Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pathei Mathos

I think the reason most people don't bother reading classical Greek literature is because it was all written thousands of years ago, and people probably think and act differently now than they did in those ancient stories. That's a mistaken idea about the past, though – – folks have always worried about their kids, listened to bad advice, made incredibly stupid decisions for the silliest of reasons, and suffered a lifetime of regrets.

Aesop is probably the best-known Greek writer to modern audiences. He's given us morals that spanned the gamut from "he who hesitates is lost," to "look before you leap." The take-away lessons we get from Aesop are as applicable now as they were in ancient Athens.

Aeschylus. Live 'n' Learn.
Although not as well-known as Aesop, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus also understood how bumbling and shortsighted people could be. One of Aeschylus's greatest insights into human nature comes from his play Agamemnon. Aeschylus wrote:

"A man crying triumph for Zeus
will meet with wisdom totally —
Zeus who put men on wisdom the road,
who gave 'SUFFER and LEARN' authority.
Misery from pain remembered drips;
instead of sleep before the heart;
good sense comes even to the unwilling."

Suffer and learn ("Pathei Mathos" in ancient Greek) - that seems to sum up all human knowledge. We stay on our toes and pay attention to new information when presented with agony, and the promise of more agony to come. November 28th is the anniversary of a night in Boston when many suffered, and many learned.

Not quite a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Boston in November of 1942 was a busy mix of military servicemen, civilian and civil service workers, and the usual crowd of collegiate students from the city's many universities. These varied groups shared a common interest on weekends: a chance to unwind and relax with friends in Boston's numerous bars and nightclubs.

One of the most popular destinations was the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, a sprawling collection of buildings centered around 17 Piedmont St., in the Bay Village section of Boston. Bay Village straddled the invisible line between the Back Bay and downtown Boston, attracting both the upper crust and the hoi polloi with live bands and a cheesy South Seas decor. The owner, Barney Welansky, supposedly had Mafia ties, lending an air of Prohibition-era intrigue to the goings-on,  and making The Grove that much more enticing to the young crowd it attracted.
Floor plan of the Cocoanut Grove. Click for full-size.
November 28, 1942 was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The undefeated Boston College football team had scheduled a victory party at the Grove that night in anticipation of beating the rival Holy Cross team from Worcester, but after being trounced 55 – 12, Boston College canceled its reservation. Despite the cancellation, the crush of holiday partiers filled the Grove to more than 1000 people, in rooms rated for no more than 460 people. Customers shouldered past each other on narrow stairways, navigating between the downstairs Melody Lounge dance floor and the upstairs bar and ballroom. The place was packed like a box of matches.

16 year old busboy Stanley Tomaszewski was told to tighten a Christmas light-sized bulb in one of dim booths ringing the Melody Lounge dance floor. As Stanley grabbed the bulb, it slipped out of his hands and rolled under the table. Tomaszewski struck a match under the table, spotted the bulb, and retightened it in the light socket. As he did this, customers noticed a burst of flame leap up from beneath the table and ignite the crêpe paper and satin palm fronds draped across the walls and ceilings.

Nearby waiters grabbed empty champagne buckets and seltzer bottles and threw ice water on the decorations, but the fire outraced their feeble efforts. Flames licked up the stairwells, exploding into a fireball in the upstairs ballroom. In less than five minutes, every public room of the Grove had turned into a roiling inferno of smoke and flames.
What the bar looked like after they cleared out the hundreds of dead bodies.

Human nature being what it is, customers naturally headed to the only exit they knew: the revolving door entrance on the first floor where they had arrived. Unfortunately, the mad scramble for the same door simply filled the stairwells and corridors with the bodies of patrons who had become overcome by smoke inhalation. Bodies also clogged the single revolving door, making it not only impossible for customers to escape by that route, but also for rescuers to enter and render aid. Other escape routes had been blocked by the management: Barney Welansky had ordered the side doors locked so that customers couldn't skip out on their checks. The few exit doors that were not locked opened inwards, and were soon blocked by the crush of customers frantically trying to escape.

Two blocks away, firemen were dousing a car fire when they noticed smoke pouring out of the Cocoanut Grove. They were soon joined by 26 engine companies, three rescue companies, five ladder companies, and an eventual total of 187 firemen to fight the blaze.

The carnage was horrible. As officer Elmer Brooks later told the Boston Globe, when rescuers attempted to remove bodies stacked against the revolving doors, arms and legs came off in their hands.

Weather slowed the recovery efforts. After midnight, the temperature dropped to the mid-20s. Water froze on the cobblestone streets and fire hoses became difficult to bend. The sheer numbers of dead bodies stacked in the Grove made it difficult to attend to the living. The Motor Mart parking garage on nearby Charles St. was turned into a multistory makeshift morgue, where in the following days, survivors would come to try and identify their next of kin.

Almost half the losses of Pearl Harbor, all in just 15 minutes.
Possibly one of the most fortunate aspects of the fire was that it took place during wartime. Local hospitals, expecting German air raids, were stocked with bandages, blood plasma, oxygen bottles, and saline solution. Additionally, a citywide air raid drill the week before prepared civil defense workers on how to handle large-scale catastrophes.

