A while back, Linton Weeks from NPR’s History Dept. wrote “The Windshield-Pitting Mystery of 1954,” wherein thousands of Bellingham, Washington residents were plagued with pitted windshelds, leading to theories that ranged from acid created by flying bugs to falling skeletons of tiny marine creatures thrown into the stratosphere by H-bomb tests. We took a look at the evidence and using a bit of data and automotive history, we can start to piece together what may have happened that spring, during the height of American paranoia.
The Windshield-Pitting Mystery of 1954
An abbreviated recap comes from HistoryLink.org:
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.
Thousands of residents complained about this issue. Originally, it was thought that the culprits may have been vandals, and the police responded with a significant show of concern:
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.
The incidents received front-page news and — as Linton Weeks noted in his story from last week — as the news spread, America’s 1950s-era propensity for paranoia threw fuel on the fire. Seattle’s Mayor even wired President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Urge appropriate federal (and state) agencies be instructed to cooperate with local authorities on emergency basis.”
Theories about what was happening laid the blame on:
- The Navy’s new million-watt radio transmitter at Jim Creek near Arlington, which was thought to be converting electronic oscillations to physical oscillations in the glass
- Cosmic rays bombarding the earth from the sun
- A mysterious atmospheric event
- Sand-flea eggs laid in the glass
- Supersonic sound waves, non-radioactive coral debris from nuclear bomb tests, or a shift in the earth’s magnetic field
It’s the kind of weird history that spawned television shows like Project U.F.O. and the X-Files. In fact, the theory that the Navy’s radio transmitter may have been causing the pitting may have partly inspired an X-Files episode, where Bryan Cranston suffers from intense pain thanks to a U.S. Navy antenna array emitting ELF waves.
The police department and scientists interested in the mystery eventually concluded that the pits had been there all along, and that residents just hadn’t seen them before, but that doesn’t really get to what was going on and why the pits were showing up in the first place.
A few paragraphs and a photo from Weeks’ story provides a lot of answers, though:
“Anywhere from 10 to 20 blue-edged pits first appear in the glass, although as many as 50 ‘craters’ may be discernible later,” the reporter observed. “The tiny holes do not pierce the glass, but pit depth of 1/16th of an inch have been reported.”
A lot of the mystery unravels in here, thanks to a bit of automotive history and the calendar year itself, 1954.
The pits themselves — as you can see in this photograph — are bullseye windshield cracks. They’re present because of the type of glass that was in use in the 1950s, and is still in use today for windshields: Safety glass.
Safety glass arrived for automotive use in 1927. Prior to that, windshields were made of plate glass and would tear occupants to shreds in an accident. Laminated safety glass sandwiched a sheet of rubbery material between two pieces of glass, in an effort to keep the glass together, rather than breaking into razor-sharp pieces.
These lines are important:
Curiously, no pitting occurred on windows of homes, side windows of cars or other vertically positioned glass. “This led one observer to believe that whatever is causing the pitting,” the INS reported, “is coming straight down from the sky at probably a high altitude.”
Pitting pretty much doesn’t happen on glass for home use, especially in that era. In the 1950s, household glass was just single-pane plate glass. It’s mounted perpendicular to the direction which some high altitude project would fall, and plate glass doesn’t pit the way safety glass does. It would likely would just crack or shatter on impact.
What’s interesting is the rear backlight of any car from the 1950s. Let’s take a look at one of the most popular cars of the era, the 1954 Ford:
The first thing to note is the design. In the 1950s, car windshields were fairly upright. The rear backlight of this 1954 Ford Crestline Coupe is angled a few more degrees toward vertical than the windshield is.
Then consider what rear backlights were made out of in the early 1950s. Today, side and rear windows are all made of tempered glass, which shatters into a zillion tiny little pieces when it’s struck by an object. It helps to keep occupants from being injured by large pieces of razor sharp glass, and it’s also much tougher and lighter than laminated safety glass.
Tempered glass was first patented in the late 1800s, and was used in automotive production as early as the 1930s, but none of the companies making it could figure out how to make it curved. That wouldn’t happen until the 1950s, and it wouldn’t be until 1957 that most cars would have tempered glass in the side and rear windows.
If the objects striking the windows were coming from the sky, the rear windows would be at least as susceptible — and probably more, thanks to the angle — than the front windshield.
No, what was causing the pits was exactly what causes them today: Road debris flung up by passing traffic, which cars hit at highway speed. What was unique was that in 1954, we were just starting to drive more, and drive faster.
Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that Americans traveled almost 562 billion miles in 1954, up from just 333 billion before World War II. Just a few short years later, we’d add another 200 billion miles to that figure as the Interstate Highway System launched into full swing.
Today, we drive more than three trillion miles a year, at a national speed limit of 65 miles per hour. Pitted windshields are a fact of life now, and glass shops will come and replace them at your home or your office.
It happens. Just don’t call the president.
(Hat tip to Tom Bernhardt for bringing this great story to our attention)