Category: History

FoodHistoryScienceUncategorized

Eminem isn’t the only thing salty to come out of Detroit…

Detroit, Michigan USA is known by a lot of names. Mo-town. The Motor City. The Cautionary Tale of Auto Industry Decline Meets Institutional Government Corruption. The D (ed. note: No, really). The Birthplace of the Coney Dog (ed. note: that’s another topic for another day).

One more name it might deserve is Salt City, USA. You see, nearly a quarter mile BENEATH the gritty streets of Detroit are an entirely different collection of dirty boulevards…ones made up entirely of salt that is more than 400 million years old.

And that’s where our story begins. Back in the Devonian period, the chunk of real estate that eventually became Detroit was under water, part of mid-west America’s cycle of being covered in inland seas and then drying out, which continued for a couple hundred million years. This cycle of wet-dry-wet-dry left tremendous deposits of evaporated seawater on the remaining land, which means salt. Loads and loads of salt.

devonian map

Looks like a crab claw has grabbed a mitten.

 

In pre-colonial times, native american tribes in the area, extracted the salt from salt springs, but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that companies first began looking at commercially extracting the salt. Only one problem though – the salt could only be found underground. Like WAY underground. More than 1,000 feet down in fact. So in 1910, the Detroit Salt and Manufacturing Company completed a shaft down to the luscious and tender salt (ed.note: those are not good words to describe salt. Neither is “succulent” now that we think of it. Pretty much just go with “salty”).

The shaft down to the salt mine was reportedly so narrow that all machinery sent down

mine map

Image credit: Detroit Salt Company

had to be sent down in pieces and reassembled on the mine floor and and equipment that was brought down was left to remain in the mine for perpetuity since it was impossible to bring anything but salt and miners back up. The same went for the donkeys originally sent down before powered mining gear existed. (ed. note: presumably he means that they were left down there forever, rather than sent down in pieces and then reassembled. Because, eww).
Over the past century, ownership in the salt mine below has changed hands several times, but the currently very active mine is currently owned by the Kissner Group. Although the salt mined beneath Detroit is no longer used for human consumption, tons of the stuff are still mined for use as road salt each year, with an estimated 71 TRILLION tons left to be mined.

So, the next time someone tells you that Detroit Rock City is a decaying post-industrial wasteland, you can tell them a very good pun about rock salt while complimenting them on their spot-on analysis of Detroit (ed. note: For realsies though, Detroit has been undergoing a renaissance over the past several years and downtown Detroit has become a destination for travelers again and Detroit is the ONLY city in the US where all four major sports franchises are all houses within a four-block area. If you get the chance – check it out.)

For more information, check out the history of Detroit Salt.

BiologyHistoryScienceUncategorizedWarfare

It’s a bomb, Batman! …

…or more accurately, “it’s a bat-bomb, man!”

It was World War II. The US was dealing with war in two theaters – Europe and the Pacific, and the Department of War was having to deal with combating two entirely different enemies in two very different environments.

And that’s where our hero of our story comes in. Lytle Adams was a mild mannered dentist by day, and an insatiable hellcat by night (ed. note: citation very much needed and probably super unlikely). History may be inconclusive on whether Dr. Adams was or was not a hellcat, but he was most assuredly a dentist, and he was one with a curious mind. In fact, in 1937 Doc Adams invented and patented a way for airplanes to pick up and drop mail without landing. While that idea was inarguably awesome, the idea we celebrate Lytle for today is an altogether different one. Because, in 1942 Lytle Adams was the person who gave us the idea for the BAT BOMB.

batbomb

                                        No, not that one.

The idea Adams came up with could be summed up with this premise: “What if we strapped a sh*t-load of bats with a sh*t-load of tiny incendiary bombs and then chucked the whole thing at Tokyo?” And Adams told his very good friend Eleanor Roosevelt about his idea. After hearing his idea, Roosevelt presumably asked “Jesus, man. What the hell do you have against bats?” before taking the idea to her husband who happened to be the president of the United States. After laughing himself out of his wheelchair, FDR asked a few zoologists if the idea was at all practical, to which the zoologists replied “Prolly“.  You see, Adams realized a number of useful facts:

A: bats are able to carry their own body weight in flight

B: bats would seek out places to land after being dropped out of an airplane. Places like under eaves and roofs

C: bats are unable to read and therefore unable to ask why the hell a giant Molotov cocktail was being strapped to its backside

D: WWII era Japan, being made of wood and paper, was flammable as hell

And what Doctor Adams thought about these facts was that hundreds of small bats could be strapped with tiny incendiary bombs and then collectively loaded into a large canister which would then dropped from a plane once over Japan. Once dropped, a parachute would open and the panels of the canister would pop off, allowing the suddenly awakened bats to fly away, only to roost for the day in buildings all over a 20+ mile radius from the drop zone.

