Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

History of Science and Technology

The wreck of the 1908 Wright Flyer that seriously injured Orville Wright and killed Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, the first person to die as the result of an airplane accident; September 17th, 1908

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During flight trials to win a contract from the U.S. Army Signal Corps, pilot Orville Wright and passenger Lt. Thomas Selfridge crash in a Wright Flyer at Fort Myer, Virginia. Wright is injured, and Selfridge becomes the first passenger to die in an airplane accident.

After Wilbur and Orville Wright made their historic first-ever airplane flight Dec. 17, 1903, they spent the next few years largely in seclusion developing their new invention. By the end of 1905 their interest in aviation had changed from curiosity and the challenge of flying, to the business of how to turn aviation into an industry: They were looking for a business model.

Unfortunately their first attempts to attract the United States government to the idea of using airplanes were turned down. The military just didn’t see how the airplane could be used in any practical way.

For two-and-a-half years the Wright brothers did not fly. They continued to work on their airplane, but put more and more time into building the business. Eventually they were able to attract interest from both the French and British governments, but by 1907 they still did not have any firm contracts.

But the Wright brothers were awarded two contracts in 1908: one from the U.S. Army and the other from a French business. The Army contract was for a bid to fly a two-man “heavier-than-air” flying machine that would have to complete a series of trials over a measured course. In addition to the $25,000 (about $600,000 in today’s buying power) bid, the brothers would receive a $2,500 bonus for every mile per hour of speed faster than 40 mph. No supersonic stealth fighters just yet.

Because they had not flown since October 1905, the brothers returned to Kitty Hawk to test their new controls to be used on the Wright Flyer in the Army flight trials. Despite some difficulty getting used to the new controls, both brothers managed to get some practice flying in during the stay in North Carolina.

Wilbur was in France during the summer of 1908 demonstrating the new Wright Flyer to Europeans (video). Orville remained in the United States and on Sept. 3 made his first flight at Fort Myer, where the Army trials were set to begin.

The flight tests set out by the Army required the airplane to carry two people for a set duration, distance and speed. There was a committee of five officers to evaluate the Wright Flyer’s performance, including the 26-year-old Selfridge.

Selfridge was a member of the Aerial Experiment Association and had designed the group’s first powered airplane. The Red Wing first flew on March 12, 1908, but crashed and was destroyed on its second flight a few days later.

During the first two weeks of September Orville made 15 flights at Fort Myer. He set three world records Sept. 9, including a 62-minute flight and the first public passenger flight. By Sept. 12 Orville had flown more than 74 minutes in a single flight and carried Maj. George Squier for more than 9 minutes in one flight.

On Sept. 17 Orville was flying Selfridge on another of the test flights. Three or four minutes into the flight, a blade on one of the two wooden propellers split and caused the engine to shake violently. Orville shut down the engine but was unable to control the airplane.

The propeller had hit a bracing wire and pulled a rear rudder from the vertical position to a horizontal position. This caused the airplane to pitch nose-down, and it could not be countered by the pilot.

The Wright Flyer hit the ground hard, and both men were injured. Orville suffered a fractured leg and several broken ribs. Selfridge suffered a fractured skull and died in the hospital a few hours later.

Despite the crash, and the first passenger death in an airplane, the Army was significantly impressed with the Wright Flyer and allowed the brothers to complete the trials the following year. They were awarded the contract. Along with success in France, the Wright brothers were well on their way to establishing what would become one of the most successful aviation companies during the early days of flying.

Because of the crash, the first Army pilots were required to wear helmets similar to early football helmets in order to minimize the chance of a head injury like the one that killed Selfridge.

Though the early days of aviation continued to be full of danger, airplane travel today is statistically one of the safest modes of transportation based on passenger miles traveled. Between 1995 and 2000 there were about 3 deaths per 10 billion passenger miles flown.

(Source)


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French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne triggers the expression of ‘terror’ on a subject through electrical stimulation the mimetic muscles; ca. 1862

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Fireball of Castle Bravo, the largest nuclear device ever detonated by the United States of America. The picture was taken from about 40,000 feet, Bikini Atoll; ca. 1954

In a distant laboratory, a Soviet scientist looking at a seismograph had a distinct feeling of discomfort.

The photo was taken from a plane flying 75 nautical miles from ground zero, from an altitude of 12,500 feet. The fireball is over 4 miles wide.

A Japanese fishing boat, Daigo Fukuryu Maru, came in direct contact with the fallout. The fallout, fine white flaky dust of calcinated Bikini Island coral, had absorbed highly radioactive fission products, and fell on the ship for three hours. The fishermen scooped it into bags with their bare hands. The dust stuck to surfaces, bodies and hair; after the radiation sickness symptoms appeared, the fishermen called it shi no hai (死の灰?, death ash). The crew members, suffering from nausea, headaches, burns, pain in the eyes, bleeding from the gums, and other symptoms, were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome and admitted to two Tokyo hospitals. Seven months after the test on September 23, chief radio operator Mr. Aikichi Kuboyama, 40, died — the first Japanese victim of a hydrogen bomb. He left these words: “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.”

