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.


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.