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Fall 2004 | Volume 20 |  Issue 2

Dung In The Space Race

THE ARTICLE ON BAT guano in the Spring 2004 issue (“High Wire,” by Rockey Spicer) reminded me of an important aerospace use for the stuff. Back in pre- and post- Sputnik days I worked for the Raymond Engineering Laboratories, in Middletown, Connecticut. Because of our skill with explosive actuators, we received a contract to design and build explosively erected antennas for the Mercury, and later Gemini, spacecraft. A set of telescoping aluminum tubes, with flared ends, were stored in a small cylindrical cavity about a foot deep in the top of the spacecraft. At the end of the flight, when the spacecraft was bobbing in the ocean, an astronaut would trigger an explosive charge in the base of the telescope and thereby erect a six-foot rigid antenna to use to contact the ships waiting to recover him.

Creating the right amount of explosive force proved to be a real challenge. Too little charge, and the sections of the telescope would fail to lock together when erected; too much charge, and the telescope would blow apart. One day after many weeks of unsuccessful experiments, our explosives man, Paul Eldridge, brought to work a little rocket-powered racecar he had bought at a toy store. He used the toy’s “rocket powder” in his next experiment, and it worked perfectly. Contacts with the company that built the toy car established that the explosive powder was bat guano. We were able to buy more of the stuff from its South American provider, and we used it successfully in all the Mercury and Gemini antennas. I believe that NASA, recognizing its importance and the difficulty of identifying an acceptable substitute, even prepared a federal specification for it.

John H. Bickford

Bombers Away

VIRGINIA CAMPBELL’S ARTI cle on the RAND Corporation (“How RAND Invented the Postwar World,” Summer 2004) revived old memories of collaboration with RAND’s excellent staff (I was with Harvard University). The article observes that in the 1970s RAND shifted increasingly to nonmilitary research. The precipitating factor was an Air Force threat of substantial budget cuts because of displeasure over a RAND study that estimated that the RS-70 ” reconnaissance/strike ” plane would cost much more than the Air Force had predicted, setting in motion events that led to the cancellation of the RS-70 project. The study was directed by David Novick, the cover of whose RAND book Program Budgeting is displayed in the article. With the threat of this loss of funding, RAND officials recognized the need for diversification. Then, as now, those who reveal important truths about government mistakes can find themselves the targets of wrath.


F. M. Scherer

Higgins And His Boats

READING ABOUT THE HIG gins boats (“‘The Hell I Can’t,’” by Charles W. Ebeling, Summer 2004) called to mind a friend, now deceased, who worked at the Higgins Boat Company. Richard K. Blush was a carpenter and painter at the boat works, where the boats were painted with spray equipment. Asphyxiation by paint fumes was a potential problem, and fires were a real and far too frequent problem. Richard came up with the idea of applying paint with hand rollers, which was much faster than brushing and permitted 5 better ventilation. Thus was born the now ubiquitous paint roller (it was also invented in Canada, around the same time, by Norman Breakey, of Toronto, and there are other claimants too). Being an unassuming, humble man, Richard never thought to seek a patent; he was focused on solving a problem.


Robert C. Woodman

Higgins And His Boats

I ENJOYED THE ARTICLE ON Higgins boats, but one statement in it is possibly misleading: “He also devised a two-rudder control system, with a main rudder aft of the propeller for normal control and a smaller rudder, which he called a ‘monkey rudder,’ in the tunnel forward of the propeller to provide control when the boat was backing up.”

Monkey rudders were common on stern-wheel river boats well before Higgins’s 1930s design, and he undoubtedly was familiar with stern-wheelers. The “monkey beam” is a transverse connecting beam on a stern-wheeler that bridges the ends of the two fore-and-aft cantilevers that support the paddle wheel. Monkey rudders are hung from the monkey beam, so they’re just aft of the stern wheel. The main rudders are affixed to the stern of the hull and forward of the stern wheel, and they do normal steering. When employed in concert with monkey rudders, a stern-wheeler is remarkably maneuverable. A boat can crab, swing aft end, work better against a crosswind or crosscurrent, or turn on a very short radius. And as Ebeling writes, the rudders are most helpful in backing.

Alex Joyce

Higgins And His Boats

I FOUND THE HIGGINS-BOAT article a delight, but when I showed a friend the picture of U.S. sailors splashing ashore in the boats’ 1941 demonstration in New Orleans, he chuckled and said, “Just like the Navy to assault a beach in their dress whites.” As a Navy veteran myself, I had to respond: “Well, invasion or not, no seasoned sailor ever goes to New Orleans without looking his best.”


Robert E. Dunphy

Very Personal Transport

THE PHOTOGRAPH OF Forrest Bird on his airboat in your Spring 2004 issue (“Hall of Fame Interview,” by Jim Quinn) reminds me of a 1914 photo of my grandfather Harvey Clover, of Muskegon, Michigan. He lived on one side of Muskegon Lake and worked on the other, about three miles away. He was an inventor and a foundryman, and he made this machine to get to work. I never heard stories of his trips on it, but I can only imagine they were a little wild.


Kate Hintz

Catching A Wave

THE ARTICLE IN THE SUM mer 2004 issue on the D-day harbor and the storm that wrecked it (“A Harbor Built From Scratch,” by Nick Arvin) brings to mind some information on the storm that came my way in 1950, when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University, from the Nobel laureate Sir W. Lawrence Bragg, who was Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics. As an illustration of wave behavior, Bragg mentioned a project he had developed and been in charge of during the war in which he had monitored sea-wave motions and patterns—amplitude and frequency—at Dover, providing advance information on storms coming up the English Channel, with the wave information moving ahead of the storm. He said that standard weather forecasts before D-day indicated bad weather coming in, but in vague terms. The Dover wave-analysis data gave much more numerically precise information, both on the storm’s magnitude and on its incoming speed and timing. Bragg told us that it was very largely on the basis of his group’s forecast that there would be a two-day break in the bad weather that Eisenhower decided to delay the invasion by a day, and then go ahead. And the weather did follow that forecast.

Prof. Robert H. Essenhigh

The Longest Flight

IN THE SUMMER 2004 ISSUE you published a letter claiming that the City of Yuma ’s 47-day endurance flight was the longest airplane flight ever. Actually the current record is held by Robert Timm and John Cook, who took off from McCarran Field in Las Vegas in a Cessna 172 on December 4, 1958, and landed on February 7, 1959, for a total of 64 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes, and 5 seconds.


Wallace Hofmann

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