Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Aug. 4 2015 1:29 PM

The Delicately Balanced Beauty of Krishna’s Butter Ball 

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Forever (hopefully) perched on a steep rock slope in the historic town of Mahabalipuram, India, the massive round boulder known as Krishna's Butter Ball refuses to give in to gravity or the shoves of tourists.

The giant boulder appears to be frozen in its roll down the hill it sits on, and no one is quite sure why. The boulder is likely a glacial erratic that got stranded in a serendipitous position on the hill, but local legend has another version of the story. According to Hindu mythology, when the great god Krishna was just a baby, he was fond of stealing butter. Following this tradition, the big orange stone has been likened to a giant dollop of purloined butter that the god dropped.


The actual name of the stone is Vaan Irai Kal, which translates to Sky God's Stone, and according to one source, the more playful name was given to the rock by a local tour guide. However it got its sort of silly name, it stuck.

Reinforcing the stone's strangely balanced position, the slippery stone slope is used by local children as a slide. Today Krishna's Butter Ball is a popular tourist attraction. Visitors to the site love to get behind the stone and try to push it down the hill. So far no human power has been able to budge the buttery boulder.

Best of all, sometimes the local goats climb on top of it. It's adorable.

More wonders to explore:

Video Advertisement

Aug. 3 2015 2:32 PM

Journey to the Center of the Hollow Earth Monument

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

While Jules Verne may have been the most famous writer to expound on the concept that the Earth is hollow, Journey to the Center of the Earth was explicitly a work of fiction.

Early-1800s lecturer John Symmes Jr., however, wanted to let people know that Verne's visions were not as fantastic as they seemed. Ohio's Hollow Earth Monument honors the man's spurious science.


Symmes' Hollow Earth Theory posits exactly what you'd think: that the Earth is in fact hollow. According to Symmes, the empty center of the planet is accessible via shafts located at the north and south poles of the planet, as though Earth is some sort of celestial jewelry bead.

While the theory seems far-fetched by modern standards, Symmes was able to garner a strong amount of interest in the concept via his lecture tours, where he displayed his research into the magnetic fields that he claimed were proof of the holes at the poles. Symmes garnered so much interest that he actually got Congress to vote on funding that would allow him to mount expeditions to the polar regions in the 1820s, where he guaranteed they would find the entrances to the center of the planet. Unfortunately for him, the government did not share Symmes' sense of wonder and the grant was voted down.

After the rigors of the lecture circuit took their toll, Symmes retired to Hamilton, Ohio, where he would eventually died in 1829. One of Symmes' acolytes, Jeremiah Reynolds, continued the Hollow Earth cause for a time, even finding a ship to take him to Antarctica in search of one of the entrances to the inner Earth. Nothing was ever found.

Symmes is remembered by a monument in Hamilton, Ohio's Ludlow Park, which features an abstract hollow Earth, atop a stone pedestal and a plaque that explains his theory. Quackery or not, Symmes' sci-fi theories will not be forgotten anytime soon.

More wonders to explore:

July 31 2015 12:12 PM

What It Was Like to Seek Asylum in Medieval England

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

So you are in 13th-century England and you’ve been accused of, or maybe have actually committed, a murder. To be taken into custody and tried would likely result in execution, so you need to go to ground, fast.


The right to sanctuary, as the tradition is called, is probably best known through the titular outcast of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who used the protective right to save his true love. But it actually dates all the way back to traditions from the ancient Greece and Rome, yet surprisingly survived (in a much changed form) into the 17th century.

Taking refuge in these miraculous safe zones, though, was far more complicated and dangerous than most people think.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a similar concept of sanctuary from which the romanticized medieval laws grew. In Greek and Roman society, all temples to the gods could harbor runaway slaves and criminals to a certain extent. These early asylums were established under the belief that the gods (or god) were inviolable, and thus their temples and holy sites shared this untouchable aspect. Of course, these sites were not just hidey holes where fugitives could go to thumb their nose at the authorities; petitioners for sanctuary had to atone and pay penance for their crimes.

According to Karl Shoemaker, associate professor of history and law at the University of Wisconsin and author of Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500, it was from these examples of holy forgiveness that the better-known version of medieval sanctuary sprung. The earliest Christians were aware that pagan temples offered sanctuary for criminals, and they did not want to be shown up in their piety by their pagan rivals. Thus, criminals could be offered protection within Christian churches as well, with the added benefit that asylum seekers might be converted or offered a chance to repent.

The Sanctuary Knocker at Durham Cathedral

Photo: dun_deagh/Creative Commons

Shoemaker explains that as Christianity spread across Europe, sanctuary protections came along with it, supported by the church as well as the various crowns. Thanks to the precise and pervasive record-keeping of the English, their codified and standardized version of sanctuary procedure is the process best known today.

In order forasylum seekers to gain sanctuary, they had to simply enter a church and wait for an appointed officer of the crown (known as a coroner) to arrive. Once the coroner arrived, the seekers had to confess to their crime, whether they committed it or not, and they were then under the protection of the church. In some cases, more specific action was required, such as ringing a certain bell, sitting down on a special bench (known as a “frith-stool”), or wrapping their hand around a special door-knocker, as was the case at the Durham Cathedral, and giving it a rap, not unlike a historic, legal version of freeze tag.

During the existence of English sanctuary laws, which lasted until 1624, countless thousands of felons claimed sanctuary. Shoemaker claims that “in some counties as many as half of the recorded felonies would end in a sanctuary claim rather than a trial.” This could be even higher in some counties, where up to two-thirds of all the felonies were “resolved” in a sanctuary. During this period all Christian churches offered sanctuary within their walls. Certain churches also offered a widened area of protection that was extended to areas surrounding the church, demarcated by monuments known as “sanctuary stones” or “sanctuary crosses” Those churches (there were at least 22, including Westminster Abbey) that offered a wider sanctuary usually had to be approved by a charter from the king.

The vast majority of asylum seekers were fleeing from capital crimes such as murder and theft, which surprisingly often carried the death penalty in those days. Other offences, such as rape and arson, were also not unheard of.

Shoemaker walked us through a typical (and hypothetical) scenario:

Two guys are drinking in a tavern. They get a little too deep into their cups. Violence erupts. One of them pulls a knife. In the fight, he kills, whether on purpose or a little accidentally, the other guy. First thing he’s gonna do in that situation, if he’s in England any time between 1300 and the abolition of sanctuary in 1624, is run to the nearest church. He’ll enter the church and he’ll wait until [the coroner] arrives. When that man arrives, the fugitive will confess—he’ll say, “I killed so-and-so. I claim sanctuary.”
The coroner will write that down, and then at some point, months or perhaps even years later, when royal judges come into that vicinity to administer justice, that man’s crime, and his sanctuary claim, will be reported into the judicial record. Then the last thing that will happen is that the killer will what they call “abjure the realm”—that is, he will swear an oath to leave England and never return.
The Sanctuary Ring at Notre Dame

Photo: myrabella/Creative Commons

Once their sanctuary was resolved in this way, the fugitives would have to forfeit all of their possessions, money, and land to the crown, and get the hell out of Dodge, so to speak. The traditional custom was that the abjuring fugitive would dress in the clothes of a penitent (a simple tunic, no shoes, no hat), and head for the nearest port, where ship’s captains were required to take them on, and ferry them abroad, often to Ireland or France. Unfortunately, between the crusaders’ garb marking their status as a criminal, ensuring a less than friendly (if not outright hostile) journey out of the country, and their new, penniless life in a new country, leaving sanctuary was no free ride.

Through much of the existence of English sanctuary laws, fugitives would be given about 40 days to remain in the church, setting their affairs in order and generally preparing for their journey to exile. While they remained within the prescribed sanctuary grounds, their protection was sacrosanct. It was not unheard of for people to take justice into their own hands, although abusing or messing with fugitives in sanctuary held heavy penalties for the perpetrators.

As the centuries rolled on, the length of sanctuary afforded to fugitives began to increase, with many churches extending their fugitives indefinite stays. This form of sanctuary began looking pretty attractive to some criminals, who would flock to these church safehouses, essentially forming small dens of thieves under the protection of the church. Again from Shoemaker: “We have evidence of [the fugitives] are going out in marauding bands. Robbing shopkeepers, robbing others. Then retreating back to these sanctuaries.” This began to change the perception of church sanctuaries among the people of England, and was likely the death knell of English sanctuary law.

Shoemaker believes that the changing nature of the role of law during the late 16th century in English society was the ultimate downfall of church asylum. Previously, sanctuary was seen as an act of kindness, forgiveness, and piety on the part of both Christianity and the crown. But as the feeling that an effective criminal system would deter wrongdoing through punishment began to grow in the country, the view of sanctuary’s penitent treatment of fugitives seemed only to be rewarding the criminal acts by allowing asylum seekers to avoid the official penalty.

Slowly, sanctuary laws were rolled back. The eligible number of crimes were reduced. By 1624, standard sanctuary laws were abolished, and fugitives were no safer in a church than they were in the streets.

More wonders to explore:

July 30 2015 1:24 PM

The Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Consisting of little more than a dirt landing strip marked by a raggedy windsock, the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport in the northern part of Green River, Wyoming has been courting alien visitors since the mid-90's.

In 1994, NASA learned that Jupiter was in some danger of being hit by a number of errant fragments of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet. The impacts were of great interest to the scientific community, but since the gas giant has never been thought to harbor intelligent life, the disaster seemed to be mostly academic. However a lack of evidence of sentient life on Jupiter did not deter the city planners of Green River, Wyoming, who embraced America's heritage as a refuge for the poor and huddled masses by making ready for any potential Jovian refugees.


Realizing that there would be nowhere for homeless aliens to land, the city officially renamed their 5,000-foot landing strip the "Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport." Of course this change was not without opposition by residents, who noted the already existing housing shortage and extant issue of terrestrial immigration. Luckily the city planners won out and the spaceport was made official, even getting approval from the FAA, who either have a hidden sense of humor, or know more than they are letting on.

To this day the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport has not seen any extraterrestrial landings, but with galactic turmoil being an almost constant threat, its good to know that the United States has its arms open to the interstellar community.

More wonders to explore:

July 29 2015 11:40 AM

An Alley Dedicated to the Nicest Guy in Rock Music

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Possibly only the second alley in the world to be named for a rock artist (after Oklahoma's Flaming Lips Alley), Ohio's David Grohl Alley celebrates the career of the acclaimed drummer (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) with a collection of devotional fan creations, including the world's largest drum sticks.

Surprisingly, turning the formerly filthy byway in Grohl's hometown of Warren, Ohio, into a shrine dedicated to the musician was the brainchild of a police sergeant. Warren native Joe O'Grady had seen his city begin to decline and realized the inspiration that Grohl could bring to the local youth, and with this in mind, he lobbied the city council to change the name of a dingy alley and then spearheaded the cleanup and renovation of the space himself. O'Grady contacted local artists to create various tributes to Grohl, including statues, murals, and paintings honoring the man and his copious musical projects. 


Grohl himself attended the dedication of the alley in 2009 (proving himself once again to be one of the nicest guys in rock), which was repaved and is now a well-lit public gallery equipped with security cameras. Wishing the site to continue being an asset to the community, O'Grady commissioned the construction of the world's largest drum sticks, inspired by other "world's largest" attractions across the country. The massive drum sticks weigh 900 pounds each, made of a single log apiece.

