The year is 1954. The place is the quiet college town of Bellingham, Washington. It all started one morning when residents noticed strange damage on their windshield. Neighbors yakked about it, and soon it was all over the local radar. Was it vandals? Possibly using BBs? That’s sure what it looked like, thought the locals, and soon all over town folks were noticing that these vandals had hit their windshields, too. And then things got weird …
Within a few weeks, the vandal windshield epidemic spread … Anacortes, Sedro Wooley, Mt. Vernon. There were damaged windshields in each city. The local authorities quickly ratcheted up the heat by setting up roadblocks in hope of catching the vandals in-between towns. But when the Marines at the Whidbey Island Naval Station noticed damage on their vehicles on their high-security premises, it became clear the windshield-dinging spate wasn’t the work of any vandals.
And then it hit Seattle, and all hell broke loose. Hundreds of people looked at their cars in the morning, and realized they’d been victimized too. The police were overwhelmed with calls, but had no theories on the cause of the tiny holes that were universally being spotted. Wild and unfounded speculation ensued. A couple of theories were especially popular. One was that Washington windshields were being bombarded with radiation from an atmospheric H-bomb test. Another popular one was that the Navy’s new million-watt radio transmitter was creating physical oscillations in the glass (despite the fact that an expert determined that the pane of glass would need to be several miles wide to be physically affected by the radio waves). Maybe it was cosmic rays? One of the wilder theories was that sand fleas were laying eggs on the glass, and that their hatching was causing the pitting. Seattle police officers discovered mysterious pellets near the vehicles that reacted violently to the proximity of lead pencils, although no one knew what to make of it.
With nowhere else to turn, the mayor of Seattle telegraphed President Eisenhower asking for federal help. The governor of Washington asked UW scientists to examine the cars, and when researchers postulated that the damage was the cause of road debris, it was dismissed as an impossible conclusion. How could all that damage happen at once by road debris?
Finally, after days of careful investigation, two things dawned on the Seattle detectives investigating the epidemic. First, the pitting primarily happened to older cars. Secondly, the mysterious powder so often reported as being associated with the pitting was simply coal dust, having nothing to do with the pitting, floating in the Seattle air for years unnoticed. This lead them to an inescapable conclusion: the pits had been there all along!
Of course, after weeks, this was the last thing residents wanted to hear, but it was true. With that fact out in the open, all reports of mysterious pitting dried up. Western Washington had been in the grips of one of the largest incidents of collective hysteria ever documented. It’s become a textbook example, similar to the “War of the Worlds” panic.
Could it happen again? Maybe you should take a peek at your windshield and let me know what you find.