My Father’s Enduring Legacy: A Love of Aviation…And a Prized Painting on Glass

My father was a most remarkable man. Today, at seventy-seven years of age, I have surpassed his longevity by one year. Even at this advanced age, my appreciation of him and his legacy continues to grow with passing time. There is much I could say about my father’s innate personal honesty, integrity, ambition, and commitment to excellence in all things, but I choose to dedicate this post to one particular aspect of his life and passion: His love of aviation and airplanes.

Here is the most important, early manifestation of that legacy for me, personally: a painting of his which is prominent in my earliest recollections of childhood.

I can still visualize this painting hanging on my bedroom wall in Chicago, Illinois when I was a youngster of six or seven. Today, this brilliantly created image hangs proudly in my den, high on the wall. Often, when in a pensive mood, I look upward and turn toward this painting for reflection, inspiration, and a renewed sense of longevity and permanence, qualities so absent in today’s peripatetic world. Few memories of mine go further back in time than this depiction of a furious World War I dogfight painted by my teen-age father around 1934/35. Correspondingly, few “things” in my life have been with me for as long as this little gem, painted on the back of glass using ordinary house-paints! My father’s family had no money for artist’s materials, so he did the best he could with what he had. His life-long ability to produce exceptional results in any endeavor is already evident in the clean, precise lines and brilliant images he produced while painting on the back of glass – a very difficult medium, indeed.

A Longing on My Part for “More”

As I matured into my teen-age years, I quizzed Dad about the painting – how old was he when he painted it, where he got the idea, etc. He told me that the individual images he painted were taken from “aviation pulp magazines,” inexpensive adventure accounts of the colorful aviators who flew in World War I, typically printed in slim, inexpensive monthly issues. These were targeted at and very popular with young boys in the nineteen-thirties. In my middle-age years, prior to the advent of the internet in the nineteen-nineties and prior to Google, I could only wish that I also had in my possession the original magazine issues whose colorful, eye-catching covers were depicted on Dad’s painting. Alas, even with the growth of computer technology and improved search engines, the dream seemed beyond the pale of possibility so many decades after the fact. Of all the depictions Dad chose for his picture, the brilliant red German Pfaltz airplane in the lower right-hand corner always intrigued me most as a youngster. A close examination reveals a trail of bullet-holes in the side of the red fuselage from the machine guns firing below. Clearly, the German pilot is “dramatically dead” based on the trajectory of fire!

Even though World War I aviation with its colorful dogfighting occurred well before Dad entered his teen-age years in 1929, he knew the stories and he knew about the aces and heroes, men like Captain Eddie Rickenbacker flying for the Allies, and “The Red Baron,” Manfred Von Richtofen, on the German side. Along with millions of Americans, Dad was captivated in 1927 by young Charles Lindbergh and his daring trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris. Lindbergh was clearly both a catalyst for my father’s life-long interest in aviation and an inspiration to him. Dad was eleven years old in 1927, and Lindbergh epitomized what an underdog can accomplish through intelligent dedication to a clearly defined goal. And dad did begin life as a definitive underdog, necessarily dropping out of high school after one year to support his struggling parents and siblings during the Depression. It was in the early nineteen-thirties when my father began to compile his aviation scrapbook, a serious collection of magazine and newspaper articles covering all aspects of the subject, meticulously assembled – as usual. Many of the entries have notable historical significance in aviation history: General Billy Mitchell’s analysis of the autogiro is present as is a photo/clipping of Jimmy Doolittle standing next to his bumble-bee-like Gee-Bee racer after setting an astounding new world speed record of 309 miles per hour! Dad had told me of his scrapbook early-on in my youth, but it had not been seen for decades, apparently lost in our move to California in 1948. “If only Dad’s scrapbook were not lost,” I often mused.

The Scrapbook Surfaces and Dad’s Aviation Legacy Grows

Miraculously, that very scrapbook surfaced in the early nineteen-sixties. I detailed the circumstances and the scrapbook itself in an earlier post which I attach in its entirety at the end of this post. Amazingly, loosely tucked between the pages were the pulp magazine “cutouts,” the very images Dad used for his dogfight painting on glass. These were taken directly from the aviation pulp magazine covers that he owned. For me, this was a dream-come-true, to possess not only this scrapbook, but the actual image-sources used for my prized painting.


It eerily seemed almost pre-destined that this should happen, that these objects, so strongly coveted in my imagination, should materialize out of the blue like that. Pasted within the book itself, are several other cut-outs from aviation magazine covers similar to those depicted in my painting.

Noteworthy, and not surprising given Dad’s aptitudes, many of the newspaper and magazine articles chosen for the scrapbook focus on technical aspects of the newest improvements in aviation and aeronautical engineering. The choices Dad made for inclusion in his book clearly reflect his early interest in mechanical engineering. In 1943, he left the production lines of the Schwinn bicycle company in Chicago to join United Air Lines as a draftsman and, later, as an employee in United’s Radio Laboratory. I recall him telling me many years ago that he just wanted to be around airplanes and the airline industry in some capacity or another – even if it meant washing airplanes!

Dad was transferred by United Air Lines in 1948 from Chicago to United’s maintenance base in San Francisco, California. My first-ever airplane flight was on a United DC-4 which took several hours to fly our family of four to SFO. As teenagers around our family dinner table listening to our parents re-living their day, my younger sister and I learned first-hand of the many workplace experiences (and frustrations) Dad encountered at United as he worked his way up through the ranks from draftsman to mechanical design engineer and ultimately to hands-on engineering manager of a ground-equipment design group in 1969. Achieving corporate recognition of his talents by United in the form of that last promotion was Dad’s ultimate professional goal. From 1969 until his retirement from United in 1981 after thirty-eight years, he was responsible for major portions of the ground equipment required to support United’s flight operations. He did major design work and structural analysis on jet engine maintenance scaffolding, food trucks, lavatory trucks, and baggage transporters used to efficiently load and unload United’s “Mainliners” on the tarmac. Quite a remarkable achievement for a self-motivated man who only had one year of high school! The lack of a college degree in aeronautics or engineering was a show-stopper at United even back then for anyone with significant engineering design aspirations. I often wonder how many of Dad’s colleagues, who realized he had no engineering degree yet came to appreciate and respect his mechanical engineering aptitude, had any idea of his lack of even a high school education! With each promotion and advancement, Dad had to prove and re-prove himself on the job, over and over again. Night classes in calculus, physics, and engineering at the local College of San Mateo fortified his innate abilities and enabled him to ultimately achieve the position and recognition he deserved at United. Dad was also very good at expressing his logical thought processes in clear, tautly-written memos – a must for any managerial candidate. Where he acquired his fine ability for written expression is still a puzzlement.