More wonders to explore:

July 28 2015 3:20 PM

The Cave Where Jon Snow Lost His Virginity

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

We get it, Iceland. Every inch of your serene volcanic landscapes is filled with beauty and is very likely hiding some secret natural wonder. Like this fissure in the ground; instead of opening into a deadly abyss, it holds the natural hot spring known as Grjótagjá, a stunning cave pool that people can bathe in. 

The beautiful natural hot spring is located near Lake Mývatn and has been used as a bathing spot for locals for as long as anyone can remember. The waters in the shimmering cavern are heated by volcanic activity deep in the earth, making it the perfect spot to take a dip in the freezing Icelandic winters. In addition to being a popular bathing spot, the cave served as a redoubt for 18th-century Icelandic outlaw Jón Markússon.


In 1975, when one of the nearby volcanoes began to erupt, the water temperature rose to dangerous levels, and while the cave in the fissure could still be visited, people were no longer permitted to bathe in the hot waters. Lately the temperature of the waters has begun to fall and people are being allowed to jump in the waters once again. However, the status of the pools seems to be a bit tenuous, so visitors may want to check with local guides before trying to take a dip.

The cave is so beautiful and fantastical that it actually made its way into the fantasy canon when it was used as the secret sex cave where Jon Snow sealed his deal with Ygritte, in the Game of Thrones Season 3 episode Kissed by Fire. Great job, Iceland, you no longer simply seem like something out of a fantasy novel, you actually are.

More wonders to explore:

July 27 2015 5:00 PM

The Man Who Carved a Road Through a Mountain

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Forget reality shows about the subject; the ultimate tale of man vs. nature may be the story of Dashrath Manjhi, who single-handedly carved a road through an entire mountain that had been isolating his village from essential services.

The Gehlour hills are a low-but-treacherous spine of mountainous terrain that once divided the settlements and services on either side. In fact many villagers from Manijhi's town had to trek for miles around the hills just to reach their fields and schools. However, this all changed with the tragic death of Manjhi's wife, Faguni Devi. Devi was traversing the narrow path across the tall hills to bring her husband some water when she was seriously injured. The nearest medical facility was over 40 miles away, and Devi perished shortly after her accident. 


Struck by his loss, Manjhi resolved to make sure such a tragedy never happened again. Taking up simple tools, he began chipping away at one of the hills, hell-bent on creating a road that would service his village and others like it. Ridiculed by his fellow villagers and ignored by the government, Manjhi worked dauntlessly on the road day after day, slowly but surely eroding a passage into the earth. In time the locals came to respect his work as they saw its promise and many of them began providing food and tools for the newly dubbed "Mountain Man."

After 22 years of back-breaking labor, Manjhi finished the 360-foot road in 1982. Tearing straight through the mountain, the road not only cut miles of travel for countless village travelers, it made traversing the area safer, as well as allowing for small automobile traffic.

The Mountain Man died in 2007, but the road that was the fruit of his labor still bears his name in an amazing testament to the power of the individual.

More wonders to explore:

July 24 2015 12:09 PM

A Very Still Life: The Music and Art of Jack Kevorkian

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

It’s well-known that Dr. Jacob “Jack” Kevorkian was no stranger to death. But he is less appreciated for his lust for life, which led him down just about every artistic road available, resulting in a creative life that was almost as noble and insane as his professional one.

Born in 1928, Kevorkian became a cultural phenomenon beginning in the 1980s and '90s: A constant presence on cable TV, he assisted in least 130 suicides, leading to his eight-year stint in prison starting in the early 2000s.


But amid all the furor surrounding his work as a pioneer in the right-to-die movement, there was another side of the man frequently depicted as a grim reaper. Kevorkian was quite alive—in addition to his medical work, he painted, played and composed music, wrote books, and according to a close friend, even filmed a movie that has been lost to the ages.

According to Neil Nicol, a close friend and colleague of Kevorkian, he “just tried to experience everything in life.”

“He did more than anybody I’ve ever known,” says Nicol. “Art was just one of the things he took his hand to.”

