“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Strange, magical things were afoot in Boston, Massachusetts on September 2nd 1859. It is 9.30 am at the telegraph office on 31 State Street and the air is positively electric – quite literally electric. Telegraph operators fired up the machine that morning. It immediately began firing sparks at them. Operators from across the USA similarly dodged electrocution by telegram. Some telegraphs did set fire to nearby objects. Urban legend has it several operators got electrical shocks and burns – though no academic sources I’ve read have ever back up this claim. If no-one was seriously injured though, it would have been a miracle. At 31 State Street they simply unhooked the batteries. To everyone’s shock and astonishment, the telegraphs kept running as if possessed regardless. A telegraph station in Portland, Maine had the same idea, and shared their disbelief with State Street.
That night people stared up at the sky in wonder. That, in the dead of night it was bright enough to read a newspaper is one thing. The Aurora Borealis – the northern lights normally only ever seen at far north latitudes – could be seen in the tropics. As far afield as Cuba and Hawaii people took in the light show. On the same night the Aurora Australis, the southern lights, were on display as far north as Santiago, Chile. The following day the New York times reported
“With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this colour were most abundant to the North East and North West of the zenith… There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid”
You may wonder what on earth could cause such a thing. Some at the time attributed it to the divine. Others guessed at scientific causes including volcanoes all over the planet expelling massive amounts of gas all at once and a meteor shower turning to a pink mush when it struck our atmosphere. While many of the day’s greatest scientists spitballed questionable ad hoc theories, an amateur astronomer in Surrey named Richard Christopher Carrington had a pretty fair inkling what caused the phenomenon.
On the 28th August 1859 Carrington was staring up at the sun, 150 million kilometres from the Earth. The son of liquor barons, Carrington had trained in astronomy, and secured work in the field – but left, finding the role too restrictive. For five years he had studied the universe privately – in that time becoming particularly interested in solar flares. Why wouldn’t one be interested in solar flares? They are explosions of energy 1,000 times more powerful, on average, than an atomic bomb. Carrington observed several solar flares over the following days, till a particularly large one cut loose on September 1st. This caused the Coronal Mass ejection.
One should never stare directly into the sun, but were you to look at a photo of the star, the Corona is a huge ring of plasma surrounding it. This is the halo you see in a solar eclipse. It is super-heated matter (usually a basic gas like hydrogen, nitrogen or oxygen) that has become so hot it has split from it’s electrons, becoming an ionised gas. Occasionally, when a solar flare is powerful enough, it ejects a wave of plasma out into the wilds of space, followed by a powerful wave of electro-magnetic energy.
Of course Earth is a tiny spheroid, a long long way from the sun. The odds of getting hit by a coronal mass ejection are extremely low – but this wave – now known as the Carrington event, did hurtle towards us. Capable of moving at staggering speeds, The Carrington Event cleared the 150 million kilometers in a little over 17 hours. The experts of the day, Lord Kelvin included, dismissed Carrington’s explanation as preposterous. Over time scientists unravelled enough, especially around the sun and radiation to prove Carrington’s theory correct.
(Sidebar:Kelvin had no clue radiation was even a thing for most of his career, leading to such gaffes as his theory the Earth was between 20 and 100 million years old based on his comparisons of the estimated temperature of the Earth’s core vs the cooling of a cup of tea. That unstable elements break down till they eventually stabilise into lead, giving off vast levels of energy in the meantime, was a game-changer)
The Carrington event would be the most powerful of it’s kind – scientific measurements of nitrogen levels in ice show, at least in the last 500 years, the solar storm of 1859 was twice as powerful as the next most powerful CME to hit the earth.
This all begs the question, what happens if Earth is hit with a Carrington event part two? Sure it would make for some beautiful scenery. A lesser CME appears to have hit Earth in 774 AD, and though little surviving appears written about it, The Anglo Saxon Chronicles mention a ’burning cross in the sky’ at night. It was as good a reason as any for the people of Northumbria to depose their unpopular king, Alhred. There were strange lights in the sky across Europe, January 25- 26 1938. Some Roman Catholics took this as confirmation the second ’secret’ given to three young girls in Fatima, Portugal was coming true.
(Another Sidebar: We’ll have to cover ‘Our Lady of Fatima’ at some point, but suffice to say in October 1917 thousands of people in Fatima looked into the skies one day and claim to have seen something like a blockbuster movie play out across the heavens. Three young girls in attendance, who had been filling the minds of locals with stories of visitations of angels for months before ‘the miracle of the sun’ claimed angels had left them three secrets. The second secret was a second world war would happen if people didn’t stop offending God. In January 1938 one did not need a gallery of angels to predict WW2.)
Writers the world over recorded ’fire in the sky’ at night for up to three days in March 1582, in yet another solar storm. This particular one is thought to have cleared some degree of space junk out of the way between Earth and the Sun, making subsequent CMEs all the more stunning.
Of course before there was an abundance of electronic technology, a coronal mass ejection was pretty much a beautiful light show. The levels of radiation it brought were considerable, but under Earth’s atmosphere not life threatening (outside of the Earth this could be another story – A 1989 solar storm hit cosmonauts in the Mir space station, hitting them with a year’s maximum intake of solar radiation in a couple of hours.) What the Carrington Event pointed to, with the telegraph lines – played out again in Solar storms of 1872, 1882, 1903 and 1909, to name but a few – is CMEs damage electrical infrastructure. The New York Railroad Storm of May 1921 started fires in Telegraph stations, damaged phone lines and undersea cables. Electricity in peoples’ houses becoming more of a thing, many New Yorkers experienced blackouts as their fuses blew.
The 1989 storm took this up a notch, taking out The entire power grid in Quebec, Canada for nine hours. More worryingly, a smaller solar storm on May 23 1967 took out US spy satellites monitoring the Northern Hemisphere. The purpose of these satellites was to pick up rockets launched from the USSR. An attack on these satellites alone would be considered a declaration of war. While scientists tried to work out just what the hell happened, the world briefly edged towards nuclear annihilation.
But one doesn’t even need to think of nuclear war to be concerned about the possibility of Carrington Event part two. Over the years we have built massive amounts of inter-connected infrastructure which is dependent on both power and electronics. From records to monetary systems, traffic lights to communication systems. All aspects of our lives, even the personal stuff – photos and music saved in digital code to the cloud – and especially electricity – it is all vulnerable to attack from a CME
In a 2011 National Geographic article, Daniel Baker of The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics estimated if The Carrington Event hit the USA alone in 2011, it would cause 2 Trillion dollars of damage. Of course an event that large would affect most of the world. We have only become more reliant on vulnerable technologies since 2011 too. One only has to think of recent disasters, the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, closer to my home – the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011 – these all took years to rebuild from – multiple trillions of dollars worth of damage to infrastructure across the globe would cause catastrophic effects that could take generations to recover from.
One final thing. In 2012, that apocalyptic Mayan year some people held their breath cause the Mayan calendar came to an end – That year was scarier than many of us imagine. In 2012 the Earth only narrowly avoided being hit by another CME, this one nearly as big as the solar storm of 1859.
Originally posted 19th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Tweaked heavily 2022 for a ’From the Vaults’ episode of the podcast.
Hey all, I had something completely new in the works for both the blog and podcast this week… owing to a few things happening in my day job (a pending corporate acquisition had me messing with my CV the other night. It had been years since I’d last dusted that particular file off) I chose to run with a ’From the Vaults’ podcast episode instead. So, this week, for you the readers, I’ve prepared a short bio of one of Denmark’s more interesting characters – and no it isn’t Lars Ulrich
One thing I can fairly confidently say in all my time on Earth; I may have gotten into a number of fights for dumb reasons, but I have never been in a duel with my cousin over mathematics. For one, my cousin Dave works with complex datasets for a living, so if he says I have the math wrong – I have the math wrong. For another, what kind of madman gets into a sword fight over maths anyway?
Well, Tycho Brahe got into a sword fight over math with his cousin. It pales in comparison to many other Tales commonly told of the man.
The eldest son of the mayor of Helsingborg, a young Tycho was abducted by his wealthy, eccentric uncle Jorgen. After a childhood spent living in a castle, uncle Jorgen sent him off to the University of Copenhagen to study law. Tycho observed a total eclipse of the Sun in 1560, and fell in love with Astronomy instead. He proved to be a prodigious astronomer. Early in his career he picked up Copernicus’ and Ptolemy’s astrological charts were grossly inaccurate, while observing movements between Saturn and Jupiter. While he himself would be one of the first astronomers to measure events to the second, both lots of charts were often days out. He made it his life’s goal to fix their errors. In 1566, aged 20, Tycho was touring Europe’s universities as a guest lecturer. On 10 December 1566 he was in Rostock, Saxony when he had his first quarrel with his third cousin – Manderup Parsberg. A quarrel over the nature of numbers quickly escalated, and the cousins nearly came to blows.
The scene played out again on 27 December. The young men agreed to duel it out under the stars in a graveyard two days later. Brandishing swords the two nobles faced off against one another. Parsberg got the better of Brahe, leaving a deep gash in his forehead – and destroying the bridge of his nose.
In an age before much which could be called plastic surgery, the astronomer spent the rest of his life gluing a prosthetic nose to his face every morning. Legend claimed his fake nose was made of gold and silver, though people now believe it was made of brass. The cousins would make amends. Parsberg became an ambassador to Scotland, playing a part in the return of Orkney to the Scots. On Brahe’s death, his obituaries branded Parsberg ‘the man who cut off Tycho Brahe’s nose’ – overshadowing the cousin’s diplomatic work. This made Parsberg furious.
I could write of the time in 1572 when Tycho discovered a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia. That a star could blow up so dramatically flew in the face of Aristotle’s theory that ‘celestial spheres’ rotated eternally at a fixed rate. This was a big deal – especially given he slightly preceded Galileo (who narrowly avoided a death sentence for insisting the sun rather than Earth, was the centre of our galaxy). He was also roughly contemporary with Giordano Bruno, a monk and scientist who ran afoul of the Vatican. Bruno was stripped naked, tied upside down to a stake and then set aflame in a public square – for (among other things) insisting the Milky Way is one of countless galaxies in the universe – and that many of these galaxies would have planets which sustained life. Aristotelean theory, you see, was upheld as seriously as biblical theory by the church. Looking critically into the sky at night could brand you a heretic.
Luckily for Tycho, he had a patron and protector. A year prior to the supernova he approached King Frederick II of Denmark to fund an observatory. Frederick not only funded the observatory, he gave Tycho the isle of Hven, near Copenhagen, to build it on.
Brahe laboured away, inventing new instruments to unravel the mysteries of the universe – one presumes by day. When night set in he parsed the heavens with these instruments, assisted in his work by his sister. If I knew more about maths I could explain his many discoveries – and might be capable of winning a maths duel – I can’t. I can say he fixed many of Copernicus’ errors, and discovered several comets. His work would influence others like Johannes Kepler and help destroy many of the bad Aristotelian theories the Catholic Church insisted were sacrosanct.
Oh, and I should probably mention now, cause I have no idea how else to shoehorn this in –
as a youngster living in uncle Jorgen’s castle, Tycho had a pet moose.
Some people state the animal was an elk, but all agree the animal was big, friendly and handsome, with impressive antlers. It followed young Tycho around just like a puppy. The moose was something of a dipsomaniac – being especially fond of local beer – and was regularly drunk. One night the poor animal was three sheets to the wind, and trying to negotiate a grand staircase. It lost it’s footing and took a tumble. Tycho’s beloved childhood friend had to be put down.