A few weeks ago, while cleaning out some cabinets, I came across a photo album which I had practically forgotten. The nicely displayed photos and memorabilia therein were of my father’s retirement party from United in 1981. My wife and I were present that night as were many of Dad’s colleagues and close friends from United. Some of the friendships present that evening spanned most of Dad’s thirty-seven years at United. What a contrast to today’s workplaces!

I noticed two UAL envelopes tucked into the front of the album. The typewritten, personally signed letters inside were on UAL letterhead stationery and dated 1969. One was from the corporate vice-president of base maintenance at UAL/SFO who knew Dad and took the time to personally congratulate him on his appointment in 1969 to engineering design manager. He knew and appreciated what Dad had achieved and how deserving he was of the promotion.

The other letter was from a long-time friend and colleague of Dad’s from the early Chicago days at UAL. Like my father, Duane Buckmaster was deeply rooted in aviation and on a steady-track of self-improvement. I will never forget the time he came out from Chicago to SFO on UAL business and came by our little San Mateo home to join the four of us for a home-cooked meal. This was around 1956/57. Dad gave me a heads-up prior to Mr. Buckmaster’s arrival that evening. He said, “You should know that Duane flew B-24 Liberators over Germany on bombing raids during World War II. His plane was shot down on June 6, 1944 (D-day) by German fighters during the famous Ploesti oil field raids. After parachuting with the rest of the crew from the doomed plane, he was captured by the Germans and held prisoner. He eventually escaped and found his way back across the enemy lines.” I recall Buckmaster’s story that evening and his detailed responses to the many questions from myself, my sister, and my parents. Needless to say, I was mesmerized by his story, and I have never forgotten that evening over all these years. Here is his congratulatory letter to Dad, dated July 7, 1969:

I especially appreciate his vivid comments about “our mutual struggles with the calculus” during “those nights at College of San Mateo.”

Duane Buckmaster was a good friend who, like Dad, also left his mark on United Air Lines, eventually becoming Executive Vice-President of Human Resources based in United’s Chicago offices. Predictably, Duane Buckmaster made it a point to be here, in California, to honor Dad at his retirement party in 1981.

United Air Lines runs deep in my veins for so many obvious reasons. It was and is a major part of my father’s aviation legacy. Dad and “Buck” Buckmaster worked for the airline during its glory days, days when flying was more than merely a quicker option to get from point A to point B. From United’s inception in 1926 and well into the nineteen-sixties, flying the “Friendly Skies” meant just that – an enjoyable, special experience – an event. Times and circumstances change, however, and not always for the better. United’s foundational president, W.A. Patterson ran United with a sure and steady hand for many years.

Patterson always valued United’s employees and their contributions as evidenced by the book High Horizons which he commissioned and gifted to every employee in 1951, on United’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The book is a revealing, well-illustrated history of United Air Lines over its first quarter-century. I remember my father’s copy which arrived at our house in 1951 and remained housed in our small dining room bookcase for many decades. Alas, it disappeared after my parents died. Such is the importance of United Air Lines and aviation in my life and recollections that I recently searched for and found a like-new copy of High Horizons on the internet. It arrived in the mail just days ago. Tucked inside is the original silver card insert that carried president Patterson’s personal thanks and best wishes to each employee – a class act. Employee regard for W.A. Patterson was high for obvious reasons. Patterson made United a great airline.

My father’s retirement years were heavily tinged with his continuing love of aviation. He obtained his private pilot’s license and became heavily involved with building and flying radio-controlled model airplanes. I have written about his RC flying in previous blog posts about him and his dedication to excellence. He and my mother, who was always by his side through forty-nine years of marriage, spent several very happy years enjoying the retired life together before she passed away in 1989. Life was not the same for Dad or for us after she was gone; he followed her in 1992 leaving my sister and I and his grandchildren a fine legacy of remembrance, a special part of which I highlight, here, in this post/tribute.

The aviation bug, planted by my father, has been in my system for as long as I can remember. It periodically goes dormant for a while when one of my many other interests flares up yet again to reclaim its periodic turn in the spotlight of my attention. However, none of these is as deeply rooted in my consciousness as is aviation, thanks to Dad.

Pushing Hard to Complete the Arc of Dad’s Legacy

Two weeks ago, and after all these decades, I resumed my quest to learn still more about the aviation painting that hangs in my den. What were those magazines whose covers are depicted? Enlisting the aid of Google search, I was finally able to identify the specific aviation pulp magazines whose covers grace my father’s painting. Furthermore, I found the actual 1931 August and September issues of Battle Aces for sale on the internet. The cover artwork of the September issue carries the red German Pfaltz airplane so dramatically pictured by Dad in his painting. The August issue’s cover is not depicted in the painting; the July issue is.


This, and the image which follows are two of the covers which captured my father’s fancy as a young man. Finally, after decades of mystery and intrigue, my quest to intimately know the details pertinent to my prized painting has been satisfied. The cover art on all but four of the twenty-seven issues of Battle Aces which ran from October, 1930 through December, 1932 were painted by Frederick Manley Blakeslee at the beginning of his notable career as illustrator for early aviation publications, and later, railroading magazines.

As a final chapter to this part of my story, I also discovered that the original Blakeslee oil painting commissioned for the September, 1931 issue of Battle Aces was sold at auction in 2012 for $2200! The only thing better than having the magazine cover would be to own the original painting commissioned for it!

In 1988, my dad created an oil-on-canvas re-visitation of his early painting on glass. A few aspects of the aerial battle were modified in his new effort, but the red Pfaltz was depicted as before, only headed now in the opposite direction!

Aviation in World War II: The Latest Installment of the Legacy

There is one final chapter (at least for now) of the aviation legacy I inherited from my father. Conditioned by my lifelong involvement with Dad’s legacy and artwork which began with World War I, I have more recently taken note of today’s many fine artists and their fabulous work portraying airplanes and aviation history in the World War II theatre. I find particularly interesting the stories of wartime flyers like Duane Buckmaster who have incredible tales to tell. Fascinating, too, are the aces and the airplanes they flew that saved the western world from Hitler’s Germany and the Luftwaffe.

One of my earliest literary entries into World War II aviation is represented by this excellent book on the Air Force and air power published by Martin Caidin in 1957. I was a high school junior at that time, well into my aviation legacy and already a veteran when it came to building model airplanes. I recall seeing this book displayed in the window of a small bookshop in downtown San Mateo. When I asked to see it, the ten-dollar price on the jacket meant leaving without it, but the photo/text of the book proved fascinating. Every time I passed that bookstore window, the book beckoned. Finally, I had mowed enough neighborhood lawns to save the ten dollars and the book was mine. It seemingly was meant to be that I should have this book. In fact, at the very moment I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps Duane Buckmaster’s visit to our house in the month’s prior precipitated my burning desire to have this book – very possible, even likely, and interesting to contemplate! Today, I have assembled a small but meaningful reference library on aviation, airplanes, and aces – a collection which began with Caidin’s book, Air Force.

