Tag Archives: Engineering

Faxes From the Far Side

On the 10th of January 1956—about a decade into the Cold War and about a year into the Space Race—the United States Air Force launched the first vehicle in its top secret Genetrix program. The vehicle was a balloon—an enormous, 200-foot-tall, 100-foot-wide helium balloon—the first of hundreds that the US would ultimately launch from sites in Scotland, Norway, Germany, and Turkey. Upon release, each balloon ascended into the stratosphere, where the winter jet stream was perfectly situated to carry it over and across the interior of the USSR. A coffin-sized gondola dangled from the bottom of each balloon, housing a set of downward-facing high-resolution cameras. Whenever an onboard photocell detected that the surface below was illuminated by daylight, these cameras snapped periodic photographs. The Genetrix balloons were some of the original high-altitude spy cameras—precursors to spy planes and satellites.

Whenever a balloon cleared Soviet airspace, the US Air Force sent an encoded radio signal that would detonate a small explosive charge on the gondola’s attachment line. If all went according to plan, a specially equipped C-119 airplane would be loitering in the nearby airspace, ready to snag the parachuting payload of photographic film in mid-air. Once retrieved, the film was sent back to the states to be developed and analyzed.

Launching a Genetrix balloon
Launching a Genetrix balloon

The Genetrix balloons were designed to be practically invisible to radar, using very thin balloon film and a gondola much smaller than a typical aircraft. And this might have worked were it not for the fact that one of the steel rods in the balloon rigging was 91 centimeters long. US Air Force engineers didn’t realize it at the time, but 91 centimeters happened to correspond to one of the frequencies used by Soviet early-warning radar. This caused the otherwise inconsequential rod to resonate and glint like a mirror on Soviet radar screens.

Soviet leaders were understandably annoyed when their military pilots reported back regarding the nature of these radar reflections. US officials replied that these were innocuous weather balloons for the study of cloud formations, a claim which was roundly ridiculed. During the day, there was little the Soviets could do about it apart from political posturing—the balloons cruised at 55,000 feet, which was higher than Soviet weapons could reach. But MiG fighter pilots soon discovered they could shoot the balloons out of the sky at sunrise. The chill of the night robbed the balloons of some of their buoyancy, and they dipped down into weapons range.

The Genetrix program lasted only 27 days. It had originally been planned to continue indefinitely, but president Eisenhower cancelled any further spy balloon launches due to the Soviets’ strenuous diplomatic protests. Of the 500 or so spy balloons that were launched, only about 50 camera gondolas were successfully recovered by the US Air Force. These provided over 10,000 reconnaissance photos of inland Soviet Union and China, including first peeks at nuclear and radar facilities.

The Soviets recovered a number of the gondolas themselves, and engineers began to dissect them, seeking useful information. To their surprise, they found something inside that happened to solve a little problem they had been having with one of their upcoming space missions: temperature-resistant and radiation-hardened photographic film.

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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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The City Under Ice

Another experimental audio article: The story of Camp Century: A "nuclear city" under the Greenland ice sheet that was not entirely what it seemed.


ALAN: This is Damn Interesting.

In 1946, the United States sent a political delegation to the kingdom of Denmark. Their objective: acquire the island of Greenland.

Greenland is perhaps best known as the land mass with the most misleading name in history. Greenland is very much not green. The large island lies north of Canada near the North Pole, so most of the land is caked in permanent ice all year long, thousands of feet thick. It is almost entirely frozen and inhospitable. As you may know, the name Greenland was specifically designed to draw in gullible settlers. As the story goes, in 982 AD an Icelander named Erik the Red was exiled due to “some killings,” so he and his entourage sailed northwest where there were rumored to be unclaimed lands. They named their new settlement Greenland in hopes of tempting other Nordic settlers to sail right on past Iceland in favor of these allegedly greener shores. The strategy was only modestly successful.