Back to Hven and the observatory. In 1588 King Frederick II died, leaving his eleven year old son king in name only. For a while the true power behind the throne was one Christoffer Valkendorff. You may remember Christoffer as the cheapskate who under-equipped the fleet carrying Anne of Denmark to her husband, King James VI of Scotland in 1589. His cutting of corners was thought a contributing factor to Anne’s fleet nearly sinking in rough seas. Valkendorff avoided punishment by blaming a coven of witches for the near disaster. This in turn kicked off a witch hunting craze in Scotland, and later England which saw thousands of people executed. Where Frederick saw Brahe as a scientist, Valkendorff saw him as a dangerous heretic.
He’d only just published a book on his comets. His book on the supernova was close to completion. Brahe was a rising star in the academic world. At home, however, he was increasingly isolated. The crown wanted nothing more to do with him. Factions within the church plotted to strip the nobleman of his estates (Uncle Jorgen had by then died leading a naval battle against Sweden, leaving Tycho his title and fortune). More worryingly, locals worried he was practicing witchcraft on the island and began sharpening their pitch forks in preparation for a lynching. With calls to try him for heresy increasing, and an angry mob actually showing up at a house of his in Copenhagen, Tycho packed up his worldly possessions and left for the continent in 1597. He stayed with friends, and continued to examine the sky – and by 1599 had come under the patronage of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. He settled in Prague, Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) and worked with people like Johannes Kepler to increase our understanding of the universe.
I needs must mention his passing, it has become part of the legend of the man. On 13 October 1601, Tycho attended a royal banquet. He came down with a mystery illness that night, and died thirteen days later. One theory on his death was he had been poisoned, either by Kepler (who wanted to keep Brahe’s expensive sky measuring equipment – or by King Christian IV of Denmark. The boy king was now in his early 20s, and bore great animosity towards Tycho, as he believed the astronomer had carried on an affair with his mother before his father’s passing. Subsequent exhumations have disproved the poison hypothesis.
Kepler himself offers a clue. During the proceedings Tycho desperately needed to relieve himself, but dared not duck out to use the rest rooms in case if offended the Emperor. He held on till the night’s end, then found he could not relieve himself, no matter how hard he tried. It’s generally believed he died of infection following a burst bladder.
In his final days he penned his own epitaph “He lived like a sage and died like a fool”. Though true I guess, I, for one, believe his life was one far too colourful, eccentric, groundbreaking and downright surreal to encapsulate him thus.
Aurora is a small town in Wise country, in the North of Texas. The county came into being in the 1830s, following an armed standoff between 150 Native Americans and 18 cowboys. The latter, though outnumbered, won and planted a stake in the ground – owing to their superior technology. They brought guns to what the natives thought was a bow and arrow fight. In the wake of the Mexican- American war – 1846-48 – many more people arrived in Aurora, looking for a better life. In 1853 a new technology invaded Texas as the first of the railroad companies arrived. The Iron Horse promised to bring the world to the Lone Star state and vice versa – but for a variety of reasons, less than 500 miles of track was laid on the often inhospitable ground by the time the Civil war broke out in 1861.
The Robber Barons took another shot at it in the 1880s, and rogues like Jay Gould built thousands of miles of track. They did so through all manner of devious and underhanded means – some of which would seem very familiar to those 18 aforementioned gunslingers, and continued to fight, bribe and steal their way through Texas till reined in, in 1891 by the newly elected Governor of Texas, James Hogg.
Aurora, built on the modern wonder of the gun, never enjoyed the favour of the locomotive. Once full of promise, it became a backwater – abandoned by railway barons and politicians alike. It was a sleepy town, in rapid decline, where nothing unusual ever happened… This was at least until April 17th 1897.
In the early hours of Saturday April 17 1897, a strange object streaked across the sky. Off kilter, it hurtled wildly over the town till it collided with a deafening thud into Judge J.S. Proctor’s windmill. Both the craft and the judge’s mill were obliterated. Shocked locals rushed to the scene to find debris strewn the length of the judge’s property. Two days later, a Wise county resident named S.E. Haydon reported the incident in the Dallas Morning News. An otherworldly airship crashed in Aurora over the weekend. When locals investigated, they found metallic wreckage which looked like nothing they’d ever seen before. Amidst the wreckage, the body of the pilot. He too looked like no one they’d ever seen on Earth. The townsfolk, after careful consideration decided the pilot must have come from Mars.
Struck with compassion for the pilot – wherever he was from he was reckoned to be one of God’s children after all – the locals gave the alien a ‘Christian burial’. The rites performed by one William Russell Taybor – a travelling preacher on his way through the town. The alien was buried in Aurora cemetery, with a simple gravestone to mark the spot.
The wreckage of the craft, according to one officer T.J. Weems from Fort Worth, was gathered up, then deposited down a well which once stood in the shadow of the mill. Half a century before the Roswell Incident, it appears the US military were far less interested in hoarding and examining ‘alien’ technology.
Some strange things happened decades after. In 1935 a Mr Brawley Oates bought the Proctor residence. Oates saw a well full of debris as a waste of resources and dug all the junk out. Not long after he was diagnosed with particularly bad arthritis. He presumed the wreckage had poisoned the water, which in turn gave him the rheumatism. Oates had the well refilled, then put a concrete cap put over it – then an outhouse on top of the cap.
The thing which didn’t happen as some hoped was a sudden uptake of rubberneckers travelling out to Aurora to the site of the crash. Such traffic would surely have brought the railway in their direction. For a while the incident even fell off of the public consciousness.
The whole incident was revealed to be a hoax in 1980. Time magazine interviewed an 86 year old local named Etta Pegues. She revealed Haydon wrote the article hoping to bring tourists to the dying town. There was no alien spacecraft. Judge Proctor didn’t even have a windmill on his land. Descriptions of the well were questionable also, as people started telling the story again in 1947 (in the wake of Roswell) The type of well described was of their own time, invented in 1945.
Since then, of course, many UFOlogists have argued to the contrary. Several media organisations have reported the incident, lending it credence. The FOX affiliated station KDFW ran a report in 1998 stating locals claimed something crashed there – but never went all in on if it was an alien craft. In 2005 the TV show UFO Files covered a 1973 investigation by UFOlogists, who claimed they found evidence metallic debris was buried with the pilot via metal detector- but were barred from digging up the pilot. They returned later to resume their work but their metal detectors could no longer pick up the debris. Somebody also removed the headstone at some time in the 1970s. It was alleged to have had an UFO-like etching on it. What a shame this happened in the 1970s when cameras were yet to be invented. Yeah, the 1973 investigation sounds a little slapdash.
The TV show UFO Hunters broadcast a show in 2008. Tim Oates, Brawley’s grandson, allowed the show to remove the capstone to the well. They didn’t find any UFO debris, but did find high concentrations of aluminium in the water. Again, the cemetery refused to let the UFO hunters exhume the remains of the alleged pilot.
Though the Aurora space ship was an oddity, featuring a visitor from Mars, the latter half of the 1890s was rife with tales of mystery objects in the skies. Thousands of sightings in fact. Most were in fact taken for the work of intrepid, formerly Earth-bound inventors pushing beyond the constraints of science and technology.
Just on dusk on November 17th 1896 dozens of people in Sacramento, California complained of a large light in the sky flying over them. On investigation, the light was coming from a large cigar-shaped object ambling through the dark. Eagle-eyed witnesses claimed the object had men aboard, and that the craft appeared to be controlled by propellers and a rudder. Some claimed to hear men chattering on the deck of the craft, or singing. “We ought to get to San Francisco by tomorrow afternoon” one man told another within earshot of the ground, as the craft chugged along against the prevailing winds. This was corroborated by another witness, who shouted up at them asking where they were going. “San Francisco – we should be there by midnight” the men replied. The craft, or one much like it, was next seen in Oakland, California on November 21st, this time by passengers on a cable car.
The sightings were reported in several newspapers, and soon enough thousands of people claimed to have seen the airship all across California. Scientists explained both Mars and Venus appeared bigger than usual at the time – this could explain the sightings. Sober, responsible men, like a Mr Brown – a hunter from just North-west of San Francisco came forward to tell how, on the especially misty morning of November 1st this flying craft half scared him to death while he was out in the woods. He said nothing, of course at the time because people would think him mad, but now everyone was seeing it what was the harm in sharing his story? Grifters of course set up in public spaces with telescopes, offering the public a chance to scan the clouds for a few coins. The craft was spotted again November 25th, around San Francisco, and December 3rd around Vallejo, California.
At one point a San Francisco lawyer named George Collins came forward with a tale of having met an inventor while on business in Washington. The two men kept in touch, and regularly met. One day, just before the sightings began, the inventor confided in Collins he’d secretly built an air ship – 150 feet long and capable of moving at 80 miles per hour. It was powered by compressed air. Collins refused to give the name of his friend. This didn’t stop the press from locating a 47 year old dentist and inventor named E.H. Benjamin. Benjamin stated he knew Collins well and was an inventor, but he made dental products. Benjamin was so hounded by the press he packed up in the middle of the night, and glided out to God knows where, just like a Phantom Airship himself.
Soon after this incident former Attorney General for California, William Harrison Hart came forth claiming he now handled the legal affairs of the mystery inventor – and a second airship builder across the country in New Jersey. He stated he was trying to convince the inventors to produce the ships to Cuban revolutionaries fighting to depose Spain in Cuba. This, in his view, was where the money was – not in public transport. Hart would remain an oft quoted figure by the papers.
By New Years 1897 however, the Phantom Airship, or ships? had disappeared from California.
In February 1897 they reappeared twelve hundred miles east, first in Kansas, then Nebraska. Late at night, well into the early mornings the airship was spotted by railway operators as it appeared to navigate Eastwards from the railway lines. Reports did come in, however, from places like Harrison, Nebraska – where the craft hovered over the courthouse for 30 minutes, to the shock of all assembled. By April 1897 it reached Illinois, afterwards disappearing into the night from whence they came.
So, as far as we can tell what was happening in the skies in 1896-7?
First I should point out these airships were not terribly far removed from reality, but the couple of steps needed to take these craft from science fiction to science fact had been tantalisingly out of reach for a few decades.
The Montgolfier brothers’ proved conclusively in 1783 that human flight via balloon was achievable. Having first sent up farm animals in 1782, then quibbled about sending up a criminal they thought the world could lose if it went wrong – Etienne Montgolfier made the first manned balloon flight just hours before a competitor named Rosier made the second. For a while, there was a flurry of activity around the hot air balloon. Jean Baptiste Meusnier presented blueprints to the Royal Academy in Paris for a steerable dirigible the same year. A little over a year from the Montgolfier’s first flight, in January 1785, Jean- Pierre Blanchard flew a balloon from the UK across the English Channel to France – a distance of around 21 miles. This could have gone wrong on so many levels – balloons were still flimsy. The wind still decided the balloon’s path.
By the middle of the 19th Century inventors were still struggling with steerability. In 1851 an Australian inventor named William Bland proposed a dirigible capable of travelling from Sydney, Australia to London England in a week. He never got funding for his craft, which almost certainly would have killed it’s pilot. In 1852 Henri Giffard made a hydrogen-filled dirigible powered by a steam engine. It was vaguely steerable, and could carry passengers. In one test it flew the 16 miles between Paris and Elancourt.
A doctor, inventor, and three time mayor of Perth, Amboy, New Jersey named Solomon Andrews built a partially steerable craft named the Aereon in 1863. He offered to sell the craft to Union side in the American Civil war, but they saw no use for it. Of course they did have a team of seven balloonists headed by Thaddeus Lowe, carrying out aerial reconnaissance in conventional hot air balloons but that is a story for another day. Andrews was unlikely to be William H. Hart’s other inventor, having died 25 years earlier.
