Archived entries for history


This recently discovered photo was taken from an elementary school about ten minutes after the Enola Gay delivered Little Boy and ushered in the Atomic Age.

From The Atlantic, where they’ve got more information.

Jess Nevins is amazing. Absolutely amazing. They guy is the High Priest of Low Fiction.

And he’s starting up a series of posts about the history of science fiction pulps on io9.

I started working on these almost a full year ago. Took me along time to research and then organize and figure out how to write. But I think the end results will be worth it.

This is the first in a series. First column is the history of sf pulps, 1896-1936. Second is 1937-1953. Third and fourth are a history of European sf pulps. Fifth is a history of German pulp sf (“sf pulps under totalitarianism, pt 1″). Sixth is a history of Russian and Soviet pulp sf. Seventh will be Japanese pulp sf. (Thus covering the big three of totalitarian regimes).

I’m not a huge io9 fan. I think they do some really good blogging, and some really bad blogging. But, I think Jess Nevins is absolutely brilliant and should be checked out regardless of where his stuff is.

First one is here.

From’s Danger Room:

Seven elderly retired Air Force officers called a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington on Monday afternoon — covered, improbably, by CNN — to disclose that they witnessed the UFOs rendering U.S. nuclear missiles temporarily inoperable during the Cold War.


Hastings didn’t serve in the military himself, but he worked with Robert Salas, a retired Air Force missile launch officer, to assemble a crew of former airmen whose stories shared a remarkable similarity. From 1963 to 1980, all were present at U.S. nuclear missile sites when the flashing lights of alien spacecraft — some disc-shaped, some conical, some spherical — appeared before them or their colleagues. (Hastings said he couldn’t rule out that alien contacts we haven’t heard about are ongoing to this day.) Some confessed that they didn’t see the ships themselves, but heard reliable accounts from trustworthy comrades. In most cases, though, when the aliens approached, the missiles stopped being responsive to technicians’ controls.

But the aliens didn’t actually zap the missiles. They just flew over the bases, worked their advanced-technological magic and disappeared into the night. “They could have done a lot more damage,” Salas told Danger Room when asked how he knew the alien counter-missile efforts didn’t portend a more hostile purpose, like a forthcoming attack.

Like most of the veterans recounting their close-encounter experiences, Bruce Fenstermacher, a ruddy, 68-year old retired Air Force captain, didn’t actually want to be quite as definitive as Hastings and Salas were about the aliens’ policy preferences. “I think they’re monitoring us so that we don’t mess things up,” he said, expressing faith in the aliens as enlightened interplanetary guardians.

Hastings allowed that his theory was “speculative,” but “given the available facts, it is a viable scenario.”


Robert Jamison was a young lieutenant working as a Minuteman targeting officer in on Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana in 1967. “My main job was to point the missiles in right direction,” he joked. But one night in March, all ten of his missiles, known as a flight, suddenly went off alert status — right as rumors of a UFO visit circulated through Malmstrom. While he never himself saw any aliens, he heard about a UFO landing in a “deep ravine” nearby and interviewed a security guard who described “two small red lights off at a distance” that began to close in; the guard broke down and cried at the recollection. Jamison believes the encounter was an incident that’s come to be known as the Belt, Montana UFO sighting


If people will allow themselves to listen, that is. Dwynne Arneson, a Vietnam veteran who served at Malmstrom alongside Jamison during the the 1967 incident, lamented that the anxieties of the age are proving dangerously distracting. “People are so wrapped up nowadays in their own world,” he observed. “They’re worried about jobs. They’re worried about mortgages. They could care less about UFOs and ETs and paranormal events.”

I used to be a big believer in aliens and alien conspiracy theories. Probably that whole being a 12-15 year old boy when the X-Files was in its prime. When I discovered girls, and girls that wanted me to touch their bits, well, as you can imagine I stopped thinking about aliens.

The rest of the world is like that, too. Alien sightings spike when people are worried about things they can’t control. Nuclear war, Biblical apocalypse, things that are so massive that they’ll just sweep over you like you weren’t even there. Adolescence is like that in a lot of ways. Your body is changing, your concept of the world is changing – no, wait – getting drastically fucking altered, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, save just ride it out.

