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Wikimedia Commons

A Brief History of Nuclear Airplanes

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Wikimedia Commons

Airplanes were an integral part of combat during WWII, but flight time was limited by each plane’s fuel capacity—this was a time before mid-flight refueling technology. Planes had to land to refuel fairly frequently making it nearly impossible to fly long distances. One proposed solution for the fuel problem was using atomic energy to power the aircraft.

The Crusader

In 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission ordered the first nuclear-powered airplane into production. The existing B-36 was selected as the base model for the plane, and was modified to carry a reactor and shielding to protect the crew from radiation. The plane’s name was changed to NB-36 to note the nuclear aspect of the plane.

By 1955, the NB-36 (top), christened “The Crusader” by the crew, was able to fly with an operational nuclear reactor on board, though the reactor did not power the plane’s engines. The Crusader and her crew of five flew 47 test flights, mostly over New Mexico and Texas, between 1955 and 1957. The plane’s reactor was operational during 89 of 215 flight hours.

The aim of the test flights was two-fold. First, we wanted to see if nuclear reactors would operate as expected in an airplane (remember, this is early in the Atomic Age), and second, to see if the plane’s shielding would protect the crew from the nuclear reactor’s radiation during flight. This was risky business. In fact, so risky that each test flight was shadowed by a transport plane full of marines. The marines' purpose? To seal off the radioactive crash site should the plane crash. Thankfully, the marines were never needed to seal off a crash site.

The Engines

General Electric HTRE3 and HTRE1 at the Idaho National Laboratory in Arco, Idaho. These are the two remaining direct cycle, nuclear powered airplane engines. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Once we knew that nuclear reactors operated as expected in flight and that adequate shielding could be provided to a crew, the U.S. turned its attention to the design of a nuclear engine. Two approaches were taken, by two separate contractors. General Electric set about designing a direct cycle engine, while Pratt & Whitney worked on an indirect cycle engine.

General Electric’s design involved a reactor with longitudinal holes, through which cold air entered the reactor. The cold air then moved into tiny holes, where it was heated by the heat put off by the nuclear reactor during fission. The heated air would then expand and produce thrust, which in theory would power the airplane. The idea is simple in principle, but quite dirty; the direct cycle engine essentially spewed radioactive air all over the place.

Pratt & Whitney’s design was more complex, but safer. The indirect design involved a nuclear reactor and a separate propulsion unit. Molten metal was used to transfer heat from the reactor to the propulsion unit, so there was much less radioactive air in the mix. But the indirect design involved much more plumbing, and so was heavier, which was problematic in an airplane.

Development of both types of engines hummed along steadily, but slowly, until the end of 1958.

Aviation Week

On December 1, 1958, Aviation Week ran an article titled, “Soviets Flight Testing Nuclear Bomber.” The article claimed that the Soviets had flown an atomic-powered plane more than 40 times, with great success. Not to be outdone, the U.S. stepped up their nuclear engine development game.

By 1960, progress was being made with both the direct and indirect cycle engines. The direct cycle engine was running routinely, and test flights looked to be not too far off, but it somehow seemed that Eisenhower was spinning his wheels getting the whole program off the ground. It was a presidential election year. Frustrated that Soviets had an operational atomic airplane before we did, and at Eisenhower’s seeming ambivalence to it, Kennedy promised to pump additional resources into the atomic airplane project should he be elected.

Kennedy won the election—and within several months of taking office, he cancelled the nuclear airplane program all together. What happened? Well, it turns out that Eisenhower’s ambivalence to the whole thing was warranted. Late in his term, he found out that the Soviets did not in fact have an atomic airplane. The whole thing was a hoax. And we bought into it hard.

So, the atomic airplane scheme faded into history. Until the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The 1990s

In the '90s, when the Berlin Wall fell and communism crumbled away, we found out that the Soviets did in fact have an atomic airplane, just not when we thought they did. The Soviets never stopped working on the idea of a nuclear airplane, and during the '60s, they flew an honest- to-goodness atomic powered airplane—forty or so times throughout the decade.

So how did they do it? Shielding the crew from radiation had always been the piece of the puzzle we couldn’t land; in order to provide ample protection to the crew, the shielding would be so heavy that the plane wouldn’t be able to leave the ground. How did the Soviets solve this riddle? They didn’t. The Soviets’ nuclear powered airplane did not provide sufficient shielding to the crew, and the first crew member died three years after the test flights from his exposure to radiation.

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Food
The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.

