October 20, 1937 Albert’s Swarm

Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes.

Between 1932 and 1943, children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder published a series of eight novels, a fictionalized autobiography based on the childhood experiences of a 19th century pioneer and settler family. Third in the series is the best known, Little House on the Prairie, the subject for a television series running from 1974 to ’83.

In her fourth book, Wilder tells of the time when grasshoppers wiped out a much-anticipated and badly needed wheat crop, laying so many eggs that all hope was gone for the following year, as well.  On the Banks of Plum Creek, published  this day in 1937, told the story of “Pa” having to walk three-hundred miles east to find work on farms, which had escaped the plague of grasshoppers.

There are something like 11,000 species of grasshoppers in the world, the familiar, plant munching insects of our summer fields.  They are vegetarian creatures with polyphagous food habits, meaning they’ll eat just about anything, if the need arises.

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Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus, photographed in 1870s, Minnesota

Usually a solitary creature, only a few species will become locusts, the “gregarious” phase of the insect’s life cycle characterized by swarming, migration, and accompanied by explosive growth in population.

The two years in Wilder’s story, 1874 – ’75, are among the worst swarms on record for the Rocky Mountain Locust, Melanoplus spretus.  

M. Spretus finds its home in the fertile valleys of the Rocky Mountains, but outbreaks of the insect have caused farm damage as far away as Maine in the period 1743–’56, and in Vermont during the administration of President George Washington.

When President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark off on the Corps of Discovery expedition, vast herds of American bison stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. Historians estimate 30 to 60 million of the creatures, each weighing up to 2,000 pounds and measuring twelve-feet long. A minimum of sixty billion pounds of biomass, needing something to eat.

The western artist George Catlin estimated that, by 1841, some two to three million of the creatures had been slaughtered for their hides. Bison populations came under increasing pressure as natives acquired horses and guns, but the real slaughter began with the Indian wars and “hunting by rail”, when every dead buffalo was seen as a dead Indian.  By the late 1880s, only a few hundred individuals remained alive, in Yellowstone National Park.

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A mountain of bison skulls

With the bison gone and a new wave of vegetation, there arose a new and very different multitude, to feed on it.

During the 19th century, farming expanded westward into the grasshopper’s favored habitat, triggering massive outbreaks in their numbers.  Locust populations exploded to varying degrees in 1828, ’38, ’46, and ’55, affecting areas throughout the West and upper mid-west. Plagues visited Minnesota in 1856–’57 and again in the last year of the Civil War.  Nebraska suffered repeated infestations between 1856 and ’74.

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Illustration of egg-laying females, from 1877

Population blooms of two years are typical, as eggs laid in year one tend not to thrive as well as their parents.  At its height, farmers reported finding up to 150 egg cases per square inch, each containing 100 eggs or more.

In 1875, Doctor Albert L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps watched a mile-high swarm of locusts pass overhead, for five days straight. Together with telegraph reports from neighboring towns, Child estimated the swarm to be 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long. 198,000 square miles, one-third the size of Alaska, or the combined landmass of our thirteen smallest states.  It was a rolling flood, the size of California and Maine, put together.

The numbers are so far outside of human experience, they are hard to get your head around. For a little perspective, a million seconds is about twelve days. A Billion seconds ago, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. A Trillion seconds ago, the oldest known clay object was fired to ceramic in the earliest oven.  It was 29,000, B.C. ”

Albert’s Swarm” was the largest such assembly of organisms in recorded history, estimated at 12½ Trillion individuals.

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It was a biological wildfire, a living blizzard that blotted out the sun, 12½ trillion insects each the size of a child’s finger, and each driven to eat its own weight.  Every day.  All in, Albert’s Swarm is estimated to have weighed 27½ million tons.

As the continuous track of a bulldozer moves ever forward, the leading edge of the swarm would alight to rest and eat, only to pick up the rear, a few days later.  In this manner, the swarm would cover ten miles or so, in a few weeks.

One farmer reported that the locusts seemed “like a great white cloud, like a snowstorm, blocking out the sun like vapor“.  Even the sound was horrific, rising to a scream and rolling over the land like some evil tide, the whirring and rasping cacophony of billions of mandibles borne aloft to eat, almost literally, everything in sight. Native populations could and did, move.  For prairie settler and pioneer families, home was on the farm.

Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes. Standing crops were the first to go, and then the root vegetables, potatoes, carrots and turnips, eaten out of the ground. Throw a blanket over your garden to protect even that little bit, and they would eat the blanket. Fence posts, saddles, nothing was off limits.  These creatures would eat the wool, right off of your sheep.  At its worst, the locust horde was known to eat the clothes off of people’s backs.