But then when you’re given real, tangible problems like making rent or feeding yourself (or in my teenage self’s case – getting a bra off), you could give two shits what’s happening or not happening in space. Alien sightings have dropped off dramatically since the end of the Cold War and the start of the new millennium. There’s been a bit of an uptick as we get close to 2012, but the grim reality of The Great Recession is keeping people’s eyes out of the skies and on their wallets.

Not that I wouldn’t mind a world where everything these guys said wasn’t completely true, mind you.

It’d be nice knowing there are benevolent aliens out there making sure we didn’t wipe ourselves out.

Not simple a frequency this time. I couldn’t find just the audio of this interview, so you get to look upon the face of a brilliant, but shattered man.

Sixty five years ago today, the Enola Gay, a United States Airforce bomber out of Tinian in the West Pacific dropped a nuclear gravity bomb, called Little Boy, on the Japanese port city of Hiroshima. The Japanese had seen the Enola Gay and her two escort planes coming. They had even raised the air raid alarm. But after seeing that there were only three bombers, the raid was called off and no fighters were scrambled. The Japanese felt that it would be a waste of gasoline to engage the bombers, and three of them could do no serious damage to the city.

At approximately 8:15 local time a second sun exploded over the Hiroshima.

The world was never the same again.

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

This has been your Friday Frequency.

The New York Times ran an interesting piece on advertising the space race recently, which itself was inspired by a book called Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race.

It was “Mad Men” meets “Flash Gordon.”

The years from 1957 to 1962 were a golden age of science fiction, as well as paranoia and exhilaration on a cosmic scale. The future was still the future back then, some of us could dream of farms on the moon and heroically finned rockets blasting off from alien landscapes. Others worried about Russian moon bases.

Scientists debated whether robots or humans should explore space. Satellites and transistors were jazzy emblems of postwar technology, and we were about to unravel the secrets of the universe and tame the atom (if it did not kill us first).

Some of the most extravagant of these visions of the future came not from cheap paperbacks, but from corporations buffing their high-tech credentials and recruiting engineering talent in the heady days when zooming budgets for defense and NASA had created a gold rush in outer space.

One of the high points of the article was a quote from the author of the book.

“These images suggest that the furthest reach of what humankind hoped to find in space was in fact the very essence of infinity,” Ms. Prelinger writes.

Think about that.

A perpetual frontier waiting to be conquered, with no end in sight, ever.

You can find a collection of the images the article refers to here.


A map tracking the origin and progression of leprosy, smallpox and malaria. (Click the image for the full size.)

From Lapham’s Quarterly.



July, 1969. The world has just watched two American astronauts take their first steps on another world, the first steps that any human has taken on another world. Now it is time for them to come home, and something has gone wrong. Maybe that circuit board Aldrin snapped can’t be fixed by a felt-tipped pen. Maybe there was a miscalculation in the force needed to leave lunar gravity, and the Eagle is stuck. Maybe something happened with the Columbia, and Collins had to bug out and head back to Earth, leaving the crew of the Eagle stranded on the Moon. What ever the reason, not all of the men who went to the Moon are coming back, and this is the speech that was prepared for Richard Nixon to read if just such an eventuality came to be.

The speech was written by William Safire. He passed away Sunday from pancreatic cancer.

Via BoingBoing/Gawker.

Yesterday I was trolling through Boston’s Big Picture, and I came across their pictorial about the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam disaster in central Russia a few weeks back. Long story short, something went wrong at the damn, water get into the turbines and they blew. Luckily, they didn’t take the dam with them, but they did leak tons of oil into the river (literal tons, mind you, 40 of them) causing an ecological disaster for the fisheries downriver.

This got me thinking. The US infrastructure might be in a shitty situation, but Russia is far worse. The modern Russia is built on a foundation laid by the old Soviet empire. A foundation that might not be as strong as we’ve been lead to believe. Wait, strike that, a foundation wasn’t nearly as strong as we were lead to believe.

