Dave the Potter’s Remarkable Legacy

I discovered the story of Dave the Potter while doing research for At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times. I didn’t write the story then, not because it didn’t qualify, but because adding it would up the already hefty word count. It is a story that I wanted to tell, however, and here it is:

No one knows exactly when Dave the Potter was born or when he died. No one knows his real last name, what he looked like, if he had a wife or children, or much else about him either. He is known by several names, Dave the Potter being the most common, and what little we know about this man comes from the pottery he made and left behind. Together the hundreds of jars, jugs, pots and pieces of stoneware he created tell a remarkable and daring story.

Dave the Potter was a Black slave who lived in South Carolina in the 1800s. For a time, Dave worked in a pottery factory outside the town of Edgefield. There he learned how to use a potter’s wheel and kiln to transform clay into large and sturdy vessels. At some point, he learned another skill too, one that was forbidden to slaves, one that was dangerous to share publicly. Dave the Potter learned to read and write.

At the time, education of slaves was forbidden. Harsh penalties could be applied to slaves who showed that they could read or write. Dave the Potter ignored the dangers. Around 1840, he starting signing his work, boldly writing ‘Dave’ on the shoulder of some vessels. Later, he added short rhymes or poems.

Some were simple couplets:

Put every bit all between/surely this jar will hold 14

Others were commentaries on slavery:

I wonder where is all my relations/Friendship to all – and every nation.

Still others carried cryptic messages with directions for runaways escaping to the north:

Follow the Drinking Gourd (Big Dipper)/For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom

Besides their distinctive poetry, most of Dave’s pottery is signed simply ‘Dave’ or bear a horseshoe symbol, slash mark, an X or LM (for Lewis Miles, the man who owned the pottery workshop where Dave worked).

Today, Dave’s pots are collector items that sell for thousands of dollars, and his pottery is part of the Civil War Collection at the Smithsonian. Each handcrafted piece is a bold statement, a remarkable act of defiance.

Dave’s legacy is beautifully explored in Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, an award-winning picture book written by Laban Carrick Hill & illustrated by Bryan Collier. 

The Original Shawshank Redemption

A couple of years ago, a prison break in New York State made headlines.  Convicted murderers David Sweat and Richard Matt cut through steel walls in the back of their adjoining cells, crawled down a catwalk, broke through a brick wall, then sliced through steel pipes, locks and chains to pry open a manhole cover and flee the scene.  They left behind power tools, blankets stuffed with clothes to mimic their sleeping bodies.  They also left a cheeky smiley-face drawing with the message ‘Have a nice day’, and a trail of suspicion.

In newsfeed, reporters called the prison break ‘sophisticated’ and ‘Shawshank-redemption like’.  As bold and creative as the escape was, in my opinion it holds a dim candle to an earlier prison break. While it’s only speculation, this one may have influenced Stephen King when he wrote Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the novella on which the film was based.  It might have inspired the two escapees from New York State, too.  You be the judge.


On the night of June 11, 1962, three prisoners in Alcatraz’ s ‘escape-proof’ prison fled their separate cells through holes chiseled out of the flaky concrete around air vents under the sinks along the far walls.  That gave them access to a utility corridor behind it.  It had taken 9 months of coordinated effort to reach this point – nine months of scratching the wall each evening with metal spoons stolen from the kitchen and drilling with an improvised drill made from a broken vacuum cleaner.  To keep their work hidden, Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin covered the holes with cardboard grills and draped pants over the faucets.

On the night of their escape, the three tucked life-like dummy heads under blankets fluffed with clothes.  The heads were works of art, crafted out of soap and toilet paper, topped with hair clippings from the prison barbershop, and painted with flesh-tone paint stolen from the prison art shop.

Once inside the utility corridor, the men climbed plumbing pipes to reach a small landing. They squeezed through a ventilation shaft that led to the roof, ran across the top and slithered down a vertical pipe to the ground.  Lugging a raft made out of 50 green prison-issued raincoats and oars carved from plywood taken from the maintenance shed, the three prisoners skirted down the hill to the water’s edge.

