Category: Articles

The Zero-Armed Bandit

“I don’t think it belongs here.” Such was the assessment of Bob Vinson, the graveyard shift supervisor at Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The “here” Vinson referred to was a nook just outside the telephone equipment room in the employees-only portion of the second floor of the hotel. The “it” was a curious piece of equipment of unknown origin loitering conspicuously in the cramped side room. It was a metallic gray box about the size of a desk, with a smaller box attached on top near the rear right corner. The front face of the smaller box was an incomprehensible control panel occupied by 28 metal toggle switches in five neat rows, each labeled with a numbered sticker. All of these switches were situated in the down position except for #23, which was toggled up—an oddly ominous asymmetry.

It was approximately 6:30am on Tuesday, 26 August 1980, and although Bob Vinson had been on shift all night long, he hadn’t heard any large equipment delivery commotion from his nearby office, and he was sure this thing hadn’t been there an hour earlier. Whoever had left the machine had taken the time to place each corner on blocks of wood, and these blocks pressed deep dimples into the red-orange carpet, suggesting that the equipment had significant mass. In spite of its resemblance to some kind of manufactured electromechanical office machine, it had no power cord, and no obvious power switch, just the 28 enigmatic toggles. To add alarm to intrigue, Vinson had found that some of the keyholes for the doors leading into the area had been hastily jammed using what appeared to be toothpicks and glue.

An envelope with “Harvey’s Management” typewritten on one side lay on the carpet alongside the object. Vinson was reasonably suspicious that the envelope did not contain anything as harmless as an invoice. “Stay here,” Vinson instructed the custodian who had been examining the mystery object with him. “Don’t touch it. Don’t let anyone fool with it. I’ll be right back.”

Vinson soon returned with companions, having summoned members of Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino security, who had subsequently summoned sheriff ‘s deputies and the fire department. After prodding the envelope with a broomstick to ensure it wasn’t booby-trapped, those to whom it was concerned gingerly extracted three pages of typed text from the envelope. The letter claimed that this device was a bomb.

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The Derelict

Under ordinary circumstances, the final evening of a cruise aboard the luxury turbo-electric ocean liner SS Morro Castle was a splendid event. Hundreds of lady and gentlemen passengers would gather in the Grand Ballroom in their finest evening attire for the customary Farewell Dinner, where veteran sailor Captain Willmott would captivate his guests with salty tales from his years at sea over endless glasses of champagne. Reality, bills, hangovers, and economic depression were all far away, on the other end of tomorrow morning’s gangplank in New York. But on the night of Friday, the 7th of September 1934, circumstances aboard ship were not ordinary. Passengers were indeed draped in their finery in the ballroom, yet the captain’s chair at the captain’s table was conspicuously vacant. He had somewhat suddenly felt unwell. And atop the typical worries lurking outside were two near-hurricane-force storms, one approaching from the north and another from the south. The agitated sea and gusty winds were beginning to cause some sway in the decks, putting already-eaten entrées in danger of unscheduled egress. The surly weather was bound to be a considerable distraction.

Nevertheless, the Morro Castle was a large and modern cruise ship quite capable of handling inclement weather. Chief Warms was in command of the bridge for the night shift, and he knew well enough to keep her slicing through the sea near top speed to minimize passenger discomfort. The ship made 20 knots against a gale-force headwind, so shuffleboard was out of the question, but in the Grand Ballroom, festooned with colorful flags and balloons, drinks were drunk and rugs were cut. The waitstaff served a steady supply of Cuban lobster broiled in butter, ham in champagne sauce, roast turkey, and candied sweet potatoes. The ship’s orchestra served a steady supply of dance tunes.

The Morro Castle Orchestra
The Morro Castle Orchestra

Just before 8:00pm, the orchestra abruptly stopped playing mid-song. The previously foxtrotting passengers turned to see what was the matter, and there at the bandstand they saw cruise director Bob Smith beckoning for everyone’s attention. He announced that he had some sad news to share. Their captain, Robert Willmott, had died suddenly in his quarters. The official farewell party and dance contest were therefore canceled, but the orchestra and barkeeps would remain on station late into the evening for passengers who wished to linger. Smith instructed the passengers to have a pleasant evening, and departed.

