Today, I'm in trouble. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Where would we be without fantasy and conspiracy? They are so much fun. I've been reading about Ireland's Steorn Company, with its new perpetual motion machine -- about the World Trade Center being destroyed by preset explosives. I've just seen a detailed photo essay about a visit to Kentucky's new Creation Museum with its 6000 year old Earth, Adam and his dinosaur friends, and its invective against the scientific establishment.
Some of these even tickle a "Could it be true?" response -- like a surprisingly plausible claim that the pyramids were built of cast concrete. I said I'd get into trouble here. Well, of course I will; we're all tempted by one or another of these -- Area 51, Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle. Then there's Amelia Earhart.
The 70th anniversary of their disappearance, Tom Crouch (aerial historian and National Air and Space Museum curator) talks about her. He tries to dispel fantasy, but some fantasy is too delicious to ignore. He recounts captured-by-the-Japanese stories -- Earhart as a Tokyo Rose voice during the war, or as Emperor Hirohito's love slave.
He briefly mentions an outrageous 1970 book that identified 66-year-old Irene Bolam, a New York Banker, as Earhart living incognito, having been repatriated from Japan. Bolam successfully forced McGraw Hill to withdraw the book. But in 2003, long after Bolam's death, a new book tried to reignite that claim.
Now The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery -- TIGHAR for short -- is seriously trying to find where Earhart and Noonan ended up. They've vigorously debunked the new book with the Bolam story. But TIGHAR has its own story. They're pretty sure that, when Earhart and Noonan failed to find their Pacific landfall on Howland Island, they turned south seeking another island. Several lay in that area. They favor Nikumaroro, the former Gardner Island. TIGHAR has mounted expeditions to Nikumaroro and turned up artifacts, even bones. But, under scrutiny, none have yet confirmed the presence of Earhart, Noonan, or their Lockheed Electra.
TIGHAR is at least looking in a plausible place and keeping the door open to other ideas, although Crouch doubts they'll find anything. He asks us to remember that the very mystery draws us in and makes us aware of Earhart's purposeful life.
It reminds me of discovering the remains of the sunken Titanic, back in 1985. That was a wonderful thing, no doubt. But I also remember how many doors it closed. There it lay, decaying on the sea bottom, reducing our dreams to rust, while Earhart's broad corn-fed smile thus far remains -- as fresh and alive today as it was in 1937. She still hovers in that magic land where any story we imagine about her might yet turn out to be true.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
T. D. Crouch, Searching for Amelia Earhart. Invention and Technology,Summer 2007, pp. 44-53
For some of TIGHAR's efforts, see:
Photo credits: The Irene Bolam photo above is courtesy of Wikipedia commons. Earhart in an autogiro cockpit, below, is courtesy of Stephen Pitcairn, from the Pitcairn Aircraft Co. Archives. The Lockheed Electra below is from the London Science Museum, photo by JHL
A Lockheed Electra, similar to that in which Earhart and Noonan were lost.