Trains were literally stopped in their tracks on uphill stretches of rail, unable to gain traction for the grease of millions of tiny bodies, ground beneath their wheels.

rocky-mountain-locust-1Farmers used gunpowder, fire and water, anything they could think of, to destroy what could only be seen as a plague of biblical proportion. They smeared them with “hopperdozers”, a plow-like device pulled behind horses, designed to knock jumping locusts into a pan of liquid poison or fuel, or even sucking them into vacuum cleaner-like contraptions.

Still, it was like trying to turn the tide, with a shot glass.  Missouri entomologist Charles Valentine Riley came up with a recipe to eat the damned things, seasoned with salt and pepper and pan-fried in butter. Some bought the recipe, but many felt they “would just as soon starve as eat those horrible creatures”.

In 1877, a Nebraska law required everyone between the ages of 16 and 60 to work at least two days eliminating locusts, or face a $10 fine. Missouri and other Great Plains states offered bounties: $1 a bushel for locusts gathered in March, 50¢ in April, 25¢ in May, and 10¢ in June.

map-from-the-locust-plagueAnd then the locust went away, and no one is entirely certain, why.  It is theorized that plowing, irrigation and harrowing destroyed up to 150 egg cases per square inch, in the years between swarms. Great Plains settlers, particularly those alongside the Mississippi river, appear to have disrupted the natural life cycle.  Winter crops, particularly wheat, enabled farmers to “beat them to the punch”, putting away stockpiles of food before the pestilence reached the swarming phase.

Today, the Rocky Mountain Locust is extinct.  Several grasshopper species swarm as locusts on every continent in the world, save for North America and Antarctica.   The last living specimen of the Rocky Mountain Locust was seen in Canada, in 1902.

Feature image, top of page:  A child swings a broomstick at a 4-mile wide swarms of locusts, plaguing Argentina.  H/T Business Insider

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October 1, 1876 Piano Man

To his detractors, Lick was a disagreeable miser. Eccentric, selfish, reclusive.  Even “touched in the head,” but absolutely honest and an astute businessman.  At the end of his life, he confounded them all, using his considerable fortune to benefit his adopted state of California.

If you’ve never explored your own genealogy, I highly recommend it. One of the more enjoyable aspects of shaking the family tree, is getting to know the people who fall out of it. I have the family genealogist, the man for I am namesake, to thank for this one.  Lieutenant Colonel United States Army (retired), Richard B. “Rick” Long, Sr., 2/25/37 – 3/31/18.  Rest in Peace, Dad.  You left us too soon.

James Lick was born in Stumpstown, Pennsylvania, now Fredericksburg, in the late days of the Washington administration. Lick’s grandfather William served in the Revolution and his son John went on to serve in the Civil War.  James himself was a carpenter’s son, who learned the trade of fine cabinet making, from his earliest days.

As a young man, Lick fell in love with Barbara Snavely, the daughter of a local miller.  When she became pregnant with his child he asked for her hand in marriage, only to be rudely rebuffed by her father.  When Lick owned a plant as large and opulent as his own, then and only then could James have his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Humiliated, Lick moved to Baltimore at age 21, where he learned to make pianos. He became quite skilled at the craft and moved to New York to set up his own piano shop.

On learning that his pianos were being exported to South America, Lick moved to Argentina to pursue the business.  Despite his poor Spanish his piano business thrived, though unstable Argentinian politics sometimes made things difficult.

James_LickIn 1825, Lick left Buenos Aires, for a year-long tour of Europe. This was the time of the Brazilian War for Independence, and Portuguese authorities captured his ship on its return.

Passengers and crew were incarcerated in a POW camp in Montevideo, though Lick himself would later escape and returned on foot, to Buenos Aires.

Having made his first fortune, Lick briefly returned to Stumpstown, to claim his bride and now-fourteen year old son, only to learn that she had married another.   James Lick returned to Buenos Aires, later moving his business to Valparaíso, Chile and finally to Lima, Peru.  He would never marry.

Anticipating the Mexican American War and the annexation of California, Lick moved to San Francisco in 1846 with his tools, $30,000 in gold, and 600lbs of chocolate.

Lick had a backlog of piano orders at the time which he was forced to build himself, when his workers returned home to join the Mexican army. The chocolate sold so quickly, that Lick convinced his friend and confectioner, an Italian émigré to Peru, to come set up shop in California. The man’s name is recognizable to chocolate lovers, the world over. He was Domingo Ghirardelli

GS_oldstore_History_0Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, shortly after Lick’s arrival. He caught a little of the gold fever himself, but soon learned that he could make more money buying and selling land, rather than digging holes in it.

