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50 Years Ago: Impact of Airplanes on Rural New Guinea

Innovation and discovery as chronicled in past issues of Scientific American

MAY 1959
THE COLOR OF LIGHT: 
“No student of color vision can fail to be awed by the sensitive discernment with which the eye responds to the variety of stimuli it receives. Recently my colleagues and I have learned that this mechanism is far more wonderful than had been thought. The eye makes distinctions of amazing subtlety. It does not need nearly so much information as actually flows to it from the everyday world. It can build colored worlds of its own out of informative materials that have always been supposed to be inherently drab and colorless.
—Edwin H. Land” [founder of Polaroid Corporation]

“CARGO CULT” ANTHROPOLOGY:
“In the central highlands of New Guinea the sudden transition from the society of the stone ax to the society of sailing ships (and now of airplanes) has not been easy to make. As the agents of the Australian Government penetrate into ever more remote mountain valleys, they find these backwaters of antiquity already deeply disturbed by contact with the ideas and artifacts of European civilization. For ‘cargo’—Pidgin Eng­lish for trade goods—has long flowed along the indigenous channels of communications from the seacoast into the wilderness. These people are only the latest to be gripped in the recurrent religious frenzy of the ‘cargo cults.’ These cults, however variously embellished with details from native myth and Christian belief, all advance the same central theme: the world is about to end in a terrible cataclysm. Thereafter God, the ancestors or some local culture hero will appear and inaugurate a blissful paradise on Earth.”
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MAY 1909
POWER DIGGER:
“Like the poor, new ideas for tunneling through rock and doing away with drilling and powder and dangerous blasting are forever with us. Since 1853 there have been no less than sixty-nine patents granted on tunneling machines. The one shown in the photograph was constructed in the East and shipped to Georgetown, Colo. Ready for work, it weighs 29 tons. Its huge frame holds ten monster crushing heads. The machine works on the principle of pulverizing the rock instead of cutting it. It is claimed that if each head penetrates but the thickness of a sheet of paper with each blow, it will cut at the rate of an inch a minute.”

E.T., MIRROR HOME:
“Much excitement has been created by Prof. Pickering’s proposal to build a system of mirrors, by means of which light can be rhythmically flashed to Mars. According to Prof. Pickering, a system of reflecting surfaces of adequate area could be constructed at a cost of $10,000,000. Would it be worth while to carry out the idea? If an answering signal should be received, it would be safe to say that the event would transcend in interest and importance the most stirring occurrence in the history of the earth, and would inaugurate a new era in the progress of the human race. Even in the face of this tremendously alluring, but exceedingly remote possibility, it seems to us that the $10,000,000 could be more worthily expended elsewhere.”

MAY 1859
RECESSION LUXURY?:
“An ingenious individual, of Liskeard, Cornwall, England, has, for some time past, been exhibiting himself in a dress composed from top to toe of rat-skins, which he has been collecting for three years and a half. The dress was made entirely by himself; it consists of hat, neckerchief, coat, waistcoat, trousers, tippet, gaiters, and shoes. The number of rats required to complete the suit was six hundred and seventy; and the individual, when thus dressed, appears exactly like that of the Esquimaux described in the travels of Parry and Ross.”

This article was originally published with the title "Eye and Spectrum Calling Mars Ratwear."

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