February 5th, 1958: The United States Loses a Nuclear Weapon – Maybe

As far as nuclear weaponry goes, there’s really no such thing as a minor accident. I mean, we’re talking about three and a half tons of uranium and plutonium capable of annihilating everything within 20 square miles of its path; the slope between mishap and catastrophe is steep and slippery.  The consequences of an accidental detonation would be devastating to hundreds of thousands of people both in the blast zone and those within the path of its radioactive fall-out.

A thermonuclear bomb is definitely not something you’d want to just lose track of, but astonishingly, on this date in 1958, that’s exactly what happened.


Image Source: Lindsay Magnum, NPR

It was the thick of Cold War, a full decade before the first anti-proliferation treaty, and Air Force pilots were running a training simulation from Homestead AFB in Florida. The purpose of the mission was to test the reaction time of F-86 fighter pilots stationed at Charleston AFB. Three B-47s ran the mission, and one of them was fitted with a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb that had been “safed” by removing the active plutonium trigger. The only reason it was included at all was so the bomber could realistically mimic the speed and maneuvers of an actual Soviet threat.

All seemed to be going well. The waiting F-86 pilots scrambled to meet the B-47s as they came into Charleston’s airspace, but suddenly two of the planes collided, leaving the pilot hauling the hydrogen bomb no choice but to attempt an emergency landing, ditching the bomb into the water before he did. Luckily, both pilots survived.

There was no explosion as the bomb hit the water, indicating it remained intact. Still, despite the relatively shallow waters of coastal Tybee Island, Georgia, subsequent searches failed to locate and retrieve the weapon. After two and a half months of searching, the military gave up.

So, just how dangerous is it to have a probably plutonium-less thermonuclear weapon just hanging out in a coastal bay? That’s a question up for some debate, and the position you take probably depends on just how much you trust the government.

Although some chose not to believe the Air Force’s position that the bomb was “safed” in the first place, there’s a good deal of evidence to suggest they’re telling the truth. Not only does the pre-crash paperwork specify it was a simulated bomb, but records show that removal and replacement of the plutonium core was standard procedure.

The true danger probably lies not with the possibility of a massive blast, especially since decades worth of salt water would have compromised the electronic components needed for one, but with the the uranium that the bomb contains.  Some have voices concerned that someone could use uranium to create a bomb of their own, but modern scientists view that as unlikely.  The bomb is currently believed to be buried under 5-15 feet of silt, which helps keep it stable and unlikely to corrode and seep into the aquifer.

According to a 2008 article from NPR, the Air Force’s position is that the bomb – wherever it may be – is safer just where it is.

“In a 2001 report on the search and recovery of the bomb, the Air Force said that if the bomb is still intact, the risk associated with the spread of heavy metals is low. If it’s left undisturbed, the explosive in the bomb poses no hazard, the report said. It went on to say that an ‘intact explosive would pose a serious explosion hazard to personnel and the environment if disturbed by a recovery attempt.’ ” 

So, although the Tybee Bomb may not be as big of a mystery or threat as it once seemed, it’s hardly the only missing member of our nation’s nuclear arsenal – in fact, dozens of incidents in the past seven decades have led to a number of missing bombs, dotting the waterways of the world.


February 2nd, 1709- Marooned Castaway Alexander Selkirk is Rescued

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There was little doubt in anyone’s mind at Alexander Selkirk was headed for a life of trouble.

As a youth, he’d twice been summoned before his local church council to answer for such indiscretions as pummeling his siblings and not conducting himself properly during services. In the 1841 book, The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, The Real Robinson Crusoe,   author John Howell politely describes Selkirk’s own mother as realizing that he was “one that would pass through some great events,” and “being guilty of very bad behavior.”  To keep him out of trouble  – or at least away from jail – she encouraged him to leave his native Scotland and take to the sea as a privateer during the War of Spanish Succession.

It wasn’t unusual for men, especially those without financial means, to turn to the ship life when it seemed they were out of other options. After all, a privateer is really just a government-sanctioned pirate – Selkirk and his comrades aboard the Cinque Ports were tasked with attacking Spanish ships and looting anything of value they had on board, keeping a percentage and returning the rest to the English navy. Their ship and others like it were given Letters of Marque from the crown – a sort of permission slip for piracy. It was hard work and an often fruitless journey.  At sea for over a year they suffered both gains and losses at the hands of the Spanish and French.

In 1704, Captain Thomas Stradling sailed the Cinque Ports to the island of Mas a Tierra, off the coast of Chile. It was their second stop there in six months; the first almost ended in mutiny as the crew refused to reboard the ship.  This time, Selkirk staged a one-man protest about the condition of the vessel. It was in horrible condition, he argued and needed repair. It was damaged by worms and leaking, and Stradling was an ineffective leader who frequently quarreled with his crew.

Selkirk was taking his chances, he said, on the island. Captain Stradling agreed and provided a few rudimentary necessities (“a gun, a knife, a hatchet, some oats and tobacco, as well as a bible, books of devotion and some navigational instruments“) before ordering the rest of his crew back to ship.

Legend has it that Selkirk immediately regretted his impending isolation and asked to come back to the ship, but was swiftly denied.

“His heart sunk within him, and all his resolution failed. He rushed into the water and implored them to return and take him on board with them. To all his entreaties his comrades turned a deaf ear, and even mocked his despair; denouncing the choice he had made of remaining upon the island, as rank mutiny, and l describing his present situation as the most proper state for such a fellow, where his example would not affect others.”- John Howell, The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk

Selkirk was not only alone on an island 400 miles away from the closest land mass, but he was also in danger from an island inhospitable to human life. Living on the beach proved impossible when aggressive mating sea lions came to shore. Seeking shelter inland, he found that conditions were slightly better – wild goats and cats left behind by sailors provided a source of food, and protection from the rats that chewed at him while he slept – respectively.

As our old friend Alex adapted to island life and the unending solitude that his voluntary marooning brought, he discovered that the animals weren’t the only threat to his life. Twice, Spanish ships came to shore; as an enemy sailor, he would have be arrested, tortured, and most likely killed. Luckily, he was spared that fate and remained undetected and evasive.

After four years living on Mas a Tierra, Selkirk was finally rescued by an English ship, Duke. His perseverance and survival skills had made him lonely, but otherwise in relatively good shape (his only complaint was that he was unable to wear shoes after not doing so for years) – unlike the crew of the Duke, who needed his help supplying food for the crew from his supply of goats.

After returning to England, Selkirk enlisted in the Royal Navy, married, and was buried at sea when he died of yellow fever at around 45 years old. He outlived most of the original crew of the Cinque Ports; the ship was indeed unsafe and riddled with worm-eating holes. It was abandoned after taking on water off the coast of South America, and just 18 men survived, only to be captured by the Spanish and subjected to what we can only guess were fairly brutal conditions.

Selkirk’s most famous pseudo-claim to fame may be that he is credited as being the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel about a shipwrecked sailor and his adventures on a deserted island. The myth is so prevalent that Mas a Tierra was even renamed Robinson Crusoe Island and multiple sources relay the connection as fact. But, as this National Geographic article points out, Crusoe was probably an amalgamation of several shipwrecked and marooned sailors whose stories were well known when Defoe was writing his book, and Selkirk’s circumstances make a direct correlation unlikely.



January 31st, 1930: Scotch Tape Makes Its Marketing Debut


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Vintage Scotch ad from the 1940s; Creative Commons


Chances are if I held up a piece of clear, pressure sensitive, self-sticking tape and asked you what it was called, you’d reply pretty matter of factly that it’s Scotch Tape, and chances are you’d  be right. Scotch brand clear tape, manufactured by the 3M company, is one of more than 400 varieties of adhesive tapes and glues produced since its debut on this day, 88 years ago, and it’s hard to find another brand that rivals its popularity or prolificacy.

But Scotch is just that – a brand. The tape itself is just called adhesive tape, pressure-sensitive tape, office tape, or, more accurately,  cellulose acetate polydimethyl-sioxane polyurethane tape.

Just rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it?

The lack of an agreed upon, accurate, easy to pronounce name for the actual item in question has contributed in part to why Scotch tape has become a part of our vernacular; the brand name is now synonymous with the product itself, much like Kleenex, Jello, and Coke. But the origins of the name are, surprisingly, steeped in controversy and based on an ethnic pejorative that was well-known at the time of its inception.

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Image Credit: Richard Smith, Flickr; Creative Commons Use

The story actually begins with cars, and with the mother of all invention – necessity. In the mid 1920s, a young research assistant at 3M’s Minnesota headquarters named Richard Drew set out to develop an adhesive tape that would allow a precise and sharp two-tone paint job without mixing or bleeding of colors. Unfortunately, the prototype that he developed just wasn’t sticky enough, and he was told by one auto painter that he was being “Scotch” with the adhesive. Although to most modern readers this probably doesn’t seem like an insult, when used in that context it’s actually a disparaging remark that means cheap or stingy.  People from Scotland are referred to as Scottish or Scots for that very reason.

Seems like an odd choice for a name, no? Not only is it essentially an ethnic slur, but it also doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the product’s performance. Regardless, Scotch Masking Tape was born as a result, and went on to be wildly successful.

