6 well-known ways the White House stays secure - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

The little old building on the back of the $20 bill is known all around the world as the residence and workplace of the leader of the free world. Being said leader of the White House is a dangerous prospect: There have been thirty-three known attempts at the lives of sitting U.S. presidents. Four of those attempts, unfortunately, were successful.

It stands to reason that measures must be taken at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to prevent any attacks on the lives of the president, the first family, and anyone else who serves there. But protecting the president requires far more than just armed guards and motion-activated cameras.

The true extent of the protection at the White House has never been — and shouldn’t ever be — released to the public. While the White House is open about sharing some of its protective measures, it should be assumed that the men and women of the Secret Service have thought of ways to counter or deal with literally any other scenario a would-be threat could conjure up.


6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

You really don’t want to try your luck at finding out what the President’s bathroom looks like.

21-day advanced tour notice

When you think of a “secure location,” the last place you think of is somewhere that’s so widely visited that it offers tours in eleven different languages. But not just anyone can easily mosey on into the White House.

In order to be given the tour of the highest office in the land, you must submit an application at least 21 days before your scheduled visit. This gives the security an accurate headcount and the ability to perform background checks on visitors. For obvious reasons, the tour is also guided through only select portions of the White House.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

If gas stations and banks have them, you can assume the White House has better.

(Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

Bulletproof windows

Windows are typically vulnerable to firearms. Funnily enough, in any photo you see of the White House, you’ll also see countless windows. Even the Resolute Desk is positioned with the President’s back turned to a bunch of windows in the Oval Office.

Thankfully, they’re some of the most impenetrable windows known to man. In November 2011, an attacker fired seven rounds from a semi-automatic rifle into the White House, but not even consecutive shots could shatter a window.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

“There he is! Get him!”

Infrared sensors

Every inch of the perimeter is surrounded in infrared lasers that detect even the most minuscule threat against the White House. These aren’t the lasers that you’d see in old spy films that challenge intruders to a deadly game of limbo. No, these blanket everything to include the sky, the surface, and even underground.

With that level of security, you’d expect swarms of agents to descend on even the smallest intruders — like a wayward squirrel. Well, it happens all the time. But it’s better to be aware of every single squirrel than to let a single threat wiggle by.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

In this photo are at least seven SAM batteries (probably), so the White House itself wouldn’t need one.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher)

Surface-to-air missiles

Washington D.C. is a no-fly zone. Any plane not scheduled or following the strict path into Ronald Reagan National Airport are first given a warning. If they don’t show any sort of compliance immediately, they’ll be taken down by one of the countless surface-to-air missiles located around the capital.

While it’s known that many missile batteries are located in Washington D.C., it’s more of an urban legend that there’s an Avenger missile system on top of the White House itself. That remains unproven, but the White House does have those high-tech laser systems that can detect any possible threat from a mile out, alerting other missile systems that then take down the threat.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

Which probably means the guy who had fun with the drones might now be in charge of them. Or not. We’ll never know.

(United States Secret Service photo)

Drones

In January, 2015, an unnamed government employee and amateur drone hobbyist was having fun with his drone outside the White House lawn after his shift. It was able to fly through the detection systems fairly easily until it hit the ground and set off countless alarm systems, sending every single agent into a frenzy. The man wasn’t charged because he was an employee at the White House and because it highlighted a major security fault in the systems at the time.

Since then, the White House has employed drones of their own to act as both roving security cameras and to take down any other drones that come into area. Coincidentally, the same drones that the Secret Service now uses are the same that the hobbyist used.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

Everyone always looks through the fence, but never stops to admire the awesomeness that is the fence itself.

The fence

With all of these security measures in place, the most obvious one is actually the most effective, historic, and iconic: the fence that surrounds the White House. First erected in 1801 by President Thomas Jefferson, it has seen many changes over its lifetime. What was once a simple barricade to keep the president’s livestock on the property has now become an 11-foot tall, vehicle-stopping, climb-resistant, behemoth of steel and rebar.

Not only is the newest fence crowned with spikes to deter attempts at climbing, it also alerts agents the moment anyone puts pressure on it to ensure nobody makes it over.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Could you legally shoot someone on a ‘wanted’ poster?

Labyrinth900 asks: Were “Wanted Dead or Alive” bounties a real thing? In other words, if you found someone that is wanted dead, could you legally shoot and kill them and collect a bounty, and not be charged for murder?

A classic Hollywood trope is the idea of a poster with the photo of a given criminal along with very large print text that would say something like “Wanted — Dead or Alive”. But did these actually ever exist and could you actually kill someone legally when such a poster was issued by the authorities?

To answer the first question — yes, there are many known instances of such “Dead or Alive” posters being put up by the state and other entities, but that doesn’t actually tell the whole story. Just because a poster stated something like “Dead or Alive” it did not grant any individual the right to kill the person without legal consequences. For example, consider the infamous murder of Jesse James at the hands of his outlaw buddies Charley and Robert Ford.


Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden negotiated with various rail companies to offer a ,000 (1,000 today) reward each for the capture of Jesse James or his brother Frank. The subsequent posters noted “Wanted Dead or Alive Jesse or Frank James.” Ultimately the Ford brothers arranged with the governor in secret to bring their buddy Jesse in.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

Deal struck, on the morning of April 3, 1882, the brothers had breakfast with James. After eating, the trio walked into the living room. When James turned his back on the brothers, reportedly to clean a dusty photo, Robert Ford shot him in the back of the head.

Unfortunately for Charley and Robert, when they went to collect the reward, they instead found themselves promptly arrested for murder and soon after were sentenced to hang. You see, James was unarmed at the time of his death, and just as importantly was not in any way resisting arrest or attempting to flee. He seemingly didn’t even know the Ford brothers were there to arrest him that day.

To get away with killing such a person you were attempting to collect a bounty on the person needed to be resisting in some way, particularly in a way that threatened your own life. Thus, you could only kill them if it was self defense, which wouldn’t have been any different than if someone attacked you outside of any bounty scenario, with one caveat. For quite some time in U.S. history it was legal to use deadly force against a fleeing felon, even if your own life wasn’t immediately threatened. The logic behind this was seemingly that chasing down a fleeing person could be dangerous in unforeseen ways. It also incentivized criminals to not try to flee in the first place upon discovery.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

Jesse and Frank James in 1872.

