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 


Castle Hohenbaden

Baden Baden, Germany  –  August 2015

dsc02486Jo & I started our day with a hike through the legendary Black Forest a few miles outside of Baden Baden. A thick mist hovering over the trail added to the spooky feel, drumming up visions of witches and wolves – the stuff of Grimm’s tales. We walked along a soggy trail, skirting past orange slugs, dense moss, velvety lichens, and vines growing skyward like ancient trees.

A mile or so into the hike, a huge castle rose out of the mist. Called Hohenbaden (Old Castle Altes Schloss), the fortress was built along a crest in the 12th century. An addition was added in the 14th century, but the castle fell into ruin after a fire in the 16th century.

In one section of the ruins, we discovered a surprise – a huge wind harp installed in a window. Wind harps transform gusts of wind into sounds. The stronger the wind, the higher and more resonant the sound. According to a sign posted nearby, the Baden Baden wind harp – with 120 strings and 13 ft. tall – is currently the biggest wind harp in Europe.

Jo keeps a journal where she faithfully charts each day of our travels. Her entry aptly describes our experience:

“We saw rooms for sleeping, an area that looks like a jail, climbed 203 steps to get to the top, and while thinking the top was just around the corner kept going and going. The view was quite remarkable. It’s hard to believe that something like this exists, standing the test of time over all these years…so impressive, it’s really hard to find words.”

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Annie Edson Taylor’s Wild Ride

If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat…. I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.

Annie Edson Taylor

Annie Edson Taylor’s wild ride began on the US side of Niagara Falls just after 4 pm on October 24th, 1901.  The 63-year-old school teacher climbed into a retrofitted pickle barrel. She ordered two assistants to seal it.  Using a bicycle pump, the air pressure was compressed to 30 p.s.i.  The barrel was rowed by boat to the middle of the river and released.  It bobbed for a few moments, then caught by the fast-flowing current raced towards Horseshoe Falls.

the-barrel-in-a-boatFor thousands of spectators on shore, the barrel looked ordinary enough – five feet tall, a little over 3 feet wide, made of white oak slats secured with iron rings.  Inside, however, things were less ordinary.  Taylor had equipped the barrel with a few features – cushions, a leather harness to keep her strapped to the sides, and a 200-pound anvil – ballast to keep the barrel upright as it charged towards the falls.

In Search of Elusive Fortune

Annie Edson Taylor was on the brink of a financial meltdown – a poor teacher facing retirement on meager savings. When she read a magazine article describing other daredevil attempts, the proverbial light bulb went on.  A plunge over the falls – the first person to do so – would be just the thing to bring fame and fortune.

Annie with her cat in a publicity photo
Annie with her cat

Two days before the launch, Taylor tested the barrel.  She sealed her cat inside, then shot the animal over the falls. The cat survived with just a few scratches, and minutes after being pulled from the barrel posed with Taylor in a publicity photo.

Annie’s Turn

Caught in the surging river, the barrel swept towards the falls, gaining speed and momentum.  It shot over the precipice, disappearing momentarily in the mist before bobbing into view again.  It drifted downstream, then came to rest against a rock, intact and largely unscathed.

Taylor’s crew retrieved the barrel and pried it open. The teacher emerged, in shock, slightly bruised, and but for a small cut to her head, largely uninjured.

downloadTaylor’s wild ride lasted only 20 minutes, just long enough to secure her place in the record books.  Newspapers around the nation featured her story:

The New York Times, October 25, 1901


She Is Alive, but Suffering Greatly from Shock
Plunges from the Horseshoe Cataract —
— Thousands View the Attempt —
“Don’t Try It,” She Advises Others

Taylor’s dream of ongoing fame and fortune never quite materialized. Interest in her story waned quickly.  She died in 1921, age 82, penniless and destitute.  The Oakwood Cemetery Association in Niagara Falls, New York donated a grave to honor her place in Niagara Falls history.



