The mysterious but true windshield damage epidemic of 1954.

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The mysterious but true epidemic of windshield damage in 1954.

Mass hysteria erupted after reports of windshield vandalism began to accumulate rapidly.

The public can be aroused for a wide variety of reasons. These include outrage over what new color the school was painted, or bewilderment over potholes not being patched. However, few things escalate into mass hysteria. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened in 1954, when panic spread in the Seattle area and beyond over the sheer number of windshields with unexplained damage, a phenomenon dubbed the “Seattle Windshield Spot Damage Epidemic.”

The trouble began in March 1954, when residents of the small town of Bellingham, Washington, began noticing unexplained potholes, holes, and dents in the windshields of their cars. At first, police assumed it was the work of vandals armed with BB guns. However, as similar acts of vandalism spread to other cities, it became apparent that something else entirely was involved.

By mid-April, the “pitting epidemic” had reached Seattle, and local newspapers began reporting strange occurrences. Reports of damaged windshields became more and more numerous, and more and more people became convinced that their cars had fallen victim to the mysterious deviant. Motorists even began calling police cars to report damage, and parking lots and parking lots were flooded with similar claims of the most serious damage. In eight other states and even Canada, more and more reports of pitting began to appear.

The unexplained damage caused an impressive number of theories to emerge. Among them:

Radio waves: Some speculated that a new million-watt radio transmitter at the nearby Jim Creek Naval Radio Station might be responsible for the damage by powerful waves that caused physical vibrations in the glass.

Cosmic Rays: Others have speculated that cosmic rays, known as high-energy particles from outer space, were responsible for windshield damage.

H-bomb fallout: Some x3 wondered if the glass damage was caused by fallout from an H-bomb explosion. However, the only known cases of such explosions occurred in 1952 in the United States and then in 1953 in Russia.

Sand fleas: Most bizarrely, some people reported glass bubbles forming on their windshields before their eyes, and thought it was the work of sand fleas.

The situation escalated to the point that by April 15, about 3,000 windshields were reported damaged. Fearing a crisis, Seattle Mayor Allan Pomeroy appealed for help to Washington State Governor Arthur B. Langley, as well as to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The biggest impact, however, was a speech by Seattle Police Crime Lab Sergeant Max Ellison, in which he explained that windshield reports are “5 percent hooliganism and 95 percent public hysteria.”

Just like that, starting April 17, the mass reports of dented windshields stopped. It turned out that, despite differing perceptions of why this was happening, the root cause was mass hysteria: as more and more reports became public, it heightened the reaction of those around them, who were (albeit subconsciously) looking out to see if they, too, were affected.

The epidemic of windshield pitting in Seattle has since become known as a classic example of collective delusion. Small potholes on windshields are not uncommon, caused by a variety of reasons such as rocks, animals, and general wear and tear. But it wasn’t until the media brought attention to the problem that people began to scrutinize their own windshields, noticing unprecedented damage on them.

For some time in the spring of 1954, Seattle residents were convinced that some unknown intruder or force had subjected their community to some sort of attack. Fear may have peaked for a while, but in the end it turned out that the main cause of all the turmoil was the depths of the human mind, which imagined far darker and more implausible causes than those that turned out to be the real cause: themselves.

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