NeverEnding Stories: Chemical Warfare

Vintage gas mask i i
iStock
Vintage gas mask
iStock

While exploring the archives of American newspapers, I discovered a chilling interview — conducted more than 100 years ago — with a creator of chemical weapons.

The story, which appeared in the Atlanta Constitution on Feb. 4, 1912, was buried deep in the paper. The British chemist is not named; nor is the reporter.

Its relevance to contemporary news is remarkable.

Talking to a group of retired military officers, the scientist is described as "a benevolent looking old gentleman" with a white beard and mild blue eyes. He speaks matter-of-factly of spreading synthetic maliciousness and disease germs — instead of using bullets — as ways to wage war.

"Chemical warfare is at once the newest and oldest form of fighting," he says. "It is an elaboration and a highly skilled adaptation of the Chinese 'stink-pots' and the Greek fire of the Middle Ages.

"Its chief advantage is that, whereas modern weapons depend entirely on impact, chemical weapons do not. In other words, a shell in chemical warfare is near enough to kill a man if it lands a quarter of a mile away."

He then describes one of his own deadly inventions called Blindite. "It was an accidental discovery with which I nearly blinded myself," he says, adding that one small shell containing Blindite could blind everyone in a 15-by-12 foot room.

He goes on to tell of death-dealing fogs and flames and "other chemicals I have which when burst in a shell would cause instant deaths from poisonous fumes."

And, he concludes, "there is the possibility — quite simple to conceive — of filling a shell with germs of bacilli, which would fill the enemy's atmosphere with dreadful diseases, poison their water supply, or set up an epidemic more deadly than any battle in the history of the world."

Driven by reporting, The Protojournalist is an exploration into the infinite possibilities of storytelling. @NPRtpj

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