Happy Easter!

Happy Easter to all those that celebrate it, and all those just here for the food! Since today is a holiday, I figured a short post about some fun historical Easter facts would be more than appropriate. So keep scrolling to find some interesting Easter facts to share around the dinner table.

1. Painting Eggs has a long, long history

Humans have apparently been decorating eggs since we discovered that eggs were good to eat. The oldest decorated eggs are thought to have been made almost 60 thousand years ago. Eggs feature heavily in ancient mythologies as well! The tradition of painting eggs for Easter comes from the Ukrainian Eastern Orthodox, where elaborately decorated eggs are highly traditional.

Peeps have been around longer than you think! Originally hand-crafted by a small specialty store in Pennslyvania, Peeps took 27 hours to make… each. They were less marshmallow and more meringue. They also had tiny wings! The candy company Just Born took over the company in 1953 and overhauled how Peeps were made. Automating the process and making them of true marshmallow cut the time down from 27 hours… to 6 minutes. Unfortunately, it also cut the wings off, leading to the wingless chicks we eat today!

3. The Term “Easter” Comes from the Goddess Eostre

The early Christians tended to borrow from the Pagans that they were trying to convert. It was thought that tying in the Pagan holidays to Christian holidays would help convert the pagans to Christianity. Easter is one of the holidays that can easily be traced back to its’ pagan roots. Eostre was the Germanic goddess of the dawn, and possibly fertility. The original holiday was linked to the spring equinox, although it is celebrated the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. This is why Easter moves so much- it’s following an ancient pagan calendar! Happy Easter, and Happy Eostre!

4. Chocolate Easter Bunnies Started in 1890

The first chocolate bunny was made in 1890. Robert L. Strohecker wanted to draw in more business to his shop in Reading PA for the Easter Season. So of course he commissioned a giant chocolate bunny to display. He’s now considered the father of chocolate Easter bunnies. Easter bunnies for baskets were available in Germany in 1890, and in 1925 the Rodda Candy Company (The same that originally made the meringue Peeps!) offered chocolate bunnies in a catalog.

5. Pretzels Were Once an Easter Food

Pretzels were once considered to be a highly religious food. The dough was supposedly shaped like arms folded in prayer. The three holes were for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Pretzels are linked to the fast before easter and were hidden, and hunted for, just like the eggs. Since they don’t contain eggs, they were an acceptable food to eat during Lent.

I hope you enjoyed this short list of fun Easter Facts! Happy Easter!

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Peeps- A 70-Year History

Peeps turn 70 this year, and to celebrate these little magic marshmallow treats, we’re going to take a look back at the history of these fun fluffy snacks!

Just Beginnings

The history of Peeps begins with Sam Born, an immigrant to the United States from France. He was born in Russia as Samuel Bernstein in 1891 and moved to Paris with his parents when they left Russia. He worked in a candy store in Paris, and learned the candy trade. In 1910, he moved to Philadelphia, listing his occupation as “Candy Maker”.

Sam immediately began to take the candy industry by storm. In 1916, he was awarded the Key to San Francisco after inventing the “Born Sucker Machine”, which was a stick-inserting machine for lollipops. US Patent 1195437. Also in 1916, he opened up several candy stores in New York City. But in 1923 he opened his own candy confectionery. He named it “Just Born”. It was a play on his name and the fact that his candy was so fresh it was like it was “just born!”. In 1929 he opened another shop called “Montclair Chocolate” at 110 Myrtle Ave in New York City.

Where the Peeps Come in

As his candy companies began to take off, Sam Born started to purchase other candy companies. He was joined by his two brothers-in-law and in 1926 they bought Norma Chocolate Works. They moved to Bethlehem, PA in 1932 and continued to purchase other companies and brands. Maillard, Kreem Made Fudge, Rodda, and Marlon were just a few of the brands they bought.

But in 1953 they purchased the Rodda Candy Company. They were small specialty handmade candy makers. Their line of marshmallow chicks had small wings and were handmade by about 80 women. They were more of a meringue than a marshmallow and had to air dry. In total, a single Peep took almost 27 hours to make! After acquiring the company, Sam Born automated the process and changed the formula to the marshmallow we know and love. Automating the process cut the time down to only 6 minutes per Peep, and had the side effect of cutting off the wings. The modern Peep had been born!