Ownership of the island was ambiguous for centuries, but in 1933 the Permanent Court of International Justice, a body which no longer exists, decided to grant official control of Greenland to Denmark, which would govern the island from 3000 km away, which takes us back to the US delegation offering to buy Greenland in the 1940s. Despite the island’s cold and hostile demeanor, the US was prepared to pay $100,000,000, about $1.2 billion in today’s dollars. The delegation explained that the US wanted to establish an airbase there. The Army also wanted access to a permanent ice sheet in order to develop techniques for building structures on and under the ice and to train troops in polar warfare. This was the Cold War after all. The kingdom of Denmark refused to sell, but they felt they owed America a debt of gratitude for the then recent World War. During the war, German forces had occasionally dropped by, slipped ashore, and surreptitiously installed weather stations, and every time a Greenlandic dog sled patrol spotted one, they could count on the Americans to come demolish these unauthorized Nazi meteorological apparatuses.

So the Danish government granted the Americans permission to establish their airbase and they granted permission for US Army engineers to find some flat, remote, desolate area of the ice sheet and use it to experiment with their ice construction. That seemed like a reasonable compromise. So the Army engineers descended upon Greenland and launched two major construction projects: they built Thule Air Base near the western coast and 150 miles inland from there, they started another project codenamed Camp Century. The official US War Office film entitled “Research and Development Progress Report #6” describes this project.

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Andrée and the Aeronauts’ Voyage to the Top of the World

From right to left: S. A. Andrée, Knut Fraenkel, Nils Strindberg, and Vilhelm Swedenborg (Spaeronaut)
From right to left: S. A. Andrée, Knut Fraenkel, Nils Strindberg, and Vilhelm Swedenborg (Spaeronaut)

On the 11th of July 1897, the world breathlessly awaited word from the small Norwegian island of Danskøya in the Arctic Sea. Three gallant Swedish scientists stationed there were about to embark on an enterprise of history-making proportions, and newspapers around the globe had allotted considerable ink to the anticipated adventure. The undertaking was led by renowned engineer Salomon August Andrée, and he was accompanied by his research companions Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel.

In the shadow of a 67-foot-wide spherical hydrogen balloon—one of the largest to have been built at that time—toasts were drunk, telegrams to the Swedish king were dictated, hands were shook, and notes to loved ones were pressed into palms. “Strindberg and Fraenkel!” Andrée cried, “Are you ready to get into the car?” They were, and they dutifully ducked into the four-and-a-half-foot tall, six-foot-wide carriage suspended from the balloon. The whole flying apparatus had been christened the “Örnen,” the Swedish word for “Eagle.”

“Cut away everywhere!” Andrée commanded after clambering into the Eagle himself, and the ground crew slashed at the lines binding the balloon to the Earth. Hurrahs were offered as the immense, primitive airship pulled away from the wood-plank hangar and bobbed ponderously into the atmosphere. Their mission was to be the first humans to reach the North Pole, taking aerial photographs and scientific measurements along the way for future explorers. If all went according to plan they would then touch down in Siberia or Alaska after a few weeks’ flight, laden with information about the top of the world.

Onlookers watched for about an hour as the voluminous sphere shrank into the distance and disappeared into northerly mists. Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel would not arrive on the other side of the planet as planned. But their journey was far from over.

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Nineteen Seventy Three

On 12 November 1971, in the presidential palace in the Republic of Chile, President Salvador Allende and a British theorist named Stafford Beer engaged in a highly improbable conversation. Beer was a world-renowned cybernetician and Allende was the newly elected leader of the impoverished republic.

Beer—a towering middle-aged man with a long, dark beard—sat face to face with the horn-rimmed, mustachioed, grandfatherly president and spoke at great length in the solemn palace. A translator whispered the substance of Beer’s extraordinary proposition into Allende’s ear. The brilliant Brit was essentially suggesting that Chile’s entire economy—transportation, banking, manufacturing, mining, and more—could all be wired to feed realtime data into a central computer mainframe where specialized cybernetic software could help the country to manage resources, to detect problems before they arise, and to experiment with economic policies on a sophisticated simulator before applying them to reality. With such a pioneering system, Beer suggested, the impoverished Chile could become an exceedingly wealthy nation.

In the early 1970s the scale of Beer’s proposed network was unprecedented. One of the largest computer networks of the day was a mere fifteen machines in the US, the military progenitor to the Internet known as ARPANET. Beer was suggesting a network with hundreds or thousands of endpoints. Moreover, the computational complexity of his concept eclipsed even that of the Apollo moon missions, which were still ongoing at that time. After several hours of conversation, President Allende responded to the audacious proposition: Chile must indeed become the world’s first cybernetic government, for the good of the people. Work was to start straight away.

Stafford Beer practically ran across the street to share the news with his awaiting technical team, and much celebratory drinking occurred that evening. But the ambitious cybernetic network would never become fully operational if the CIA had anything to say about it.

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Night Takes Rook

Please give a warm welcome to our newest author Mr J A Macfarlane. Hip-hip...!

Engineers need to have faith in their designs, but not many would necessarily be confident enough to put their lives at risk just to prove it. It takes a great deal of faith to design a lighthouse for the most dangerous reef in the English Channel, especially when no-one has ever built a lighthouse on the open sea before. It takes rather more to actually build it. And one approaches the shores of hubris when one decides to visit said lighthouse with a massive gale on the way. But when Henry Winstanley, an 18th-century English eccentric, designed and constructed the world’s first open-sea lighthouse on a small and extraordinarily treacherous group of rocks fourteen miles out from Plymouth, he was so confident in his building that he blithely assured all doubters he would be willing to weather the strongest storm within its confines – a boast he had the chance to live up to when he found himself in his lighthouse as the most violent tempest in England’s history approached its shores.

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Steely-Eyed Hydronauts of the Mariana

The crew of the HMS Challenger, 1874
The crew of the HMS Challenger, 1874

On 21 December 1872, the British naval corvette HMS Challenger sailed from Portsmouth, England on an historic endeavor. Although the sophisticated steam-assisted sailing vessel had been originally constructed as a combat ship, her instruments of war had been recently removed to make room for laboratories, dredging equipment, and measuring apparatuses. She and her crew of 243 sailors and scientists set out on a long, meandering circumnavigation of the globe with orders to catalog the ocean’s depth, temperature, salinity, currents, and biology at hundreds of sites—an oceanographic effort far more ambitious than any undertaken before it.

For three and a half long, dreary years the crew spent day after day dredging, measuring, and probing the oceans. Although the data they collected was scientifically indispensable, men were driven to madness by the tedium, and some sixty souls ultimately opted to jump ship rather than take yet another depth measurement or temperature reading. One day in 1875, however, as the crew were “sounding” an area near the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, the sea swallowed an astonishing 4,575 fathoms (about five miles) of measuring line before the sounding weight reached the floor of the ocean. The bedraggled researchers had discovered an undersea valley which would come to be known as the Challenger Deep. Reaching 6.78 miles at its lowest point, it is now known to be the deepest location on the whole of the Earth. The region is of such immense depth that if Mount Everest were to be set on the sea floor at that location, the mighty mountain’s peak would still be under more than a mile of water.

Nothing was known of what organisms and formations might lurk at such depths. Many scientists of the day were convinced that such crevasses must be lifeless places considering the immense pressure, relative cold, total lack of sunlight, and presumed absence of oxygen. It would be almost a century before a handful of inventors and explorers finally resolved to go down there and take a look for themselves.

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Mediterranean be Dammed

In the 1920’s the people of Europe feared the future as a dark, despairing place. Despite the loss of over five million Europeans in the Great War, the region was still plagued with the social maladies which had led to the conflict. The humans were maladjusted to the Industrial Age and the changes in labor which it spawned. To make matters worse, both scholars and soothsayers of the day postulated that world’s fluxing economies would congeal into two economic blobs: the Americas would unify into a wealthy super-state in the west, while the east colluded to become an enormous pan-Asian power. Europe would be left economically isolated, with a limited range of climates for farming and fewer resources at hand. Nowhere was the gloom thicker than in Germany where the terms of the Treaty of Versailles led to poverty and hunger for much of the population. It was in the midst of that dark time that an architect named Herman Sörgel devised a plan to preserve Europe through this daunting new worldscape.

Sörgel spent years promoting his scheme to save Europe: the construction of vast hydroelectric dams spanning the Mediterranean. The massive turbines would furnish a surplus of power, and the re-engineered sea would turn the life-hostile Sahara desert into a fertile wetland. In an era when it seemed technology could do no wrong, a considerable segment of the population supported Sörgel’s ambitious plan.

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