Sunday, November 8, 2009

CryptoWA #13 - The Great Windshield Mystery

A strange phenomenon swept through the Puget Sound region in April of 1954. Residents in Bellingham started reporting numerous, tiny pits in their car windshields. The mystery pits began to spread. Soon pitted windshields were reported in Anacortes, Mount Vernon and on Whidbey Island. This horror continued to spread until it reached Seattle.

It was a genuine cause of concern. As the number of cars with pitted windshields grew, so did the theories to explain them. Some thought it was cosmic rays. Other cited atmospheric conditions and radioactive fallout. More creative types blamed sand fleas -- claiming their eggs had somehow survived the glass making process and later hatched. A few citizens claimed they saw their windshields bubbling as new pits appeared.

Seattle police were routinely flagged down by drivers who had noticed the strange pits. The mayor of Seattle sent urgent telegrams to the governor and President Eisenhower, asking for help.

Fortunately, top men at the University of Washington brought their huge brains to bear on the problem. They couldn't help but notice that the pits were mostly appearing in older cars. The public largely rejected this unexciting explanation outright.

Finally, a larger investigation by the Seattle Police Department agreed that the pits were just regular wear on older vehicles.

This odd little tale is still mentioned in psychology textbooks. The great windshield mystery of 1954 was a perfect example of collective delusion that feeds on itself, and grows in the telling.

Interesting, but not as cool as cosmic rays.