The first reliable steering system was invented in 1872 by an engineer named Paul Heinlein. There were still a myriad of other obstacles however, from building an airship of sturdy enough material to more likely than not survive a long flight, and a propulsion system which could last more than a few miles at a time. It was not impossible for an inventor to have solved all these problems – but was improbable given all the known inventors had hit the limits of then current technology in the 1870s. Of course Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont was only a few years away from making something vaguely like the mystery airship in 1897- but even his N series of airships were a long way from these purported dirigibles.
So, if presumably the Phantom Airship was not the invention of a 47 year old inventor, who possibly filled and filed teeth by day – and if it was highly improbable the craft even existed – what started off, then fed into the phenomenon?
The likelihood of war with Spain likely planted the seed. The Cuban war of Independence, the latest of several attempts stretching back to 1868 by Cubans, to rid themselves of the Spanish was well underway. American sentiment was with the Cubans, and they did enter the war in 1898, after a ship – the USS Maine – blew up in their waters. It turned out the explosion was due to a furnace overheating below deck but this was not discovered till after the USA had accused Spain of planting a bomb on the ship, and invaded. In early 1896 however, talking heads in national newspapers were discussing the possibility of making airships to hover over Havana – and bomb the living daylights out of the Spanish. I do have a Tale I’m choosing to keep in my back pocket for now explaining why this wasn’t completely without precedent – but of course aircraft would become weapons of war in 1912 when Italy used them in their invasion of Libya. Germany would later borrow the talking head’s idea verbatim in World War One, bombing the streets of London from Zeppelins in 1915.
What fed the sightings was a war of another kind entirely.
In 1883 Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant who arrived in the USA to fight for the Union in the Civil War – who later turned railroad vagrant, waiter, newspaper reporter then politician – bought the New York World newspaper. Pulitzer’s vision for the paper, from the get-go was to dominate the media. His method? to heavily augment everyday news items with sensationalist tales of sex, crime, scandal and horror. Much of his content was real, such as Nellie Bly’s expose of Blackwood Asylum – but the man was never afraid of letting the truth get in the way of a good story.
In the meanwhile William Randolph Hearst, a San Franciscan born to a wealthy mining engineer and Senator who owned goldmines, inherited his father’s estate upon his death in 1891. One of his father’s businesses – a newspaper called The San Francisco Examiner. As Pulitzer’s readership expanded due to the level of what became known as ‘yellow journalism’ (a phrase coined, it is believed because the big sensationalist papers ran a cartoon called The Yellow Kid) – Hearst decided to follow suit. When he bought The New York Morning Journal in 1895, the battle lines were drawn. War was declared between the World and the Journal and no story – no matter how outlandish – was off limits. These were hardly the first hoax stories to appear in print – The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 immediately comes to mind – a series of six articles published in the New York Sun claiming the astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered a thriving civilisation on the moon – full of Bat-Men, bisons, tailless beavers and unicorns.
But this was an escalation of fake news not seen before.
Of course tales of phantom airships probably did little harm, perhaps beyond making fools of a number of witnesses. Yellow journalism could do harm. When the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbour Feb 15th 1898, Hearst’s newspapers particularly were onto the story, stoking public anger without any evidence the ship had been bombed. “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain” became the rallying cry that led the USA, first into Cuba (the subsequent history there more than a little troublesome) then onwards to the Philippines – where the USA proceeded to throw Spain out – then cause the deaths of at least 200,000 Filipinos during their occupation.
Yellow journalism died back a little in the wake of the Spanish- American war – though obviously we would see ‘fake news’ pop up in other ways. That is a tale for another day.
Warning! This week’s tale deals with death by misadventure, which some readers may find disturbing.
Today’s tale is set on a freezing cold morning, 57 metres above the ground, in Paris, France. The date February 4th 1912. Our subject, one unfortunate soul we’ll come to in a few minutes. Before I even begin this tale, I needs must take you all on a flight of fancy. Let’s go buzz a few historical rooftops.
Flight has been a near universal obsession in human societies, for almost as long as we’ve had myths. Just pick a culture and tales emerge. The Greeks had the Corinthian hero Bellerophon, who tamed and rode Pegasus, the winged horse. They also had Daedalus, the engineer held captive by King Minos. Daedalus built a magnificent pair of wings held together by wax, and managed to fly from Crete to Naples. His unfortunate son Icarus flew too high on his wings – finding out the hard way mortals should never fly too close to the sun. His wings melted, Icarus tumbled to his death below.
The Persians, whose Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda is little more than a massive pair of wings attached to a humanoid torso, believed their mythical Shah, Kai Kawus built an eagle-powered throne – flying the contraption all the way to China. In Islam, Muhammad made a night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the winged steed Buraq. Maori legend tells of the demigod Tawhaki, who either climbed a giant vine or flew on a kite to the tenth level of Heaven. English lore tells of a King Bladud, the mythical 9th century BC father of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Having magically cured himself of leprosy in the town of Bath, Bladud built himself a giant pair of wings – then flew back to his ancestral homeland, Troy. He ran into some trouble – quite literally – when he slammed into the Trojan walls, dying from the blunt force trauma. Hindu, Sanskrit and Jain texts all mention Vimana – flying cities – in their folklore.
Given this obsession to soar like an eagle, it should not surprise anyone that our species did attempt to take to the skies. The earliest attempts seem nearly as mythological as the myths, though rarely as successful as a Daedalus or Kai Kawus.
In 559 AD Yuan Huangtou, captive son of the King of the Northern Wei (a Chinese kingdom) was forcibly tied to a giant kite from a tower. He survived the flight, but died a few years later of malnutrition, still a captive to the same kite flyers. In 875 AD the Andalusian polymath Abbas Ibn Firmas was said to have flown a few hundred yards in a glider of his own design. As the tale is told the contraption was something like a large pair of wings. Many writers with expertise in aviation consider this the first legitimate human flight in history, although it was not completely successful – when Firmas finally landed he landed badly, injuring himself. In the 11th Century, Eilmer of Malmesbury – a Benedictine monk with knowledge of Firmas’ flight – attempted the same, by jumping from the top of Malmesbury Abbey with some kind of glider attached. He survived the ordeal and appears to have glided 100 yards or more before crashing to the ground.
While a handful of polymaths, notably ‘Doctor Miribilis’ – Roger Bacon; and of course Leonardo Da Vinci hypothesized flying machines without ever building one, a handful of intrepid inventors did try their hand at a flying machine. Between Da Vinci in the 1480s and someone else we’ll mention soon in 1853, somewhere in the order of 50 flying machines were tested. All but a dozen badly injured or killed their pilots. A few may have glided some small distance – but for the most part don’t qualify as having achieved controlled flight.
Our Tale of History and Aviation takes a huge leap in 1799. This was the year an English Baronet named George Cayley enters the race. By working out the laws behind aerodynamics, he sketches a design for a glider which is capable of flight. After unsuccessfully politicking for a society for aerodynamics – and half a century of tweaks and adjustments, including an 1848 glider which flew like a kite with a 10 year old boy in it – Cayley successfully flew a glider across the moors in Scarborough. Technically, his coachman – unnamed to history – did, and was so terrified by the ordeal he handed in his notice that same day. Cayley, like fellow inventor William Henson, theorized a heavier than air machine could take to the air more successfully with a propeller, driven by an internal combustion engine – but both men were hamstrung by the limits of the technology available to them.
To make an already long story short, internal combustion engines appear in the mid 1860s. In the 1870s French inventor Alphonse Penaud makes a model plane with a propeller, and wind up torsion engine. It flies hundreds of feet before running out of steam. Clement Ader, another French inventor, makes a glider with a built in engine. Over the following 17 years he takes it up on a handful of ‘tethered’ flights – essentially getting it airborne but unable to fly anywhere due to the ropes. Felix Du Temple fails to launch a monoplane, pushing it down a ski ramp, in 1874. This was the first failed attempt to launch a powered airplane. Frenchman Victor Tatin made another model in 1879, with twin propellers and a tiny internal combustion engine. Tethered to a stick, it took off and flew in circles till it ran out of fuel. A host of other inventors – the Lilienthal brothers, John J Montgomery, Alexander Mozhaiski, even machine gun entrepreneur Hiram Maxim made machines that edged closer to powered flight. This continued till March 31st 1903, when a young farmer and inventor named Richard Pearse made a powered flight of several hundred metres. He made a second flight later that year, witnessed by half his rural village of Waitoki, New Zealand – this time staying aloft for a few kilometres, before crashing into a gorse bush.
Pearse was, of course, a dead end in the tale – all development flowed from the Wright Brothers successful flight at Kitty Hawk, December 17th 1903. Yes I’m ignoring other claimants like Gustave Whitehead and Alberto Santos-Dumont for exactly the same reason. Furthermore, the Timaru Herald dug up an interview with Pearse from 1911 which suggests his flight may have been after 1909 and at the earliest, just after a 1904 world’s fair- though Pearse was suffering from a debilitating mental illness at the time which would institutionalize him for the rest of his life – while many eyewitnesses knew exactly how old they were when they saw him fly. Orville and Wilbur Wright officially flew a motorized plane first, in December 1903. Others soon followed suit, and an industry was born.
By 1912 a new challenge emerged. If you’re sending increasing numbers of people into the sky, in machines apt to break down on occasion, what measures are in place to save those people? This is where our protagonist, Franz Reichelt comes into focus – balancing precariously on the edge of the 187 foot high first floor of the Eiffel Tower.
Franz Reichelt was born in Wegstädt, Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) on 16th October 1878. Moving to Paris in 1898, he set up a dressmaking shop which catered largely to Austrian tourists on holiday in Paris. Unmarried, he lived alone in a 3rd floor apartment on rue Gaillon. In 1909 Reichelt found a new calling after a spate of aviation fatalities left him aghast – one presumes the September 1909 deaths of Eugene Lefebvre and Ferdinand Ferber (the 2nd & 3rd people to die in a powered aircraft, respectively). He decided a parachute must be developed to give these pioneers a fighting chance.
Parachutes were not an entirely new concept. ‘Professor of Technology’ Louis-Sébastien Lenormand coined the term in 1783 when he exhibited his first model – safely jumping from atop Montpelier Observatory. Lenormand envisioned the parachute as a safety device, for use in burning buildings. Others, including Andre-Jacques Garner, saw an alternate use in hot air ballooning (another way, of course for humans to fly, one I don’t have the column inches to explore today). Most of these devices were fixed (i.e. they could not fold away) and bulky, and as such of no great use to pilots.
In 1910 Aero-Club de France offered a reward of 5,000 francs to any inventor who could build a foldaway parachute which could be used from a plane. Reichelt quickly submitted his prototype wingsuit. Soon after the deaths of Lefebvre and Ferber, he made a suit with a canopy that – when opened – would unleash a pair of giant silk wings. He tested it by throwing tailors dummies out of a fifth floor window above his apartment. The initial tests were successful. When he took his wingsuit to the Aero-club, they turned Reichelt away. The judges believed the canopy too weak to withstand a jump from a plane. It didn’t help that the device weighed 70kg either. In 1911, the Aero-Club increased their prize to 10,000 francs, adding the stipulations the parachute must not weigh more than 25kg, and that the prize must be claimed within three years. Suddenly the race was on.
In 1911 Grant Morton, a 54 year old stuntman who made his career by jumping out of hot air balloons, made the world’s first skydive – jumping from a Wright Model B near Venice Beach, California. He made the jump with a ‘throw out’ type chute better suited to slower- moving craft, like hot air balloons. Californian balloonist Charles Broadwick and Russian inventor Gleb Kotelnikov were both making huge strides with knapsack parachute designs. It was likely Reichelt also felt pressured by fellow Frenchman Gaston Hervieu – who tested a number of dummies attached to chutes from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower in 1911. As Reichelt pared down his materials to make the 25kg cutoff, making a succession of failures – Hervieu threw a model from the tower, which landed softly below. Were the dummies responsible for this sudden run of bad luck? It appears twice in 1911 Franz Reichelt donned the suit himself, and leapt to the ground 30 feet below. On the first occasion he fell heavily into a pile of hay and walked away uninjured. On the second occasion he broke his leg.
