People think of the Blitz as something that happened to London, but cities all over the United Kingdom were subjected to German bombing, the pressure only coming off when the Luftwaffe switched their attention to the newly opened Eastern Front in 1941. Liverpool was one of the victims, and indeed suffered the second most intensive bombing in the country due to its westward-facing port, which was instrumental in the early Battle of the Atlantic.
It was as this time that an area of small streets wedged into the triangular junction of Great Homer Street and what is now the A59 was bombed into non-existence. After the immediate fire-fighting and rescue work were done this zone of destruction lay more-or-less untouched until 1943 when, as a later witness named William Pemberton (who lived just outside the wasted area) testified, a work crew of American soldiers armed with a bulldozer and many shovels had levelled the ground and cleared away the rubble. More to the point of our story, he also testified that he saw them uncover a metal cylinder (later measured as 6’9″ long and 19″ in diameter, or 205 by 48 centimeters) during the course of the operation. While it’s not recorded one imagines there were a few anxious moments until they determined that they’d not come across an unexploded bomb but then, reassured, it was moved off to the side of the cleared area.
Fast forward to July 1945. In the interval the cylinder became a minor part of the neighborhood. It was sometimes used by the locals as an impromptu bench and children climbed over it and rolled it around for a playground amusement. One end of the tube was closed and one had been crimped off by the bulldozer that uncovered it, and that end had re-opened enough for a boy to discover something in it: a skeletal foot.
The boy fetched P.C. Robert Baillie, on patrol on a nearby street, and he called in the detectives to start an investigation. They took the cylinder into their possession and had its 5/32-inch steel cut open by a local welder at the city mortuary, attended by a forensics expert and two coroners. In it was an entire male skeleton, about six feet tall, dressed in clothes of a late Victorian style and with a portion of hair still attached to the skull. A brick wrapped in burlap stood in stead for a pillow. Quite naturally they believed the body to be of a victim of the Blitz—a young man named Flood had never been accounted for at the time—but this was quickly ruled out.
The clothes and other remains strongly suggested that a recent victim should be ruled out anyway. There was a London North Western Railway notice indicating the arrival of goods, dated June 27, 1885 and a postcard from Birmingham dated July 3, 1885. There were two diaries for 1884 and 1885, but unfortunately they were illegible. Some papers were found under the body in a mass of adipocere and after careful restoration they were found to be a receipt and several account sheets for a company named “T.C. Williams & Co.”. There was also a gold signet ring inset with a bloodstone and hallmarked 1859, and seven badly corroded keys. The left side of the skull was damaged, though the coroner would later conclude that this had happened post-mortem—not too surprising if the remains had survived through an aerial bombing and a bulldozer driving over them.
Investigation into Merseyside history showed that there had been a paint manufacturing plant in the area, owned by one Thomas Cregeen Williams during the 1870s and 1880s. It had run into financial trouble and closed in 1884, and Williams then disappeared from the record by 1885. The coroner testified at the inquest into the discovery that he thought the man in the cylinder was perhaps ten years dead, though he allowed that 1885 was within the realm of possibility. Trying to square the more-recent date the police investigated the theory that the body might be that of a son of Williams’ known to have the same name, and that he merely had some of his fathers’ papers in his possession when visiting the site years later. This too was ruled out: he was found to have died and been buried in Leeds in 1919. Tellingly, no-one was able to find a burial record for the father.
Amazing as it was, it seemed that the body had been stuck in the cylinder for sixty years before being discovered. It was determined that it was part of a ventilation shaft, but the question that was not answered—and that remains unanswered—is how the elder Williams (if that was indeed who it was) ended up in it. Was he a suicide, despondent over the loss of his factory, who crawled into the shaft for some final privacy? Or was there a murder involved, with who-knows-who killing Williams in anger over debts or who-knows-what-else reason? Alternatively, was it just misadventure, with Williams in the shaft when he died of natural causes, or was perhaps overcome by the paint fumes that were presumably ventilated through it? A recent theory has been floated that the body was not Williams at all, but rather someone murdered in relation to the factory closing then stashed in the cylinder by him. Williams’s dropping from sight after 1885 would then be because he skipped town and changed his name, perhaps taking one of the many ships that would have left Liverpool that week for North America and points even further abroad.
Ultimately they could not find the answer. On August 20, 1945 the inquest into the matter ended with an open verdict of “death by unknown means”. The area where the cylinder was found was never built up again, so if there are any remaining clues they can be found under the sod of a triangle of open land—a residential apartment and car park at the south end, a large anchor commemorating Liverpool’s maritime history to the north—now covered by a few trees.
The last ten years or so have seen China tentatively begin exploration of the Moon, culminating as of this writing with the lunar rover Yutu, which trundled around the Mare Imbrium until felled by the cold of the lunar night. Several features on the Moon have been named after Chinese deities or scientists, but one peculiar one straddles both definitions. On the lunar far side lies the crater Wan-Hoo, named after a man often credited as the first to ride a rocket.
It’s likely that he never existed, as the first mention of his trip (which is supposed to have begun and ended in an explosion and his death) dates to the publication of the book Rockets and Jets in 1945. Author Harold Zim claimed that Wan-Hoo had done it sometime in the 16th century. An older version of the story, which uses the name Wang Tu, was printed in Scientific American in 1909. After that the trail runs cold.
That does lead to an interesting question: what was the first serious attempt at making a rocket for a person to ride? The first successful attempt was Sergei Korolev’s Soyuz rocket, which launched Yuri Gagarin in 1961—a bit surprising, as not only did he do so, he reached space, and not only did he reach space, he reached orbit. That’s an enormously difficult task and surprisingly late if you stop to think about it: the first rocket roughly large enough to hold a man for a short flight was the V2, and it had its first (partial) success on June 13th, 1942. The first rocket into space (also a V2) was slightly more than two years later, when the MW 18014 launch went 174.2 kilometers up on June 20th, 1944. Yet unless something really unusual turns up in Russian archives no-one ever rode a ballistic rocket before Gagarin.
There’s a little room to wiggle in the word “ballistic”, though. John Stapp was the first person to ride a rocket sled in December 1947, as part of a research program on deceleration’s effect on the body. He was restricted to about 150 km/h on that first run, though he’d eventually get up to 1017 kilometers per hour by the end of the program. The sled never actually left the ground, though, so when it comes to “riding a rocket” in the sense being explored here it meets the letter of the law while defying the spirit.
You can also make a case for Alexander Lippisch, the designer of the Lippisch Ente, a rocket-powered plane that first flew in 1928. After all, the history of space travel has always been in tension between two approaches, space capsules and spaceplanes—Soyuz or Shuttle. But the latter category throws up a new question: when does a regular aircraft become a rocket? The Ente used its black-powder rockets to gain speed so the wings would generate lift. The first fully ballistic rocket flight with someone on-board was the first test flight of the Bachem Ba 349 Natter, by Lothar Sieber on March 1st, 1945. Unfortunately for us (and very much more so for the pilot) it was only fully ballistic because the Natter went only about 1500 meters up and then crashed before it could switch over to aerodynamic flight—the craft was also a rocket-propelled plane. Closer, perhaps, but still not quite what we have in mind.
The other place where we have wiggle room is in “attempt”. If you’re willing to allow projects that never actually got to the point of lifting a person, a few things pop up prior to the Space Age, the outlier of which is the WWII-era spaceplane work of Eugen Sänger—a real spacecraft project but one that was restricted by its ambitiousness to prototype engines, wind tunnel tests, and preliminary blueprints. A little later all three of the Americans, Russians, and British fielded proposals for adapting to manned flight V2s captured from the defeated Axis, none of which got anywhere, and the Germans at least gave some thought to what manned craft they would follow the V2 with once the Nazis won the war.
As is often the case with rocketry firsts, it’s the Germans who can take the credit for the first serious attempt to build a manned ballistic rocket. In 1933 there were newspaper reports that the city of Magdeburg had funded a successful manned rocket flight to a height of ten kilometers, the pilot having returned as planned by parachute while his ride carried on to a crash landing in the North Sea. Willy Ley, who was vice-president of the German VfR (“Society for Space Travel”) at the time thoroughly debunked the story both then and a quarter-century later when queried on it during the burst of interest following the launch of Sputnik, but he actually went too far in dismissing it entirely. It turns out that there was a kernel of truth to it, one associated with his own group.
Contemporary reports are that a civil engineer employed by the city of Magdeburg, Franz Mengering, had enlisted a member of the VfR, Rudolf Nebel, to build a rocket that could lift a man to a kilometer high and have him return safely to Earth by parachute. The intention was to use it as a publicity stunt for the city, but Mengering was particularly interested in proving the anti-scientific theory called Hohlweltlehre—the idea that the Earth is actually inverted and we live on the inside of a sphere instead of its outside. Ultimately Mengering was hoping to shoot a rocket all the way to the far side of the world that he believed was straight above everyone’s head.
He and Nebel convinced the city to fund them to the tune of RM25,000 (US$5950 at the time, or roughly $216,000 in current terms) to build their rocket. Nebel started with a very successful liquid-fuelled sounding rocket of his own design, the Mirak (from the German “Minimum Rakete”) and got to work on a capsule that would be pulled behind a suite of Miraks—he had unusual ideas about the stability of payloads on top of a rocket, as they are virtually always launched nowadays. The result was the so-called “Magdeburg Rocket”, an unmanned prototype of the ultimately planned vehicle with one-third the thrust.
There were three unsuccessful attempts to launch the 4.6 meter tall vehicle from a field near Magdeburg starting on June 9th, 1933, but none of them cleared the launch gantry. A fourth on June 29th was relatively more successful but snagged the top of the launch tower and ended up flying sideways for 300 meters. The picture above is from this attempt. Magdeburg’s city officials had seen enough and cut their losses with a RM3200 payment to their rocket builder.
Nebel returned to his usual home of Berlin and the VfR’s testing grounds where he reworked the Magdeburg Rocket into something a bit more workable with what money remained. He actually did get it to go up one kilometer as intended, followed by an overly fast splashdown into Lake Tegel (just west of Berlin’s present-day international airport). Ultimately there were nine tests of the prototype rocket between Magdeburg and Berlin by September 1933, at which point civilian rocketry research was cut off by the Nazi government and the planned manned version came to an ignominious end.
Interestingly Nebel’s previous work on the Mirak had interested the German Army in rocketry, to the point that Lieut.-Col. Karl Becker brought it fully under the Army’s control in 1932. Nebel refused to work under the new restraints and went to Magdeburg instead. His position was then offered to and taken by Wernher von Braun—thus leading, of course, to the V2, the capture of that technology by the Allies in 1945, and ultimately to the launch of Yuri Gagarin in 1961
It’s been a long time: welcome back any and all reading this. Since we last met I’ve been off writing another blog/book, False Steps: The Space Race as it Might Have Been, and the last little while has been spent revving up for a science fiction novel. In honor of the Passing Strangeness book being published (finally!) however, I felt it was time to dust things off here and start writing about what old and weird corners of history I’ve encountered since the last post here. Feel free to take a peek at the book’s webpage, visit the sister site linked above, poke around in the archives, or just scroll down a bit to read what may become the first essay of Passing Strangeness, vol. 2.
There have been three nuclear power plant meltdowns that have captured worldwide attention and left the general public with the opinion that nuclear power is too dangerous to rely upon. The most dangerous have been the meltdowns at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2012, both of which have left large areas where no-one can live. Three Mile Island is the other name to conjure with, though it was considerably less disastrous than the other two (it rates a 5 on the INES scale of accident severity, while the other two are a 7). To this we can add the Windscale Fire, also a 5, which was covered in secrecy at the time but became a rallying point for opposition to nuclear power in Britain after it became known in later decades.
There have been several other meltdowns and partial meltdowns besides these, few even as severe as Three Mile Island, and in many cases they occurred in the early days of nuclear power when reactors were experimental and so correspondingly more dangerous. Most were clear of fatalities, but the SL-1 meltdown in 1961 killed three people. What’s particularly unusual about SL-1 is that it was at the very least a case of egregious operator error, and there exists the possibility that it was a bizarre case of murder suicide.
In 1954 the US Army began a project to evaluate nuclear reactors for use in the Arctic, as they were ramping up to build the DEW line in the extreme north of Canada and Greenland. Their requirements were strict: small, simple, low maintenance, and able to be flown in by air. They were also to be stationary (as opposed to naval submarine reactors) as well as low-power (200 kW of electricity and 400 kW of heating), hence the initials SL. The idea was to be able to set one up and forget about it, giving very isolated military installations reliable power. By 1957 they contracted the Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago, to build them an prototype reactor that met their needs; by the end of October 1958 it was built and operational on the National Reactor Testing Station, in the wide-open spaces of southeast Idaho about forty miles from Idaho Falls.
Army personnel, mixed with some Navy, began training on SL-1. What one of these trainees would have encountered on leaving the reactor’s support building and climbing the stairs to the top of the small, cylindrical building containing the reactor was something a bit like a missile silo. There was a circular working area, the center of which was taken up by the top part of the reactor where the control rods could be manipulated. The reactor and its water cooling mechanism were beneath this, descending to the ground level.
On December 21st, 1960 the reactor was shut down for maintenance, recalibration, and the installation of instruments for monitoring the neutron flux in the reactor core. Work to get the reactor back up and running began on January 3rd, 1961. On that day the reactor was configured for less power than it was designed for, 3 MW, with only 40 of 59 possible fuel assemblies in place and five (of nine) control rods. It did mean that the reactor would be more sensitive to manipulation of the control rods, though, and in particular the “one stuck rod” rule—that it should still be possible to shut down the reactor even with one rod stuck in the “completely out” position—was contravened.
In the evening of January 3rd the personnel working on the reactor were two Army Specialists, Richard L. McKinley and John A. Byrnes, and a Navy Seabee, Richard C. Legg. At 9:01, Byrnes was performing a part of the restart that required him to manually pull up the central control rod by 10 centimeters to reattach it to its drive mechanism, which was disconnected as part of the shutdown before Christmas. Post-incident calculations showed that instead the rod was abruptly lifted by 66.7cm. At 58.4cm the reactor went prompt critical. In the split second it took for the rod to travel the remaining 8.3cm, the reactor spiked to 20 GW, 6300 times its safe operating capacity.
Just prior to the spike the recommissioning protocol had dictated that the reactor be largely drained of water. Under the influence of the immense surge of power the remaining fluid caused a water hammer that that traveled through the air separating it from the top of the reactor vessel and hit it at 175 km/h. The resulting pressure smashed the entire top of the reactor into the ceiling of the reactor building at high speed.
Nine minutes later the first responders appeared, on-site fire personnel reacting to a fire alarm. They’d been dealing with false alarms most of that day and expected more of the same. At first all they saw was some vapor rising from the building, which was normal given the extreme cold (the low the night previous had been -6°, measured in Fahrenheit, which works out to about -20 Celsius). Instead their radiation detectors spiked as they climbed the stairs of the reactor building. From there the reaction to the incident steadily escalated until at 10:45 PM sufficiently protected rescue personnel managed to enter the badly damaged control room to retrieve Byrnes, who was dead, and McKinley, who was still alive but was contaminated to the point that he was emitting 500 roentgens per hour. He succumbed to head trauma shortly after, but could not have possibly survived the dose of radiation he had received even if he hadn’t died of his wounds. Fifteen minutes later they found Legg, also dead—he had been impaled to the ceiling by one of the plugs used to seal the unused control rod channels. When he was finally retrieved six days later he showed little sign of decay; the radiation had sterilized him and the immediate area of any possible microbes that might have done the job.
At first a regular explosion was suspected, and the assumption was that the high radiation levels detected were incidental after the reactor’s fuel was spread around the building, but analysis of Byrne’s gold watch showed that it was laced with highly radioactive 198Au, which was only possible if the reactor had gone critical and bombarded the watch with neutrons (that particular isotope being precisely one neutron heavier than regular, stable gold).
The question then became “Why was the central control rod moved so far?”. Ultimately the investigators settled on the theory that it had stuck in its channel when Byrnes tried to lift it, and that he was moving it back and forth to unstick it. He succeeded while pulling too hard, the rod came loose, and the three were dead before he even had an idea of what he had done.
Countering this is the fact that, while there were incidents of control rods sticking in SL-1’s past, they had all happened while the reactor was operating. The reconnecting maneuver Byrnes performed on the cool reactor had never once produced a report of a stuck rod.
Apart from their favored hypothesis, the investigators felt that they could not rule out two other possibilities: suicide, or murder-suicide on the part of Byrnes. Operators of the reactor knew the consequences of pulling out the central rod of the reactor. In a history of the Idaho nuclear reactor test range published in 2012, former operators were quoted as saying that, informally, they’d decided to do just that in the event of a Russian invasion, destroying SL-1 to deny it to the enemy.
There was probably tension on the reactor site when the three began their work shift at noon that day. Byrnes had been assigned to the program the same month as Legg, October 1959, but he’d been surpassed by his classmate and January 3rd was the first day where Legg was Byrnes’ supervisor. Things got much worse for Byrnes at 7:00 when he received a call from his wife, Arlene. Their marriage had been in trouble for some time and the Christmas break had made things worse. Over the phone she asked him for a divorce.
At the very least Byrnes was probably not focusing as well as he could when 9:01 rolled around. An accident is certainly possible, but so too is suicide. In the absence of any living witnesses to testify to his state of mind in the last two hours of his life, it’s impossible to tell. Whether it was also murder depends on how much credence you want to lend to the idea that Byrnes wanted to take Legg with him. As it happens, their new job situation was not just a source of tension between them but the latest. Several sources cite them coming to blows at a party the previous year.
One way or another, three men died in an instant. Legg is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, though his remains are in a lead-lined casket inside a metal vault with a concrete lid. Parts of all three men were so radioactive that, after they were autopsied they were not buried religiously but rather treated as dangerous waste and moved with other dangerous residue of the accident to a site 500 meters northeast of SL-1’s former site—it being deemed too dangerous to move all of it by public highway for 26 kilometers to the site normally used for radioactive waste. Along with those mortal remains of the men killed by the only fatal reactor accident in US history, the ultimate reason for the explosion lies sandwiched between native basalt bedrock and tons of rip rap in a dry and dusty part of rural Idaho, never to see the light of day again.
Meltdown: The SL-1 Nuclear Accident, a contemporary training film presenting the accident the nuclear professionals, now on YouTube. Contains a great deal of footage of the cleanup effort.
Proving the Principle – A History of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, 1949-1999. A free book (in PDF format) outlining the history of the whole time and place, including one chapter devoted to SL-1 both before and after the accident. Page 149 is the source of the information that the operators knew what would happen if the central control rod was removed.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m happy to say that the Passing Strangeness e-book is nearly ready to be published. I’ll have more details for you within a few weeks.
As it starts to wrap up and I wait out a variety of bureaucratic processes, I’ve begun a new book project False Steps. As before, work will be posted beforehand in a blog, which can be found here. In it I hope to trace a variety of ways in which the Space Race (which I’ve generously expanded outside of the usual 1957-1969 time frame to 1939-Present Day) might have gone. If you liked the Passing Strangeness posts Orbital Longshot and The Ghost Rockets, it just might be your cup of tea. Regardless, I invite you to come on over and check it out — Paul Drye
Beneath Land’s End and Scilly rocks
Sunk lies a town that Ocean mocks.
– Unattributed rhyme from Legend Land, Volume 2, George Basil Barham, published in 1924
The Isles of Scilly barely enter into history. About the only major event associated with them was the Scilly Naval Disaster of 1707, when the gloriously named Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell sailed a significant fraction of the British Navy into their shallow waters, losing four ships and approximately 1,400 sailors’ lives—including his own. The disaster led to the solution of the Longitude Problem by means of naval chronometers, and as these precise clocks spread they and their descendants revolutionized war, industry, trade, and science. Thank Admiral Shovell when the alarm clock wakes you tomorrow morning. However, the other particularly interesting thing about the Isles of Scilly looks back into the past rather than forward into the Industrial Age.
Britain is lousy with towns and even entire lands lost to the sea. H.P. Lovecraft was influenced by the story of Dunwich in Suffolk: one of the most important towns in medieval England, it was progressively swept into the ocean after a storm surge hit it in 1286. A bit further east the central part of the North Sea covers Doggerland, which was above sea level during the last Ice Age and only submerged about 6500 BC; the author owns a chunk of mammoth tusk dredged up from the area. The effect of the Ice Age on Britain hit Scilly too, but in a less obvious way. The southern half of Britain is further underwater than it should be after accounting for the melting of ancient ice caps, while the north is, in places, actually higher than it was at the Last Glacial Maximum, 20,000 years ago. This is because one of the ice caps was actually on Scotland and Northern England, and the weight of the ice pressed that section of the island down. Now that the ice has been removed, Britain has been slowly rebalancing itself, and the southern reaches are subsiding as the north rebounds, like a great tectonic see-saw.
This post-glacial rebound is continuing even as we speak, so the Isles of Scilly—literally the most southern point of England—have changed well into the last couple of millennia. It’s worth looking at the British Admiralty’s depth charts for the waters around the islands. The rather small brown areas are the present-day Isles, while the green represents flats that can become exposed if the tide is low enough. The blue area is a rough approximation of what Scilly would have been like some time in the past, with a depth of four meters or less. As you can see, this produces a single large island (sometimes called Ennor after a castle on the largest of the present islands, St. Mary’s) out of most of the plural, 21st century Scillies. The main difficulty here is knowing just when this island existed. Charles Thomas, emeritus Professor of Cornish Studies at Exeter University has suggested it disappeared some time around 1600 BC, but others have suggested that it existed until more recently—possibly as late as 500 AD. It’s worth noting that the Roman name for the Isles, Scillonia insula, is singular.
If the latter is true then Ennor existed well into the Celtic period of Britain, which is interesting because there are several legends about drowned lands in Celtic mythology. Readers who know their Thomas Malory (or Jack Vance) are aware of Lyonesse, home of the Arthurian Tristan, and Lyonesse has long been associated with the Isles of Scilly. However, there are signs that the association is a 16th-century invention. The first known mentions of Lyonesse in literature are just variations on Lodonesia, which is the Roman name for Lothian in Scotland; “Tristan” itself is just a variant, via Latin, of the Pictish royal name “Drust″. The identity of Lyonesse and Scilly (or, rather, the Seven Stones Reef , deathbed of the Torrey Canyon, to the northeast) wasn’t entirely cemented until Alfred, Lord Tennyson got his hands on it in his mid-19th century Idylls of the King.
All is not lost, however. The Celtic legends go deeper than Lyonesse, to stories such as Brittany’s Ker-Is (or Caer Ys, if you prefer the more common Welsh or Narnian spelling to the Breton). It too is a sunken land, this time placed in Douarnenez Bay south-east of Brest. There is even a potential connection between it and Scilly: Mont Saint-Michel is not too far away on the border between Brittany and Normandy and it was the sister house of the remarkably similar-looking St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall—right where the British coast is closest to Scilly and where a drowned forest can be seen at low tide. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to suppose a Breton monk, familiar with the story of Ker-Is, being transferred to St. Michael’s Mount when it was gifted to the Norman monastery in the 11th century and him making the obvious inference when he saw what was in the water.
On the other hand, the story may be entirely native. The Welsh have a similar legend, Cantre’r Gwaelod, which is supposed to be a drowned hundred in Cardigan Bay. If it comes down to it, the story could even be both native and imported. After all, Brittany was colonized by Britons from Wales and Cornwall in the 4th and 6th centuries (a trek legendarily led by a Welsh prince whose name hits two fantasy heroes in one blow, Conan Meriadoc). Ker-Is may just be the colonists’ version of Cantre’r Gwaelod, 1500 years on.
The main difficulty with fitting Ennor to any of these stories is that they’re all of sudden inundation. Most are about sinful lands suffering the wrath of God and feature a single survivor literally galloping his horse away from the clawing waves—a myth memorialized in the coat of arms of the Trevelyan family of Cornwall. The flooding of Scilly’s central plain would have taken many years; a snail could have escaped, let alone a horse. Still, this isn’t a fatal rupture of the connection between the two. Human beings have a knack for making stories more interesting, and it’s not too difficult to see a folk tale that “once there were farms under the bay” slowly turn into a story of dash and adventure, especially under the influence of the biblical story of Noah.
Ultimately, we’ll learn more about Ennor only through archaeological investigation. Surprisingly for the heritage-mad United Kingdom there’s never been a large-scale investigation of the waters around the present-day isles. But the so-called Lyonesse Project began in 2009, and is to run until 2011. Its goal is to determine what the Isles of Scilly were like prior to inundation. Results are expected in the next few months.