April 30, 2013
In 1937, Walter Reuther and his United Autoworkers Union had brought General Motors and Chrysler to their knees by staging massive sit-down strikes in pursuit of higher pay, shorter hours and other improvements in workers’ lives. But when Reuther and the UAW set their sights on the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, Henry Ford made it clear that he’d never give in to the union.
On the morning of May 26, 1937, Detroit News photographer James “Scotty” Kilpatrick was among a crowd waiting for the shift change at River Rouge, which employed 90,000 workers. About 2 p.m. that May 26, Reuther arrived at the Miller Road Overpass at Gate 4 with an entourage of clergymen, representatives from the Senate Committee on Civil Liberties and dozens of women from UAW Local 174, where Reuther was president. The woman wore green berets and carried leaflets reading, “Unionism, not Fordism,” which they intended to hand out to departing workers. At the direction of “Scotty” Kilpatrick, Reuther posed for photographs with UAW organizational director Richard Frankensteen and a few other organizers atop the overpass—public property—with the Ford Motor Company sign in the background.
Then Harry Bennett showed up with his entourage. Bennett, one of Henry Ford’s right-hand men, led the notorious Ford Service Department, a private police force composed of ex-convicts, ex-athletes, ex-cops and gang members.
“You will have to get off here,” one of Bennett’s men told the unionists.
“We’re not doing anything,” Reuther replied.
Like that, what would become infamous as the Battle of the Overpass was on. Forty of Bennett’s men charged the union organizers. Kilpatrick called out a warning, but the security men pounced, beating the union leaders while reporters and clergy looked on. Kilpatrick and the other photographers began snapping away. Reporters accompanying them took notes on what they were seeing.
Reuther was kicked, stomped, lifted into the air, thrown to the ground repeatedly, and tossed down two flights of stairs. Frankensteen, a 30-year-old, hulking former football player, go it worse because he tried to fight back. Bennett’s men swarmed him, pulled his jacket over his head and beat him senseless.
“It was the worst licking I’ve ever taken,” he later told reporters. “They bounced us down the concrete steps of an overpass we had climbed. Then they would knock us down, stand us up, and knock us down again.” Another union leader was tossed off the overpass; his fall 30 feet to the pavement below broke his back. The security men even roughed up some of the women.
The battle, such as it was, ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. But then there was the matter of witnesses—especially the journalists on the scene. Some of Bennett’s security men began to tear notebooks from reporters’ hands. Others went after the photographers, confiscating film and smashing cameras to the ground. They chased one fleeing photographer for five miles, until he ducked into a police station for safety.
Scotty Kilpatrick fled, too—and made it to his car in just enough time to hide the glass-plate negatives from his Speed Graphic under the back seat. When some Bennett men stopped him and demanded that he surrender his negatives, he handed them unexposed plates.
Once Reuther, Frankensteen and witnesses began to tell reporters what they had seen in front of the Ford plant, Harry Bennett issued a statement. “The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials,” it said. “They feel, with or without justification, the [Senator] La Follette Civil Liberties Committee sympathizes with their aims and they simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality that they could take down to Washington and flaunt before the senatorial committee.
“I know definitely no Ford service men or plant police were involved in any way in the fight,” Bennett continued. “As a matter of fact, the service men had issued instructions the union people could come and distribute their pamphlets at the gates so long as they didn’t interfere with employees at work.” The unionists, he said, “were beaten by regular Ford employees who were on their way to work on the afternoon shift. The union men called them scabs and cursed and taunted them.”
Dearborn Police later said the Ford Service Department was “defending public property.”
Meanwhile, Scotty Kilpatrick developed his negatives, and other photographers, after the event, captured on film the injuries to the bloodied Reuther and Frankensteen. “If Mr. Ford thinks this will stop us, he’s got another thing coming,” Frankensteen said. “We’ll go back there with enough men to lick him at his own game.”
Reuther was more composed: “Before the UAW gets through with Harry Bennett and Ford’s Service Department, Dearborn will be a part of the United States and the workers will be able to enjoy their constitutional rights.”
