February 13th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 7
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Blonde Hair, Spider Webs and Goats
Looking Back
courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Norden bomb sight in B-17
Sometimes when an unusual story comes my way I go down that road of “ let’s see if this is true” and try and verify it. The depth to which one can chase down the details of a story is nothing less than astounding these days. So have I got a doozie for you. Or at least I thought I had.

It all started with an interesting email I received with several blue highlighted links in it for internet authenticity reference. The email’s story involved a woman from Pueblo, Colorado by the name of Mary Babnik whose chief claim to fame was that she had blonde hair that was thirty four inches long. Not that big a deal I guess until I read that having these beautiful tresses led her to respond n 1943 to an ad by the Washington Institute of Technology. It was a firm who were consultants in radio and aircraft radio engineering.

These guys were looking for hair that was at least twenty two inches long or longer that had never been cut or treated with chemicals or a hot iron. Their response to Mary was to ask for a sample and the letter they sent her stated that if they found her unmodified keratin strands acceptable she would be paid for them in United States War Savings Stamps. They were and thirty six year old Mary, who had been working at a broom factory since she was thirteen, cut her long locks off and shipped them. She refused any payment as she considered her sacrifice was for an important national cause. Apparently she cried for two months after at the loss of her knee length hair.
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According to the email story what Mary didn’t realize was that the intended use of her locks was for the cross hairs for a secret and very important bombing device known as the Norden bombsight. Many years later on the occasion of her 80th birthday (1987) Mary received a letter from then president Ronald Reagan thanking her for her selfless act during wartime. Nice story aye? Well guess what! It apparently has been debunked by many war history researchers including a Norden bombsight expert who claims all Norden sites had etched cross hairs in their lenses. Her locks may have been used for some meteorological devices but it appears the Norden story is just that. A story. Or was it?

The development of the Norden bombsight is a complicated tale unto itself. It is about a very sophisticated device that enabled World War ll bombardiers to accurately place their bombs by taking control of the plane on the run in. The bombsight had a system that allowed it to directly measure the aircraft's ground speed and direction. Released bombs actually travel in an arc and getting that arc right under varying weather and flying conditions was extremely tricky. The Norden was kept top secret, heavily guarded for each plane and equipped with a thermite grenade that was to be set off in case the Germans got a hold of one. Bombardiers took an oath of secrecy.
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This cloak and dagger was all for naught as a member of a German spy ring working in the United States before and during the war passed on its basic design. It was clandestinely shared with German aircraft engineers courtesy of a German agent working as a draftsman for the C.L. Norden Company. It seems the German engineers did not deem this “top secret” device all that interesting and never did try to replicate it. The agent, Herman Lang, along with 32 others of the infamous Nazi Duquesne Spy Ring, was convicted of espionage in 1942. Lang got eighteen years for his duplicity. Just for laughs I checked whether “duplicity” was an appropriate word and you’ll never guess what came up! Definition: “deceitfulness; double-dealing.-example given: "the president was accused of duplicity in his dealings with Congress". No kidding.

So as I plunged deeper into these stories I remembered as a child my father meticulously replacing the cross hairs on his Gurley mining survey transit with spider web. It was a tricky thing and there was a lot of cursing and delicate maneuvering.

So of course you have to know I then went deep into the world of telescopic sights and spider webs and such. Firstly it is interesting to note that fossilized evidence of spider silk has been discovered as far back as 380 million years ago in rocks in the New York area. These guys have been weaving magical silk forever. Ancient Greeks used it to staunch bleeding and as it turns out the spider coats his silk with an anticoagulant. Indigenous people in the Pacific area used it to make woven water-shedding gear, kites, nets and fishing lines. For centuries man has looked to ways to harvest this remarkable fibre.
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When it came to finding appropriate cross hairs, materials like textile thread, silk, human hair and silver and platinum wire were tested but were all deemed too thick as they obscured part of the image to be observed. Spider silk on the other hand is forty times finer than human hair and five times stronger than steel. It is said that spider silk three microns thick has triple the toughness of DuPont’s bulletproof Kevlar. So no surprise that there were many attempts at harvesting and utilizing it. I know, I know. A lot of you are going ewww, especially the women. It’s the mental picture, right?

Looking back, which is what I do a lot, we find that in 1639 an amateur astronomer named Gascoigne discovered a spider had spun a web inside his telescope and noted its usefulness. For a couple of centuries there was all manner of experimentation and pursuit of inky dinky’s web and some pretty goofy devices crafted to harvest it. For example, late in the 17th century, a Frenchman named Chachot managed to harness a spider to a machine with tiny, constantly revolving bobbins . They wound up the silk as fast as these particular arthropods produced it. Once the silk was attached to the bobbin:” the machine was gently activated (no kidding), the spider pulled in the opposite direction to escape, but not with sufficient force to break the thread, and seemingly enjoying the process, the spider maintained just sufficient tension to keep the silk in constant motion…”

During the American Civil War (1861-1865) a surgeon named Burt Wilder developed a way to extract silk in quantity. It is comical to picture this as it was described in the May 2005 issue of American Surveyor magazine. “He constructed a device resembling the stocks used in colonial New England to hold criminals. The stocks held the spiders still while Wilder gently drew the silk from them. He successfully extracted 150 yards from one especially cooperative arachnid, then calculated it would require 5,000 spiders to retrieve sufficient material to make one dress.”
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Well into the 20th century spider silk, preferably 1/10,000th of an inch in diameter, was utilized in periscopes, telescopes, microscopes, survey instruments and some bombing sights. After Pearl Harbor there were several spider ranches or farms in the United States started that helped supply the continuous need for Itsy Bitsy’s lifelines. Mrs. Sponder’s farmhouse was one such miniature factory where she meticulously “silked” certain spiders eventually splitting one type of silk into two or three threads using dissecting forceps. Are you kidding me? I can’t even see most spider webs which means I walk into them and do that crazy arm waving spider dance. Back then spider silk sold for twenty dollars per hundred feet.

These days scientists are still studying spider silk, in particular what they call dragline silk. Spiders can spin different types of silk and dragline is basically the outer rim or spokes of their web silk. It can stretch by 40% of its length and absorbs a hundred times as much energy without breaking as steel.

Of course you know we had to monkey with the whole process to try and isolate, understand and replicate this amazing material. So it was that three spider genes that code for silk proteins were isolated. And wouldn’t you know it, they eventually inserted some of the genes of an orb weaver spider’s dragline silk into a Nigerian dwarf goat. His female offspring began producing in 2002 a silk protein out of their udders that is the world’s toughest material. Geneticist Dr. Jeffrey Turner, of McGill University, said: “The silk glands of spiders and the milk glands of goats are almost identical, and teats equal spinnerets.”

Dwarf goats can breed and lactate in just thirteen weeks. Turner formed a company called Nexia which went bankrupt in 2009 before spider goats ever went to mass scale. But others have carried on stateside at Utah State University where they are trying to convince the world that this transgenic movement is normal. To this I have but one word to say…. Baah!

Author’s Note: It really is hard to sort out the truth sometimes. That email had links to copies of the original letter sent to Mary and the signed letter from Ronald Reagan. So somewhere in the dozens of websites I visited the real story lays. Good luck finding it!
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February 13th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 7
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