The man who would become Dr. Death began painting in the early 1960s, when he and Nicol worked together at what was then the Pontiac General Hospital. It was during this time that Kevorkian enrolled himself in an adult education course on oil painting. As Nicol tells it, “[everyone else was painting] apples and oranges, and bowls, and landscapes, and stuff like that. Jack did his first painting, called ‘Very Still Life.’ It was a picture of a skull with an iris growing up out of the eye socket.”

After creating what would become possibly the most iconic image of his art with "Very Still Life", he continued to paint, moving on to works inspired by clinical symptoms with titles like “Nausea”, “Fever”, “Coma,” and “Paralysis.” He also created satirical portraits inspired by religious holidays, specifically Easter and Christmas.


Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

In fact, while the imagery of many Kevorkian’s paintings was seen as morbid, nearly all of them had a sort of pitch-black humor lining their thought-provoking message. For instance, in “Nearer My God To Thee,” a terrified man can be seen falling into a black abyss of indifferent faces, his fingers scraping desperately on the walls of the rift, exposing the bloody bone beneath. But Kevorkian himself described the message of the painting as such:

How forbidding that dark abyss! How stupendous the yearning to dodge its gaping orifice. How inexorable the engulfment. Yet, below are the disintegrating hulks of those who have gone before; they have made the insensible transition and wonder what the fuss is all about. After all, how excruciating can nothingness be?

This is not to say that all of Kevorkian’s paintings were gruesome. He also created a handful of fairly straightforward works, like portraits of his parents, and of Johann Sebastian Bach. He further honored his love of music with a colorful painting of a simple musical note titled “Chromatic Fantasy.”

Maybe the most amazing thing about Kevorkian’s paintings is that, according to Nicol, none of the surviving works is the original. In the late 1970s, Kevorkian moved to California, where he took a pair of part-time jobs in Long Beach. After leaving those initial jobs after disputes with his superiors, he devoted his life and life savings to a failed film version of Handel’s Messiah. Set to the famed oratorio, the film would have explored the biblical themes of the music. Unfortunately, his quest to create this film drove him to the poorhouse, and Kevorkian was living in his car by 1982.

Both his original paintings and all the work that had been completed on his film were placed in a storage locker, the payments on which eventually lapsed. All of the paintings and all traces of his film were lost, likely ending up in a garbage dump. The only remaining record of the film seems to be Nicol’s own vague memory of the trailer:

It was about Jesus, and shepherds, and the Bible, apparently. [The trailer] showed a picture of someone dressed like Jesus, and another woman dressed as Mary. After that he started to run out of money, and he wanted to find clips that were done by the major studios, but that weren’t going to be used in the movies. So he started to buy those and integrate them into the Messiah. So it was kind of a disjointed presentation.

After returning to Michigan to begin his work on death counseling in earnest, Kevorkian decided to remake the paintings that had been lost, but had no visual record of them. Luckily, he was able to locate someone who had taken Kodachrome photos of many of the paintings, and Kevorkian set out to recreate a number of them. It doesn’t seem to be known how many, if any, Kevorkian failed to repaint, but according to Nicol, all of the works extant today are the second of their kind, and there may have been some that were lost forever.

Painting and film were not Kevorkian’s only passion, as he also dabbled in musical composition and performance. Kevorkian played flute and organ and actually released a full album in 1997, entitled A Very Still Life, appropriating the name of his first painting. The 12-track LP was a collection of jazz-funk songs comprised almost exclusively of Kevorkian’s original compositions. The album was completely instrumental with Kevorkian on flute and organ, sounding a bit like Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas by way of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack. Only 5,000 copies of the record were ever produced, but it can still be found on YouTube.