Bennett did his best to put his version into news accounts of the Battle of the Overpass, but once Kilpatrick’s photographs were published, it was obvious that the beatings were far more violent than Bennett had described. And they showed Ford security men surrounding and beating UAW men and grabbing UAW women. In all, 16 unionists were injured in the attack, including seven women. Reuther was pictured bloodied and with a swollen skull, and Frankensteen was even worse—his face cut and his shirt torn and bloodstained. Kilpatrick’s photographs quickly turned public opinion toward the notion that the Ford Service Department was a gang of hired thugs.
In a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board in 1937, the Ford Motor Company was called to defend itself from charges that the company was engaging in unfair labor practices in violation of the 1935 Wagner Act, which prohibited employers from interfering with workers’ efforts to organize into unions. During the hearing, Ford workers testified that if their superiors suspected them of showing interest in the UAW, Ford Service Department men would pull them from the assembly lines and escort them to the gate as they were fired on the spot, often without explanation.
The publicity from the Battle of the Overpass and the ensuing labor-board hearing proved to be too much for Henry Ford. He had tried to raise his workers’ pay soon after the incident in Dearborn, but his efforts came too late, and ultimately, like Detroit’s other automotive giants, he had no choice but to sign a contract with the UAW.
The power of Scotty Kilpatrick’s photographs eventually vaulted Walter Reuther into national prominence as a labor leader and prompted the administrators of the Pulitzer Prizes to institute an award for photography. The first Pulitzer for photography would be awarded to Milton Brooks of the Detroit News in 1942—for his image of UAW strikers savagely beating a strikebreaker.
“Union Acts to Prosecute Ford in Beating of Two Organizers,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1937. “C.I.O. Leaders Slugged, Driven Off in Attempt to Spread Handbills,” Washington Post, May 27, 1937. “Ford Men Beat and Rout Lewis Union Organizers,” New York Times, May 27, 1937. “The Battle of the Overpass, at 75,” by Bryce Hoffman, The Detroit News, May 24, 2012. “Ford Motor Company Chronology,” The Henry Ford, http://www.hfmgv.org/exhibits/fmc/battle.asp
Books: Nelson Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, Basic Books, 1995.
November 29, 2012
The redistribution of wealth, it seems safe to say, is vital to the smooth operation of any functioning economy. Historians can point to plenty of examples of the disasters that follow whenever some privileged elite decides to seal itself off from the hoi-polloi and pull up the ladder that its members used to clamber to the top of the money tree. And while there always will be argument as to how that redistribution should occur (whether compulsorily, via high taxation and a state safety net, or voluntarily, via the hotly debated “trickle-down effect”), it can be acknowledged that whenever large quantities of surplus loot have been accumulated, the sniff of wealth tends to create fascinating history—and produce some remarkable characters as well.
Take William Crockford, who began his career as a London fishmonger and ended it, half a century later, as perhaps the wealthiest self-made man in England. Crockford managed this feat thanks to one extraordinary talent—an unmatched skill for gambling—and one simple piece of good fortune: to be alive early in the 19th century, when peace had returned to Europe after four decades of war and a generation of bored young aristocrats, who a few years earlier would have been gainfully employed in fighting Napoleon, found themselves with far too much time on their hands.
The result was a craze for heavy gambling that ran throughout the notoriously dissolute Regency period (c.1815-1838). The craze made Crockford rich and bankrupted a generation of the British aristocracy; at the height of his success, around 1830, the former fishmonger was worth the equivalent of perhaps $160 million today, and practically every cent of it had come straight from the pockets of the aristocrats whom “Crocky” had lured into the luxurious gambling hell that he had built on London’s fashionable St. James’s Street. So successful was Crockford at his self-appointed task of relieving his victims of their family fortunes that there are, even today, eminent British families that have never properly recovered from their ancestors’ encounters with him.
