Saturday, September 13, 2008

Attack of the Killer Balloons

During World War II, Japan had a secret weapon designed to spark a massive forest fire in the United States. Thanksfully, the device - which was partly made by Japanese schoolgirls - was a dud. Here's the bizarre story of the Fugo killer balloons:

On May 5, 1945, Reverend Archie Mitchell, his wife Elsie, and five children from his Sunday school drove from the tiny southern Oregon town of Bly for a picnic on Gearhart Mountain. While Reverend Mitchell parked the car, his wife and the children explore. They came upon a device the U.S. government knew about but had kept secret. When one of them touched the device, it exploded: Mrs. Mitchell and the five children were killed. The six Oregonians became the only known fatalities on the U.S. mainland from enemy attack during all of World War II.


The exploding contraption was a Japanese Fugo balloon bomb, the brainchild of Major General Sueyoshi Kusaba of the Japanese Ninth Army Technical Research Laboratory. The balloons measured 33 feet across and 70 feet long from top to bomb. They were constructed (by Japanese schoolgirls) from bits of a tough paper called washi, made from mulberry trees, and glued together with potato paste. The bomb parts were made in a factory - not by schoolgirls.

Filled with hydrogen gas, the payload consisted of 36 sandbags for ballast, four incendiary bombs, and one 33-pound antipersonnel bomb. Launched to rise 35,000 feet, the balloons were designed to use the prevailing Pacific eastward winds to reach the west coast of North America. As the balloons leaked gas and lost altitude, barometric pressure switches caused the sandbags to drop off and the balloons to rise back to the jetstream. The trip took three to five days. By the time they reached the United States, the baloons, now out of sandbags, were supposed to drop the bombs and then self-destruct. The Japanese hoped the bomb would cause forest fires and panic the American public.


Between October 1944 and April 1945, Japan launched 9,300 of these balloons. Estimates are that fewer than 500 balloons reached the United States or Canada; the rest fell into the Pacific Ocean.

In November 1944, one balloon was discovered in the ocean off San Pedro, California. In January 1945, a balloon bomb landed in Medford, Oregon, without exploding. At some point, a rancher in Nevada discovered a balloon and used it as a tarp to cover his hay; police later discovered that two bombs were still attached to it.


Most of the balloons either exploded harmlessly or failed to detonate on impact. Approximately 90 of them were recovered in the United States as far east as Michigan. Strict censorship kept their existence out of the newspapers, and those who knew of their presence were sworn to secrecy. It was feared that news of the balloons arrival would encourage the launching of more balloons. They weren't seen as much of a danger, but the hush-hush handling of the situation worked: the Japanese abandoned the project because they didn't hear of any success.

But after the Mitchell family tragedy in Oregon, the public was warned. The last balloon bomb was found in Alaska in 1955; its bombs were still capable of exploding. Ironically, on March 10, 1945, one of the last paper balloons desceded near Hanford, Washington. The balloon landed on electrical power lines, shutting off the Hanford nuclear reactor for three days. The Hanford reactor, part of the top-secret Manhattan project, was producing plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, five months later.

The Fugo balloon bombs are considered a failure as weapons system. There were no proven bomb-caused forest fires, and they caused little other damage. Elsie Mitchell and the five children were the tragic exceptions.

Friday, September 12, 2008

6 Australians who caught lucky breaks

Australia is known as the “lucky country.” And while statistically Australians aren’t any luckier than anyone else, why split hairs? Here are a 6 examples of the Luck of the Aussies.
1. Bernhardt Otto Holtermann: Mining by Candle
Many prospectors descended on Australia in the nineteenth century, looking for gold. Nobody, however, did quite as well as German-born miner Bernhardt Holtermann and his business partner, Louis Beyer. Mining by candlelight outside Hill End in October 1872, they struck a gold nugget nearly five feet high, weighing 235 kg (630 pounds), and worth about US$21,000 (a lot of money in those days). At the time it was the world’s largest specimen of reef gold. They extracted the rock in one piece, and prepared to pose for photos, as thousands descended to the mountain to see “Holtermann’s Nugget.” While Holtermann regarded the nugget as his own, his company refused to sell it to him. Instead, the giant nugget was crushed with other quartz, yielding about 93 kg of gold – meaning that, even when his luck ran out, he was still a lucky guy.
2. Jack Buntine: Dodging bullets for a smoke