This resulted in an international uproar and reignited Japanese concerns about radiation, especially in regard that Japanese citizens were once more adversely affected by U.S. nuclear weapons.

The Japanese and U.S. governments quickly reached a political settlement and paid out US$2 million to the surviving victims, each receiving about ¥ 2 million each ($5,550 in 1954, $47,400 in 2013). It was also agreed that the victims would not be given Hibakusha status.


The first light of the Trinity test, the first atomic bomb detonation, burns through film emulsion. New Mexico, July 16th, 1945, 5:30am

"If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one ..."

The photo was by Brlyn Brixner. He was a real innovator in photography and an official photographer for the Manhattan Project. Brixner had something like 50 cameras set up that day, of all different types. Some could record at speeds of 10,000 frames per second.

If you watch the film footage that Brixner shot, you can see that the ball goes out of the frame briefly before the camera shoots up to follow it. This was Brixner’s fault. As he later said in an interview:

I was so amazed, though, initially that I just let the camera sit there. Then suddenly I realized that the ball of fire was going out of the field of view… for the first twenty seconds on the standard-speed camera it’s just sitting stationary, then suddenly you will see the field of view jump as the ball of fire is going out of the top of the frame.


Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell created the first color photograph in history, entitled “Tartan Ribbon”; ca. 1861

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Best known for his development of electromagnetic theory, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell dabbled in color theory throughout his life, eventually producing the first color photograph in 1861. Maxwell created the image of the tartan ribbon shown here by photographing it three times through red, blue, and yellow filters, then recombining the images into one color composite.


Restored color photograph of members of the Antarctic Shackleton Expedition and their dogs; ca. 1915

Spoiler alert: journey did not end well for the dogs.

Spoiler alert: journey did not end well for the dogs.


Man riding a monowheel; ca. 1931

With 2 or three revisions from 1923 to at least 1933 the Motoruota was the most enduring Monowheel model of it's time. Here in 1931 with a Swiss customer, Mr Gerdes in Arles, France en route to Spain.

With 2 or three revisions from 1923 to at least 1933 the Motoruota was the most enduring Monowheel model of it’s time. Here in 1931 with a Swiss customer, Mr Gerdes in Arles, France en route to Spain.

A monowheel is a one-wheeled single-track vehicle similar to a unicycle. However, instead of sitting above the wheel, the rider sits either within it or next to it. The wheel is a ring, usually driven by smaller wheels pressing against its inner rim. Most are single-passenger vehicles, though multi-passenger models have been built.

Hand-cranked and pedal-powered monowheels were built in the late 19th century; most built in the 20th century have been motorized. Some modern builders refer to these vehicles as monocycles, though that term is also sometimes used to describe motorized unicycles.

Today, monowheels are generally built and used for fun and entertainment purposes, though from the 1860s through to the 1930s, they were proposed for use as serious transportation.

(Source)



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The disaster at the 1955 Le Mans endurance race – “Eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh died at the scene, whilst 120 more were injured in the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.”

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The 1955 Le Mans disaster occurred during the 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race, when Pierre Levegh’s state of the art Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR ran into Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey 100 and crashed into the audience, causing large fragments of racing car debris to fly into the crowd. Eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh perished at the scene with 120 more injured in the most catastrophic accident in motorsport history.

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Pierre Levegh’s body lies on the track after his fatal accident at Le Mans

(Levegh’s car had a special magnesium alloy body that burned incredibly hot when it ignited and water obviously doesn’t help with magnesium fires.)



How the accident happened:

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The 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans began on 11 June 1955, with Pierre Levegh behind the wheel of the #20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR run by Daimler-Benz. American John Fitchwas Levegh’s assigned partner in the car, and he would take over driving duties later. Competition between Mercedes, Jaguar, Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Maseratiwas close, with all the marques fighting for the top positions early on. The race was extremely fast, with lap records being repeatedly broken.

At the end of Lap 35, Levegh was following Mike Hawthorn’s leading Jaguar D-type, just as they were entering the pit straight. Hawthorn had just passed Lance Macklin’s slower Austin-Healey 100 when he belatedly noticed a pit signal to stop for fuel. Hawthorn slowed suddenly in an effort to stop rather than make another lap. Hawthorn’s Jaguar, with the new disc brakes, could decelerate much faster than other cars using drum brakes, such as Levegh’s Mercedes. The sudden, unexpected braking by Hawthorn caused Macklin in the Healey to brake hard, throwing up a small cloud of dust in front of Levegh, who trailed close behind. Macklin then swerved across the centre of the track, attempting to re-pass the slowing Jaguar, but also apparently out of control. Macklin had not noticed Levegh nor Juan Manuel Fangio, in another 300 SLR, approaching rapidly from behind. Fangio was in second place at the time, but directly behind, and attempting to lap Levegh.

Levegh, ahead of Fangio on the track, did not have time to react. Levegh’s car made contact with the left rear of Macklin’s car as he closed rapidly (at about 240 km/h (150 mph)) upon the slowed car.

