The Magnanimous Mr. Midgley
I’VE BEEN AN AVID reader of the magazine for more than 10 years, but no article has captured my attention like Mark Bernstein’s “Thomas Midgley and the Law of Unintended Consequences” in the Spring 2002 issue. I would not likely have obtained a degree in mechanical engineering and become a professional engineer if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to be one of 17 undergraduates Mr. Midgley financed.
The chance of fulfilling my dream of becoming an automotive engineer looked bleak in September 1934, when I started my senior year in high school. My father had died, and my mother’s only income came from renting two of our four bedrooms. My consuming interest was in reading the Society of Automotive Engineers Journal , which Mr. Midgley had donated to the local Carnegie library. The librarian informed him about my passion, and the biggest surprise of my life came when she told me he wanted to interview me and pay for my college education. The details of his benefaction were worked out when I briefly visited his hotel room while he was visiting his father in Bradenton, Florida, where I lived.
I was also grateful when Mr. Midgley arranged for me to work as a student engineer at the Ethyl Gasoline Research Laboratory in Detroit in 1939 and 1940, my last two summers at the University of Michigan. And in addition to being so financially generous, Mr. Midgley personally treated me very kindly on several occasions. When he heard I was going to New York for active duty in the Navy after I graduated in 1941, he invited me to spend a few days in his home, near Worthington, Ohio. It was lovely, built on the side of a hill, and Mrs. Midgley was a gracious hostess who delighted in showing me the simulated “dungeon” they had made in their basement, with a door to a beautiful garden. Mr. Midgley, who was by then suffering from polio, proudly showed me, among other things, the harness device he had designed to aid his mobility—and which would later prove so deadly. I was in the Solomon Islands when I learned of his death.
I was delighted to see Mr. Midgley’s accomplishments put into proper perspective. I feel very strongly that the enormous benefits from his two main contributions to our way of life far outweigh the costs of their use, and I feel honored to have had such a great man for a mentor, benefactor, and friend.
E. Dudley Scrogin
I READ EACH ISSUE COVER to cover, but the “Postfix” in Spring 2002 (“The Plan to Nuke Panama,” by Benjamin Ryder Howe) particularly interested me. I remember reading articles and seeing pictures about Project Plowshare when I was in high school in the 1950s, and years later a similar scheme hit close to home for me. I was living in Eagle River, Alaska, in 1992 when the Anchorage Daily News revealed the existence of a hazardous nuclear-waste site near Cape Thompson, on Alaska’s northwestern coast. It turned out the waste came from an experiment in 1962 to gauge the potential spread of radiation from Project Chariot, a plan then being considered to detonate a nuclear bomb underground to instantly create a harbor in the area. For the experiment, nuclear fallout from an underground test blast in Nevada was taken to the Alaska site and monitored. No attempts at decontamination followed except for digging up several tons of soil in the area, down two feet to the permafrost, piling it on the creek bank, and abandoning the whole thing. My next-door neighbor in Eagle River in 1992 was an employee of the Army Corps of Engineers, and he was among those who got the job of cleaning up the mess 30 years after the fact.
Project Chariot, like Project Plowshare, is a good reminder that not everything that can be done should be done just because science and technology make it possible.
Robert L. Johnson
I FOUND THE ARTICLE ON portable batteries, by Curt Wohleber (“Object Lessons,” Spring 2002), informative, but it left me with a couple of questions. What is the origin of the classification system for household batteries, and who decided they should be called by letters such as AA, A, and D?
The editors reply: Standard sizes were agreed on and adopted by the battery industry in the 1950s. AA, AAA, and AAAA (now rare) were added when smaller sizes than A were needed, while B fell into disuse. A number of uncommon variations exist, such as 7/5 AAA (66.5 instead of 44.5 millimeters long) and Fat A (18 instead of 17 millimeters across). For a full list of sizes, see www.powerstream.com/size.htm .
George S. Peltier
CONCRETE GRAIN ELEVA tors were indeed a great step forward, as Charles Ebeling ably showed in the Spring 2002 issue (“A Few Words About This Picture: The First Fruit of a New Age”). Ebeling describes the builder of the first concrete silo as so confident about his work that he stood next to the structure during an operation that some thought would make it collapse. Not every elevator worked so well. Any person standing next to the brandnew 20-bin, 743,000bushel elevator near Fargo, North Dakota, on June 12, 1955, would have been less lucky. As it was being loaded for the first time, it settled, tilted, and fell with a roar, leaving a tangled heap of reinforced-concrete rubble and grain.
The elevator’s builders, apparently unaware of the load-bearing limits of the underlying clay and silt (deposits of glacial Lake Agassiz), had built an inadequate and narrow concreteraft foundation. Postcollapse field and lab studies by two soil-mechanics engineers showed that the pressure on the sediment had reached nearly twice the allowable safe limit, leading to a rotational soil failure. No one was injured, but it was a very expensive lesson in building foundations on weak soils.
A Better Black Box?
YOU PUBLISHED A LETTER from me in the Winter 1997 issue suggesting that aircraft flight-parameter and cockpit-voice recorders be replaced by a system in which such data is transmitted to ground-based receivers. I doubt the concept took root anywhere, but I find it noteworthy that the only useful information obtained from three of the four aircraft hijacked in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, came via cell-phone messages to ordinary domestic telephones. The only problem I can see with my idea lies in finding the bandwidth to transmit so much data from so many planes. But that should be solvable. Current technology permits the simultaneous use of millions of cell phones.
PALM COAST, FLA.
I WAS MOST INTERESTED to read of your new partnership with the National Inventors Hall of Fame. I was dimly aware of that organization—largely by reading about the spectacular home James Stewart Polshek designed for it—but I’d had no idea of the scope and imagination of its operations. I think the NIHF will make an ideal partner for my favorite magazine, and I’m happy to see both of you in such good company.