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The Hospital in the Rock
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History
Budapest’s Former Top-Secret Hospital Inside a Cave
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The Hospital in the Rock

At the top of a hill in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, sits Buda Castle, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site visited by thousands of tourists every year. Directly underneath the castle, however, lies a less-frequented tourist attraction: a series of ancient, naturally formed caves with a colorful and sometimes disturbing history.

The entire cave system is over six miles long, and most of that has been left unchanged since it was used as cold storage (and a rumored dungeon) in the Middle Ages. Between 1939 and 2008, however, a half-mile stretch of those caves was built up and repurposed many times over. Known as Sziklakorhaz or The Hospital in the Rock, its many uses are a testament to the area’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

At the start of World War II, the location served as a single-room air raid center, but operating theaters, corridors, and wards were quickly added to create a much-needed hospital. By early 1944, the hospital had officially opened inside the cave, tending to wounded Hungarian and Nazi soldiers. After less than a year of operation, the facility found itself facing its largest challenge—the Siege of Budapest, which lasted seven weeks and was eventually won by Allied forces on their way to Berlin.

As one of the few area hospitals still operational, the Hospital in the Rock was well over capacity during the siege. Originally built to treat around 70 patients, close to 700 ended up crammed into the claustrophobic caves. The wounded lay three to a bed—if they were lucky enough to get a bed at all. Unsurprisingly, heat from all those bodies raised the ambient temperature to around 95°F, and smoking cigarettes was the number one way to pass the time. Add that to the putrid mix of death, decay, and infection and you’ve got an incredibly unpleasant wartime cocktail.

A recreation inside the museum. Image credit: The Hospital in the Rock 

After the siege, the Soviets took control of the caves (and Budapest itself) and gutted the hospital of most of its supplies. Between 1945 and 1948, the hospital produced a vaccination for typhus. As the icy grasp of the Cold War began to tighten, new wards were built, new equipment was installed, and the hospital was designated top-secret by the Soviets, referred to only by its official codename LOSK 0101/1.

Eleven years after facing the horrors of the Siege of Budapest, in 1956, the hospital hosted the casualties of another battle: The Hungarian Uprising. Thousands of Hungarians revolted against the Soviet policies of the Hungarian People’s Republic in a fierce, prolonged battle. Civilians and soldiers alike lay side-by-side in wards as surgeons attempted to save them. During the uprising, seven babies were also born in the hospital.

Surgeons lived on-site and rarely surfaced from the caves. The hospital’s chief surgeon at the time, Dr. András Máthé, famously had a strict "no amputation" rule, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in the end reportedly saved many patients' lives. (Máthé also reportedly wore a bullet that he’d removed from a patient’s head on a chain around his neck.)

The Hospital in the Rock ceased normal operations in December 1956, after the Soviets squashed the uprising, as the Soviets had new plans for the caves. With the Cold War now in full swing, the still-secret site was converted into a bunker that could serve as a hospital in case of nuclear attack. Diesel engines and an air conditioning system were added in the early '60s, so that even during a blackout, the hospital could still function for a couple of days.

The Hospital in the Rock

The official plan for the bunker was as follows: In the event of a nuclear attack, a selection of doctors and nurses would retreat to the bunker, where they would remain for 72 hours. Afterward, they were to go out and search for survivors. Special quarantined rooms, showering facilities, and even a barbershop were on site for survivors brought back to the site. (The only haircut available to them, however, was a shaved head; radioactive material is notoriously difficult to remove from hair.)

Thankfully, none of these nuclear procedures were ever put into practice. But the hospital was never formally decommissioned, and it wasn’t relieved of its top-secret status until the mid-2000s. For a while, it was still being used as a storage facility by Hungary’s Civil Defense Force. The bunker was maintained by a nearby family, who were sworn to secrecy. In 2004, it was decided that responsibility for the site fell solely on St. John’s Hospital in Budapest, who were seen as the de facto owners in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By 2008 the bunker was renovated, refurbished, and ready to be opened to the public. Today it operates as a museum, with exhibits detailing life in the hospital from various periods of its history, as well as the history of combat medicine as a whole. The sobering hour-long walk around the hospital concludes with a cautionary gaze into the atrocities of nuclear attacks, with the final walk to the exit featuring a gallery of art created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Another part of the caves beneath Buda Castle. Image credit:Sahil Jatana via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The caves beneath Buda Castle have certainly had a bumpy history, and walking through them now is chilling (and not just because they keep the temperature at around 60°F). A tour through the narrow, oppressive hallways is a glimpse at our narrowly avoided nuclear future—definitely a sobering way to spend an afternoon.

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