Restoring a legend

I love land speed machines. Cars, boats, motorcycles, they all make my naughty parts tingle. It’s not just the raw speed. There’s a certain grass roots aspect to them, these machines are not typically big budget affairs with teams of engineers in immaculate facilities wearing lab coats crunching numbers on computers the size of a garage. They are more often some kook in greasy coveralls spending long nights in the garage communing with his bandsaw and metal lathe in an effort to eek out an extra mile per hour without turning them self into a grease stain on the salt.

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Lessons learned infiltrating an abandoned rubber factory

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I love the smell of industrial solvents in the morning. (img by Eric Jusino)

Before I knew urban exploration was a thing and before my friends and I toured an underground nuclear missile silo, a photographer friend of mine (we’ll call him Steve) and I “broke” into an abandoned rubber factory to take pictures.

If you’ve been in Denver, you’ve probably seen Gates Rubber Factory, a Gotham-looking building complex right off Broadway:

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When the sun goes down, Batman comes out and plays here. (img by Beth Jusino)

It’s a superfund site full of hideous chemicals known for slowly killing Denver residents (don’t drink the Platte), making and breaking the fortunes of real estate developers, and killing urban explorers.

At the time (a few months before the urbexp guy bit it and security went through the roof), it was stupidly easy to get into. Here are the lessons I learned getting in and checking the place out: (more…)

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Tactical high-capacity assault flintlock!

The system was designed by an Italian gunmaker in Florence name Michele Lorenzoni. They were made in very small numbers, and the workmanship is stunning, especially considering that they were first manufactured in the 1680s.

Instead of using a revolving cylinder pre-loaded with multiple shots, the Lorenzoni system utilizes powder and ball magazines in the frame of the gun and a rotating breechblock much like a powder throw tool used today for reloading ammunition.

Via Forgotten Weapons.

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What have you done to advance science lately?

For any aviation or car nut, the late 1940′s through to the late 1960′s are the heyday of mechanical development. Cars and planes were getting faster, more reliable, and more refined at a blistering pace. But these new developments brought new problems. As is typically the case, the mechanical engineering of faster vehicles massively out paced the development of safety measures meant to address the new dangers brought about when something went wrong.

After WWII the flying branches of the military got together to investigate the number of deaths they were seeing in non-combat aircraft accidents. While the flying service knew that the problem was related to sudden deceleration—it’s not the fall, it’s the sudden stop at the end—they didn’t really have a handle on what was a lethal g-load. They decided to study the problem and enlisted the help of Dr. John Stapp. Dr. Stapp volunteered to lead a group of human subjects in a series of rapid deceleration experiments.

Dr. Stapp and his team would strap themselves onto rocket sleds which rode on a special railbed built by Northrop Aircraft. They would then be shot down the track and decelerated rapidly by either massive mechanical brakes, or pits filled with water. The impacts were recorded on high speed cameras, and their injuries would be logged.

On December 10, 1954 Dr. Stapp was strapped into the Sonic Wind I test sled. For several minutes he sat, atop a sled which mounted nine rocket bottles, each capable of producing 5000 pounds of thrust. Two minutes before ignition two technicians left his side and ran for the safety bunker a few hundred yards away. Stapp had been injured in previous tests; hematomas, broken bones, sand imbedded into his skin. He knew that this test was probably going to hurt. For two agonizing minutes sat there, staring down the track, waiting.

When the countdown reached zero, the nine rocket bottles ignited and Sonic Wind I hurtled down the track. Col. Joe Kittinger, flying a chase plane along the track at 350 miles per, recalls, “he went by me like I was standing still.” Sonic Wind I topped out at 632 miles per hour before hitting the water brake. Stapp’s body was subjected to 46.2 Gs. The stop was so sudden the capilaries in Stapp’s eyes burst, and he was temporarily blinded (his vision would return the next day). He’d broken both of his wrists, several ribs, in addition to the retinal hemorrhages. Stapp was helped to a gurney and taken to the base hospital where he recovered.

Dr. Stapp’s findings not only shattered previously held misconceptions about how many G’s the human body could endure, but also exposed flaws in pilot and passenger restraint. Additionally, with the data collected engineers could develop reasonably realistic crash test dummies, preventing the need for anyone to ever have to endure this sort of testing again. Stapps’ results were also shared with the automobile industry and used to pass the laws making seat belt’s mandatory in all passenger cars. His shoulder restraint system is still used tin every car on the road today.

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Mind that first step…

I’ve been following Felix Baumgartner’s attempt at breaking the record for longest free fall for at least the last two years. While I encourage daredevil acts in general both for the amount of daring and ingenuity involved, I can’t help but think it pales in comparison to the effort of the previous record holder USAF Col (ret.) Joe Kittinger.

In 1960 the US was in the throes of the space and aviation race with the Soviets. Seemingly every month saw the shattering of speed or altitude records. As the altitudes increased, and space drew within grasp, the Air Force felt it necessary to determine if it was even possible to return to Earth safely minus air or space craft. On April 16, 1960 -almost one full year before Yuri Gagarin became the first man launched into space- Col. Kittinger hung suspended 102,800 feet above the Earth peered over the edge of the balloon gondola and jumped.

Unlike Baumgartner, however, Col. Kittinger didn’t do it for the sheer thrill of it. Kittinger was part of the Air Force’s Project Excelsior. The aim of Excelsior was to add to the thimbleful of knowledge the Air Force possessed about survival at high altitude. At the time they literally did not know if a pilot could bail out of his aircraft (or spacecraft) at such altitude. This ignorance despite the face that the Air Force was regularly flying above 75,000 feet since Chuck Yeager’s flight in December 1953. Col. Kittinger’s record has stood ever since that day in the spring of 1959. So while I admire Felix Baumgartner’s vision and daring, I revere Col. Kittinger and his brave contribution to the science of high altitude flight.

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What’s killing us, then and now

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You’re gonna die. (img by New England Journal of Medicine)

The New England Journal of Medicine celebrates its 200th birthday this year with a retrospective on what’s been killing us since they first published under the impressive title New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery, and the Collateral Branches of Science.  The size of the business card necessary to hold that title may have contributed to the mortality rate and you can check that fact by playing with their cool interactive graphic on the Top Ten Causes of Death.

Early reports from the Journal looked at things that are still killing us today, asthma, gunshot wounds, spina bifida but our current understanding medicine makes others rather entertaining to read.

Apoplexy, a syndrome of fainting spells that might mean stroke, seizure, or syncope today, was understood to arise from a “nervous sympathy” by which the stomach influenced the head. Doctors agreed that even a near miss by a cannonball — without contact — could shatter bones, blind people, or even kill them. Reports of spontaneous combustion, especially of “brandy-drinking men and women,” received serious, if skeptical, consideration. And physicians were obsessed with fevers — puerperal, petechial, catarrhal, and even an outbreak of “spotted fever” in which some patients were neither spotted nor febrile. The bill of mortality from 1811 contains both the familiar and the exotic. Consumption, diarrhea, and pneumonia dominated the mortality data, but teething, worms, and drinking cold water apparently killed as well. (more…)

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