Peep Varients

Not long after Born automated the process, his company, Just Born, began to experiment. In the ’60s, they began to put out seasonally themed Peeps. The ’80s saw the popular Bunny Peep be born, and by the ’90s, new colors and shapes were common.

New flavors of Peeps became popular in the early 2000s, with vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate Peeps.

It was in the early 2000s that they became popular outside of just candy. Lip balm, pillows, costumes, and even a TV franchise centered around Peeps were all created. Recipes for Peep s’mores, cakes, and even sushi began to take the internet by storm each year around Easter.

Peeps Today

Peeps continue to be one of the most popular Easter candies, with new flavors still being announced. In 2021, Just Born announced a new limited-edition cola flavor.

Whether you enjoy them fresh and gooey, stale and crunchy, or baked into cakes, Peeps are one of the staples of Easter. And while the world record for Peeps eaten is 255 in five minutes, perhaps we should eat just a few fewer than that on Easter Day.

Want to Read more?

https://dannwoellertthefoodetymologist.wordpress.com/2022/04/14/the-marshmallow-peep-and-its-sordid-history-in-cincinnati/

https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/20/health/peeps-history/index.html

https://candyhalloffame.org/inductee/sam-born/

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Want to read more on Food History?

Read about the long history of Popcorn!

Want to know about the history of Canned Beer?

How about the history of dying eggs?

Thank you for reading!

The Turtle- The First Combat Submarine

7 minutes

Submarines. When most people think of submarines in combat, they think of World War I or World War II. And to be fair, World War I was the first time that submarines were widely accepted in combat. That wasn’t the first time they were used in combat, however. People have been dreaming of submarines for a long time. What better way to surprise your naval enemies than to sneak up underneath them?

Enter the Turtle:

Geni, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Turtle submarine is a one-person submarine designed to allow the driver to attach bombs to the bottom of boats. It was used briefly during the American Revolutionary War, in 1776. It wasn’t until 1900 that submarines became accepted in combat, with the formation of the US Navy Submarine Force. 125 years after the first combat submarine was used. So what was the Turtle, and why was the idea abandoned for such a long time?

The Turtle Submarine’s Beginnings

David Bushnell designed the Turtle over several years while he studied at Yale. Between 1771-1775, he worked on the design. He also made prototypes of underwater explosives that would make his submarine a feasible weapon. His final design met all the requirements for a modern submarine: it could submerge completely, move independently underwater, had enough air to support the operator, and could carry out an attack against another vessel.

His designs, of course, went nowhere at first. It wasn’t until Johnathan Trumbull, the governor of Connecticut, wrote to George Washington in 1775, that Bushnell finally received the funding he needed to bring his designs to life.

Isaac Doolittle was an inventor near Yale, and ended up helping Bushnell to design and invent a good number of the brass pieces that made the Turtle work, including the oars, the hatch, and the detonator for the mine.

The Design

The Turtle was a small vessel, measuring only seven and a half feet wide, and six feet tall. Designed for a single person, it was meant to attack a nearby ship. It was not designed for any sort of long-term underwater mission. The operator of the Turtle would only have a half hour of air before having to resurface. A mine was attached to the back, filled with gunpowder. This gunpowder was Bushnell’s design as well, and could be detonated even underwater. The Turtle was to be used to sneak up on a ship, attach the mine with its’ time delayed detonator to the ship in secret, and get away again without being spotted.

It got its name from its resemblance to two tortoise shells pressed together. Dr. Benjamin Gale describes the Turtle Submarine best in a letter to Sileas Deane in November 1775:

Excerpt from Dr. Gale’s letter to Sileas Deane- November 1775

“The person who navigates it enters at the top. It has a brass top or cover, which receives the person’s head as he sits on a seat, and is fastened on the inside by screws. In this brass head is fixed eight glasses, viz. two before, two on each side, one behind, and one to look out upwards. In the same brass head are fixed two brass tubes, to admit fresh air when requisite, and a ventilator at the side to free the machine from the air rendered unfit for respiration. On the inside is fixed a Barometer, by which he can tell the depth he is underwater; a Compass, by which he knows the course he steers. In the barometer and on the needles of the compass is fixed fox-fire, i.e. wood that gives light in the dark.

