The Real Calculus Affair : The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic (April 1954)

“It is very common for people to believe that they have contracted an illness when they hear a doctor describe a medical problem and the symptoms associated with that problem. I suspect that most people already had these pits all along and only attributed it to the mysterious cause when they heard other people doing it. Still others may have resulted from vandalism or new cases from simple accidents — debris from the roads. Is this hysteria or simply logical thinking utilizing information from the media and their own situation — a pitted car? Some research about supposed ‘hysteria’ really shows that people are not hysterical at all.”

Sociologist David Rohall

October 24 2021 — The Calculus Affair (French: L’Affaire Tournesol) is the eighteenth volume of The Adventures of Tintin, the comics series by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. It was serialised weekly in Belgium’s Tintin magazine from December 1954 to February 1956 before being published in a single volume by Casterman in 1956. The story follows the attempts of the young reporter Tintin, his dog Snowy, and his friend Captain Haddock to rescue their friend Professor Calculus, who has developed a machine capable of destroying objects with sound waves, from kidnapping attempts by the competing European countries of Borduria and Syldavia. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY

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“The Calculus Affair is Hergé’s masterwork. The story has the atmosphere of a spy novel worthy of John Buchan or Eric Ambler.”

Biographer Benoît Peeters

Reflecting Cold War tensions, ‘The Calculus Affair’ was published at a time when espionage thrillers were popular. The first James Bond novel was published in 1953. ‘Dr. No’ had its worldwide premiere at the London Pavilion on October 5 1962,

The idea of a sonic weapon was one that had been unsuccessfully pioneered by German scientists under the control of Albert Speer during World War II.

A book that Tintin examines in Professor Topolino’s house, German Research in World War II by Leslie E. Simon – a retired major general in the United States Army – really existed and was published in 1947.

Leslie Earl Simon (August 11, 1900 – October 28, 1983) was a 20th-century American scientist, and the author of the book German Research in World War II: An Analysis of the Conduct of Research. He was Major General, Ordnance Department, U.S. Army, and former Director of the Ballistic Research Laboratories at the Aberdeen Proving Ground military facility in Maryland. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1924.

A key influence on the plot of The Calculus Affair was an article that Hergé had read in a February 1954 issue of the Belgian weekly La Face à Main, reporting that there had been a number of incidents along the road from Portsmouth to London in southern England in which motorists’ car windscreens had spontaneously shattered. [Wikipedia]

The article’s author suggested that it may have been caused by experiments undertaken in a nearby secret facility. By April 1954, the mysterious epidemic had reached the new world!

“The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of 1954 did indeed become a textbook example of collective delusion, sometimes mistakenly referred to as ‘mass hysteria.’ To this day, sociologists and psychologists refer to the incident in their courses and writings.”

Windshield pitting incidents in Washington reach fever pitch

on April 15, 1954.

On April 15, 1954, Bellingham, Seattle and other Washington communities are in the grip of a strange phenomenon — tiny holes, pits, and dings have seemingly appeared in the windshields of cars at an unprecedented rate. Initially thought to be the work of vandals, the pitting rate grows so quickly that panicked residents soon suspect everything from cosmic rays to sand-flea eggs to fallout from H-bomb tests. By the next day, pleas are sent to government officials asking for help in solving what would become known as the Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic.

It Begins in Bellingham

The tiny windshield holes were first noticed in the northwestern Washington community of Bellingham in late March 1954. The small size of the pits led Bellingham police officers to believe that the damage was the work of vandals using buckshot or BBs. Within a week, a few residents in Sedro Woolley and Mount Vernon, 25 miles south of Bellingham, also began reporting damage to their windshields. By the second week of April the “vandals” attacked farther south, in the town of Anacortes on Fidalgo Island.

The Anacortes outbreak began early in the morning on April 13, 1954, when car owners noticed the heretofore-unseen pits in their windshields. Losing no time, all available law enforcement officers in the area sped to town in the hope of apprehending the culprits. Roadblocks were set up south of town at Deception Pass Bridge, and all cars leaving and entering the city were given a detailed once-over, as were their drivers and passengers.

To no avail. Farther south, cars at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station at Oak Harbor were discovered to have the same mysterious dings. Nearly 75 marines made an intensive five-hour search of the station. They came up empty. By the end of the day, more than 2,000 cars from Bellingham to Oak Harbor were reported as having been damaged. Two things became abundantly clear: This could not be the work of roving hooligans; and whatever was causing windshield pits and dings was rapidly approaching Seattle.

