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Jesse Lenz
Jesse Lenz

9 Bizarre Weapons That Failed Spectacularly

Jesse Lenz
Jesse Lenz

In 2011, the U.S. government spent $76 billion on military research and development. As history has shown, sometimes that investment pays off. And sometimes you end up running from a flaming pig.

1. Roast Pork

War elephants were the tanks of their time. Their tough hides were nearly impervious to arrows, and their giant size made them perfect for trampling through enemy lines. In 331 BCE, Alexander the Great was so nervous about the Persian army’s pachyderms that he made a sacrifice to the God of Fear the night before battle. The mighty elephants’ reputation only grew when, in 218 BCE, Hannibal set out to storm Rome with an armada of ferocious beasts. The “elephantry” seemed invincible.

If elephants were the world’s first tanks, flaming pigs—slathered in tar, lit on fire, and set loose to wreak havoc—were the world’s first anti-tank missiles. According to Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, the weapon worked because “elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of the hog.”

When flaming pigs succeeded, they were brilliant. In 266 BCE, the Greek city of Megara fended off the Macedonian conqueror Antigonus II Gonatas using pigs doused in resin. Antigonus’s elephants fled in terror from the bacon brigade. Most battles, however, highlighted the serious drawbacks of tactical barbecue. Since the lifespan of flaming pigs is short, their range was well under 400 feet. That meant the enemy pretty much had to be on top of you before the hogs would have any effect. The porcine missiles also lacked a guidance system, which made them woefully inaccurate. Even when directed toward enemy lines, they often ran wherever they pleased, starting fires on their own side.

2. The Iceberg Navy

During World War II, aircraft carriers were in short supply. So were steel and aluminum, the main materials needed to build the gargantuan ships. As the Allies scrounged to build vessels, they were also hunting for fresh ideas. So when Geoffrey Pyke, a plucky British inventor, proposed a scheme to build carriers out of ice, the British government jumped on board.

Pyke’s concept was to construct the vessels using pykrete—a stronger-than-ice mixture of 86 percent water and 14 percent wood pulp. But it wasn’t until construction began on a 1,000-ton model in Canada that engineers encountered the problem of “plastic flow.” In layman’s terms, the ship started to melt, which caused it to sag under its own weight unless kept at a crisp 3°F. The designers attempted to sidestep the issue by rigging the boat with a complex refrigeration system and reinforcements consisting of 10,000 tons of steel—the very resource they’d been trying to avoid using in the first place.

After almost a year of working and reworking the concept, Britain’s Royal Navy finally learned the same hard lesson most of us learned with our first popsicles and they ditched the project. The boat was allowed to sink to the bottom of Patricia Lake and do what ice does best: melt.

3. The $40 Million Sunburn

In 2010, the U.S. military deployed a weapon straight out of a comic book: a heat ray that could stop bad guys in their tracks! Known as the Active Denial System, the satellite-dish–sized device blasted extremely high-frequency waves that made targets feel unbearably toasty.

But after running up a $40 million tab over a decade of research, the military recalled the weapon after about a month. Why the quick flip-flop?

The government never made an official statement on the matter, but it seems the heat ray wasn’t such a hot idea. Far from delivering a paralyzing blast, the ray unleashed all the pain of a bad sunburn. And while that’s fine for controlling mildly unruly crowds, you don’t want to go into battle with a weapon that can be defeated by a good coat of SPF-30.

4. Killer Drum Solo

When Hitler erected a 7-foot-thick concrete wall along the European coastline, Britain’s Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapon Development drew the task of finding a way to burst through. Its solution: the Great Panjandrum—two 10-foot-tall wheels linked by a drum carrying 4,000 pounds of explosives. Rockets attached to the wheel rims were meant to propel the payload forward at 60 miles per hour, crashing the great drum past everything until it hit the wall.

The only problem? If some of the rockets failed—which they did with alarming regularity—the Panjandrum careened off course. When the fireworks on the right wheel failed during its first test run in 1943, the designers addressed the glitch as only weapons engineers can: by attaching more rockets.

Sadly, some problems can’t be solved with extra rockets. A documentary crew recorded what would be Panjandrum’s final road test and nearly lost a filmmaker in the process. As one observer reported, “[A] clamp gave: first one, then two more rockets broke free: Panjandrum began to lurch ominously.

It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began to turn to starboard, careening towards [the filmmaker], who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming. Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him.”

The cameraman managed to emerge unscathed, but the Panjandrum did not, meeting an early retirement before it ever rolled into battle.

5. Holy Bat Bomb!

During World War II, an oral surgeon named Lytle Adams contacted the White House with a novel idea. Bats could be the Allies’ new secret weapons!

Troops could strap little bombs to bats, airdrop them into Axis strongholds, and watch the destruction from a safe distance. Strangely, the idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Bats can carry more than their own weight in flight. They’re also plentiful and cheap; four caves in Texas alone housed millions of the critters.

Franklin Roosevelt was enamored of the concept, and in 1942, he greenlit the project. He also convinced Adams to abandon dentistry to pitch in with the effort. By 1943, Adams and the Army had recruited thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats for the job, while Louis Fieser, the inventor of napalm, designed their one-ounce detonating packs. According to plans, a carrier with 26 stacked trays—each containing 40 little bat homes—would parachute into the industrial cities of Japan’s Osaka Bay. The bats would then fly off and wedge themselves into the nooks and crannies of buildings to sleep off their jet lag—at least until a timer detonated their packs.

Only the bats never got to carry out their kamikaze-style mission. During one test run in Carlsbad, N.M., the bats got loose, roosted under a fuel tank, and incinerated the facility. Fed up with bats, the Army handed the hot potato project to the Navy, which foisted it on the Marines. Eventually, the Marines pulled off a successful test on a mock Japanese village in Utah.

Good news for bats, though: In the time it had taken to perfect the bat explosives, the military had designed a slightly more efficient and predictable weapon: the atomic bomb.

6. Russia Goes Full Circle

Boats share the same basic design for a reason. Unfortunately, nobody bothered telling that to the Imperial Russian shipwrights who in 1874 unveiled a proudly distinct vessel they called Novgorod. In theory, the ship’s circular design—just over 100 feet in diameter—provided a stable platform for large guns, making it the perfect defender for the Russian coast.

In practice, the Novgorod was a disaster, a fact that became abundantly clear as it floated into the Danube to take part in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. Since the ship’s hull wasn’t streamlined, faster boats had to tow the floating bucket into battle. Russia was in no hurry to get the Novgorod in the mix, though. The circular design had clear limitations in combat: The odd shape meant that each time its cannons fired, recoil spun the vessel like a top. In short, it was a slow, cumbersome ship that couldn’t really fire its guns. After enduring much snickering from the Turks, the Russians decided to keep the Novgorod tied up at port, finally relegating it to the scrapyard in 1912.

7. The Puke Ray

Many weapons have the unfortunate side effect of being lethal, so defense agencies are always on the lookout for more humane ways to stun the enemy. In 2007, the military thought it had found it in the “sick stick”: a flashlight that unleashed a kaleidoscopic pulse that caused vertigo, nausea, and hurling.

The idea for the weapon dates all the way back to the 1950s, when helicopter pilots started mysteriously crashing. Investigators determined that the frequency of choppy flashes of sunlight shining through a chopper’s spinning blades caused dizziness and disorientation. Tinted glass and helmet visors solved the pilots’ problems, but the U.S. military started wondering whether it could use the effect to its advantage.

While the sick stick gets two thumbs up for twisted creativity, the weapon has major flaws. First, a target has to look directly at the light to feel the effects—why not just turn and run? Or wear shades? Also, the gadget’s unwieldy size—15 inches long, 4 inches wide—made it cumbersome in the field.

A Department of Homeland Security newsletter criticized the sick stick, deeming it “more transportable than portable.” Before long, the military abandoned the $800,000 project.

But the idea didn’t die there. In 2009, a pair of hardware hackers slapped together their own version for $250 using a flashlight from Sears, $3 LEDs, a nine-volt battery, and a heat sink from a computer processor—enough to make the government queasy.

8. The Führer Gets an Air Rifle

During World War II, Hitler’s Third Reich was hell-bent on shooting down Allied planes. But conventional weapons weren’t the only defense. A factory near Stuttgart built a massive air cannon—a 3-foot-diameter, 35-foot-long cast-iron tube packed with an explosive mixture of hydrogen and ammonia that, upon detonation, would eject a “shell” of compressed air. The Nazis hoped these shells would create whirlwinds to swat Allied planes out of the sky.

In trials, the WindKanone was a destructive force. The weapon shattered wooden planks from 650 feet away. Still, there’s a big difference between breaking stationary lumber and nailing airborne targets. Even when the gusts nailed planes flying as low as 500 feet, pilots were barely thrown off course. Never ones to waste creative energy, the Nazis redeployed the air cannon as an anti-infantry weapon. But it was hopeless in the field as well—its gargantuan size made it an easy target for bombs. After a few disastrous outings, the WindKanone sat unused, gathering rust at a testing facility until confused American troops stumbled across it in April 1945.

9. Popping the War Balloons

In 1944, Japanese troops set 9,000 balloons adrift over the Pacific. Beneath each of the 33-foot-diameter spheres dangled a 35-pound high-explosive bomb and eight 15-pound firebombs. After spending three days floating the jet stream, the balloons were to jettison their loads over the continental U.S., sparking forest fires and generating mayhem.

Lucky for us, the wind is a fickle ally. Only 389 of these Fu-Gos or “fire balloons” made it to the States, and even fewer exploded. One landed in Nevada, only to be discovered by cowboys and turned into a hay tarp. Two landed back in Japan. Only one bomb claimed any American casualties, and even that was more of a tragic debacle than a crushing military victory.