His ballast consists of about 900 wt. of lead which he carried at the bottom and on the outside of the machine, part of which is so fixed as he can let run down to the Bottom, and serves as an anchor, by which he can ride ad libitum. He has a sounding lead fixed at the bow, by which he can take the depth of water under him; and to bring the machine into a perfect equilibrium with the water, he can admit so much water as is necessary, and has a forcing pump by which he can free the machine at pleasure, and can rise above water, and again immerge, as occasion requires.”

Shubol3D, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Turtle Submarines’ First Mission

Once the Turtle had been built and tested, three men were chosen to train with it in the Connecticut River in secret. It was ultimately decided that Sergeant Ezra Lee would operate the Turtle on its’ first mission.

With the British controlling New York Harbor in 1776, the Turtle was directed to attack the HMS Eagle. On September 6, 1776, Lee entered the water with only 20 minutes of air, rather than the expected 30. It was night, and the dark combined with the currents made it difficult to keep the submarine on a steady course toward the ship. Lee had to surface several times over the 2-hour journey to the Eagle. He refreshed his air supplies and checked his course during his time above water.

Operating the Turtle wasn’t easy. It was not truly designed to move easily within the water. It was moved via a front propeller, which the operator had to manually spin. The interior was, of course, nearly pitch black. Any flame that could illuminate the inside would have eaten up the air within. Eventually, Lee was able to surface just behind the Eagle. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t get the mine to attach to the ship. He was spotted by guards on Governer’s island and ended up releasing the mine to float downriver. The mine did work and produced quite the explosion. But it was nowhere near the Eagle.

Conclusion

The Turtle was used in two more attempted attacks, but few records remain about these attacks. Unfortunately, the Turtle Submarine was sunk when its transport ship was destroyed on October 9th, 1776. It was salvaged from the depths, but never repaired. Three unsuccessful attacks and a high repair bill meant that the original Turtle was never restored.

Submarines were used during both the war of 1812 and the American Civil War. The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was the first to sink a ship in battle, the Housatonic, on February 17, 1864. The H.L. Hunley never returned to port after the successful sinking of the battleship. By the early 1900’s, submarines were beginning to be more developed and built by various Navies. In WWI, the US Navy had 72 submarines in active service.

Replica of the Hunley
DrStew82, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Turtle Submarine may not have been effective, but it was an important first step toward submersible craft. It showed the feasibility of underwater craft, and while it never succeeded in an attack, formed the basis for future submarines. It was the first submarine to use water and lead as a ballast for rising and sinking, and the first to use screw propellers.

Bushnell was constrained by the materials available to him, but his genius was recognized in letters from George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The US Navy also recognized his accomplishments by naming two submarine tenders after him, once in 1915, and another in 1945.

If you want to see a replica of the Turtle, you can visit one at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex. Another replica can be found in Washinton DC, in the lobby of the International Spy Museum.

Want to read more?

Check out these links for more information about the Turtle Submarine!

Here is a link to the Wikipedia Article!

Here is a great resource- the US Naval History and Heritage Command!

The American Battlefield Trust also did a great write-up of the Turtle!

Want to Read about more Strange Inventions?

Read about the horrifying Birthing Spinner!

Or Read about Ben Franklin’s haunting musical instrument!

Resource of the Week-Theban Mapping Project

It may have taken a while, but I’m back for weekly updates on interesting websites and resources! There is just way too much history for me to cover here on Secretly Historic, so I like to give a shout-out to other people compiling history. This can range from a website, a social media page, or books! This week I’ve found a great website for those interested in Ancient Egypt, particularly the tombs.

The Theban Mapping Project is an amazing resource for anyone looking for more information regarding the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. They’ve been working on this for nearly thirty years, so you know there is a ton of information here.

Tim Adams, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Theban Mapping Project

The Mapping Project started over 30 years ago. It’s run by the American Research Center in Egypt and the American University in Cairo. The original intent of the project was to document the conditions of the tombs located in the Valley of the Kings, and work on plans to maintain these valuable sites. Over time, this has evolved to not only sharing information with the public but also helping to enhance the experience of those who visit the area.