When Levegh’s 300 SLR hit Macklin’s Austin-Healey from behind, his car became airborne, soaring towards the left side of the track, where it landed atop the earthen embankment separating spectators from the track itself. The car struck the mound at such speed and angle that it was launched into a somersault, which caused some parts of the car, already damaged and loosened by the collision, to be flung from the vehicle at very great speeds. This included the bonnet and the front axle, both of which separated from the frame and flew through the crowd.

The bonnet decapitated tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine. With the front of the spaceframe chassis—and thus crucial engine mounts—destroyed, the car’s heavy engine block also broke free and hurtled into the crowd. Spectators who had climbed onto trestle tables to get a better view of the track found themselves in the direct path of the lethal debris. Levegh was thrown free of the tumbling car, and his skull was fatally crushed when he landed.

As the somersaulting remains of the 300 SLR decelerated, the rear-mounted fuel tank ruptured. The ensuing fuel fire raised the temperature of the remaining Elektron bodywork past its ignition temperature, which was lower than other metal alloys due to its high magnesium content. The alloy burst into white-hot flames, sending searing embers onto the track and into the crowd. Rescue workers, totally unfamiliar with magnesium fires, poured water on the inferno, greatly intensifying the fire. As a result, the car burned for several hours. Official accounts put the death total at 84 (83 spectators plus Levegh), either by flying debris or from the fire, with a further 120 injured. Other observers estimated the toll to be much higher.

Fangio, driving behind Levegh, narrowly escaped the heavily damaged Austin-Healey, which was now skidding to the right of the track, across his path. Macklin then hit the pit wall and bounced back to the left, crossing the track again. He struck the barrier near the location of the now burning 300 SLR, causing the death of a spectator, although Macklin survived the incident without serious injury.

(Source)


Aftermath:

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Alan Shepard being recovered from the Freedom 7 capsule after the first American human spaceflight; May 5th, 1961

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Another angle:

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(Here is NASA’s full click through gallery of this mission)


Crater from the “Sedan” underground nuclear test as part of Operation Plowshare in Nevada. The 104 kiloton blast displaced 12 million tons of earth and created a crater 320 feet deep and 1,280 feet wide; ca. 1962

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There’s an urban legend that says that this blast is responsible for John Wayne’s death (and most of the film crew) due to cancer:

Of the 220 persons who worked on The Conqueror on location in Utah in 1955, 91 had contracted cancer as of the early 1980s and 46 died of it, including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell. Experts say under ordinary circumstances only 30 people out of a group of that size should have gotten cancer. The cause? No one can say for sure, but many attribute the cancers to radioactive fallout from U.S. atom bomb tests in nearby Nevada.

The Conqueror, a putative love story involving Genghis Khan’s lust for the beautiful princess Bortai (Hayward), was a classic Hollywood big budget fiasco, one of many financed by would-be movie mogul Howard Hughes. Originally director Powell wanted to get Marlon Brando for the lead, but John Wayne, then at the height of his popularity, happened to see the script one day and decided he and Genghis were meant for each other. Unfortunately, the script was written in a cornball style that was made even more ludicrous by the Duke’s wooden line readings. In the following sample, Wayne/Genghis has just been urged by his sidekick Jamuga not to attack the caravan carrying Princess Bortai: “There are moments fer wisdom, Juh-mooga, then I listen to you–and there are moments fer action — then I listen to my blood. I feel this Tartar wuh-man is fer me, and my blood says, ‘TAKE HER!'” In the words of one writer, it was the world’s “most improbable piece of casting unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in The King of Kings.”

The movie was shot in the canyonlands around the Utah town of St. George. Filming was chaotic. The actors suffered in 120 degree heat, a black panther attempted to take a bite out of Susan Hayward, and a flash flood at one point just missed wiping out everybody. But the worst didn’t become apparent until long afterward. In 1953, the military had tested 11 atomic bombs at Yucca Flats, Nevada, which resulted in immense clouds of fallout floating downwind. Much of the deadly dust funneled into Snow Canyon, Utah, where a lot of The Conqueror was shot. The actors and crew were exposed to the stuff for 13 weeks, no doubt inhaling a fair amount of it in the process, and Hughes later shipped 60 tons of hot dirt back to Hollywood to use on a set for retakes, thus making things even worse.

Many people involved in the production knew about the radiation (there’s a picture of Wayne himself operating a Geiger counter during the filming), but no one took the threat seriously at the time. Thirty years later, however, half the residents of St. George had contracted cancer, and veterans of the production began to realize they were in trouble. Actor Pedro Armendariz developed cancer of the kidney only four years after the movie was completed, and later shot himself when he learned his condition was terminal.

Howard Hughes was said to have felt “guilty as hell” about the whole affair, although as far as I can tell it never occurred to anyone to sue him. For various reasons he withdrew The Conqueror from circulation, and for years thereafter the only person who saw it was Hughes himself, who screened it night after night during his paranoid last years.

(Source)