Eight thousand, one hundred and forty-one Australians died during World War I at the Turkish outpost of Gallipoli. Private Jack Buntine was not one of them – which is almost surprising. Jack was known for running over the tops of trenches (against regulations) to rescue wounded friends or swap cigarettes with enemy soldiers. “I suppose I was pretty lucky,” he later said, “but you know, I never worried about getting hit… We used to go swimming at Gallipoli and they would be shooting at us. You’d see bullets going in the water around you, but they didn’t worry me.”
After surviving a vicious bout with the flu, Jack survived the Great Depression by working as a trapper, shooter and gold miner. His first wife died of peritonitis at the age of 31, leaving him with two children, so he found a more regular job with the Post and Telegraph Department, climbing up telegraph poles and driving maintenance trucks on dangerous, unsealed bush tracks. He enjoyed this so much that he continued to do it until his retirement. He died peacefully in 1998 at age 103.
3. Hugh Jackman: On the strength of a publicity photo

The movie Mission: Impossible II (2000), filmed mostly in Sydney, co-starred a few Aussie actors. But it turned out to be a big break for one Australian actor in particular – and he didn’t even appear in the film! Indeed, it helped his career because he wasn’t in it. As the shooting schedule ran two months overtime, Scottish actor Dougray Scott couldn’t return to Hollywood in time to play his next role: Wolverine, an angry super-hero, in X-Men. The X-Men producers, forced to do a last-minute recast – selected Hugh Jackman on the strength of a mere publicity photo. Jackman, then unknown in Hollywood (and best-known in Australia as the star of stage musicals and light romantic comedies), was thrust into a completely different role, getting top billing over a distinguished cast. Overnight, he became a major Hollywood star, as the X-Men became a successful movie franchise. Not bad for a face in a publicity photo.
4. Ian Thorpe: Saved from 9/11, twice

If things had happened slightly differently, and according to plan, Ian Thorpe might have joined the 2,752 people who died in the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001. The swimmer (at the time Australia’s most popular sportsman, and considered by many to be the world’s best swimmer) was visiting New York with his personal assistant, Michelle Flaskas. They were supposed to stay at the Tribeca Hotel, across the road from the World Trade Centre, but were forced to switch to another hotel, 15 minutes’ walk away, because of a double booking. On the morning of September 11, they had planned to go to a viewing platform near the top of one of the Twin Towers. Thorpe first went for a morning jog, then – while waiting for Flaskas to get ready – switched on the television to see that both towers were ablaze. He was perhaps half an hour away from certain death.
5. Victoria Friend: 20 minutes from death

It hardly seems right when an accident survivor is described as “lucky”, even if they’ve just lost friends or relatives. But within those parameters, Victoria Friend was extremely lucky. In 1999, Friend survived a light air crash in the New South Wales bush. The same crash killed her fiancé, Geoff Henderson, and left her lying alone for over 40 hours, with multiple fractures and severe burns to 40 percent of her body. After she was eventually rescued, doctors said that her vital organs were shutting down, and that she wouldn’t have survived much longer. One doctor estimated that she was a mere 20 minutes from death, and was rescued just in the nick of time. She briefly became a national celebrity, praised for her amazing ability to survive.
6. Steven Bradbury: Happy to skate on thin ice

At Salt Lake City in 2002, speed-skater Steven Bradbury won what television commentators called “perhaps the most incredible gold medal in Olympic history”. He was Australia’s first-ever Winter Olympics champion and, of course, the nation was celebrating. Others, however, were not so happy. Bradbury won his medal after his opponents (including the favorite, America’s Apolo Anton Ohno) had crashed in a heap in front of him. He simply skated around them, and cheerfully crossed the finish line first, to the jeers of the mostly American crowd. NBC commentators called it a farce, demanding a re-skate. Even foul play was suggested, as the umpire happened to be Australian. Ohno, meanwhile, picked himself up, continued to the end, and graciously accepted the silver medal.
Bradbury later claimed that he had won a strategic victory; he knew he couldn’t skate faster than his opponents, but he also knew that he could gamble on a crash. Whatever the case, he won – and by his own admission, it was due to luck more than anything else.