Despite the preparedness of the medical and fire teams, the death toll was staggering. The final number of deaths reached 492. As to the cause, there was more than enough blame to spread around. Flammable decorations passed inspection by the fire department just a week before the fire. The nightclub's lighting system had been installed by an unlicensed electrician. Locked fire doors and boarded up windows trapped hundreds in the burning building. Management packed the club with almost twice the legal capacity of the building. 400 lawsuits were filed against the owners of the Grove, yielding only about $150 for each of the survivors and their families. The only person to be convicted of a crime in the Grove fire was owner Barney Welansky, who was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison. Stricken with terminal cancer, he served only four years of the sentence. His only words to the press when he was released in 1946 were, "I wish I died with the others in that fire."

Small miracles.
What about Aeschylus's "suffer and learn" lesson? It turns out there were many lessons learned from the suffering. Both Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston City Hospital discovered new ways of treating burns and smoke inhalation. The new miracle antibiotic, penicillin, was found to be effective in preventing staph infections during this first use in a non-laboratory environment. Decreased staph infections also meant that pioneering skin graft operations would be more effective in saving lives. The use of a blood bank, Boston's first, aided in preventing shock due to loss of bodily fluids. New psychiatric treatments dealing with loss and grief were established in hospitals after the fire, becoming some of the first research into post-traumatic stress disorders.

It's been 70 years since the Cocoanut Grove fire, and little physical evidence remains of the catastrophe. The Motor Mart parking garage is still there, but not even the outline of the Grove buildings remain. A small plaque about a half block away from the site of the tragedy has been left as a memorial to those lost in the fire, but unless you're looking for it, it's difficult to notice. The more important reminders are nationwide changes in fire safety codes. Revolving doors can no longer be installed in buildings unless they are book-ended with outward opening fire doors. Exits must be clearly marked with separately powered, lighted signs. All fire doors must be unlocked during business hours.

The Boston licensing board also ruled that no restaurant in Boston could name itself "The Cocoanut Grove."

Not just an empty lot: the streets were moved and that particular area is now buried under a Radisson Hotel.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Those Magnificent Men

There's a first time for everything, and unfortunately, that includes the first time someone dies doing something new. November 17th is the anniversary of one of those sad pioneering moments.

After building and flying their first heavier-than-air vehicle in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright found themselves in a logistics pickle. In order to build more aircraft, they'd need to sell aircraft  so they would have capital to construct new planes. Unlike their bicycle-buying customers in Ohio, new aircraft customers probably had never seen a demonstration of the product the Wrights were trying to market. Since Orville and Wilbur were the only people on the planet who knew how to pilot a Wright Flyer, it was difficult, if not impossible, for the brothers to give demonstration flights across the country while trying to manufacture new aircraft.

The obvious solution was to establish an aircraft flying school, where novice pilots could learn the rudiments of operating Wright biplanes and take these new-found skills on the road, or rather, to the air. So, on March 19, 1910, Orville Wright set up an aviation camp along the banks of the Alabama River in Montgomery, Alabama. His first order of business for the school was to train 10 newly hired employees who would act as a flying exhibition team across the country.
Orville Wright (3rd from right, in pitched-back straw hat)
conducting a class at the Wright Aviation School in Montgomery.
Two of the employees at the Montgomery flight school were naturals for the aerial exhibition field. Archibald Hoxsey, a 26-year-old mechanic from central Illinois, impressed the Wright brothers so much that he was assigned a teaching job when the school opened. Hoxsey understood the nature of aircraft piloting so well, he became the first person to fly an aircraft at night. Ralph Johnstone, a 30-year-old former vaudeville trick bicycle rider, was a quick learner, too, and had a knack for acrobatic maneuvers.

Wright Exhibition Team Member Arch Hoxsey (right) explains
aeronautics to a Mr. Theodore Roosevelt in St. Louis, Oct 11, 1910.

The 10 Wright employees became instant celebrities as they toured the country in their new Wright flyers. Hundreds, even thousands of spectators would jam state fairgrounds and horse race tracks to watch the daring aviators take off, soar, swoop, dive, and land. Aviation skeptics would be converted by just a glimpse of Johnstone and Hoxsey tracing figure eights in the sky. Wright pilots  crisscrossed the country, turning the fanciful idea of flying men into a vivid, undeniable reality.
Ralph Johnstone in a Wright Flyer, demonstrating aerial reality to the crowds.

The true nature of flight became a bit too real on November 17, 1910 in Denver, Colorado. At the Overland Park golf course and aviation field, Johnstone, Hoxsey, and another Wright pilot named Brookings put on yet another typical airshow for hundreds of spectators in the airfield grandstands. After a few laps and low level passes, Hoxsey and Brookings landed, leaving Johnstone alone in the sky. Johnson began a slow spiral turn to gain altitude so that he could perform a crowd pleasing favorite: a narrow spiral dive.

Johnstone was at an altitude of only 300 feet when he began his spiral dive. With the plane tilted almost perpendicular to the ground, he swooped into a narrow circle smaller than the length of his own aircraft. Witnesses on the ground later reported that as Johnstone finished the second complete spin of his plane, one of the wing spars on the left side of the aircraft fell away, causing the upper and lower wings to fold up like a lawn chair. Ralph tried to correct by warping the right side of the wing with his foot pedal, but without any remaining aerodynamic surfaces on the port side of the aircraft, he was no longer in control of the ship. Johnstone was tossed out of his seat as the plane spiraled toward the ground, and was caught in the wire stays bracing the center part of the wing. He reached frantically toward the upper wing, trying to work it with his bare hands to regain control of the aircraft. Johnstone's actions only succeeded in causing the plane to flip upside down. Ralph slammed into the earth at an estimated 60 mph, run almost completely through by a shattered vertical strut.