All the while, he continuously petitioned authorities to allow him to test his dummies from the Eiffel tower also. He was now convinced the fault lay, not in the design, but the height he was testing the suit from. If he could get a few hundred feet higher, the chute was bound to work. This brings us to February 4th 1912. The temperature was at an icy zero Celsius. There was a wicked cross-wind. Franz Reichelt finally had permission to toss a dummy off the ledge, while assorted press milled around on the nearby Champ de Mars. Knowing the time had passed for dummies, today was make or break – and with an unyielding belief in his suit – Reichelt climbed the guardrail. For forty seconds he stared down. Failure meant certain death, but to succeed meant plaudits beyond his imagination. Just think of all the lives the wingsuit would save in the future. His name would be remembered for eternity. He would be 10,000 francs better off. So, here we go, Trois – Duex – Un……..
A body in free fall plummets at 9.8 metres per second, picking up a further 9.8 metres every second till it hits terminal velocity – for a human that’s a cruising speed of around 55 meters a second – 200 kilometres an hour. An online ‘splat calculator’ which factors in Reichelt’s 72kg frame estimates his fall time at 3.41 seconds – enough time for the poor man to realize his suit had failed miserably. Franz Reichelt fell like a stone, hitting the ground below with a dull, heavy thud. Film footage of the incident shows a group of men picking up his body, then casually measuring the sizeable crater he left beneath him. Needless to say Mr. Reichelt did not win the prize.
While it’s tempting, and indeed a little callous to think of Franz Reichelt’s Tale as little more than a Darwin award in the making – I feel obliged to point out his quixotic story is slightly more than that. Whether motivated out of a genuine need to help others (in this case saving pilots) or by that big paycheck, what’s for certain is he lived at the tail end of a time where some private citizen could invent the next big thing in the back of a shed. Right up till the postwar period, when the USA had a lot of money to throw at research into everything one could imagine – and an understanding if they wanted to keep hegemony, innovation hubs full of the newest, greatest things were necessary – lots of people a little like Franz Reichelt built much of our world from their sheds, spare rooms and kitchen tables. I desperately want to remember him as a pioneer more than a punchline, though I fear the tides of history are against me on this one.
This week’s tale is set in the Windy City – Chicago, Illinois. The time, a very specific 9.14pm on 22nd November 1987. The city’s sports fans are tuned into WGN TV’s Nine O’clock News as Dan Roen discuses the latest round in the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions rivalry – (I’m told the two American Football teams have been at war with one another since 1930, having met 183 times at time of writing… on this day the Bears won 30 – 10). As select footage played from the game, the signal suddenly cut out – replaced by a bizarre, distorted pirate signal. In place of the hulking footballers, a man in a suit, wearing a familiar mask to trick or treaters that year. Bobbing up and down for joy, the figure stood in front of a sheet of corrugated iron, which rotated back and forth behind him. Before the intruder could say anything, one of the technicians at WGN TV wrestled control back from the hijackers, changing uplink frequencies. Back to a rather shocked Roen, in the studio…
“Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened – so am I” This would be the first of two bizarre incidents on Chicago television that night.
The second incident occurred at 11.15pm on PBS affiliate WTTW (channel 11). The channel was in the midst of Doctor Who’s Horror of Fang Rock serial (to the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a Sci-Fi show from the UK featuring a time travelling alien called The Doctor. From time to time The Doctor dies, and is reincarnated, with a new actor taking the lead. This episode featured fourth Doctor Tom Baker – Whovians reading this would hardly need me to tell them that – their knowledge tends towards the encyclopaedic). In the middle of a scene, an intrusion forced its way onto the airwaves.
Whereas the first invasion lasted a mere 25 seconds, this one would carry on for close to one and a half minutes. The intruder – a man with a rubber Max Headroom mask – would speak this time, though the signal would be highly distorted. Having disparaged sports caster Chuck Swirsky, sung a line from The Temptations 1966 hit ‘(I know) I’m Losing You’, hummed the theme for 1960s cartoon Clutch Cargo, waved around what looks like a rubber dildo, dropped the catchphrase from the new, New Coke ads the real Max Headroom fronted, and put on a welding glove stating ‘my brother has the other one on’ – the video cuts to ‘Max’, bare bottomed, stating ‘Oh no, they’re coming to get me’ before a woman with a fly swatter emerges to spank him. The intrusion then cuts out. It is quite an action-packed minute and a half.
That the hijackers chose Max Headroom to front their intrusion may carry political meaning, although it could just as likely have been a convenient disguise – Headroom masks were everywhere just the month before – a lot of people dressed as Max for Halloween. Max Headroom, the character seems the perfect avatar for the crime however.
The character had come about in 1985 as British TV station Channel 4 wanted to launch a music video program, a little like the shows on MTV. Rather than use a real life ‘Talking head’ they looked to create an AI – but that proving too expensive, they settled on adding prosthetics to the sharp-featured Matt Frewer. He was dressed in a shiny fibreglass jacket, filmed him in intense light in front of a computer generated background, and his voice was occasionally ‘glitched’ with pitch shifting and a digital ‘stutter’. The creators; George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton then concocted an elaborate backstory to the character. This in turn spawned a weekly action show based around the character.
In a dystopian near future, run by large TV corporations, crusading reporter Edison Carter chases down a story that ‘blipverts’ – 3 second advertisements designed to keep people on the channel – are killing some of the audience. While uncovering the truth, Carter has an accident, leaving him comatose. His last memory, seeing a sign on a carpark entrance ‘Max Headroom 2.3 metres’. The Channel downloads his memories into an AI avatar to replace him – however the character (Headroom) is the opposite of the humble Carter. Max Headroom is the very image of an arrogant, swaggering news host. A movie, then several seasons of the action show were wonderfully subversive critiques of the evils of consumerism, politics and modern life in general. Carter and Headroom brilliantly antithetical characters, played like a modern Jekyll and Hyde. The edgy critique (which coincidentally had dealt with the takeover of a TV channel in one episode – a crime referred to as ‘zipping’ and carrying a death sentence), had gotten the show cancelled only a month prior to the Max Headroom incident. ‘Network 23’, in this case ABC television, were not amused.
While in real life, you can’t be executed for ‘zipping’ a channel – it is a serious crime all the same. The Federal Communications Commission were called in to investigate. The FBI joined the investigation soon after. If a perpetrator were to be caught, they could face a $100,000 fine, a year in jail – or both. After extensive investigation, and an interrogation of everyone the authorities believed had the skills to hack the network – they came up empty-handed. This doesn’t mean internet sleuths have given up on the mystery. One name often put forward is former punk rocker and indie filmmaker Eric Fournier. Fournier filmed a series of shorts in the 1990s around the fictional character Shaye St John – a former model who had to rebuild herself with prosthetics after a horrific train accident. A compilation of these quirky (or disturbing, depending on which side of the fence you sit) shorts was released on DVD in 2006, with an accompanying website which remained online till 2017. Many have commented on the similar sense of humour. Fournier cannot confirm or deny, having passed on 2010.
Another lead often discussed is an anonymous Reddit thread from 2010. The poster claimed he was part of the hacker community in the 1980s, when he met two brothers he called J and K. The poster was convinced the two were behind the hijacking, having bragged of a big caper just days before the intrusion. They were allegedly capable of carrying out the hijack, and Max’s character, inability to keep to a single topic for more than a few seconds, and general sense of humour seemed very like ‘J’. The thread, now archived, has an update from 2013 that the police located ‘J and K’ following the post, and were able to eliminate them from the list of suspects. To date no-one has been charged with the Max Headroom incident.
One may ask why was this prank taken so seriously? Sure, a number of viewers were upset by the intrusion – one commenting it felt like someone had thrown a brick through his window. The laws were only recently beefed up to deal with incidents like this in an effort to protect all manner of large networks. Imagine if you will, the hackers found a way into the power grid, traffic lights or air control systems at an airport. However, stunts like the Max Headroom incident can cause some real panic in their own right. While this incident, the 1986 ‘Captain Midnight’ protest (where satellite dish salesman John MacDougall took over HBO in protest of them blocking satellite dish owners from watching for free), or the 1987 intrusion into a soft-core porn film on the Playboy channel with bible verses, by an engineer for the Christian Broadcasting Network named Thomas Haynie are all almost comical, other examples are less so.
In 1966, a Russian hacker in the city of Kaluga made an on air announcement, that the USA had launched nuclear missiles at the USSR. A British hacker caused a mass panic among the gullible in 1977 when he hacked a Southern Television news bulletin in alien voice to announce himself as Vrillon, representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command. In Poland in 1985, four astronomers hacked their TV stations with messages in support of the ‘Solidarity’ labour movement, which would eventually overthrow their communist rulers. In 2006, Israel, then at war with Lebanon hacked Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV to broadcast anti Hezbollah propaganda.
Hey all, my voice is still very strained, very gravelly – unable to hold together while projecting for more than four words in a row. Were we talking ‘husky’ I’d just hit record, but we’re not… On the upside, I had NO VOICE at all a week ago, so I’m on the mend.
I’ll get to Mr Belzoni and his tomb-raiding ways as soon as is possible. Ditto Mr Otzi and his pre-historic cat and mouse game – for the Patreon feed.
In the meantime – I can write at least. Let’s blog something today. Yeah, I’m avoiding William Brydon and all those other obvious topics from the ‘graveyard of empires’ – best folk like me shush a little and let the folk who served in Afghanistan tell their stories, free of my noise I think….
The legend of Atlantis comes down to us from the Greek philosopher Plato in the 4th Century BC. Somewhere out beyond the pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar), 9,000 years before the philosopher’s time, an island of favoured people lived. They lived morally, and extremely well till they discovered vice and all that other good stuff in life. These vice-loving Atlanteans developed an imperialistic attitude and made war with the people of the Mediterranean, conquering down to Egypt on one side – Italy on the other. Athens, of course fought back and expelled them – then Zeus – enraged with these interlopers – drowned Atlantis in a flurry of earthquakes and floods.
Plato’s student Aristotle was convinced Atlantis was a device dreamt up by Plato, so he could talk further on what made a good or bad society. Over time many others commandeered the Atlantis myth, dreaming up increasingly complex tales. Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis gives a passing description of a modern recording studio – hundreds of years before we’d even record sound. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia described a land, thought to reflect some realities of living in a monastery – but to my eyes seems more aligned with democratic-socialism. The explorer Alexander von Humboldt was convinced Plato was writing about the Americas. Writer, politician and fringe theorist Ignatius Donnelly was the first to write Atlantis was a super-advanced prehistoric empire in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s people lived in a golden age, taught all the other peoples everything they know, and were so much better than the rest of us. He was, of course popular and influential with people like Helena Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner.
A master race from a mystical land, with a mythical history one could leverage to rally discontented masses around – nothing bad could come of that, right?
Whatever the Graham Hancocks of the world have to say on the matter, however much some rocks off Bimini look like a formerly giant harbour wall, or how many pre-historic Britons did actually live on Doggerland – Atlantis was just a tall tale from a guy whose hobby horse was a fictional republic (a republic, by the way which looks terribly like a fascist state. If you haven’t read ‘Republic’ you may be in for a surprise).
But every once in a while, something happens in our real-life history which evokes Atlantis. Rather than bringing up Plato’s moral however, it often brings about the worst, pseudo-Atlantean behaviour in us.