The ship’s doctor had determined the captain’s cause of death as “heart attack brought on by acute indigestion.” He had been just 52 years old. William Warms and the other officers were shocked and saddened by the turn of events, but there was also an unmistakable undertow of apprehension on the bridge. In recent weeks Captain Willmott had confided in some of his fellow officers that he had reason to believe that a “red” was aboard the ship plotting revenge against the Morro Castle and her captain. Although Willmott had never seemed particularly prone to paranoia, his remarks had been dismissed as such. The wild sabotage speculations were more difficult to ignore under the new circumstances, but scrutiny would have to wait. Chief Warms—now Acting Captain Warms—was understandably anxious. It was he who had discovered the captain’s body face-down and motionless in his bathtub, and he was having trouble keeping the image out of his mind. Now he was obliged to assume command during some of the worst sailing weather he had ever seen, and he had already been awake for over twenty-four hours. Even if sleep had been possible under such conditions, there was no time for it. It was going to be a long night.

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Surface Tension

Low-pressure weather systems are a familiar feature of the winter climate in the northern Atlantic. While they often drive wind, rain, and other unpleasantness against Europe’s rocky western margin, this is typically on a “mostly harmless” basis. Early in the evening of 31 January 1953, the weather in northern Europe was damp, chilly, and blustery. These unremarkable seasonal conditions disguised the fact that a storm of extreme severity was massing nearby, and that an ill-fated assortment of meteorological, geophysical, and human factors would soon coalesce into an almost unprecedented watery catastrophe.

The storm scudded past the northern tip of Scotland and took an unusual southerly detour, shifting towards a low-lying soft European overbelly of prime agricultural, industrial, and residential land. The various people, communities, and countries in its path differed in their readiness and in their responses to the looming crisis, yet the next 24 hours were about to teach them all some enduring lessons. In a world that remains awash with extreme weather events—and with increasing numbers of people living in vulnerable coastal areas—the story of this particular storm system’s collision with humanity remains much-studied by emergency planners, and much-remembered in the three countries it so fatally struck.

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Welcome to the Jungle

In 1744, a young geographer living in Spanish-colonial Peru with his wife and children decided the time had come to move the family back to his native France. Jean Godin des Odonais had come to Peru in 1735 as a part of a small scientific expedition and had ended up staying much longer than expected. He’d married a young woman from a local aristocratic family and now the couple had two children and a third on the way. But news from France eventually brought word of Godin’s father’s death, meaning that there was an inheritance to sort out. It was time to return.

Making travel arrangements from such a distance, however, was going to be a challenge. Perhaps, Godin reasoned, he and his family could travel to the colony of French Guiana at the other end of the Amazon River, then find places on a ship back to France. In order to establish whether this was plausible, Godin decided to travel ahead to French Guiana and make inquiries.

From its headwaters in Peru, the Amazon goes downhill. From this point, virtually everything for Jean and Isabel Godin did the same. Left behind, Isabel spent years waiting for word from her husband. Eventually, due to an improbable series of mishaps and misery, Isabel ended up stranded alone in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, hopelessly lost and so far into starvation that her chances of survival were vanishingly small.

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White Death

In April of 1938, representatives from the USSR approached the Finnish government and expressed a concern that Nazi Germany could attempt to invade Russia, and such an attack might come through parts of Finland. The Finns replied that they were officially neutral, but any Nazi incursion on Finland’s borders would be resisted. This did not mollify the Soviets. Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, was published thirteen years previous with specific note that the Nazis would need to invade the Soviet Union. The Red Army was determined to “advance to meet the enemy” and refused to accept promises from the smaller country. As negotiations continued, the Soviets tried to coax Finland into leasing or ceding some area to serve as a buffer to Leningrad. In November 1939, however, all negotiations ceased, and on 30 November 1939 the Soviet Red Army invaded Finland.