On the website, you can view the Maps, Plans, and Sections of the tombs. The .pdf maps are incredible and gave me a better sense of the space in the tombs. They’re great for getting an idea of how the tomb and each section fit together. Each tomb has additional information about each section on the 3-D rendering. They list the condition of the tomb, the history of the discovery of each tomb, and any known information about those that inhabited it.

cattan2011, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

More Than Just Maps

There are 68 tombs listed, but there are far more than just maps of each tomb! The Theban Mapping Project also boasts over 3,000 pictures of the tombs. These pictures are of both the insides and outsides of the tombs. Honestly, these pictures are awesome and well worth a look. Even a layperson can appreciate the beauty found within these ancient tombs.

The Center and University have also put together an impressive >1,500-article bibliography for those who want to learn more or see the original research. This list is invaluable to any student or researcher looking for more information.

They’ve dedicated the last two sections of the site to articles and a very well-done timeline of ancient Egypt. The articles I’ve read here are informative and well-written. They’re not too heavy on the academic jargon in these articles, making them an easy read for those not in academia. The timeline they put together spans from the earliest traceable human habitation until 641 AD, the beginning of the Islamic period in Egypt.

Conclusion

Even if you have only a passing interest in Ancient Egypt, the Theban Mapping Project is well worth a look. It has enough information and resources to keep researchers and students busy but is presented in such a way that even those with no knowledge of archeology or ancient history can enjoy. If you’d like to visit the website, you can use the link at the beginning of this post or click HERE.

Want to read more about History? Check out these articles:

Ben Franklins’ Glass Armonica

Strange Inventions-Chicken Glasses

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Strange Inventions-Chicken Glasses

A chicken wearing glasses. It almost sounds like a new meme, but this particular image goes back to 1903 and Andrew Jackson Jr., who was likely not related to the much more well-known President Andrew Jackson. Mr. Jackson, of Munich Tennessee, was the first to file a patent for chicken glasses, and his basic design was used for well over 70 years in farms across the world. But why in the world did chickens need glasses?

The Inquirer
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
04 Feb 1911, Sat  •  Page 2

Chickens need glasses?

As it turns out yes, but not for the same reason as we humans need glasses. Glasses for chickens are more like safety glasses than vision correction glasses. Chickens, as it turns out, can be incredibly violent toward one another, especially in crowded conditions. They can become cannibalistic, especially when stressed. Once one chicken pecks at another and blood is drawn, it can cause a frenzy. The eyes are a particularly vulnerable spot, so in 1903 Andrew Jackson Jr filed patent 730,918 for “Eye Protector for Chickens”. These were, in essence, little protective glasses for chickens. Here’s an image from the patent filing:

These were basic glasses that simply covered the eyes and prevented pecks from damaging or ruining the chicken’s eyes. They were amazingly popular and were sold at chicken feed stores and in the Sears Roebuck catalog, proving that at one point, you could buy just about anything from a catalog. Other versions of these began to pop up, with some held on by straps, instead of a wire frame. Others used small hooks into the nostrils of the chicken, and several inhumane varieties were held on by a pin that had to piece the bone between the nostrils.

Tinted glasses also became popular. It was found that rose-colored lenses would help block out any blood spilled. If the chickens couldn’t see the blood, they couldn’t go into a frenzy. Some firms created lenses that would hang over the eyes until a chicken lowered their head. Once the checked dropped its head, the lenses swung out of the way. Then they could see the ground with no color tinting. If they raised their head, the lenses dropped, and the rose-colored glasses would help them ignore any blood.

Different Varieties

Chicken glasses, Chicken Spectacles, Anti-Pix, or any other of the many names these were called, were sold until the late 1970s. Blinders were also a popular choice, invented in 1935. Rather than protecting the eye and preventing the chicken from seeing blood, these blinders stopped the chicken from seeing directly in front of them. This stops them from being able to look straight ahead to peck at another chicken. It also helps prevent feather picking and egg eating!

CLIPPED FROM
Austin American-Statesman
Austin, Texas
03 Aug 1986, Sun  •  Page 77

While chicken glasses fell out of favor, chicken blinders remain popular to this day. They are available not only in farm stores, but also Amazon. The glasses themselves actually became quite the collector’s item! They can be sold for over $100. Not bad for a pair of chicken specs.

