The mysterious Goodyear blimp

On a recent drive across the desert from California to Arizona, I decided to stop and see the Blythe airport. I had flown over it, but never landed and visited. To my delight, as I rolled up in my car, I discovered that the Goodyear blimp had just landed!

I had never seen it that close before. This one is Wingfoot Two (I later discovered that there are three in the current fleet). I talked briefly with one of the ground support staff and learned that the blimp was stopping in Blythe overnight on its way to Vegas to attend (and record/broadcast) a golf match. In this picture, the blimp is attached to a mobile mast on the right, and a tiny wheel at its aft end is touching the ground as they maneuver the blimp to its desired position. (Click the image to enlarge)

Later when I was back at a computer, I wanted to find out more about these blimps and how they work. Apparently Goodyear got into the lighter-than-air business in 1898, and in 1925 they flew the first blimp that used helium. Mostly they seem to have been used for advertising, and not just for their own tires. Some blimps have lighted panels on their sides where they can spell words or scroll messages; in 1966 they added the “Skytacular” which was in 4 colors and had animations; now they have “Eaglevision” which uses high-res LEDs and can show video :). I’ve never seen one in operation scrolling messages!

In WWII, they were used for patrolling the ocean (escorting navy convoys). I don’t know if they had any weapons.

In 1955, the blimp became the “first aerial platform to provide a live TV picture”… for the Rose Parade! :)

The Goodyear blimps use helium, which has about the same lifting force as hydrogen, but with the added benefit of not being explosive. The infamous Hindenburg disaster occurred when the (German) Hindenburg, which was also designed for use with helium, was instead filled with hydrogen, apparently because the U.S. was monopolizing helium for its own use, and helium had become correspondingly expensive internationally. The Hindenburg had 97 people onboard when it ignited in 1937 (36 died).

We actually have stunning real footage of the Hindenburg coming in to land and blowing up (!).

What Goodyear flies now is not technically a blimp (!) (“blimp” = no rigid structure) but instead a “semi-rigid airship” or “zeppelin”. (The Hindenburg was a third type of airship: fully rigid). However, Goodyear still encourages the use of the term “blimp.” Its max speed is 73 mph (not bad!), and it seats up to 14 people. Today’s Goodyear blimps are 246 feet long, compared with 804 feet (!) for the Hindenburg.

On my way back to California a few days later, I saw the blimp AGAIN, this time cruising eastward and following Interstate 10. It was less than 1000′ above the ground, which seemed curious to me. Fare you well, semi-rigid airship! :)

The American Civil War: Motivations, soldier parole, and the Supreme Court

I recently attended a lecture at the Huntington by Prof. Emeritus Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia. He is visiting the Huntington and doing research for his next book. His lecture was on the Civil War, one of his personal areas of expertise. And let me tell you, it is so fun to listen to someone who sincerely *gushes* about their area of expertise. Prof. Gallagher has spent decades studying and sharing his analysis of the Civil War. He’s written eight books so far and is still going strong. Prof. Gallagher lectured without any visual aids, reading from sheets of notes – but the lecture was far from boring. It is clear that he *loves* talking about the Civil War! So passionate!

I took away several interesting thoughts from his lecture. First, he exhorted us not to refer to the “North” and the “South” but instead to “The United States” and “The Confederacy.” Think for a bit about what that means. :)

He also argued that the Civil War was primarily fought over the issue of Union, not Abolition (slavery), although over time historians have shifted to placing more weight on the latter. “Union” here refers to philosophy and politics. One might reasonably ask, if 10 or 11 states wanted to leave the Union, why not just let them? Why did the United States go to bloody war to fight to keep states that didn’t want to be there? Because, he argued, the United States’ “Great Experiment” was threatened. What is a democratic republic if members can simply opt out when they don’t like the outcome of an election? Wouldn’t that prove that our form of government was unworkable? People fought to keep the nation together, which on the face of it sounds a bit abusive. But then again, what war isn’t?

There was also an economic rationale. The Confederacy consisted of the richest states (in terms of per-capita white wealth). South Carolina and Mississippi between them controlled $3B of the economy, while northern industrial activity collectively spanned only $2B. Letting the Confederacy secede would be an economic blow.

Another fascinating topic covered in this lecture were the “parole” arrangements. Neither side wanted to take or be burdened with prisoners of war. So after each battle, they would tally up how many each side captured, and if the numbers were equal, they exchanged prisoners back; but if they were unequal, the extra prisoners would be returned as parolees. These men signed agreements that they would become non-combatants. They were kept in prison camps *on their own side*. They could be re-activated as combatants if their side captured more men from the other side (since then they could be “exchanged”). Imagine!

And finally, Prof. Gallagher noted in passing that President Abraham Lincoln appointed no less than *five* Supreme Court Justices during his presidency. The first was due to a vacancy when he assumed office. Then Justice McLean died and Justice Campbell resigned to join the Confederacy. In 1863, Congress apparently expanded the court to hold 10 Justices (!! The Constitution does not dictate the size of the Court) so he got to appoint another one. Then Justice Taney died, bringing the total Lincoln appointments to five. This is astonishing, and no doubt fueled the Confederacy’s ire. Consider the implications of such an occasion in the light of today’s politics.

Big data in 1981

Browsing the JPL archives, I came across this image from 1981 for the Voyager 2 mission’s encounter with Saturn. It was designed to illustrate how Voyager 2 would be sending back soooooo much data – look how many books it makes! (Click to enlarge)

Voyager 2 data
Image credit: JPL Photolab, 1981.

I love that in 1981, the artists measured data in terms of books :) Not many people had their own computers or would have understood a discussion of disks or files or bits or bytes, so this was the perfect visualization. Even today, I find it more charming and tangible than most “big data” graphics I’ve encountered.

Cassini has, rightfully, gotten a lot of press lately for its gorgeous images of Saturn, but Voyager 2 was there first and captured its own beauties, like this one:

First transatlantic flight

Recently I got to visit the site of the first transatlantic flight’s landing – in Ireland. The June 1919 flight was achieved by John Alcock and Arthur Brown in a biplane.

These were two interesting aviators! They were both pilots during WWI (although not together), and they were both taken prisoner (Alcock in Turkey, Brown in Germany) and then (presumably) released. Alcock approached an airplane company called Vickers to suggest that he fly their Vickers Vimy IV bomber in the race to see who would be the first to cross the Atlantic. Brown joined up later and due to his exceptional navigational skills was chosen to fly with Alcock.

The 16-hour flight itself sounds pretty harrowing. They departed Newfoundland at 1:45 p.m. They had several equipment problems including the loss of their radio, intercom, and heating. They were flying in a biplane with two open-cockpit seats! Bad weather meant Brown couldn’t use his sextant to help them steer from 5 p.m. until midnight. Happily, they still made it to Clifden, Ireland, and ended up landing next to Marconi’s transatlantic wireless station (an excellent visual landmark). Unfortunately, they thought they spotted a stretch of open ground to land on that turned out to be a bog, so when the plane landed and slowed, it sank nose-in. They escaped unhurt but the plane was damaged. Still, heroes who won the 10,000-pound prize!

From Wikipedia, this appears to be an actual photo taken after landing:

They also carried a small mailbag so they could count their flight as the first transatlantic airmail flight :)

As usual, I am awed by the courage and daring of early aviators!

U.S. concentration camps in WWII

Did you know that the U.S. had its own concentration camps during WWII? Every time I re-encounter this fact, I am amazed anew. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order and 110,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up and placed in camps in the western U.S. By the way, almost half of the 68 civilian casualties at Pearl Harbor were Japanese Americans. (A total of 2,403 Americans died that day.)

In the 1980s, an investigation determined that the decision to put Japanese Americans in camps had little grounding in any evidence of disloyalty and was instead due to “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” (Senate Bill 1009, 1987). This led to President Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 that apologized and authorized reparations for camp survivors.

Today’s debates about immigration, deportation, and refugees are held in the context of constant background fear about terrorism. Our history shows us that our country, just like any other, can be moved to acts we later regret out of fear and concerns about national security. We can claim no inherent moral superiority.

In addition to knowing facts, like how many people were groundlessly incarcerated, it is helpful to hear about individual experiences. The Densho digital archive collects stories of Japanese Americans with a particular focus on their incarceration in American concentration camps in WWII. Densho provides more than 900 video interviews as well as photos, documents, and camp newspapers. The photo at right is of the Manzanar concentration camp in California, taken by Ansel Adams.

The interviews talk about how people were rounded up, life in the camps, and the impact of that experience. As just one example, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga talked about giving birth to her daughter while living in a camp. She was unable to persuade the camp to provide canned milk for her daughter, who was allergic to powdered milk. Yet some internees had access to art classes, or softball games as shown at left (I love this picture).

One detail of personal interest I learned is that one of the Citizen Isolation Centers (where “so-called troublemakers” were sent from the concentration camps) was located near my hometown of Moab, Utah.

These interviews are fascinating and educational. I look forward to listening to more of them. Perhaps the stories shared in this collection can help us to avoid repeating our mistakes.

Older entries »