10 Victims of the Hope Diamond Curse

On this day in 1792, the Hope Diamond was stolen from the house that stored the crown jewels. It’s a pretty fascinating little bauble, if you’re the sort of person who is impressed by 45.52 carat gems (I am). But you probably wouldn’t want to own it – it’s cursed, you know. The story goes that the curse started from the Tavernier Blue, which was the precursor to several large diamonds, including the Hope Diamond. Take this with a grain of salt, because it’s never been proved: Jean-Baptiste Tavernier stole the 115.16 carat blue diamond from a Hindu statue, where it was serving as one of the eyes. Upon discovering it was missing, priests put a curse on whoever was in possession of the gem.

Which brings me to our Quick 10 topic: 10 people who have (supposedly) experienced the Hope Diamond Curse.

1. Jean Baptiste-Tavernier. The story is that he came down with a raging fever soon after stealing the diamond, and after he died, his body was possibly ravaged by wolves. However, other reports show that he lived until the ripe old age of 84, so… yeah.

2. King Louis XIV. He bought the stone from Tavernier and had it recut in1673. It was then known as “The Blue Diamond of the Crown” or the “French Blue”. King Louis died of gangrene and all of his legitimate children died in childhood, except for one. But that isn’t atypical of the times, I don’t think.

3. Nicholas Fouquet, who worked for King Louis XIV, is said to have worn the diamond for some special occasion. Shortly thereafter, he fell out of favor with the king and was banished from France. The Louis changed this sentence to life imprisonment, so Fouquet spent 15 years in the fortress of Pignerol. Some people believe that he was the real Man in the Iron Mask, but other accounts dispute this.

marie4. and 5. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Louis inherited the French Blue, Marie wore it, and I think we all know what happened there.

6. Marie-Louise, Princess de Lamballe, was a member of Marie Antoinette’s court and was her closest confidante. She was killed by a mob in a most horrific fashion – apparently hit with a hammer, decapitated, stripped, and disemboweled, among other things. Her head was impaled on a pike and carried to Marie Antoinette’s prison window.

7. Wilhelm Fals was a Dutch jeweler who recut the diamond again. His son ended up murdering him and then killing himself.

8. Greek merchant Simon Maoncharides owned the diamond. His curse? He drove his car over a cliff and killed himself, his wife and his child.

evalyn9. Evalyn Walsh McLean. Evalyn was a spoiled heiress who lived a charmed life… until she bought the diamond. She happily wore the diamond and there are stories that she would even affix the jewel to her dog’s collar and let him wander around the apartment with it. But wearing the Hope Diamond came at a steep price: first her mother-in-law died, her son died at the age of nine, her husband left her for another woman and later died in a mental hospital, her daughter died of a drug overdose at 25 and she eventually had to sell her newspaper – the Washington Post - and died owing huge debts. Evalyn’s surviving kids sold the diamond to Harry Winston. Nine years later, Winston mailed the gem to the Smithsonian for $2.44 in postage and $155 in insurance. Which brings us to number 10:

10. James Todd, the mailman who delivered the diamond to the Smithsonian, apparently had his leg crushed in a truck accident shortly thereafter. He also suffered a head injury in a separate accident. Oh, also, his house burned down.

