History Book: A maritime milestone, and a Texas tragedy

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, November 18th. So glad you’ve joined us today! Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD Radio History Book.

Today, twenty years ago, a tragic accident at Texas A&M University. Plus, a scientific hoax is revealed. 

EICHER: But first, the story of one of the last clipper ships England ever built. Here’s Paul Butler.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: The Cutty Sark left the Dumbarton, Scotland, shipyard on November 22nd, 1869. 

NEWSREEL: In her heyday, she carried wool from Australia and tea from China. Her highest speed was 17 and a half knots, and she held a tea clippers record of 363 miles in 24 hours…

Clipper ships were the pinnacle of sailing technology, and the Cutty Sark was perhaps the best example of these great vessels. 

The three masted clipper boasted 32,000 square feet of sail—nearly three quarters of an acre of cloth. The ship could make the trip from Australia to London in 83 days—more than three weeks faster than any other ships on the route. 

But with improvements in steam ship design, the clipper was relegated to less glamorous work. By the 1950s the Cutty Sark was no longer useful. Thanks to the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, the clipper was saved as a museum ship.

NEWSREEL: Proudly flying a pennant bearing her name, she moves up the Thames passing the meridian line of Greenwich, on toward the dry dock where she will remain a memorial to the days of sail. 

After 50 years on display, the ship was closed to visitors to undergo extensive restoration. On May 21st, 2007, Londoners awoke to terrible news…

AP NEWSCAST: Amateur video captures a massive fire burning through one of London’s most famous tourist attractions: the clipper ship, Cutty Sark…

While the damage is severe, much of the ship’s skin wasn’t on site during the fire and restoration work continued. 

Five years later, at a cost of more than $80 million, the museum ship reopened to the public. It’s now raised 11 feet off the ground and surrounded by a glass sea. That gives visitors a fish-eye view of the handsome ship. 

MUSIC: [Scottish Reel]

Next, November 21st, 1953:

NEWSREEL: Britain’s Natural History Museum is all a dither over a scandal concerning the “Piltdown Man.” One of the most famous fossil skulls in the world is declared to be in part a hoax. It was presumed to date back half a million years… 

The Natural History Museum announces that the “Piltdown Man” is a hoax. 

In 1908, an amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson discovered the remains near Piltdown, East Sussex, England. Four years later he returned to the area with a digging team and found more parts of the skull and jawbone. 

Even though some scientists doubted the discovery, news of the “missing link” spread rapidly. The “Piltdown Man” became a powerful tool in promoting Darwinistic human evolution. 

It took more than four decades before the scientific forgery was fully uncovered. Turns out, someone took thick human skull pieces and chemically stained the bones to alter their appearance—making them look very old. They grabbed a broken jawbone from an orangutan, filed down the teeth to make them look more human, and stained those pieces as well. Then someone took all the parts and buried them. 

NEWSREEL: Today comes the shocking news that this is skullduggery. Mr. Piltdown is branded a phony…

In the more than 60 years since the announcement, many have tried to determine who instigated the hoax. More than a dozen suspects exist, but the most likely seems to be the discoverer Charles Dawson—though most agree he probably wasn’t alone in the plot. 

SONG: [I Wanna Be Like You—Disney’s Jungle Book]

And finally, November 18th, 1999:

BROKAW: Good evening, this was to have been a big Thanksgiving week at Texas A and M, home of the Aggies. But tonight, Texas is in mourning. In College Station, a huge pile of logs set up for the traditional bonfire collapsed… 

At the time of the accident, the Aggie Bonfire was a 90 year tradition.

What began as a simple fire in 1907 became an elaborate ritual—a way of expressing the “burning desire” to beat the University of Texas in the yearly rival football game. 

In the early morning hours of November 18th, the 58 member student crew was hard at work on the 5-thousand log pile. It reached 59-feet in the air. But some of the cables holding the lower layers together gave way under the pressure and the structure toppled, killing 12 students and injuring 27 others.

A memorial now stands on the site of the accident. It features a large concrete ring with 12 doorways oriented toward the hometowns of those who died.

SONG: [Texas A&M—We Bleed Maroon]

That’s this week’s WORLD Radio History Book, I’m Paul Butler.

(Photo/Natural History Museum) Piltdown Man cranium and mandible as reconstructed by Dr Arthur Smith Woodward (L) and Professor Arthur Keith (R) 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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