Posts Tagged 'Science'

The Miracle Man (2-5-1923)

The announcement appeared on the entertainment page of the Tribune, just below the ad for the Four Marx Brothers.  Emile Coue would be presenting a lecture at Orchestra Hall.  The Miracle Man was coming to Chicago!
Coue was a 65-year-old French pharmacist.  In the course of his business, he had made a startling discovery–patients responded better when he praised their medicine.  He concluded that their imagination was the reason.  It all had to do with thinking positive thoughts.

Coue claimed any person could develop this power.  He called his method autosuggestion, and it was easy.  Just keep repeating a simple phrase—“Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”  The unconscious would do the rest.  You could transform your health, your life, everything!

Now Coue was touring the United States.  He was describing his system to vast audiences, selling his books, setting up Coue Institutes to promote autosuggestion.  Rumors circulated that he had even cured people of physical ailments.

His Chicago appearances did not disappoint.  Each session at Orchestra Hall was packed with 3,000 people.  At the conclusion of his final lecture, Coue approached a group of five crippled people.  One by one, he put his hands on their legs, and mumbled.  Then he shouted the command—“Now walk!  You’re better!  You’re cured!”

The five cripples dropped their canes and crutches.  They took tottering steps forward.  They walked.

The audience exploded in cheers.  Coue remained calm.  He again declared he was not a healer, only a teacher.  “I teach people to cure themselves,” he said.  “It is not a miracle.”  These people had not really been crippled.  They’d merely had “psychic paralysis.”

Coue moved on from Chicago, then returned to France.  The next year he made a second American tour.  He died in 1926.  In more recent times, his ideas on positive thinking have influenced such luminaries as Norman Vincent Peale and W. Clement Stone.

Autosuggestion itself turned out to be a fad.  Even before Coue’s death, there were jokes about it.

One of them concerned a woman who sought Coue’s help.  She told Coue her husband always thought he was sick and was always complaining.  Coue told the woman to go home and have the husband repeat the “day-by-day” phrase.

A few days later the woman returned.  Coue asked if the autosuggestion had worked.  The woman shook her head.  “Now my husband is worse,” she said.  “Now he thinks he’s dead.”



Chicago’s 1925 Eclipse

Monday’s solar eclipse should be quite a show. Though the major blackout will be taking place further downstate, over Chicago the moon will cover 86 percent of the sun.  This will be the closest the city has come to a total total eclipse since January 24, 1925.

In 1925 Chicagoans knew the eclipse was coming. Scientists had announced that 94 percent of the sun would be blacked out locally. Sunrise on January 24th would be at 7:10 a.m.  Four minutes later, the eclipse would begin.

Oak Street Beach, 1925—“They should’ve scheduled our eclipse for August!”

Prof. H.B. Lemon had said that industrial smoke over the city might obscure the viewing. Still, people gathered by the thousands, in parks, on beaches, on the upper floors of tall buildings, on city streets, watching the sky.  It was a Saturday, and a day off for many.  And the weather had been tolerable for January.

However, as the countdown began, clouds began drifting overhead. By 7:10 sunrise, all that could be seen over the lake was a faint glow in the east.  Meanwhile, the steel mills in South Chicago and over in Gary were providing their usual airborne smoke and flame.  When the eclipse did start at 7:14, a few people in boats on the lake caught a glimpse of the darkening sun, before the clouds shut off their view.

Back on land, the people waited. Just after 8:00 there was a break in the clouds.  Hey, look—there’s the moon—go, go, go, block that sun!  But after about three minutes, a new group of clouds rolled through, and that was that.  By 9:30 it was over.

As the Chicago Evening Journal reported, “Chicago’s view of the nearly total eclipse was practically a complete failure.”  And as a local news story, the eclipse itself was eclipsed by the shooting of ganglord Johnny Torrio.  That event proved to be of greater historical significance as well, since Torrio decided to retire and left his empire to his lieutenant—a fellow named Al Capone.

Bryan views the eclipse

The East Coast had better weather than Chicago, and a better view of the heavens on Eclipse Day 1925. And if you think that only our modern-day leaders inject politics into every event, you’re wrong.

