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In 1874, one man; an inventor of considerable genius, was reported to have completely reversed the effect of the sun. In the scorching heat of the mid-summer Nevada desert, he was found frozen stiff by Indians – his beard covered in frost and an icicle over a foot in length hanging from his nose. That man was Jonathon Newhouse, the genius inventor of solar armor.
Yet, is the fate of our curious inventor, that of being frozen to death at the height of summer? Or was this a desert mirage; a tale of smoke screens that involved literary geniuses and commanded international media? Environmental Graffiti investigates.
First printed in the Territorial Enterprise on July 2, 1874, the story soon appeared in other publications including Scientific American, The New York Times and The Daily Telegraph, which at the time had the largest circulation in the world.
Jonathon Newhouse was reported to have created “solar armor” – equipment, which would protect a subject from the heat of the sun when crossing deserts. The armor was described as an inch-thick, water-drenched “long, close-fitting jacket made of common sponge and a cap or hood of the same material.” The armor also had a sack filled with water, with a tube leading to the hood to rehydrate the suit. All the wearer had to do was occasionally press the sack.
Newhouse then went to Death Valley to try his gear out. He set off one morning from the camp, claiming as he strapped on his suit that he’d be back in two days. The result, was reported in the paper:
The next day, an Indian who could speak but a few words of English came to the camp in a great state of excitement. He made the men understand that he wanted them to follow him. At the distance of about twenty miles out into the desert, the Indian pointed to a human figure seated against a rock. Approaching, they found it to be Newhouse still in his armor. He was dead and frozen stiff. His beard was covered with frost and – though the noonday sun poured down its fiercest rays – an icicle over a foot in length hung from his nose. There he had perished miserably, because his armor had worked but too well, and because it was laced up behind where he could not reach the fastenings.
When the story reached the Daily Telegraph, they reacted with some skepticism:
The marvelous stories which come from “the plains” are apt to be received with incredulity by our transatlantic kinsmen who dwell upon the Eastern seaboard of the United States. We confess that, although the fate of Mr. Newhouse is related by the Western journal au grande serieux, we should require some additional confirmation before we unhesitatingly accept it.
They were, of course absolutely right.
So what was actually going on?
The article was written by William Wright, better known as Dan De Quille; a colleague of Mark Twain’s at the Territorial Enterprise. The piece, as well as the solar armor was a complete hoax; an utter fantasy that spread very slowly across international media. It went viral before mass communication and propagated as a semi-ficticious urban legend, before the times of the internet.
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