There’s no doubt that Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI and Princess de Lamballe were a tragic bunch; and Evalyn Walsh McLean definitely went through her share of hard times. But lots of these are probably exaggerated and twisted a bit to fit the tale and make the curse seem even more horrible. I wonder if even writing about the diamond can make you fall under the umbrella of the curse? After all, the Princess de Lamballe and the mailman didn’t have much to do with the gem at all.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Remembering Lewis and Clark, 205 Years Later

Two hundred and five years ago, on the morning of August 30, 1803, a 29-year-old Virginian named Meriwether Lewis, lately private secretary to President Thomas Jefferson, left Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to journey down the Ohio River to its confluence with the Tennessee River and thence westward. Only three miles passed before a fellow traveler, eager to try Lewis’s newfangled hunting rifle, shot a bystander in the head (”she fell instantly and the blood gusing [sic] from her temple,” Lewis recorded in his notebook, adding, “we were all in the greatest consternation”). The victim revived, though, and Lewis and company went on their way, joining his friend William Clark and another party of soldiers and hunters 400 miles downstream.homeimage

Three years later, weather-beaten and weary, the grandly named “Corps of Discovery,” some 40 men strong, marched down the streets of St. Louis. There they were hailed as heroes, deservedly. Lewis, Clark, and their companions had, after all, traveled across 8,000 miles of largely uncharted territory. They had hauled two tons of equipment on their long journey from the Ohio to the Pacific Ocean: sextants and pistols, barometers and barrels, mirrors and knives to trade with the people they met along the way. They had described more than 300 plant and animal species new to science, among them the grizzly bear, which would ever after haunt Lewis’s dreams, and the prairie dog. And they had helped open the door to the American conquest of a vast interior recently sold to the United States by Napoleon Bonaparte, who had had no legal authority to do so.

Jefferson had instructed the Corps of Discovery to undertake several tasks. The first was to map the northern portion of those lands. The second was to determine whether the western rivers that drained into the Mississippi led to the Pacific Ocean; if they did, and if the fabled Northwest Passage really did exist, then American ships would be able to travel straight to China without having to skirt British-controlled shipping lanes in the Caribbean and South Atlantic. The third was to determine the location and strength of any Europeans the Corps might encounter along the way, and there were plenty afoot in the West, from French trappers to Russian whalers and Spanish missionaries—and, always, British agents.

Only farther down on Jefferson’s list of instructions to Lewis did American Indians figure. Were they friendly or hostile? What wealth did they possess? How were they organized politically? Could they be enlisted as allies?

Heroes they were, but not for long. Within a generation, the men of the Corps of Discovery were all but forgotten. The record had no need for them: the logic of Manifest Destiny had begun to unfold even before they returned to St. Louis. A century would pass, at the dawn of another American empire, before Lewis and Clark again took their place in the national pantheon. Through the efforts of historians and writers such as Elliot Coues and Reuben Gold Thwaites, archives were thrown open, dossiers dusted off, maps redrafted, and editions of the expedition’s mountainous journals prepared.

089-meriwether-lewis-memorial-1.jpgThose journals tell us much: they speak of hardship, of constant sickness, of danger, of bad weather and beasts, of Clark’s many preoccupations, of Lewis’s gnawing loneliness. But often we must often between the lines to get at what the circumspect authors truly had on their minds. Does Toussaint Charbonneau, the trapper and boatman who joined the expedition at Fort Mandan, North Dakota, deserve our remembrance as an intrepid guide and skin-saver, or should we see him as one of the most cowardly, feckless, and useless humans to have drawn breath? Was Sacagawea, the teenaged Shoshone girl who came along with Charbonneau as wife or as property, and whom the men called “Janey” as they would any camp follower, a help or a hindrance? Were the soldiers under Lewis and Clark’s command worthy comrades, or a constant reminder that the categories “civilized” and “savage” were both fluid and misapplied?

Depending on which page you turn to and which voice you heed, the answers will vary. That ever so deliberate ambivalence complicates the work of anyone who would regard the men (and women) of the Corps either as heroes unalloyed or as destroyers unleashed in an American Garden of Eden. Both threads are common in interpretations of American history, and neither is complete.

Other questions remain. What happened to York, Clark’s slave, whom the Indians they encountered found more mysterious, and more attractive, than the leaders of the expedition? Did York return to the Plains to become a Crow warrior and elder, as some believe, or did he fall to cholera in Tennessee? What of Sacagawea, or Janey, or Porivo, as some called her? Did she, too, die of illness in 1812, or did she run away from Charbonneau to find safe haven among the Comanches, then return to live among her own people until her death as an old woman in 1884? Did Meriwether Lewis commit suicide along the Natchez Trace in 1809, or was he murdered?