In Washington, three-time Democrat presidential nominee—and three-time loser—William Jennings Bryan was photographed observing the eclipse through a hand-held viewer.  A reporter asked him to comment on the grand celestial phenomenon.  “The eclipse is just like the Democratic Party,” Bryan said.  “The sun will shine again for us.”


WBEZ will have special segments on the eclipse during Jerome McDonnell’s “Worldview” program on Monday.  I’ll be doing a bit on some historic solar eclipses.  Tune in 91.5 FM between noon and 2 pm.  Or if you’re not in Chicago, check out the podcast later in the day at

Saving More Daylight (4-9-1941)

Chicagoans were talking about Daylight Saving Time.  The discussion was more heated than enlightening.

Benjamin Franklin had suggested Daylight Saving Time (DST) as long ago as 1784.  But America did not take up the idea until 1918.  With the country fighting World War I, Congress adopted year-round DST as an emergency measure.  When the war ended, the law was repealed.

In 1941 there was no national standard for DST.  Local communities made their own decision.  Chicago observed DST from the last Sunday in April through the last Sunday in September.  Now some Chicagoans wanted to extend that a month, to the last Sunday in October.


Opposition came mainly from farmers.  In Springfield, the Illinois Agricultural Association was backing a bill to prevent cities from extending DST.  They argued that any changes should be implemented statewide.  The CIO, a major labor group, was supporting the farmers.

However, most Chicagoans seemed to favor the extension.  DST was hailed as an economic boon, encouraging people to stay out later and spend more money.  With DST, there were fewer traffic accidents.  There was less crime, too.

Today Chicagoland sports leaders were speaking out in favor of longer DST.  According to the Tribune, their support was “as convincing as the Chicago Bears’ 73-0 rout of Washington” in the NFL championship.


At Northwestern University, the football coach said the change would allow his team to practice in natural sunlight, rather than under electric lights.  In the Loop, employees of banks and department stores were eager to have the extra hour of softball time in Grant Park.  Tennis players wanted more DST.  So did local soccer teams.

Greatest enthusiasm came from golfers.  “It would be a definite benefit to the thousands in the Chicago district if they were able to take advantage of October, one of our finest months,” a golf official said.  “That added 60 minutes would allow most of them to get in another nine.”  (Nine holes in an hour? They sure played faster in those days!)

The debate continued.  In May the Chicago City Council voted to extend DST the extra month.  The next year, with World War II under way, the whole country again went on temporary, year-round DST.  A national DST law–allowing for a few exceptions–finally went into effect in 1967.


For 366 stories like this—one for every day of a leap year—buy a copy of my book, On This Day in Chicago History

Guido’s Magic Formula (3-26-1980)

Everybody knows the tale.  An obscure scientist develops a method to provide cheap, unlimited fuel–but greedy Big Business buys him off, to preserve their evil profits.  Part of that story was resolved today in a Chicago courtroom.

Guido Franch was born in 1910 in Livingston, Illinois.  He went to school through 7th grade, then quit to become a coal miner.  Sometime during the 1950s, he made his astounding discovery.  He learned how to turn water into gasoline.

He called his method MOTA, “atom” spelled backwards.  The secret was his special powder.  Franch was happy to demonstrate how it worked.

Guido Franch demonstrates MOTS

Guido Franch demonstrates MOTA

First he dumped the powder into water.  The water turned green.  Next he poured the mixture into the fuel tank of a power lawn mower.  Then he started the lawn mower.  The water had become high-octane gasoline!

Franch was the subject of numerous breathless stories in supermarket tabloids.  He attracted a number of investors.  In 1954 he was brought to trial for fraud, but acquitted.  Then he laid low for twenty years.

By 1974 Franch was back.  Again he demonstrated MOTA, and this time he raised over $50,000 from investors.  Late in 1979 he was brought to trial in the U.S. District Court at Chicago.

At the trial, Franch revealed that the secret formula had actually been developed by a scientist in Livingston.  Franch had worked as the man’s lab assistant, and that’s how he had obtained it.  He also said that the Ford Motor Company had tried to buy the formula for $32 million.