San Francisco was a small village in 1848. By 1850 the population had reached 20,000. Lick bought up land around San Jose and planted orchards of apricots, plums and pears.  It was here in Santa Clara county that Lick took his revenge on the long-dead Pennsylvania miller, spending the unheard-of sum of $200,000 and building the largest flour mill, then in the state.

In 1855, the now-37 year old John Lick came to live with the father he never knew.  The elder man had requested he do so, but the son didn’t get along with his cantankerous father, and soon returned “back east”.

Lick began construction of a Grand Hotel in 1861, with a 400 seat dining room straight out of the Palace at Versailles.  Many considered the “Lick House” to be the finest hotel west of the Mississippi River.

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“The opulent dining room of The Lick House hotel on Montgomery at Sutter seated 400 and boasted walls and floors of exotic woods and three crystal chandeliers imported from Venice”, H/T sfcityguides.com

James Lick suffered a massive stroke in 1874. At the time, this carpenter’s son was the wealthiest man in California, his estates including much of San Francisco and Santa Clara County, all of Catalina Island and large holdings outside of Lake Tahoe.

To his detractors, Lick was a disagreeable miser. Eccentric, selfish, reclusive.  Even “touched in the head,” but absolutely honest and an astute businessman.  At the end of his life, he confounded them all, using his considerable fortune to benefit his adopted state of California.

For years, Lick had harbored an interest in astronomy.  President of the California Academy of Sciences George Davidson persuaded him to leave the majority of his fortune, to building the most powerful telescope then in existence.

Lick placed $2,930,654 into the hands of seven trustees, equivalent to $64 million today, with specific instructions for how the funds were to be used:

“$700,000 to the University of California for the construction of an observatory and the placing therein of a telescope to be more powerful than any other in existence. $150,000 for the building and maintenance of free public James Lick Baths in San Francisco. $540,000 to found and endow an institution of San Francisco to be known as the California School of Mechanic Arts. $535,000 for the son he never knew.  $100,000 for the erection of three appropriate groups of bronze statuary to represent three periods in Californian history and to be placed before the city hall of San Francisco. $60,000 to erect in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, a memorial to Francis Scott Key, author of The Star-Spangled Banner”.

In 1875, Thomas Fraser recommended a site for the telescope on the 4,209′ summit of Mount Hamilton, near San Jose. Lick approved the location, provided that Santa Clara County build a “first class” road to the site. The county agreed and the road was completed in the fall of 1876.

On this day in 1876, James Lick died in his room at the Lick House.  His life’s great project was completed eleven years later. With a 36” lens, the “Great Lick Refractor” was, for its time, the largest refracting telescope in the world.

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Lick Observatory as it looked, in 1900

Today, the University of California’s “Lick Observatory” operates a 120-inch (3.0-meter) reflecting telescope, polished and ground on-site from a 10,000-pound Corning Labs glass test blank.  At the time of its commissioning in 1959, it was the second-largest telescope anywhere and remains to this day, the 3rd largest refracting telescope in the world.

According to his last wishes, the body of James Lick lies entombed, beneath the floor of the observing room.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

September 15, 1916 Tanks of the Great War

At first code-named “Water Carriers”, no self-respecting Brit wanted to be riding around in a “WC”, (“Water Closet”), so it was that these contraptions were destined to be known as “Water Tanks”, or just plain Tanks.

Leonardo da Vinci drew sketches of a man-powered, wheeled vehicle encased in armor and bristling with cannon, as early as the 15th century. The design was limited, since no human crew could generate enough power to move it for long, and the use of animals in such confined spaces was fraught with problems..

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H.G. Wells’ December 1903 short story “The Land Ironclads”, depicted huge military land vessels, capable of disrupting military defenses and clearing the way for infantry. Wells’ machine was equipped with 8 giant pedrail wheels, each 10′ in height, and armed with cannon and machine-guns.

thelandironcladsEarly armored cars were fine for moving personnel over smooth roads, but there was a need for a vehicle capable of navigating the broken terrain of no man’s land. In the run-up to WWI, several soon-to-be belligerents were conducting experiments with “land ships”, with varying degrees of success.

 

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A French captain named Levavasseur proposed a crawler-tracked armored vehicle equipped with artillery as early as 1903, but the project was abandoned by the Artillery Technical Committee. Later French attempts included the Breton-Pretot machine, sporting huge 10’ x 13’ tracks and the Aubriot-Gabet “Fortress”. Electrically powered, each of these things required its own power supply cable. Needless to say, the idea was not widely imitated.