Seattle Under Siege

News of the windshield ding-phenomenon reached Seattle ahead of the menace. On the morning of April 14, 1954, Seattle newspaper subscribers read frontpage reports of the events that had transpired to the north. The afternoon papers carried similar stories. At 6 p.m. a report came in to Seattle police that three cars had been damaged in a lot at 6th Avenue and John Street. At 9 p.m., a motorist reported that his windshield had been hit at N 82nd Street and Greenwood Avenue. Then the floodgates opened.

Motorists began stopping police cars on the street to report windshield damage. Parking lots and auto sales lots north of downtown were hit, as well as parked cars as far west as Ballard. Even police cars parked in front of precinct stations suffered damage. Extra clerks were brought into the stations to answer the flurry of calls from angry and perplexed car owners. By the next morning, windshield pitting had reached epidemic levels.

Glass Menagerie

The sheer number of damaged windshields ruled out hoodlums, and experts were at a loss as to the cause of these strange pits and holes appearing out of nowhere. On Whidbey Island, Sheriff Tom Clark postulated that radioactivity released by recent H-bomb tests in the South Pacific was peppering windshields. Geiger counters were run over windshield glass, and also over persons who had touched the pit marks, but all were free of radioactivity. Still, the sheriff held firm that “no human agency” could have created the scars left on the glass.

Other theories abounded:

Some thought that the Navy’s new million-watt radio transmitter at Jim Creek near Arlington was converting electronic oscillations to physical oscillations in the glass. Navy Commander George Warren, in charge of Jim Creek, called this theory “completely absurd.” He pointed out that a windshield would have to be several miles wide to match the frequency of the transmitter, and besides, no pitting incidents were found at Jim Creek, home of the transmitter.

Cosmic rays bombarding the earth from the sun were considered as a cause, but since so little was known about cosmic rays, this theory couldn’t be readily proved or refuted.

A mysterious atmospheric event was theorized, but supporters of this theory couldn’t explain what atmospheric condition this could possibly be.

Since a few people amazingly reported seeing the glass bubble right before their eyes, some postulated that sand-flea eggs had somehow been laid in the glass and were now hatching. How this could occur and why they would all hatch at once was not clear.

Others suggested supersonic sound waves, non-radioactive coral debris from nuclear bomb tests, or a shift in the earth’s magnetic field.

Other folks simply boggled and blamed the entire event on gremlins.

Then there were the skeptics. Dr. D. M. Ritter, University of Washington chemist, was assigned to work with authorities on the case. After inspecting windshields and residue found on some of the cars, he commented, “Tommyrot! There isn’t anything I know of that could be causing any unusual breaks in windshields. These people must be dreaming.” Dr. Ritter was closer to the truth than anyone.

Save Us, Ike!

By April 15, 1954, police were swamped with calls. Close to 3,000 windshields had been reported as being pitted, and no one knew what to do. Looking for outside help to solve the enigma, Seattle Mayor Allan Pomeroy (ca. 1907-1966) wired Governor Arthur Langlie at the state capitol in Olympia, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Washington D.C.:

What appeared to be a localized outbreak of vandalism in damaged auto windshields and windows in the northern part of Washington State has now spread throughout the Puget Sound area. Chemical analysis of mysterious powder adhering to damaged windshields and windows indicates the material may simply be spread by wind and not a police matter at all. Urge appropriate federal (and state) agencies be instructed to cooperate with local authorities on emergency basis.

Governor Langlie contacted the University of Washington and requested that a committee of scientists be formed to investigate the phenomenon. The experts (from the environmental research laboratory, the applied physics laboratory, and the chemistry, physics, and meteorology departments) did a quick survey of 84 cars on the campus. They found the damage to be “overly emphasized,” and most likely “the result of normal driving conditions in which small objects strike the windshields of cars.” The fact that most cars were pitted in the front and not the back lent credence to their theory.

King County Sheriff Harlan S. Callahan disagreed. His deputies examined more than 15,000 cars throughout the county, and found damage to more than 3,000 of them. The Sheriff and his deputies believed that this level of damage could not be explained by ordinary road use. The law enforcement officers also found odd little pellets near some of the cars. Using crack scientific methods, they found that the pellets reacted “violently” when a lead pencil was placed next to them, but not when a ballpoint pen was so placed. Nobody knew what this meant, though.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Nevertheless, conventional wisdom lay with the scientists. Further investigation by the City of Seattle Police Department showed that most dings pitted older car windshields. In cases where auto lots were involved, brand new cars were unpitted, whereas used older cars showed signs of pitting. Police found rare instances of “copycat” vandalism, but most of the cases had a simple explanation: The pits had been there all along, but no one had noticed them until now.

The same reasoning applied to particulate matter found on windshield glass and near cars. It was found to be coal dust, tiny particles produced by the incomplete combustion of bituminous coal. These particles had drifted in Seattle air for years, but no one had looked closely at them before. Although the coal dust particles had nothing to do with the pitting, the populace at large finally noticed them, just as they noticed the window dings, for the very first time.

Sergeant Max Allison of the Seattle police crime laboratory declared that all of the damage reports were composed of “5 per cent hoodlum-ism, and 95 per cent public hysteria.” Puget Sound residents had unwittingly become participants in a textbook example of collective delusion. By April 17, 1954, pitting incidents abruptly ceased.

One for the Books

The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of 1954 did indeed become a textbook example of collective delusion, sometimes mistakenly referred to as “mass hysteria.” To this day, sociologists and psychologists refer to the incident in their courses and writings alongside other similar events, such as Orson Welles’ Martian invasion panic of 1938, and supposed sightings of the “Jersey Devil” on the East Coast in 1909.

The Seattle pitting incident contains many key factors that play a part in collective delusion. These include ambiguity, the spread of rumors and false but plausible beliefs, mass media influence, recent geo-political events, and the reinforcement of false beliefs by authority figures (in this case, the police, military, and political figures).

This combination of factors, added to the simple fact that for the first time people actually looked “at” their windshields instead of “through” them, caused the hubbub. No vandals. No atomic fallout. No sand-fleas. No cosmic rays. No electronic oscillations. Just a bunch of window dings that were there from the start.

You probably have them on your car right now. Please don’t alert the media or your local police.

“A representative of Seattle’s police crime laboratory declared that all of the damage reports were composed of ‘5 per cent hoodlum-ism, and 95 per cent public hysteria.’ Puget Sound residents had unwittingly become participants in a textbook example of collective delusion. By April 17, 1954, pitting incidents abruptly ceased.”

The Windshield-Pitting Mystery of 1954 — NPR (May 2015)

The Pitfalls Of Media — For guidance, NPR recently turned to Missouri State University sociologist David Rohall, who has taught courses in social movements and collective behavior for more than a decade.

What was the cause of the windshield-pitting in Seattle and other places?

“Much of what happens in society is a numbers game,” Rohall says. “If you have more people, any phenomenon starts to appear more common if you focus on any one event or behavior.”

Even something that is very infrequent may start to appear to be a trend, he says, “when you aggregate those events. There are millions of cars in Washington state but thousands of cases of pitting. While thousands sounds like a huge phenomenon, it represents less than 1 percent of cars. If everyone is looking for and reporting it, it would appear to be a conspiracy of some sort.”

Since there was physical evidence of windshield-pocking, did that put the incidents in a different category from other invisible phenomena that have triggered collective behavior?

Windshield-pitting, Rohall says, “may be more like crop circles in which there is physical evidence that ‘something’ happened but no one is certain of the cause. Of course, we have since found evidence that, in some cases, people utilize special equipment to make those crop circles. The cause of the pitting is different because it would be very difficult to capture someone creating them.”

Is America still susceptible to a kind of mass hysteria that would lead to similar events?

“Most people in the field no longer believe in mass hysteria as a cause of large-group behavior,” Rohall says. “The idea came from Gustave Le Bon, a French theorist trying to explain the strange behavior of large groups during the French Revolution, in which average citizens began killing large numbers of people via the guillotine. What would cause them to do such a heinous thing?”

Even if the theory were true, Rohall says, “it is designed to be applied to situations of heightened emotional arousal — for example: large crowds. While the ideas about pitting may have ‘caught on’ among people in the region, I doubt it was an emotional contagion that drove them to act in a particular way.”

So what was it, exactly, that caused large numbers of people to report pocked windshields?

“War of the Worlds is a wonderful example of how the media emphasizes the few ‘real cases’ of hysteria without recognizing that the vast majority of people knew that the radio program was fictional and did nothing,” Rohall adds. “Like crop circles, we know that some of them are man-made, so might these pits. However, the media may have had people start noticing the pits that had already been there.”

He likens the experience to this: “It is very common for people to believe that they have contracted an illness when they hear a doctor describe a medical problem and the symptoms associated with that problem. I suspect that most people already had these pits all along and only attributed it to the mysterious cause when they heard other people doing it. Still others may have resulted from vandalism or new cases from simple accidents — debris from the roads. Is this hysteria or simply logical thinking utilizing information from the media and their own situation — a pitted car? Some research about supposed ‘hysteria’ really shows that people are not hysterical at all.”

“This story is based on fact. Any similarity with fictitious events or characters is purely coincidental.”

REFERENCES

The Calculus Affair — Wikipedia

Windshield pitting incidents in Washington reach fever pitch on April 15, 1954 — Alan J. Stein

The Windshield-Pitting Mystery Of 1954 — NPR

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The Real Calculus Affair : The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic (April 1954)

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