Despite an intense manhunt, neither the escaped prisoners nor their bodies were ever found, leading to a wave of speculation.  Did the inmates make it or did they die trying to cross the choppy, shark infested and bone-numbingly cold waters of San Francisco Bay?  The FBI file is still open and active, pending further information.

So there you have it.  A bold attempt, with elements similar to Shawshank Redemption and the New York prison break.  Inspiration or pure coincidence?

Clint Eastwood with his most menacing look!


Enro Rubik’s Amazing Cube – Math Gone Wild

At first glance, the cube looked simple: six movable faces, each able to rotate on its center with a simple twist, each face split into nine small cubes.  But with almost unlimited possibilities, the cube was the ultimate challenge.

In the early 1970s Enro Rubik, a professor at the Academy of Applied Arts in Budapest, Hungary, noticed the difficulty his students had understanding complicated ideas in mathematics. He figured that if his students could twist a solid shape into new combinations of color and design, they would learn mathematics more easily.

Rubik’s challenge
OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay

In his spare time, Rubik designed a six-colored cube. At first glance it looked simple: six movable faces, each able to rotate on its center with a simple twist, each face split into nine small cubes. But it was the combination of color and movement that made Rubik’s invention a challenge. Each corner cube could be turned in three possible directions, and because each cube had three colors on its sides, a single twist produced a different arrangement of colors.

It took only a few twists to scramble the colors. Once scrambled, however, could the original pattern be restored? That was the challenge of Rubik’s Cube. When people got their hands on the cube they couldn’t put it down. They were hooked, and that’s what gave Rubik the idea that his invention might be more than just a tool for mathematics.

A worldwide craze

In 1977 a Hungarian company began selling Rubik’s Cube. Then in 1980 the Ideal Toy Corporation bought the rights. Soon the cube craze spread around the globe.

The label on Rubik’s Cube says, “There are three billion positions, but only one solution.” In fact, there are 43,252,003,274, 489,856,000 positions. That’s about 43 quintillion!

ElisaRiva / Pixabay

To solve Rubik’s Cube, the user must think like a computer programmer: first breaking the solution into small sequences, then breaking those into even smaller sequences.

Many people take days to solve the puzzle. Rubik himself could do it in about two minutes.

The Colossus of Rhodes – Gone, But Not Completely

Although the physical evidence from the past is often altered or destroyed by nature, ideas have a way of surviving through time. Example: The Colossus of Rhodes.

More than 2000 years ago, a giant bronze statue of the Green sun god Helios towered 37 metres about the harbour at Rhodes, a small island situated where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Aegean. Standing on a pedestal, one hand clutching a sword, the other holding a torch, the warrior-like figure guided ships into the harbour.

Hollow on the inside

Construction of the Colossus, as the statue was called, started in 292 B.C. Because of its size and weight, the Colossus could not be built of solid metal. Chares of Lindos, the Rhodian sculptor overseeing the project, used a revolutionary new method. Stone columns acted as the main support. Crisscrossing Iron struts fastened to the columns created a frame. Bronze plates cast on site were hammered into shape, then hoisted into position on the frame where they were secured using iron bolts.

Colossus of RhodesIt took 12 years to complete the statue. According to ancient records, 15 tons of bronze and 9 tons of iron were used, but modern experts estimate that the figures were likely higher.

For 50 more years, the Colossus of Rhodes towered over the harbour, a tribute to the ingenuity of its builders, a beacon to wayward ships. Then in 226 B.C. an earthquake rocked the island, weakening the bolts holding the bronze plates together. The Colossus toppled, snapping into house-size pieces into the harbor.

For hundreds of years the broken statue lay where it had fallen, attracting visitors who came to stare at the once-great wonder of the ancient world. In A.D. 653, the metal supports were dismantled. Bit by bit the colossus was sold for scrap and shipped to neighbouring countries around the Mediterranean. Legend says that 900 camels carried away the pieces.

A new colossus

Although the original Colossus of Rhodes has long since disappeared, in a curious way it may still survive. The scrap metal was melted and recast into new tools, weapons and ornaments. It is possible that some of these objects may exist even today.

But the statue at Rhodes survives in a different way, too. Another colossus, modeled after the ancient one, was erected in 1886, this time in New York harbour. Built of metal sheathing supported by iron struts, standing on a stone pedestal, one hand clutching a book, the other holding a torch, the Statue of Liberty welcomes visitors to America today. It reminds us that great ideas can be used over and over again.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Silly Putty – How Useless Goo Found Its Purpose

36415_silly_puttyNo moving parts! No fancy electronics! Just a simple ball of goo. Even so, Silly Putty remains one of the most popular toys ever invented by accident.

There are several versions of the story, but the most credible one involves Dr. James Wright, an engineer working for General Electric.  In 1943, Wright was asked to find a way to make synthetic rubber. He tried mixing different chemicals. One day he combined boric acid with silicone oil and produced a sticky substance with unusual properties.

Useless, plain and simple…

The new compound was gooey and elastic. It could be stretched farther and bounced higher than rubber. When whacked by a hammer, the stuff shattered. Yet it could be molded into odd shapes, and it kept its bounce under a wide range of temperatures. The substance was not a good substitute for rubber, though. It was too stretchy and sticky. In fact, none of the scientists at General Electric could find any practical way of using it. Finally, the company mailed samples of the strange material to engineers around the world in the hopes that someone would figure out what to do with it.

Goo finds a purpose…

By chance a wad of it ended up at a party attended by Paul Hodgson, an advertising man. Hodgson had been putting together a catalog for a toy store. When he saw adults at the party acting like children, tossing and stretching the stuff around the room, he decided to include the “nutty putty” in the catalog. The results were surprising. Nutty Putty outsold every other item in the catalog except crayons.


Hodgson realized he had a winner. He borrowed $147 and bought a chunk of the stuff from General Electric. He changed the name to Silly Putty, and hired a student to separate it into one-ounce balls (about thirty grams) and package them in plastic egg-like containers. Just in time for Easter, he sold them for a dollar.  After a New Yorker article mentioned Silly Putty, Hodgson sold over 250,000 eggs in three days. In the first five years alone, over 32 million containers of it were sold worldwide.

More uses…

Devotees of Silly Putty have discovered many uses for the goop: picking up dirt and lint; fastening it to a wobble table leg to stabilize the table; sticking it to newspaper to lift images off the page; squishing it to strength one’s grip.  In 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts used it to secure tools in zero gravity, and in 2001, Silly Putty was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Since its introduction into the marketplace, an estimated 300 million eggs of the once useless stuff have been sold worldwide.

For more information about Silly Putty, check out these websites:

Mental Floss: 15 Facts About Silly Putty
Wiki-how: Five Ways to Make Silly Putty
National Toy Hall of Fame: Silly Putty

If weird breakthroughs like Silly Putty interest you, you’ll find 80 stories like it in Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite.

History’s Dynamic Daredevil Duo

Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons

As a war prisoner in Buda, Hungary, Frenchman André Jacques Garnerin had time on his hands.  Time to plot his escape. He thought of breaking down the door to his prison, of overpowering his guards and a dozen other schemes.  But his wildest idea was to leap from the window of his prison tower and drift to the ground holding an umbrella-like device.

Garnerin was still hatching this scheme when the war ended in 1797 and he was released, but he never forgot it.  He was so taken by the idea that he built the contraption of his dreams – a 7 meter canopy made from white canvas styled much like an umbrella with 36 ribs.  An “umbrella pole” ran down the center of a basket large enough to carry a human.

Taking the plunge

On October 22, 1797, in front of a crowd of spectators at Parc Monceau in Paris, Garnerin inflated a large hydrogen balloon and hooked the ‘umbrella’ to it.  The balloon rose into the air carrying Garnerin in the basket.  At 900 metres, Garnerin cut the connecting cord.  It was a tense moment.  “I was on the point of cutting the cord that suspended me between heaven and earth and measured with my eye the vast space that separated me from the rest of the human race,” he reported later.