Our Tale proper begins July 1831, in the waters southwest of the Sicilian coast. Fishermen, used to trawling these waters for their living are shocked to find the sea strewn with dead fish. Stranger still, their usual catch are not just dead, but appear to have been boiled alive. This didn’t bode well. Yes, something had saved them the bother of casting nets and lines – and technically these fish were edible – but they carried a stench of sulphur so heavy it could take you off your feet.
On July 10th the reason for the dead fish asserted itself, as a volcano thrust out of the sea. For several weeks lava flowed out of the mouth of the volcano. It sprawled outwards till it collided with the sea – where the sea hissed, and bubbled, and gave to it. It quickly settled into a substantial clod of solid land – just shy of a kilometre across, and 20 metres tall at it’s apex. Sicily, whose history we’ll zip through in a month’s time, were then under the rule of the French House of Bourbon. On a normal year they would’ve laid claim to this island immediately – but the island were dealing with a deadly cholera epidemic that was far more urgent than some new land. All the same, they did send Michele Fiorini, a customs official out to land on the live volcano on July 17, 1831. That way they could stake a claim to it.
Others were very interested in the new land. The world of 1831 was not terribly far removed from the world I wrote about in The Batavia some time back. Refrigeration in the home was still a long way off- so spices from the east, to mask decaying meat was a necessity. European sailors made dangerous, eight month voyages out to the East for spices, and a range of other goods. The Suez Canal, which did away with the need to nearly circumnavigate Africa, was still four decades away. At this point in our history, The sea ports of the Ottoman Empire were still a major player – where one could buy Eastern goods to one’s heart’s content. The sea lanes which took you to Modern day Turkey zipped past this new island. But there was one, age old problem – Pirates.
Piracy was a problem in the Mediterranean for longer than we’ve had written history. The latest batch of pirates, privateers from ‘the Barbary coast’ in the North of Africa. Barbary pirates, from places like Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli made a healthy living picking off European merchant ships – often with the backing of one or other European nation to pick off their rivals (doesn’t this still sound familiar in this day and age). In 1830, France invaded Algiers – citing the time their ruler, Hussein Dey struck the French Consul in the head with a fly whisk, as a fair provocation – slowing piracy considerably. The European powers had been through this all before. Spain, or the USA or someone would come in and clear out the pirates – but they would always return. If only there were a free clump of land to establish a naval base… Someone could rule the Mediterranean from there.
Enter Captain Sir Humphrey Fleming Senhouse, of the British navy. On word of a new island, he jumped onboard the cutter The Hind, and sailed out to the clod of earth. On August 3rd 1831, Senhouse disembarked with a British flag – naming it Graham Island, after the first lord of the Admiralty, Sir James Graham. This act of imperialistic brown nosing would later earn Senhouse his knighthood. Not long after, the island spewed more lava and grew to four square kilometres. It grew to 60 metres in height, and now had two lakes. Bravo Humphrey! One imagines King William IV saying. Sicily, plague or no plague, decided an island of this size is worth the fight, and sent out a couple of war ships. ‘Fair’s fair, we were here and named it after King Ferdinand while you lot were still out playing bowls’ I imagine them saying.
In the meantime, the French had shown up. Constant Prevost, a French geology professor just so happened to be in the area, with an artist to sketch the new island. Where Sicily named it Ferdinandea a week after it’s appearance, and the British Graham Island – Prevost named the clod Ile Julia, in an essay to the Société géologique de France. This was in honour of it’s July appearance. Now in the news, the public began to speculate. “What if this is the first of many islands to pop up, and next thing there is a mountain range from Sicily to Africa?” “What if this is Atlantis, rising from the waves?”. Unsurprisingly, the French also staked a claim.
Finally, enter Spain, cause what’s a colonisation without Conquistadors?
For five months the four European nations parked up warships offshore. Politicians made arguments to their successive governments, and to the general public through newspaper articles – all claiming themselves as the rightful claimant. Diplomats glared at one another and all involved wondered when the Cold War would go hot?
In the meantime, tourists arrived at this God-forsaken lump of basalt. They marvelled at it’s geography – ‘It has not one, but two lakes don’t you know?’ The house of Bourbon had plans drawn up for a holiday resort on the lakeside.
The world held their breath in anticipation of yet another ugly European war.
Then Ferdinandea/Graham Island/Ile Julia/whatever name the Spaniards had for the island sank back into the ocean as quickly as it had risen.
I’m fairly sure many a modern commentator had something to say on the ethics, practices and hubris of the time. How could one not allude to Zeus and his thunderbolts? As a species we’re so often the worst man! I’m completely unconvinced, were it to rise again – and it could – there wouldn’t be another race to claim the island. In 2000, Prince Carlo di Bourbon – one of two claimants to the vacated throne of The Two Kingdoms of Sicily – paid divers to make the six metre journey to the top of the island to plant a flag, and secure a plaque in the name of his bloodline.
OK, that’s all for today. I’ll get that podcast/blog post up as soon as my voice returns.
Hey all, this post is part two of the two part tale on the rocketeer Jack Parsons. If you’re picking up from here I recommend jumping in to part one first. If you’ve already read part one – welcome back.
This week’s tale begins on the Pacific Island of Oahu; the time? – around 7.48 am Sunday morning, December 7th 1941. Much of the world was now engaged in a brutal, mechanised war – fought largely with the kind of deadly machines that chew up 60 million people, then spit out the bones. Oahu, by extension of the neutrality of the empire who annexed them in 1898, had no dog in this fight. All the same, today, they would be rocked from their peaceful slumber by a sneak attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. 353 Japanese aircraft strafed and bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbour for just 75 brutal minutes. The carnage was significant. All eight battleships on the base were damaged – four sunk. Three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer and 188 aircraft were either badly damaged, or destroyed completely. More importantly, 2403 Americans were murdered, a further 1178 wounded. Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilot who led the first wave, and ordered the second wave by uttering the words ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ Would soon report back they had destroyed the entire U.S. Pacific fleet.
Seven and a half hours later, an official declaration of war – in the name of the Emperor Hirohito – ran on the front page of every Japanese newspaper. The declaration would be reprinted on all front pages, on the eighth of every month till Japan surrendered in September 1945. Across the Pacific, this horrific act galvanised the USA into action. President Franklin D Roosevelt appeared before congress to deliver his ‘…date which will live in infamy…’ speech. In a little over seven minutes, Roosevelt captured the mood of the nation – selling Congress on the urgency of entering this just war against the fascists. Within an hour, all but one dissenter – Jeannette Rankin, a lifelong Pacifist representative from Montana – voted to take the war to the Axis powers.
Just like that the Suicide Squad became extremely busy – Aerojet extremely wealthy. While this can’t have sat well with many of them – the squad including a number of pacifists and communists – they were united in their hatred of fascism. Throughout 1942 they continued to labour in the Mojave desert, making increasingly powerful jet engines. The military needed a safe propulsion system powered by a solid fuel source. After dozens of prototypes Aerojet finally developed GALCIT-53, a rocket which fit the bill to a T. Liquid asphalt was used as a binding agent – Parsons’ idea, influenced by tales of ‘Greek Fire’ – a now lost weapon used by the Byzantine Empire which sounds something like Napalm. This was the game changer. The addition of asphalt to the mix allowed indefinite storage, mass production and usage in all weather conditions. Aerojet were now flat out producing rockets for the war effort.
Alongside their recently hired lawyer and treasurer Andrew Haley, Jack Parsons became something of a spokesman for the group – often travelling the country to meet with the top brass.
This sudden prosperity, and constant travel allowed Parsons’ other life – as a rising star in the Ordo Templi Orientis – to take off also. On one trip to New York, he met with Alesteir Crowley’s 2nd in charge, Karl Germer. As with his correspondence with Crowley himself, Parsons impressed Germer. He also made a point of dropping in on the Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate, Joseph Auslander, with copies of several of Crowley’s books, for the library’s collection. As a well connected man with an ability to sell a cult, it seems, Jack Parsons increased the membership of the O.T.O considerably.
Unfortunately, for some of the longstanding members of the O.T.O, a lot of these newcomers were drawn in with promises of greater sexual freedom. While sex magick made up much of their practice – the sex should always be in support of their higher goals. Many of Parsons’ new acolytes seemed only interested in the sex, not the magick. On the face of it, few seemed to typify this as much as Jack and Helen Parsons themselves. Jack was now having an open affair with Helen’s seventeen year old sister Betty. In retaliation Helen began an affair with the leader, Wilfred Smith. The cult were generally supportive of this bed swapping, till Helen replaced Regina Kahle as the priestess in their masses. At this point, several members started complaining the O.T.O had become on giant swingers’ party.
In June 1942 Jack used his new found wealth to rent (then later buy the lease for) a new home for the members of the Agape Lodge. He rented 1003 Orange Grove Avenue, a large American Craftsman styled mansion in the former Millionaires’ row. While now well off, the Stockmarket crash had cleaned out a lot of wealthy industrialists – and homes like 1003 Orange Grove – hereafter named ‘The Parsonage’, were going for a fraction of their former price. On June 9th the O.T.O moved into the mansion – Parsons setting up a home lab in the carriage house. With plenty of space to practice magick, a growing sense of community among those living at The Parsonage, and 25 acres of land to party on – the cult picked up 40 new members by the end of the year. Parsons even, slightly warily, introduced his colleagues at Caltech to the cult – putting on a largely secular party for the Winter equinox, at the Parsonage.
At this time Crowley started bypassing Smith, asking Jack to lead a number of initiatives. Time poor from his commitments to the O.T.O, and often the worse for wear from long nights of drug, sex and alcohol fuelled parties; people at Aerojet started questioning Parsons’ fitness to work on the project. Where some had formerly accepted his interest in the occult as eccentricity – others started to show concern as Jack loudly chanted the ‘Hymn to Pan’ – in the manner of a Televangelist in full flight – at rocket tests. To complicate matters, the FBI formally opened an investigation into the O.T.O’s Agape lodge again. Someone reported them as a devil worshipping, black magic cult. Suspicion fell on Regina Kahle – now pushed to the side for Helen… or Grady McMurtry, a protege of Parsons, who some suspected as his wife first had affairs with Parsons and Smith – then left him. Grady would, as it turned out, eventually lead the O.T.O – while Regina distanced herself.
The bad publicity for the O.T.O would not go unnoticed by Crowley – who blamed Smith, not Parsons, for the publicity – and increasing number of free love acolytes. This was undoubtedly helped along by Helen Parsons’ pregnancy to Smith. Aleister Crowley, needing Wilfred Smith gone, came up with a novel plan to get rid of him.
In Crowley’s Liber 132, he stated he’d gone over Smith’s astrological chart again, and it was all rather impressive. Turns out Wilfred T Smith was a God. As it was hard to state which God, Crowley ordered him to tattoo ‘666’ on his forehead, then to go out into the desert to ponder on which God he was. Smith was told this may take a very long time. Smith flat out refused this suicide mission and resigned. Crowley and Karl Germer then poisoned the well, spreading a rumour that Smith left after being caught raping a newcomer. At around this time Parsons tried to resign, but Crowley convinced him to stay on. In the meantime, Aerojet continued their upwards trajectory – barely keeping to their order for 2,000 jet propulsion engines throughout 1943 – then an even bigger order for 1944. Parsons kept on, as tired and seedy-looking as ever. Still chanting the ‘Hymn to Pan’ at test flights. In 1944, they changed their name to the Jet Propulsion Lab.
“…I am Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! I am thy mate, I am thy man, Goat of thy flock, I am gold, I am god, Flesh to thy bone, flower to thy rod. With hoofs of steel I race on the rocks Through solstice stubborn to equinox. And I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend Everlasting, world without end, Mannikin, maiden, Maenad, man, In the might of Pan. Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Io Pan!”
Thus far we haven’t written nearly enough on Parsons’ connection to another group of people – Science Fiction fans. It bears a quick mention.
