From Japan to Three Mile Island

Image of Three Mile Island in 1988 by whiskeygonebad on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license.

Much of the coverage of the compromised Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan has compared the ongoing crisis to the incident at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, in 1979. (This piece, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, has a detailed rundown of the difference between the two incidents.) How much do you know about Three Mile Island (abbreviated, somewhat unfortunately, as “TMI”)? This incident, which began in the early morning hours of March 28, 1979, was essentially a cascading series of engineering errors, compounded by human inability to correctly read the situation; the crisis lasted for five days, and eventually resulted in the release of a moderate amount of radioactive gasses. Although the incident was later understood to be not nearly so severe as people had originally feared, the panic that the public felt during the five days of uncertainty resulted in much tighter regulation of nuclear power plants, and (some say) crippled the nuclear power industry, which had been gaining traction during the 1970s. This cultural reaction, argue historians such as J. Samuel Walker, may have been heightened by the fact that the movie “The China Syndrome,” starring Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas as reporters who discover hazards at a nuclear plant, came out less than two weeks before the TMI crisis. (See Walker’s 2004 book, Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective, for more.) The Fukushima crisis has already outdone TMI, in terms of potential damage; here’s (fervently) hoping that Japan can minimize the severity of the meltdown.

Sydney and Daren

Mattel, the famous toymaker and creator of Barbie, has been making dolls with different shades of skin color for years.  In 1967, it introduced Barbie’s cousin Francis, who looked just like Barbie, but she was painted brown. In 1969, Barbie got a black friend, named Christie. And in 1980, Mattel started manufacturing a black Barbie.  But, she looked almost exactly like the white Barbie.  FinallyIn 2009, Mattel decided that it needed to “diversify.”  It created six dolls that looked more African American for a line called So In Style.  But that was just the beginning.  This Wall Street Journal article gives a glimpse of how complicated doll-making can become.  Note, though, that the “freakishly skinny” doll body remains, well, “freakishly skinny.”

Grace and Trichelle. from Mattel


The Rosemary Woods Stretch

Rose_Mary_WoodsRosemary Wood served as President Nixon’s secretary.  Although she most likely had a full array of talents and skills (like Mrs. Landingham, maybe, on The West Wing?), her name survives in history as the woman responsible for erasing  18 1/2 minutes, an apparently crucial 18 1/2 minutes, on one of the Watergate tapes.  Here’s a photo of her demonstrating how it all happened.



“Mad Men”: History on the Small Screen

The AMC show “Mad Men,” which is now in its fifth season, is set in a fictional Madison Avenue ad agency just as the ’60s begin. You can watch the show on a couple of different levels: keep one eye on the soap opera-y character interactions (that cad Don Draper and his affairs!–and that new wife! ); keep another eye on the fantastic costume design (sure, girdles were uncomfortable, but those fabrics are to die for); and keep your history eye open to the show’s constant references to the larger political happenings and social change of the early 60s. Characters on this show go down to Mississippi to register voters, mourn the death of Marilyn Monroe, or wonder whether to start taking the Pill (a relatively new option at this time), visit a few psychiatrists (only women, though.  I think Betty Draper/ Francis is suffering from the feminine mystique).

Here’s a timeline published by the New York Times that can help you follow along with the historical events embedded in the show. Here’s a piece about the show’s efforts to maintain linguistic accuracy (would a character actually have said “the medium is the message” in 1960, despite the fact that Marshall McLuhan didn’t coin this famous slogan until four years later?) Here’s a link to one of the many blog posts that have debated whether MM’s portrayal of the racism and sexism of the era is accurate, and whether this depiction works to glamorize the very problems being shown. And finally, just to prove how much mileage the average arts reporter has gotten out of writing about MM, here’s a piece about the historical accuracy of the cocktails that the members of the MM crew sip at every possible moment of the workday.

A New Look for Old Values

In April of 1947 Christian Dior released his Corolle line at the Fall/Winter Paris Fashion Week, and won over the fashion world. His line was a re-imagination of femininity that had been lost during the Second World War. The look focused on accenting the waist, in order to create the illusion of an hourglass figure, and the result was a phenomenon. The collection was given its infamous name of “the New Look” by Carmel Snow, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and the coined name came not only to define his collection, but also to define the fashion of the 1950’s.dior5

Prior to the creation of his New Look, during the Second World War and the decade leading up to it, function succeeded fashion as the primary motive for clothes. This was due in part to the need to conserve fabric during the war, and in part to women taking the jobs men left behind and needing clothing they could move in. The wartime styles focused on shoulder pads and flat shoes, resulting in a more masculine silhouette. However, once the war ended and the men came back home, it was expected that the women would return to their households and the men would reclaim their jobs. The New Look was the perfect fashion counterpart to this change in social structure. After it became popularized on the runway, Dior’s style was imitated by cheaper clothing lines and sold to the masses in both America and Europe.

The emphasis on femininity in Dior’s style reflected women’s newfound social position following World War Two, as they had moved from the workforce to the household, embracing a more traditional social structure. Dior’s overly feminine silhouettes made it impossible for women in the garments to perform none but the most feminine of tasks, making work impossible. The look also reflected a growing class divide in America, as it was easy to discern the rich who adopted the look in its couture form from their working class counterparts who made due the best they could. Dior’s New Look reflected a social movement that longed for traditional values and strived to obtain stability after the war. It was only in the 1960’s when women reentered the workforce did the appeal of the trend decline, as higher hemlines and a more androgynous look took its place. Posted by Emma Berdanier


America’s Flying Saucer

The United States’ confidence in its absolute technological superiority after World War II along with constant pressure to outmatch the technological advances of its Communist rivals produced some curious results. The Avrocar is a fine example of one such curiosity. Originally initiated by Avro Canada for the Canadian Air Force, the project was picked up by the US military. Both the Army and the Air Force made Emakova claim to the project. The two services had different visions for the future of the design, and the subsequent research was done with little collaboration. The Air Force wanted a vertical takeoff aircraft that could reach supersonic speed and evade enemy radars. On the other hand, the Army was interested in using the Avrocar as a hovering troop carrier and reconnaissance craft. Initially, Avro set out to design a vehicle that would be able to fulfill both sets of specifications at once, but the task proved to be too difficult. Field tests on prototypes exposed several serious flaws with the design, including instability and overheating. These problems proved the design to be unsuitable for Air Force use, but the Army hung on to its hopes to use the Avrocar as a sort of a hovering Jeep (since its inability to gain altitude would not be a serious problem for ground forces). When Avrocar’s structural flaws turned out to be unresolvable and it became clear that the design was a dead end for both services, the US government cut the funding for the project and closed it down, leaving the United States with what might be the world’s only design for an operational (albeit unstable) flying saucerEmakov2



Bomb Experts Defusing a 450kg WWII Explosive in London

Interesting article just posted in the Guardian.