Once cut, the balloon shot skyward. Garnerin plunged to the ground.

Photo source: Wikipedia Commons
Photo source: Wikipedia Commons

Fortunately, as the canopy filled with air, it billowed, slowing his fall.  But air trapped in the canopy spilled from the edges, making Garnerin’s parachute sway back and forth.  At first the motion was gentle and soothing, but as more air gushed from the canopy, its pace quickened sending the canopy and its inventor careening wildly from side to side.  Nausea swept over Garnerin. He dropped to the ground uninjured, promptly mounted his horse, and rode through the crowd of admirers ending the world’s first-ever successful parachute jump from a hydrogen balloon.

Birth of the dynamic duo

Among the spectators that day was 22-year-old Jeanne Genevieve Labrosse.  Inspired by Garnerin’s stunt, she befriended him, became his student, and later his wife.

On October 12, 1799, Jeanne tested the device herself.  From a balloon hovering at an altitude of 900 metres, she parachuted to the ground in the gondola basket.  With her daredevil act, Jeanne joined André in the league of daredevils, becoming the first woman to complete a parachute jump from a lighter-than-air balloon.

Spectators watching Jeanne Genevieve Labrosse (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Spectators watching Jeanne Genevieve Labrosse (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Today, a plaque in Parc Monceau marks the site of Garnerin’s landing spot, and adding to the distinction, a street in Paris has been named after him, too.  Jeanne has not been forgotten either.  On October 17, 2006, a street in Wissous, France, was named in her honour.

For Further Reading

Bonjour Paris – An Insider’s Guide: André-Jacques Garnerin: The Parachutist of Parc Monceau

Galileo Galilei’s Swinging Chandelier


When I was an unpublished but eager new writer, I found a subject that eventually evolved into a series of books for young people.  As a science teacher, I knew the classic stories of discoveries made by Archimedes, Fleming, Pythagoras and a few other legendary mathematicians and scientists, but I didn’t realize how extensive the story pool was until I stumbled upon a weathered library book titled ‘Stories from Science‘. 

The book fascinated me. Until then, I’d thought of writing fiction, but the subjects in the book captivated me. I abandoned my fiction ambitions (for the moment, anyway) and wrote short stories about these instead. One book, Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite, led to three others: Mysteries of TimeWhose Bright Idea Was It? True Stories of Inventions & Extreme Science: Science in the Danger Zone.

In the end, opting to write non-fiction narratives was a wise choice. So too was writing about science, a subject familiar and fascinating to me. Without realizing it, I was learning how to write stories of all kinds, a handy thing when I ventured into true adventure and later novels. I became ‘that guy’ – the guy who wrote science and history for kids. Not a bad moniker for a start-up writer, and perhaps there’s something of a lesson or two in my story for others interesting in writing. My advice?  Write about subjects that fascinate you. Tap into your sphere of expertise, knowledge or experience. Establish a line of credibility.  Write. Write. Write.  

The story of Galileo’s swing chandelier was one of the first I wrote. A brief mention of Galileo’s discovery in ‘Stories from Science‘ sparked my interest.  Additional research brought home the details. Eventually, several drafts later, the story became my own. And now it is yours, too.

Rather than listen to a Sunday service in 1581, seventeen-year-old Galileo Galilei studied a chandelier hanging overhead in the huge cathedral at Pisa, Italy.

Air currents flowing through the lofty building moved the chandelier from side to side, back and forth. Sometimes the chandelier moved gently; sometimes it swung in a wide arc. No matter what the size of its swing, it seemed to Galileo that the chandelier kept steady time.

One, two, three beats

There were no clocks or watches in those days. To time the chandelier’s swings, Galileo felt for the pulse in his wrist. He counted the pulse beats. One, two, three beats for one swing. One, two, three beats for another. No matter how wide or narrow the swing, it always took the same number of pulse beats.

