This powder kills fascist aero-engines

I've written before about how the air defence problem seemed to inspire 'wildly creative' thinking in the early 20th century. Here are a couple more examples, submitted to the British government by members of the public, c. 1943 -- the one effectively a form of death ray, the other a (technically) non-lethal weapon:

One of the most popular discarded suggestions was that the atmosphere should be flooded with carborundum powder which would be sucked into the fascist aero-engines and chew them to pieces. It is difficult to convince people that there is an awful lot of atmosphere!

Another one was that they should spread throughout the atmosphere 'a gas' (unknown to the suggestor -- to be discovered by the chemist) which would congeal round the plane in flight, and when the crew baled out, would wrap itself around them so that they would arrive on the ground like chickens in gelatine. This was the solution of the paratroop problem!1

The desire of these would-be inventors to help defend the nation (and perhaps profit handsomely) exceeded their knowledge of science and engineering.

The author of the article from which the above quotation is taken was Ritchie Calder, a former journalist then doing propaganda work for the Political Warfare Executive. Maybe that's how he came to be writing about the contributions of British scientists to the war effort for an American publication, Popular Astronomy:

Their maximum accuracy is in the air, in spite of three-dimensional fighting. When one hears of a thousand-plane raid being packed into fifty-five minutes over a single town in Germany, one should remember not only the vast ground organization, the transport supplies, the loading of the bombs, the timing of the take-off and returns, but also the intensive work of the scientists behind the operation.2

But while Calder only deviates from such broad generalisations when poking fun at death rays and gelatin gases, this article does combine two things he was interested in: explaining science and defeating bombing. Before the war, Calder had been science editor for the News Chronicle; during the Blitz, he was a crusader for better post-raid welfare and shelter conditions. It's interesting that one of his sons, Nigel Calder, became a noted science journalist, while another, Angus Calder, became one of the most influential historians of the Blitz.


  1. Ritchie Calder, 'Science comes to Earth', Popular Astronomy 51 (1943), 346-7

  2. Ibid., 346. 

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5 thoughts on “This powder kills fascist aero-engines

  1. The 'Carborundum' idea reminds me of the rumours of a supposedly carbon-based powder being dropped by NATO jets over Serbia in order to short out power lines, etc.

  2. Andrew Reid

    It's interesting that they apparently gloss over the major issue with the carborundum powder, which is that it doesn't actually discriminate between fascist and non-fascist aero engines, nor, for that matter, between aero engines and truck engines.

    I would have thought that by this far into WW2, the practical limitations of "area weapons", poison gas being the usual example, would be better appreciated.

  3. Neil Datson

    The 'gas', rather unfortunately 'unknown to the suggestor - to be discovered by the chemist' plants an idea in my mind. I can't get past the picture of firing it up, in a sort of generalised and ill-aimed way, at an over-flying edible bird; plover, partridge or turkey, and being rewarded by the gentle descent of a cooked fowl fit for the carving knife. So much easier than all the botheration that's presently needed. Surely, with just a little more work, it could be persuaded to do better than merely cover the feathered bird in gelatine?

  4. Post author

    Heath:

    Thank you. I hope you will find this imaginary cheque adequate recompense for your efforts.

    Jerry:

    Interesting! I hadn't heard that rumour (the one I remember is about cobwebs being dropped from aircraft in 1991-2), but apparently it's more or less true! USAF F-117s dropped BLU-114/B bombs against the Serbian power grid in 1999, so-called 'soft bombs'. It seems they work by dropping large numbers of carbon-filaments over power plants, transformers, etc, shorting them out. That in turn reminds me of Operation Outward, Britain's attempt in 1942-4 to bring down German power lines by launching balloons across the North Sea with trailing cables.

    Andrew:

    Good point. Though, to be fair, this is probably fatal flaw #78 on the list :)

    Neil:

    Peace dividend!

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