Granted, if no one was around to witness, whose to say the dangerous criminal you killed didn’t actively threaten your life in an imminent way to cause you to defend yourself? And given that bringing such a criminal in across long distances used to be an extremely dangerous affair in many cases, anecdotally it seems like it wasn’t uncommon to simply rid the world of the alleged criminal first and then lie about what happened after. A body is so much safer to transport and people were quick to believe a dangerous criminal would fight tooth and nail to escape because, after all, in many cases they probably did if they knew being brought in was going to likely result in a hanging. They really had nothing to lose.

On that note, Teddy Roosevelt was once thanked by boat thief Michael Finnigan for not killing him in this sort of scenario, despite the extreme risk to Roosevelt at the time. In a nutshell a couple guys stole a boat from Roosevelt in the dead of winter. Rather than let it go, Roosevelt dropped everything and built a new boat, tracked them down and captured the thieves. The whole affair ended up being a few hundred mile trek, which had to be partially on foot because ice made the river unnavigable at a certain point. Near the end, Roosevelt had to stay awake 40 hours straight to guard the prisoners as they walked and rested. You see, he was escorting them alone at that point and it was so bitterly cold that he worried the criminals would get frost bite if he bound them in any way, so he didn’t.

In the end, Roosevelt didn’t even press charges against one of the men, noting he didn’t “have enough sense to do anything good or bad.” As for the aforementioned Finnigan, while he did find himself behind bars, he thanked Roosevelt for not killing him as most lawmen would have done in the same set of circumstances. You can learn much more about this fascinating saga on one of our favorite series of our BrainFood Show podcast titled The Bull Moose. Though perhaps a better title for that series would have been: In Which Teddy Roosevelt Makes Men Everywhere Feel a Little Less Manly.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

Theodore Roosevelt as the Badlands hunter in 1885.

(Photographed by George Grantham Baine)

In any event, going back to the Ford brothers, they did end up getting off as the governor went ahead and pardoned them, something that was met with mixed reaction by the general public. The speed at which the trial and pardon happened had some accusing the governor of actually knowing before hand that James would be killed and that the pardon had likewise all been pre-planned. Although this seems to strain credibility because if Robert Ford had known it would be illegal to kill James in the way he did, he could have killed him in the exact same way and just made up a story that James had tried to attack him or flee. No one would have been the wiser in that case and there would have been no need to trust the governor to grant a pardon.

Whatever the case, going back to the Wanted Dead or Alive posters, there are a few more caveats to consider as well. First, while depictions in movies and games often show clear photographs, in reality many historical examples were simple sketches, and often even got the descriptions of the person wrong.

Further, in the vast majority of cases, it was lawmen themselves who would take it upon themselves to go hunt down the criminal and collect the reward, not someone in the general public. Naturally, while finding criminals was sort of their job anyway, criminals that had bounties on their heads tended to get much higher priority and a lot more effort. A caveat to that was that it was occasionally the case that a member of the general public would be deputized specifically to go capture someone.

This brings us around to who pays. In most cases, as you might have guessed from our former mentioned instance of Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden getting railroad companies to put up the reward money, this usually wasn’t actually the state itself, but rather private companies or individuals who had particular interest in seeing someone brought to justice and wanted to incentivize law enforcement to actually do something about it.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure

Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden.

It was also these private entities that were more likely to have something like “Dead or Alive” put in the poster if they were involved. The legality of killing the person wasn’t really relevant here — only what the stipulations were for getting the reward. And if the company or person just wanted the alleged criminal out of the way, regardless of how it happened, they might state that they were happy to pay even if the person was killed. This would incentivize more people to try to capture the person as the risk would be less than if it was required that the person be brought in alive no matter what.

If the wanted poster and reward were coming from the state alone, it was far more likely that the poster would say something more benign, and more likely that a bounty would only be paid if the person was brought in alive and in some cases even requiring the person be convicted. Again, all of this had more to do with the stipulations surrounding how one could get paid, rather than the legality of anything suggested in the poster.

It should also be noted that if a private citizen aided a lawmen in tracking down or bringing in alleged criminals, from accounts we reviewed it would seem not uncommon at all for the lawmen to go ahead and make sure they themselves got the lion’s share of the reward, in a few instances even when the lawmen did little but recover the body after the private citizen had done their part. For example, in the aforementioned case of the Ford brothers who killed Jesse James, for all their trouble, they ended up only getting a small percentage of the bounty, with the rest going to Marshal Henry H. Craig and Sheriff James Timberlake.

But to sum up — yes Wanted Dead or Alive posters were indeed a thing, though this did not technically allow people to legally kill someone if they found them, as is often portrayed in movies. Doing so flagrantly might just see the killer wind up on their own Wanted poster.

Bonus Facts:

  • For quite a bit of England’s history, bail was not in the form of money, but rather in the form of a person who would stand trial and potentially be sentenced in your place if you skipped town. As you might imagine from this, bounties on those who’d skipped town were most definitely a thing going back at least as far as the 13th century in England as those who had pledged themselves as bail, but had the person skip town, were highly incentivized to get the person back. Using money, rather than a person, as bail finally changed in the 17th century thanks to the Habeas Corpus Act. While you’ll often read that these 13th century instances were the first known instances of bounty hunters, this isn’t correct at all. It seems more likely that this has been going on since as long as civilized humans have been humaning. As for one example drastically predating 13th century England, at some unknown point in the history of Pompeii (definitely preceding 79AD for obvious reasons), someone wrote on a wall: “A copper pot went missing from my shop. Anyone who returns it to me will be given 65 bronze coins. 20 more will be given for information leading to the capture of the thief.” Moving over to China in the 3rd century BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huang is known to have used bounties for various purposes.
  • If you’re wondering if Wanted Dead or Alive posters are still a thing, not really. While Wanted posters are still around, and the FBI, for example, currently uses over 5,000 digital billboards at various times for this purpose, the Dead or Alive variety went the way of the Dodo around the early 20th century. That said, we did find one instance occurring in 2018. In this case, in California an unnamed homeowner who was robbed put up Wanted Dead or Alive posters with the image of the person who had robbed him. As you might imagine, local law enforcement did not take kindly to this, though the person in question refused to stop posting the Dead or Alive bounty, citing freedom of speech. The police did not do anything about it, and they eventually captured the theif. However, they did note that had something happened to the thief as a result of the posters, there very likely would have been legal ramifications for the homeowner.

