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The Sciences

Firing Chickens from a Cannon

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMarch 22, 2006 4:59 AM


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I've been reading a book by James Rodger Fleming entitled Meteorology in America, 1800-1870. In it, he describes how mid-19th century scientists were intrigued by the fact that tornadoes seemed to leave barnyard fowl stripped of their feathers. One intrepid researcher, Elias Loomis, saw an opportunity in this anomalous fact. By studying--I shit you not--how fast you have to send a chicken flying through the air in order for its feathers to be pulled off, Loomis figured he could deduce the wind speed of a tornado. And yes, the experiment involved a cannon. Here's Loomis's report:

As the gun was small, it was necessary to press down the chicken [which had just been killed] with considerable force, by which means it was probably somewhat bruised. The gun was pointed vertically upwards and fired; the feathers rose twenty or thirty feet, and were scattered by the wind. On examination they were found to be pulled out clean, the skin seldom adhering to them. The body was torn into small fragments, only a part of which could be found. The velocity is computed at five hundred feet per second, or three hundred and forty one miles per hour. A fowl, then, forced through the air with this velocity, is torn entirely to pieces; with a less velocity, it is probable most of the feathers might be pulled out without mutilating the body.

What a great discovery. Ah, they just don't do science like they used to....

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