Three million words of firsthand history cannot tell us, but historians have made some reasonable and altogether fascinating guesses over the last 200-odd years—work of scholarly detection that will go on for years to come.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Turk Chess Automaton Hoax

"Tis a deception! granted, but such a one as does honour to human nature;
a deception more beautiful, more surprising, more astonishing, than any
to be met with in the different accounts of mathematical recreations."
[Karl Gottlieb von Windisch 1784]

To impress the Austrian Court of Empress Maria, the Hungarian polymath, Wolfgang von Kempelen, designed an ingenious chess playing mechanical device in 1770. The machine consisted of a cabinet with a chess board on top, doors that concealed brass cogs and gears, with a carved torso dressed up like a Turkish man attached to the back of the construction as it faced the audience. One of the turban wearing dummy's arms was moveable and the hand was of course able to pick up and move the chess pieces. It came to be known as 'the Turk' and exhibition chess matches against a host of challengers made it one of the most popular and enduring automaton shows of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The internal design included false clockwork pieces that moved in concert with the hidden operator's (a chess master) seat movement and helped him stay concealed - he moved around to avoid detection when the host (Kempelen in the beginning) opened doors and invited the audience to peer through to the other side - creating the illusion of a humanless automaton. Magnetic chess pieces allowed the board layout to be seen by a simple reciprocal system inside; ventilation pipes provided air for the operator and other pipes diverted candle smoke out through the Turk (who also smoked a pipe). A pegboard laid out the chessboard inside the cabinet and pantographic controls (a dual, fixed movement system, often used for drawing - see computer schematic above) worked the arm and hand on the main chessboard, moving chess pieces around as pegs were moved inside by the chess master/operator. There is more to it obviously but this was the basic set-up.

After its debut before royalty, the device took a back seat in Kempelen's life and it wasn't until the 1780s that he was persuaded to take the Turk on a tour of Europe. A succession of opponents (including chess champions and the likes of Benjamin Franklin) vied for the opportunity to play the increasingly popular magical machine. As might be expected, skeptics emerged and there were at least a couple of books (the illustrations above are from one of these) that claimed to explain the illusion.

Kempelen retired the device before the end of the decade, and in 1808, the Turk was brought back into service under a new (and fairly mercenary) master, Johann Mälzel. He would attract the Turk's most famous opponent, Napoleon Bonaparte, who, from varied accounts, was said to have been defeated once because of illegal moves and again when he laid down his King. Many more exhibitions followed, as did profits, bankruptcy, tours of America and Cuba and eventually, while in semi-retirement, the Turk was destroyed in a fire in Philadelphia 1854.

Since that first European tour in the latter stages of the 18th century, a veritable industry of academic enquiry has blossomed (and continues) attempting to analyse and explain the specific mechanisms and peculiar characteristics associated with the Turk. Perhaps the most famous publication is the 1789 book by Joseph Racknitz, 'Über den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen und dessen Nachbildung' (something like: Overview and illustration of Mr Kempelen's chess playing machine). The coloured engravings above are all from this book in which Racknitz claimed to have deduced the tricks - including of course the stowaway human brain inside - behind the Turk's elaborate design, and he assembled the first reconstructed models of Kempelen's machine. As best I can tell, the majority of illustrations of the device on the web are black and white copies of some of these figures - these coloured versions* from the original book have only appeared on the web in recent times. *[now online at Wikimedia]

* There is a wealth of material to read online about all of this but wikipedia is probably the best resource - it's a very detailed article.
* The computer graphic comes from this 1999 pdf article by Glaeser/Strouhal - 'Kempelen's Chess Playing Pseudo-Automaton..'
* The photograph of the Turk (courtesy of Marc Wathieu) is from an exhibition on the automaton from this year. There is a fairly good website associated with the event.
* Chessbase have some alternative illustrations plus a number of photographs from a rebuilt modern version of the Turk (Ernst Strouhal from a Vienna Arts University was also involved here).
* 'The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine' by Tom Standage, 2002: non-fiction. [CompleteReview]
* 'The Chess Machine' by Robert Löhr, 2007: fiction. [review]