In 1999, Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree homicide by a Michigan court and was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison. While he served only eight years of his sentence before being released, his incarceration may have spelled the end to Kevorkian’s artistic endeavors. Nicol says that while Kevorkian thought about playing music or painting while he was in prison, it was hard to schedule a time in the crowded facilities, and “[Kevorkian] said it was just not worth his time.” Discussing how Kevorkian felt about his own works, Nicol says, “He bored easily. Once he’d get bored with them, he didn’t want to do it any more. He was very enthusiastic about it when he’d get started, but then once he got bored with it, he’d just stop doing it.” 

Kevorkian died from a blood clot in June 2011.

He did achieve some commercial success, post-death, from his artwork: In 2014 a gallery was selling his paintings for $45,000 a pop, claiming that the unsold work would go to the Smithsonian. This sale came after years of legal wrangling, as the work had formerly been housed in Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Artistically, though, Kevorkian's work remains enigmatic. It’s not easy to find a through line in Kevorkian’s shaggy body of creative output. From a bloody painting that uses decapitation as a metaphor to war, to the filming of a biblical opera, to some noirish jazz licks, Kevorkian seemed to follow whatever muse struck him. While his words are a bit opaque, his description of his first painting, "Very Still Life" seems to nicely sum up his body of work:

The message here, though somewhat capricious, nebulous and indefinable, is clearly underscored by intense feeling. Brilliant colors highlight the melancholoy age-old balance between the warmth of life and the iciness of death, spiced with the sardonic humor of irony. The disquieting mood portends inescapable doom for the frail symbol of individual life and seemingly callous extinction of its evanescent aura. The age-old balance is certainly skewed.

More wonders to explore:

July 23 2015 4:18 PM

Connecticut's Flat Hoax House

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Arthur Everett "Chick" Austin, Jr. is best known as the celebrated director and caretaker of the Wadsworth Atheneum art museum, but his home is equally noteworthy, not for its extravagance, but for the fact that it is little more than a pasteboard fake.

Austin took inspiration for his unique home from the Italian villas of architect Andrea Palladio, classically styled edifices that incorporate a columned style. The Connecticut faux-manse was built in 1930 to Austin's strange specification that it be a long, thin, one-room-deep home. The "Facade House," as it came to be known, has an impressive edifice that stretches 86 feet from end to end, but viewed from the side, it becomes clear that the width of the home is just 18 feet. In addition to the illusory design, the home was constructed not out of sturdy brick and stone, but from pine board painted to make it look grander than it was.


The unimpressed locals took to calling Austin's house "the pasteboard palace," but Austin, ever the raconteur, soon turned his house to the hottest spot in Hartford, entertaining luminaries like Gertude Stein and Salvador Dali. The interior was lushly decorated with rich European furniture and decorations.

No matter how the Hartford community once felt about the strange home, it is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark and is seen as one of Austin's finest remaining works. Visiting the house, it is still hard to tell the true shape of the house from the front, and the effect of the unique shape is still strangely impressive.

More wonders to explore:

July 22 2015 5:50 PM

The Story of the Ejector Seat

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Your instruments are frozen. You’re losing altitude. It’s inevitable. You’re going to crash. But wait! There’s one more option. The ejector seat!

In a split second decision, you reach for the emergency trigger and deploy it. Within seconds you are violently rocketing into the sky, until the parachute that was simultaneously sent out catches air and rights your seat. Your plane hits the ground in a distant ball of flames, as you gently float to relative safety.


This is the sort of exciting tale most people envision when they think of the ejector seat, but where did this life-saving technology come from?

While several people essentially invented ejection technologies independent of one another, it is widely accepted that the first ejection seat (as they are properly called) was patented in 1916 by a man named Everard Calthrop. He was a railway engineer and innovative inventor who had seen his friend, Charles Rolls (of Rolls Royce fame) die in a biplane crash. This tragedy inspired Calthrop to devise a pilot safety system that would allow airplane pilots to quickly evacuate their doomed craft. His first patent described simple but effective contraption that would, at the pull of a handle, tilt the seat backwards to prime the pilot for ejection. Then, with a blast of compressed air, a parachute (which Calthrop also had a hand in inventing) would deploy and yank the pilot out of the craft to relative safety.