Five kids and their pregnant Sunday-school teacher stumbled upon the balloon in the Oregon woods—hardly the sort of PR coup that would buoy Japanese spirits. Dismayed by the poor results, the Japanese scrapped balloon bombs in 1945. [More on the balloon bombs: In 1945 a Japanese Bomb Exploded in Oregon, Killing Six.]

Illustrations by Jesse Lenz. This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Wine
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by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Between the vine and the liquor store, plenty of secrets are submerged in your favorite bottle of vino. Here, the author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma spills some of the best.

1. DIGITAL EYES ARE EVERYWHERE IN VINEYARDS.

Certain premium estates in Bordeaux and Napa are beginning to look a little more like an army base—or an Amazon.com warehouse. They’re using drones, optical scanners, and heat-sensing satellites to keep a digital eye on things. Some airborne drones collect data that helps winemakers decide on the optimal time to harvest and evaluate where they can use less fertilizer. Others rove through the vineyard rows, where they may soon be able to take over pruning. Of course, these are major investments. At $68,000 a pop, the Scancopter 450 is about twice as costly as a 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon!

2. THERE ARE ALSO LOTS OF COW SKULLS.

They’re not everywhere, but biodynamic farming techniques are on the rise among vintners who don’t want to rely on chemicals, and this is one trick they’ve been known to use to combat plant diseases and improve soil PH. It’s called Preparation No. 505, and it involves taking a cow’s skull (or a sheep’s or a goat’s), stuffing it with finely ground oak chips, and burying it in a wet spot for a season or two before adding it to the vineyard compost.

3. FEROCIOUS FOLIAGE IS A VINTNER’S FRIEND.

The mustard flowers blooming between vineyard rows aren’t just for romance. Glucosinolates in plants like radishes and mustard give them their spicy bite, and through the wonders of organic chemistry, those glucosinolates also double as powerful pesticides. Winemakers use them to combat nematodes—tiny worms that can destroy grape crops.

4. WHAT A CANARY IS TO A COAL MINE, ROSES ARE TO A VINEYARD.

Vintners plant roses among their vines because they get sick before anything else in the field. If there’s mildew in the air, it will infect the roses first and give a winemaker a heads-up that it’s time to spray.

5. VINTNERS EXPLOIT THE FOOD CHAIN.

A trio of wines
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Small birds like blackbirds and starlings can clear out 20 percent of a crop in no time. But you know what eats little birds? Big birds. Falconry programs are on the rise in vineyards from California to New Zealand. Researchers have found that raptors eat a bird or two a day (along with a proportion of field mice and other critters) and cost only about as much to maintain as your average house cat.

6. THE BIG PROBLEMS IN TASTING ROOMS ARE VERY SMALL.

Winemakers are constantly seeking ways to manage the swarms of Drosophila melanogaster that routinely gather around the dump buckets in their swanky showrooms. You know these pests as fruit flies, and some vintners in California are exploring ways to use carnivorous plants to tackle the problem without pesticides. Butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all have sweet-sounding names, but the bugeating predators make for terrific fruit fly assassins, and you’ll see them decorating tasting rooms across wine country.

7. WINE NEEDS CLEANING.

Winemaking produces hard-to-remove sediments. Filters can catch most of the debris, but winemakers must add “fining agents” to remove any suspended solids that sneak by. Until it was banned in the 1990s, many European vintners used powdered ox blood to clean their wines. Today, they use diatomaceous earth (the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae), Isinglass (a collagen made from fish swim bladders), and sometimes bentonite (volcanic clay). Irish moss and egg whites are also fine wine cleaners.

8. ATOMS HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.

About 5 percent of the premium wine sold for cellaring doesn’t contain what the label promises. So how do top-shelf buyers avoid plunking down serious cash on a bottle of something bunk? Most elite wine brokerages, auction houses, and collectors use atomic dating to detect fraud. By measuring trace radioactive carbon in the wine, most bottles can be dated to within a year or two of the vintage.

9. FINE WINES GET MRIs.

Even with atomic dating, there are certain perils involved in buying a $20,000 bottle of wine. Leaving a case in the hot trunk of your car is enough to ruin it, so imagine what can happen over a couple of decades if a wine isn’t kept in the proper conditions. Back in 2002, a chemistry professor at University of California at Davis patented a technique that uses MRI technology to diagnose the condition of vintage wines. Not planning any $20,000 wine purchases? This is still good news for the consumer. This technique may soon be used at airport security, meaning you’ll be able to carry on your booze.

10. THERE’S A TRICK TO AGING YOUR WINE.

If you end up with a bottle of plonk, Chinese scientists have developed a handy solution. Zapping a young wine with electricity makes it taste like something you’ve cellar aged. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it happens yet, but it seems that running your wine for precisely three minutes through an electric field changes the esters, proteins, and aldehydes and can “age” a wine instantly.

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