November 21, 2012
President Barack Obama pardoned his fourth turkey today, in what many believe is a Thanksgiving tradition dating back to 1947, when President Harry Truman, standing outside the White House, was presented with a holiday bird by the National Turkey Federation. But there’s no evidence that Truman did anything different from his successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, who, with his family, consumed all eight birds the NTF presented them.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy became the first president to see the word “pardon” used with reference to a Thanksgiving turkey, but he did not officially spare a bird in a pre-Thanksgiving ceremony in the Rose Garden. Kennedy simply announced that he would not eat the bird, and newspapers reported that the president had “pardoned” the gobbler given to him by the California Turkey Advisory Board. Just days before that year’s Thanksgiving, he was assassinated in Dallas.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word “pardon” in connection with a Thanksgiving turkey, in 1987, in response to media queries about whether he might pardon Lt. Col. Oliver North or any of the other figures involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Reagan joked that if that year’s turkey had not already been destined for a petting farm, “I would have pardoned him.”
In fact, it was President George H.W. Bush who began the tradition, in 1989. “Not this guy,” Bush said when a holiday turkey was presented. “He’s been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.”
Bush pardoned a turkey in each remaining year of his presidency, as has every president since. However, the earliest known sparing of a holiday bird can be traced to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was presented with a Christmas turkey destined for the dinner table and his young, precocious son Tad intervened.
Thomas “Tad” Lincoln was just 8 years old when he arrived in Washington, D.C., to live at the White House after his father was sworn into office in March 1861. The youngest of four sons born to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Tad was born after Edward “Eddie” Lincoln died in the winter of 1850 at the age of 11, most likely of tuberculosis. Both Tad and his brother William “Willie” Lincoln were believed to have contracted typhoid fever in Washington, and while Tad recovered, Willie succumbed in February of 1862. He was 11.
With the eldest Lincoln son, Robert, away at Harvard College, young Tad became the only child living at in the White House, and by all accounts, the boy was indomitable—charismatic and full of life at a time when his family, and the nation, were experiencing tremendous grief. Born with a cleft palate that gave him a lisp and dental impairments that made it almost impossible for him to eat solid food, Tad was easily distracted, full of energy, highly emotional and, unlike his father and brother, none too focused on academics.
“He had a very bad opinion of books and no opinion of discipline,” wrote John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary. Both Lincoln parents, Hay observed, seemed to be content to let Tad “have a good time.” Devastated by the loss of Willie, and both proud and relieved by Robert’s fastidious efforts at Harvard, the first couple gave their rambunctious young son free rein at the executive mansion. The boy was known to have sprayed dignitaries with fire hoses, burst into cabinet meetings, tried to sell some of the first couple’s clothing at a “yard sale” on the White House lawn, and marched White House servants around the grounds like infantry.
On one occasion, a politician leaving the White House told a companion he had “just had an interview with the tyrant of the White House,” then made it clear he was referring to Tad.
Tad took it upon himself to raise money for the United States Sanitary Commission—the Civil War equivalent of the Red Cross—by charging White House guests a nickel to be introduced to his father, the president, in his office. Lincoln tolerated his son’s daily interruptions until he learned what the boy was up to, and then quickly put an end to Tad’s charity work. But the boy still saw commercial opportunity in the countless visitors to the White House, and it wasn’t long before he had set up a food vendor’s stand in the lobby, selling beef jerky and fruit for those waiting for an audience with his father. The profits, of course, were marked for the boy’s favorite relief organization.
The Lincolns allowed Tad to keep two ponies in the White House stables, which he would ride while wearing a military uniform, and when the Lincolns were given two goats, Nanko and Nannie, Tad caused quite the stir by hitching them to a chair and driving them, as if on a sled, through a crowded reception in the East Room hosted by the First Lady.
The boy also spent a great of time listening to the tales of White House visitors who would come to meet his father, and if Tad found the stories particularly moving (one woman’s husband was in prison, her children hungry and cold), he would insist that his father snap into immediate action. Lincoln, unwilling to disappoint him, agreed to free one such prisoner, and when Tad returned to the woman with the good news of a promised release, the two “openly wept” with joy together.
Thanksgiving was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1863, after Abraham Lincoln’s presidential proclamation, which set the date as the last Thursday in November. Because of the Civil War, however, the Confederate States of America refused to recognize Lincoln’s authority, and Thanksgiving wouldn’t be celebrated nationally until years after the war.
