Fear and Imagination

Interesting anecdote from World War II.

Posted on August 27, 2012 at 7:06 PM • 13 Comments

Comments

anonymous, obviouslyAugust 27, 2012 8:16 PM

It seems like a silly thing to believe in, but allow if you will this anecdote from my own experience. 3 years ago, me and my wife, my mother and aunt, and my wife's best friend were all vacationing at Topsail Island in North Carolina. All 3 of our cars' engines stopped with no apparent reason at almost the exact same point (within 100 yards) between the beach and the trailer my mom was staying at on three different nights - my wife's one night, my aunt's another, my wife's friend's another. It seems very unlikely that this would be purely coincidence, although I freely admit we all experience more one-in-a-million events than we even realize.

anonymous, obviouslyAugust 27, 2012 8:52 PM

OK, I promise I won't spam this board with any more paranoid claptrap after this, but since you got me thinking about it, I went searching, and there is a company, Eureka Aerospace, developing a car-stopping ray that they say uses microwaves to disable a "modern" car which uses microprocessors to control the engine. Popular Science (perhaps not the most skeptical of science writers, but a step above the folks at Weekly World News, certainly) made a video segment that Eureka reposted at youtube that does seem to show an effective test. I don't know if Eureka's technology is supposed to permanently fry a car's electronics, but our cars restarted just fine as soon we got them to a complete stop and put them back into park.

MagruderAugust 27, 2012 9:36 PM

Reminds me of an episode in the novel Catch-22: Yossarian, a U.S. bomber pilot in Europe during WWII, makes up a story about a new German weapon, the "LePage Glue Gun" that can glue together a formation of airplanes in mid-air. After spreading the story around his squadron, someone repeats it to him, and he panics, thinking that it's true.

SteveAugust 27, 2012 9:58 PM

Pardon my scepticism but German TV in WW II?

Even if they were experimenting with television, why would it interfere with engine ignition systems? It's not as if there was a lot of electronics in vehicles at the time.

Did I misread the article or am I missing something fundamental about either early 1940s automobiles or television technology?

JonAugust 27, 2012 10:45 PM

"Did I misread the article"

Yes.

The TV transmitter wasn't interfering with the cars.

The cars were interfering with the transmitter, so the 'guards' halted the cars during tests, then allowed them to procede once the test was over.

Bruce ClementAugust 28, 2012 12:33 AM

@Steve

"The Germans had a 441-line system on the air in February 1937, and during World War II brought it to France, where they broadcast from the Eiffel Tower."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

Interestingly enough my late father was a radio engineer in the RAF during WWII and years later (in the early 1970s) told me how the British built a powerful receiver on the channel coast to watch the German controlled Paris television. The Germans didn't realise that TV could be received from that far away and used to screen news about British bombing damage for propaganda purposes. The British used the film to get confirmation of how effective their bombing raids on France were.

There's some information on http://www.earlytelevision.org/raf.html that nowhere contradicts what I remember some 40 years later of Dad's tales although he talked about the receiver as something that was already fully operational when he knew of it.

WillAugust 28, 2012 1:19 AM

The book, Most Secret War by R.V. Jones, is an absolute must-buy. A gazillion times better than this shallow write-up.

observerAugust 28, 2012 7:57 AM

Back in the 1970s, electronic ignition systems were introduced into mass market cars. There was a reported problem that nearby land mobile transmitters (think police cars) would cause such systems to fail.

I cannot find a source for this right now, but I was reliably informed that GM was spending several million a year trying to make car systems immune to such radio frequency interference.

Well, today systems have been hardened and modern wireless systems (cellular, pcs, 4G, whatever) operate at lower powers and higher frequencies so such effects should be less common.

I doubt if the ignition system of a 1940 automobile would be particularly vulnerable to such interference---at least at power levels lower than those required to cook the driver. (Mechanical breaker, mechanical fuel pump, generator not alternator with semiconductor diodes, etc. The only engines that I can think of that would be harder to stop with RFI would be a diesel with a mechanical fuel pump or an 1890s steam engine).

Observer

NobodySpecialAugust 28, 2012 10:26 AM

@observer - the point of the story is that the car never stopped due to the transmitter.
A soldier/official came out and told them to stop (so they wouldn't interfere with the TV experiment).

Then either in the imagination of the driver - or the authorities actually told them this - they assumed that the transmitter would stop the car and the car and the guard went in to turn it off so they could proceed.

There is a suggestion that modern car electronics can be affected by high power radar - there have been stories of certain models cutting out near big missile defence radar installations. That these are always officially denied only adds to the rumour.

RandyAugust 28, 2012 2:50 PM

That's nothing. Every time I run my microwave, squirrels fall out of the tree next to my house.

RogerAugust 30, 2012 9:29 AM

Another endorsement for "Most Secret War"; brilliant writing by a briliant scientiest who lived a fascinating life.

As for stopping (modern) cars near high powered radar installations: I can easily believe it. Some of those things have pulsed power peaks in the megawatts.

I know of a mountain lookout that is unfortunately close to a 200 kW TV transmitter tower. It is common for sightseers to find they are unable to restart a modern car until it has been towed some distance down the road. In this case, the problem seems mainly to be that the key fob link to the engine immobiliser is jammed, so the car's security system can't be deactivated.

SteveSeptember 1, 2012 8:39 PM

Thanks to Bruce Clement for the history lesson.

And thanks to Jon for the reading lesson. I placed too much emphasis on the quoted section and apparently skipped or skimmed the section thereafter.

D'oh.

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