Jack Parsons, like a lot of early rocketeers, was crazy for science fiction. From early on in his career, Parsons was regularly invited to speak at the Los Angeles Science Fiction League – a group of Sci Fi lovers who regularly met at Clifford Clinton’s Clifton’s Cafe (also aforementioned in this tale). As a regular visitor he became friendly with a number of members – some of whom became regular visitors to The Parsonage, some even followers. Jack Parsons was also good friends with a number of science fiction writers.
In March 1944, Astounding Science Fiction Magazine published a story called ‘Deadline’. Written by one Cleve Cartmill, a former newspaper reporter and accountant, it told the story of an alien commando trying to save their world from alien Nazis who had built a super bomb. The bomb in question was described in close detail – and bore a remarkable resemblance to the bomb being built by the, then top secret, Manhattan Project in the Los Alamos desert. How did a non-technical guy – who I should mention now was a regular visitor to O.T.O masses – know anything about uranium 235 bombs and the like? Authorities were very keen to find out. The story was eventually chalked up to coincidence, but it added more pages to the dossier on Parsons.
In December 1944 the Jet Propulsion Lab sold 51% of it’s stock to the General Tire and Rubber Company. They had to, in order to grow to meet demand for their rockets. Most of the Suicide Squad were convinced by Andrew Haley to sell their shares. Jack sold his for $11,000 – before being summarily dismissed – the General Tire and Rubber Company didn’t want to keep an eccentric, chanting occultist on their team, regardless of how much he’d contributed to the project. Jack suddenly found himself at a loose end – just as the O.T.O saw a large drop off in membership. Needing more tenants to help pay the bills, Jack placed an ad in the paper, stating “… only bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or any other exotic types need to apply for rooms.”
Enter Ron, in late 1945.
It could be very easy to get lost on the weeds over Ron, his could be a full Tale in his own right. He grew up on Naval bases, as a military brat and joined the navy as one of their worst sea captains in the war (at one point attacking an island in the mistaken belief he had found a submarine). Ron had lived a life of adventure, and was full of tall tales. He was also a prolific science fiction writer, with connections to Parsons through the Sci Fi circles. He soon became a well- loved guest at The Parsonage – especially so of Betty – Parsons’ de facto wife. It did not take long for Ron and Betty to start a sexual relationship, and for Betty to move out of Jack’s room, into Ron’s. Animosity grew between the two men.
From December 1945, Jack Parsons more or less disappeared into his bedroom. All day long he could be heard chanting arcane rites, allegedly passed down from Elizabeth I’s astrologer John Dee – noisy, violent chants which had everyone in the Parsonage convinced Jack was trying to summon a demon to drag Ron down to hell. Over and over again, in frenetic two hour sessions, Jack would chant at his altar – in the background, Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin concerto on endless repeat on the record player – for months. Tenants at the Parsonage reported strange winds, light beams, and power cuts during the rituals. At some point in the ritual, Parsons sensed Ron may be a lightning rod for this energy he was tapping into – leading to his unwilling participation in the rituals. After a few weeks, where guests claimed to hear voices, and see spirits (one of whom looked like the Godlike Wilfred Smith (still very much alive) Jack and Ron ventured out, at sunset, into the Mojave desert. As one chanted, the other claimed to see visions – no doubt so he could just get home, to Parsons’ wife – the air changed. A massive weight fell off Parsons shoulders. The spell was cast.
Jack Parsons wasn’t trying to summon a demon to kill Ron, he was trying to conjure a new wife.
When the two men returned home, Marjorie Cameron – an artist also known as Candy – was waiting to meet the master of the house. She was looking for accommodation, and heard it was just the kind of place she was looking for. Parsons would later write to Crowley “I have my elemental”.
Jack and Candy soon became an item.
The following year was not uneventful, but to sum up quickly; Jack and Ron summoned another being – a Goddess Jack named ‘Babylon’, to keep Crowley company. Crowley changed the spelling to ‘Babalon’ for astrological reasons I don’t understand. The culture of the Parsonage, and of the O.T.O in general changed – suddenly becoming more aligned with the beatniks. Jack started to feel old, and a little square. He also missed his business – so he handed in his notice to the O.T.O, gave notice to the tenants of the Parsonage that he was selling the property – and moved into the Carriage House. He went into business with Ron and Betty. Their first plan was for Ron and Betty to travel to Miami with $20,000 of Jack’s money, to buy three yachts. The yachts would be transported back to California, to be sold for a profit.
Unfortunately for Jack, Ron and Betty ran off with his money. They did buy a yacht – The Harpoon – and planned to sail off into the sunset together. After a magick invocation to the God Mars to stop the couple, Jack got on a plane to Miami and, through the courts – actually managed to stop them stealing all of his money.
All the same, Ron bigamously married Betty (he abandoned, but never divorced his first wife during World War Two). After a failed attempt to re-write the rules of psychology – a system called dianetics – Ron ….. L. Ron Hubbard … formed his own, far more successful religion than Aleister Crowley’s. By 1953 he established The Church of Scientology. When asked about his time at The Parsonage, he’d claim the Navy sent him there to bust up the cult and rescue Betty Northrup.
The post-war years were hard on Jack in other ways. At first he seemed content in his new role, a job at North American Aviation – and happy to put the O.T.O behind him. On October 19th 1946, now long divorced from Helen, and over Betty – he married Candy. Aware of the impediment a lack of any formal education posed, Jack took night courses in advanced mathematics. He wrote to Crowley, but Crowley was now lost to heroin addiction and would pass on in 1947.
In 1948, however, the first rumblings of the Communist witch hunts began.
A number of members of the Suicide Squad were outed as members of the Communist party, and lost their security clearances. Jack was stripped of his clearance for attending a few meetings. He lost his job because of this. Candy left Jack, and moved to an artists’ commune in Mexico. At first, Jack took any odd jobs he could find, and in 1949, sued to get his security clearance back. He’d never been in the Communist party, why should he lose his livelihood over something he never was? He won his case, and was restored to his old job, with back-pay. A Pyrrhic victory, he’d subsequently be stripped of his clearance and let go, after a decision stating his connections to the O.T.O and Crowley made him undesirable. He found work setting up explosions for movie sets – and working for Howard Hughes.
In 1950, Jack sent a proposal to the newly established state of Israel – to set up a rocket programme for the country. The Israelis were interested, and asked Parsons to work up some costings. In doing so, he leant on costings on similar projects he was working on for Hughes, and asked his secretary to type up his proposal for him. She panicked, contacting the FBI. Parsons was now under investigation for international espionage, and only drawing income by continuing to make squibs for Hollywood movies. Reporters started to dig into the ‘former sex cult on Orange Grove Avenue’ – and Parsons slumped into a depression. Hearing the news, Candy returned to Jack immediately.
Which brings us, more or less full circle. By 1951 Jack Parsons was cleared of the espionage charges. Candy was back. He was getting enough work from Hollywood to keep a roof over his head. Knowing his security clearance was gone forever, Jack and Candy planned to sell up the Carriage House and move to Mexico. Stage one of the move was to clear a warehouse full of explosives he’d accumulated – and for now, at least – store them in his basement lab. He packed up his lab in the days before the move, and arranged for tenants to take over the Carriage House.
On moving day, a final order came in from the movie makers in Tinseltown. We know you’re crossing the border, but could we bother you for one more job? All his equipment packed away, Jack Parsons prepared his final pyrotechnic display, in an old coffee mug.
On June 17th 1952, at 5.08 pm, a deafening explosion caught the attention of the suburb of Pasadena. At it’s epicentre – the Carriage House once belonging to 1003 Orange Grove Avenue – a 37 year old man lay dying. Though an unheralded innovator, whose genius helped the allies win World War Two – and whose innovations would play a part in the winning of the space race – all talk was on the other part of his life. Some commented on the ‘sex cult’ on Orange Grove Avenue in the 1940s, and the alleged demonic rituals there. Others on his professional, and personal struggles after the war. ‘I heard his wife left him for a science fiction writer’. ‘Wasn’t he fired after spying for the Communists, or Israelis, or someone?’. Others looked to his battles with depression in his later years – claiming the explosion a suicide attempt.
Those in the know, no doubt, knew Jack Parsons sweated a lot in the lab. Without his professional equipment, they supposed his hands slipped – dropping the mug. With a lab fuller than usual of dangerous chemicals, the resulting accident was far worse that it may have been. It is here – where we started this tale – that we leave our unlucky protagonist.
Ok, one more thing.
Out in space, 384,400 km from our planet is a large moon – orbiting Earth. As it moves in what scientists call a synchronous rotation, it never spins, and we only ever see one side of the moon. The side we don’t see is heavily pockmarked with craters. We know because rockets finally reached escape velocity. All manner of space craft have since photographed the so-called dark side. China, of all nations, finally landed a probe there in 2019. Some features are named for mythical figures like Apollo and Daedalus, others likely – at the very least semi-mythical figures like the Chinese inventor Wan Hu (who I may return to at some point). Others for scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Theodore Von Karman. On the far side of the moon is an impact crater, 40 km across – oval in shape. A little West- Northwest of Krylov, East of Moore. In 1972 it was named ‘Parsons’ in honour of Jack Parsons; arguably the true father of modern rocketry.
Welcome folks. Sorry to do this to you – I really did want to start this tale out in the Mojave desert, following a magick man and his usurper. One chanting tribally to the God Pan, and the other pretending to see spirits so he could just go home – to the other’s wife… but we’ll come back round to that. The date is June 17, 1952. The location, the carriage house which formerly belonged to 1003 Orange Grove, Pasadena – a former stately mansion we’ll definitely talk about later. Pasadena was a neighbourhood in transition from a millionaires’ row of landed estates, to a collection of middle class ranch houses, condos and apartments. While the locals may have grown accustomed to the hubbub of diggers and graders, rollers and wrecking balls, at 5.08pm the neighbourhood would be shocked to attention by a soul shuddering explosion.
At it’s epicentre, the basement lab in the carriage house – now a wreck of it’s former self. Two men and a woman, tenants, rush downstairs -surveying the damage and looking for the owner of the property – one Jack Parsons. After rifling through the debris they found him; horrifically wounded – he’d lost an arm. The remainder of his limbs are all badly broken. Most of the right side of his face is missing – yet he is still, barely, alive. An ambulance rushes to the scene, then tears off at break-neck speed with their patient. Parsons is treated at Huntington Memorial Hospital – where he would die 37 minutes after the explosion. Parsons’ wife Marjorie, aka Candy, couldn’t bring herself to view her husband in such a state. She would leave it to a friend to arrange the cremation. When Jack’s mother, Ruth, got the news of her son’s untimely passing – she took her own life by swallowing a bottle of barbiturates.
While one may expect the sudden death of Jack Parsons to bring on a great mourning in the area – he was, after all a pioneering rocket scientist who helped win the war. Jet planes, missiles, the rockets which would travel to the moon all owe a massive debt to his genius. Platitudes gave way to gossip about his wildly occult lifestyle and speculations of suicide or even that he’d been killed by order of Howard Hughes. Stories began to emerge about the cult living at 1003 Orange Grove, the rituals and wild orgies. The Pasadena Independent would eulogise him thus
‘John W. Parsons, handsome 37-year-old rocket scientist killed Tuesday in a chemical explosion, was one of the founders of a weird semi-religious cult that flourished here about 10 years ago … Old police reports yesterday pictured the former Caltech professor as a man who led a double existence—a down-to-earth explosives expert who dabbled in intellectual necromancy. Possibly he was trying to reconcile fundamental human urges with the inhuman, Buck Rogers type of innovations that sprang from his test tubes.’
John Whiteside Parsons, Jack to his friends is a largely forgotten figure now – but I think his tale is worth sharing. For the next two episodes let’s discuss the mad world of Jack Parsons.
Jack Parsons was born Marvel Parsons in 1914 to Ruth (née Whiteside) and Marvel Parsons snr. When young, Jack’s father would desert the family to join the army – where he would distinguish himself in battle, move up the ranks, remarry and settle down – only to have a nervous breakdown in middle age – following a medical misdiagnosis giving him just a day left to live. From abandonment as a baby to Marvel’s institutionalisation, the two would only meet once. In his youth both he and Ruth, were joined by Ruth’s wealthy parents – who moved up to Pasadena – buying a home for them all on Orange Grove.
Jack was a smart and imaginative child. Home-schooled till the age of 12, he read voraciously. He was an especially big fan of Jules Verne, and of the new pulp fiction magazines like the Argosy All-Story Weekly and Amazing Stories. In amongst the ‘boys own adventure’ tales of cowboys, adventurers, detectives and firemen – the science fiction genre blossomed in these periodicals. Buck Rogers and John Carter of Mars, for one example, were launched in these magazines. Parsons became enamoured with sci fi – especially anything to do with rockets and travelling to other planets. When he finally entered the system for high school he struggled. Many of his peers found him odd, and mocked him for looking effeminate. He made at least one good, lifelong friend in this time however, Ed Forman, the mechanically minded son of an engineer. With Forman’s father’s help, the two teenagers began making their first rockets together. They were a long way from building anything powerful enough to leave the planet or power an aircraft – but it was a beginning.
I should quickly point out that while we take rockets for granted now – a select few companies build rockets powerful enough to put astronauts, cosmonauts, and satellites in space. A handful of nations have caches of deadly intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear tips that could end the world. Any army or large militia might have an array of deadly rockets which now leave the German V2 for dead – some even have rocket seeking rockets to shoot those first rockets out of the sky.
A jet engine is, to all intents and purposes, a rocket…In the 1920s and 30s, hardly anyone was developing rockets.
Those who were, for the most part, were amateur enthusiasts – often, like young Parsons, hobbyists with a love of science fiction. As aforementioned on Tales, the Chinese had rudimentary rocket-like devices – fireworks which could shoot a bamboo spear at you – and the South Indian Kingdom of Mysore used war rockets in battle. In the wake of their four wars in the latter half of the 18th century, a number of European armies built and used war rockets – but the technology was discarded as they were wildly unreliable. Other artillery – such as cannons, improved with the greater choice of available materials resulting from the Industrial Revolution. Rockets had their 15 minutes of fame, and were so last century by the 1920s.
The Russian Nikolai Kibalchich was a serious rocketeer; writing a treatise which set much of the groundwork for future rocketry – but his work would go nowhere in his time.He wrote his treatise in 1881, while awaiting execution for building the bombs used to kill Russian Tsar Alexander II. Robert Goddard was another serious rocketeer – but he was publicly mocked out of public life as a crank by the newspapers in 1918.
Rocketry really was a brave new frontier in these days – the way clear for clever autodidacts like Parsons and Forman.
To sum up the rest of Parsons’ teenage years – he got suspended from his high school, attended another, where he fit in much easier (now seen as a macho bad boy who left his last school after blowing up the toilets), and went on to a semester of college. His university studies were interrupted in the wake of the Stockmarket crash of 1929 – which left Parsons’ grandfather, Walter Whiteside, broke. Walter died in 1931. His part-time job at the Hercules Powder Company – where he was handling explosives and other chemicals – soon became a full time role. In the early 1930s Jack continued to work on making bigger and bigger rockets with Forman, and communicating with other rocketeers overseas – including the German VFR. The VFR, which included one Wernher Von Braun, went suspiciously silent a few years after the Nazis took power in 1933. He also met and fell in love with Helen Northrup. The couple would marry in 1935.
To make sense of Parsons’ life, one could look at the separate elements first… and how those elements collided with one another disastrously later. For one, his professional life took off like a rocket from the mid 1930s. The California Institute of Technology would loom large. Caltech had gone from a private college with strong ties to the Universalist Church of America in the 1890s to a teaching hub staffed by, and churning out, some of the USA’s brightest minds, by Parsons’ time. They were well equipped, and a source of great expertise. They also had some notable guest speakers. In 1935 Parsons and Forman attended a public lecture at Caltech by visiting rocketeer Eugen Sanger. After the lecture they got talking to a PhD student named William Bollay, and pitched their plan to build a liquid propelled rocket. Bollay passed on their invitation to join them, but did introduce them to another student, Frank Malina, who was very interested in their plans. In 1935 Malina convinced his doctoral advisor, Theodore Von Karman, to let him construct a rocket engine for his doctorate. He would work alongside the autodidacts Parsons and Forman.
In the following years the group would gain a lot of attention for their wild, noisy experiments on campus. After one August 1937 experiment went awry – first a chemical spill killed the lawn, then an engine backfire filled the GALCIT building with hydrogen tetroxide – causing all metal surfaces in the building to rust over night – they were sent out into the desert – the Arroyo Seco – to experiment. They also picked up the name ‘the suicide squad’. The suicide squad took on several inductees, and gained a reputation for their parties – where cannabis and alcohol was freely available. Self funded, Parsons and Malina wrote a sci fi movie script they hoped Hollywood would pick up. Hollywood paid no attention whatsoever to their film script.
The work of the Suicide Squad, with it’s loud noises and flame belching engines got plenty of attention from the local press however. As did Parsons himself in 1938. He was called in as an expert witness in an attempted murder by car-bombing case; the victim a private investigator named Harry Raymond. The perpetrator a police officer called Earl Kynette. Click here for the post I wrote on this case last week. This case turned Jack Parsons into a respected expert overnight. His clear charisma shone a spotlight on their work. By this point they had secured some funding via the mysterious Mr Weld Arnold, and were joined by a Chinese mathematician named Qian Xuesen.
In 1938 the Suicide Squad began making commercially viable rocket engines. They were also joined by a Jewish refugee named Sidney Weinbaum. Weinbaum introduced several members of the Suicide Squad to a secret Communist organisation. Some of the members, like Malina, joined the party. Parsons attended several meetings – ultimately deciding Communism wasn’t for him. He did find another group at around this time, who he came to view as a surrogate family.
The Ordo Templi Orientis, O.T.O for short, was then an occultist organisation centred around Sex Magick, yes the K is intentional – and very important to the O.T.O apparently. Established in the early 1900s, the group was taken over and reorganised by British occultist Alesteir Crowley. Crowley deserves a Tale in his own right, and in the least will pop up from time to time in others’ tales. On Crowley’s 1913 takeover, the order took on Crowley’s tenets from his religion of Thelema.
A crude summary of Crowley’s ethics in regards Thelema follows. Their laws can be broken down to…
‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law – a call to follow one’s own path without restraint.
‘Love is the law, love under will’ – Thelema is governed by love magick – but love is always subservient to one pursuing their ‘will’ – or true mission.
Every man and every woman is a star – in other words, if you follow your true path in life, you are like a star. Aloof from humanity. Shining brightly for all to see.
As best as I can tell Crowley’s beliefs were highly individualistic, and eschewed many of the conventions everyday folk felt compelled to follow. Their rituals contained a lot of chanting with roots in earlier Hermetic thinkers. Much of it not too dissimilar to the Eastern traditions people like Helena Blavatsky tapped into. They believed free love and drugs could lift one above the mere mortals, reach higher levels of magick, and get one on their way to their true mission. Crowley’s teachings also made a lot of numerology, and astrology. Yes, their philosophy feels a little Ubermensch-y. There are also clear influences to be seen in later groups.. but hell, this post is already set to run into two episodes. That conversation can wait for another day. In 1915 Crowley set up the Agape Lodge in California – returning to Europe after World War One. In January 1939, Jack and Helen Parsons got an invite by John and Frances Baxter – a gay and lesbian brother, sister duo who had become good friends with the couple – to join them at the Agape Lodge. They went.
Jack was intrigued by the evening’s proceedings. The group performed Crowley’s ‘Gnostic Mass’. Afterwards, they mingled with the cult, including their leader, Wilfred Smith. The Parsons’ regularly attended O.T.O meetings. Although thoroughly infatuated with the group and their beliefs, the couple would take a little over a year to officially join up.
In the meantime, Jack and Helen were joined by Helen’s half-sister Sara, also known as Betty. Betty was a minor, just 17 years old, when she moved in. This becomes important later.
Also, in the meantime – as World War Two drew closer for the USA – the Suicide Squad approached the National Academy of Sciences committee on Army Air Corp research. If war broke out in the Pacific, the Air Force would suddenly need to land and launch big, heavy bombers from short landing strips on tiny islands. This would be difficult, unless they could speed the bombers up. What they needed was a ‘Jet propulsion system’ – that’s right jet planes. The suicide squad avoided the word ‘rocket’ for fear they would be labelled cranks and dismissed. The NAS committee thought they were anything but cranks – giving them the funds to develop these jet engines. After a number of tests run with mixed success – on one test a JATO engine blew up on re-entry, launching shrapnel everywhere. There were a couple of explosions on the ground. One time their test plane caught on fire – they eventually made a working model. Having ironed out all the bugs, the Suicide Squad suddenly had thousands of jet engines to make. Caltech was neither willing nor able to set up for industrial production – the Suicide Squad, now incorporated as Aerojet, went it alone.
A defence contract would come with all kinds of oversight. For one, the Suicide Squad and all those working for them would need security clearances. This meant the defence force going over their backgrounds with a fine toothed comb. The O.T.O had come to the attention of authorities in February 1939, when Anya Sosoyeva – a young dancer who had attended an O.T.O mass, was murdered on the grounds of Los Angeles City College. The O.T.O bore no responsibility for her killing, but reporters shone a light on the ‘sex cult’ living in the middle of an everyday neighbourhood. Wilfred Smith was at least afforded airtime to explain their philosophy, and masses to the public.
Paul Seckler’s rampage was a whole other level of bad publicity, however. Paul and Phyllis Seckler were a couple who recently joined the O.T.O, having been recruited by Regina Kahle – a longstanding member who was Phyllis’ drama teacher. Phyllis would go on to become a high ranking Thelemite. Paul, who Parsons secured employment as a security guard at Caltech – would wind up serving a jail sentence. One night in 1942 he came out of a mass – possibly on a bad high, – convinced he needed to get away from an evil spirit. He hijacked a car, at gunpoint, from a young couple – and drove round the city till he came down. The connection to Parsons – now high up in the OTO, and having found Paul a job – did come to the attention of authorities. While he was not expelled from the company, the FBI was now looking closely at Jack Parsons and his sex magick cult.
Sorry folks this one is going to run to two episodes. We’ll conclude the Tale of Jack Parsons next time. Next episode I’ll, probably, explain the misspelling of Babylon in the title while I’m at it – Simone
Hey all I don’t know how to tell this prelude without getting into a load of backstory. Thanks in advance for your forbearance.
To understand how Jack Parsons – our central figure in next week’s podcast episode – came to public prominence, it helps to know a little about Los Angeles in the 1930s and how it got there. Just three topics, each of which has had books written on it in their own right, will suffice.
The Great Depression
First, let’s discuss the Great Depression. What I think you need to know is 1920 – 1929 was a boom time for the USA, in which the economy more than doubled in value. A part of the reason for this (I’m massively oversimplifying) was the Stockmarket on Wall Street, New York was allowed to operate with very little oversight. A lot of stock was, like the crash of 2008, criminally overpriced. A lot of practices, also per 2008, retroactively seen as criminally irresponsible.