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In 1911, Austrian engineering officer Günther Burstyn and Australian civil engineer Lancelot de Mole independently developed working models of such vehicles, but both designs were rejected by their governments. They too would never be built.

Tsar_tankThe most unusual tank of WWI was the tricycle designed “Lebedenko” or “Tsar Tank”. Developed by pre-Soviet Russia, the armament and crew quarters on this thing were 27′ from the ground, making them irresistible targets for enemy artillery.

Russian shipyard engineer Vasily Mendeleev designed a 170-ton monster while aero-engineer Aleksandr Porokhovschikov developed a small cross-country vehicle running on a single rubber track called the “Vezdekhod”, translating as “He who goes anywhere“.

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The Russian Revolution would overtake the project before the thing got out of prototype, but post-revolutionary Russian propagandists would seize on the vehicle as “proof” that Russia had designed the first Tank.

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The British had the greatest degree of success, after a failed experiment with the “Tritton Trench-Crosser” in May, 1915. This beast had 8′ tractor wheels carrying 15’ girders on a chain, which were lowered into a trench so that the back wheels could roll over it. Girders would then drag behind, until the machine could back over them and rewind.

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Finally, British work with the Holt Manufacturing Company of Stockton, California paid off with the most consistently successful track design. These “Caterpillar” treads had long been used on tractors. By 1916, the British army was using about 1,000 of Holt’s Caterpillar tractors on the Western Front.

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These were the pet project of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who described them as “Water Carriers” to mask their intended purpose.

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No self-respecting Brit wanted to be riding around in a “WC”, (“Water Closet”), so it was that these contraptions were destined to be known as “Water Tanks”, or just plain Tanks. The name stuck. The “No1 Lincoln Machine” gave way to “Little Willie” and finally the Mark I “Big Willie”, the familiar Rhomboid shaped caterpillar track design which first appeared on the Somme Front on this day in 1916.

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49 Mark Is were committed in that first tank battle, of which 32 were mechanically sound enough to take part in the advance. German lines fell back in confusion before “der Wagen des Teufels“, “the Devil’s Wagon”, but they were too few to hold.

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With no suspension, the bone jarring ride on one of these monsters was just the beginning of what crews were forced to endure.

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The interior was so loud that communication was only possible via hand signal. When bullets stuck the metal plates, splinters called “spall” would break away from the interior and fly about the cabin, requiring crew members to protect themselves with thick leather clothing and chain mail masks.

tumblr_m543poyPqo1rxhnogo1_400Interior temperatures rose to 122° Fahrenheit and more, making me wonder if these things weren’t as dangerous to their own crews as they were to the other side.

It was not until November 20 the following year at Cambrai, that the British Tank Corps had their first major success. Over 400 tanks penetrated 6 miles on a 7-mile front. The infantry failed to exploit the tanks’ gains, and almost all territory was recaptured by the Germans. The British scored a far more significant victory on August 8, 1918, with 600 tanks at the Battle of Amiens. General Erich Ludendorff called it a “Black Day” for the German Army.

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In all, the French fielded about 3,600 light Renault FT tanks in WWI, the British over 2,500 of their heavy Mark I-Vs.

The German General Staff was slow to adopt the tank, concentrating instead on anti-tank weapons. The majority of the 50+/- tanks fielded by Germany in WWI, were captured British vehicles.

mk4germThe only German project to be produced and fielded in WWI was the A7V. They only made 20 of these things in the armored, “Sturmpanzerwagen Oberschlesien“, “Upper Silesia Assault Armored Vehicle” version, and a few more in the unarmored “Überlandwagen”, “Over-land vehicle”, used for cargo transport.

t27It would be very different, in the next war.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

September 13, 1987 Things that Glow

The abandoned machine was little more than a radiological time bomb.

220px-Teletherapy_Capsule2.svgOn September 13, 1987, Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira entered the Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR), bent on theft. The private hospital was permanently closed at the time, and partly demolished. Alves and Pereira were looking for anything they might sell, for scrap.

What they found, was more than either man had bargained for.

At one time, the radiotherapy unit in the central Brazilian city of Goiânia had served untold numbers of oncology patients, using ionizing radiation to control cell growth and even kill off any number of cancers, following surgical removal of the tumor.

Now, the abandoned machine was little more than a radiological time bomb.

Four months earlier, the IGR had attempted to remove their equipment, in the midst of a legal dispute with then-owner of the property, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. A court order prevented the removal, as owners of the company wrote letters to the National Nuclear Energy Commission, warning that someone needed to take responsibility “for what would happen with the caesium bomb”.

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“A wheel type radiotherapy device which has a long collimator to focus the radiation into a narrow beam. The caesium chloride radioactive source is the blue rectangle, and gamma rays are represented by the beam emerging from the aperture.” H/T Wikipedia

The radioactive source within the “external beam radio therapy” unit is a “wheel type” canister, with shielding walls of lead and steel and designed to rotate the source material when in use, between storage and irradiation positions.

Alves and Pereira removed the capsule from the heart of the machine, the stainless steel canister containing just over 3-ounces of highly radioactive caesium chloride, an inorganic salt derived from the radioisotope, caesium-137.

The court had posted a security guard, but he or she must have been snoozing, at the time.  The two scavengers placed the canister in a wheel barrow, and brought it to Alves’ home to see what they had found.

The pair experienced the dizziness and diarrhea of radiation poisoning,  but attributed symptoms to something they ate.  Pereira developed burns on his fingers, the size and shape of the canister’s aperture.  Meanwhile, Alves continued to tinker with the thing, finally freeing the capsule from its protective rotating head.  Poking the capsule with a screwdriver, a dark blue light could be seen from within, the florescence of electromagnetic radiation.

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Radiation burns following exposure to left hand, H/T ResearchGate.net

Radiation burns would cost Pereira his fingers and Alves his right arm, but the two would survive the exposure.  The owner of the scrapyard they sold the thing to, wasn’t so lucky.

goiania_webFive days after the theft, Alves sold the items he had pilfered, to a nearby scrapyard. Noticing the blue glow from the punctured capsule, the scrapyard owner thought the object might be valuable or even supernatural, and took the thing inside. Several rice-sized grains of the glowing material were pried from inside the capsule, as Devair Ferreira (the owner of the scrapyard) invited friends and family to come and see the strange, glowing substance. Ferreira’s brother Ivo brought some of the stuff home to his six-year-old daughter, about the time when Devair’s 37-year-old wife Gabriela, became ill.

It was she who first noticed how many and how quickly, the people around her were getting sick. Too late for Ivo’s daughter Leide, who couldn’t resist rubbing the glowing blue powder on her skin, and showing it to her mother.  Anyone who ever raised a six-year-old daughter, knows what that must have looked like.

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International Nuclear Event Scale (INES)

By the time the presence of nuclear radiation was discovered on the 29th, the Goiânia nuclear disaster qualified as a Five on the International Scale of Nuclear Events, the INES.  Tons of topsoil had to be removed from a number of sites, and several houses, demolished.

Goiania-Accident-September-13-1987The incident was broadcast all over Brazil, and 130,000 people people flooded into area hospitals, afraid they had been exposed. One thousand individuals showed greater than background levels of radiation, 249 showed significant signs of contamination.

Four died.  The wife of the scrapyard owner Gabriela, who was first to figure it all out.  Two employees who had worked to remove the lead for its scrap value, Israel dos Santos aged 22 and Admilson de Souza, aged 18.  And that little girl, Leide, who was so happy to see her skin, glowing blue.

In the public civil suit that followed, the three doctors who owned the IGR, were ordered to pay 100,000 Brazilian Real, (equivalent to $24,000 US), for the derelict condition of the building.  The two thieves who stole the stuff in the first place, were never charged.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

August 25, 1835 Hoax

Today we hear a lot about ‘Fake News’ but that’s nothing new.  On this day in 1835, the New York Sun published the first of a six-part series, about civilization on the moon.

Nine years ago, Richard and Mayumi Heene released a helium-filled gas balloon into the atmosphere, and claimed that their six-year-old son Falcon, was stuck inside. The world looked on in horror, as a young boy soared to altitudes of 7,000-feet. National Guard helicopters and local police, gave chase. The thing flew for more than an hour, only to come down with nobody on board. Rumors quickly turned into “reports”, that an object was seen falling from the balloon. A search was carried out, but revealed nothing.

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Later that day, the kid was found hiding in the attic. He’d apparently been there all day. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer for the Larry King Live television program, Falcon was asked why he’d been hiding. The boy turned to his father: “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.” Busted. The Balloon Boy Hoax was born, for which Richard Heene was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to pay $36,000, in restitution. Mayumi Heene was sentenced to 20 days in jail, to be served one weekend at a time.

Dino StampsThose of us of a certain age remember the “Thunder Lizard”, the Brontosaurus, that iconic dinosaur seemingly at the center of every museum display. The Sinclair Oil Company adopted the creature as its mascot. The United States Postal Service featured the animal, in a series of commemorative stamps.

Except that – oops – someone had put the wrong head on the thing and, the previously discovered ‘Apatasaurus’ was, in fact, a juvenile specimen of the same animal.

