technological trivia roundup

The philosopher John Stuart Mill once questioned whether “all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being”; William Shatner takes a more sanguine view: “I love technology. Matches, to light a fire, is really high tech. The wheel is really one of the great inventions of all time.” So if your beeper has ever not beeped, your computer not computed, or your terminator not terminated, then read on for a roundup of people and places foiled by technology.

pony express :: db cooper :: frequency hopping :: llano del rio :: gruber

• • •

1. For all its cultural cachet, the Pony Express operated for only 18 months, delivering mail between Missouri and Sacramento in an unheard of ten days’ time. 184 way stations stretched across the 1900 mile route, with mail delivered by a coterie of 400 horses and 120 riders. Riding was a fraught profession; the very direct job ad claimed: “Wanted: young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred”—the same ad evil villains use to recruit henchmen.

The first mail sent by Pony Express left on April 3, 1860, and arrived as promised ten days later—all for the princely sum of $5 per half-ounce ($139 in 2014 dollars! Few pieces of Pony Express mail survive only because so few were sent). So effective was the Express that California newspapers received word of Lincoln’s 1860 election a scant week after it happened (isn’t it weird how, say, the president could die and be laid to rest days before people on the west coast knew anything happened? Anyways, I think it’s weird.).

Old map of Pony Express route
Old map of Pony Express route

The Pony Express was founded with essentially one goal: securing a lucrative government contract for western mail delivery. Despite its very public successes, that contract was not won, and by March of 1861 the Express was delivering mail only between Salt Lake City and California, having sold its other stations to the “Stagecoach King” Ben Holladay (who later sold to Wells Fargo).

A brief aside on Holladay, because of all the various and sundry scoundrels and scallawags I’ve uncovered roundup-ing, none earn quite the derision directed at him. He was a transportation tycoon (stagecoaches, ships, and railroads) who ended up losing his shirt in the Panic of 1873. Most people who knew him would think he deserved it. Allow me to blockquote descriptions of Holladay from Wikipedia because I can’t even:

…”illiterate, coarse, boastful, false, and cunning.”…possessing “many of the characteristics of Napoleon.”…known for “being clever, shrewd, cunning, illiterate, coarse, and completely unscrupulous”…Joseph Gaston described him as being “wholly destitute of fixed principles of honesty, morality, or common decency.”…After buying a large home from Doctor Rodney Glisan, “he remodelled it and immediately installed a harem of high class prostitutes.

Anyways, Pony Express shuttered for good on October 26, 1861, a mere two days after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph, because it turns out that even the fastest horses and daringest riders are slower than the speed of light.


Dan Cooper, hepcat
Dan Cooper, hepcat

2. On November 24, 1971 a man named Dan Cooper, nattily attired in a suit and tie, purchased a ticket on Northwest Airlines from Portland to Seattle. Shortly after ordering a bourbon and soda, he passed a note to the flight attendant claiming he had a bomb (he later opened his briefcase, showing her some metal cylinders and wires, which, come on—that was just a bunch of wires, right? Do bombs actually look like that?). He demanded $200,000, a refueling, and four parachutes when he landed in Seattle. He never called himself “D.B.,” that was a mistake by a journalist that stuck.

They gave him the money. He released the passengers, herded the crew into the cockpit, and told them to head for Mexico City at the lowest possible airspeed. Only a half-hour out of Seattle, Cooper lowered the stairs under the rear of the plane and jumped, with 21 pounds of $20 bills strapped to his body (they think). His body was never found, he was never identified, and the ransom money has never been spent. Because he jumped into the teeth of a storm in freezing temperatures with no supplies, and would have landed in hostile, unforgiving terrain, most investigators believe he died. Funny how a bad storm might have ruined an otherwise well-laid plan.

Nearly a decade later, three stacks of bills were found slightly buried in a river near where Cooper would have landed. They were identified as ransom money, but raised new questions: 10 bills were missing from one stack even though it was still rubber-banded; the wearing suggested the stacks had been carried downriver, but then how did all three stacks hang together; and the bills apparently did not reach their resting place until sometime after a 1974 dredging operation. In short, no one has any idea what happened; personally I think Cooper was actually the Zodiac killer, came back to plant the evidence years later to better fake his death, and now runs a dive bar and lives in a houseboat on the shores of Lake Erie (but please see here for an amazing fan theory suggesting that Mad Men will end with Don Draper as Dan Cooper. If that happens, it would be the most amazing prediction since Jimmy the Greek went 14-for-14 against the spread in week 13 of the 1984 NFL season).

Recovered ransom money
Recovered ransom money

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a golden era of air piracy: between 1968 and 1977 there were an average of 41 plane hijackings each year, most for suicide or politics (in January of 1969, there were eight planes diverted to Cuba). Cooper’s robbery attempt inspired a wave of copycats (fifteen in 1972). Several managed to get money and parachute to safety, but all were caught. My favorite was the one where police found the guy’s car in the desert and waited around for him to come and pick it up. He did. What technological innovation brought hijackings to a halt? They welded the lower stairs to the body and stopped using them. Also luggage screening and air marshals, but seriously: flying in the 70s, right?


3. Torpedos, especially US torpedoes, were ineffective, haphazard, and unreliable at the outset of WWII. They could be controlled via radio (Tesla had demonstrated this capability in 1897; the Navy turned him down), but signals could be easily jammed, rendering guidance systems moot. This problem was solved by a famous actress (Hedy Lamarr) and an avant-garde composer (George Antheil), then basically ignored.

In the 1930s, Lamarr was a famous actress in her native Austria, but escaped to the US—and I literally mean escaped—from a marriage to a prominent Austrian fascist and arms dealer. Besides being a Hollywood star, she was also an inventor. My favorite of her non-torpedo ideas was a failed plan for a bouillon-cube-like thing that would make Coke when mixed with water. Antheil’s compositions were so loud and confusing that his first major performance resulted in a riot breaking out (much to his delight: he called himself the “bad boy” of music); his most famous work was a massive orchestral arrangement which required three spinning airplane propellers. He also wrote a 1930s-era Jeff Foxworthy column for Esquire called “She’s no longer faithful if…”

merchants of death (kidding)
merchants of death (kidding)

Lamarr’s idea to solve the torpedo problem was frequency hopping, in which the control frequency was randomly changed multiple times per second, making jamming impossible. The approach was sound, but implementation was another matter—in particular, how to synchronize frequency hops on both the torpedo and the controls. Antheil had unknowingly solved that problem nearly a decade earlier when he developed a system for automatic piano playing; the notes were laid out on a roll of paper. The piano rolls were re-appropriated as a way to list a sequence of frequency switches. In fact, their torpedo guidance system switched between 88 different frequencies, matching the number of keys on the piano.

They patented the system in 1941, but no one noticed or cared until the patent lapsed and it was employed during the Navy’s blockade of Cuba in 1962. Now, frequency hopping underlies the spread spectrum technology, which is used by basically everything that’s wireless, though the contributions of Lamarr and Antheil were largely forgotten until the 1990s.


4. Job Harriman was twice the Socialist candidate for mayor of Los Angeles,  in 1911 and 1913, and in 1900 was on the ticket with Eugene Debs in his run for president. Put off by his political failures, Harriman took his ball and went home, by which I mean he decided to build a socialist utopia—called Llano del Rio—in the desert outside LA.

socialist recruitment drive
socialist recruitment drive

Oddly, it functioned as a corporation, and “shares” were sold for $500 per family. The city was planned by Alice Constance Austin, a city planner, architect, and radical feminist. Don’t think that last part was unimportant: houses in Llano del Rio had a “feminist” design. There were communal daycare areas, built-in furniture, heated tile floors, and no kitchens (her non-del-Rio planning was even cooler: underground tunnels for laundry, delivery of hot meals or other supplies, and commuting). This was meant to force women onto equal footing with men by freeing them from housework, and while it’s not altogether clear it would have achieved that goal, it’s a neat idea (“A woman’s place is in the kitchen.” “What kitchen, motherfucker?”)

Llano del Rio was perhaps more successful than any of the other countless gimcrack utopian paradises that sprinkled the US landscape (detailed pdf here). The population peaked at over 1000, it had one of the first Montessori schools in California, and workers were guaranteed shelter, food, education, and health care. Within two years, though, it became unsustainable because they couldn’t find enough water, and the people who had it wouldn’t sell to socialists. They fell victim to one of the classic blunders: never build a socialist utopia in the desert. The town was moved wholesale to Louisiana, where it lasted 22 years before dissolving. The ruins of the California colony still stand:

socialist ruins
socialist ruins

5. In a daring robbery/attack, in 1988 the Nakatomi Corporation was relieved of more than $700 million dollars in negotiable bearer bonds when terrorists held Nakatomi employees hostage; the vault’s electromagnetic lock was automatically disabled when the FBI cut power to the building. The plot was only foiled when the terrorist leader, Hans Gruber (associated with the radical East German Volksfrye movement), was killed before absconding with the millions.

"give me my detonators"
“give me my detonators”

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