You know why it wasn’t? Because we were fucking sending them into paraonid fits on a daily basis. We’re about talking literally thousands of sorties into the buffer zone around Soviet airspace during the Cold War. Nuclear armed bombers would hurtle toward Russia on vectors that put them over key targets, and then veer off a few miles from the point of no return. Both sides were talking about how they were planning on surviving a nuclear exchange, hell the Russians built a doomsday retaliation device called “Dead Hand“, and we were planning on putting nukes into space with “Star Wars”. The world was absolutely mad, and it didn’t get any saner until the wall came down and Russia went through a few coups.

And what did all of this mean for the poor little Communist worker on government pay and food rations? Fuck it. That’s what it meant. For the entire last half of the 20th century, the Russia people expected to die in a blinding flash of light. And that fucking does something to you. You stop caring about the future, stop caring about your present, your culture and technology suffer, and your women start looking like shaved bears. (Ok, that’s a cheap joke – Russian women have always looked like shaved bears.)

Our infrastructure is falling apart because it was built in an attempt to get us out of the Great Depression, and we can’t be assed to spend money on upkeep. The Russian infrastructure is falling apart because they thought they’d all be dead by the time anything broke, and now things are breaking – catastrophically. But, why should you build something to last if none of you are going to last?

One hundred and ninety seven years ago this week, the French Grande Armée  under the command of Emperor Napoleon I marched into Moscow. Just days before the French and Russian forces had clashed at a small village 77 miles outside of Moscow. The village was named Borodino, and it was the site of the bloodiest battle of the French invasion of Russia. In a single day’s fighting, Napoleon lost a third of his engaged forces. The French ultimately won the day, but they were so badly savaged by the Russians that they were unable to follow up with their usual method of harassing a retreating force. The Russians fell back to Moscow, and waited for the Grand Armée to come.

The week long march between the battlefield and the city did more to harm the French forces than Russian bullets and heavy guns. Napoleon was used to the more heavily agrarian fields of central Europe and expected to find supplies for his troops along the way. Russia was a different beast. Farms could be miles apart, and when found they might be little more than shacks with modest gardens. Water was just as problematic. In the swampy lands outside of Moscow, parasites and disease flourished in the stagnant water, sickening and killing thousands.

In Moscow, the generals of the Russian Imperial Army made a fateful choice – they were going to abandon the city. Limping into the western edges of Moscow as the last of the Russian population was vacating from the eastern edge, Napoleon was surprised to find no delegation of local officials waiting for him. Traditionally, officials from a conquered city would appear to the invaders and help them find lodging for their troops, in an attempt to protect the citizenry of the captured city. Napoleon was greeted by a ghost town. His troops ran wild, fighting for the best homes to bunk in and looting whatever they came across. Late in the night, the first fires started to appear.

At first the fires weren’t give much notice. Moscow was a city of squat wooden buildings and fires were a normal occurrence, there would be time to deal with them after the Kremlin was secured for Napoleon. But the Russians hadn’t completely left the city. Squads of arsonist saboteurs were left behind by the command of the military governor of Moscow. His orders were simple: if the Russians weren’t going to keep the city, the French couldn’t have it either; burn everything that could provide shelter or sustenance to the invading forces. By the second day, the smaller fires were stoked by the arsonists into flames that could be seen halfway across the city. By the third, a firestorm was chewing its away across every neighborhood in Moscow, forcing the Grand Armée out of the city they had just claimed as their own. The Russians had razed their own city to the ground. Three quarters of the buildings were gone, most of them private homes that would have been used as barracks by the French troops during the coming cold winter months. Over two thousand Russian troops, unable to keep up with the retreating Imperial Army are burned alive by their countrymen.

The Grand Armée spends the next month in the ruins of Moscow, but the fast approach of the Russian winter forces them to abandon their conquest. The month delay in the city has given the Russian forces the time they needed to rebuild their battered ranks. They hound Napoleon’s forces all the way to the border. Historical estimates say that the French marched six hundred thousand men across the Russian border in June of 1812. Less than seventy thousand would march out. A hundred thousand were prisoners, four hundred thousand were dead. With the near complete ruination of his army, Napoleon’s dreams of ruling Europe were as broken and burned as the charred timbers and ashes of Moscow, the city that was sacrificed to defeat him.

Of his Russian campaign, Napoleon would later say the following:

Of the fifty battles I have fought, the most terrible was that before Moscow. The French showed themselves to be worthy victors, and the Russians can rightly call themselves invincible.

An 1817 map of the burned parts of Moscow. The destroyed area are darkened against the ones that survived.


This is fascinating. Turns out the trigger man at the German equivalent of the Kent State shooting was an agent of the Stasi, the East German Secret Police. So the “fascist cop” that was set up as an example of why the conservative right in Germany was wrong, was actually even farther left-leaning than the protestor he shot.

From the NYTimes via William Gibson’s twitter:

BERLIN — It was called “the shot that changed the republic.”

The killing in 1967 of an unarmed demonstrator by a police officer in West Berlin set off a left-wing protest movement and put conservative West Germany on course to evolve into the progressive country it has become today.

Now a discovery in the archives of the East German secret police, known as the Stasi, has upended Germany’s perception of its postwar history. The killer, Karl-Heinz Kurras, though working for the West Berlin police, was at the time also acting as a Stasi spy for East Germany.


The revelation last week that researchers, looking into Berlin Wall deaths and East German intelligence, had stumbled across Mr. Kurras’s Stasi files raised a host of uncomfortable issues that are suddenly the subject of national debate.

For the left, Mr. Kurras’s true allegiance strikes at the underpinnings of the 1968 protest movement in Germany. The killing provided the clear-cut rationale for the movement’s opposition to what its members saw as a violent, unjust state, when in fact the supposed fascist villain of leftist lore was himself a committed socialist.

There is the sobering reminder of the Stasi infiltration of West German structures, but also the question of whether it went much deeper than has ever been uncovered. The Stasi’s reach in East Germany is well known; Chancellor Angela Merkel said just last week that the security service had tried to recruit her, though she had turned it down.

The most insidious question raised by the revelation is whether Mr. Kurras might have been acting not only as a spy, but also as an agent provocateur, trying to destabilize West Germany. As the newspaper Bild am Sonntag put it in a headline, referring to the powerful former leader of the dreaded East German security agency, Erich Mielke, “Did Mielke Give Him the Order to Shoot?”

Again, I’m not cleaning this up. Start at the bottom and read up. Slotting his away for later processing. Jess runs the Slouching Toward Bethlehem blog.

  1. (end lecture. Numerous questions follow, several of the Not A Question But A Comment variety, the bane of all academic conference panels)

  2. (Let’s just say that India does very well for itself in creating superhumans. Jai Hind, y’all!)

  3. Tomorrow, if I remember to bring in the notebook I wrote all this down in, I’ll give a statistical rundown of superhumans 1902-1936.

  4. That brings us up to the 20th century.

  5. Good example is Madame Felician, in Wirt Gerrare’s novel. Psychic femme fatale spy–abilities justified on Theosophical grounds.

  6. Rise in spiritualism movement leads to Theosophy, which leads to Theosophical novels with superhuman & psychic characters.

  7. Meanwhile…

  8. (Almost done, folks)

  9. He can can “place four packs of playing cards together, and tear them in halves between his thumbs and fingers.”

  10. He can can “lift a horse with ease…while a heavy man is seated in the saddle….”

  11. Nick Carter, Doc Savage forty years early, has superhuman strength:

  12. Old King Brady has mystic gift of intuiton because he’s Irish. (Superhuman effort on my part results in no joke being made here).

  13. Old Sleuth, first recurring, serialized detective, had superhuman strength and endurance. So did Old Cap. Collier.

  14. And the major serial heroes of the dime novels (which were precursors to the pulps) had superhuman powers.

  15. American reaction to romans feuilleton was the dime novel, which led to serial heroes.

  16. (check audience. No reaction. Sigh. Decide to give up on the jokes and just finish the damn thing).