Want to Read More About Strange Inventions?

Check out our article on the Glass Armonica! Or, if you like horrifying history, check out the Birthing Spinner!

Ben Franklins’ Glass Armonica

Benjamin Franklin was a man of many inventions. He invented the bifocal glasses, his famous wood-burning stove, is credited with the creation of the modern library and fire department, and many others. Most of his inventions were useful and welcomed by the public. All but one.

The Glass Armonica

The Glass Armonica is a unique instrument. A number of glass bowls are mounted horizontally on an iron rod, separated by cork plugs. The musician plays the instrument by wetting his fingers, then using foot pedals to make the bowls rotate on the rod. They would then lightly touch the rims of the bowls to produce the notes.

Have you ever run your fingers over the rim of a glass of water? If so, you’ve heard the pleasing hum that it can make. The level of water in the glass will change the note produced. The Glass Armonica works the same way. In the picture below, you can see that the bowls are all different sizes- this allows them to produce different notes. When Ben Franklin first invented the Glass Armonica in 1761 it was wildly successful. By the mid-1800’s, it had almost completely vanished. So what happened?

Vince Flango, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Birth of the Glass Armonica

Ben Franklin didn’t come up with his new instrument in a vacuum. The “signing glass” artist Edward Delaval in Cambridge delighted and inspired him into creating the instrument.

Robert Pockrich, an Irish musician, invented the original “music glasses” in 1741. Pockrish would run his fingers over glasses filled with varying levels of water, covering popular songs at the time. He toured Ireland and England. The “angelic organ”, as he called it, was a popular act. Other musicians adopted the glasses and they spread across Europe.

Ben Franklin was often in Europe in the 1700s, acting as a delegate for the newly formed United States. In 1761, twenty years after the singing glasses made their debut, Franklin attended a performance by Edward Delaval in Cambridge. He fell in love with the tones of the glasses, believing them to be sweeter than any other instrument.

In London, Franklin worked with a glassblower to design the instrument. By 1762, they had completed it. There were 37 individual bowls, each marked with a color that corresponded with a note. It didn’t need to be tuned and was relatively easy to play. Ten notes could be played at once, allowing for amazing creativity with chords. This made it popular, and although it was considered a feminine instrument, composers such as Mozart and Beethoven wrote pieces using the Glass Armonica.

Producers of the instrument made about 5,000 of them before rumors, scandal, and controversy halted production.

ReservoirHill or Hugh Pickens, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Scandals

Despite the Glass Armonica’s explosive popularity, scandal quickly began to taint its reputation. Firstly, the instrument has an otherworldly tone to it. Beautiful though it is, it can create an unsettled feeling in those listening to it. In the 19th century people were highly superstitous, and these unsettled feeling would not have been ignored. Rumor had it that the instrument could be used to summon the spirits of the dead and damned. Magic could be performed through it, and players could cause their listeners to later commit suicide.

Secondly, reports started to circulate that the players of the Glass Armonica were falling ill. They would shake, faint, have panic attacks, depression, and muscle cramps. Lead was the main material used to color the bowls, and it was suspected that this may have caused the illnesses. Muscians who played the Glass Armonica may have been prone to lead poisoning, especially since lead was so prevalent in the 19th century. In 1808, Marianne Kirchgessner, a noted player of the Glass Armonica died. Rumor and gossip named the instrument as the cause of her death. Its unearthly tones and lead paint killed her, went the whispers. Understandably, people began to shy away from learning to play it.

Finally, tragedy struck during a concert. A young boy died during a concert where the Glass Armonica was played. Several of the surrounding towns immediately banned the Glass Armonica from being played. With the death of the child, the popularity of the Glass Armonica died as well. Compsitions written for the instrument were rewritten for the flute or piccolo. Few people were brave enough to learn how to play the instrument, and fewer still were brave enough to listen to it.

The Comeback

Ben Franklin never believed any of the unsubstantiated rumors about his instrument. He played until his death. Like with many of his inventions, Franklin made no money from the instrument. He filed no patent, and allowed anyone to produce a Glass Armonica if they wished.

