Technologies of Destruction: STS Faculty Reflect

STS Faculty, Technology

In this second entry in our series asking STS faculty to reflect on moments in science and technology that they find particularly interesting or meaningful (read the first entry here), Lilias Jones Jarding, Joshua Houy, and Frank Van Nuys address technologies of destruction and violence. Some – like nuclear weapons – are directed at humans; others – like coyote-getters – at nonhumans. All, however, have their limits.

Lilias Jones Jarding – The “Fizzle” Missile

In the 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, a thousand Minuteman nuclear missiles were placed in underground silos in the rural areas of North and South Dakota, Missouri, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. This included 150 missiles east and north of Ellsworth Air Force Base. This deadly arsenal was removed in the 1990s after the Cold War ended, but for 30 years farmers and ranchers in these areas lived with nuclear weapons sites in their pastures and fields. These missiles were billed as a (very expensive) technological marvel, but they weren’t always seen that way. In 1968, the Air Force decided to demonstrate the launch of a missile near Grand Forks, ND. Spectators included one of the state’s US Senators, Milton R. Young. Showing that even technological marvels have their limits, the missile ignited twice, but failed to launch – earning the nickname “the Fizzle Missile.”

White missile standing in a field.
Minuteman Missile at Chanute Airbase in Rantoul, Illinois. Photo by Chris Light.

Joshua Houy – Nuclear Weapons

I teach International Relations. When asked what is one of my favorite bits of information about science/technology, my mind turns to the invention I find most interesting as it relates to International Relations: nuclear weapons.

In the short view, nuclear weapons are probably underappreciated for their deterrent effect. After all, notwithstanding several questionable wars, the globe has been relatively peaceful since the advent of the nuclear weapon. In the long view, however, nuclear weapons may, ultimately, be the undoing of humanity.

Nuclear weapons were and are developed by some of the most impressive minds. Hopefully, however, a day will soon come when many of our best and brightest harness their talents towards technology which may save, instead of extinguish, humanity. There are indications that day may soon be here.

It has been observed that many college students leave the academy with impressively developed minds, but also with tiny, shriveled-up hearts. Having the privilege of working with some of most gifted young scientific minds in our region, I can tell you none of my students are aiming to work on weapons of mass destruction. Instead, the students I know are researching ways to create sustainable farming, chemicals, and automobiles. Of course, these are just some positive anecdotes in what appears to be an increasingly unsettled world. Nonetheless, it is heartening how many young people are not only developing their minds in all kinds of sophisticated ways but also developing their hearts, with the hopes of saving, not destroying, our wondrous planet.

Colorized image of a mushroom cloud with blue sea, palm trees, and beach in the foreground.
A nuclear weapon is detonated at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1946. (Image has been colorized.)

Frank Van Nuys – Coyote-Getters

In researching and writing on predator control in the American West, one of many continuities in the story I wound up trying to tell concerned science and technology. The variety of methods used by the many individuals and government agencies involved in attempting to clear Western lands of “varmints” ranged from guns to traps to strychnine and other poisons. One of the most popular devices that came along in the 20th century was the so-called “coyote-getter.” Pitched by early advocates in the 1940s as more humane than steel traps, this simple contraption was basically a short steel pistol barrel containing a cartridge charged with sodium cyanide. Once tapped into the ground and hooded with a scented piece of wool or fur, the device was intended to lure curious coyotes into tugging on the end and causing the cartridge to explode and shoot the poison directly into the animal’s mouth, killing it within minutes. Predator control experts with the US Fish and Wildlife Service discovered, however, that this supposedly “humane” technique did not always work and could cause excruciating agony for the coyotes that triggered it. Moreover, cattle, sheep dogs, and some people have also been injured or killed by coyote-getters. Opponents of lethal predator control methods have emphasized the indiscriminate consequences of this small innovation as one way to shift public attitudes about the value of coyotes and other predatory animals. These consequences fed the ire of conservationists, whose increasingly effective campaigns against coyote-getters and other predator control methods reflected important shifts in public attitudes about the value of coyotes and other predators after World War II. A technology seen as essential to the viability of the livestock industry and ranching culture in the American West clashed with social values aligned with urban populations and the rise of environmentalism.

Small cylinder placed in a hole in the ground.
Close-up of a set M-44 device, or coyote-getter.

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