  17. Wells’ Invisible Man gets his power through scientific experimentation, as did Queen Victoria.

  18. their powers to being the end result of human evolution–possibly the first use of that trope in sf.

  19. Louis Boussenard’s 10000 Years in a Block of Ice (1889) has Big Headed Psychic Dwarf Geniuses. But Boussenard specifically credits

  20. magnetic fluid theory of animal magnetism.

  21. And the psychotic lead in J. Maclaren Cobban’s “Master of His Fate” drains the “spirit of life” from others, a reference to the

  22. Paul du Peyral, in Edward Heron-Allen’s Princess Daphne (1888), has psychic abilities, but carries out experiments to test & broaden them.

  23. Which as origin stories go could be much worse, and certainly trumps a bat flying through a window.

  24. she was “poisoned by the venom of a crotalus before she was born.”

  25. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Elsie Venner is femme fatale with literally mesmerizing gaze & power over snakes. Per Holmes, she got her powers thus

  26. Second American response: materialist reaction to occult fantasy–the creation of the Origin Story.

  27. (audience has no reaction. Sigh. Check audience. Still alive? Not sure. Replaced with store dummies? Possibly. Carry on)

  28. (check audience for reaction to idea that author of Little Women wrote a story about a Hindu mesmerist w/hereditary curse).

  29. Secondary example is Louisa May Alcott’s “The Fate of the Forrests,” in which the love triangle is more important than the hereditary curse

  30. Primary example is Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens,” in which existence of superpowered medium is accepted as part of city life.

  31. First is “the occult without the occult,” stories w/occult-powered characters, but stories lack all occult trappings or background.

  32. Several reactions to the Gothic & the Occult Fantasy genre take place.

  33. Meanwhile, Back In America.

  34. (I cover by claiming that I was telepathically sending them the next portion of my lecture).

  35. (This is so at odds with my experience teaching freshmen that I am momentarily struck dumb).

  36. (check audience. Only two people have left, most people are at least looking at me rather than texting).

  37. Sorcerer & mystic in Emeric Hulme-Beaman’s Ozmar the Mystic (1896).

  38. Shape-shifting Egyptian priestess of Isis in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897).

  39. Egyptian psychic & mesmerist in Mrs. Campbell Praed’s The Brother of the Shadow (1886).

  40. Occult Fantasy genre gives us: sorcerer/psychic/mesmerist in Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story (1861-1862).

  41. (I see I’ve already lost one Follower. Perhaps I’m just not tweeting enough about what I ate for lunch).

  42. Zanoni is influenced by the Rosicrucians (them again) and is primarily responsible for the Occult Fantasy genre.

  43. As Mysteries of Paris is being published, so is Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni, about an immortal superpowered Chaldean sorcerer.

  44. Meanwhile…

  45. Nick of the Woods. But Feval, a Frenchy, created the superhuman superhero. I fully expect our conservative friends to now boycott comics.

  46. Not the first dual-identity costume-wearing vigilante–that was Robert Montgomery Byrd’s reprehensible Indian Killer character in his

  47. And wolf’s head hood made of wolf’s head. Protagonist is first superpowered costume-wearing vigilante.

  48. Jumping back twenty years: Paul Feval’s White Wolf, 1837, about a Breton vigilante fighting French while wearing costume of wolfskin.

  49. Ahem: also the dime novel & penny dreadful format.

  50. Mysteries of Paris has 500 imitations in 20 languages, is responsible for 1850s renovation of Paris. Also the dime novel & penny dreadfu

  51. (No one gets joke or smiles. Shrug, labor forward).

  52. (Describe flow chart of influences as mess of arrows and dotted lines, a kind of Lovecraftian Flying Spaghetti Monster)

  53. (Aside to audience about how I’m all over the place chronologically, and how coming up with coherent linear narrative here is impossible).

  54. (Two minute discursion on Cagliostro as proto-Occult Detective, as early example of Celebrity Culture, and his part in Egyptian craze).

  55. Rinaldo Rinaldini has Cagliostro-like superhuman, the Old Man of Fronteja.

  56. German rauberroman (robber novel) influenced Mysteries of Paris, esp. Christian Vulpius’ Rinaldo Rinaldini.

  57. Von Gerolstein had Plot Power to patrol city,be wherever author needed him to be,do whatever author needed him to do.As I said, proto-Batman

  58. Most important roman feuilleton, Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842-1843), had proto-Batman, Rodolphe von Gerolstein.

  59. Financial model of Gothics & colporteur novels led to romans feuilleton, French serialized novels.

  60. (Best selling German novel of 19th century: colporteur Grand Guignol novel, The Hangman of Berlin, 1890-1892. Even better than its title).

  61. Gothic: often published in serial form. German version of serial form was colporteur novel, sold by colporteurs, wandering peddlers.

  62. (Pause for a moment to catch breath & let audience get the yawns and scratches out of their system).

  63. (Plus, of course, superpowered sorcerers & witches).

  64. Victor Hugo’s Hans of the Island (1823): titular protagonist is a superstrong dwarf.

  65. Honore de Balzac’s The Centenarian (1822): the protagonist gets vampiric superhuman abilities through the secrets of the Rosicrucians.

  66. Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820): John Melmoth gets various Plot Powers as a result of the deal with the devil.

  67. (Obvious influence there is Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland)

  68. George Lipscomb’s The Grey Friar and the Black Spirit of the Wye (1810): costumed outlaw with super-ventriloquism.

  69. All of which fed into the superhumans of the Gothics.

  70. And, of course, the Rosicrucians, those frauds, gave the Gothic the Superpowered Emo Wandering Slap Me Immortal.

  71. Later in the 19th century, the ritterroman would produce The White Knight, a knights-in-armor story of a superpowered knight.(It ends badly)

  72. Also contributing to the Gothic was German popular literature–ritterroman, the räuberroman, and the schauerroman.

  73. Arabian Fantasies led to Beckford’s Vathek, which gave a lot to the Gothics.

  74. The second beginning was the Gothic. But–Arabian Fantasies fed into the Gothic, especially the one about the superpowered Yellow Peril.

  75. Skip forward 2000 years.

  76. In the beginning was Gilgamesh & Enkidu.

  77. “The Evolution of the Concept of the Superhuman”

  78. I have some time to burn before my next class, so–my Pop Culture Assoc. of America presentation, in Twitter form:

The caption from the Republic of the Marshall Islands embassy site:

1946. Admiral and Mrs. Blandy celebrate operation crossroads with an atomic cake. This frequently reproduced photograph captures an uncanny resemblance between Mrs. Blandy’s hat and the mushroom cloud.

The Wikipedia entry on Operation Crossroads.

CNN is running a very interesting article about the inaccuracies in the public perception of what happened at Columbine 10 years ago.

The Columbine tragedy left a lasting mark on many Americans, largely because of the media’s around-the-clock coverage in the days and weeks following the shooting. Columbine was named the top news story of 1999 with nearly 70 percent of Americans saying they “followed [Columbine] very closely,” according to a Pew Research Center study.

When media coverage faded, reporters and investigators soon learned that some of the initial reports were wrong. Cullen writes about the misperceptions: “Facts rush in, the fog lifts, an accurate picture solidifies. The public accepts this, but the final portrait is the farthest from the truth.”

Officials at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office agreed that the Trench Coat Mafia, among other myths, were false. Lead investigator Kate Battan said the 10-year anniversary offers a chance to clear up the misconceptions.

“It was the first big event where cell phones were around, and I had witnesses giving information to the media before I even got to it,” she said. “A lot of that information was wrong.”


Cullen said the myths were so widely reported that they were hard to take back later.

“You would have to go through a lot of corrections,” Cullen said. “You would need to have something blockbuster to shake them [the public] up and say ‘Everything you know about Columbine, let it go.’”

Psychologists who study memory say people tend to remember first impressions. In the case of Columbine, what the public first saw and heard in the news tended to stick with them.

Part of the reason I think the Columbine story is so easily acceptable in the “loner kills popular kids” style is because we’ve all been there. We’ve all been on the receiving end of stuff like that. We know what it feels like to be isolated by people who you perceive as better than you. In a way, our fascination with the horror that happened on that day is so potent because it is spiked with knowledge that you share something in common with these people. The idea that you’ve shared headspace with the teenager that just put a bullet in a cheerleader is one of those secret tastes that no one will actually admit to liking, but everyone does.

If you strip that out, just make those two teenagers confused, ill sociopaths, then you lose much of the “in” that made the story so fascinating in the first place. People are very unlikely to give up something that they enjoyed in the first place.

Again, from (but they took it from something else.)

1947: A cargo ship explodes at dockside in Texas City, Texas. The blast and the fires that follow kill about 600 people and injure 3,500 more. Six decades later, it remains the deadliest explosion and worst industrial disaster in U.S. history.

The Grandcamp, a World War II Liberty ship that had been converted to a French merchant vessel, was taking on a load of ammonium nitrate fertilizer at a quay next to a complex of Monsanto chemical factories, offices and labs. The ship’s carpenter smelled smoke in the No. 4 hold around 8 a.m. on April 16 and found that a few bags of fertilizer were on fire. He tried dousing it with a few buckets of water, then a fire extinguisher.

When he called for a hose, the ship’s captain forbade it, fearful that water would destroy the $500 worth of cargo that was on fire. The skipper ordered the hold closed and its fire-suppression valves opened to release steam. Ordinarily a good idea, but not in this case.


The Grandcamp exploded at 9:12 a.m. Exploded is probably too mild a word.

The captain and 32 of the Grandcamp’s crew died; 10 somehow survived. More than 200 people were killed on the quay. The blast was heard 160 miles away. It shattered all the windows in Texas City and half of those in Galveston, 10 miles away.

Some debris reached an altitude of nearly 3 miles before falling back to earth. Two airplanes circling overhead were blown apart by the heavy shrapnel. A one-ton piece of the ship’s propeller shaft landed 2½ miles away. Other pieces sailed 5 miles.

The blast flattened 20 waterfront blocks and 12 blocks inland. Flaming debris ignited oil, gas and chemical tanks at the sprawling Monsanto complex and three nearby oil companies.

People died everywhere, blown up by the blast, decapitated by flying metal, sliced by falling glass, burned by flaming metal and chemicals, crushed by falling buildings. The litany of death was long and varied. Thousands more suffered injuries.


The fires were not put out until April 18. Bodies and parts of bodies were strewn all over town. “Blood and guts” was not just a phrase. At least one survivor reported getting stuck in a slippery tangle and looking down to see that it was human intestines.

The state government ultimately listed 405 identified and 63 unidentified dead. Another 100 or perhaps 200 were counted as missing. Injuries may have reached 3,500. That’s 4,000 casualties in a town of 16,000.


Two bullets. One French. One Russian. They met over a battlefield in Near East during the Crimean War.

August 26, 1945. Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico.

Twenty four year old Harry Daghlian is working late, and alone. Both are violations of safety protocol, but Harry doesn’t care. He’s good at his job, and he’s careful. He doesn’t have to be working this late, six days ago the Japanese surrendered, and the war is over. But, that doesn’t mean his work isn’t still important. The bombs he helped build won the war, and he’s going to keep making them as long as he can.

This night, Harry is working on placing the final tungsten bricks in a neutron reflector around plutonium bomb core. The reflector would lessen the amount of plutonium needed for the bomb to go critical. When he was placing the final brick, his hand slipped. The small brick hit the core, and sent it critical. A blue light issued out from the core, dosing him with radiation. Frantic, Harry knocks off the brick in hopes that it will stop the reaction. Unfortunately, it doesn’t and he’s forced to disassemble much of the neutron reflector before the core retreats from criticality.

He saved the lives of everyone at the lab, but there was nothing to be done for Harry Daghlian. He died twenty one days later from accute radiation poisoning.

