Collective Hoonsteria: The Great Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of ‘54

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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.
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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?
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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.
HistoryLink, Images

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  1. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

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    OH MY HOLY FUCKING SHIT. That's some SERIOUS radiation!

    1. muthalovin Avatar

      Dude, its radio waves. Those are miles of windshield right there.

      1. Novaload Avatar

        No, that's from hitting a spider.

  2. P161911 Avatar

    So what kind of car is that in the lead picture, the one getting the parking ticket? I'm trying to figure it out right now.

    1. scroggzilla Avatar

      A Sunbeam Rapier….I think. Definately a Rootes Group product. Paging Armand Bengle……Armand Bengle please come to the white courtesy phone.
      No, the WHITE one.

      1. P161911 Avatar

        Thanks, your are correct a Sunbeam Rapier, specifically a Series II. I was thinking British, but wouldn't have come up with Sunbeam.

        1. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

          I got as far as "it's not a Ford Zephyr… whatever." British indeed.

      2. Alff Avatar

        Thanks for clearing that up. I was going with Humber Super Snipe.

    2. TheOnlyCannoli Avatar

      Yeah, I noticed the crooked grill and saw the slight discoloration of the "teeth" and figured it was British as well.

  3. joshuman Avatar

    What is missing from this story is the weather report. You see, winter here is usually a long drizzly affair where dampness is all around even if it doesn't happen to be raining hard enough to carry an umbrella (most people don't). There is usually a week of brilliant sunshine, such as this week, where every car looks dirty. As you get gas, you wash your windshield with the squeegee. Back on the road home to dinner, the angle of the sun at commute times blazes nearly directly through your windshield. You notice every nick, ding, and pit as if you just healed from eye surgery.

    1. Han_Solex Avatar

      Well, it happened in April, and if my twenty-odd years in Washington state taught me anything, it was that it's not very likely to have much sun in April.

  4. […] An article at asks of the Great Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic, “Could it happen again?” Sorry, car guys. It’s already happening again. […]