All dressed up in potential souvenirs
It was difficult for police investigators and Wright engineers to piece together the cause of Johnstone's crash. Not much was left of the aircraft, not due to the crash, but due to a descending swarm of souvenir-hungry spectators, who raced from the grandstands in order to scoop up Johnstone's personal effects from the just wrecked plane. Even Johnstone's gloves had been swiped from his body by the ghoulish audience. Hoxsey and Brookings had to fight their way through the crowd to retrieve Johnstone's body, which they loaded into an automobile.

Newspapers across the country had a field day with their editorial postmortems. The San Francisco Call speculated that although Johnstone had promised there would be no stunts that day, several daring maneuvers by Hoxsey earlier in the show spurred Ralph toward more riskier acrobatics. Another theory stated that Johnstone may have been affected by the bitter cold, making it difficult to grip the control services on such a bitterly frigid day. Weeks after the accident Orville Wright concluded that Johnson lost control because he was unable to stay in his seat. Unlike today, aircraft seats were not equipped with safety belts.

Johnstone would not be the only pilot to die in service to the Wright brothers. Archibald Hoxsey, after setting a flight altitude record of 11,474 feet on December 30, 1910,  would crash his plane the following day in Los Angeles trying to beat his own record. The guilt stricken Wright brothers paid for Hoxsey's funeral. Orville and Wilbur disbanded the Wright exhibition team the following year.

Apart from his gravestone in Independence, Missouri, Ralph Johnstone doesn't seem to have any memorials erected in his name. I guess there are some firsts that people would rather not remember. RIP, Ralph.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

We had Everything in the World Drop Out

Here's a sad thought: as of 2010, more than half the country was not yet alive when America landed on the Moon. Folks my age, the people who witnessed the Apollo missions, are the exception, not the rule.

As such, the Apollo missions are a matter of remote history, consigned in popular culture to the same ranks of historic ignorance as the War of 1812 or the life of William H Taft.

Historical trivia: Tom Hanks didn't go to the Moon
with Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton.

Surveyor 3 was the first spacecraft to
purposefully dig a trench on the Moon.
That doesn't include all the spacecraft that accidentally
dug a trench on impact.
Most people have a poor understanding of the history of Apollo. Their limited knowledge is derived almost exclusively from motion pictures such as Ron Howard's Apollo 13, a movie that, while accurate in most details, left behind a general idea that the only Bad Thing that ever happened on the way to the Moon was the Apollo 13 mission. The movie also gave the impression that Apollo astronauts were merely helpless passengers on a deep space journey, constantly hoping and praying that ground crews would come up with ideas to rescue them.

In fact, NASA's astronauts were not only veteran test pilots, but skilled aeronautical engineers, capable of diagnosing complex electrical systems and flight navigation software. The mission immediately prior to Apollo 13 put these myriad skills to the test in a life or death situation, just moments after launch. And the entire near cataclysm was witnessed by no less an audience than the President of the United States, 43 years ago on November 14, 1969.

The Apollo 12 mission was designed to be the first manned lunar landing with a precise target destination in mind. Unlike Armstrong and Aldrin's goal of merely landing on the flattest part of the Moon, astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean would aim for a 300 square yard touchdown zone near the landing site of the unmanned Surveyor 3 spacecraft. The mission would test the limits of the crew's navigating and piloting skills, as well as the hardware's computing and event handling abilities.

Cmdr. Pete Conrad was arguably the best choice to lead this mission. The veteran naval aviator and test pilot had previously crewed the long-duration Gemini 5 mission, as well as the Gemini 11 Agena docking mission, a flight that briefly made Conrad and copilot Richard Gordon record holders for having traveled farthest from planet Earth. Conrad was a comedian and a prankster, but he also had a reputation for keeping a cool head and working through problems, even during the most dire emergencies. He was reliable when situations were no longer "nominal."

Don't disappoint the President.
Launch weather on the morning of Apollo 12's scheduled liftoff was hardly nominal. An advancing front had pushed a low cloud deck over Merritt Island during the evening, and set visibility conditions at the brink of flight rule acceptability. Unfortunately for NASA, politics sometimes trumped caution. President Richard Nixon, Chief Executive of the United States and holder of the Pen of Budget Appropriations Approval was in town for the launch that day, and to disappoint someone who was in charge of deciding the future of the agency would be an unwise move. So, despite the dodgy weather, the all-Navy crew was loaded into the 365-ft tall Saturn V and the countdown continued in the rain.

At T-0:00, with 7.5 million pounds of thrust, Apollo 12 thundered off the launch pad into the clouds. Just thirty seconds later, the ship would go transonic, pushing through maximum aerodynamic pressure inside the storm.
Launch commit... liftoff!
 Thirty six and one half seconds into the flight, the Something Bad part happened. Here's a transcript:

000:00:37 Gordon (onboard): What the hell was that?
000:00:38 Conrad (onboard): Huh?
000:00:39 Gordon (onboard): I lost a whole bunch of stuff; I don't know.

What happened was that a bolt of lightning seared through the clouds and the spacecraft, riding the trail of rocket vapor back to the launch pad. A second bolt of lightning repeated the journey a few seconds later.

