Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Farrell, the Man Who Built the World

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

In our Retrobituaries series, we spotlight those departed whose lives are insufficiently celebrated. Here is a look at the life of Major General Thomas Farrell, who died at 75 in 1967.

After Thomas Farrell died, it’s hard to believe that the world didn’t just give up and stop building things. Because while he was alive, Farrell, an Army general, seemed to help build everything. Throughout his life, he was one of those eerily competent guys whose name topped the go-to lists of military and civilian leaders alike for projects involving something (literally) as small as an atom or as large as Manhattan. 

1. Step One: Build the Panama Canal.

Farrell grew up a farm boy, but after attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute became an engineer. (Notable alumni of Rensselaer: George W.G. Ferris, of the wheel; Theodore Judah, driving force behind the Transcontinental Railroad; Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge; George Low, who managed Apollo 11; Ted Hoff, father of the microprocessor—are you seeing a pattern here?) After graduation, he set off to Panama, where he helped build the Panama Canal. 

2. He fought in a war or two.

After three years of working on the Panama Canal, Farrell had a pretty good idea of how to manage really large projects involving a lot of people. While there, he worked alongside the Army Corps of Engineers, which completed the canal. That experience is possibly the reason he joined the Army Reserve when he returned to the United States. Soon after, he led an engineering company in World War I. That was only his first war. He later served in World War II, and returned to active duty during the Korean War to help lead the Defense Production Administration, which directed materials production and manufacturing for the new Department of Defense.

3. He was a hero.

The second-highest decoration bestowed by the Army is the Distinguished Service Cross. The medal was first established during World War I to recognize “extraordinary heroism,” which must have been “so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the [recipient] apart from his comrades.” Thomas Farrell was an engineer—he built things for the Army like roads and bridges. In 1918, then-Major Farrell’s construction battalion in World War I was temporarily repurposed as infantry to fight in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. When he was ordered to secure a certain hill, Farrell “led his battalion to the attack, seized and held this vital point despite the fact that he was attacked by greatly superior numbers on three sides and nearly surrounded by strong enemy forces who showed extraordinary determination to regain this highly important position. He held the hill until reinforcements could reach him after darkness” the following day. As his citation for the Distinguished Service Medal continued, “His fearless leadership, utter disregard for his own safety, and complete devotion to duty raised the morale of his battalion to a high pitch and inspired them to acts of great endeavor.”

4. He built a few things in New York, too.

Most people would be content with a biography like that, and set life on cruise control for a while. Not Thomas Farrell. After the war, he taught at West Point before returning to reserve status in the Army. The governor of New York appointed him state Commissioner of Canals and Waterways. (If he was good enough for Panama, he was good enough for the Empire State.) He later led construction and engineering for the state Department of Public Works. Among the little hobby projects in his portfolio? LaGuardia Airport.

5. You’re probably familiar with his work in World War II.

In February 1941, it was looking like the United States might get soon get involved in World War II, and Farrell returned to active duty. He was made executive officer to Major General Leslie Groves at the office of the Quartermaster General, beginning a partnership that would change the world. At the time, the Quartermaster Corps was a disaster of an organization, unable to stick to a budget, timeline, or project. (Among the chaotic, disorganized projects that Groves and Farrell had to set right was construction of the Pentagon.) This was a particularly bad time for incompetence—Hitler was on the move. Groves and Farrell restructured the entirety of the Quartermaster Corps, and, while I don’t want to spoil the ending, the United States managed to build an effective infrastructure to handle the war to come. On December 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. 

(“What’s a quartermaster?” you ask. Good question! The Quartermaster Corps is a logistics branch of the Army that concerns itself with supplies, supply lines, food, and fuel. Remember Q from the James Bond movies? Q was short for quartermaster. When Farrell returned to active duty in 1941, the Quartermaster Corps was also responsible for construction projects.)