While it is currently against the law to attempt a stunt at the Falls, over the years many objects – living and artificial – have taken the plunge, some successfully, but many more not.  From people on rubber rafts and in steel barrels to tightrope walkers and bears in schooners, the Falls has been a magnet for thrill seekers.  For a full list, check Wikipedia’s page List of Objects That Have Gone Over Niagara Falls.

Autumn in Banff, Alberta

September 2016

Banff, Alberta is beautiful any time of year, but against a backdrop of fall colours, the postcard scenery pops. It’s impossible not to fall under its spell.  The crisp snow on mountain peaks, the splashes of leafy reds and yellows, the crystalline streams cascading down rocky inclines – they’re all part of Banff’s autumn charm.

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Visiting Amazon’s One & Only Bookstore

20160828_130719_001-1While in Seattle recently, I visited Amazon’s flagship, first-ever, and currently only brick-and-mortar bookstore. I was curious why Amazon – the king of online book sales – had changed its marketing strategy. Why invest in a traditional bookstore now after so many years of clobbering the competition by offering a broad selection at discount prices? What made this bookstore different from any other? And why build it in Seattle?

20160828_121536At first glance, Amazon’s sparkling new bookstore looks much like any other. The perimeter of the store is rimmed with tall windows, flooding the interior with natural light. Tall bookcases line the floor, mostly fiction on one side of the store, non-fiction on the other. There’s a children’s section at the rear with cozy seats for young shoppers.

But browse further and you’ll notice a few differences.

20160828_124651 Book covers face outward. You won’t find any books filed with just spines showing. According toa sales manager I questioned, it was to “encourage the discovery process”.

20160828_130251New products are front and center, and you are encouraged to give them a try.

20160828_121619For the most part, only books that receive a 4 to 5 star rating on are stocked in the store. Cards positioned below each title provide a sample review and the book’s star rating on

20160828_122019Actual prices are not noted on the covers or on the cards below them, but scanners are available throughout the store and you are encouraged to use them.

20160828_122003Prices are the same as the discounted prices on This book by Erik Larson, one of my favourite authors, was listed at $17.00 . The discounted price was $11.70. Shoppers at the store gain by avoiding shipping costs and any mailing delays.

Displays throughout the store reinforce the connection. Online reviewers determine not only what books are stocked, but also to some degree where their favourite books are shelved and located.

If the crowds sifting through the store on the day I visited are any indication, Amazon’s just might be on to something with its new store. Certainly some – like me – were just curious visitors, but since I walked out with 3 newly purchased books when I had no intention of buying even one, perhaps that’s a testimony to Amazon’s clever marketing. As a reader, I felt strangely empowered. Here I belonged to a worldwide community of readers where our reviews, our feedback, our choices determined what was placed on the shelves. And talk about enticing prices. The discounts are hard to beat.

According to the sales clerk I questioned, this is exactly what why Amazon ventured into the brick-and-mortar field. “Amazon has been in operation for 20 years. We felt it was time to branch out, to offer more to our valued customers.”

Two more Amazon stores are set to open in the next few months – one in Portland, the other in San Diego. But why Seattle for the first? Perhaps a better question is ‘Why not Seattle?” Seattle is Amazon’s home base and at 20,000 employees in 30 buildings spread throughout the city, its largest private employer.  Seattle is where the company started, where it’s grown into a worldwide mega-empire, and where proof of it gigantic holdings can be seen in a new office complex currently under construction that will soon dominate the city’s downtown.

Behind the Scenes at a Press Run

Before ‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep was in its current hardcover form, I scored a thrill by watching the book roll off the presses at the Friesens plant in Altona, Manitoba.

The Friesen plant is a huge place.
The Friesens plant is a huge place.
Stacks of paper…stacks of covers…. all set to go

I had never seen this end of the publishing operation before, and I was amazed at the complexity of the process. Then again the pros at Friesens made it all seem easy.

The Man Roland machine cranks out full panels at an amazing rate. Check out the video below...memorizing!
The Man Roland machine cranks out full panels at an amazing rate. Check out the video below…memorizing!
One panel = 24 pages on one side
One side from a sheet off the Man Roland equals 24 pages in the book or 48 pages when you count the 24 pages printed on the back sideI

Each panel is checked for colour and accuracy, and then signed off by the publisher before the run continues.

Turnstone's publisher Jamis Paulson signs the first panel giving approval for the run to continue.
Turnstone’s publisher, Jamis Paulson, signs the first panel giving approval for the run to continue.
Now we're good to go!
Now we’re good to go!

The cover looks amazing, thanks to the vivid illustration by Julius Cstonyi, a world renowned paleoartist.

Aaron, our Friesen guide, discusses the finer points of the cover with Jamis Paulson, Turnstone's publisher.
Aaron, our Friesens’ guide, discusses the finer points of the cover with Jamis.
One side from a sheet off the Manover machine equals 24 pages in the book or 48 pages when you count the 24 pages printed on the back side.
I get to sign off on the cover, too.

DSC08814(1)-1There’s something to see at every turn in the plant.  Here’s the trimmer.  It slices through a stack of pages like a knife going through butter.  Watch your fingers!

What a great day this was!


5 Weird Weather Bonanzas

A hotter than average summer brought an unexpected discovery recently. In the melt of a retreating glacier, Italian officials found the remains of 24 year-old Canadian Gregory Barnes who had gone missing in 1980 while skiing in the Italian and Swiss Alps.

For his family who had wondered about his fate, this brought long overdue closure.  For me, it was a reminder that strange, beyond-our-control circumstances have often been sources of unexpected discoveries.  Here are 5 accidental finds that owe their existence not so much to normal logic as they do to unpredictable weather conditions.

1974 – Ethiopia, Africa

When paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson awoke on the morning of November 30, 1974, he had a hunch “something terrific might happen.”  In a region he’d searched before, he walked along a gully recently created by a flash flood.  Among the churned stones and debris, he spotted a fossilized arm bone and several other bone fragments, all of them human-like and very old. They proved to be the remains of an adult female who lived millions of years ago.  Named Lucy after a popular Beatles song, it was the oldest and most complete human discovered up until that time.

1986 – Sea of Galilee, Israel

After a severe drought, the water level in the Sea of Galilee dropped, exposing areas of sea floor never seen before.  Two brothers, Yuval and Moshe Lufan, spotted a murky outline in the mud along that shoreline.  It turned out to be a fishing boat built 2000 years ago that had been preserved in the mud. Composed of twelve different kinds of wood, including sycamore, laurel, oak and cedar, the  vessel matched descriptions of fishing vessels given in the Bible, and was likely the kind of craft used to sail the sea during the time of Jesus.

1991 – Italian Alps

Following a summer of unusual heat, two German hikers – Helmut Simon and his wife, Erika- discovered a body embedded in a slowly melting glacier. Thinking it was an unfortunate hiker who had slipped and fallen to his death, Helmut took a photo of the body before continuing down the mountain to alert authorities. What the Simon’s found instead was a 5000 year old mummy, one of the oldest and best preserved ever discovered.  Nicknamed Otzi the Iceman, the mummy is now on display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.


1994 – St. Lawrence River

After a strong storm swept through the area near his cottage along the St Lawrence River, Marc Tremblay spotted pots, rifles, axes, bottles and the timbers of a ship half-buried in the sand.  Called to investigate, archaeologists discovered the wreck of the Elizabeth and Mary, one of 32 English ships that led an attack on Quebec City in 1690 and then sank in a wild storm while making a hasty retreat.



2004 – Florida
After Hurricane Jeanne slammed the Atlantic coast, scraping away sand and relocating dunes, archaeologist Joel Ruth used a metal detector to comb the shoreline. He spotted a Spanish silver coin on the beach.  “I grabbed it and then every foot it was – bam, bam – another hit,” he reported.  After 4 hours of searching, the batteries of his metal detector died, but not before Ruth had found more than 180 silver coins worth more than $40,000.



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