This wasn’t a ‘hoax’ so much as a mistake, forged by the great “Bone Wars”, of the 19th century. Dinosaur enthusiasts accused the Postal Service of fostering ‘scientific illiteracy’. An ironic charge, given the number of museums that had mislabeled the animal, for over a century.

The dearly departed Brontosaurus was more a mistake, than a hoax. Not so “The Earliest Englishman”, a few fossils discovered near the village of Piltdown.  Between 1911-’12,  a portion of a skull was discovered along with a jawbone and a few teeth. It was the ‘missing link’ between apes and humans.  Years of scientific thought would be spent, reconstructing the life and times of ‘Piltdown Man’, and fitting the creature into the narrative of our shared, evolutionary history.

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In 1953, the British Museum of Natural History revealed the whole thing to have been a fabrication, a clever hoax carried out with modern bones most likely those of an orangutan, and treated with chemicals to make them appear much older.

Today we hear a lot about ‘Fake News’ but that’s nothing new.  On this day in 1835, the New York Sun published the first of a six-part series, about civilization on the moon.

The “Great Moon Hoax”, ostensibly reprinted from The Edinburgh Courant, was falsely attributed to the work of Sir John Herschel, the most prominent astronomer, of his time.

The byline was that of the non-existent Dr. Andrew Grant, ostensibly a colleague of Dr. Herschel.  Herschel had in fact traveled to Capetown South Africa in January 1834, to set up an observatory with a powerful new telescope.

The articles took this one slender reed and ran with it, describing a 24-foot-wide behemoth instrument revealing fantastic creatures on the Moon, including bison, goats, unicorns and a two-legged creature resembling a beaver with no tail, that walked upright and carried its young in the manner of human mothers.   There were temple-building, vegetarian, furry bat-like humanoids, called “Vespertilio-homo”.

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The articles described palm trees and lush forests, with flowers and rushing rivers.  There were valleys with melon trees, and all of it witnessed through “an immense telescope of an entirely new principle.”

Readers couldn’t get enough, and circulation figures shot up from day one.  A committee of oh-so serious Yale University scientific types traveled to New York, in search of the Edinburgh Journal articles. Panicked newspaper employees sent these guys back & forth between the printing and editorial offices, hoping to wear them out.  It worked.  The committee returned to New Haven empty handed, never realizing they’d been punked.

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That September, the Sun admitted the whole thing to have been a gag. Herschel himself knew nothing about it.  The astronomer was amused, noting that nothing in his own work was quite that interesting, but would later become irritated at the incessant questions of those who took the thing seriously.

British journalist and Sun reporter Richard Adams Locke confessed to writing the series, not as a hoax, but as satire. Locke set out to ridicule some of the more outlandish astronomical theories then in publication, by the likes of Munich University professor of Astronomy Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, and his “Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings.”  Of course, it didn’t hurt that such a sensational tale as civilization on the moon, would help sell newspapers.

Be that as it may, readers were amused, and newspaper circulation didn’t suffer. The Sun merged with the New York World-Telegram in 1950, and folded in 1967. The New York Sun newspaper founded in 2002, has no relation to the original.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

August 13, 1941 Henry Ford’s Soybean Car

Henry Ford had a “thing”, for soybeans.  At the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Ford invited reporters to a feast where he served soybean cheese, soybean crackers, soy bread and butter, soy milk, soy ice cream… The man was a veritable Bubba Gump, of soybeans. 

The largest museum in the United States is located in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. The sprawling, 12-acre indoor-outdoor complex in the old Greenfield Village is home to JFK’s Presidential limo, the Rosa Parks bus and the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop. There you will find Abraham Lincoln’s chair from Ford’s Theater, along with Thomas Edison’s laboratory and an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. George Washington’s camp bed is there, with Igor Sikorski’s helicopter and an enormous collection of antique automobiles, locomotives and aircraft.

Sadly, one object you will not find there, is Henry Ford’s plastic car, made from soybeans.

92MI_0003Ford left the family farm outside of modern-day Detroit as a young man, never to return. His father William thought the boy would one day own the place but young Henry couldn’t stand farm work. He later wrote, “I never had any particular love for the farm—it was the mother on the farm I loved”.

Henry Ford went on to other things, but part of him never left the farm. In 1941, the now-wealthy business magnate wanted to combine industry, with agriculture.  At least, that’s what the museum says.

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George Washington Carver, at work in his library

Ford first gave the plastic car project to yacht designer Eugene Turenne Gregorie, but later turned to the Greenfield Village soybean laboratory. To the guy in charge over there, actually, a guy with some experience in tool & die making.  His name was Lowell Overly.