6. The biggest engineering project of the war? Yeah, Farrell was there.

The construction of the Ledo Road was the largest engineering project of World War II. It involved building a massive supply line from Ledo, India, to Kūnmíng, China. (We were in India and China in World War II? Yeah buddy!) The goal was to supply the Chinese before Japan could conquer it. The Japanese cut off the previous supply line, the Burma Road. The possibility of actually building the Ledo Road, which led through Pangsau Pass, a steep and curvy avenue that required the removal of 100,000 cubic feet per mile, was theoretical at best. Oh, and monsoons were a regular problem during the road’s construction. Eleven hundred Americans died over the course of the project.

As leader of the theater’s Construction Division, Thomas Farrell managed all of the work in India. One of his most important tasks was building a permanent bridge across the Irrawaddy River, something that had never before been achieved. The rising and falling of the river’s waterline and those aforementioned monsoons had previously made such a project impossible. So naturally Colonel Farrell made it happen. The resulting bridge was two lanes and 1627 feet long. Eight hundred fifty-three feet of the bridge was engineered as a floating pontoon structure to handle the variable water level. 

7. To keep the world safe, “we must arm to the teeth with the winning weapon.”

Major General Groves, leader of the most important, most secret project of the war, was offered “any officer in the Army, no matter who he is or what duty he is on” to be his second-in-command. His first choice was Thomas Farrell. As Farrell recalled, Groves “had too much top secret information wrapped up in his skull,” and the secretary of war “used to have nightmares dreaming what would happen if Groves were knocked off—one way or another—so I stepped in to share Groves’s secrets.” 

The big secret? The Manhattan Project. When Farrell was brought on to the project, he was given a 36-hour crash course in nuclear physics. But it was only after holding an actual piece of plutonium that he understood the project underway. To his surprise, the plutonium was warm in his hands. “It wasn't a cold piece of metal, but it was really a piece of metal that seemed to be working inside. Then maybe for the first time I began to believe some of the fantastic tales the scientists had told about this nuclear power.” As he recalled, “The odds were four to one against our developing a bomb that could actually be dropped during World War II. Even if we did ... not a living soul knew what an atomic bomb would do.” There was a real worry among scientists that the Bomb might spark an uncontrolled chain reaction and accidentally destroy the world. (Edward Teller was charged with studying the problem.) This led to some grim humor on the eve of the first test when Enrico Fermi took bets as to whether the Bomb would ignite the planet’s atmosphere. 

On the morning of the test, recalled Farrell, “The scene inside the shelter was dramatic beyond words ... Everyone in that room knew the awful potentialities of the thing that they thought was about to happen. The scientists felt that their figuring must be right and that the bomb had to go off but there was in everyone's mind a strong measure of doubt ... We were reaching into the unknown and we did not know what might come of it.”

8. “Words are inadequate.”

Wrote Farrell of the big moment: “In that brief instant in the remote New Mexico desert the tremendous effort of the brains and brawn of all these people came suddenly and startlingly to the fullest fruition. Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted ‘Now!’ and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growing roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief. Several of the observers standing back of the shelter to watch the lighting effects were knocked flat by the blast. 

"The tension in the room let up and all started congratulating each other. Everyone sensed ‘This is it!’ No matter what might happen now all knew that the impossible scientific job had been done. Atomic fission would no longer be hidden in the cloisters of the theoretical physicists' dreams. It was almost full grown at birth. It was a great new force to be used for good or for evil. There was a feeling in that shelter that those concerned with its nativity should dedicate their lives to the mission that it would always be used for good and never for evil.

"The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized."

Said Farrell after the test, “The war is over.”

9. "To Hirohito, with love and kisses, T. F. Farrell."

After the project proved a success, Farrell was installed on the targeting committee. Their guidelines from General Groves were to choose a target that would “most aversely affect the will of the Japanese people to continue the war.” The target “should be military in nature,” containing a major headquarters or a manufacturing center of weapons and supplies. On the morning of the bombing, Farrell scrawled on the front of Fat Man, "To Hirohito, with love and kisses, T. F. Farrell." 

10. After the war, Farrell was appointed chairman of the New York City Housing Authority.

You’re probably thinking Thomas Farrell had done enough by this point. You’re probably right, though Farrell disagreed. After the war, the mayor of New York appointed him chairman of the New York City Housing Authority. Farrell’s work as state Commissioner of Canals and Waterways, and later his leadership at the state Department of Public Works, wasn’t forgotten. Said the mayor at the time, “General Farrell’s appointment foreshadows a speed-up of the Authority’s work and closer relations with the city and the state.” 

11. He wasn’t out of the atom business just yet.

In 1951, Farrell was placed on military leave from the New York City Housing Authority, and assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission. There, he oversaw all work concerning the acquisition of uranium, the operation of processing plants, and construction of new facilities. But his atomic responsibilities didn’t end there. He later joined the planning commission of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The fair was a “carnival of technological utopianism.” Among its exhibits: “Atomsville, U.S.A.” 

He died on April 11, 1967 at age 75.

Previously on Retrobituaries: Theodore Maiman, inventor of the laser. See all retrobituaries here.

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Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono Mailed Acorns to World Leaders
 Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a big year in 1969. Following a quick wedding ceremony in Gibraltar, they hopped over to Amsterdam and used their honeymoon suite at the Hilton as a stage for their week-long “Bed-In for Peace” protest against the Vietnam War. A week later they were in Vienna wearing bags over their bodies and declaring the formation of a comical new philosophy called “bagism." Their goal, they said, was to promote "total communication" by getting people to focus on their message instead of their skin color, ethnicity, clothes, or in Lennon's case, hair length.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with a sign reading "bagism"
Bob Aylott, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These attention-grabbing antics were among their most famous peace efforts, but that same year they undertook a very different project. This time, away from the cameras, Lennon and Ono mailed acorns to some of the world's most important leaders and asked that they be planted in support of world peace.

The idea had been a year in the making. While filming a part for a movie called A Love Story on June 15, 1968, Lennon and Ono planted two acorns at England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during WWII and was later rebuilt as a symbol of peace. They were “planted in east and westerly positions,” symbolizing the union of Lennon and Ono and their respective cultures.

Then, in 1969, they decided to scale up their "peace acorn" project. Along with two acorns placed in a small, round case, they sent world leaders a letter that read: “Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures—which are acorns—in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace. Yours with love, John and Yoko Ono Lennon.”

Like the proverb “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” the couple understood the power of small gestures and wanted to start a conversation that would get world leaders thinking about the possibility of peace—or in Lennon's words, to encourage them to "give peace a chance."

John and Yoko hold up a protest sign that says "War is over if you want it."
Frank Barratt, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

They did provoke some thought, at least. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon explained, “We got reaction to sending acorns—different heads of state actually planted their acorns, lots of them wrote to us answering about the acorns. We sent acorns to practically everybody in the world.”

The two acorns were “submitted to Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II] in due course,” according to a letter that the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace sent to the Lennons. A response from Malaysia confirmed that the acorns were to be planted in Kuala Lumpur’s Palace Gardens, and another letter from South Africa indicated that they would be planted on then-president Jim Fouché’s farm.

Golda Meir, then-prime minister of Israel, reportedly said something along the lines of, “I don’t know who they are but if it’s for peace, we’re for it,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. An official response sent by Meir’s assistant director in 1970 read, “Mrs. Meir very much appreciated the gesture, the underlying symbolism of which she would indeed like to see take root within a realistic framework.”

One particularly polite response came from Cambodia's head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, who worried he had erred in addressing Lennon and Ono as Mr. and Mrs. (he hadn't). He wrote, “Dear Sir and Madam, I may have wrongly assumed the friendly donators of acorns are husband and wife, and would like to submit ‘preventive’ apologies, together with my sincerest thanks for their gift.”

Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event
Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event in 1960
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ono saved all of these letters, and photocopies can be viewed on her website. For his part, Lennon memorialized the event in The Beatles single "The Ballad of John and Yoko." In case you've ever wondered what the line "50 acorns tied in a sack" means, the verse in question references the events following their honeymoon and return to London:

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press
Said we wish you success
It's good to have the both of you back

To mark the 40th anniversary of the peace acorn offering in 2009, Ono recreated the act and sent acorns to 123 world leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Next year, for the 50th anniversary, it remains to be seen if the famous peace acorns will again make their way around the world. If you happen to be a president or the Queen, you might want to save a spot in your garden, just in case.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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