By 1929, Drew had new challenges on the tape front. DuPont had developed cellophane, a transparent product that was soon being used in all sorts of food packaging, and producers were looking for a tape that could match its vitreous appearance. After quite a bit of trial and error, Drew and the team at 3M developed Scotch Brand Cellulose tape, and the rest is history. Its success allowed the company to prosper, remaining successful even through the Depression.

An interesting little tidbit about Scotch tape:  through a process called triboluminescence, where friction produces light, quickly unwinding Scotch tape (by mechanical means) can produce not only a blue streak of light, but x-rays that in some cases can actually be used to image a human finger.

The world is a strange and beautiful place, my friends.


January 29th, 1863: The Bear River Massacre

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On today’s date, in 1863, near the banks of the Bear River in modern-day Idaho, hundreds of Northwestern Shoshone Indians were massacred by members of the United States Army. As their men lay dying in the deep snow, many Shoshone women were subjected to brutal rapes and the horror of seeing their children beaten to death with rocks. It was the largest massacre of Native Americans in our country’s shameful relations with the indigenous people who first called this land home.

In many ways, the American West of the 1860s was a social and cultural tinderbox. As the Eastern part of the country was entrenched in the Civil War, the west was grappling with the question of whether true co-existence between settlers and Native Americans would be possible.  Not 60 years before, Sacajawea, herself from an Idaho-based band of Shosone, had helped lead Lewis and Clark’s expedition through the newly purchased land. The ensuing decades brought swathes of white settlers in search of a better life, usually at the expense of the native people.

The Lemhi-Shosone tribal website explains:

“The NWB of Shoshone, comprising several bands, had close contact with the white settlers moving in the ever-growing tide of westward expansion. They found themselves in the unenviable position of being precisely where immigrants would pass on their way to the Pacific; that, combined with the critical perception people had of Native Americans at the time, resulted in a recipe for disaster. The NWB Shoshone were a starving people that winter, and the occasional friendly offerings of food by nearby residents had dwindled as the Shoshone were blamed for skirmishes and the atrocities to other groups nearby.”

Governmental reports from the time show that there was significant concern about the well-being of the native tribes as large groups of settlers moved into the region; specifically Mormons in search of religious freedom and tolerance, and gold prospectors making their way to Montana. Not only did increased land use by the migrants lead to a decrease in productive hunting, but pleas for help were ignored and the Shoshone resorting to raiding ranches in search of food.

The tension between the Shoshone people and white settlers ran high towards the end of 1862, often involving real or perceived theft of livestock and, more than once, attacks on settlers resulting in death. To protect the interests of isolated California during the war and to keep tabs on the Mormons (who the government never really trusted due to the influence of Bringham Young), federal troops were ordered to Utah, establishing Ft. Douglas in Salt Lake City. They were led by Colonel Patrick Connor, an Irish born Mexican-American war veteran.

Following a suspected Shoshone-led attack on a group of lost miners, an arrest warrant was issued for of their three chiefs. Col. Connor prepared an expedition, 300 men strong, to travel north to their encampment for a surprise ambush.

The attack took place at first light.

The Shoshone fought back; they had known that such a battle was imminent and had put some preparations into place. Still, their arsenal was no match for that of the 3rd California Volunteer Infantry Regiment. From Military History Online:

“From a purely military point of view, Connor’s fortune was that the Shoshone had ran out of ammunition. Every advantage was afforded to the Shoshone fighters that day. The weather was exceptionally cold, and the snow very deep. The weather had not allowed the Union troops to get their howitzers to the battlefield, so they were not a factor. The site of the fight was very well naturally fortified, and the fighters were bold in their tenacity to fight. All of these factors favored a strong defense. Better supplied Shoshone warriors could have made this a very different day for history and for Col Connor.”

Col. Connor began to lose control over his men hours into the battle, and most reports indicate that he wasn’t overly concerned at their brutal and inhumane treatment of innocent survivors. In addition to raping and murdering the Shoshone people, the troops set fire to their homes, stole their horses, and destroyed most of their winter food supply before leaving. According to Connor’s official report:  “We found 224 bodies on the field, among which were those of the chiefs Bear Hunter, Sagwich, and Leight. How many more were killed than stated I am unable to say, as the condition of the wounded rendered their immediate removal a necessity. I was unable to examine the field.”

Most historians put the number of dead Shoshone much higher. Col. Connor never mentions the behavior of his soldiers in the aftermath. He spent the rest of his tenure out west fighting against Native Americans and was later promoted to General.

The band of Shoshone that was attacked that day never fully recovered. Other local chiefs, seeing their fate, agreed to move to reservations established later that decade by President Johnson. And, like so many other events in the realm of government/Native American relations, the Massacre at Bear Creek remains a mostly unknown and entirely reprehensible part of our nation’s history.