It was, however, in late 1863, when the Lincolns received a live turkey for the family to feast on at Christmas. Tad, ever fond of animals, quickly adopted the bird as a pet, naming him Jack and teaching him to follow behind as he hiked around the White House grounds. On Christmas Eve, Lincoln told his son that the pet would no longer be a pet. “Jack was sent here to be killed and eaten for this very Christmas,” he told Tad, who answered, “I can’t help it. He’s a good turkey, and I don’t want him killed.” The boy argued that the bird had every right to live, and as always, the president gave in to his son, writing a reprieve for the turkey on a card and handing it to Tad.
The boy kept Jack for another year, and on election day in 1864, Abraham Lincoln spotted the bird among soldiers who were lining up to vote. Lincoln playfully asked his son if the turkey would be voting too, and Tad answered, “O, no; he isn’t of age yet.”
On the night, five months later, when the president and first lady went to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater, 12-year-old Tad was taken by his tutor to see Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp nearby. Just minutes into the children’s show, a theater official burst down the aisle, shouting that the president had been shot. The stunned silence was soon broken by the sobs of a young boy pining for his father. “They’ve killed him,” Tad cried. “They’ve killed him.”
The boy was taken back to the White House and did not see his father again until Lincoln’s embalmed body was displayed in an East Room ceremony, attended by General Ulysses S. Grant and the new president, Andrew Johnson.
“Pa is dead,” Tad told a nurse. “I can hardly believe that I shall never see him again… I am only Tad Lincoln now, little Tad, like other little boys. I am not a president’s son now. I won’t have many presents anymore. Well, I will try and be a good boy, and will hope to go someday to Pa and brother Willie, in heaven.”
Mary Todd Lincoln moved with him to Chicago, where boarding schools tried to make up for his practical illiteracy. The two traveled to Germany, where Tad attended a school in Frankfurt. On a trip back to the United States in 1871, he became severely ill, most likely with tuberculosis, and never recovered. He was just 18. Tad Lincoln, the “tyrant” of the White House and tireless advocate for turkey rights, was buried in Springfield, Illinois, beside his father and two brothers.
Articles: “What Was Tad Lincoln’s Speech Problem?” by John M. Hutchinson, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol., 30, No. 1 (Winter 2009), University of Illinois Press. “Tad Lincoln: The Not-so-Famous Son of A Most-Famous President,” By R.J. Brown, HistoryBuff.com, http://www.historybuff.com/library/reftad.html “The Death of Willie Lincoln,” Abraham Lincoln Online, http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/education/williedeath.htm “Tyrant Tad: The Boy in the White House,” Ten Boys From History by K.D. Sweetser, http://www.heritage-history.com/www/heritage-books.php?Dir=books&author=sweetser&book=tenboys&story=tyrant “Tad Lincoln,” Lincoln Bicentennial 1809-2009, http://www.abrahamlincoln200.org/lincolns-life/lincolns-family/tad-lincoln/default.aspx “Pets,” Mr. Lincoln’s White House, The Lincoln Institute, http://www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/content_inside.asp?ID=82&subjectID=1 “Young Tad Lincoln Saved the Life of Jack, the White House Turkey!” by Roger Norton, Abraham Lincoln Research Site, http://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln65.html
Books: Doug Wead, All the Presidents Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families, Atria, 2003. Julia Taft and Mary Decradico, Tad Lincoln’s Father, Bison Books, 2001.
October 18, 2012
When Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner leaped from a capsule some 24 miles above earth on October 14, 2012, millions watched on television and the internet as he broke the sound barrier in a free fall that lasted ten minutes. But in the anticipation of Baumgartner’s jump (and his safe parachute landing), there was little room to marvel at the massive balloon that took him to the stratosphere.
More than 200 years ago in France, the vision of a human ascending the sky beneath a giant balloon produced what one magazine at the time described as “a spectacle the like of which was never shewn since the world began.” Early manned flights in the late 18th century led to “balloonomania” throughout Europe, as more than 100,000 spectators would gather in fields and city rooftops to witness the pioneers of human flight. And much of the talk turned to the French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard.