The car was made in Dearborn with help from the scientist and botanist George Washington Carver, (yeah, That George Washington Carver), a man born to slavery who rose to such prodigious levels accomplishment, that Time magazine labeled him the “Black Leonardo”.

The soybean car, introduced to the public this day in 1941, was made from fourteen ¼-inch thick plastic panels and plexiglass windows, attached to a tubular steel frame and weighing in at 1,900 pounds, about a third lighter than comparable automobiles of the era. The finished prototype was exhibited later that year at the Dearborn Days festival, and the Michigan State Fair Grounds.

The thing was built to run on fuel derived from industrial hemp, a related strain of the Cannibis Sativa plant beloved of stoners the world over and known simply, as “weed”.

soybean-car-chassis-skeleton-right-rearFord claimed he’d be able to “grow automobiles from the soil”, a hedge against the metal rationing of world War Two. He dedicated 120,000 acres of soybeans to experimentation, but to no end.  The total acreage devoted to “fuel” production, is unrecorded.

Another reason for a car made from soybeans, was to help American farmers.  Plus, Henry Ford seems to have had a “thing”, for soybeans.  At the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Ford invited reporters to a feast where he served soybean cheese, soybean crackers, soy bread and butter, soy milk, soy ice cream… The man was a veritable Bubba Gump, of soybeans.  Ford was probably one of the first in this country, to regularly drink soy milk.

Henry Ford’s own car was fitted with a soybean trunk and struck with an axe to show the material’s durability, though the axe was later revealed to have a rubber boot.

Henry-Ford-Soybean-CarHenry Ford’s experiment in making cars from soybeans never got past that first prototype, and came to a halt during WW2.  The project was never revived, though several states adopted license plates stamped out of soybeans, a solution farm animals found to be quite delicious.

The car itself was destroyed long ago, the ingredients for its manufacture unrecorded, but the thing lives on in the hearts of hemp enthusiasts, everywhere.

The New York Times claimed the car body and fenders were made from soy beans, wheat and corn.  Some sources opine that the car was made from Bakelite or some variant of Duroplast, a plant-based auto body substance produced in the millions, for the East German Trabant.

One newspaper claimed that nothing ever came from Henry Ford’s soybean experiments, except whipped cream.

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August 3, 1908 The Old Man of La Chappelle

Research suggests that we all carry Neanderthal genes and that these may have changed our immune systems, leaving us vulnerable to diseases such diabetes and cancer.

In the 17th century, the German Reformed Church teacher and hymn writer Joachim Neander liked to hike a valley outside of Düsseldorf. The beauty of nature was inspirational, clearing his mind and inspiring verses like “See how God this rolling globe/swathes with beauty as a robe…Forests, fields, and living things/each its Master’s glory sings.”  The theologian contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of thirty but lived on in a way, in the valley which came to bear his name.

Nearly 200 years later, three years before Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species, workers quarrying limestone in the Neander Valley discovered an unusual skull.  This was no ordinary head, elongated and nearly chinless as it was, with heavy ridges over the eyes.  Heavy bones were found alongside,  which fitted together, oddly.

From top, clockwise:  a) Neander Valley by Friedrich Wilhelm Schreiner, oil on cardboard, 1855, b) original bones discovered the following year, and c)Artist’s conception of what he looked like, H/T Artist: Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions

The state of archaeological science had much to learn in 1856.  Who knows, 22nd century historians and scientists may look back at our time, and say we had a long way to go.  At the time, even to discern fossils from ordinary rock was beyond the ability of many scientists. One common method involved licking the fossil. If the thing had animal material, it would stick to your tongue.

Despite such misconceptions, scholars of the day had no shortage of theories. This was a lost Cossack, a bowlegged rider suffering from rickets, a painful condition resulting in weak and misshapen bones. To some, the life of pain resulting from such a condition made perfect sense, the bony eye ridges resulting from perpetually furrowed brow.

British geologist William King suspected something different. Something more radical. This was no aberrant human being nor even a lost ancestor. This was a member of a long lost alternate humanity.   An extinct but parallel species to our own.  King published a paper in 1864 hypothesizing his idea of an evolutionary dead end, naming the long lost species after the poet who had once wandered the valley in which it was discovered. He called it Homo Neanderthalensis: Neanderthal Man.

