The Great Smog Descended on London 65 Years Ago, and Took Almost as Long to Solve

A tugboat on the Thames near Tower Bridge in heavy smog, 1952.
A tugboat on the Thames near Tower Bridge in heavy smog, 1952.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Heavy fogs have long been a part of life in London. In his novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens wrote:

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river where it flows among green airs and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city ... Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”

Yet a full 100 years after the celebrated author wrote those words, the city would become enveloped in a dangerous mix of fog and smoke—the likes of which they had never experienced, and were not prepared for. When the smog finally lifted, thousands of people were dead. And it would take nearly 65 years for scientists to pinpoint the reason for what has become known as The Great Smog of 1952, one of the deadliest environmental disasters in the history of the world.


5th December 1952: Morning traffic at Blackfriars, London almost at a standstill because of the blanket smog.
Don Price/Fox Photos/Getty Images

December 5, 1952 started out just like any other day in London, albeit a tremendously foggy one. But as the day wore on, it became clear that there was something different about the darkness that had descended on the city, which would hang there until December 9. People who were caught outside in the weather found themselves gasping for air, barely able to open their eyes from the sting the smoky atmosphere was delivering. Those who could see couldn’t see very far; as visibility dwindled to practically zero, pedestrians had trouble seeing their own feet while motorists were forced to abandon their vehicles.


Heavy smog in Piccadilly Circus, London, 6th December 1952.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For several days, the city was essentially shut down. It all began with a cold front, which led more and more Londoners to crank up their coal stoves and gather around them for warmth. While the smoke from the city’s chimneys would normally disperse into the atmosphere, a lack of wind and an unfortunately timed anticyclone positioned over the city ended up trapping the smoke, which mixed with the fog and other pollutants, creating a lethal atmosphere.


A London bus makes its way along Fleet Street in heavy smog, 6th December 1952.
Edward Miller/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“You had this swirling,” funeral director Stan Cribb told NPR in 2002, “like somebody had set a load of car tires on fire.” Cribb, who at the time was working as a mortician’s assistant, was on his way to a wake with his uncle—who was also his boss—with a line of mourners behind them. According to NPR:

Neither man knew a catastrophe was brewing. They didn't know that a mass of stagnant air had just clamped a lid over London, trapping the smoke from millions of residential coal fires at ground level.

Cribb remembers being stunned by the blackness of the gathering fog. After a few minutes he couldn't see the curb from his spot behind the wheel. After a few more minutes, Tom Cribb got out and started walking in front of the hearse, to keep his nephew on the road. He carried a powerful hurricane lantern in one hand, but it was useless.

“It's like you were blind,” says Cribb.

When the fog finally lifted, reports estimated that at least 4000 people had been killed and 150,000 were hospitalized, though in the years since the total death toll has risen to approximately 12,000.


Mid-morning smog, as seen from the embankment at Blackfriars, London, 5th December 1952.
Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Fans of the Netflix series The Crown will likely remember the 2016 episode in which Queen Elizabeth and then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill were forced to contend with the deadly event. (Of course, always aiming for accuracy, director Stephen Daldry told Entertainment Weekly that they weren’t about to use CGI to recreate The Great Smog. “We had to get a great, huge warehouse and fill it full of fog to create the great pea soup of 1952,” Daldry said. “We did it for real—CG didn’t look good enough for us.”)

Amazingly, it wasn't until last year—just a few weeks before The Crown premiered—that a global team of scientists announced that they may have finally solved the mystery of The Great Smog, and published their findings in the November 2016 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“People have known that sulfate was a big contributor to the fog, and sulfuric acid particles were formed from sulfur dioxide released by coal burning for residential use and power plants, and other means,” said Dr. Renyi Zhang, a professor at Texas A&M University and one of the paper’s lead authors. “But how sulfur dioxide was turned into sulfuric acid was unclear. Our results showed that this process was facilitated by nitrogen dioxide, another co-product of coal burning, and occurred initially on natural fog. Another key aspect in the conversion of sulfur dioxide to sulfate is that it produces acidic particles, which subsequently inhibits this process. Natural fog contained larger particles of several tens of micrometers in size, and the acid formed was sufficiently diluted. Evaporation of those fog particles then left smaller acidic haze particles that covered the city.”


Large numbers of people using the underground system to get around London during a period of heavy smog, which hampered transport on the roads, 8th December 1952.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In addition to helping to solve a troubling environmental disaster that had confounded scientists for decades, Zhang and his colleagues’ research is also helping to determine how to best deal with similar air pollution problems today, including those faced by several cities in China, which is home to some of the world’s most polluted cities.

“The difference in China is that the haze starts from much smaller nanoparticles, and the sulfate formation process is only possible with ammonia to neutralize the particles,” Zhang said. “In China, sulfur dioxide is mainly emitted by power plants, nitrogen dioxide is from power plants and automobiles, and ammonia comes from fertilizer use and automobiles. Again, the right chemical processes have to interplay for the deadly haze to occur in China. Interestingly, while the London fog was highly acidic, contemporary Chinese haze is basically neutral.”

“The government has pledged to do all it can to reduce emissions going forward, but it will take time,” he added. “We think we have helped solve the 1952 London fog mystery and also have given China some ideas of how to improve its air quality. Reduction in emissions for nitrogen oxides and ammonia is likely effective in disrupting this sulfate formation process.”


A man guiding a London bus through thick fog with a flaming torch.
Monty Fresco/Getty Images

Though it would be hard to call it a silver lining, The Great Smog of 1952 did have one positive effect: it forced the country’s government, and its people, to become more aware of the impact their actions had on their environment. On July 5, 1956, less than four years after London was enveloped in a lethal darkness, the Queen enacted the Clean Air Act 1956, which banned the burning of pollutants across the UK.

A Letter Written by Albert Einstein in 1922 Predicted the Rise of the Nazis

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As a Jew living in Germany in the 1920s, Albert Einstein had an up-close view of the Nazis’ rise to power. As early as 1922, he could see turbulent political times ahead, as a letter to his sister reveals. The handwritten, signed letter recently sold at auction for $39,360, Live Science reports.

The letter, offered by the Jerusalem-based Kedem Auction House, is addressed to Einstein’s younger sister Maja. Einstein wrote it from an undisclosed location—probably Kiel, Germany, according to the auction house—after he fled Berlin in 1922 in the wake of the assassination of Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau, by a right-wing terrorist group. Police had warned Einstein that as a prominent Jew his life could be in danger, too. “Nobody knows where I am, and I'm believed to be missing,” he writes in the letter.

He remained upbeat while at the same time acknowledging the seriousness of the political situation that he and other German Jews were facing. “I am doing quite well, in spite of all the anti-Semites among my German colleagues,” he assured Maja. "Here are brewing economically and politically dark times, so I'm happy to be able to get away from everything for half a year,” he wrote, alluding to his upcoming six-month trip to Asia, during which he would learn that he had won the Nobel Prize. He was right—Adolf Hitler's failed coup in Bavaria would take place the next year, in November 1923.

Einstein goes on to say “Don't worry about me, I myself don't worry either, even if it's not quite kosher; people are very upset. In Italy, it seems to be at least as bad, by the way."

After his Asian tour, he returned to Germany before setting out on new travels, including a tour of the United States. He was in the U.S. when Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, and decided to renounce his German citizenship. He eventually settled in Princeton, New Jersey.

See the full details of the letter at the Kedem Auction House’s website.

[h/t Live Science]

No Joe: The Time Coffee Was Banned in Prussia

iStock.com/NickS
iStock.com/NickS

In the late 18th century, Prussia's King Frederick the Great (officially Frederick II) blacklisted coffee and encouraged his royal subjects to drink something far more wholesome—beer. According to William Harrison Ukers's classic 1922 book All About Coffee, Frederick issued this decree on September 13, 1777:

"It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. Everybody is using coffee. If possible, this must be prevented. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors, and his officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer; and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended upon to endure hardship or to beat his enemies in case of the occurrence of another war."

Though the authenticity of the above quotation cannot be confirmed, it certainly jibes with King Freddie's other opinions on the matter, according to Robert Liberles, a scholar of German-Jewish history. In a 1779 letter, Frederick wrote, "It is despicable to see how extensive the consumption of coffee is … if this is limited a bit, people will have to get used to beer again … His Royal Majesty was raised eating beer-soup, so these people can also be brought up nurtured with beer-soup. This is much healthier than coffee."

So Old Fritz, as he was called, loved beer. But why was he so opposed to coffee?

For one, Frederick was terrified that excessive imports could ruin his kingdom's economy, and he much preferred to restrict commerce than engage in trade. Since coffee, unlike beer, was brought in from across the border, Frederick regularly griped that "at least 700,000 thaler leave the country annually just for coffee"—money, he believed, that could be funneled into well-taxed Prussian businesses instead.

In other words, into Fritz's own pockets.

To redirect the people's spending patterns, Frederick ordered a number of steep restrictions, demanding that coffee roasters obtain a license from the government. This sounds like a reasonable regulation until you learn that Frederick summarily rejected nearly all of the applications, granting exceptions only to people who were already cozy with his court.

If that sounds elitist, it was. Frederick was adamant about keeping coffee out of the hands and mouths of poor people, writing, "this foreign product [has] extended into the lowest classes of human society and caused great contraband activities." To stop them, he hired approximately 400 disabled soldiers to work as coffee spies, or "sniffers," to roam city streets "following the smell of roasting coffee whenever detected, in order to seek out those who might be found without roasting permits," Ukers writes.

But none of these tactics worked. Rather, they just increased coffee smuggling and exacerbated the "contraband activities" that Frederick claimed he was trying to prevent in the first place. So shortly after the king died in 1786, many of these restrictions were lifted, proving yet again that it's always a mistake to get between someone and their java.

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