Paul. Bartamian, Lucy. “the History of Satellites: West Ford.” April 2005. SatMagazine by SatNews. May 15, 2014.

“Westford Needles: where are they Now?” NASA. Orbited Debris Quarterly News. Volume 17, issue 4. October 2013.

The Donora Smog Disaster

Donora, the year it was incorporated. The build up of heavy industry in this town led to a deadly smog disaster that killed 20 people.

Donora, the year it was incorporated. The build up of heavy industry in this town led to a deadly smog disaster that killed 20 people.

Donora, Pennsylvania is a small town located about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh. Tucked in a valley on the western bank of the Monogahela River, it is a quiet, fairly typical American town. But like another small Pennsylvania town, it played host to a monumental environmental disaster that changed its irrevocably. The event is now known as the Donora Smog Disaster of 1948, and it played a large role in establishing today’s environmental movement.


Roots of a disaster

Donora grew out of several villages established in the valley in the 19th century. It did not become known as Donora until it was incorporated in 1901. The town grew out of industrial interests who sought to utilize the area’s resources. Several companies started operations in the area, including Union Steel Company (later known as the American Steel and Wire Works), the Carnegie Steel Company, the Matthew Woven Wire Fence Company, and the Donora Zinc Works. In addition, the Pennsylvania Railroad expanded rail service into the area.

All of this industry concentrated in the valley led to a boom for the local economy. By 1948, Donora was home to 14,000 people. Thousands more lived in small towns dotting the valley, many of them working in the many factories in Donora. The concentration of heavy industry also spewed pollution into the valley air. Residents had complained long before the 1948 disaster about the air quality and the impact of industrial activity on the environment as a whole. However, the inconvenience was taken with a grain of salt, since most families in the valley depended on those pollution spewing factories for their livelihood.

That is, until October 27, 1948, when a thick blanket of yellow smog descended on Donora. Residents were used to smog, but they had never encountered anything quite like this. The deadly fog blanked the valley for five straight days. As the days wore on, more and more townspeople became sickened by the toxic brew of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants. Elderly and those with respiratory ailments were hit the hardest. The local hospital was swamped with patients. An emergency hospital was set up in the Donora Hotel. The lower level of the hotel was converted into a makeshift morgue to handle the influx of bodies.

Emergency responders went door to door, checking on families and offering oxygen to those in need. Town officials met with officials of the Donora Zinc Works, asking the plant to shut down in hopes that a shut down would mitigate the unfolding disaster, but the company refused. When the smog mercifully lifted, 20 people were dead and more than 6,000 had been sickened.


Action in the aftermath

The disaster in Donora put environmental issues into the national consciousness. The following year in Pennsylvania, the state began to study the impact of air pollution on the state. Pennsylvania adopted a clean streams law in 1965 and state wide clean air regulations in 1966. The federal government established the Environmental Protection agency and passed the Clean Air Act in 1970.

Nowadays, Donora no longer finds itself blanketed in smog. It has turned the disaster that killed twenty of its residents into something positive, claiming that it was the birthplace of Clean Air. The air is much cleaner in Donora these days. The heavy industries that belched toxic clouds into the valley air have largely left the area, along with the jobs they provided. Donora is another Rust Belt town struggling to survive in the wake of a slow economic collapse over the last 30+ years. But at least it survived its environmental disaster. Some tiny Pennsylvania burghs were not so lucky.



“The Donora Smog Disaster October 30-31, 1948.” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.


Murray, Ann. “Smog Deaths In 1948 Led to Clean Air Laws.” April 22, 2009. National Public Radio. October 12, 2014.


An Explosive Beauty Pageant: Miss Atomic Bomb

Mushroom clouds were visible from downtown Las Vegas, no doubt spurring some of the fascination with the bombs that led to the Miss Atom Bomb fad.

Mushroom clouds were visible from downtown Las Vegas, no doubt spurring some of the fascination with the bombs that led to the Miss Atom Bomb fad.

Today we view the atom bomb as a terrifying weapon that could potentially wipe out humanity. Early in the Cold War, however, the American public held a different view of the bomb and atomic power in general. While anxieties about the potential deadly effects were there, a sense of excitement about the brand new power source seemed to outweigh that, no doubt partially stoked by government propaganda, even as the government began to body snatch to try and figure out how deadly the bomb’s radiation was.

This was a time when the atom seemed to be ale to do anything, when slapping a nuclear reactor into a car seemed like a good idea. The public was fascinated with the nuclear tests being performed at the Nevada Test Site. Visible from the city of Las Vegas, the testing drew tourists curious to see the power of the atom at work. A weird, short lived offshoot of this clamoring was the atomic pin-up girl.


Four known “Miss Atomic Bombs”

The first of the atomic pin-up girls was Candyce King, an actress who appeared at Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. Her photo appeared on May 9, 1952 in the Dixon Illinois Evening Telegraph and the Statesville, North Carolina Daily Record. She was dubbed Miss Atomic Blast by US Marines participating in maneuvers associated with nuclear testing at Yucca Flats.

Miss A-Bomb was crowned a year later, during the Upshot-Knothole series of tests. The city of North Las Vegas held its annual beauty contest, selecting Paula Harris as Miss North Las Vegas 1953. She rode a movie themed float, based on the movie “The Atomic City,” The sign on the side of the float said that North Las Vegas was “as new and modern as the A-Bomb,” and Miss Harris was dubbed “Miss A-Bomb.”