Right after the service, Galileo raced home. He suspended a weight from a long string to create a pendulum then he pulled the weight back a short distance, released it, and timed its swing.  He tried it again, this time pulling the weight back farther before releasing it. After many tries, Galileo confirmed his suspicions – the time it took to make one swing was always the same whether the swing was wide or narrow.

Galileo tried other experiments with his pendulum. He discovered that the length of string, amount of weight, and other factors all had some predictable relationship to the time of a pendulum’s swing.

Galileo’s timepiece

galileos-boardSome years later, Galileo extended his research with gravity. Did all objects fall at the same rate?  To find out, he adapted the pendulum as a timepiece. First he carved a long, straight groove down the center of a board. When he raised the board slightly at one end and released a ball, it slowly rolled down the groove.

Galileo marked off his grooved board into small divisions of equal length. For a timing device, he rigged up a water-filled container with a small hole in the bottom. By counting water drops, he could keep track of time.

He released one ball at a time from the higher end of the board. As the balls rolled, Galileo timed how long it took them to cross each division of the board. To his surprise, Galileo discovered that the balls didn’t travel down the track at an even rate. Instead, they accelerated – or sped up – as they got farther down the groove. Falling objects, he found, picked up speed as they fell to the earth.

Galileo’s gift to science

In many ways, the swinging chandelier started a revolution in the world of science. With his pendulum investigations, Galileo pioneered the scientific method –the system of carefully controlled experiments and observations that modern scientists use today to prove a natural law beyond a shadow of a doubt

A more detailed version of this story can be found in Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite

Finding John McCrae in Flanders’ Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row

John McCrae, May 3, 1915

Last year, on our trip to Belgium, we toured a number of World War I cemeteries in Flanders, Seeing thousands of ‘crosses row on row’ does something to a person. It left me with a much greater appreciation for John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields.  It also left me withsharpened sense of the realities of war.

One of the most profound moments came with a visit to St.Julien Canadian Memorial.  St Julien’s lies alongside the main road from Ypres to Brugges.  As soon as I stepped out of our car, I felt a hushed presence. Our voices grew softer.  Even the wind seemed to still.  Rising almost 11 meters above a stone courtyard surrounded by tall cedars, a single shaft of granite dominated the site.


From the top of the column, a soldier looked down.  His head was bowed, his shoulders hunched, and his hands rested on a reversed rifle. The soldier’s face was etched with sorrow.  Often called “The Brooding Soldier”, the statue evoked strong feelings. I couldn’t help but sense this soldier’s pain and feel his loss.

The Brooding Soldier commemorates one of the most tragic events of World War I. In the first week of April 1915, the Canadian First Division moved to the front lines at Ypres.  On either side of the Canadian trenches, Allied forces stood ready – two British divisions to the right, one French division to the left.

On April 22, Germans launched an attack and introduced an unprecedented weapon. Fanned by a north breeze, 168 tons of yellow-green chlorine gas rolled across the fields, infiltrating trenches of the French line, and searing the lungs of unprotected soldiers. In panic, French troops broke rank and abandoned their posts, leaving a 6 kilometer gap in the Allied line.

To close the gap, Canadian troops moved into position throughout the night. Despite heavy bombardment, they held the line for two days. Then on April 24, Germans launched an offensive, bombing heavily and releasing another wave of chlorine gas. This time Canadian troops were the target. The gas drifted across the field, into trenches, and through handkerchiefs held over mouths and noses. Confined by machine-gun fire, Canadian soldiers still held their position until reinforcements arrived.


Canadians paid a toll for their bravery. Of the approximately 18,000 Canadian soldiers, 6035 became casualties, and of that number 2000 died.

The memorial at St.Julien was designed by Regina architect, Frederick Chapman Clemesha, who was wounded while serving with Canadian forces in the war. It was unveiled in 1923 on the site where the gas attacks occurred.

picture3Canadian physician, John McCrae, wrote In Flanders Fields, on May 3, 1915, barely two weeks after the gas attacks that claimed so many lives. According to many sources, McCrae was inspired to write it after presiding over the funeral of fellow soldier Alexis Helmer who died in a subsequent battle in the Ypres area.  I have no doubt the gas attacks were fresh in McCrae’s his mind, too.

“We are the Dead.
Short days ago wee lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields”

John McCrae

Barnes Wallis Bounces to Victory

Torpedoes couldn’t do the job. Ordinary bombs dropped from planes couldn’t either. But Barnes Wallis bouncing bombs held promise.

During World War II, German aircraft pounded Britain, dropping a hail of bombs on it cities.  To turn the tide of the war, Britain needed to cripple Germany’s bomb factories.  Most of them were in the Ruhr Valley, a low-lying area fed by rivers and protected by dams.  Destroying the dams and flooding the region seemed to be the best way to bring the German war machine to its knees.

But how? The dams were protected by torpedo nets. Bombs dropped from planes tended to roll forward and miss their targets.   A more accurate bomb, one that could dodge the torpedo nets and still hit its mark, was needed.

Barnes Wallis - Imperial War Collection
Barnes Wallis (Imperial War Museum Archives)

If anyone could produce one, it was Barnes Wallis, a well-known aircraft designer and scientist.  As he pondered the problem, Wallis remembered a childhood game, skipping stones across the surface of the lake. If stones pitched at just the right angle bounced and hopped across the water, was it possible to do the same to a bomb?  Release it at just the right angle, make it skim across the water, bounce over the protective torpedo nets, and land at the base of the dam where it could do the most damage?

Wallis started a series of tests in his laboratory.  Using a small catapult, he fired marbles across a tub of water.  They skimmed the water, but bounced in all directions – spherical shapes, he discovered, moved in unpredictable ways.  Next he carved a series of fat, cigar-shaped models and fired these across the water. These flatter, barrel-like shapes worked better. Adding a bit of back-spin as the models left the catapult improved their accuracy even more and prevented them from plowing into the water..

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (IWM FLM 2342) Operation CHASTISE: the attack on the Moehne, Eder and Sorpe Dams by No. 617 Squadron RAF on the night of 16/17 May 1943. No. 617 Squadron practice dropping the 'Upkeep' weapon at Reculver bombing range, Kent. Second launch sequence (4): the bomb rises from the water after its first 'bounce'. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
Squadron practice (Imperial War Museum Archives)
Squadron practice at Kent, England (Imperial War Museum Archives)

The idea of bouncing explosives seemed far-fetched. But Wallis ignored his critics. He filled notebooks with detailed measurements and calculations, as he eliminated some designs and perfected others. Finally satisfied that he had enough information, he set about building life-sized bombs to do the job. They were monsters. Weighing as much as two cars, the bombs were almost 2 meters long and more than a meter  thick.  Each one carried 2722 kilograms of high explosives.

To give the bombs back-spin as they left the plane, a motor rigged to a chain rotated them just before release.  Churning at a speed of 500 revolutions per minute, the spinning bombs would hit the water and skip across it rather than plunging down.

Bomb attached to bomb bay Imperial War Museum Archives
Bomb attached to bomb bay (Imperial War Museum Archives)

Dropping the bombs at just the right angle and height was critical. The problem was solved with two simple flashlights, one fixed in the nose of the plane, the other in the tail. The flashlights were angled downwards so that when the plane was at a height of 18 meters, their beams crossed.  When that happened, the pilot knew he was at the proper height to release the bombs.

On May 16, 1943, under the cover of darkness, nineteen planes carrying skip bombs left Britain.  Flying low, the planes swooped over Holland and into German territory.   As they approached the dams along the Ruhr Valley, the pilots released their bombs, sending them spinning and skipping across the water.

Canadian airmen who took part in the raid of May 16/17, 1943

Barnes Wallis’ crazy idea worked.  The skip bombs destroyed two dams, flooding the valley, washing away factories and roads, bringing power and transportation to a standstill.  The German war ground to a halt.

This story was originally published in Extreme Science: Science in the Danger Zone under the title Bombs That Bounce.  It has been adapted & updated for this blog.

For Further Reading:

Imperial War Museum: The Incredible Story Of The Dambusters Raid

History Learning Site: The Damnbusters 

Ann Hodges’ Terrible, Horrible, No Good Day

Her arm and hip were throbbing with pain. Already, giant bruises were forming. There was dust everywhere.

Thirty-one year old Ann Hodges was asleep on the couch in the living room of the house she was renting in Sylacauga, Alabama. Her mother, Ida Franklin, was in the next room. Her husband, Eugene, was in nearby Alexander City, clearing trees from telephone lines.

That day, November 30, 1954, the Sylacauga neighborhood was quiet. Most people were at work or school. A few, like 5-year-old Billy Field, were outdoors when at 12:47 p.m precisely, the normal day turned upside down.

“All of a sudden, a giant rocket of smoke crossed the sky,” Billy would say years later. “I remember the white smoke and then an explosion.”

At almost the same moment, Ann Hodges woke up with a start. She’d heard a bang. Her arm and hip were throbbing with pain. Already, giant bruises were forming. There was dust everywhere.

A few seconds later, Ida dashed into the room. She, too, had heard the sound, and like Ann she looked for a reason. Had the chimney collapsed? Had the space heater exploded?

Then they spotted a rock on the floor. It was black, the size of a pineapple, hefty, too – about 4 kilograms. When they looked up, they noticed a ragged hole in the ceiling. Darn those neighbour kids, they both thought. They’ve been throwing rocks again.

Ida raced outside to catch the culprits. There were no kids around, but she did see a strange black cloud in the sky. Figuring they should report the incident, the two women phoned the police and the fire department.

Authorities arrived shortly after. There had been urgent calls from others in town. Some reported hearing an explosion, others a fireball streaking overhead. Had an airplane gone down? Had there been an attack of some sort?

An investigation was started. The chief of police showed up. The town mayor, too. He called a state geologist to look at the rock. This is no ordinary rock, he told them. You’ve got a meteorite here.

mrs. hodges, mayor, police chief examine hole caused by a meteorite that struck mrs. hodges in sylacauga. university of alabama museum of natural history
Ann Hodges, mayor & police chief examine a hole caused by a meteorite that struck Ann Hodges in Sylacauga. (University of Alabama Museum of Natural History)

Now it all made sense in a strange way. A meteorite had streaked through earth’s atmosphere. Burning hot and bright, it had crashed through the Hodges’ roof, ricocheted off a console radio beside the couch, bounced off Ann’s arm, then struck her hip as she slept peacefully.

The New York Daily News carried the story

The news spread. No one, records showed, had ever been struck by a meteorite before. As far as anyone could tell, Ann Hodges was the first in all of history. Reporters showed up ten, twenty at a time, all eager to interview Ann, all wanting a slice of the story. Confused by the attention, Ann retreated to the bedroom, her arm and hip swollen.

By the time, Eugene Hodges returned home at the end of the day there was a long line of cars outside and 200 reporters roaming about the yard and through the house.

“I had a time getting in,” Eugene said. “I had to push some out of my way.”

The next day, Ann Hodges was admitted to hospital. She wasn’t badly injured, but her doctor felt it would be best to give her privacy and protect her from the media.

While Ann recovered, a full-scale bidding war developed. Eugene figured the meteorite was his and worth big money. The Smithsonian Institute put in an offer. So did an Arizona museum. In the end, the parties settled out of court. Ownership of the meteorite was assigned to the Hodges.

In 1956, against her husband’s wishes, Ann donated the meteorite to the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Today, the Hodges Meteorite – the only meteorite proven to have struck a human being – is on display at the museum. A patch of tar from the Hodges’ roof is still visible on its charred surface.

For Further Reading:

National Geographic News: The True Story of History’s Only Known Meteorite Victim 

Nature World News: Meet Ann Hodges, the Only Confirmed Person in History to be Hit by a Meteorite 



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