The boom years of the 1920s saw unemployment drop from over 11% to just below 3%. While wealth distribution was still unequal (a portion of society had to borrow money to pay for the basics – their debts would play a role in the depression) – many people unaccustomed to having spare change suddenly had money to invest in stocks and bonds. Millions did. Much of the wealth of the 1920s also came from retail and manufacture. Working people – whose real annual earnings increased by 40% over the 1920s – bought more. Industry produced more, making more money for businesses and putting more money in the pockets of the employees. This was a virtuous cycle – till it suddenly wasn’t.
Over the summer of 1929 wages stagnated. Domestic spending slowed down. Production would too, but not before there was a massive oversupply of domestic goods clogging up warehouses. The stock market powered on till August, hitting an all time high. By October it was clear Wall Street couldn’t save the nation. 24th October 1929 saw record numbers of people offloading overpriced shares – 12.9 million shares changing hands on ‘Black Thursday’ …. This was the record till 16 million shares were sold at a huge loss on Black Tuesday, 29th October 1929. This caused the economy to crash into a depression which took a decade to climb out of. 15 million people would lose their jobs. Those who still had jobs took huge pay cuts. Many had to borrow money to cover their basic costs. Ultimately half the banks in America failed as these loans fell delinquent. Foreclosures became endemic. Those shares everybody bought – most of them were worthless.
The Dust Bowl.
Second, let’s discuss the Dust Bowl in equally brief terms. The USA was much smaller in 1800 than it was by the middle of the 19th century. First in 1803, France sold Louisiana, an 828,000 square mile block of land in the middle, to the USA. The French laid claim to the land in 1699, but lost it to Spain following the Seven Years War. Napoleon took the land back, but decided a quick sale to support his ongoing wars seemed prudent. Spain sold Florida to the USA in 1819. Third, the USA picked up their Western states in 1845, following a war with Mexico. Much could be made about the Civil War, or the Homestead act of 1862 – which gave any American squatting on 160 acres of new land for five years ownership of that land;
or Manifest Destiny and the power of New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley telling people to “…Go west young man”
What is important to know is not all of that land was fit to develop into farmland. Some of that land was downright dangerous. The land speculator and journalist Charles Dana Wilber would have none of that, stating in 1881
“God speed the plow. … By this wonderful provision, which is only man’s mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains … [the plow] is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts a desert into a farm or garden. … To be more concise, Rain follows the plow”
Believing ‘rain follows the plow’ – literally, if you dig it, rain will come – a great many people packed up their old lives and went West. Many settled on the Great Plains- coincidentally during an unusually wet half century that seemed to back Wilber’s claim. They plowed deep into the topsoil. All that long, pesky grass which held the land together – and held in moisture in dry periods, was cleared. Life was good on the Great Plains till 1930, when the rains didn’t come.
First the land got dry and parched – crops died – then the dust storms came. With nothing holding the topsoil down – it was carried off; from farms in Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and the North of Texas. In 1935 alone, 850 million tons of topsoil blew away – some carried as far north as Chicago. Reports came in from naval vessels, hundreds of miles offshore, of being engulfed by giant dust storms. Around 3,500,000 Americans were displaced – half a million left homeless. Perhaps as many as 300,000 ‘Okies’, ‘Arkies’ and various others moved to California in the hope of a new start.
The Rise of the Los Angeles Mafia, and Growing Corruption at City Hall.
Up front I should say the mob were far from being the only shifty organisation active in LA at this time – but they were massive, connected, and growing. Doing what you ask? Let me tell you….
The L.A. Mob grew out of a number of ‘Black Hand’ style gangs in the early 1900s. These street gangs coalesced into a family, similar to those in New York, Chicago and elsewhere by the late Nineteen-teens – first under a friend of early New York mafiosi Giuseppe ‘The clutch hand’ Morello named Vito De Giorgio – then after his 1922 murder, under Albert Marco. It’s of note Marco became Capo, not through strong arming so much as through his connections to corrupt politicians in City Hall. Marco used his connections as a shield for a series of illegal gin joints throughout California during the Prohibition era. He would eventually push his luck too far, getting sentenced to jail on an assault charge, then deported back to Italy. Marco was briefly replaced by a man called Joseph ‘Iron Man’ Ardizzone, who disappeared without a trace in 1931.
He was replaced by a man named Jack Dragna – who moved the LA Mob into the future.
Prohibition at an end, he redirected mob resources into brothels, illegal gambling establishments and pawn shops. In a Los Angeles suffering from both the Great Depression and an influx of refugees from the Great Plains, the thousands of mob establishments that popped up across California – and especially Los Angeles made a killing. As with his predecessors, Dragma operated in partnership with City Hall – with added muscle from the police force. Dragma had a particularly powerful ally however – the mayor of Los Angeles, Frank L. Shaw.
With the combined forces of the mayoralty, the police and the mafia against them – a small group of concerned citizens – the citizen independent vice investigating committee (CIVIC for short) stood against the wave of brothels, pawn shops and gambling dens. CIVIC was run by a business owner named Clifford Clinton.
Clinton owned a couple of eccentric looking cafeterias (one looked like a redwood forest was growing inside it) named after himself. During the Great Depression he practiced mutual aid with his customers – all bills passed to the customer stating their host would gladly accept what little they could pay if they were down on their luck – and failing that, they could eat for free. He was also a progressive, who provided de-segregated establishments. As a concerned citizen, he paid a private investigator to look into the illegal establishments in the city, then compiled a report, detailing the hundreds of brothels, thousands of bookies. They submitted the report to a grand jury – who refused to even look at it.
Shaw and the mob retaliated swiftly, first upping Clinton’s rates on his two cafes. They blocked his paperwork to build a third cafeteria. Suddenly his shops were inundated with vexatious lawsuits from supposed customers, who slipped on his floors or alleged food poisoning. Surprise visits from health authorities became a regular occurrence. When this didn’t stop his crusade, things took a darker turn.
In October 1937, a bomb was set off in the Clintons’ Los Feliz home. It appears the bomb was set to blow up the kitchen at around the time Clinton, just home and very much a creature of habit, would be making a late night snack. He was running late that night and neither he, or his family were hurt. Soon after Clinton received a phone call, stating the bomb was a warning, and worse would come if he didn’t back off. The police refused to investigate the crime – claiming he bombed his newly constructed Spanish villa himself, to drum up publicity. As fascinating a character as Clifford Clinton was, we more or less leave him here –
Well ok, a little more on him. He signed up to fight in World War II. In his later years he ran for the mayoralty, coming second. Concerned with hunger in the Third World, he employed a Caltech lecturer to develop an affordable protein which could be rolled out cheaply to starving masses – and set up a non-profit organisation which offered aid in 60 developing nations. He’s well worth a Google search – a lot of L.A. publications have written on his life.
Now, to Harry Raymond. Raymond is, in some ways a more complex character than Clinton. A former cop with alleged ties to the Mafia, he was police chief for 90 days in 1933 – before City Hall fired him for not bending to their will. He was hired by Clinton as a private investigator to connect all the dots in the CIVIC report. Months after the Los Feliz bombing, Raymond was now privately continuing his investigation, when someone tried to kill him. A car bomb exploded while Raymond was in the vehicle. He survived the blast, but was left with more than 100 shrapnel wounds. This time a huge amount of publicity occurs the police have to investigate. A police officer named Earl Kynette is charged with the attempted murder. Enter Jack Parsons.
The prosecution felt they needed to know exactly what kind of bomb was used in the attack on Raymond, so they approached Caltech for an explosives expert. Caltech referred them to a young contractor working with one of their graduate students to develop a rocket. He was an autodidact with only a few months’ worth of college education, but had become extremely knowledgeable while working for the Hercules powder company. Were the prosecutors concerned by his lack of qualifications they needn’t be. Before long Parsons worked out exactly which nitrocellulose based black powder was stuffed into the pipe bomb, and how it was triggered. Parsons got hold of a Chrysler, just like the car Raymond was sitting in, and set off an identical bomb … to near identical results.
In spite of the danger to himself, Jack Parsons was an expert witness in the case. Impeccably dressed and charismatic, he captured a lot of attention from the press – but not least of all, because he showed up with a pipe bomb, just like the one used by Kynette. At least that’s what he wanted people to believe. The defence played up his lack of qualifications, and tried to trip him up with several technical questions – but he held up to the scrutiny admirably. Not only did his evidence swing the trial against Kynette, who was convicted of the car bombing – but his stunt with the replica car bomb captured the imagination of the press. First there were the headlines ‘Explosives expert makes bomb replica’ and ‘Caltech man tells of bombs’ – then articles questioning the legitimacy of Mayor Frank Shaw. People started to question if he had ordered the assassination attempt. Police and reporters started to dig away. They found a web of connections to organised crime, and corruption. Shaw was found to be using the police to bug his political rivals and spy on them. A movement arose, calling for Shaw’s recall.
By the end of 1938 Frank L. Shaw became the first American mayor to be recalled from the job – and Jack Parsons … an important bit part in this tale (but the subject of next week’s podcast episode) was considered a bona fide expert – in spite of his lack of a formal education.
Next week, let’s discuss Jack Parsons – pioneering rocket scientist, famed occultist ….. and spy?
The following snippet is set 73 BC, the setting Otryae – a town in Phrygia – modern day Turkey. Two armies with long standing resentments face off against one another. One, the Roman army of the consul Lucillus – protege of the recently deceased dictator Sulla. The other, Mithridates ragtag coalition of steppe barbarians and assorted Asian nationalities. For decades, particularly since 88 BC (following an incident which will loom large in the upcoming blog and podcast episode) Rome and Pontus have been locked in a particularly bloody war for control of the near east. Hundreds of thousands would perish. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say had this played out differently, EVERYTHING would be different.
But I don’t want to get too deep into that tale right now. We’ll do that 21st April. I do, however, want to share one small incident.
It is 73 BC, and Mithridates in on the move. He’s organised a grand army of 300,000, and is off to conquer the world. Lucillus is at the head of an army of just 32,000, mostly obstinate, mutinous remnants from previous legions abandoned in Anatolia. Lucillus army has accidentally stumbled across this massive force, and is understandably unnerved by them. Mithridates responds by sending out several thousand men, commanded by one M. Varius – a Roman turncoat lent to him by Quintus Sertorius. (Sertorius a fellow turncoat, who, at this time is also at war with Rome, in modern day Spain.)
Lucillus orders his men into formation and prepares for battle. The two sides face off, eyeballing one another across a field. Any second now all hell will break loose in Otryae..
Suddenly, from high above, a meteorite bursts across the sky, and strikes just where the two armies were set to skirmish. There is a massive flash of light. And a deafening boom. And both sides are pelted with rocks and other shrapnel from the sizeable crater left in it’s wake.
The opposing armies peer into the hole in the ground – a hole considerably larger than the four foot wide object which just hit the earth. One could imagine the discomfort as both sides simultaneously work through what this omen may mean to them – while looking for a clue on their opponent’s take on the incident. Ultimately, Lucillus and Varius decided they weren’t risking the Gods wrath that day.
Both armies departed, wondering just what the hell happened.
I honestly don’t know how I’m going to cram everything into a 20 minute podcast episode on Mithridates, but it is a tale of omens, particularly from above- and blind trust in oracles proclaiming a new king of kings from the east… and a whole bunch of other things. There are many tales like that of the meteorite of Otryae which will likely be left out.
Resuming 21st April I want to share the tale of Mithridates, of a rogue mobster, a ‘crime of the century, a battle with a river monster, revisit a warrior queen, introduce an occultist who makes super-weapons, talk a little about the 19th century pastime of ‘playing the ghost’, discuss a largely forgotten prankster, and present a Maori prophet… before I take another 4 week break. I’m hoping in the interim, however, to have a couple of podcast episodes recorded (of previous blog posts) to fill the gap. And, of course, there is You Decide # 1 – Lord Lucan v Hale Boggs.