Neanderthal mother and child
“Neanderthal sculptures, named Nana and Flint, at the Gibraltar Museum”. H/T Jaap Scheeren, New York Times

Having no context from which to draw conclusions, King fell back on the pseudo science of phrenology to describe Neanderthal man, along with preconceptions of “primitive” and “savage” races. The image of a stupid and grunting brute emerged from this analysis. King opined that “The thoughts and desires which once dwelt within it never soared beyond those of a brute.” Today we may look at such thinking as itself savage and primitive, but applying modern ideas to earlier times is a dangerous undertaking. Ideas of Eugenics survived well after King’s time, and into the modern era.

On this day in 1908, the brothers Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie found the most complete Neanderthal skeleton to date in a small cave near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France.  This skeleton includes the skull, jaw, most of the vertebrae and several ribs, along with most of the long bones of his arms and legs, plus a number of smaller bones from the hands and feet.

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The Old Man of La Chapelle-Aux-Saints reconstructed burial in the Musée de l’Homme de Néandertal, France

French palaeontologist Marcellin Boule studied the remains and envisioned a brutish, hairy and gorilla-like beast with opposable toes and bent spine, walking on bowed legs with bent knees.  Boule’s reconstruction was influential. Decades later, scientists and popular culture viewed Neanderthal as bent and stupid brutes. Boule got it wrong that time but, to his credit, was one of the first to recognize Piltdown Man, as a paleoanthropological hoax.

Subsequent analysis of the “Old Man of La Chappelle” revealed not the bent-over beast of Boule’s imagination, but a fully erect biped, bent with advanced osteoarthritis.

What’s more, massive tooth loss and lack of mobility revealed that this specimen could neither hunt nor scavenge with ease, and would have had great difficulty in chewing his food. This and the unmolested state of the skeleton compared with animal bones found nearby suggest a man greatly cared for by his contemporaries, as well as deliberate burial of the body.

This wasn’t even an “old man” by our standards.  The skeleton is currently estimated to have been that of a man between 25 and 40 years, demonstrating the Hobbesian adage that life was once indeed, “Nasty, Brutish and Short”.

Today, to call someone a “Neanderthal” is to insult him as a stupid savage.  It appears that our cousin was nothing of the sort.

Skeleton_and_restoration_model_of_Neanderthal_La_Ferrassie_1

The hyoid bone situated at the floor of the mouth serves as a connecting-point for the tongue and other musculature, giving humans the ability to speak. A delicate structure likely to be lost in most fossilized remains, the first Neanderthal hyoid was only discovered in 1989.

An international team of researchers analysed this fossil Neanderthal bone using 3D x-ray imaging and mechanical modelling and, yes.  Neanderthal could not only speak, but was capable of highly complex speech not unlike ourselves, though his voice was likely high and grating.  Certainly not the base grunting commonly associated with “cave-men”.

img_1054neanderthalsmShorter in stature and considerably more powerful than Cro-Magnon, our direct ancestor and all but indistinguishable from ourselves, Neanderthal bodies were suited to the ice age of the early and middle Paleolithic era.

Neanderthal emerged on the Eurasian landmass between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.  Possessed of a brain only slightly smaller than Cro-Magnon, Neanderthals walked upright, formed and used simple tools and controlled fire.  They even buried their own dead, at least sometimes, and some researchers theorize that they built boats and sailed the Mediterranean.  Imperfectly formed tools and weapons found alongside more sophisticated specimens even suggest that he educated his children.

He might even fit in if you brought him back today, provided you dressed him right.

Despite all that, Neanderthal man is an evolutionary dead end and not our ancestor, though he did “coexist” for a time, with our Cro-Magnon forebears.  It’s even possible if not probable that the two bred together and produced children, though this was likely your random hookup rather than any long-term cross-breeding.

Modern DNA analysis suggests that the two species even shared some genetic disorders, such as psoriasis, Crohn’s disease and a variety of auto-immune conditions such as Lupus.

image_1481e-Neanderthal

Research even suggests that we  carry Neanderthal genes, every one of us, and that these may have changed our immune systems leaving us vulnerable to diseases such diabetes and cancer.

The idea is not as strange as it sounds. Last year, Sir Richard Branson was in the news, claiming that he had looked into his family ancestry. Forty generations back, it turns out that Branson is related to Charlemagne.  That’s no big deal, according to Genetecist Adam Rutherford. Speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival, Rutherford explained that “Literally every person in Europe is directly descended from Charlemagne. Literally, not metaphorically. You have a direct lineage which leads to Charlemagne,” adding “Looking around this room, every single one of you … is directly descended between 21 and 24 generations from Edward III.”  The only difference between celebrities and the rest of us it turns out, is the means to prove it.

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So, maybe calling someone ‘Neanderthal’ isn’t such an insult, after all.  Perhaps there’s one in there somewhere, peering back at us from our bathroom mirror.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.