From the 1820’s until the 1980’s, Franklin’s Glass Armonica was mostly forgotten. It was used in Star Trek as a part of Spock’s Theme, as well as in the movies The Minus Man and The Faculty. Some bands, such as the Korn, also used the Glass Armonica in some of their songs.

While it will likely never reach the height of popularity, the Glass Armonica is slowly beginning to be used again. If you are brave enough, listen to composer William Zeitler explain and play it in the video below:

Want to Read More?

Check out these articles!

Ben Franklin’s Killer Instrument: The Glass Armonica

Benjamin Franklin Invented The Worlds Most Dangerous Instrument

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN’S GLASS ARMONICA

Want to Read More from Me?

Check out:

Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters

Mansfield Bars

Horrifying History: The Birthing Spinner

30,000-Year-Old Indigenous Art Destroyed by Vandals

In Southern Australia, trespassers forcibly entered the Koonalda Cave, and destroyed irreplaceable sacred images. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the vandals dug under the gate. They etched the phrase “Don’t look now, but this is a death cave” into the soft limestone walls, destroying the indigenous art beneath.

It’s believed that this may be a planned act of vandalism. The cave is several hours from most populated areas. The site is also dark and complex.

In doing so, they destroyed some of the oldest rock art in Australia, desecrating a site sacred to the Mirning People. The Koonalda Cave is sacred to the Mirning People, where only male elders are permitted to enter. The cave is where they go to connect to their ancestors.

An example of ave art from the Manda Guéli Cave in Chad
David Stanley from Nanaimo, Canada, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Common

The Mirning People have been requesting additional security at the Koonalda cave for some time, as people have been visiting the cave without contacting the tribal elders for permission. Unfortunately, their requests have not been acted on by the Australian government.

As the damage was done in the soft limestone, it is impossible to restore. The indigenous art destroyed cannot be fixed. The vandals have not been caught but could face a $10,000 ($6,700) fine and up to six months in prison.

Unfortunately, indigenous art is being destroyed in other places as well, and not only by humans. Climate change is destroying sacred sites throughout Australia.

Australia is not the only country struggling with preservation. A US man was charged with destroying a Latinow rock carving in South Dakota. In Africa, groups are attempting to protect rock art from not only vandalism but war.

Some groups are treating ancient rock art to last longer, while other groups are focusing on protecting the sites. Other groups are taking the art most at risk and attempting to move it to museums. With any luck, these groups will succeed and the remaining art will not be lost forever.

To learn more about the damage at the Koonalda Cave, you can visit Hyperallergic’s article.

Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters

I have a truly ridiculous amount of history books on my shelf that I haven’t managed to get around to reading yet. To be fair, I also have a ridiculous amount of books. I’m told this is a common affliction and that I don’t need to worry about it being serious. However, I want to get that “not read yet” shelf down to a more manageable size. So I’m setting myself a goal- one book a month. Each month I’ll read one of my unread books and write up a review here about said book. Should be easy enough, right? Any links to the books are affiliate links, and I’ll receive a small payment for any books you purchase through the links.

Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters.

Nuclear symbol

June’s book was Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters by Serhii Plokhy. As it says right in the title, Serhii Plokhy takes a close look at six of the world’s largest nuclear disasters. Plokhy is an extraordinary author. He’s well established as a historian. Currently, he is a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, where he also serves as director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. This isn’t his first time looking at nuclear disasters either. He’s written at least two other manuscripts about nuclear history. Plokhy is one of the gifted historians who can not only research, but write his findings in such a way that the public reads and enjoys his writing. I know I thoroughly enjoyed Atoms and Ashes, and I’m certainly going to purchase more of Plokhy’s works.

The Disasters

Plokhy separates his books by diaster. There are six that are examined. They are The Castle Bravo disaster, Kyshtym, Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chornobyl, and Fukushima. Personally, I was amazed at the depth of research Plokhy was able to pack into each section. Plokhy was able to maintain this level of research even for the Soviet-era disasters. This is despite the Soviet penchant for secrecy regarding the nuclear programs.