In the municipality of Rautjärvi near the Soviet/Finnish border, 34-year-old Simo Häyhä was a farmer and hunter leading a flagrantly unexciting life. Upon news of the hostilities, he gathered up food, plain white camouflage, and his iron-sighted SAKO M/28-30—a variant of the Soviet Mosin-Nagant rifle—and went to defend his country. Before the four-month war ended, humble Häyhä would gain infamy among the Russian invaders, and come to be known as the “White Death.”

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Cry Havoc, and Let Slip the Spuds of War

Staple though it is today, the lowly potato had a hard time reaching its preeminent status in Western cuisine. Perhaps its lengthy purgatory has something to do with the tale that when Sir Walter Raleigh gave some potatoes to Queen Elizabeth, her cooks tossed aside the roots and served up the boiled greens instead, causing a court-wide case of indigestion. Whether that’s the case or not—and there’s no evidence that Raleigh ever so much as set eyes on a potato—for decades Europeans would have nothing to do with the tuber. At best, it was found useful to feed the cattle. At worst, it was considered a leprosy-inducing invention of the devil.

This belief was particularly pernicious in the fair fields of France, a country at the time holding a quarter of Europe’s inhabitants despite its periodic decimation by epidemic and famine. By the beginning of the 17th century France’s population had reached twenty million and continued to rise. Clearly, a cheap, plentiful, and resilient crop was just what the nutritionist ordered, yet even in the face of the brutal demographic crises that popped up every ten to fifteen years over the next two centuries, each time lopping two or three million inhabitants off the non-existent voting rolls, the potato remained unpondered, unprized, and unplanted.

Clearly, the potato needed a champion. What it got was a pharmacist.

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Absolute Zero is 0K

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Near the heart of Scotland lies a large morass known as Dullatur Bog. Water seeps from these moistened acres and coalesces into the headwaters of a river which meanders through the countryside for nearly 22 miles until its terminus in Glasgow. In the late 19th century this river adorned the landscape just outside of the laboratory of Sir William Thompson, renowned scientist and president of the Royal Society. The river must have made an impression on Thompson—when Queen Victoria granted him the title of Baron in 1892, he opted to adopt the river’s name as his own. Sir William Thompson was thenceforth known as Lord Kelvin.

Kelvin’s contributions to science were vast, but he is perhaps best known today for the temperature scale that bears his name. It is so named in honor of his discovery of the coldest possible temperature in our universe. Thompson had played a major role in developing the Laws of Thermodynamics, and in 1848 he used them to extrapolate that the coldest temperature any matter can become, regardless of the substance, is -273.15°C (-459.67°F). We now know this boundary as zero Kelvin.

Once this absolute zero temperature was decisively identified, prominent Victorian scientists commenced multiple independent efforts to build machines to explore this physical frontier. Their equipment was primitive, and the trappings were treacherous, but they pressed on nonetheless, dangers be damned. There was science to be done.

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It Came from Beneath the Sea

Alarming events were in store for Sicily at the beginning of the summer of 1831. On 28 June, small earthquakes rocked the western end of the island, and these continued occurring day after day. On 4 July, the unpleasant scent of sulfur spread through the town of Sciacca. On the 13th, the people of St. Domenico spotted smoke from far offshore. Normally, volcanic activity would be the obvious culprit, but these black plumes were out on the water. Maybe, the residents suggested to one another, a boat was on fire. The crew of a passing ship had other ideas: the captain noted that the water under the smoke was bubbling vigorously. He was convinced that what they were dealing with was a sea monster. But a second ship brought reports of masses of dead fish in the water, entirely undevoured.

This disturbance was, in fact, a volcano erupting from just under the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. By the 17th of July, a new island some 25 feet high had appeared off the coast of Sicily. And that was only the beginning. The volcano went on spewing lava over the course of the next week until the island was four times its original height and seven kilometers around, with two peaks and even two small lakes. The new island lay between Europe and Africa right where the Mediterranean narrowed, putting it in the middle of an ongoing flurry of nautical trade and military maneuvers. Several countries observed simultaneously that the infant rock would likely prove extremely valuable to whichever country owned it, and at least three of them raced to claim it. As it turned out, none of them would succeed.

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