I published a previous post (see my archives) highlighting the fascinating story of A Higher Call, as portrayed in the book of the same title and depicted by the artwork of Florida artist, John D. Shaw. Shaw recently completed his most recent artistic rendering of the event in a new limited print edition titled Prey for Mercy.
Shaw’s artwork gives us a wonderful portrayal of the opening moments of a most improbable and unforgettable interaction between a B-17 bomber pilot and crew and a multiple ace of the German Luftwaffe on the threshold of earning the coveted Luftwaffe Flying Cross, needing just one more “kill” to his credit. I was taken with this limited-edition offering and recently received my print along with accompanying material and the actual signature card of the German flyer who was involved, Franz Stigler. Shaw’s earlier artistic rendering of the event is also beautifully done, but long sold-out and very hard to find on the secondary market.

The Legacy Continues!

My enthusiasm for aviation is hardly satisfied at this late date; there are still so many books on my shelves and stories waiting in the wings. Most significantly, both my curiosity about and my fascination with this life-long legacy of aviation gifted to me by my Father, Alfred Chester Kubitz, are still running strong. Time is running short, now, but the skies still beckon!

The Rolls-Royce Merlin Aircraft Engine: P-51 Mustang Power Defeated the Luftwaffe

The North American P-51 Mustang was the best fighter airplane in World War II. It became available to the U.S. fighter command as a potent package in enough time to tilt the air war with Germany in the Allies’ favor. I wrote about the justly-famous P-51 in a previous post (July 6, 2016). That post can be found in my home page archives. In it, I referred to the Merlin V-12 power plant which, when finally coupled with the great airframe platform from California-based North American Aviation, turned a decent performer into an iconic fighting airplane.

While “Rolls-Royce” on this engine clearly denotes an English heritage, the same can, surprisingly, be said of the P-51 itself. Designed and built by North American Aviation in Los Angeles, California, the airplane’s genesis actually emanated from England. The P-51 began as a specification provided to North American by the British Purchasing Commission early in 1940. Incredibly, the first prototype appeared on September 9, 1940, a mere 102 days after the contract with North American was signed. The NA-73X airframe first flew on October 26, 1940.

Originally designed for the British Allison V-1710 engine, the Mustang prototypes demonstrated disappointing performance at altitudes above 15,000 feet. The B-17 and B-24 bombers of the Eighth U.S. Air Force typically cruised over 20,000 feet on their bombing missions into Germany from bases in England. During the Battle of Britain in mid-1940, the German Luftwaffe was already flying their front-line fighter, the Messerschmidt 109. The Me 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190 would both prove to be a significant threat to Allied bombers in the skies over Germany throughout the war. Despite Britain’s just-in-time introduction in 1940 of their own top-line fighter, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Me 109 still had advantages over it and the older Hawker Hurricane by way of its firepower and its fuel-injected engine. The Messerschmidt had, in addition to 50 caliber machine guns, a 20 mm cannon firing through the spinner of its propeller. That deadly weapon coupled with the much longer firing-burst capability of its guns gave the Me 109 a significant advantage. The Hurricane and the Spitfire had carbureted engines with a typical float-chamber in the fuel system which caused the airplanes to hesitate when abruptly put into an evasive dive maneuver. The fuel-injected 109s had no such problem and could easily overtake their prey on the way down.

The major problem faced by the U.S. Eighth Air Force bomber command by 1942 was the vulnerability of its B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers after leaving their bases in the English countryside and entering German air space. The B-17 “Flying Fortress” was aptly named given the eventual array of thirteen 50 caliber machine guns in eight strategic locations around the aircraft. Early in the war, it was believed that bomber formations of aircraft with that degree of armament would be quite capable of protecting themselves from German fighter interceptors who came up to meet them over German territory. That assumption quickly proved very erroneous as losses mounted.

The solution? Provide fighter escorts for the bombers. Prior to the introduction of the P-51 in late 1943, that assignment was handed to fighter wings typically flying the Republic Aviation P-47 Thunderbolt. The P-47 had two major problems. To begin with, the airplane had a short fuel-limited range which forced it to turn back and abandon its escort duties soon after entering German airspace. That, of course, was precisely when the bomber formations would most likely encounter German fighter resistance. Besides, the chunky P-47 suffered severe disadvantages in aerial combat with the more agile and faster Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 German fighters. Bomber losses were severe from the combination of aerial flak guns and German interceptors, culminating in the disastrous bombing raid on Regensburg, Germany, where sixty bombers were lost in one day – some 600 men.

Enter the P-51 Mustang in late 1943 whose horsepower, speed, agility, and high-altitude performance provided a palpable advantage over German counterparts thanks to its supercharged Merlin engine which had replaced the original Allison V17-10 powerplant. With the airplane’s inherently large fuel capacity and an added pair of drop-tanks beneath its wings, the P-51 could go all the way to the target and back with the “heavies.” The bomber crews fondly referred to the Mustang escorts as their “little friends.”

Most of the eventual Mustang production of some 15,000 planes was powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin built under license by the Packard Motor Car company in Detroit. The Merlin engine was also widely used in other notable wartime aircraft including England’s top fighter, the Spitfire. Nothing in the air during the war could match the powerfully effective Merlin/Mustang combination, however.

I recently watched a wartime documentary on the momentous effort to design and ramp up production of the Merlin engine in England during the early phases of WW II. This was a huge wartime effort on the part of the English who faced the possible invasion of their country and the subjugation of Europe at the hand of Hitler’s Germany. The film was totally enlightening and engrossing – so many history and social lessons to be derived from the can-do spirit of the English.

My wife and I recently saw the movie, The Darkest Hour, which portrayed Winston Churchill’s lonely desperation in 1939/1940 as the destiny of England and, indeed, all of Europe became increasingly problematic. Fact is always stranger and more dramatic than fiction, and this fine movie drives home the point. So much hung in the balance, a balance which finally tilted favorably to the Allies on the knife-edge of numerous pivotal decisions and efforts. The Merlin engine and the P-51 Mustang airframe from North American Aviation were two of those very decisive factors which ultimately doomed Hitler – especially as combined together in the final P-51 designs. In 1945, many of Germany’s major cities had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombers based in England which, thanks to the Mustangs and their intrepid pilots, could now reach their targets.

I will close by calling upon a recollection from my earlier post on the iconic P-51 Mustang when the Collings Foundation brought their Wings of Freedom touring air show to nearby Moffett Field. My two young grandsons and I stood close by on the tarmac as their P-51, Betty Jane, prepared to fly.

Firing-Up the Big Merlin-Packard Engine of Betty Jane

As my grandsons and I stood outside the roped area, a mere 50 feet from Betty Jane, the pilot fired up the big Packard-built twelve-cylinder engine sporting a large, four-bladed propeller. The pilot yelled “clear” from the cockpit, the big prop started to turn, and the engine came to life after belching smoke and the usual series of backfires. The engine sounded a throaty roar as Betty Jane moved out toward the taxi-way. My grandsons held their ears…I did not and drank it all in. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the emotions of a pilot on the flight line at Leiston, England, bringing that big engine to life en-route to yet another bomber escort mission over Germany in 1944/45. Despite the huge war effort and all the backing provided by the allies for combat flight operations, out there on the flight line, as the engine coughed, sputtered, roared to life, and the canopy closed, it was one man in one machine – very far from home. The pilot was about to face the uncertainties of weather, navigation, and his enemy counterparts who would be out there, somewhere, waiting for him and the opportunity to shoot him and his machine out of the sky.

For me, it is difficult to conjure up a more daring and exhilarating human experience than that encountered by those flyers in World War II. For them at the time, there surely seemed nothing “romantic” about the deadly task they faced – only a sense of high adventure and “what the hell, I hope I come back from this one!” I have read the late-life accounts of some who flew Mustangs against the German Luftwaffe and lived to tell about it. Despite some surely ugly recollections of killing and death which stubbornly remain, time dulls many of the sharp edges – as it always does – for these men. These flyers are revered by the public for their courage, daring, and skill during wartime, and that is appropriate. Despite old age and the challenges of settling down after flying, these warriors possess indelible and precious memories of that time in their young lives when they and their machines defied the great odds stacked against them. Those who flew the P-51 Mustang, to a man, relate their admiration of and gratitude to the airplane that saw them through.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb: Triumph and Tragedy

J. Robert Oppenheimer: Along with Albert Einstein, one of the most interesting and important figures in modern history. Although very different in world-view and personality, the names of these two men are both linked to arguably the most significant human endeavor and resultant “success” in recorded history. The effort in question was the monumental task of the United States government to harness the energy of the atom in a new and devastating weapon of war, the atomic bomb. The super-secret Manhattan Project was a crash program formally authorized by president Franklin Roosevelt on Dec. 6, 1941. The program’s goal: In a time-frame of less than four years and against all odds, to capitalize on very recent scientific discoveries and rapidly develop an operational military weapon of staggering destructive power.

Albert Einstein and the Atomic Bomb

Albert Einstein, whose scientific resume ranks just behind that of Isaac Newton, had virtually no role in this weapons program save for two notable exceptions. First and foremost, it was Einstein’s follow-up paper to his milestone theory of special relativity in 1905 which showed that, contrary to long-standing belief, mass and energy are one and the same, theoretically convertible from one to another. That relationship is expressed by the most famous equation in science, e = mc2, where e is the energy inherent in mass, m is the mass in question, and c is the constant speed of light. One careful look at this relationship reveals its profoundness. Since the speed of light is a very large number (300 million meters per second), a tiny bit of mass (material) converted into its energy equivalent yields a phenomenal amount of energy. Note that Einstein had proposed a theoretical, nonetheless real, relationship in his equation. The big question: Would it ever be possible to produce that predicted yield of energy in practice? In 1938, two chemists in Hitler’s Germany, Hahn and Strassman, demonstrated nuclear fission in the laboratory, on a tiny scale. That news spread quickly throughout the world physics community – like ripples on a giant pond. It now appeared feasible to harness the nuclear power inherent in the atom as expressed by Einstein’s equation.

In August of 1939, alarmed by the recent news from Germany, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard asked his colleague, Albert Einstein, to affix his signature to a letter addressed to President Roosevelt. The letter warned of recent German scientific advances and Germany’s sudden interest in uranium deposits in the Belgian Congo of Africa. Einstein, a German Jew who fled his homeland in 1932 for fear of Hitler’s growing influence, dutifully but reluctantly signed his name to the letter. Einstein’s imprimatur on the letter was Szilard’s best hope of affixing Roosevelt’s attention on the growing feasibility of an atomic bomb. Einstein and many other European scientists were, from personal experience, justifiably terrified at the prospect of Hitler’s Germany acquiring such a weapon, and the Germans had first-class scientific talent available to tackle such a challenge.

Einstein, one of history’s great pacifists, was thus ironically tied to the atomic bomb program, but his involvement went no further. Einstein never worked on the project and, after the war when Germany was shown to have made no real progress toward a weapon, he stated: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Stranger Than Fiction: The High Desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico

By early 1943, peculiar “invitations” from Washington were being received by many of this country’s finest scientific/engineering minds. A significant number of these ranked among the world’s top physicists including Nobel Prize winners who had emigrated from Europe. These shadowy “requests” from the government called for the best and the brightest to head (with their families in many cases) to the wide-open high desert country of New Mexico. Upon arrival, they would be further informed (to a limited extent) of the very important, secret work to be undertaken there. I have always believed that fact is stranger than fiction, and much more interesting and applicable. What transpired at Los Alamos over the next three years under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Army General Leslie Groves is scarcely believable, and yet it truly happened, and it has changed our lives unalterably.

One of my favorite narratives from Jon Else’s wonderful documentary film on the atomic bomb, The Day After Trinity, beautifully describes the ludicrous situation: “Oppenheimer had brought scientists and their families fresh from distinguished campuses all over the country – ivied halls, soaring campaniles, vaulted chapels. Los Alamos was a boom town – hastily constructed wooden buildings, dirt streets, coal stoves, and [at one point] only five bathtubs / There were no sidewalks. The streets were all dirt. The water situation was always bad / It was not at all unusual to open your faucet and have worms come out.” Los Alamos was like a California gold-rush boom town, constructed in a jiffy with the greatest assemblage of world-class scientific talent that will ever be gathered in one location. General Groves once irreverently quipped (with humor and perhaps some frustration) that Los Alamos had the greatest assemblage of “crack-pots” the world has ever known.

As improbable as the situation and the task at hand appeared – even given an open check-book from Roosevelt and Congress – Groves and Oppenheimer made it happen. I cannot think of any human endeavor in history so complex, so unlikely…and so “successful.” The triumph of NASA in space comes in a close second, but even realizing JFK’s promise of a man on the moon by 1969 cannot top the extraordinary scenario which unfolded at Los Alamos, New Mexico – all largely shielded from view.

The initial (and only) test of the atomic bomb took place on July 16, 1945, on the wide expanse of the New Mexico desert near Los Alamos. The test was code-named “Trinity.” The accompanying picture shows Oppenheimer and General Groves at ground zero of the blast, the site of the high tower from which the bomb was detonated. Evidence of desert sand fused into glass by the intense heat abounds. The test was a complete technical success – vindication for the huge government outlay and the dedication on the part of so many who put their lives on hold by moving to the high desert of New Mexico and literally “willing” their work to success for fear of the Germans. By July of 1945, however, Germany was vanquished without having made any real progress toward an atomic bomb.

The World Would Never Be the Same

That first nuclear detonation signaled a necessary reset for much of human thought and behavior. Many events quickly followed that demonstrated the power of that statement. Of immediate impact was the abrupt termination of World War II, brought about by two atomic bombs successfully dropped on Japan just weeks after the first and only test of the device (Hiroshima, August 6, 1945; Nagasaki, August 9, 1945). The resulting destruction of these two cities accomplished what many thousands of invading U.S. troops might have taken months to complete – with terrible losses. The horrific effect of these two bombs on the people of Japan has been well documented since 1945. Many, including a significant number of those who worked on the development of these weapons protested that such weapons should never be used again. Once the initial flush of “success” passed, the man most responsible for converting scientific theory into a practical weapon of mass destruction quickly realized that the “nuclear genie” was irretrievably out of the bottle, never to be predictably and reliably restrained. Indeed, Russia shocked the world by detonating its first atomic bomb in 1949. The inevitable arms race that Oppenheimer foresaw had already begun… the day after Trinity.

The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Man

J. Robert Oppenheimer had been under tremendous pressure as technical leader of the super-secret Manhattan project since being appointed by the military man in charge of the entire project, Army general Leslie Groves. Groves was a military man through and through, accustomed to the disciplined hierarchy of the service, yet he hand-picked as technical lead for the whole program the brilliant physicist and mercurial liberal intellectual, J. Robert Oppenheimer – the most unlikely of candidates. Oppenheimer’s communist wife and brother prompted the FBI to vigorously protest the choice. Groves got his way, however.

Groves’ choice of J. Robert Oppenheimer for the challenging and consuming task of technical leader on the project proved to be a stroke of genius on his part; virtually everyone who worked on the Manhattan Project agreed there was no-one but Oppenheimer who could have made it happen as it did.

“Oppie,” as he was known and referred to by many on the Manhattan Project, directed the efforts of hundreds of the finest scientific and engineering minds on the planet. Foreign-born Nobel prize winners in physics were very much in evidence at Los Alamos. Despite the formidable scientific credentials of such luminaries as Hans Bethe, I.I. Rabi, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, and Freeman Dyson, Oppenheimer proved to be their intellectual equal. Oppenheimer either already knew and understood the nuclear physics, the chemistry, and the metallurgy involved at Los Alamos, or he very quickly learned it from the others. His intellect was lightning-quick and very deep. His interests extended well beyond physics as evidenced by his great interest in French metaphysical poetry and his multi-lingual capability. Almost more incredible than his technical grasp of all the work underway at Los Alamos was his unanticipated ability to manage all aspects of this, the most daring, ambitious, and important scientific/engineering endeavor ever undertaken. People who knew well his scientific brilliance from earlier years were amazed at the overnight evolution of “Oppie, the brilliant physicist and academic” into “Oppie, the effective, efficient manager” and co-leader of the project with General Groves.

Indelibly imprinted upon my mind is the interview scene with famous Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe conducted by Jon Else, producer of The Day After Trinity. Bethe was Oppie’s pick to be group leader for all physics on the project. The following comments of Bethe, himself a giant in theoretical physics, cast a penetrating light on the intellectual brilliance of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his successful role in this, the most daring and difficult scientific project ever attempted:

– “He was a tremendous intellect. I don’t believe I have known another person who was quite so quick in comprehending both scientific and general knowledge.”
– “He knew and understood everything that went on in the laboratory, whether it was chemistry, theoretical physics, or machine-shop. He could keep it all in his head and coordinate it. It was clear also at Los Alamos, that he was intellectually superior to us.”

The work was long, hard, and often late into the night at Los Alamos for its two thousand residents, but there was a social life at Los Alamos, and, according to reports, Robert Oppenheimer was invariably the center of attention. He could and often did lead discussions given his wide-ranging knowledge …on most everything! Dorothy McKibben (seated on Oppenheimer’s right in the following picture) was the “Gatekeeper of Los Alamos” according to all who (necessarily) passed through her tiny Manhattan Project Office at 109 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, they checked-in and collected the credentials and maps required to reach the highly secured desert site of Los Alamos. Ms. McKibben was affluent in her praise of Oppenheimer: “If you were in a large hall, and you saw several groups of people, the largest groups would be hovering around Oppenheimer. He was great at a party, and women simply loved him and still do.”

The Nuclear Weapons Advantage Proves to be Short-Lived

What was believed in 1945 to represent a long term, decided military advantage for the United States turned out to be an illusion, much as Oppenheimer likely suspected. With the help of spies Klaus Fuchs at Los Alamos, Julius Rosenberg, and others, Russia detonated their first atomic bomb only four years later.

Oppenheimer knew better, because he understood the physics involved and that, once demonstrated, nuclear weapons would rapidly pose a problem for the world community. When interviewed years later at Princeton where he had been head of the Institute for Advanced Studies (and Albert Einstein’s “boss”) he is shown in The Day After Trinity responding to the question, “[Can you tell us] what your thoughts are about the proposal of Senator Robert Kennedy that President Johnson initiate talks with the view to halt the spread of nuclear weapons?” Oppenheimer replied rather impatiently, “It’s twenty years too late. It should have been done the day after Trinity.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer fully appreciated, on July 16, 1945, the dangers inherent in the nuclear genie let loose from the bottle. His fears were well founded. Within a few years after Los Alamos, talk surfaced of a new, more powerful bomb based on nuclear fusion rather than fission, nevertheless still in accordance with e = mc2. This became popularly known as the “hydrogen bomb.” Physicist Edward Teller now stepped forward to promote its development in opposition to Oppenheimer’s stated wish to curtail the further use and development of nuclear weapons.

Arguments raged over the “Super” bomb as it was designated, and Teller prevailed. The first device was detonated by the U.S. in 1952. A complex and toxic cocktail of Oppenheimer’s reticence toward development of the Super combined with the past communist leanings of his wife, brother Frank, and other friends led to the Atomic Energy Commission, under President Eisenhower, revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954. That action ended any opportunity for Oppenheimer to even continue advising Washington on nuclear weapons policy. The Oppenheimer file was thick, and the ultimate security hearings were dramatic and difficult for all involved. As for the effect on J. Robert Oppenheimer, we have the observations of Hans Bethe and I.I. Rabi, both participants at Los Alamos and Nobel prize winners in physics:

– I.I. Rabi: “I think to a certain extent it actually almost killed him, spiritually, yes. It achieved just what his opponents wanted to achieve. It destroyed him.”
– Hans Bethe: “He had very much the feeling that he was giving the best to the United States in the years during the war and after the war. In my opinion, he did. But others did not agree. And in 1954, he was hauled before a tribunal and accused of being a security risk – a risk to the United States. A risk to betray secrets.”

Later, in 1964, attitudes softened and Edward Teller nominated Oppenheimer for the prestigious Enrico Fermi award which was presented by President Johnson. As I.I. Rabi observed, however, the preceding events had, for all intents and purposes, already destroyed him. Oppenheimer was a conflicted man with a brilliant wide-ranging intellect. While one might readily agree with Hans Bethe’s assessment that Oppenheimer felt he was “giving the best to the United States in the years during and after the war,” there is perhaps more to the story than a significantly patriotic motivation. Oppenheimer was a supremely competent and confident individual whose impatient nature was tinged with a palpable arrogance. These characteristics often worked to his disadvantage with adversaries and co-workers.
Then there was the suggestion that, in addition to his patriotic motives, Oppenheimer was seized by “the glitter and the power of nuclear weapons” and the unprecedented opportunity to do physics on a grand scale at Los Alamos, and those were also major motivations. Other colleagues on the project later confessed to feeling the glitter and power of nuclear weapons, themselves. A brilliant man of many contradictions was Oppenheimer – that much is certain. Also certain is the likelihood that the man was haunted afterward by misgivings concerning his pivotal role, whatever his motivations, in letting loose the nuclear genie. The sadness in his eyes late in life practically confirms the suspicion. That is the tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Triumph has a way of extracting its penalty, its pound of flesh. I can think of no better example than Oppenheimer.

Immediately upon hearing of the bombing of Hiroshima, Hans Bethe recalled, “The first reaction which we had was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. Now the work which we have been engaged in has contributed to the war. The second reaction, of course, was one of shock and horror. What have we done? What have we done? And the third reaction: It shouldn’t be done again.”

Nuclear Weapons: The Current State and Future Outlook

In the headlines of today’s news broadcasts as I write this is the looming threat of North Korean nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. The North Koreans have developed and tested nuclear warheads and are currently test-launching long-range missiles which could reach the U.S. mainland, as far east as Chicago. Likewise, Iran is close to having both nuclear weapons and targetable intermediate-range missiles. Nuclear proliferation is alive and well on this earth.

To illustrate the present situation, consider one staple of the U.S. nuclear arsenal -the one megaton thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb with the explosive equivalent of just over one million tons of TNT. That explosive energy is fifty times that of the plutonium fission bomb which destroyed the city of Nagasaki, Japan (twenty-two thousand tons of TNT). The number of such powerful weapons in today’s U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles is truly staggering, especially when one considers that a single one megaton weapon could essentially flatten and incinerate the core of Manhattan, New York. Such a threat is no longer limited to a device dropped from an aircraft. Nuclear-tipped ICBMs present an even more ominous threat.

The surprise success of the first Russian earth-orbiting satellite, “Sputnik,” in 1957 had far more significance than the loss of prestige in space for the United States. Accordingly, the second monumental and historic U.S. government program – on the very heels of the Manhattan Project – was heralded by the creation of NASA in 1958 and its role in the race to the moon. President John F. Kennedy issued his audacious challenge in 1963 for NASA to regain lost technical ground in rocketry by being first to put a man on the moon …in the decade of the sixties – in less than seven years! Many in the technical community thought the challenge was simply “nuts” given the state of U.S. rocket technology in 1963. As with the then very-recent, incredibly difficult and urgent program to build an atomic bomb, the nation once again accomplished the near-impossible by landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969 – well ahead of the Russians. And it was important that we surpassed Russia in rocket technology, for our ICBMs, which are the key delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons and thus crucial to most of the U.S. strategic defense, were born of this country’s efforts in space.

“Fat Man,” the bomb used on Nagasaki – 22 kilotons of TNT

Photo: Paul Shambroom

B83 1 megaton hydrogen bombs…compact and deadly

The above picture of a man casually sweeping the warehouse floor in front of nearly ten megatons of explosive, destructive power, enough to level the ten largest cities in America gives one pause to reflect. On our visit to Los Alamos in 2003, I recall the uneasy emotions I felt merely standing next to a dummy casing of this bomb in the visitor’s center and reflecting on the awesome power of the “live” device. Minus their huge development and high “delivery” costs, such bombs are, in fact, very “cheap” weapons from a military point of view.

One conclusion: Unlike the man with the broom in the above picture, we must never casually accept the presence of these weapons in our midst. One mistake, one miscalculation, and nuclear Armageddon may be upon us. The collective angels of man’s better nature had better soon decide on a way to render such weapons unnecessary on this planet. Albert Einstein expressed the situation elegantly and succinctly:

“The unleashing of [the] power of the atom has changed everything but our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

Under a brilliant New Mexico sky on October 16, 1945, the residents of the Los Alamos mesa gathered for a ceremony on J. Robert Oppenheimer’s last day as director of the laboratory. The occasion: The receipt of a certificate of appreciation from the Secretary of War honoring the contributions of Oppenheimer and Los Alamos.

In his remarks, Oppenheimer stated: “It is our hope that in years to come we may look at this scroll, and all that it signifies, with pride. Today, that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The peoples of the world must unite, or they will perish.”

In today’s world, each step along the path of nuclear proliferation brings humanity ever closer to the ultimate fear shared by J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. The world had best heed their warnings.

Voices from My Past: Heard Through a Blog Post!

It is amazing how small this world has become thanks to technology and the reach of social media and blogs. My posts are viewed more than a thousand times each month including a sizeable percentage of views from outside the United States. Two months ago, a mid-west reader responded to one of my earlier posts with the comment: “I believe we are related!” Inasmuch as I had long ago (1948), at age eight, moved with my family to California from Chicago, Illinois, I was surprised and intrigued.

It so happens that Mary is a “lost” second cousin of mine originally from Chicago whose Grandfather Elmer was my Uncle Elmer – the older brother of my dad. Here is Elmer standing in front of his father’s radio repair shop on Diversey Avenue in Chicago, sometime in the early nineteen fifties. His dad was also named Elmer, and he was my paternal grandfather.

It is my grandfather and his tiny radio repair shop, mentioned in that post of mine, which caught second cousin Mary’s eye. The last portion of the post contains a picture of my grandparents (Mary’s great-grandparents) standing behind the counter of their little shop in Chicago (circa 1947) – the only photo of its kind in the entire family, apparently.

Inasmuch as I grew up only a mile or two from my grandparents and their “mom & pop” store with living quarters in the back, I quite vividly recall that shop and have often wished there were another picture of it and them… somewhere. Mary fortunately was able to provide the first photo, used here, showing the exterior of the shop which no longer exists. I well recall the red/orange neon sign in the window announcing: “Radio Service.” My memory bell “rang” at first glance.

