9 Weapons That Failed Spectacularly (and 1 That Possibly Didn’t)
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
Illustrations by Jesse Lenz
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.]
And one that possibly didn’t...
10. The Other Red Scare
During the 1970s and 1980s, rumors swirled that the Soviets had developed a chemical substance that could be used to make nuclear bombs as small as watermelons. Known as “red mercury,” the substance reportedly fetched up to $1 million for a single kilogram, and the alleged super weapon set off a frenzy of speculation over whether it might land in terrorists’ hands.
When samples were confiscated by European police, though, scientists found that the red powder was only slightly more explosive than paprika, and its components varied by batch, from mercury oxide to the topical antiseptic mercury iodide. According to the U.S., “one lazy con artist [tried] to sell mercury in a bottle painted red with nail polish.”
In 2004, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced, “Red mercury doesn’t exist … the whole thing is a bunch of malarkey.” On the bright side, it did help intelligence agencies flush out gullible would-be terrorists, which means it wasn’t a total failure after all.
This article appears in the May-June issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue!