Thomas Wictor

Why I’m optimistic

Why I’m optimistic

You may have heard of Kendall Jones, the teenaged cheerleader who goes big-game hunting in Africa. People call it a sport, but I don’t apply that term to life-and-death struggles. I’d much rather we leave wild animals alone. If there’s a need to cull them, I don’t think we should have our pictures taken cuddling their corpses and wearing a loathsome, plastic grin. Taking a life shouldn’t be an opportunity for cutsey self-promotion. And I can’t help being suspicious of people who kill for fun. Still, I’m optimistic. Look what we used to do.


That’s the September 1924 issue of Science and Invention. The cover story is about a guy who planned to go exploring in Africa armed with flamethrowers. His name was William B. Reid, MD (1873-1937), a surgeon and politician. He was mayor of Rome, New York, from 1922 to 1924; as soon as he left office, he announced his African safari. I first learned of Dr. Reid while doing research for German Flamethrower Pioneers of World War I.

I don’t think the African expedition ever came to fruition. Note that a scientific journal depicts tigers in Africa! And look how the cowardly African runs while brave Dr. Reid stands his ground, his chin jutting.


His expression is just as weird as Kendall Jones’s. Dr. Reid later planned to go on a South American expedition. I don’t think that one amounted to anything either.

The Science and Invention article about Dr. Reid’s flamethrower shows how far we’ve come as a culture.


It’s just one page, but there’s so much packed into it! Here’s the text.


Again, they say that there are tigers in Africa. And there’s no such thing as a herd of bull elephants. Not unless they’re all gay.

One of the reasons this expedition likely didn’t materialize was that a portable flamethrower would be just about the stupidest weapon a person could use in the African jungle, which is where gorillas live. The range of a portable flamethrower would be about 100 feet maximum, and you’d have no more than ten seconds’ worth of oil. The lightest single-tanked flamethrower of World War One weighed forty pounds; the double-tanked models could be twice as heavy.

Also, the article is wrong when it says the flamethrower was inhumane. In reality it was a psychological weapon that saved lives. Without a flamethrower you had to take a bunker or pillbox with hand grenades, machine guns, small cannons, or tanks, resulting in massive casualties on both sides. When a flamethrower operator squirted a single jet of burning oil into the air where the men in the strong point could see, usually there was a rush for the exits. The enemy often surrendered without a fight.

Shrapnel was far more inhumane. It dismembered people.


Plenty of soldiers injured that badly survived and spent the rest of their lives without limbs, jaws, eyes, shoulders, lungs, stomachs, or faces.

Back to Dr. Reid.

Now we set fire to the elephants!


Why? Because we can.

This is Dr. Reid’s flamethrower, which appears to be an American World War One model, the Knapsack Flame Projector, Mark I.


Neither the battery nor the toothed spark wheel would work in the humidity of the jungle. Flamethrowers that used batteries for ignition failed miserably in the trenches of the western front. All it took was a little moisture, and the thing was useless. You needed what the Germans had, an igniter based on a fulminate of mercury percussion cap (6).


When you released the first jet of pressurized oil, the firing pin (13) hit the cap, which detonated. This little explosion touched off the flammable compound inside the double-walled igniter body (3). The firing pin and percussion cap were ejected, leaving a passageway for the flaming oil, and the flammable compound burned for two minutes.

If you’re going to arm yourself with flamethrowers, do it right. Take hand grenades and riflemen, like this German small-flamethrower shock troop.


Now this is just wrong.


The Africans look like Al Jolson.


Dr. Reid is shooting flames into the lion’s mouth! And his buddy is burning monkeys out of the trees! What the hell? It’s an orgy of fire-death.

This is why I’m optimistic. We don’t have world wars anymore, we don’t do blackface “comedy,” and nobody would announce that he was going to Africa with flamethrowers. It’s a better planet than it was in 1924. We have a lot more respect for everyone and everything, Kendall Jones notwithstanding.

Don’t let the news bring you down. I know I seem cranky, but it’s just shtick. People are getting the hang of it, little by little.


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