000:00:50 Gordon (onboard): I can't see; there's something wrong.
000:00:51 Conrad (onboard): AC Bus 1 light, all the fuel cells-
000:00:56 Conrad (onboard): I just lost the platform.

Conrad was looking at a mess on his control panel. Every possible alarm signal was lit. The entire electrical system, previously being powered by fuel cells in the Apollo Service Module, seemed to be out. The navigation system (the pilots' familiar 8-ball) was spinning endlessly in a useless gimbal lock. And still the ship hadn't exploded... yet. Either the alarms were wrong or they were about to experience the first out-of-control Moonship. Conrad briefly explained the situation to Mission Control.

000:01:02 Conrad: Okay, we just lost the platform, gang. I don't know what happened here; we had everything in the world drop out.

Gordon, the Command Module Pilot, didn't think it was a hardware problem, but he wasn't sure what to do about the instrumentation problem.

000:01:09 Gordon (onboard): I can't - There's nothing I can tell is wrong, Pete.

000:01:12 Conrad: I got three fuel cell lights, an AC bus light, a fuel cell disconnect, AC bus overload 1 and 2, Main Bus A and B out.

This was no way to get to the Moon. Apollo 12 hadn't reached orbit yet - - they still were low enough to use their Launch Escape Tower and abort the mission. Conrad fingered the abort handle on the arm of his chair and pondered options.
Artist - astronaut Al Bean's interpretation of that moment.
 In the right-hand seat, Lunar Module Pilot Al Bean noodled through the dials on his side of the ship. Bean spotted a voltage indicator from the fuel cells that showed there was still energy in the system.  
000:01:21 Bean (onboard): I got AC.
000:01:22 Conrad (onboard): We got AC?
000:01:23 Bean (onboard): Yes.
000:01:24 Conrad (onboard): Maybe it's just the indicator. What do you got on the main bus?
000:01:26 Bean (onboard): Main bus is - The volt indicated is 24 volts.

Twenty four volts wasn't enough to run the mission, but it also meant that the electricity might be shorting out somewhere in the panel or in one of the circuits. The question was how to isolate the electrical problem without detonating the tons of fuel just behind them that was in the process of shoving them toward the Moon.
EECOM and veteran chain smoker John Aaron.
In Houston, a  NASA physics major named John Aaron suddenly realized this scenario was somewhat familiar. Aaron was the Electrical, Environmental and Consumables Manager (EECOM) for this flight, and he had seen a launch problem like this during a mission simulation back in 1968. The problem was that the primary equipment used to convert hardware electrical loads to power levels that could be read by the monitoring dials (known as "signal conditioning equipment") was broken. Fortunately, Apollo was equipped with backup, auxiliary equipment. Aaron knew the problems with all the different system alarms could be fixed with the flick of a switch. Aaron keyed his microphone to talk to CAPCOM Gerry Carr. "Try SCE to AUX," he said.

Astronaut CAPCOM Gerry Carr had no idea what that sentence meant. Neither did Flight Director Gerry Griffith, serving as Flight Director on his very first mission. "Tell them that," he told Carr.

000:01:36 Carr: Apollo 12, Houston. Try SCE to auxiliary. Over.
000:01:39 Conrad: Try FCE to Auxiliary. What the hell is that?
000:01:41 Conrad: NCE to auxiliary...

Carr corrected Conrad:

000:01:43 Carr: SCE, SCE to auxiliary.

Conrad also never heard that command before this mission. Fortunately, Al Bean knew what they were talking about. Bean had been part of the same simulation run that John Aaron remembered, and knew where the switch was on the many confusing panels of the Command Module. Al turned the switch, and the control panel reset itself. 

000:01:48 Bean (onboard): It looks - Everything looks good.
000:01:50 Conrad (onboard): SCE to Aux.
000:01:52 Gordon (onboard): The GDC is good.

Guidance and telemetry were back online, or rather, the astronauts were now able to see what Guidance and telemetry was trying to tell them. Conrad didn't have to pull the abort handle and stop the mission. Immediate crisis averted, they finally had time to take in what had just happened:
000:06:43 Gordon (onboard): Man, oh man ...
000:06:44 Bean (onboard): Isn't that a ...
000:06:45 Conrad (onboard): Wasn't that a Sim[ulation] they ever gave us?
000:06:46 Gordon (onboard): Jesus!
000:06:50 Conrad (onboard): [Laughter].
000:06:51 Gordon (onboard): That was something else. I never saw so many...
000:06:52 Conrad (onboard): [Laughter].
000:06:54 Gordon (onboard): ...There were so many lights up there, I couldn't even read them all.
000:06:55 Conrad (onboard): [Laughter].
000:06:57 Gordon (onboard): There was no sense reading them because there was - I was - I was looking at this; Al was looking over there ...
000:07:02 Conrad (onboard): Everything looked great [laughter] except we had all the lights on...
High-speed  launchpad cameras revealed the twin lightning strikes
that nearly wrecked the mission.

An amazing, terrifying moment that could have easily ended in failure, or tragedy. Instead, the training and skill of the crew and support staff managed to avert disaster. Oh, and they did manage to land right next to that Surveyor spacecraft just five days later.
Mission Accomplished

Me and Captain Girlfriend with
CAPCOM Gerry Carr, who later flew on Skylab 4


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Percival Lowell and the Blood Vessels of Venus

Percival Lowell, shown during the middle of the
longest unwitting eye exam in history
 Astronomer Percival Lowell died 96 years ago on November 12, 1916. Everything I've ever read about him lauds his enormous contributions to the field of astronomy, but I'm really not quite sure what those contributions were.

