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“Pieces of meat passed high overhead…”


Farewell to George Thomas Thornton, an American visionary who understood that few dreams are worth pursuing that don’t involve dynamite and the rotting carcasses of charismatic megafauna.

While Thornton’s decision to obliterate a sperm whale in November 1970 would, decades later, bring him lasting internet fame, he was also very much a product of his own, dreamier historical moment. Operation Plowshare was in mid-swing, as the George Thorntons staffing the Atomic Energy Commission imagined using nuclear blasts to excavate harbors, widen canals, stimulate natural gas flows, and rupture oil shale deposits. Nuclear blasts, so far as I’m aware, were never seriously considered as instruments for carcass removal or as a means of dispersing carrion for seagulls and crabs, but Americans are well known for their failures of imagination. George Thornton offered us a brief glimpse into a better world; we are diminished for having chosen not to follow him.


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  • anthrofred

    Ah, the 70s, when “land-blubber newsmen” still pronounced “wh-” as [hw]. I forgot how wonderful that clip was.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Hey, don’t diss my dialect! Lots of us northern Ohioans of a certain age have that sound natively (in “where” and “when” too), and we’re not all landlubbers (though I’m fairly sure that Lake Erie is a cetacean-free zone).

      • efgoldman

        I’m fairly sure that Lake Erie is a cetacean-free zone

        Are you sure? After all that pollution and the river burning, there’s probably some kind of Loch Ness/Godzilla mutant just waiting… waiting….

      • anthrofred

        This may be true, but they used to actually teach that rule as part of American Standard English for people in journamalism school. Now you can just let your accent flag fly.

      • ajay

        though I’m fairly sure that Lake Erie is a cetacean-free zone

        Or, as we say nowadays, [cetacean needed].

  • The finest my home state had to offer. RIP.

  • efgoldman

    Fodder for so many Dave Barry columns.

  • Hogan

    If you know a better way to break up a whale carcass in ten seconds, I’d like to hear it.

    • anthrofred

      Hey, you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break a few eggs. And automobiles. And cover people in rotting fat.

    • Put it between the front doors of a WalMart and this year’s “hot toy” on Black Friday.

      • anthrofred

        I think you’ve just described next year’s “Wipeout!” course.

    • how about outsourcing it to a herd of rednecks with several kegs of beer and Sawzalls?

    • Jon H

      Announce there’s an AR-15 inside that goes to whoever finds it.

      • Hogan

        Sounds like a remake of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

  • Barry Freed

    Nuclear blasts, so far as I’m aware, were never seriously considered as instruments for carcass removal or as a means of dispersing carrion for seagulls and crabs, but Americans are well known for their failures of imagination.

    Because using nukes would be overkill for your ordinary, run-of-the-mill dead whale disposal. Now if you’ve a dead kaiju carcass on your hands then that’s just what the doctor ordered.

  • DocAmazing

    Back in the Viridian List days, Bruce Sterling pointed out that nuclear power adocates never included homemakers, who would have asked the basic question “Where does the garbage go?”

  • zombie rotten mcdonald

    “textbook whale removal”

  • heckblazer

    When I was in college we didn’t have YouTube or barely even the web. If you wanted to download a video of an exploding whale you had to find a newsgroup posting of the binary files, spend hours downloading them and then paste them together into one video file. And we liked it!

    (True story too. The exploding whale was the first video I ever downloaded and that was the process).

    • Hanspeter

      You forgot the uudecode step, followed by the realization that part 5/36 went part 6/36 after that failed, and you better hoped you had a big enough HD to save all 36 parts AND the single file.

    • Jon H

      I first saw it in 94 or 95, at my first job out of college, projected on a screen in a conference room at Swiss Bank in Chicago.

      That was a situation I hadn’t expected.

  • arghous

    Americans are well known for their failures of imagination? What? Nuclear blasts were never seriously considered as instruments for carcass removal? Are you kidding me?

    Are you telling me you’ve never heard of those brought to Earth, stacked around volcanos, and blown up with hydrogen bombs? Sounds like someone needs some serious auditing.

    • Lee Rudolph


  • russiannavyblog

    If you ever need to excavate a salt dome, have I got a device for you!

  • I knew of Operation Plowshare, but did not know that nuclear fracking had been a part of it. How we have declined from those heroic days.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      well, christ, now we have something to make hydraulic fracking look sensible and sustainable

    • Alan Tomlinson

      It required a truly forward-thinking government to grasp the brass ring.


      Alan Tomlinson

    • FMguru

      Reading the wiki article, I see that one of the plans was to use nuclear explosions as an ongoing energy source. Nuclear explosions produce an enormous amount of heat, and if you bury them deep enough all that heat is trapped in the earth, so you just have to drill some wells and circulate some water and voila – safe, reliable energy! When it cools down, you just dig another hole and set off another bomb. And another.

      There’s just so much crazy shit around the Cold War (see also: the Flying Crowbar nuclear-powered bomber, or the Farewell Dossier, or the Davy Crocket tactical nuclear rocket, or…).
      Someone really should gather it up, put it into context, publish it as a book. Schloesser’s recent COMMAND AND CONTROL (which I hope gets reviewed here soon, I thought it was pretty good) touched on some of it, but there’s so much more to be brought to light.

      • Alex H.

        Compared to Project Orion, most of the Plowshare ideas sound pretty tame, actually. At least none of them would involve sequential nuclear airbursts at steadily increasing altitudes….

  • PeakVT

    Still my favorite clip on all the intertubes.

    • to my mind, one of the few latter=-day Dave Barry columns that are funnier than the source material.

    • Alan Tomlinson

      Of the classic videos from back then, I find this one to be hard to top.


      Alan Tomlinson

      • (the other) Davis

        If we’re going to talk chemistry, Theodore Gray’s sodium party is a pretty classic set of fiery videos.

  • Hogan

    Two posts in two days? Be still, my heart.

    • davenoon

      Believe me, I’m as surprised as anyone.

  • Mr. Madame Psychosis

    Early 70’s audio technology prevented this from being heard on the clip but it was rumored that on-site witnesses close to the whale could hear, just before the blast,–

    “I work for Mr. E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad and he entrusted me . . .”

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