The submarine, designated O-12 in U.S. Naval lingo, measured in at 175 feet long. She was, even by the standards of the early 1930’s, not a particularly impressive sight, with a brief career spent meandering about the then-quiet Panama Canal Zone. Decommissioned on 17 June 1924, she was consigned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to await scrapping. It was an unremarkable fate for a relatively unremarkable vessel, and were events indeed to play out in this particular fashion, it is doubtful the memory of O-12 would live on past some musty Naval archive. This early and rickety contraption for sailing beneath the waves was, however, destined for greater things, as she became the first machine to take humans past—or rather, beneath—one the last great unexplored frontiers the Earth has to offer.
The boat in question was a near-antique. Predating the American entry into World War I, she had been built in 1916 by the Lake Torpedo Boat Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, designated with the hull number SS-73. Unexpectedly, her ultimate fate in the hands of Philadelphia’s scrappers was sidelined by an eccentric Australian gentleman, though it is safe to assume that no tears were shed in the U.S. Naval headquarters when he offered to take her off the Navy’s hands. O-12 was given a new, though ultimately brief, lease on life, in a journey that was to span the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean and past the rim of the Arctic Circle. It was an expedition that in the literal sense would go where no man had gone before, furthering the frontiers of science…while simultaneously threatening everyone involved with watery graves and financial ruin.
Please note that this piece contains a bit of swearing.
The seventh of May 1931 was a hot, dusty day in the mountain town of Corbin, Kentucky. Alongside a dirt road, a service station manager named Matt Stewart stood on a ladder painting a cement railroad wall. His application of a fresh coat of paint was gradually obscuring the sign that had been painted there previously. Stewart paused when he heard an automobile approaching at high speed—or what counted for high speed in 1931.
It was coming from the north—from the swath of backcountry known among locals as “Hell’s Half-Acre.” The area was so named for its primary exports: bootleg booze, bullets, and bodies. The neighborhood was also commonly referred to as “the asshole of creation.”
Stewart probably squinted through the dust at the approaching car, and he probably wiped sweat from his brow with the back of a paint-flecked wrist. He probably knew that the driver would be armed, angry, and about to skid to a stop nearby. Stewart set down his paint brush and picked up his pistol. The car skidded to a stop nearby. But it was not an armed man that emerged—it was three armed men. “Well, you son of a bitch!” the driver shouted at the painter, “I see you done it again.” The driver of the car had been using this particular railroad wall to advertise his service station in town, and this was not the first time that the painter—the manager of a competing station—had installed an ad blocker.
Stewart leapt from his ladder, firing his pistol wildly as he dove for cover behind the railroad wall. One of the driver’s two companions collapsed to the ground. The driver picked up his fallen comrade’s pistol and returned fire. Amid a hail of bullets from his pair of adversaries, the painter finally shouted, “Don’t shoot, Sanders! You’ve killed me!” The dusty roadside shootout fell silent, and indeed the former painter was bleeding from his shoulder and hip. But he would live, unlike the Shell Oil executive lying nearby with a bullet wound to the chest.
This encounter might have been as commonplace as any other gunfight around Hell’s Half-Acre were it not for the identity of the driver. The “Sanders” who put two bullets in Matt Stewart was none other than Harland Sanders, the man who would go on to become the world-famous Colonel Sanders. He was dark-haired and clean-shaven at the time, but his future likeness would one day appear on Kentucky Fried Chicken billboards, buildings, and buckets worldwide. In contrast to most other famous food icons, Colonel Sanders was once a living, breathing person, and his life story is considerably more tumultuous than the white-washed corporate biography suggests.
As night fell over the East German town of Pössneck on the evening of 14 September 1979, most of the town’s citizens were busy getting ready for bed. But not Günter Wetzel. The mason was in his attic, hunched over an old motor-driven sewing machine, desperately working to complete his secret project.
Wetzel and his friend H. Peter Strelzyk and their families had been working on their plan for more than a year and a half, and by now the authorities were looking for them. They were nearly out of time. Wetzel had feigned illness in order to procure five weeks off from work, and during that time he and his friend had collected the materials and laboured over the construction together. This would be their last chance.
Earlier in the day, a strong wind had arisen from the north. These were exactly the conditions that the two families had been waiting for. Around 10:00pm, Wetzel put the finishing touches on the massive patchwork project, then rounded up Strelzyk and prepared to leave. Two hours later the families were en route to a predetermined clearing on a hill by way of automobile and moped. The other components of their project—a steel platform, a homemade gas burner, and a powerful fan—were already packed and ready to go. It was time to attempt the escape.
“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.
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.
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.
While most of the major powers of western Europe spent the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries racing around the world carving out empires for themselves, Japan felt threatened by the influx of foreigners and ended up spending this period as one of the most reclusive nations on the planet. In the 1630s, a series of proclamations closed the country’s borders, marking the beginning of the period now known as sakoku (‘locking the country’) or sometimes kaikin (‘sea-restriction’). Non-Japanese-citizens were not permitted on Japanese soil; potential violators were warned that they would be subject to capital punishment. Only a small amount of trade with China, Korea, and the Netherlands was permitted, and the Dutch were restricted to Dejima, an artificial island in the harbour at Nagasaki. Nor were Japanese citizens allowed to leave Japan. Even the construction of long-range ships was illegal. These measures remained in place well into the 19th century.
But occasionally a group of Japanese citizens left Japan by mistake. Smaller ships were still permitted under sakoku since they played an indispensable role in the transportation of goods and people, and once in a while unpredictable forces of nature would drag one of these vessels away from the coast of Japan. In the autumn of 1832, for instance, a cargo-ship known as the Hojunmaru was transporting rice and porcelain to Edo (now Tokyo) when it ran into a storm and was blown off-course. The 15-metre-long ship was left far from shore without a rudder or a mast, meaning that there was no way to steer it. All that the crew could do was let their vessel drift on the ocean until they happened upon either another ship or a useful bit of land. For one of them in particular – 14-year-old Yamamoto Otokichi – this would prove to be only the beginning of a decades-long accidental circumnavigation of the globe.