On a 2004 vacation trip to Chicago, my wife and I returned to the scenes of my boyhood. I was amazed to find that most everything was still there, including our old brick apartment building, all looking just as recalled some 56 years later. Sadly, the building which housed the little radio repair shop at 6755 Diversey Ave. had long ago been cleared away for a large banquet hall/restaurant which today covers much of the block. I had really hoped to find that little storefront, the seat of so much of our family’s history…and my boyhood consciousness.

Soon after “finding” second cousin Mary, I met her cousin Linda, via E-mail. We have begun to fill-in a number of blanks in the Kubitz family history by exchanging recollections and pictures. Interestingly, both Mary and Linda were not at all sure about the history/existence of my grandparent’s radio repair shop on Diversey Ave. I, on the other hand had no knowledge at all of their grandfather’s (Elmer, pictured in the first photo) later radio repair shop on Belmont Ave. in Chicago. And so begins an interesting quest to learn more about the family history!

I am glad that second cousin Mary “discovered” me and my blog and took the time to verify the family connection. As so often happens, family history gets lost as time and distance take their inevitable toll. For me, leaving Chicago in 1948 when United Air Lines transferred my father, meant severing close ties with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. There were no overt reasons why that should have happened so completely as it did. Coming from a family of five kids, as in my father’s case, family dynamics are always a part of the equation, but, mainly, the effect of time and distance took their toll. The daily scramble for a better life takes time and attention away from extended family solidarity. That was especially true back then when Chicago seemed so far away from San Francisco, California.

Thank goodness I was old enough to have collected indelible images and impressions of my close relatives before leaving them. I have always remained curious about them and sad that I never really got to know them as well as I would have liked.

For more background on this post and my personal/family history, click on these links to other applicable posts of mine:

“Out of Africa” / “The End of the Game”

There are few things that sadden me more than the inevitable fate of Africa’s wildlife at the hands of “civilization.” My message, here, touches on that theme while offering a broad-brush picture of Africa, past and present.

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” opens the richly written and highly acclaimed memoir, Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen (pen name: Isak Dinesen). In a curious chain of circumstances, my life-long fascination with Africa and its wildlife has recently been rekindled by her story and by other recent events. Many will recall the magnificent 1985 film, Out of Africa, which starred a young Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, directed by Sidney Pollack. The story’s setting recounts the sweeping panorama that was East Africa and Kenya in the early days of its capitol, Nairobi.

It was in Nairobi that many Brits and other Europeans opened up new colonial frontiers for the British Empire. People came for a multitude of reasons: Land grants from the government, pure adventure, and the opportunity to start a new life in a new place – whatever the root motivation. And those who came and risked the hardships of raw Africa in the early twentieth century were either fools or hardy adventurers, determined and pre-destined to succeed, there.

One of those who could and did meet Africa’s challenge was the Scotsman, John Alexander Hunter, who quickly became the most celebrated “white hunter” and later game warden in Africa’s history. Hunter arrived in Nairobi from Scotland in 1908 seeking adventure and a livelihood. Indeed, there was a need for “animal control” during the early days when native Africans eked out an existence among the then-teeming wildlife that surrounded them. Men like Hunter dealt with marauding elephants and rhinos that destroyed crops of the Masai and the Kikuyu farmers. And there were the occasional man-eaters, lions which had tasted human flesh and found the taking too easy. In the early days of plentiful game, white hunters paid their bills by guiding hunting safaris of the rich and privileged. Few people had the foresight in the 1920’s and 30’s to envision the dire wildlife situation which exists today in Africa. J.A. Hunter saw it coming as he later turned to work as a game warden and “gun safety” for strictly photographic safaris. It was J.A. Hunter’s iconic little book, Hunter, that first triggered my personal African odyssey more than fifty years ago. For that story as related on my earlier blog post about J.A. Hunter, click on the following link:

One of Nairobi’s early settlers not destined to make East Africa their permanent home was Karen Blixen who published Out of Africa in 1937, six years after returning to her native Denmark. Her memoir of the years 1913 to 1931 spent on her coffee farm high near the foot of the Ngong Hills, a dozen or so miles from Nairobi, creates a brilliant collage of Africa, Kenya’s bountiful wildlife, and the inscrutable native Africans who served her and her homestead. She related well to the Kikuyu and Somali Africans who worked her farm and household, even forming close bonds with several of those who served inside her home. Nonetheless, she appreciated her ultimate limits in that regard as she noted, “On our safaris and on the farm, my acquaintance with the Natives developed into a settled and personal relationship. We were good friends. I reconciled myself to the fact that while I should never quite know or understand them, they knew me through and through, and were conscious of the decisions I was going to take, before I was certain about them, myself.”

Blixen’s eloquent depictions in the book serve not only as a personal memoir of a bigger-than-life true story, but as a brilliant tapestry of early colonial East Africa, the traditions of safari and Africa’s teeming wildlife, and the challenging surroundings which engulfed the author. Earnest Hemingway, no stranger to literary honors, thought so highly of Out of Africa and its merits that he proposed Blixen as a worthy contender for a Nobel Prize in literature.

There is another prophetic book about Africa which, despite my early naivete concerning the subject, I was prescient enough to purchase in 1965, the year of its initial publication. Its title: The End of the Game, by Peter Beard. It has become something of a cult title, yet despite the author’s unorthodox style, the book was prophetic about the end of “the game” in Africa. While expressing grave pessimism over the fate of Africa’s game animals, the book’s larger thrust is a poke at “the game” as played in Nairobi and elsewhere by the early, privileged white “invaders” from colonial Britain and Europe as they went about executing new “land grants” and confiscating land from the resident natives to build their empires. Does that sound familiar to students of the American West and its history? The pages of this book contain many glimpses of the early settlers in and around Kenya including Baroness (Karen) Blixen and her lover and platonic ideal, the storied, Oxford educated white hunter, Denys Finch Hatton. Blixen and Finch Hatton came from aristocratic, wealthy backgrounds in Denmark and England, respectively. Like so many others of privilege who comprised the early colonial settlements in Kenya, they seemed by background unfit and unprepared to deal, long-term, with the demands of African existence. Blixen and her Danish nobleman husband at the time, Bror Blixen, made the ill-informed decision to plant coffee at their farm, ignoring the fact that the land was too elevated for favorable results. That fact and a later, devastating fire that destroyed the farm’s coffee processing barn, doomed Karen Blixen’s success in Africa.

On the other hand, men like J.A. Hunter and H.K. Binks arrived in Africa already equipped with a steely inner-core and flexible attitudes, tempered by the experiences of a well-grounded, challenging early life at “home.”