Lowell was a rich guy, descended from a family of rich guys who arrived in Massachusetts about 15 years behind the Mayflower. Let me just give you an idea of how rich the Lowell family was: Percival's brother Lawrence was the president of Harvard University, and his sister Amy had enough free time to become a professional poet.

Percival graduated Harvard University in 1876, with a degree in mathematics. For ten years, he traveled the Orient writing and publishing three books about the history, psychology, and culture of Japan. By 1893 he had grown bored of travel, and turned his interests to planetary astronomy.

Planetary astronomy was all the rage in the 1890s, especially terrestrial planets like Venus and Mars. Lowell was especially taken by the writings of the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who believed he viewed lines of channels or canals on Mars. Lowell believed in these canals as well, and built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to confirm these sightings.
Lowell's Martian canals, 1896.

Percival Lowell cranked out three books about Mars, each volume loaded with dozens of sketches of the elaborate Mars canal system. He interpreted the canals as a last gasp construction of the dying Mars race, built to move dwindling water supplies from the polar ice caps to the parched equatorial regions. The whole idea seems maudlin and melodramatic, but after all, this was the Victorian age.

Lowell's observations of extraterrestrial canals weren't limited to the planet Mars. He also spotted a hub and spoke system constructed on the surface of Venus. Unlike Schiaparelli's Martian canals, Lowell was the only astronomer to note such features on Venus. In fact, Lowell only spotted these features when he narrowed the objective lens of his telescope to a mere half millimeter in front of his eye.

Not astronomy - - it's anatomy.
In 2003, retired optometrist Sherman Schultz figured out what Percival Lowell was actually seeing: the objective lens was reflecting shadows of blood vessels inside Lowell's eye. The map of Venus was in reality a map of the back of Percival Lowell's eyeball. It's quite likely that the canals of Mars were also a side effect of Percival Lowell's optical blood vessels. In any case, Mariner 4 eliminated the question of canals on Mars during its flyby of the Red Planet in 1965.

So, if Lowell's observation of canals on Mars was a bust, and the structures on Venus were a delusion, did he make any contribution in the field of planetary astronomy? An argument could be made that he helped in the discovery of the dwarf planet Pluto – – except, even in that adventure he was horribly mistaken on a planetary scale. Lowell, the mathematician, found a glaring gap in the gravity equations governing the motions of planets Uranus and Neptune. To account for the discrepancy, it seemed as though there was a third, more distant planet tugging on Neptune. This mysterious "Planet X" was Lowell's focus in the final decade of his life. Hundreds of photographic plates were made at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, searching for a tiny dot in the sky to resolve the equation. The search continued long after Lowell had passed away, ending finally with the discovery by Clyde Tombaugh of the dwarf planet Pluto in 1930. Revisiting earlier photography, Tombaugh noted that Pluto had been imaged previously during Lowell's lifetime in 1916, but the tiny speck of Pluto had been overlooked.

It turns out that the entire search for Pluto had been a mathematical mistake in the first place. Spacecraft Voyager 2 confirmed that the planet Neptune was much less massive than Lowell had estimated, making the search for an additional planet unnecessary. Although the data was erroneous, Lowell's mistake set in motion the process of discovery that allowed Tombaugh to find Pluto.

Percival wasn't the only person in the Lowell household to see things that weren't there. His wife, Constance Lowell, was sued by a neighbor for "false arrest and malicious prosecution" after she claimed the neighbor had stolen twelve chickens (and a chicken coop). The neighbor was acquitted, and I can't find a record of how the civil suit turned out.
 Even though Lowell's astronomical work didn't do much to advance the science of astronomy his romantic notions of Martian canals gave birth to the science fiction stories of H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury. Bad astronomy makes for great science fiction.

Lowell's tomb is in the shape of an observatory.
John Carter would approve.

Friday, November 9, 2012

I Saw the Flags of Havoc Fly

I seem to write a lot about Bad Things in History when approaching an anniversary of a Bad Thing, so let's talk about a Really Bad Thing that happened in Boston on November 9th, 1872.

The green part is Boston, 1772.
The extra lines are filled-in Boston, 1880.
Most of Boston's geography is manufactured. Back in John Adams's time, the city (actually it was called the Town of Boston then) was a spit of land straddling two bays - - a peninsula (the Shawmut Peninsula) isolated by a salty tidal moat. To satisfy the loud demand for additional real estate, the town fathers shaved off the tops of Mount Vernon, Pemberton, and Beacon Hills and pushed all the gravel and soil into the harbor. The rearrangement of the hillsides created what's now Haymarket Square and the Atlantic Avenue harbor area.

Despite all these experiments with manufactured real estate,  building space remained at a premium. Stores and houses were pressed cheek-by-jowl in the downtown area, with buildings four and five floors tall cropping up in the densest part of town - the area closest to Atlantic Avenue. By the mid-1800's, real estate developers crammed almost three thousand new structures into the teeming city, using slap-dash methods to build the cheapest buildings as quickly as possible. Although the city government passed dozens of building codes to prevent fire and pestilence, there was no municipal inspection agency created to enforce such laws.

Adding to the city's woes, Boston's entire infrastructure was rapidly outstripped by the increasing demands for city services. A puny water distribution network, poor sewers, and understaffed volunteer fire departments made the city a health and safety time bomb. Fixes were haphazard, mostly band-aid solutions to solve immediate problems rather than implementing a structural redesign. Boston's Fire Chief, John Damrell, fought for new water mains in the densest part of the city, but was rebuffed by politicians seeking more vote-catching ways of spending city funds.

Arson was a huge problem. Insurance underwriting was in its infancy, and failing businesses could easily over-insure their properties, burn their edifices to the ground, and collect a hefty return on the ashes.

83-87 Summer St, where the fire began.
Note the steep, fire-friendly Mansard roof.

All these splintered, systemic troubles set the stage for the disaster that began on night of November 9th, 1872. Just after 7:20pm, a fire ignited in the basement of a warehouse at 83-87 Summer St. Within minutes, the flames engulfed the building and spread to nearby stores and warehouses. The fire spread across downtown rooftops due to an unfortunate combination of architecture and taxation: first, the roofs were tall wooden Mansard-style structures that acted as giant flues, lifting necessary oxygen into the flames; and second, the attics of these commercial buildings were filled with crates of hoop skirts, top hats, gloves, and linens, owing to a tax loophole where store inventories kept in attics were not taxed by the city. The necessary ingredients of heat, fuel, and oxygen made for a rapid spread of the flames through the middle of Boston's commercial district.

Other combinations of poor planning and simple bad luck made the fire uncontainable. A bout of horse flu crippled the draft livery of Boston's fire departments. Steam pump wagons were hauled through the cobblestone streets by teams of firemen, delaying any start to fighting the fire by almost an hour after the first alarm. The first alarms, by the way, were already delayed because the Boston Fire Department padlocked public fire alarms to prevent prank calls by the locals.

When the pumps were attached to the hydrants, a new difficulty arose: the ancient water mains were too narrow to provide enough water for the pumps to reach the upper floors of the downtown buildings. Although crews could soak the lower floors, the fires continued to spread through downtown Boston all evening.

Spectators clogged the streets as the fire continued to spread, blocking the efforts of the Boston firefighters. Reinforcements of firemen and equipment arrived by train throughout the night from as far away as Maine and Vermont. Unfortunately, the trains brought out-of-town spectators, too, which turned the blazing scene into an epic panorama of firefighting and looting. The out-of-state firemen discovered to their dismay that Boston's haphazard installation of hydrants made it almost impossible to find hoses that were compatible with the hydrant couplings. Connecticut pump units were parked along the harborside, unable to draw any water from Boston's mains.

1872 Boston looked like
1865 Richmond.
With the fire still beyond control of the Fire Department, residents petitioned the Mayor to take a gamble on stopping the fire with drastic measures: namely, blowing up a line of buildings on Washington St. to act as a firewall against the rest of the city.  Both the mayor and the Fire Chief objected to this course of action, suggesting that the demolitions would do little to stop the fire. Building owners tried the gunpowder approach anyway, with mixed results. Some buildings exploded to splinters and brick dust, others merely lost a few windows. Ultimately, the demolition of the buildings played no part in stopping the fire.

By the time the fire was contain the next morning, more than 65 acres of prime downtown Boston real estate had been destroyed. Seven hundred seventy six buildings were no more. The fire caused an estimated $75 million (in 1872 dollars) in loss and damages.

Thirty dead, 776 buildings gone.
Fire Chief Damrell, despite his campaign for better fire prevention policies, lost his job and was replaced by a Board of Fire Commissioners. In an ironic twist, Damrell was appointed head of the new Board of Building Inspectors.

Surveying the damage the morning after the fire, the poet (and Chief Anatomy Professor at Harvard Medical School) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was moved to write a few lines about the devastation he saw from his vantage point on Beacon Hill:

While far along the eastern sky
I saw the flags of Havoc fly,
As if his forces would assault
The sovereign of the starry vault
And hurl Him back the burning rain
That seared the cities of the plain,
I read as on a crimson page
The words of Israel's sceptred sage:--

"For riches make them wings, and they
Do as an eagle fly away."

The city rebuilt, although a few immediate changes to the downtown district. Some streets, such as Washington and federal Street, were made wider to reduce the chance of future building fires jumping intersections. Most of the replacement buildings, though, were built with few firewalls can remain pressed up against each other in the narrow streets of Boston. It would be nearly 25 years until downtown Boston was refitted with 36 inch water mains as a standard throughout the city.

Unfortunately for Boston, the city never really learned important lessons from its largest fire. More than 70 years later, Boston would suffer again from a calamitous fire, caused by both a lack of safety and a lack of foresight. But that's a story for another post.

Friday, November 2, 2012


Dom Cerulli 1927-2012
My friends Mark and Garrett's dad passed away last week, and I wanted to write about him while I had a moment. His name was Dom Cerulli and he was one of the most fascinating and clever men I've ever known.  This blog post is loosely based on a eulogy I gave on the day of Dom's funeral.

I’ve known Mark and his family since before I could drive a car. Since we both went to the same Catholic high school that served dozens of towns in Westchester and Putnam counties in NY, my folks would have to drive me to Mark’s house and pick me up later. I spent quite a few hours in the Cerulli home during high school.

Dom edited Downbeat Magazine in the 50's and 60's
I remember first going to the Cerulli home and seeing the incredible collection of commercial art on their walls - - original artwork from album covers, art from magazines, autographed photos, etc. Dom was in the advertising business, and he was also the editor of Down Beat Magazine, the premiere periodical about Jazz music in the 1950s and 1960s. All this stuff on the walls was the work of Mark’s dad, so I knew Dom by his work before I met him personally.

The third time I visited Mark’s house was when I first met Dom, and what struck me about him was how fascinated Dom was in - - well, simply everything. There wasn’t a topic where he didn’t show an interest, and he seemed to be able to relate a story to anything that came up. I asked him about some of his work on the walls of his den, and Dom would tell stories about a project, or people he knew whom he met during an ad campaign. Dom seemed to be everywhere during the 50’s and 60’s, and managed to be both a creator, and an appreciative audience for both the world of jazz, and the advertising world.

Did you like the "Cola Nuts" 7-Up commercials? That was Dom's.
Let me digress for a moment and talk about one of the most famous advertising campaigns in history. In 1917, the US Army hired James Montgomery Flagg to design a poster to inspire people to join the Army. The result was, of course, the famous picture of Uncle Sam saying  “I Want You.” The poster became one of the most famous images of the 20th Century. Keep that poster in mind for a little bit.
Probably the most famous American ad, ever.

Two-Ton Tony (right), taking on Max Baer.
Both Dom and my own father were of the same generation, and they each had their own talented friends and heroes. Dom’s friends were in the music industry, while my dad’s friends were professional boxers. One of my dad’s friends was a boxer named “Two-Ton” Tony Galento, from Brooklyn.

I only met Two-Ton Tony after he had long retired, but he gave me a piece of advice that I think about a lot at times like this. He told me, “Kid (I was nine years old at the time when he told me this), you're in school every day of your life, and every life is a lesson - - if you're smart.”  So, when I’m asked to talk about people and their lives, I try to think of what lesson can be found in a person's life.

Let’s get back to Uncle Sam and that Army poster. Back when Mark and I were in high school, Dom worked for an advertising agency that was given the task of coming up with a new campaign for the Army - - replacing a classic campaign that was an icon. This would be like putting a different smile on the Mona Lisa, or rearranging the Washington Monument. But Dom was given that task and it had to be done, and the Army had to like it when it was done. A tall order.

 Back in 1917, when James Montgomery Flagg painted the portrait of Uncle Sam, he used his own face as the model for the guy on the poster. So when you’re looking at Uncle Sam, you’re actually looking at James Montgomery Flagg, the artist himself.

I think that’s the same thing that happened when Dom came up with the motto for the Army's new ad campaign. He found that model within himself, and gave us all the new phrase: “Be All You Can Be.”  So, I think that’s Tony Galento’s life lesson from Dom Cerulli: “Be All You Can Be.”

Rest in Peace, Dom.


She only flew once, sixty-five years ago today, and she never flew higher than her own height. The man who built her was a maniac, and the man who first conceived of her knew almost nothing about aircraft. Both men hated the nickname the press pinned on her. Yet today, she's one of the most famous airplanes in the world.
"What do you know? The damned thing *will* fly!"

The State of Play in 1942

Germany had Britain on the ropes at the beginning of 1942. Although the United States had been shipping lend-lease equipment to the U.K. for several years, Atlantic-cruising Nazi U-boats sank dozens of cargo ships full of armaments, with little effective interference from Allied surface ships. Without manufactured goods and raw material delivered successfully across the Atlantic, the island nation of Great Britain would lose by attrition.

Henry Kaiser, livin' on the edge.
One American industrialist who understood the stakes was Henry Kaiser, a ship builder and engineering contractor who owned a shipyard in Richmond, California. Kaiser held the British contract on building Liberty ships - - a Blighty-designed series of welded-frame cargo vessels able to be assembled from keel-laying to freight-ready in a matter of a few weeks. The Liberty ships were a prime target of the U-boats, and Kaiser wanted to build some kind of craft that couldn't be touched by Nazi torpedoes.

The simplest method, Kaiser thought, would be to pick the ships up, out of the water, and fly the things straight to England. Could someone build wings and propellers big enough to make one of his ships fly? He proposed this scheme to one of the few men  in America smart enough and crazy enough to think the idea was plausible.


Howard Hughes was a Texas maniac. Orphaned in his teens, he inherited his father's hugely successful oil drill bit company. The sudden millionaire Howard dropped out of the engineering program at Rice University, got married, and moved to California to get into the movie business.
He produced multi-million dollar motion pictures, divorced his wife, and spent most of the 1930's dating top box-office actresses.

Nutty Howard and his beloved H-1 Racer.
None of those events has anything to do with Kaiser's flying boat plans -- except that Howard had a short attention span. Besides his dabbling in his dad's oil business, and the movie making, and the actress-chasing, Howard Hughes had a monumental fascination with aviation. In 1932, Howard created a new division of the Hughes Tool Company in Culver City, California. The new division, Hughes Aircraft, would build experimental monoplanes and pioneer high-performance aircraft engines. Howard would do most of the flight testing himself, buzzing through the sky in prototype aircraft such as his H-1 Racer. The H-1 would set and break several transcontinental speed records with Hughes in the cockpit, and influence the design of most fighter planes of WWII.

Pardon my dust: Howard lands his plane a little too much in Beverly Hills.
Hughes didn't quite "get" the idea that risking the CEO's life in experimental planes was not a good thing to do. He felt that, as President of his company, he had every right to stress the latest equipment and see what parts would break off during flight. Howard obsessively kept this flight test role through several spectacular experimental plane crashes throughout WWII and beyond, including a fantastic smasheroo in the middle of a Beverly Hills neighborhood, when a prop on a prototype twin engine fighter decided to reverse direction in mid-air. Despite some horrible damage to Mr. Hughes's skull, he continued to test the planes his company built.

Kaiser met with Hughes in late 1942, explaining his idea for a "flying boat." The winged ship would need to be able to carry 750 troops from New York to London without landing. Hughes sketched out a gigantic craft, with eight engines and a 320' wingspan.

The War Department greenlit development for the ship, now named "Hercules," but refused to release rationed aluminum to build the craft. Without the availability of lightweight metals, Hughes turned to the old aviation standby, wood. Birch plywood, coated with phenolic resin, would be laid and bent over huge frames to form the outlines of the ship. When the frame was completed, the outer surface was covered with starched canvas and painted. Despite being the largest plane ever built, Hercules would use the same structural materials as the Wright Brothers' first aircraft. The press had a field day, nicknaming the plane "The Spruce Goose" and "The Flying Lumberyard."

Howard Hughes became obsessed in making Hercules the world's greatest aircraft. Redesigns and construction changes pushed delivery of the aircraft past the end of World War II. The Army no longer needed such an aircraft, and a post-war Congress wanted to know why money was being wasted on the project. Hughes was aghast: could Senators not understand the important breakthroughs in aviation made by the very construction of the Hercules? During a break in a Senate investigation about war-profiteering, Hughes left DC to return to his completed ship.

Beach Balls

Senate testimony? I'll give you "testimony."
On November 2nd, 1947, Howard Hughes put the Hercules in the waters of Long Beach Harbor, and began a series of taxi tests with a flight crew of 22, plus seven invited journalists and seven CEOs from the aviation industry. To ensure that the Hercules wouldn't sink with such an elite passenger list on board, the development crew stuffed dozens of inflated beach balls into the tail section, in case anything leaked while the ship began its tests on the water. Hughes wheeled the ship out to the harbor, fired up all eight engines, and taxied twice back to the Long Beach hangar. After dropping off most of the guests, Howard pointed the nose of the Hercules toward the Pacific, and began another taxiing run. This time, he throttled the engines up to 117 knots, and eased the wheel back.
Zoom. Whoosh. Mission Accomplished.

 The Hercules lifted off the water and rose to an altitude of 70 feet, just nine feet shy of its own structural height. Hughes kept the ship above the waves for about a mile, and then landed back in the harbor. The aircraft worked, and that was good enough for Mr. Hughes. The ship returned to its hangar, and would never take to the air again.


Hughes kept Hercules in its Long Beach hangar - the largest climate-controlled building at the time of its construction - for the rest of his life. A staff of 300 kept the ship prepped and ready to fly until 1962. As Hughes's mental issues became more serious later in his life, his company reduced the Hercules staff to a mere 50 workers, who maintained the equipment until Hughes's death in 1976.

The Hughes Aircraft Company sold the Hercules in 1980 to a museum organization that peddled a tour of the Hercules with the retired cruise ship Queen Mary that was parked nearby in Long Beach Harbor. In 1988, the museum company managed to sell the thing to Disney, who tried for years to come up with a way to make money off the dinosaur plane. Disney gave up and handed the plane back to the museum organization. The museum organization didn't want the ship anymore, and scrambled to find it a new home.
Well, THAT was a mistake.
 In McMinnville, Oregon, the Evergreen International Aviation company was building an aviation museum next to its world headquarters. Would it be possible, they asked, to acquire the Hercules as a centerpiece for their museum? Of course, replied the California museum group. The only problem was: how can one deliver the world's largest aircraft to a museum in the woods of Oregon?

One amazing proposal: fly the ship to Oregon. Since the engines and frame had been maintained in flight-ready condition, it didn't seem like much of a stretch to clean up the motors, fill up the tanks, and zip up the coast to the mouth of the Columbia River. From there, it would only be another 100 miles or so to fly over the treetops and land at Evergreen's industrial airport in the woods. Insurance issues nixed that idea: nobody would underwrite a trip that could cause the loss of one of the rarest aircraft on the planet. Plus: who knew how to fly the thing? The flight crew was mostly dead or in their 90s, and the original staff of 16 engineers (two for each engine) spoke volumes about the reliability level (or lack thereof) with the Hercules.
The more-boring, but safer, option.

Instead of the flight, Evergreen paid for technicians to disassemble the Hercules into several luggable pieces. The parts were loaded on barges and trucks, and driven or floated to Oregon. There, the ship was reassembled and stands in the Evergreen Aviation Museum's Exhibit Hall today.

Me, a Sopwith Camel, and the only Spruce Goose in the World - - McMinville, Oregon.
What happened to Henry Kaiser? He got out of the ship building businesses (both boats and airplanes) and bought an aluminum company (Kaiser Aluminum). Kaiser also bought into a home construction business, building many post-war neighborhoods that dot the suburbs of America to this day. Kaiser's ship building company, before Henry divested it from his portfolio, was a pioneer in health care benefits for its employees. Their health insurance department expanded into the company's cement manufacturing site in Permanente Creek, California. Kaiser's wife liked the name of the area so much, the company named the hospital it helped build the Permanente Hospital. Eventually, the health insurance section would spin off into its own company, becoming the ancestor of what's now Kaiser-Permanente.

Yep. Those guys.