Known for being nervous on the ground but fearless in the air, Blanchard is believed to be the first female professional balloonist. She became a favorite of both Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis XVIII, who bestowed upon her official aeronaut appointments. Her solo flights at festivals and celebrations were spectacular but also perilous, and in the summer of 1819, she become the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident.
She was born Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant in Trois-Canons in 1778, not long before the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne began experimenting with balloons made from sackcloth and taffeta and lifted by heated air from fires in a box below. As the Montgolfiers’ balloons became larger and larger, the brothers began to consider manned flight. Louis XVI took an interest and proposed sending two criminals into the sky to test the contraption, but the brothers chose instead to place a sheep, a duck and a rooster on board for the first balloon flight to hold living creatures. In a 1783 demonstration before the King and Marie Antoinette and a crowd at the royal palace in Versailles, the Montgolfier brothers saw their craft ascend 1,500 into the air. Less than ten minutes later, the three animals landed safely.
Just months later, when Etienne Montgolfier became the first human rise into the skies, on a tethered balloon, and not long after, Pilatre de Rozier and French marquis Francois Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes made the first human free flight before Louis XVI, U.S. envoy Benjamin Franklin and more than 100,000 other spectators.
Balloonomania had begun, and the development of gas balloons, made possible by the discovery of hydrogen by British scientist Henry Cavendish in 1766, quickly supplanted hot-air balloons, since they could fly higher and further. More and more pioneers were drawn to new feats in ballooning, but not everyone was thrilled: Terrified peasants in the English countryside tore a descending balloon to pieces.
A child of this pioneering era, Sophie Armant married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a middle-aged inventor who had made his first balloon flight in Paris when she was just five years old. (The date of their marriage is unclear.) In January 1785, Blanchard and John Jeffries, an American doctor, became the first men to fly over the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon, flying from England to France. (Pilatre de Rozier, trying to cross the channel from France to England later that year, became the first known aviation fatality after his balloon deflated at 1,500 feet.)
Jean-Pierre Blanchard began to tour Europe. At demonstrations where he charged for admission, he showed off his silk balloons, dropped parachute-equipped dogs and launched fireworks from above. “All the World gives their shilling to see it,” one newspaper reported, citing crowds affected with “balloon madness” and “aeriel phrenzy.” Spectators were drawn to launches with unique balloons shaped like Pegasus and Nymp, and they thrilled to see men risk their lives in flights where fires often sent balloons plummeting back to earth.
“It may have been precisely [their] lack of efficiency that made the balloon such an appropriate symbol of human longings and hopes,” historian Stephan Oettermann noted. “Hot-air balloons and the gas balloons that succeeded them soon after belong not so much to the history of aviation as to the still-to-be-written account of middle class dreams.”
Furniture and ceramics at the time were decorated with images of balloons. European women’s clothing featured puffy sleeves and rounded skirts. Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s coiffed hair became all the rage among the fashionable. On a trip to the United States in 1793 he conducted the first balloon flight in North America, ascending over Philadelphia before the likes of George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
But not everything Blanchard did succeeded. He escaped a mid-air malfunction by cutting his car from his balloon and using the latter as a parachute. He falsely marketed himself as the inventor of the balloon and the parachute. He established the “Balloon and Parachute Aerostatic Academy” in 1785, but it quickly failed. John Jeffries, Blanchard’s English Channel crossing partner and chief financier, later claimed that Blanchard tried to keep him from boarding the balloon by wearing weighted girdles and claiming the balloon could carry only him.
Facing ruin, Blanchard (who had abandoned his first wife and their four children to pursue his ballooning dreams) persuaded his new wife to ride with him, believing that a flying female might be a novel enough idea to bring back the paying crowds.
Tiny, nervous, and described by one writer as having “sharp bird-like features,” Sophie Blanchard was believed to be terrified of riding in horse-drawn carriages. Yet once in a balloon, she found flight to be a “sensation incomparable,” and not long after she and her husband began ascents together, she made her first solo ascent in 1805, becoming the first woman to pilot her own balloon.
The Blanchards made a go of it until 1809—when Jean-Pierre, standing beside Sophie in a basket tethered to a balloon flying over the Hague, had a heart attack and fell to his death. Crippled by her husband’s debts, she continued to fly, slowly paying off creditors and accentuating her shows with fireworks that she launched from the sky. She became a favorite of Napoleon’s, who chose her the “aeronaut of the official festivals.” She made an ascent to celebrate his 1810 wedding to Marie Louise.
Napoleon also appointed her chief air minster of ballooning, and she worked on plans for an aerial invasion of England by French troops in balloons—something she later deemed impossible. When the French monarchy was restored four years later, King Louis XVIII named her “official aeronaut of the restoration.”
She had made long-distance trips in Italy, crossed the Alps and generally did everything her husband had hoped to do himself. She paid off his debts and made a reputation for herself. She seemed to accept, even amplify, the risks of her career. She preferred to fly at night and stay out until dawn, sometimes sleeping in her balloon. She once passed out and nearly froze at altitude above Turin after ascending to avoid a hailstorm. She nearly drowned after dropping into a swamp in Naples. Despite warnings of extreme danger, she set off pyrotechnics beneath her hydrogen balloon.
Finally, at the age of 41, Sophie Blanchard made her last flight.
On the evening of July 6, 1819, a crowd gathered for a fete at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. Sophie Blanchard, now 41 but described as the “still young, sprightly, and amiable” aeronaut, rose from the lawn to a flourish of music and flare of fireworks. Despite the misgivings of others, she had planned to do her “Bengal Fire” demonstration, a slow-burning pyrotechnics display. As she mounted her balloon she said, “Allons, ce sera pour la derniere fois” (“Let’s go, this will be for the last time”).
In an elaborate white dress and matching hat accessorized with an ostrich plume, Blanchard, carrying a torch, began her ascent. Winds immediately carried her away from the gardens. From above, she lit fireworks and dropped them by parachute; Bengal lights hung from beneath her balloon. Suddenly there was a flash and popping from the skies; flames shot up from the top of the balloon.
“Beautiful! Beautiful! Vive Madame Blanchard,” shouted someone in the crowd. The balloon began to descend; it was on fire. “It lighted up Paris like some immense moving beacon,” read one account.
Blanchard prepared for landing as the balloon made a slow descent, back over the gardens along the Rue de Provence. She cut loose ballast to further slow the fall, and it looked as though she might make it safely to the ground. Then the basket hit the roof of a house and Blanchard tipped out, tumbling along the roof and onto the street, where, according to a newspaper account, “she was picked up dead.”
While all Europe mourned the death of Sophie Blanchard, some cautioned, predictably, that a balloon was no place for a woman. She was buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, beneath a tombstone representing her balloon in flames, with the epitaph Victime de son Art et de son Intrepidite (Victim of her art and intrepidity).
Articles: “The ‘Balloonomania’: Science and Spectacle in 1780s England,” by Paul Keen, Eighteenth Century Studies, Summer 2006, 39, 4. “Consumerism and the Rise of Balloons in Europe at the End of the Eighteenth Century,” by Michael R. Lynn, Science in Context, Cambridge University Press, 2008. “Madame Blanchard, the Aeronaut,” Scientific American Supplement #195, September 27, 1879. “Sophie Blanchard—First Woman Balloon Pilot,” Historic Wings, July 6, 2012, http://fly.historicwings.com/2012/07/sophie-blanchard-first-woman-balloon-pilot/ “How Man Has Learned to Fly,” The Washington Post, October 10, 1909.
Books: Paul Keen, Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
August 15, 2012
The summer of 2012 will be remembered as a time when people around the world were caught up in events in the skies above Mars, where the rover Curiosity eventually touched down onto the red planet. Fifty years ago this summer there were strange doings in the skies above earth as well. In July 1962, eight airplanes, including five commercial flights, plummeted to the ground in separate crashes that killed hundreds. In a ninth incident that month, a vulture smashed through the cockpit window of an Indian Airlines cargo plane, killing the co-pilot. Higher in the atmosphere, cameras mounted in U-2 spy planes soaring above the Carribean captured images of Soviet ships that, unbeknownst to the U.S. at the time, were carrying missiles to Cuba.
In gray skies over Cape Cod, a 20-year-old telephone operator named Lois Ann Frotten decided to join her new fiancé in a celebratory jump from an airplane at 2,500 feet. It was her first attempt at skydiving. While her fiancé landed safely, Frotten’s chute got tangled and failed to open fully. She tumbled end over end and landed feet-first in Mystic Lake with a terrific splash—and survived the half-mile free fall with a cut nose and two small cracked vertebrae. “I’ll never jump again,” she told rescuers as she was pulled from the lake.
But of all the things happening in the skies that summer, nothing would be quite as spectacular, surreal and frightening as the military project code-named Starfish Prime. Just five days after Americans across the country witnessed traditional Fourth of July fireworks displays, the Atomic Energy Commission created the greatest man-made light show in history when it launched a thermonuclear warhead on the nose of a Thor rocket, creating a suborbital nuclear detonation 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean.
In the fifty minutes that followed, witnesses from Hawaii to New Zealand were treated to a carnival of color as the sky was illuminated in magnificent rainbow stripes and an artificial aurora borealis. With a yield of 1.45 megatons, the hydrogen bomb was approximately 100 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima 17 years before. Yet scientists underestimated the effects of the bomb and the resulting radiation.
Knowledge of radiation in space was still fragmentary and new. It was only four years before that James A. Van Allen, a University of Iowa physicist who had been experimenting with Geiger counters on satellites, claimed to have discovered that the planet was encircled by a “deadly band of X-rays,” and that radiation from the sun “hit the satellites so rapidly and furiously” that the devices jammed. Van Allen announced his findings on May 1, 1958, at a joint meeting of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society, and the following day, the Chicago Tribune bannered the headline, “Radiation Belt Dims Hope of Space Travel.” The story continued: “Death, lurking in a belt of unexpectedly heavy radiation about 700 miles above the earth, today dimmed man’s dreamed of conquering outer space.”
News of the “hot band of peril” immediately cast doubt on whether Laika, the Russian dog, would have been able to survive for a week in space aboard Sputnik II, as the Soviets claimed, in November of 1957. (The Soviets said that after six days, the dog’s oxygen ran out and she was euthanized with poisoned food. It was later learned that Laika, the first live animal to be launched into space, died just hours after the launch from overheating and stress, when a malfunction in the capsule caused the temperature to rise.)
What Van Allen had discovered were the bands of high-energy particles that were held in place by strong magnetic fields, and soon known as the Van Allen Belts. A year later, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine as he opened an entirely new field of research—magnetospheric physics—and catapulted the United States into the race to space with the Soviet Union.
On the same day Van Allen held his press conference in May 1958, he agreed to cooperate with the U.S. military on a top-secret project. The plan: to send atomic bombs into space in an attempt to blow up the Van Allen Belts, or to at least disrupt them with a massive blast of nuclear energy.
At the height of the Cold War, the thinking may have been, as the science historian James Fleming said recently, that “if we don’t do it, the Russians will.” In fact, over the next few years, both the United States and the Soviet Union tested atomic bombs in space, with little or no disruption in the Van Allen Belts. Fleming suspects that the U.S. military may have theorized that the Van Allen belts could be used to attack the enemy. But in July 1962, the United States was ready to test a far more powerful nuclear bomb in space
The first Starfish Prime launch, on June 20, 1962, at Johnston Island in the Pacific, had to be aborted when the Thor launch vehicle failed and the missile began to break apart. The nuclear warhead was destroyed mid-flight, and radioactive contamination rained back down on the island.
Despite protests from Tokyo to London to Moscow citing “the world’s violent opposition” to the July 9 test, the Honolulu Advertiser carried no ominous portent with its headline, “N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling; Good View Likely,” and hotels in Hawaii held rooftop parties.