“It’s so big it interferes with the billions of dollars invested by the oil companies,” Franch declared.  “It’s either worth $50 billion or 50 cents.”

The prosecution charged that Franch had used food coloring to make the water turn green.  They produced a witness who testified that Franch had admitted the formula was a hoax.  Franch had used aviation fuel to run the lawn mower.

The jury deliberated for six hours.  Today they convicted Franch on four counts of mail fraud, and one count of interstate transportation of a fraud victim.  He was sentenced to five years probation.

Guido Franch died in 1983.  His secret MOTA formula has never been found.


My Own Private Nuke (6-28-1956)

Once again, Chicago was the leader in developing atomic energy.  Today the first privately-owned nuclear reactor was turned on.

Fourteen years before, man had first split the atom at the University of Chicago.  That was a World War II government project.  The atomic bomb had followed.

But the war was long over.  Federal authorities had finally given the green light to American business.  Atomic energy would now be harnessed for peaceful purposes.


The new reactor was located at the Illinois Institute of Technology–specifically, the Armour Research Foundation.  Twenty-four industrial firms had joined IIT to fund the $750,000 program.  The reactor was nicknamed “the atomic furnace.”

The 1942 atom-split had been shrouded in wartime secrecy.  This morning’s event was open to the public.  The Armour building was packed with reporters as director Haldon Leedy described what was going to happen.

Leedy said there was no danger operating a nuclear reactor in the middle of a crowded city.  The furnace itself was made of concrete five feet thick, and numerous other safeguards were in place.  Lab workers and the people of Chicago would be shielded from any radioactive leak.

As an added bonus, the reactor would not pollute the air.  “No fumes, gasses, smoke, or other materials will be exhausted,” Leedy explained.  All those noxious byproducts would be blocked by a special containment system.

Atomic energy had many possible uses.  Nuclear power was a cheap, endless source of fuel.  New plastics and other synthetics would be developed.  Radiation could be used to sterilize food, to destroy disease molds–perhaps even in the fight against cancer.

Dr. Remley at the controls

Dr. Remley at the controls

The briefing concluded.  At 11:15 Dr. Martin Remley sat down at a control console outside the reactor room.  He began flicking switches.

On the other side of a plate glass window, behind two airlock doors, the atom furnace began humming.  An alarm bell clanged.  Overhead, a signal light flashed the words “REACTOR ON.”

The IIT atom furnace was a vision of the future.  Atomic energy for commercial use was here to stay.  And though critics continue to point out safety concerns, it’s difficult to imagine a world without nuclear power.



Indiana Jones in Romeoville? (8-12-1987)

Romeoville is located in Will County, on the southwest edge of metropolitan Chicago.  The town was first settled in the 1840s, during the construction of the Illinois & Michigan Canal.

Well, maybe not.  On this date in Chicago history, the headline read “Ancient Human Bones Found in Romeoville.”


The bones had been discovered at a construction excavation.  They were sent then to the Illinois Archeological Survey in Champaign.  Carbon dating determined that the remains were from people who lived between the years A.D. 70 and A.D. 200, give or take 80 years.

It was lucky that the bones had been preserved for so many centuries.  And it was even luckier that they had been given to scientists to study.  After all, developers were not archeologists.  No one knew how many prehistoric sites had been destroyed because the man with the shovel didn’t realize what he had uncovered.

The Romeoville bones were not the oldest found in the Chicago region.  Remains over 10,000 years old had turned up in Orland Park.  But scientists now had another piece to add to the puzzle of how ancient people had lived.

“It appears that this was a fairly tough, hard, and strenuous life,” one archeologist said.  “Just surviving was a constant struggle.  You froze in the winter and fried in the summer.  You grew your own food or you hunted for it–and sometimes the animals came hunting for you.  If the wolves and the bears didn’t get you, then a disease would.  If you made it to 40, you were considered old.”

By state law, the Romeoville bones were to become the property of an institution with archeological interests.  The Field Museum was suggested as one possible recipient.  No mention was made of any native tribes stepping forward to take custody of them.

And that appears to be the end of the story.  Today, no one in Romeoville seems to know what finally happened to their ancient bones.