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

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Here’s what US intelligence knew about Hitler in 1943

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Via Flickr


One of history’s most brutal tyrants was a diagnosed schizophrenic on a mission to avenge his childhood years of repressed rage, according to Henry Murray, an American psychologist and a Harvard professor.

In 1943, the US Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA, commissioned Murray to study Adolf Hitler’s personality to try to predict his behavior. In his 229-page report, “Analysis of the Personality of Adolf Hitler,” Murray described Hitler as a paranoid “utter wreck” who was “incapable of normal human relationships.”

“It is forever impossible to hope for any mercy or humane treatment from him,” Murray wrote.

After a frustrating childhood, Hitler felt obligated to exert dominance in all things.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Bundesarchiv

Hitler suffered from intolerable feelings of inferiority, largely stemming from his small, frail, and sickly physical appearance during his childhood.

He refused to go to school because he was ashamed that he was a poor student compared to his classmates.

His mother appeased him by allowing him to drop out.

“He never did any manual work, never engaged in athletics, and was turned down as forever unfit for conscription in the Austrian Army,” Murray writes.

Hitler managed his insecurities by worshiping “brute strength, physical force, ruthless domination, and military conquest.”

Even sexually, Hitler was described as a “full-fledged masochist,” who humiliated and abused his partners.

Much of his wrath originated from a severe Oedipus complex.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Hitler’s parents. | Wikimedia Commons

As a child, Hitler experienced the Oedipus complex — love of mother and hate of father — which he developed after accidentally seeing his parents having sex, Murray’s report says.

Hitler was subservient and respectful to his father but viewed him as an enemy who ruled the family “with tyrannical severity and injustice.” According to the report, Hitler was envious of his father’s masculine power and dreamed of humiliating him to re-establish “the lost glory of his mother.”

For 16 years, Hitler did not exhibit any form of ambition or competition because his father had died and he had not yet discovered a new enemy.

Hitler frequently felt emasculated.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Bundesarchiv

Another blow to Hitler’s masculinity: He was “incapable of consummating in a normal fashion,” old sexual partners shared with Murray.

“This infirmity we must recognize as an instigation to exorbitant cravings for superiority. Unable to demonstrate male power before a woman, he is impelled to compensate by exhibiting unsurpassed power before men in the world at large,” he writes.

As mentioned, when Hitler did have sexual relations with a woman, he exhibited masochistic behaviors. Hitler was said to have multiple partners, but eventually married his long-term mistress, Eva Braun, hours before the two committed suicide together in his Berlin bunker.

He suffered from indecisiveness and collapsed under pressure.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Wikimedia Commons

Even at the peak of his power, Hitler suffered from frequent emotional collapses from a guilty conscience.

“He has nightmares from a bad conscience, and he has long spells when energy, confidence, and the power of decision abandon him,” Murray writes.

According to Murray, Hitler’s cycle from complete despair to reaction followed this pattern:

• An emotional outburst, tantrum of rage, and accusatory indignation ending in tears and self-pity.

•Succeeded by periods of inertia, exhaustion, melancholy, and indecisiveness.

•Followed by hours of acute dejection and disquieting nightmares.

•Leading to hours of recuperation.

•And finally confident and resolute decision to counterattack with great force and ruthlessness.

The five-step evolution could last anywhere from 24 hours to several weeks, the report says

He was ashamed of his mixed heritage.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Hitler speaks to Joseph Goebbels. | Bundesarchiv

Hitler valued “pure, unmixed, and uncorrupted German blood,” which he associated with aristocracy and beauty, according to Murray.

He offered the following explanation of Hitler’s contempt for mixed blood:

• As a boy of twelve, Hitler was caught engaging in some sexual experiment with a little girl; and later he seems to have developed a syphilophobia, with a diffuse fear of contamination of the blood through contact with a woman.

• It is almost certain that this irrational dread was partly due to the association in his mind of sexuality and excretion. He thought of sexual relations as something exceedingly filthy.

Hitler denied that his father was born illegitimately and had at least two failed marriages, that his grandfather and godfather were Jews, and that one of his sisters was a mistress of a wealthy Jew.

He focused his hatred on Jews because they were an easy target.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Hitler marches to the Reichstag in Berlin in 1933. | Bundesarchiv

Murray explains that Jews were the clear demographic for Hitler to project his personal frustrations and failings on because they “do not fight back with fists and weapons.”

The Jews were therefore an easy and non-militarized target that he could blame for pretty much anything, including the disastrous effects after the Treaty of Versailles.

Anti-Semitic caricatures also associated Jews with several of Hitler’s dislikes, including business, materialism, democracy, capitalism, and communism. He was eager to strip some Jews of their wealth and power.

He was moody, awkward and received compliments on his eye-color.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Marina Amaral

According to Murray’s report, Hitler received frequent compliments on his grayish-blue eyes, even though they were described as “dead, impersonal, and unseeing.”

He was slightly below average in height and had a receding hairline, thin lips, and well-shaped hands.

Murray notes that the merciless Nazi leader was known to offer a weak handshake with “moist and clammy” palms and was awkward at making small talk.

Sources say Hitler appeared to be shy or moody when meeting people and was uncoordinated in his gestures. He was also incredibly picky about his food.

Here’s Murray’s full report:

Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler by Amanda Macias on Scribd

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Nuclear trains may be coming back

Tensions between the U.S. and Russia are dangerously high. Both sides are complaining that the other has ignored military norms in international airspace and at sea, both have accused the other of violating treaties designed to prevent large-scale war, and both are developing systems to counter the other’s strength.


But, while Russia works on new tanks and bombers and the U.S. tries to get its second fifth-generation fighter fully operational, each side is also looking to a nearly forgotten technology from the Cold War, nuclear-armed trains.

The idea is to construct a train that looks normal to satellite feeds, aerial surveillance and, if possible, observers on the ground, but carries one or more intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Concept art of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear-armed train, the RS-23 Molodets. (Image: Defenseimagery.mil)

These trains would remain in a fortified depot during normal operations. During periods of nuclear brinksmanship, though, they would be dispersed across the country to provide a credible counterstrike if the enemy fires their nukes first.

The trains, if properly camouflaged, would be nearly impossible to target and could launch their payloads within minutes.

