Through a glass, darkly: the Great Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of 1954.

windshield

At the end of March 1954, a few residents of Bellingham, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, happened to notice that the windshields of their cars had developed a few pits, dings and scratches. The damage was reported to police. Officers in Bellingham assumed that vandals were taking pot-shots at peoples’ windshields with BB guns. Then, inexplicably, the phenomenon began moving south, hitting the towns of Sedro Woolley, Mt. Vernon and Anacortes.

The Anacortes pitting outbreak, which began on Tuesday, April 13, galvanized law enforcement. Police, eager to stop the BB-gun-toting vandals, began setting up roadblocks around the town, hoping to intercept the culprits before they moved on to another municipality. Police at the roadblocks carefully inspected cars coming in or going out of Anacortes, and many more windshields were discovered to have been affected. Local residents began flooding the police stations with reports of recently-discovered windshield pits. Despite the efforts of the police to trap them in Anacortes, the vandals somehow managed to escape. By the end of the day they had struck Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, and 75 Marines were mobilized to go around inspecting all the cars on the base. They found more than 2,000 windshields had been damaged.

By now, with thousands of cases of mysterious windshield pits spreading like an epidemic through the area, the authorities realized it couldn’t be kids with BB guns. Some other agency must be at work. But what was it? Cosmic rays? Some sort of atmospheric event? Fallout from recent nuclear tests drifting across the Pacific? No one knew.

windshield pitting 1954

An Anacortes police officer examines alleged windshield damage, April 1954.

The epidemic of windshield damage attained crisis proportions when it struck Seattle proper the next day, Wednesday, April 14. The first report of windshield damage in the city came in at 6PM, from a car parked in a city lot. Three hours later a motorist reported his windshield pitted at 82nd and Greenwood Avenue. The next day, April 15, the Seattle Police Department was inundated with reports of windshield pitting. Everybody was being affected–cars in auto sale lots, public parking lots, cars parked on the street, even police cars parked in precinct lots were suddenly showing strange dings and craters in their windshields. Some people even reported seeing the damage occur spontaneously right before their eyes.

On April 15, government at the highest levels got involved. The Governor’s office called the University of Washington and asked that a panel of scientists be immediately created to study the phenomenon. Amazingly, a telegram about the windshield pitting epidemic even went to President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the White House.

The UW scientists conducted a spot-check of 84 cars on their campus. They correlated the data by the kind of damage, the age of the car affected, and where on the car it appeared. Curiously, it seemed almost always that windshields were affected; back and side windows generally were not. If it was some atmospheric effect–radioactivity or cosmic rays–why wouldn’t auto glass of all kinds be affected? It also seemed that older cars were much more susceptible to the damage than newer ones. Although there were reports of cars on auto sale lots suffering damage, they turned out to be used cars–the new cars for sale still had pristine, undamaged windshields.

whidbey island NAS

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station was one of the key vectors of the strange epidemic of windshield damage in Washington State in 1954.

So what happened? What was causing the mysterious epidemic? The scientists were unanimous: nothing was happening at all. People were suddenly noticing minor damage on their windshields because they heard about the “epidemic” spreading. The dings and pits were there all the time, caused by flying gravel or other routine road hazards.

Indeed, the Great Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of 1954 is a very interesting and unusually clear example of what psychologists and sociologists call a “collective delusion”: a false but barely plausible idea, spread by the media and word of mouth, which behaves very much like an outbreak of infectious disease. A similar thing happened in New Jersey in October 1938 during Orson Welles’s famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. Nothing becomes something, and the something becomes self-sustaining. It’s a fascinating example of crowd psychology.

I dare you to go outside and look at the windshield of your car after reading this article. I’ll bet you suddenly notice some strange minor damage that you were certain wasn’t there before…

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