H.K. “Pop” Binks came from Yorkshire and arrived in Nairobi in 1900, making him one of the town’s earliest white settlers. He lived very modestly in Nairobi with his wife “Binkie” until death claimed him in 1971. During his lifetime in Nairobi, Binks plied numerous trades, including local photographer, astronomer, and author. He exhibited the attitudes and adaptability that life in Africa demanded. I have read first-hand accounts concerning the initiative and resilience of Mr. Binks, and at least one educated voice who knew him personally claimed him to be “the most interesting person I ever knew.” In his book, African Rainbow, Binks stated: “I have been lonelier in the crowded streets of a city than in the great open spaces of Africa, with all wild things for companions.”

In 1965, I received a personal note from Mr. Binks in response to a letter I wrote to him at his Nairobi address. I had asked if he had any reminiscences of old Nairobi he could share with me – strictly because of my interest in East Africa and early settlers like him. He very kindly answered my “out of the blue” letter but explained he was already involved with a “home” publisher (perhaps his book, African Rainbow) and could not comply. He wished me luck in my search.

Needless to say, I was pleased and grateful that he cared enough to reply to me. I have kept that folded little note from Binks tucked in one of my J.A. Hunter books for over fifty years, now – a prized connection to the East Africa that once was.

Over time, Africa methodically weeded out its unfit would-be residents just as it has always done within its animal populations. Changing conditions hastened the demise of the colonials who enjoyed a privileged existence in old Africa. In a similar vein, evolving world and local conditions appear also to foretell the virtual demise of Africa’s crown jewel, its diverse animal populations, roaming free and wild.

Today, population pressure from within Africa threatens its wildlife like never before. Whereas J.A. Hunter was occasionally called upon to kill a marauding elephant or rhino intent on invading a local native village, today the local human populations expand inexorably outward occupying and fencing vast stretches of what were once grazing lands where animals roamed free. And today we must deal with organized poachers who continue to cull the finest wildlife specimens from the remaining small numbers still “protected” in game preserves.

Saving Africa’s wildlife can succeed only with world-wide support. Much lip service is paid, but a comprehensive, long-range plan and adequate moneys appear wanting.

The problems involved in protecting Africa’s wildlife are very challenging, yet, in the face of halting progress to date, it seems to me that man is a failed species, himself, if he cannot prevent the decimation of Africa’s (and nature’s) crowning glory. I venture to say, in that case, man will ultimately prove incapable of saving himself from himself. If so, perhaps we deserve no better fate as a species.

Sir Isaac Newton: “I Can Calculate the Motions of the Planets, but I Cannot Calculate the Madness of Men”

Isaac Newton, the most incisive mind in the history of science, reportedly uttered that sentiment about human nature. Why would he infer such negativity about his fellow humans? Newton’s scientific greatness stemmed from his ability to see well beyond human horizons. His brilliance was amply demonstrated in his great book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in which he logically constructed his “system of the world,” using mathematics. The book’s title translates from Latin as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, often shortened to “the Principia” for convenience.

The Principia is the greatest scientific book ever published. Its enduring fame reflects Newton’s ground-breaking application of mathematics, including aspects of his then-fledgling calculus, to the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of explaining motion physics. An overwhelming challenge for the best mathematicians and “natural philosophers” (scientists) in the year 1684 was to demonstrate mathematically that the planets in our solar system should revolve around the sun in elliptically shaped orbits as opposed to circles or some other geometric path. The fact that they do move in elliptical paths was carefully observed by Johann Kepler and noted in his 1609 masterwork, Astronomia Nova.

In 1687, Newton’s Principia was published after three intense years of effort by the young, relatively unknown Cambridge professor of mathematics. Using mathematics and his revolutionary new concept of universal gravitation, Newton provided precise justification of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion in the Principia. In the process, he revolutionized motion physics and our understanding of how and why bodies of mass, big and small (planets, cannonballs, etc.), move the way they do. Newton did, indeed, as he stated, show us in the Principia how to calculate the motion of heavenly bodies.

In his personal relationships, Newton found dealing with people and human nature to be even more challenging than the formidable problems of motion physics. As one might suspect, Newton did not easily tolerate fools and pretenders in the fields of science and mathematics – “little smatterers in mathematicks,” he called them. Nor did he tolerate much of basic human nature and its shortcomings.

 In the Year 1720, Newton Came Face-to-Face with
His Own Human Vulnerability… in the “Stock Market!”

 In 1720, Newton’s own human fallibility was clearly laid bare as he invested foolishly and lost a small fortune in one of investing’s all-time market collapses. Within our own recent history, we have had suffered through the stock market crash of 1929 and the housing market bubble of 2008/2009. In these more recent “adventures,” society and government had allowed human nature and its greed propensity to over-inflate Wall Street to a ridiculous extent, so much so that a collapse was quite inevitable to any sensible person…and still it continued.

Have you ever heard of the great South Sea Bubble in England? Investing in the South Sea Trading Company – a government sponsored banking endeavor out of London – became a favorite past-time of influential Londoners in the early eighteenth century. Can you guess who found himself caught-up in the glitter of potential investment returns only to end up losing a very large sum? Yes, Isaac Newton was that individual along with thousands of others.

It was this experience that occasioned the remark about his own inability to calculate the madness of men (including himself)!

Indeed, he should have known better than to re-enter the government sponsored South Sea enterprise after initially making a tidy profit from an earlier investment in the stock. As can be seen from the graph below, Newton re-invested (with a lot!) in the South Sea offering for the second time as the bubble neared its peak and just prior to its complete collapse. Newton lost 20,000 English pounds (three million dollars in today’s valuations) when the bubble suddenly burst.

Clearly, Newton’s comment, which is the theme of this post, reflects his view that human nature is vulnerable to fits of emotion (like greed, envy, ambition) which in turn provoke foolish, illogical behaviors. When Newton looked in the mirror after his ill-advised financial misadventure, he saw staring back at him the very madness of men which he then proceeded to rail against! Knowing Newton through the many accounts of his life that I have studied, I can well imagine that his financial fiasco must have been a very tough pill for him to swallow. Many are the times in his life that Newton “railed” to vent his anger against something or someone; his comment concerning the “madness of men” is typical of his outbursts. Certainly, he could disapprove of his fellow man for fueling such an obvious investment bubble. In the end, and most painful for him, was his realization that he paid a stiff price for foolishly ignoring the bloody obvious. For anyone who has risked and lost on the market of Wall Street, the mix of feelings is well understood. Even the great Newton had his human vulnerabilities – in spades, and greed was one of them. One might suspect that Newton, the absorbed scientist, was merely naïve when it came to money matters.

That would be a very erroneous assumption. Sir Isaac Newton held the top-level government position of Master of the Mint in England, during those later years of his scientific retirement – in charge of the entire coinage of the realm!


For more on Isaac Newton and the birth of the Principia click on the link: