April 29, 2013
They’re small, secretive, nocturnal, and look creepy hanging upside down in caves. And at one point during World War II, they were recruited as potential killing machines.
Yep, bats as weapons of mass destruction.
“A plan to turn millions of bats into suicide bombers bearing tiny napalm time bombs was the most spectacular of the special projects at Louis Fieser’s Harvard laboratory,” writes Robert M. Neer in his new book, Napalm: An American Biography.
The project was the brainchild of Lytle Adams, a Pennsylvania dentist with a passionate hatred of the misunderstood Chiroptera.
The “lowest form of life is the BAT, associated in history with the underworld and regions of darkness and evil,” Adams wrote in a 1942 memo to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Until now reasons for its creation have remained unexplained. As I vision it the millions of bats that have for ages inhabited our belfries, tunnels and caverns were placed there by God to await this hour to play their part in the scheme of free human existence, and to frustrate any attempt of those who dare to desecrate our way of life.”
Seems a tad harsh, no?
The bats were to be loaded with a tiny (17.5 gram) napalm bomb, stuffed into a North American B-25, and flown over Japan. Upon reaching the target, 26,000 angry bats would be tossed out of the aircraft (they had parachutes), and would land upon highly flammable Japanese houses.
A test run over Carlsbad Auxiliary Army Air Field, New Mexico, with bats bearing dummy bombs went surprisingly well.
Fieser and his team, however, wanted to have the test filmed, so a second trial was set, using six bats with armed bombs.
Unexpectedly, the bats took off, and shortly after, the barracks burst into flames. “Flames…jumped from building to building,” writes Neer. “Many structures lay in ashes.”
“Unfortunately,” he writes, “to preserve secrecy…the team had deemed fire equipment unnecessary.” In a masterpiece of understatement, Fieser summed up the experiment: “We made a little mistake out there.”
And that was the end of the bomber bats.
April 25, 2013
As early as 1919, airlines in Europe hired attendants—all male—to serve passengers during flights. But it wasn’t until 1926 that Stout Air Services in the United States engaged stewards for its service between Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over the next few years, the in-flight attendant job was deemed best suited for female nurses. As Victoria Vantoch writes in her new book The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), the decision was influenced by the family of William Patterson, a vice president at Boeing. Patterson’s wife and children, says Vantoch, always got airsick when traveling: “My mother and I didn’t want young boys holding our hair when we got sick—no customer wanted that—so we told my dad to hire women instead,” recalls Patricia, Patterson’s daughter.
When the DC-3 arrived six years later, Vantoch writes, passenger miles increased 600 percent between 1931 and 1941. With the DC-3, “the airline industry began to focus on passenger service and the stewardess was catapulted to new importance,” and the number of flight attendants rose from below 400 to 1,000.
By the mid-1940s, “stewardess candidates had to be twenty-one to twenty-eight years old,” writes Vantoch, “unmarried, 5’3″ to 5’6″ tall, no more than 125 pounds, with good posture and an ‘attractive appearance,’ and preferably with some college education.” (The nursing requirement had been dropped because nurses were required for the war effort and could not be spared for airline service.) “Stewardess training was also arduous,” notes Vantoch, “with strict rules, fifty subjects (including flight physics, emergency procedures, radio navigation, and meteorology), and a series of intense exams.”
The transformation of the stewardess from all-American girl next door to a sexier image, was largely the work of the Burnett advertising agency, which won the United account in 1965, and Mary Wells, the advertising director of Braniff Airlines. Leo Burnett’s team realized that young consumers were an emerging market—and appropriating aspects of the 1960s counter-culture “could help market United to older Americans who still wanted to feel young and hip.” At the same time that the Burnett agency was struggling with its campaign, Branniff kicked off its “Air Strip” television ad, in which a stewardess slowly removed pieces of her Pucci uniform during the flight. Shortly after, United’s ads promised consumers that stewardesses would “go all out to please you!” The sexual revolution had infiltrated the airlines, and other carriers soon modified their images as well.
April 23, 2013
German photographer Dietmar Eckell is drawn to abandoned objects: neglected railroad tracks, stranded ships, detritus from past Olympic Games. His latest project, titled Happy End, documents aircraft wreckage—but only from accidents where everyone on board survived.