For many of those twenty one days, one of the old guard of Los Alamos, Louis Slotin, could be found by Harry’s side. Louis was known informally as the chief armorer of the United States. He had built the test bomb that was detonated at Trinity. He wanted to get out of military work, but there wasn’t anyone else with his experience or skill for building bombs.

Nine months after the accident that took the life of his friend Harry, Louis was working with the same core. Instead of using several tungsten bricks for the neutron reflector, the new construction relied on two beryllium hemispheres to encapsulate the plutonium core. The core was already placed in the bottom hemisphere as Louis moved the top into position. He was aligning the top with the use of his hand and a screwdriver, when he slipped. The top hemisphere struck the core, causing it to go critical. A burst of blue light and a wave of heat struck the scientists in the room. Instinctively, Louis pulled his hand up, his thumb still hooked into the beryllium hemisphere. The criticality was stopped, and the lives of the men in the room were saved. But, like his friend, Louis wasn’t so lucky.

Louis Slotin died nine days later of acute radiation poisoning. Another victim of what came to be known as the demon core.

The assembly Louis was working on was to be the final test of the demon core. It was fitted into a bomb and used as the ABLE test during Operation Crossroads at the Bikini Atoll.


Today is the 90th anniversary of the accident.

From Wikipedia:

The Boston Molasses Disaster, also known as the Great Molasses Flood and the Great Boston Molasses Tragedy, occurred on January 15, 1919, in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. A large molasses tank burst and a wave of molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph, killing 21 and injuring 150. The event has entered local folklore, and residents claim that on hot summer days the area still smells of molasses.

The rest of the article is here.


In the future, monster implements of war may be controlled from a distance by the mere turning of a radio dial. A Japanese army officer, Major Nagayama, has invented a means of directing by radio the movements of a tank able to travel at a speed of five miles an hour.

Already wireless control of airplanes has been successfully attempted in England, according to reports. A master radio set took the place of the pilot, acting through tiny compressed air motors which worked the plane’s controls.

Such a system of radio control as that of the tank or airplane does not imply the transmission of any appreciable quantity of power by radio. In the tank, for example, the radio impulses serve simply to trip a relay that sets in motion the tank’s regular gasoline-driven machinery. Other relays, tuned to proper wave lengths, operate the steering controls.

The amount of power required to operate these relays is as little as that which brings the voices of Amos ‘n’ Andy into your radio receiver. Just as your own set supplies the power to amplify the faint impulses, so the relays in tank and airplane permit gasoline engines to supply the actual motive power. The transmission of real quantities of power without wires remains at present a dream.

Megadrought and Megadeath in 16th Century Mexico

The native people of Mexico experienced an epidemic disease in the wake of European conquest, beginning with the smallpox epidemic of 1519 to 1520 when 5 million to 8 million people perished. The catastrophic epidemics that began in 1545 and 1576 subsequently killed an additional 7 million to 17 million people in the highlands of Mexico. Recent epidemiologic research suggests that the events in 1545 and 1576, associated with a high death rate and referred to as cocoliztli (Nahuatl for “pest”), may have been due to indigenous hemorrhagic fevers. Tree-ring evidence, allowing reconstructions of the levels precipitation, indicate that the worst drought to afflict North America in the past 500 years also occurred in the mid-16th century, when severe drought extended at times from Mexico to the boreal forest and from the Pacific to Atlantic coasts. These droughts appear to have interacted with ecologic and sociologic conditions, magnifying the human impact of infectious disease in 16th-century Mexico.

Full write up here at the CDC’s site. Tim pointed this out to me a few days ago.

For those that want the short version: A South American version of ebola may have cropped up after the smallpox epidemic, and along with the worse drought in 500 years, killed most of the human population of the Americas.

This is Albert Fish, the Gray Man. He was a monster walking around in a human’s skin for pretty much his whole existence. If you were inclined, you could read more about him here, but unless you’re made of some pretty stern stuff, I’d leave it be.

Why am I reading about people like him?

I need a villain for MAGICTOWN.

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