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The Quick 10: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the fastest ride in the wilderness

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With the addition of Splash Mountain and recent revamp of Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom, not to mention other parks’ thrill rides like Tower of Terror and Expedition Everest, I think Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is often overlooked. It’s a speedy little coaster ride, but it’s not going to drop you from dizzying heights or spiral you in a series of upside down loops. I think that’s part of its charm. Hope you enjoy part three of your vicarious Disney vacation – come back tomorrow to learn a bit about the classic Dumbo ride.


Photo from
Chimaira 500, Wikimedia Commons.

2. All of the mountains and rock formations on the ride are based on specific structures that already exist in nature. For instance, Disneyland’s rock spires were inspired by the hoodoos of Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park; the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo and Paris rides all feature buttes found in Monument Valley.

3. This roller coaster was the first Disney ride to use computer design for the track, and there were apparently a lot of challenges doing it. Said designer Tony Baxter:

There is a spiral on Big Thunder, near the beginning of the ride, where it goes around and then heads back. The computer kept moving it over, because it did not want that much track there. It wanted to shorten the length of track. And I wanted it over there because it looked good as a design. I like the composition of the three summits, the pyramid composition of shapes. The computer kept moving the track which made the ride somewhat less attractive. So 9 times I did a new design that I thought would solve the problem and the computer would say no. So we built 9 tiny models to check the look until the computer said, “OK, I will accept this. This one is OK.” That was the one we ended up building. But it took 9 designs before the computer approved !

4. The punny names of the runaway trains (cue Soul Asylum) include U.B. Bold, U.R. Daring, U.R. Courageous, I.M. Brave, I.B. Hearty and I.M. Fearless.

5. If you’ve ever looked at some of the props scattered throughout the queue and the ride and wondered how Disney did such a great job creating them, the answer is… they didn’t. Actual antique mining equipment was purchased for the rides at auctions and stores throughout the Southwest. Things that were actually used include a double-stamp ore crusher, a hauling wagon and a mill that extracted the gold from the ore.

6. About 20 animatronics are scattered throughout the ride, including a rainmaker named Professor Cumulus Isobar.

7. When Disneyland first opened, the ride where Big Thunder Mountain is now was a somewhat similar (but much tamer) attraction called “Rainbow Caverns Mine Train.” This was replaced by the “Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland” in 1960, which was a lot like the Jungle Cruise set in the American Southwest. If you check out the pictures over at Yesterland (where the photo is from), you’ll see that many of the elements of the Mine Train rides were recycled for the more-thrilling roller coaster that debuted in 1979.

8. In fact, the name “Big Thunder Mountain” itself pays tribute to the rides that came before it. “Big Thunder” was the name of a waterfall riders passed on the Main Train rides; “Little Thunder” was just a stone’s throw away.

9. Though it’s certainly not the fastest or craziest ride in the parks, Big Thunder has claimed a life. In 2003, a man riding the coaster at Disneyland was killed when a train derailed, causing the locomotive piece to jump up off the track, hit the ceiling of a tunnel and come back down on the first car. Ten other riders were also injured.

10. The voice of the prospector who narrates the ride belongs to Dallas McKennon. It’s possible that you’ve heard him in any number of Disney projects: as Ben Franklin at the American Adventure in Epcot, as the Owl in Sleeping Beauty, as the fox in Mary Poppins, or as a whole cast of minor characters in both Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. Non-Disney projects included the “voice” of Max in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Archie Andrews in the Archie animated series of the ‘60s.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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