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Not Your Father’s World History Part 12:
“It smashed the tents, carried people through the air.”

7 January 2006

Emir of Bukhara
The Emir of Bukhara
1911 Color Photo by
Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii

Curious Article No. 21:

“Dear friends, I have a wonderful story to tell you — a story that, in some respects, out rivals the Arabian Night fables — a story, too, with a moral that I think many of the younger ones need, and perhaps some of the older ones too if they will heed it.” So began the world’s first published announcement, in the January 1, 1905 issue of Gleanings in Bee Culture, of some of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s pioneering flights. Since scarcely a month went by in those days without some indeterminate claim of heavier-than-air aviation, none of the papers of record would have troubled themselves.

But that suited the brothers just fine. They were by nature secretive but also concerned — wisely so, it later developed — that others might steal aspects of their technology before they could secure the proper patents. In addition they and Amos Ives Root, Gleanings’s editor and publisher, shared much in common. Well-read from childhood in technical subjects and endlessly curious about the natural world around him, Root developed a revolutionary beehive design that enabled keepers to harvest their honey without disrupting the colony. And by investing $100.00 and taking courage in both hands he earned bragging rights to being the first in northern Ohio to own and learn to ride a bicycle, a French-built penny farthing, in the mid 1870s.

The Wrights had scores of competitors, and among them around half a dozen at least got fairly close. Even to this day some people support Gustave Whitehead’s claim of being the first to fly on August 14, 1901. You also had Karl Jatho (August-November 1903) of Germany and Clément Ader (1890 and 1897) who many still praise as the Father of French Aviation whether his birdlike machines flew well enough to count or not. Wilbur and Orville elegantly solved a multitude of technical challenges, and unlike many of their contemporaries who tended to squint their eyes and make educated guesses they engineered all of their 1903 Flyer’s features mathematically beforehand and ran hundreds of wing and propeller tests through a homemade wind tunnel.

One of their greatest secret weapons was their power plant. Since there were no commercially available gas engines efficient enough to please them, they tasked their cigar-chomping bike shop mechanic Charlie Taylor to craft one of aluminum. It developed 12 horsepower and weighed 152 pounds (70 kg), yielding a power-to-weight ratio of 12/152 or 8%. Good thing, since anything less wouldn’t have cut it. In time these ratios would progress to, for example, 44% for the motor Lindbergh used in his Spirit of St. Louis, nearly 100% for those in Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose, and 130% or more for some unorthodox pistonless designs.

Oh, and you know that business about the steeper curve on the top of a wing generating Bernoulli suction to lift it, as diagrammed in countless textbooks? Mostly humbug. Lift comes primarily from a wing’s angle of attack deflecting the air stream downward at its trailing edge, providing an equal and opposite force skyward as per Newton’s third law. Indeed, there are some ultramodern “supercritical” wings that are actually much flatter on the top than on the bottom but their rears all angle downward. Case closed.


We had a very close call in the early morning of Tuesday June 30th, 1908 (June 17th by the Old Style still used in Russia). A witness named S. B. Semionov in the village of Vanavara in the Tunguska region of central Siberia reports, “Suddenly, to the north, the sky split apart and in it fire appeared, broad and high above the trees, encompassing the whole northern part of the sky. At that point I felt as hot as if my shirt had caught fire... I wanted to shout out and tear my shirt off, but at that moment the sky slammed shut and there was a tremendous bang. I was hurled about three sagenes [20 feet or 6 meters] across the ground.” Things got even weirder according to an Ivan Kurkagyr: “An incredibly noisy storm broke. It smashed the tents, carried people through the air... The storm that set fire to the taiga [subarctic coniferous forest] also consumed their reindeer. The people threw themselves into the river. Those in the river caught alight...”

After decades of investigation the consensus describes an icy meteorite or comet nucleus weighing somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 tons, skimming in from the southeast at perhaps 60,000 miles (100,000 km) per hour, and exploding some 30,000 feet (8000 meters) above the ground. Estimates for its blast range between ten and fifteen megatons of TNT or just under 1000 Hiroshima bombs. At Ground Zero the trees, though carbonized, stood upright but just beyond them another 60 million or so lay flat and radiated outward in a vast circle covering 800 square miles (2150 square km). No one ever found a crater or any meteoric fragments, which supports the ice hypothesis.

Had the impactor tarried a few hours it could well have leveled a population center in western Europe and killed hundreds of thousands. In fact, some say a chip did split off from it and explode near Kiev. For weeks after the Tunguska event nighttime skies glowed pink, green, and white throughout Siberia and Europe. Moscow’s streets were bright enough to shoot photos without a flash, British golfers played past four in the morning and in Scotland birds and roosters sang and crowed all night.

951 Gaspra
Asteroid 951 Gaspra
Photo: NASA
Our planet sweeps up between 20,000 and 40,000 tons of meteoric material annually. Most of these objects are tiny but Department of Defense satellites record several strikes of a violence of between about forty and a thousand kilotons of TNT each year, usually over oceans. Memorable strikes occur at least a dozen times per century. One of the most recent of these, dubbed the Qaqortoq, treated southern Greenland to a show on December 9, 1997. They get nastier. A six-mile-wide (10 km) asteroid struck eastern Mexico sixty-five million years ago, blasting a crater the size of Switzerland and liberating 50,000 cubic miles (200,000 cubic km) of rock and dust. The resulting “nuclear winter” wiped out 85% of all marine and land species worldwide, which included dinosaurs and all other animals larger than about fifty-five pounds (25 kg).

Nowadays astronomers identify and chart about 5000 new asteroids every month. About one percent of those, called near-earth asteroids (NEAs), cross our orbit and pose at least a theoretical hazard. Known NEAs totaled 3747 at the end of 2005. We’ve come to realize that these things routinely swoop by us at distances closer than the moon, usually with no one being the wiser. So far one of the closest we’ve known about was a rock about 100 feet (30 meters) wide called 2004 FH that missed by only 3.4 times the earth’s diameter or 11% the distance to the moon on March 18th of that year.

Lord Byron wrote of deflecting killer meteorites as far back as 1822: “Who knows whether, when a comet shall approach this globe to destroy it, as it often has been and will be destroyed, men will not tear rocks from their foundations by means of steam, and hurl mountains, as the giants are said to have done, against the flaming mass? And then we shall have traditions of Titans again, and of wars with Heaven.”

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Text © Peter Blinn 2006



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