Perhaps the most famous test conducted during atmospheric testing was known as Operation Cue. It tested the impact of atomic blasts on a mock town. The test was delayed several times, and personnel began to dub the test “Operation Mis-Cue.” During a delay, some of the personnel went to Las Vegas. Six US Army men dubbed Linda Lawson, a Copa Girl at the Sands Hotel “Mis-Cue.” A photo of her being crowned with a mushroom cloud was released on May 1, 1955.

The last Miss Atomic Bomb was crowned two years later. She was Lee A. Merlin, and her photo with a large cotton mushroom cloud affixed to the front of her white swimsuit. This was the most widely dispersed of the Miss Atomic Bomb photos, appearing in publications worldwide.


End of Miss Atomic Bomb

By the end of the 1950’s, the public had become more aware of the dangers associated with nuclear testing. Testing began to move underground, and no longer held the same allure it did early in the Cold War. Miss Atomic Bomb became a relic of an era when, for lack of a better term, the A-bomb was considered “sexy.”



“Miss Atom Bomb.” DOE/NV August 2013.

Project Blue Peacock: The English Plan to Build a Nuclear Landmine

Engineers proposed using chickens to keep the components of Blue Peacock warm over long winters.

Engineers proposed using chickens to keep the components of Blue Peacock warm over long winters.

Europe in the 1950s was a tense place. It had endured six years of warfare during World War II, only to find itself embroiled in the potentially disastrous Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. The threat of a Soviet invasion was a very real one; at any moment, Soviet tanks and troops could come pouring over the border into West Europe.

Great Britain remembered the horrors of World War II, when she stood alone against the Nazi onslaught. Only the Nazis did not have the advanced rocketry or bombers possessed by the Soviets in the 1950s. Critically, the Nazis also lacked nuclear weapons. If the Soviets advanced, Britain would find itself in an even worse position than during World War II.

This was not an acceptable scenario. In order to counter the Soviet threat, or possibly even stop an invasion in its tracks, the British would have to get creative. What they came up with was dubbed Project Blue Peacock, the plan to build nuclear landmines.


Area denial at its finest

The concept of a nuclear land mine was developed early in the British nuclear program. the concept was simple–deny the Soviets the use of land and buildings by blowing them to smithereens with nuclear bombs. the inevitable result of a nuclear blast–radiation–would further render the land unusable to Soviet aggressors. It was basically a scorched earth policy with a nuclear twist. Potential targets for nuclear mining would be hydroelectric dams, oil refineries, industrial complexes, railway junctions, or canals. Basically, anything an occupier could use against their enemies.

The hypothetical mines would be developed from nuclear weapons currently available at the time. Britain conducted its first nuclear test in 1952. Dubbed Operation Hurricane, the device was a plutonium powered implosion bomb, similar to the Fat Man bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. This system was used to build the Blue Danube, a free-fall bomb being used by the RAF at the time. A slightly modified version of the system was to be used in Blue Peacock.

Blue Peacock would have looked more like a large boiler or propane tank than a devastating explosive device. The entire contraptions would have weighed in at 16,000lbs. It would have consisted of the warhead itself, two firing units, and the casing. the weapon could be detonated in one of three ways: by wire from a command post up to 3 miles away, by an eight day clockwork timer, or by an array of anti-tampering devices. These included a pressurized hull and a tilt switch. If the casting lost pressure or filled with water, the weapon would detonate in 10 seconds. each weapon was designed to have a 10 kiloton yield, about half that of the Fat Man. If detonated on the surface, the bomb would have left a 375 foot diameter crater. detonated 35 feet underground, it would have produced a 640 foot crater.

In July 1957, the Army Council decided to have 10 Blue Peacock mines built and moved to positions with the British Army and moved into positions with the British Army of the Rhine in Germany. If an invasion seemed imminent, the nuclear mines would be deployed on the surface, submerged in a river, or buried under ground in key areas where the Soviets were accepted to pass through.


Criticism and the end of Blue Peacock

Criticisms of the bombs mounted. Blue Peacock was a cumbersome weapon to deploy. It was also potentially unstable. Why use a mine when a similar weapon could easily be dropped from a plane?

There was also potential political fall out of positioning a nuclear device on allied territory. The West Germans would not have been pleased if, on top of everything else, their allies nuked key parts of their infrastructure during an invasion. Radiation doesn’t take sides, and fallout doesn’t respect national borders. It would certainly deny the land to the Soviets, but it would also deny the land to everyone else.

Technical flaws also plagued the Blue Peacock as well. The bomb was very temperature sensitive. The components needed to be kept warm to operate properly. There was not guarantee that the weapon could survive a mid-European winter. One solution to this problem involved swathing the inside of the device with fiberglass pillows. A more unusual option involved converting the interior of the weapon into a chicken coop. the birds’ body heat would be enough to keep the components warm. They’d be provided with enough seed to keep them happy and healthy. More importantly, keeping them content would keep them from pecking at the electrical components.

In February 1958, the MoD Weapons Policy Committee decided to pull the plug on Blue Peacock. Two of the prototypes, sans nuclear fuel, were retained. One was probably destroyed during further testing. The other is currently on display at the Atomic Weapons Establishment Historical Collection among other artifacts of the British Nuclear Program.



“Cold War Bomb Warmed by Chickens.” April 1, 2004. BBC News. May 16, 2014.

Edwards, Rob. “British Army Planned Nuclear Landmines.” July 16, 2003. New Scientist. May 16, 2014.

Hawking, David. “Blue Peacock: The British Army’s Forgotten Weapon.” Discovery: The science and Technology Journal of AWE. The Atomic Weapon’s Establishment. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Wilson, Jamie. “Nuclear mines ‘to stop Soviets.'” July 16, 2003. The Guardian. May 16, 2014.