Plokhy does a deep dive into the history of each disaster. Not just the actual event, but the history of the area, facility, personnel, etc. He touches on political, societal, cultural, and historical influences that may have contributed to the events. This does make for a long read, but Plokhy is able to tie it all together in a way that’s easy to understand and digest. He doesn’t shy away from the human element, either. In some cases, he shows exactly what the people on the scene were seeing, hearing and feeling. With the Three Mile Island section, the confusion and terror felt by those in the surrounding area were made extremely clear. In the last section, on the Fukushima disaster, you could tangibly feel the helplessness and frustration of the Prime Minister and his team, as well as the utter terror and resolve of those at the plant.

Fukushima Plant after the disaster.
Digital Globe, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Science

I’ve noticed a bit of a trend in some scientific history manuscripts where the authors shy away a bit from the science. Plokhy happily avoids this. It’s easy to tell that he has a solid grasp of nuclear mechanics. Thankfully, he also realizes that most people do not have a good grasp of nuclear mechanics. He weaves the science into the history, explaining as he goes along what went wrong and why. He compares reactor types, fuel and coolant considerations, and much more. I’ve never had a great understanding of physics and chemistry, but Plohky manages to make it easy enough that the non-science types will realize not just what happened, but how dangerous it could have been.

In the Prologue, Plokhy goes over the various measurements used to measure radiation. The one thing I would change is the measure systems Plokhy uses. He uses the measurement systems used at the time of each event, rather than standardizing the units across the book. I kept having to flip back to the Prologue to check the measurements.

The Politics

Nuclear power is fundamentally a political issue. There are those who are for nuclear power as a green solution to climate change. There are those that are against nuclear power because of the danger. Plokhy tries, and mainly succeeds in keeping his opinions and current politics to the prologue and closing. He does seem to be against nuclear power, and after reading about the various problems and events, I’m inclined to agree.

The one common thread in every disaster is the human element. In many of the disasters, the systems worked exactly as designed- but due to human error or misunderstanding, the reactions went critical. Its these human errors that are the most terrifying part of the book. The best systems in the world were unable to prevent some of the worst disasters possible. Undertraining, greed, corners cut due to budgets, and incompetent operators are perhaps the true horror Plokhy points out. Radiation is a common fear, as is the possible explosive power of a plant in the middle of a meltdown. But the human element that can never be completely erased from any scenario, is the actual terror hiding behind each of the disasters.

My Recommendation

If it isn’t clear from the abundant praise above, I highly recommend this book. I would not recommend this book for those who are sensitive to disaster scenarios or have a phobia of radiation/nuclear. This was an intense but enjoyable read. Not really beach book material, but perhaps a long weekend read.

Want a copy? Check out the book on Amazon! Link below not showing up? Click here!

Want some more Horrifying History?

Check out our article on the Birthing Spinner! Women everywhere are quite glad that this birthing technique never caught on….

Mansfield Bars

Mansfield Bars are an incredible, yet simple safety device added to tractor-trailers. I can guarantee you’ve seen them. If you’ve seen a tractor-trailer, then you’ve seen one of the most important safety innovations made to trailers. So, what is a Mansfield Bar, and what exactly makes them historical?

What is a Mansfield Bar?

Attribution:  Mike Mozart via Flickr. Red circle added by me. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/38823760262/in/photostream/

Simply put, a Mansfield bar is a large metal bar added to the back of a trailer. They’re also called underride bars or underride guards. Many have red and white paint, although I have seen them without the paint as well. While these look like a handy way to climb up into the trailer, they are actually an incredibly important safety feature.

These bars help stop cars from sliding under the trailer during a crash. If a car rear-ends a trailer without these, there is a high chance the car will be crushed under the trailer. The car will sustain much more damage. And as the bottom of the trailers are right at head height, there’s a much higher chance of dying.

The Mansfield bar catches the car before it can go under the trailer, preventing the cabin of the car from being crushed by the bottom of the trailer. In an era where rear-end accidents are on the rise due to distracted driving, these bars have likely saved hundreds of lives.

Why are they called Mansfield bars?

Before 1967, you may not have seen underride protection. Previously in 1953, the federal government mandated the use of underride guards. However, this legislation had no rules about the strength of the guards, how they were to be attached, or how much kinetic energy they had to absorb.