Russia got the missile cars to work first and fielded an operational version in 1991. In the early 1990s, America built prototype rail cars for the Peacekeeper Rail Garrison missile system and tested them, but then the Soviet Union collapsed and the project was cancelled.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
One of Russia’s first nuclear-armed trains on display in the Saint Petersburg railway museum. Photo: CC BY-SA 2.5 Panther

Now, Russia has leaked that it is designing and fielding a new version of the trains. The Barguzin missile trains, named for a fierce wind that comes off of Russia’s Lake Baikal, will carry six RS-24 Yars missiles each. Yars missiles can carry up to six independently-targetable warheads with 100-300 kilotons of explosive power each.

The missile cars and fuel tanks are to be disguised as refrigeration cars and will be indistinguishable from regular trains if the weapons live up to the hype. Each will be able to deploy with its own security force and missile personnel for up to 28 days without resupply.

America has been flirting with restarting its nuclear trains, but it doesn’t seem likely. The Air Force awarded study contracts in 2013 to look at the feasibility of a “nuclear subway” system where missile launching trains would have dedicated tracks underground.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Concept art for the U.S. Peacekeeper Rail Garrison missile system. Image: San Diego Air Space Museum

But, budget problems that were biting at the Pentagon then have continued to hound it, and mobile launchers are expensive. Plus, most Americans don’t like the idea of nuclear trains running under their feet any more than they like the idea of nuclear trucks driving through their local streets.

The feasibility of Russia’s plans is also suspect. After all, the Russian Defense Ministry is running into worse budget problems than the Pentagon. It’s ability to fund a nuclear-armed train while oil prices are low and its economy is in shambles is questionable at best.

Right now, America’s main counter to Russian nuclear trains, and any other intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, appears to be its missile shields in Europe which could intercept many outbound nuclear missiles.

China has also flirted with nuclear trains. In 2013, Chinese media – whether accidentally or on purpose – leaked footage of a train modified to hold DF-31 and DF-31A missiles which can carry a single 1-megaton nuclear warhead. There were some questions at the times about whether or not the system was truly operational.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Civil War revolutionized artillery

Want to win a war game? Plan carefully, work hard and get lucky. Want to win a war? You need to get good (or, Git Gud, as you Fortnite players might say). That was the challenge facing military leaders at the start of the Civil War. Industry and daily life had changed year by year over the preceding decades, and if military leaders didn’t evolve and rise to the challenges brought on by the new conflict, they and their men would be lucky to get shallow graves.


6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
A railway gun used during the U.S. Civil War during the Siege of Petersburg, June 1864–April 1865.
(Library of Congress)

The Industrial Revolution took a while to get started and into full swing, but by the 1850s, it was raging across North America with wooden (and, quickly, steel) railroads crisscrossing the country while horses and engines, were pressed into service to pull the train cars. Steam-powered shovels dug canals, and ships crossed the oceans in record time with coal-heated boilers pushing them along.

So, when rebels fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, it was time to use the new manufacturing techniques and technology to improve the weapons of war and produce them on a grand scale. When it came to artillery, the growing industrial might of the U.S. was full of things that could improve cannon design.

Improvements in metallurgy and machining had allowed for more powerful pistons for steam engines, but if you used the same techniques to create cannons, you could safely pack more powder per shot and create more cannons in total. And, the massive improvements in the understanding of iron mining and smelting meant fewer weapons made of brass.

And since machining and interchangeable parts had also improved, it had become possible to manufacture rifled cannons in large numbers. Rifled cannons were more accurate, more destructive, and could deliver explosives into stone masonry.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
30-pounder Parrot rifle at Port Hudson, Louisiana.
(Public domain)

These changes had, obviously, begun before the war actually broke out. For instance, the Parrot rifle was created in 1860. It was designed by a former Army captain who had left the service in 1836. It was actually a cannon and relied on a cast-iron barrel, a then-recent development in cannon design, but far from revolutionary.

Cast-iron barrels have better accuracy than those made of wrought iron, but cast iron is brittle and has less tensile strength, essential for surviving repeated firings. Parrot wrapped the cast-iron barrel in wrought iron with a focus on the breech where the worst pressures were experienced. The addition of rifling helped improve accuracy and range.

But the 1861 outbreak of war drastically increased the market for the Parrot rifle and similar weapons. And, it also created a market for new artillery munitions.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
A display with different rounds for the Parrot rifle.
(Dr.Stew82, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Explosive shells, chained shot, heated shot, all had been around for a while, but the industrial war had created industrial demand. Again, new manufacturing techniques allowed for many more rounds to be created. But, even better, when well-made explosive shells were fired from rifled cannons, they could pierce walls, drilling feet into the surface before exploding.

This destroyed stone walls and timber fortifications with ease. While Parrot rifles and other long-range artillery, were able to fire up to 1.5 miles or more, wrought-iron, rifled cannons firing smaller shells could reach out over 2 miles.

For defenders, that was a guaranteed catastrophe. Traditionally, forts counted on altitude to outrange their opponents. If opposing artillery had similar weapons, the fort’s defenders gained a considerable range advantage because they were firing from 15-feet above the ground or potentially higher.

But if the attacker showed up with wrought-iron, rifled cannons with reinforced breeches, they’d likely have a huge range advantage. With a cast-iron barrel reinforced by wrought iron, they lose a little range but pick up some serious accuracy.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Parrot rifle and carriage.
(U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

And when the attacker’s shells buried into the walls before exploding, they could shred straight through the defenses while staying outside the range of the fort’s smoothbores.

And this was decidedly in the Union’s favor because it had the factories and money to manufacture these technological marvels.

When artillerymen got into duels with the new weapons, it was an interesting if lethal exchange. But for infantrymen sent against these new guns, meant they could have to march under fire for over a mile to get into range of their attackers. It took 15 to 20 minutes for infantry to cross the distance while each gun’s crew was pushing out two rounds per minute.

Between that and breakthroughs in rifle technology (similar story to artillery, improved manufacturing techniques combined with improved range and rate of fire) made an infantry attacker’s job nearly impossible. The worst was Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg where 15,000 Confederates tried to cross .75 miles of open field under artillery and rifle fire. Nearly 6,000 men died, and the rest retreated.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is what a well-earned retirement looked like for a Roman veteran

At its climax, the dominion of ancient Rome comprised one of the largest territories in history. Most of western and southern Europe, as well as the entire Mediterranean periphery, awoke and went to sleep under the rule of the SPQR flag (Senatus Populusque Romanus: the Senat and People of Rome). The discipline and the efficiency of its army is key to Roman expansion. In return for their precious service to Rome, the soldiers received some handsome benefits upon retirement.