And thus, Project X-Ray was born. In 1943, the US Army designed a bomb-shaped bat carrier that consisted of twenty-six stacked trays each capable of holding up to 40 boom-bats. For those scoring at home, that’s more than a THOUSAND tiny organic potential explosives.

And the army took Doctor Adams’ idea seriously, spending over $2 million dollars (ed.note: that’s nearly $30 MILLION in 2018 dollars) in design and testing. And the idea worked. During a 1943 test at the Carlsbad Army Airfield in Carlsbad, New Mexico, one of the bats managed to roost under a fuel tank, resulting in the entire test range being incinerated.

The National Defense Research Committee, who was in charge of finding cool new ways to blow sh*t up, determined that Project X-Ray was an effective weapon, but the project was shelved in mid-1944 (ed. note: much to the relief of bats everywhere) when the government opted to go another direction – instead of many small explosions, one big ass bomb that blew up everything and everyone. But that’s a story for another day.

HistoryMedicineScience

Fastest scalpel in the west…

…The West End of London that is. The man who for years carried the infamous distinction of being capable of the fastest amputations in London was a Scottish doctor by the name of Robert Liston. And, in the anesthesia-absent dark ages of the middle nineteenth century, being able to neatly and (relatively) cleanly sever a limb was a definite marketing advantage for a doctor.

In the time before sanitary hospitals, antibiotics, and any kind of anesthesia other than possibly several stiff belts of whisky and maybe an actual belt to bite on, working with speed was critical. Patients were often writhing in agony and fighting the doctor every step of the way. Often, doctors were attended by assistants, whose only job was to keep the poor sod with the gamey leg from scarpering off. Kind of like when the heavy kids sat on your chest to hold you down in gym class, while the bully put gum in your hair. Except you usually finished gym class with the same number of limbs you started with. Unless you went to particularly tough parochial boarding school, I guess.

Doctor Liston was a skilled surgeon and was responsible for a number of medical innovations of his time, including authoring several medical textbooks, inventing locking forceps, and even a type of leg splint still in use today. But the writin’ and inventin’ ain’t the things Doc Liston is renowned for. If he was, this would be titled “Most Book Writing-est Doctor in the West”, but he’s not and it isn’t. No, Doc Liston was renowned for his speed. According to medical historian Dr. Richard Gordon, Doctor Liston was capable of severing a limb in about two and a half MINUTES.

In fact, according to Gordon, Liston had several surgeries notable for their speed. Some of the notable ones being: the time Liston removed a 46 lb. scrotal sac tumor (ed. note: one assumes this took a lot of balls. We’re not sorry.) and the time Liston was arguing with a colleague whether a red patch on a boy’s neck was a simple abscess or a more deadly aneurysm of the carotid artery and Liston advocated that there was no way it could be a aneurysm, and killed him when he tried to lance it. (ed. note: The artery remains in the University College Hospital pathology museum to this day – specimen # 1256. Stop by and ask to see it. Tell them we sent you).

However, there is an apocryphal story of the time old Doc Liston managed a 300% mortality rate on a single surgical amputation. Allegedly, once Liston amputated a patient’s leg in less than three minutes. The patient eventually succumbed to gangrene (ed. note: Strike one). In his enthusiasm to work quickly, Liston accidentally severed the fingers of his assistant; unfortunately the (unnamed) assistant developed a case of greasy stump, a euphemism for gangrene that I just made up (ed. note: Strike two). And finally, a (curiously also unnamed) bystander who happened to wander too close to the surgical table had his coattails severed, not something usually considered fatal. However, the bystander felt the pull of the knife and saw the copious blood, and dropped stone dead of a heart-attack (ed. note: Steeeee-rike three!). Three deaths, one operation, presumably very little waiting.

Nobody ever remembers that Richard Liston was the first surgeon in Britain to use chemical anesthesia (ether) or any of the other innovations contributed to modern medicine. Nope. But kill three people in one go, and you’re a legend forever.