The mood on the other side of the planet was somewhat darker. In London, England, 300 British citizens demonstrated outside the United States Embassy, chanting “No More Tests!” and scuffling with police. Canon L. John Collins of St. Paul’s Cathedral called the test “an evil thing,” and said those responsible were “stupid fools.” Izvestia, the Soviet newspaper, carried the headline, “Crime of American Atom-mongers: United States Carries Out Nuclear Explosion in Space.”
Soviet film director Sergei Yutkevich told the paper, “We know with whom we are dealing: yet we hoped, until the last moment, that the conscience, if not the wisdom, of the American atom-mongers would hear the angry voices of millions and millions of ordinary people of the earth, the voices of mothers and scientists of their own country.” (Just eight months before, the Soviets tested the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated—a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb—on an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean in the north of Russia.)
Just after 11 p.m. Honolulu time on July 9, the 1.45-megaton hydrogen bomb was detonated thirteen minutes after launch. Almost immediately, an electromagnetic pulse knocked out electrical service in Hawaii, nearly 1,000 miles away. Telephone service was disrupted, streetlights were down and burglar alarms were set off by a pulse that was much larger than scientists expected.
Suddenly, the sky above the Pacific was illuminated by bright auroral phenomena. “For three minutes after the blast,” one reporter in Honolulu wrote, “the moon was centered in a sky partly blood-red and partly pink. Clouds appeared as dark silhouettes against the lighted sky.” Another witness said, “A brilliant white flash burned through the clouds rapidly changing to an expanding green ball of irradiance extending into the clear sky above the overcast.” Others as far away as the Fiji Islands—2,000 miles from Johnston Island—described the light show as “breathtaking.”
In Maui, a woman observed auroral lights that lasted a half hour in “a steady display, not pulsating or flickering, taking the shape of a gigantic V and shading from yellow at the start to dull red, then to icy blue and finally to white.”
“To our great surprise and dismay, it developed that Starfish added significantly to the electrons in the Van Allen belts,” Atomic Energy Commission Glenn Seaborg wrote in his memoirs. “This result contravened all our predictions.”
More than half a dozen satellites had been victimized by radiation from the blast. Telstar, the AT&T communications satellite launched one day after Starfish, relayed telephone calls, faxes and television signals until its transistors were damaged by Starfish radiation. (The Soviets tested their own high-altitude thermonuclear device in October 1962, which further damaged Telstar’s transistors and rendered it useless.)
Both the Soviets and the United States conducted their last high-altitude nuclear explosions on November 1, 1962. It was also the same day the Soviets began dismantling their missiles in Cuba. Realizing that the two nations had come close to a nuclear war, and prompted by the results of Starfish Prime and continuing atomic tests by the Soviets, President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on July 25, 1963, banning atmospheric and exoatmospheric nuclear testing. And while the U.S. and the Soviet Union would continue their race to space at full throttle, for the time being, the treaty significantly slowed the arms race between the two superpowers.
Books: James Clay Moltz, The Politics of Space Security: Strategic Restraint and the Pursuit of National Interests, Stanford University Press, 2008. Rosemary B. Mariner and G. Kurt Piehler, The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives, The University of Tennessee Press, 2009.
Articles: “H-Blast Seen 4000 Miles, Triggers Russian Outcry,” Boston Globe, July 10, 1962. “Britons Protest Outside Embassy,” New York Times, July 10, 1962. “Pacific Sky Glows After Space Blast,” Hartford Courant, July 10, 1962. “Blackouts Last Only About Hour,” New York Times, July 10, 1962. “How Not to Test in Space” by Michael Krepon, The Stimson Center, November 7, 2011, http://www.stimson.org/summaries/how-not-to-test-in-space-/ “A Very Scary Light Show: Exploding H-Bombs in Space” Krulwich Wonders, NPR, All Things Considered, July 1, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128170775 “9 July 1962 ‘Starfish Prime’, Outer Space” The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty-Organization Preparatory Commission, http://www.ctbto.org/specials/infamous-anniversaries/9-july-1962starfish-prime-outer-space/ “Nuclear Test Ban Treaty” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty.aspx