The photograph above, the last image in the series, shows a B-24 that crashed in Papua New Guinea during World War II. “I wanted a warbird in the jungle with a miracle story,” Eckell wrote in an email, “and always loved the stories of the Pacific wrecks, so I started looking in Papua New Guinea.” According to his information, all nine crew members on board survived the crash.
The Douglas C-47 above was the first aircraft Eckell documented during the two-year project. “I’ve been there [Yukon Territory, Canada] twice already, and next time I want to go back in February, as the crash happened in February 1950. The pilot walked all the way to the Alaskan Highway to get help.”
Eckell asks local pilots to help pinpoint exact locations and provide story details, and he searches for information in local archives. “I [was originally] inspired by paintings of shipwrecks in the romantic period,” he writes. “But soon I got hooked on these planes and stories, and it was like a pilgrimage to ‘wonders’ around the world.”
April 1, 2013
Ah, the romance of the airship. With its advent, passengers could finally be transported over great distances in comfort—even luxury. “On a plane you fly, but on the Graf Zeppelin you voyage,” remarked one pampered passenger. (For the Graf Zeppelin‘s first transatlantic flight, besotted crowds of 50,000 or more awaited its arrival at the landing field at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1928, even though it was delayed a day due to bad weather. Millions more watched as the airship slowly made its way up the East Coast, floating over Washington, D.C., past Baltimore and above New York City.) The airship experience, however, didn’t come cheap. In 1928, a round trip transatlantic ticket went for $3,000, worth about $40,000 in today’s dollars.
But what about the photograph shown here? The New York Times reports that in 1929, “Alfred E. Smith, the leader of a group of investors erecting the Empire State Building,” announced that the height of the building would be increased by 200 feet so that a mooring mast for dirigibles could be installed. Smith noted that passengers would exit the airship down a gangplank, and a mere seven minutes later could be on the street, ready to experience everything Manhattan had to offer.
Dr. Hugo Eckener, the commander of the Graf Zeppelin, reports the New York Times, dismissed the project as impractical, noting that dirigible landings required dozens of ground crew, not to mention plenty of rope. “[T]he notion that passengers would be able to descend an airport-style ramp from a moving airship to the tip of the tallest building in the world, even in excellent conditions, beggars belief,” notes the Times.
In 1930, International News Photos distributed this manipulated photograph. At the time, no airship had docked at the Empire State Building. That didn’t happen until September 1931, when a privately-owned dirigible docked for a mere three minutes, in a 40-mile-per-hour wind. “Traffic was tied up in the streets below for more than a half hour as the pilot, Lieutenant William McCraken jockeyed for position in the half gale about the tower 1,200 feet above the ground,” the Times reported in 1931.
This image—and 200 others—are on display at the National Gallery of Art in the exhibition “Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop.” The exhibition runs through May 5, 2013.
March 25, 2013
Looking for a science book to read? Something with eccentric characters, irrational obsessions, and extreme experiments? Try Alex Boese’s book Electrified Sheep: Glass-eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012).
Boese notes that when Pierre and Marie Curie first isolated radium in their lab in 1902, the mysterious metal appeared to produce a limitless amount of energy: “And where there is energy, medical entrepreneurs noted, there must be health! Physicians swung into action, promoting the beneficial effects of ‘radiumizing’ the body to an eager public. Retailers sold radium-treated water, describing the faintly glowing solution as ‘liquid sunshine.’ ” The radium craze persisted well into the 1930s; even Marie Curie insisted on the metal’s health benefits, maintaining this belief right up until 1934, when she died of radiation exposure. Boese writes:
A curious descendant of the invisible energy enthusiasm can even be found in a rather unlikely place—the Chinese space programme. Chinese scientists, from the very start of their space programme, have expressed great interest in the effect of cosmic rays on plants, hoping that such rays might produce Super Veggies to feed their growing population. At first they used high-altitude balloons to fly seeds up to the edge of space. Now seeds are taken aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft. The resulting crops, grown back on earth, are occasionally served in Shanghai restaurants. Space spuds, it’s reported, taste more “glutinous” than terrestrial varieties.
On 12 October 2005 the Shenzhou VI spacecraft blasted off carrying a particularly special cargo—40 grams of pig sperm to be exposed to cosmic rays. Whether or not the experiment generated positive results is unknown, because, after the initial announcement, a shroud of official state secrecy descended upon the mission. But maybe, somewhere on a farm in China, a giant, cosmic-ray-enhanced pig is rolling happily in the mud.
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