That began to change on June 29th, 1967. Jayne Mansfield, an up and coming actress, was quickly becoming the darling of Hollywood. She woul never get the chance to be remembered for her acting skills.

Mansfield, her lawyer, driver, and children were driving in New Orleans. It was late and dark. A semi had slowed down on US 90 in reaction to a cloud of mosquito fog. The driver didn’t see the semi, slamming the Buick into the rear of the truck. The Buick slid under the trailer, crushing the cabin. Jayne Mansfield, her lawyer, and her driver were all killed. Her children survived the crash through luck. They had been laying down, asleep, in the rear. As they were not sitting up, they were not crushed. The children were injured and rushed to the hospital. Two of her four dogs were killed as well.

The crash was described as “horrific” by witnesses. The actress was described as “decapitated” but this was refuted by later reports. In actuality, she suffered a shearing injury to her head, causing more of a partial decapitation.

Lake Charles American-Press June 29, 1967

Her death was a shock to the nation. She was being groomed as a counter to Marilyn Monroe. Her grisly death did help spur on greater safety regulations for tractor-trailers. Not long after her death were the underride guards mandated by the government. But that’s not quite the end of the story.

The Story Continues

Despite the mandate for underride guards, many of the Mansfield bars were largely worthless. They were apt to crumble when hit. This made them not nearly as effective as they should have been. They were also not that effective when part of the rear is involved. In 1998, additional rules were put in place. These involved how strong the bars must be and standardized the measurements of the guards.

The IIHS, (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) noticed this in the early 2010’s and began to push for improved safety. They recommended again strengthening the bars and designing ways to ensure the safety of car drivers in low speed crashes and in crashes where the car does not hit the rear dead on.   In 2017 the IIHS started to award the manufacturers for enhancing the safety of these bars.

Others are still not satisfied with underride safety. 2017 also saw the revival of a push for complete underride protection. This would involve side guards as well as the now-standard rear guard.

In 2021, a bill was put before Congress to require side underride guards. This is the third time such a bill was written to mandate the side under guards. The bill is still working its way toward being passed.

As someone who spends thousands of miles on the road each year, additional safety measures are very welcome. With any luck, we won’t need to wait for a celebrity to be killed before new measures are put in place.

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Horrifying History: The Birthing Spinner

Throughout history, there have been some inventions that are just plain horrifying. Some of these made it to production and were actually sold and used. Others, thankfully, never really saw the light of day. The “Birthing Spinner” is one that never went into production, and I’m sure that every woman will thank god for that.

The “Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force“, patent US3216423A, was filed in 1963 by George and Charlotte Blonsky. It was supposed to be a device to help aid in the birthing process. Instead, it seems to be more of a medieval torture device.

How It’s Supposed to Work

Blonsky’s work is based far more on physics than on actual biology. The premise is this: A woman in labor may not have enough muscle to actually give birth to the child. So to help support the mother and push the baby out of her, Blonsky turns to centrifugal force. A mother in labor is strapped to a large rotating table and a mesh net strapped to her waist. Her head would be near the center of the table. As the machine spins, the centrifugal force would place additional force on the baby in the birth canal, forcing the child out faster and with less strain on the mother. No personnel were allowed near the table while it was spinning. So the net, having been strapped in place, was supposed to catch the baby.

Once born and in the net, the weight of the baby would trigger a bell and activate a lever to stop the motion of the table.

A drawing of the invention from the patent. This does NOT look comfy. At all.

Thank God the Birthing Spinner Never was Used

This is horrifying on several layers. A woman, in labor, is supposed to be strapped down onto a table to be spun around until the baby pops out. She’s basically on her own on the table. Remember that no personnel are allowed near while the table is spinning. So there is no doctor or midwife monitoring the mother or child. Then the baby pops out, into a bag, a bell rings, and the table stops. The doctor can raise or lower the table for the “optimum angle” of birth. Personally, I’d be terrified of ever giving birth if that’s how it’s supposed to go.

At the end of the patent, Blonsky mentions that “the supplementary forces supplied by the patient are zero either because she is too weak to render any assistance at all, or has lost consciousness.”

There is one good thing about this invention. A pillow is provided for the expectant mother.

Strangely enough, George and Charlotte Blonsky never had any children. I wonder why?

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