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
A recreation of Roman legionaries wearing the lorica segmentata, 1st–3rd century (Caliga10, Wikipedia)

The army consists of wealthy Roman citizens who serve for a short duration for the Roman Republic (509BC-27BC). The need of a particular campaign or to defend a territory under immediate invasion did not need a standing army. Recruitment and discharge to civilian activities is based on the needs of the army. Because of the short military service, benefits and pensions were unnecessary. However, in 108BC, Consul Gaius Marius initiated the professionalization of the army.

Roman military benefits

6 well-known ways the White House stays secure
Non-Roman soldiers could become auxiliaries, which would guarantee them citizenship after they completed their term of service. If they survived, that is.

In order to entice citizens under the dominion of Rome into military life, they were offered rewards in land, work animals, or a pension of equal value after ten years of service. Roman citizens became legionnaires and non-Roman citizens became auxiliaries. Auxiliaries earn a third of the legionnaires’ salary and is often fight on the front lines during battles. However, upon completion of their service, they would receive full Roman citizenship, thus giving them the right to vote, to hold property, to marry a Roman citizen, or to stand for civic and public office.

Retired soldiers sometimes settled together in military towns or conquered territories, making them a great tool for the Romanization of these lands. In this case, administrative positions are available to veterans to become prominent members of the local society. The veterans are a reserve force (evocati in Latin) in case of emergency, although retired soldiers no longer took part in the army’s activities. Even after long years in the army, they never completely left the service of Rome.

Pension like rewards

It is impractical to award all soldiers with land as the army grows in number. At this point the reward is converted into a praemia, a pension-like cash prize. Under Augustus Caesar, adopted son of Julius Caesar and first leader of the Roman Empire (27BC-286AD), the Aerarium Militare, a pension fund for retired veterans paid by special taxes, is created and the length of service to qualify for the pension was extended to twenty-five years. The praemia reached 12,000 sesterces for legionnaires and 20,000 sesterces for the Praetorian guards. That sum was the equivalent of twelve years of salary in the army.

Upon retirement, Roman soldiers did not only receive a sizeable cash prize, but also their savings, any bonus for the campaigns they had fought, donations from the emperor, the senate, or the generals, and the share of loot earned during conquests. Some soldiers were able to retire as wealthy men and build a comfortable life for themselves. By law, Roman soldiers were forbidden to marry while in active service. Naturally, that rule proved very difficult to enforce and was often ignored. Retirement also became the occasion for the soldiers to officially recognise their wife and children and to settle with them.

You can check out but never leave

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If you’re an Ancient Roman warrior, don’t bother getting rid of your gear when you retire. You’ll probably need it again.

In the early 3rd century AD, under Caracalla and Septimius Severus, the praemia rose to 20,000 sesterces for legionnaires. By then, the Empire was facing frequent crisis and needed to increase the incentives to convince the Roman citizens to join the army’s ranks. However, due to these crises, it was not infrequent for evocati to be called back to service. Additionally, disabled Roman veterans were exempted from paying taxes.

Some historians trace the beginning of the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Senate’s decision to reduce the soldiers’ pension. With less incentive to join the army, the Roman citizens turned to different careers. The Senate then filled the ranks of the army with Barbarians, diminishing the cohesion and discipline. These decisions are major contributing factors that lead to the fall of Rome. A cautionary tale to not mess with a veteran’s pension and post service benefits.

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Coke exists thanks to this wounded warrior from Civil War

There’s a fun fact that you can’t escape in the South: Coca-Cola used to have cocaine in it. The Coke brand is everywhere down here, and every 14-year-old will bring up the cocaine fact a couple of times a week for the first six months after they learn about it.


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(Public domain)

 

The fact that cocaine used to be offered in every town usually gets written off as an odd quirk of history, but it turns out the inventor had a good reason to appreciate the coca plant: he had a number of gunshot and saber wounds from the Civil War.

Coke was invented by John Stith Pemberton (the drink is named after the coca plant, not the inventor or company founder). Pemberton became a doctor at the ripe old age of 19 in 1850. He was a successful surgeon and chemist in the 1850s, but he signed up for frontline service when the Civil War broke out.

He didn’t serve as a doctor, though. He started as a first lieutenant in a cavalry unit in 1862 and climbed the ranks to lieutenant colonel. He faced his fiercest fighting when Union Gen. James Wilson attacked Columbus in 1865. Pemberton suffered multiple gunshots wounds and even a saber strike to his chest.

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Union Gen. James Wilson led Union troops during the Battle of Columbus. (Brady National Photographic Art Gallery)

 

Pemberton would suffer for years from the wounds he took near Columbus, and he struggled against an opium addiction thanks to all the painkillers he was given. But Pemberton was, luckily, a skilled chemist and pharmacist. He moved to Atlanta after the war and developed new chemical products.

He became aware of a new European product already popular in Italy and France, wine infused with extracts from coca leaves. After a new business partnership in 1870, he was able to purchase the equipment to develop even more complex products.

In 1885, he made his own version of the coca-infused wines which he called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. One thing worth noting here, this isn’t technically cocaine in a drink. Coca leaves are a precursor to cocaine, but you have to use a solvent to extract cocaine sulfate from the leaves in order to get actual cocaine out. But Pemberton’s wine did have anesthetic effects like cocaine would.

Pemberton sold the drink as a way to settle nerves, relieve pain, and cure morphine addiction. You know, the same morphine addiction that he and many of his veteran friends had.

The jump from French Wine Coca to Coca-Cola came when wine was threatened by alcohol prohibition in Atlanta and Pemberton decided to replace the sweetness from the wine with sweetness from sugar. After a few more changes to refine the taste, the product was renamed Coca-Cola and released in 1886.

It has gone through a few formula changes since, including switching fresh coca leaves out for spent coca leaves which have had the cocaine sulfate extracted. So, you know, you can’t get high from Coke anymore.

Pemberton never got rich off his invention, though. He was still standing up the Coca-Cola Company under his son, Charles Pemberton, when he died. The company passed into the hands of another investor, and the Pembertons were largely ousted.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A brief, deadly history of chemical weapons

On April 22, 1915, a stiff wind outside of Ypres helped loose the first systematic poison-gas attack in history.

On a sunny afternoon in April 1915, outside the Belgian city of Ypres, the wind began blowing in the direction the German troops wanted – toward the French lines. German soldiers set up over 5,000 barrels of chlorine gas along their position, and let loose a rolling cloud of thick, yellow death. More than 6,000 French troops died in what was the first systematic use of poison gas on the battlefield. Its effectiveness caught even the Germans off guard. Willi Siebert, a German soldier, noted in his diary, “When we got to the French lines, the trenches were empty, but in a half mile the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. It was unbelievable.” Just over 99 years later, on June 17, 2014, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed chlorine gas was used by the Syrian government in an attack on its own people.


Origins and evolution

In 1918, a German chemist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for a method of extracting ammonia from the nitrogen in the atmosphere. The process made ammonia abundant and easily available. Haber’s discovery revolutionized agriculture, with some calling it the most significant technological discovery of the 20th century – supporting half of the world’s food base.

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German chemistu00a0Fritz Haber.

Haber was also a staunch German patriot who quickly joined the war effort at the outbreak of World War I. He was insistent on using weaponized gases, despite objections from some army commanders about their brutality, and treaties prohibiting their use. He personally oversaw the first use of chlorine gas at the front lines at Ypres. The next morning, he set out for the eastern front to deploy gas against the Russian army.

Chemical weapons quickly became a mainstay of warfare, public condemnation notwithstanding. They were employed by the militaries of Italy, Russia, Spain, and Japan, among others.

Timeline: chemical weapons use

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During the Cold War, the United States and the U.S.S.R. made major advances in chemical-weapons technology. Their breakthroughs were accompanied by innovations in nuclear-weapons technology. It was during this period that the third generation of chemical weapons was invented: nerve agents.

Within a century of their devastating debut at Ypres, chemical weapons have increased in lethality a thousandfold.

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Use in Syria’s Civil War

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Sources

  • Organization For The Prohibition Of Chemical Weapons (background, locations, types of weapons, stockpiles, number of weapons destroyed)
  • United Nations Human Rights Council (Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic)
  • National Institutes Of Health (effects, history, and lethality)
  • Smithsonian Institute (history)
  • Violations Documentation Center in Syria (fatalities)
  • Human Rights Watch (types of weapons, attack locations)
  • U.S. Defense Department (types of weapons)

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

MIGHTY HISTORY

That time high-value POWs were rescued from Nazis by the Nazis

Nazi SS forces tasked with guarding the Nazis’ most high-value prisoners finally moved them all to a single place as the war (and the Nazi party) was nearing its end. Among those were troops with famous names, like Churchill. There were former world leaders who happened to be of Jewish descent, like Hungary’s Miklos Kallay. Prince Philip Von Hesse was there, too. And there were members of high-ranking military families, like the Von Stauffenbergs (whose patriarch famously tried to kill Hitler in the Valkyrie plot).


The group ended up in Niederdorf, in Italy’s South Tyrol region. The infamous SS guards decided to move all their high-value eggs from the infamous Dachau camp into one basket in Italy. Aside from the aforementioned famous prisoners — who were each antithetical to Nazi values — there were British and American troops there, ones known for multiple, repeated escape attempts. There were also relatives of famous foreign dignitaries, like Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov’s nephew.

In all, there were 140 of the Nazis most high-profile undesirables, each too valuable to be allowed to be captured by oncoming enemy forces. It wasn’t just for their propaganda value, but also their intelligence value. The SS had orders to keep them from being captured by the enemy — by any means necessary. One former German officer, equivalent to a colonel, was also among the prisoner population at Niederdorf. He was incarcerated for allowing a retreat on the Eastern Front against the Red Army, and he knew what the SS might do if pushed.

It was that dedicated German officer who managed to get word out to an old friend that they and the rest of these prisoners were in more mortal danger with every passing day.

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Conditions at Dachau were not suitable for this small group of hostages.
(U.S. Army)

 

The prisoners could not be taken to existing concentration camps. It turns out that camp commandants were not accepting new arrivals by this time, mid-April, 1945. The war would soon be over and each was busy covering his ass and the asses of those around him. So, SS-Obersturmführer Edgar Stiller took his lot to a hotel in Niederdorf. The only problem was the hotel was occupied by three German Wehrmacht Generals, so the townspeople of Neiderdorf put them up, feeding and sheltering them.

During their stay German Oberst (colonel) and prisoner Bogislaw von Bonin managed to reach one of the generals at the hotel via telephone. He warned General Hans Roettiger that the prisoners would be massacred by the SS if the Army did not intervene. The only problem was Roettiger was accompanied by SS General Karl Wolff.

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Hauptmann (Captain) Wichard von Alvesleben after World War II.

 

Not to be outdone, Roettiger ordered Hauptmann (Captain) Wichard von Alvesleben and his men stationed to the west of Niederdorf to the scene. After learning that Stiller did intend to kill his VIP prisoners using a bomb aboard their transport bus, Alvesleben and the Wehrmacht moved on the town and liberated the Allied prisoners. But the trouble wasn’t over right away.

After herding the prisoners into the town hall and reinforcing it with 15 noncommissioned officer and a heavy machine gun, the Wehrmacht troops demanded the SS guard withdraw from the town and leave the prisoners. Alvesleben even called his cousin, also a Wehrmacht Hauptmann, who reinforced the regular army by surrounding the SS in the town square with another 150 men.

Outnumbered, the SS guard left.

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Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin (center) with fellow hostage and British intelligence officer Sigismund Payne Best (dark suit right) shortly after liberation by the United States on 5 May 1945.

 

The prisoners and their Wehrmacht guard marched to the nearby Hotel Pragser Wildsee where they spent the next few days, guarding against German Army deserters and Italian Partisans. They were soon liberated by the arriving American Army, who repatriated the VIP hostages back to their host country and arrested the Wehrmacht.

The hostages, of course, spoke in the defense of the German Army regulars who came to their aid against the SS. The kind-hearted Hauptmann Wichard von Alvesleben would survive the war and live for another 30-plus years.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How Americans can claim their very own island using fun, outdated laws

Do you want to stake your claim on something, make it truly yours, and let all of human history know that you’re a badass? Want to set out as an explorer despite the fact that the world has been pretty much figured out by this point? Ever feel like just sticking a flag in the ground and claiming it for yourself? Well, get ready to go island exploring!

Using plenty of technical loopholes in statutes created over one hundred and fifty years ago, you can actually lay claim to your very own island and do whatever you feel like on it.

There are many technicalities involved and several things to consider, but it’s still very much possible.


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Most of those purple areas in the Pacific, except, obviously, Hawaii, Guam, and the American Samoas, are Guano Islands that gave America much more control in the Pacific.

(NOAA)

The very first thing to have ready is the Guano Islands Act of 1856. This states that America will do everything in its power to defend an American’s claim on an island if there’s guano on it. Guano, as you probably know, is bird or bat poop. Back in the 1850s, guano was an excellent source of phosphates and could be used for fertilizer or sold at a high price. The act doesn’t stipulate how much guano was needed to be considered “claimable,” so that’s open for your interpretation.

If it’s enough to reinvigorate the global guano market, awesome. If it’s literally just the product of the parrot you brought on your adventures because you thought it’d make you more like a pirate, that’s fine, too. The act was never repealed and, since it was enacted, America has prospered greatly from the islands it’s allowed to be claimed.

In the past, America has laid claim to 58 islands. Fifty of these bird-poop-filled islands have been used as bargaining chips with smaller nations nearby. America gave the seemingly worthless and uninhabited Kanton Island to the nation of Kiribati in exchange for the ability to build military bases there. The eight remaining islands that America has claimed in the middle of seemingly nowhere were made part of the unincorporated territories of the United States, which has greatly increased America’s exclusive economic zone in the oceans.

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Which leaves you searching all of that light blue. Good luck.

Exclusive economic zones are also a key factor. Whatever tiny claim you stake adds 200 nautical miles of America, meaning no other country can drill for oil or fish in those waters. In today’s marketplace, America will definitely back up your claims.

But this also means that whichever island you lay claim to cannot fall within another nation’s economic zone. So, if you find a tiny rock off the coast of Japan, you’re out of luck. That island still belongs to Japan, regardless of how much bird poop is on it.

What you need to instead is to look in International Waters, the areas of water far enough away from other nations’ claims. This limits your search area, excluding basically anywhere in the Mediterranean and most of the Caribbean, but you’re not entirely out of luck: Much of the South Pacific and South Atlantic remains open season.

You must also consider current and past claims. Islands that have been claimed before are highly contested and would be, likely, a waste of time. This means most of the current Terra Nullius, or “nobody’s land,” is likely so far off-course that nobody has a reason to visit.

You do, however, still have complete right to explore the Antarctic. Since you’re backing is the United States and the United States put a stipulation in the Antarctic Treaty to allow it to lay any claim in the future, you can search uninterrupted by other nations. This also gives you the ability to use penguins as your source of guano.

You could also search in the Pacific Ring of Fire. Since there is much volcanic activity going on there, new islands are sure to form — just waiting for you to arrive with an American flag. Here’s what that would sort of look like.

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Enjoy your new island, you modern-day explorer, you!

(Photo by Pedro Flores)

Once you’ve found your very own terra nullius island and you’ve ensured birds have pooped on it, it’s yours. You personally own a private island not beholden to any nation. That means you have you don’t have to go through the headache of paying millions to name your island. It’s your island, you can do with it and name it whatever you want. The only stipulation is that the name can’t already be taken.

You’re screwed if your surname is of English heritage because they kind of had a monopoly on island claiming for a few hundred years, but if you’ve got your own unique Eastern-European last name, like me, name it after yourself. There’s also no rule against naming it something awesome, like “Buttf*ck-Nowhere Island.” So, you do you.

Once you’ve got it. Head on over to the U.S. Department of the Interior and let them know that you’ve got a new piece to add to America and your stake of land is forever made an American territory that can never be taken away. Because it’d suck through all that trouble just to end up losing your claim after you pass away.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Women can vote thanks to these 16 milestones

By this November, thousands of Americans will have exercised their right to vote for the next president of the United States. With just over half of that population as female (50.8%), women have a huge say in how that election turns out. But as we all know, that wasn’t always an option. Who has had the right to vote has changed over time, including those of different races, genders, and those who had certain assets.

Go back in time with us as we look at some of the most important events that led to women’s voting rights.


1776: The New Jersey Constitution Grants Women the Right to Vote

These trailblazers provided women with the right to vote via their state constitution through 1807.

1838: “School suffrage” voted into effect in Kentucky

This special amendment was created for widows who had school-age children, it allowed them to vote on school-related issues.

1848: First convention to discuss women’s rights

After a two day meeting held in New York, a convention was called for women to talk about their rights. Held in Seneca Falls, New York, the event was considered successful with signatures from 68 women and 32 men on the “Declaration of Sentiments.” It included the country’s first “formal” demand for women’s voting rights, with:

“It is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”

1850: The first National Woman’s Rights Convention takes place

After taking over conventions for themselves — men were kicked out of planning or helping with events — this largest event to-date took place in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was attended by more than 1,000 people.

National conferences were held annually through 1860, with the exclusion of 1857.

1853: The first feminist newspaper is printed

The Una, “A paper devoted to the elevation of woman” was printed in Providence, Rhode Island.

1861: Kansas allows school election votes

The state of Kansas allowed women to start voting in school board elections.

1866: Documents are presented to Congress

After receiving 10,000 signatures, suffragist leaders presented the document to Congress, requesting women’s votes.

1868: The 14th amendment is ratified

With the 14th amendment, more Americans are given the right to vote, but it includes the word “male,” prohibiting females from securing their rights.

1870: Wyoming grants female votes

Citing territorial status, Wyoming is the first state — or future state — to allow women to vote. When it became a state in 1890, it was the first official state to grant female votes.

1871: The Anti-Suffrage Party was created

Wives of prominent men, including those of Civil War generals, gather to found this movement.

1872: Women head to both sides of the ballot

The first female presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull runs for president. Later that year, 16 women voted in New York, including Susan B. Anthony. She was arrested and fined, but refused to pay.

1878: A suffrage movement is introduced

An amendment addressing women’s suffrage was first brought to congress. It wasn’t passed until 1920 as the 19th amendment.

1910: Washington state grants women’s rights

In its third attempt, the amendment was passed, granting rights to Washington women. Washington is followed in subsequent years by many states.

1915: The largest women’s suffrage parade

The year hosted the largest suffrage parade of its kind. Some 40,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue to as much as a half-million viewers. It’s still known as the largest parade in NYC.

1918: President Wilson addresses Congress

After having personal petitions dropped on him, President Wilson personally stands up to Congress for women’s votes?

1920: The 19th amendment is passed

After being sent to the states for ratification in 1919, the amendment granting women’s rights was finally passed into law.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is how medical evacuations have evolved over the last 145 years

Medical treatment is a crucial element on the battlefield, helping keep troops in the fight and boost morale with the knowledge that if you’re hurt by the bad guys, someone’s got your back and will get you out of harms way.


While past wars featured medical evacuations draped over the shoulder of a comrade or on the back of a horse, technology has progressed to include a more effect way to get the wounded back to hospitals through the air.

In one of the first true MEDEVAC operations during the Siege of Paris in 1870, balloons were used to rescue civilians and soldiers in the Franco-Prussian war.

 

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An early photo of the first balloon out of Paris during the Siege.

It’s reported that another of the first aerial MEDEVACs took place during World War I when an unknown Serbian officer flew a French Air Service plane with an injured comrade to a hospital. Back then, an injured soldier’s mortality rate decreased from 60 percent to 10 percent using aircraft to get them to medical care.

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French aircraft flying over German held territory, 1915.

At this point, all documented MEDEVACs had involved fixed wing airplanes.

In April 1944, an Army Air Forces aircraft carrying Army Staff Sgt. Ed “Murphy” Hladovka and three wounded British soldiers was forced to land deep behind enemy lines near Mawlu, Burma. Then a brave Lt. Carter Harman flew his defenseless Sikorsky YR-4B into harms way, rescuing the four stranded men. The helicopter was so small it took four trips to lift everyone to safety.

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Carter Harman with ground crew in India

Acclaimed aeronautical engineer Igor Sikorsky once said, “If a man is in need of rescue, an airplane can come in and throw flowers on him, and that’s just about all. But a direct lift aircraft could come in and save his life.”

During the Korean War, helicopters were more widely used in medical transport, spawning the growth of auxiliary surgical hospitals — later renamed to Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, or “M.A.S.H.”

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Inside a real Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.

With this medical expansion considered a huge success, the U.S. began beefing up its medical wards on Navy ships, adding dozens of beds and expanding the number of surgical rooms to handle the incoming patients. An estimated 20,000 Americans had been successfully evacuated and treated during the war.

It wasn’t until Vietnam where things kicked into high gear. The UH-1 Huey was big enough that it could carry medical personnel and the wounded on the same bird. This reduced the mortality rate to one dead per 100 causalities.

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Combat Medics load wounded soldiers on to a UH-1 Huey in Vietnam.

Entering service in the 1970’s, the UH-60 Black Hawk provided even more room for medical personnel render more complicated medical treatments while in flight on multiple patients. Today, the Black Hawk is the go-to helo for MEDEVACs.

Equipped with the latest in defensive technology and maneuvering capabilities, the UH-60 Black Hawk has the ability to head out into some pretty dangerous situations and land on rough terrain to secure those men and women in need of top medical care.

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Today, with the average response time decreasing, the survival rate for the wounded troops has reached an all-time high of a 92 percent.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A hunt for a death ray gave us radar

One of the most useful and game-changing weapons of World War II was radar, a technology that allowed Allied pilots to know when and where to fly in order to intercept incoming German bombers, but Britain was actually hunting for a super weapon: A death ray.


How War Made Flying Safer

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In 1935, World War II had essentially not started yet. Japan was conducting limited, intermittent fighting with China, but Europe was technically at peace. Except war was clearly bubbling up. Germany was re-building its military in violation of the Peace Treaty of Versailles, and Italy launched a successful invasion of Ethiopia.

Britain knew, sooner or later, it would get dragged into a fight. Either Italy would attack colonial possessions in Africa that belonged to it or its allies, or Germany would attempt to conquer Europe. And there was a rumor that Germany had developed a weapon that could wipe out entire towns.

(This may have been a result of early nuclear research. German scientists made some of the critical first breakthroughs in what would later result in nuclear bombs.)

So British leaders asked Robert Watson-Watt if his research, using electromagnetic radiation to detect clouds, could be used to kill enemy pilots.

Yes, they wanted a death ray. But Watson-Watts quickly realized that he couldn’t get that much energy into the clouds. His work, which would lead to modern day weather radar, used a magnetron to send microwave radiation into the sky. But it wasn’t a focused beam of energy, and there simply wasn’t enough juice to kill or even seriously distract an enemy pilot.

To get an idea of how the death ray would’ve had to work, imagine a microwave that could cook a human in less than a minute while they were still miles away. That would be a huge, power-sucking microwave and essentially technically impossible to build.

But Watson-Watts came back with an alternative proposal. The death ray was dead in the water, but the magnetrons could be used to detect planes just like clouds, but even more effectively. And the early math around the idea revealed that the device could see enemy planes for miles and miles, eventually 100 miles out.

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British troops guard a downed German Messerschmitt Bf 109 in August 1940. Radar helped British pilots hold off German advances despite a shortage of pilots and planes.

(Imperial War Museums)

This was game-changing for British pilots when war did break out and reach British shores. Germany quickly conquered France and then began attacking England in the Battle of Britain, using the Luftwaffe to bomb British targets and take on British fighters. The British were outnumbered, and so they needed to make each flight hour of each pilot count for as much as possible.

Radar made this possible. If Britain could only spot incoming German forces with human eyeballs, it would need a large number of spotters on the ground and pilots in the air at all times. But with radar looking out a hundred miles, the Royal Air Force could fly fewer patrols and keep most pilots resting on the ground until needed, instead.

When radar detected incoming planes, the in-air patrols could fly to intercept as additional forces scrambled into the sky as necessary. The network of radar stations would become the “Chain Home” system, and it watched Britain to the north, east, and south.

Germany developed its own radar and deployed it operationally in 1940.

Britain never got its death ray, but Japan did experiment with making a death ray like Watson-Watts considered. They used magnetrons to create microwave radiation in an experimental design that did kill at least one rabbit targeted during tests. But killing the rabbit required that it stay still for 10 minutes, not exactly useful in combat. A groundhog took 20 minutes.

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