From this simple system, the idea of an onboard system to jettison pilots from their craft was born. However, it was not until World War II that ejection seats as we know them began being standard parts of planes.

It was the Germans who first took to the trend, creating the first production craft to come equipped with an ejection system, the Heinkel 280. Developed in 1940, the turbo-powered jet never went into full production, but the nine of them that were made were outfitted with a seat that would be blown clear of the craft using compressed air. During testing the Heinkel 280’s escape seat even managed to save the life of pilot Helmut Schenk after his instruments froze over. Schenk is now seen as the first person ever to be saved by the use of an ejection seat.

Not long after the Germans started using ejection seats, the trend began to spread. Just a year after the Heinkel debuted, the Swedish SAAB company created an ejector seat technology for one of their planes, and by 1946 the United Kingdom and the United States were working on systems to safely jettison their pilots as well. Soon, compressed air was replaced by gun powder as an accelerant, which was in turn eventually replaced by a chemical accelerant in modern ejector seats. Other safety features such as stabilization rockets and automatically inflating life boats were added. After decades of innovation in the field of ejection systems and pilot safety, the seats themselves are almost as complex as the jets they fly in.

Currently the Martin-Baker Company is the largest creator of ejection seats, having created over 70,000 exploding chairs for 93 air forces around the world, touting themselves as the “World’s Leading Manufacturer of Ejection and Crashworthy Seats.” A former aircraft production company, they turned their focus to ejection technology after a tale similar to Calthrop’s, wherein the titular Baker was killed in a plane crash in 1942, inspiring the titular Martin to devote his company to pilot safety.

Starting with the Mk1 and leading all the way up to the current Mk17, Martin-Baker marks the cutting edge of safely getting pilots out of speeding aircraft as safely as possible. The Mk17 is actually a pretty simple ejection seat with just a chair on blast plate, streamlined for lightweight and training craft. But the Mk16 is a bafflingly advanced creation built for fighter jets. The seat has five different modes that automatically deploy based on the altitude of the craft when the seat is deployed; it features a back-up air supply, a homing beacon, short-burst stabilizing rockets, a life raft, and arm, leg, and neck supports, just to name some of the advanced features. Yet even with all of these bells and whistles, firing one’s self out of a high speed aircraft is still insanely dangerous.

In a modern scenario, when a pilot activates an ejector seat, a few things happen in rapid sequence. First the pilot’s overhead canopy is blown off, then an explosive charge or rocket shoots the chair straight up out of the vessel on a guide rail. Then a group of stabilization rockets briefly fire, pushing the chair even further from the craft and helping keep it from wildly tumbling in the wind. A small guide parachute known as a drogue then deploys that keeps the chair upright. Depending on the altitude (automatically detected by the chair using oxygen sensors) of the ejection, a primary chute may deploy immediately or the chair may freefall for a bit, getting the pilot to a more oxygen rich part of the sky with a bit more haste. Finally, the chair falls away, and with luck, the pilot drifts to safety. Depending on the specific seat other things may happen, but the basics are much the same across the board.

In a 2002 interview with Smithsonian Air and Space, a pilot who only identified himself as Captain IROC described the experience of ejecting from a jet going 600 mph at 15,000 feet, as “the most violent thing I’ve ever felt in my life.” The immense wind speeds and stresses of g forces placed on the pilot, rarely leave them unharmed. Before limb stabilization was added, arms and legs would whip in the wind, breaking bones and dislocating joints. Even in advanced ejection seats, 1-in-3 pilots who eject from their planes fracture their spine as they are rocketed out of the plane. Modern ejection seats have a survival rate of over 90%, but it is definitely a last resort.

According to the counter on the Martin-Baker website, their seats have saved 7,480 lives. So while ejecting from an airplane may not be as smooth and cavalier an action as James Bond makes it out to be, it definitely beats the alternative—falling.

More wonders to explore: