9 Bizarre Weapons That Failed Spectacularly

Jesse Lenz
Jesse Lenz

In 2011, the U.S. government spent $76 billion on military research and development. As history has shown, sometimes that investment pays off. And sometimes you end up running from a flaming pig.

1. Roast Pork

War elephants were the tanks of their time. Their tough hides were nearly impervious to arrows, and their giant size made them perfect for trampling through enemy lines. In 331 BCE, Alexander the Great was so nervous about the Persian army’s pachyderms that he made a sacrifice to the God of Fear the night before battle. The mighty elephants’ reputation only grew when, in 218 BCE, Hannibal set out to storm Rome with an armada of ferocious beasts. The “elephantry” seemed invincible.

If elephants were the world’s first tanks, flaming pigs—slathered in tar, lit on fire, and set loose to wreak havoc—were the world’s first anti-tank missiles. According to Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, the weapon worked because “elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of the hog.”

When flaming pigs succeeded, they were brilliant. In 266 BCE, the Greek city of Megara fended off the Macedonian conqueror Antigonus II Gonatas using pigs doused in resin. Antigonus’s elephants fled in terror from the bacon brigade. Most battles, however, highlighted the serious drawbacks of tactical barbecue. Since the lifespan of flaming pigs is short, their range was well under 400 feet. That meant the enemy pretty much had to be on top of you before the hogs would have any effect. The porcine missiles also lacked a guidance system, which made them woefully inaccurate. Even when directed toward enemy lines, they often ran wherever they pleased, starting fires on their own side.

2. The Iceberg Navy

During World War II, aircraft carriers were in short supply. So were steel and aluminum, the main materials needed to build the gargantuan ships. As the Allies scrounged to build vessels, they were also hunting for fresh ideas. So when Geoffrey Pyke, a plucky British inventor, proposed a scheme to build carriers out of ice, the British government jumped on board.

Pyke’s concept was to construct the vessels using pykrete—a stronger-than-ice mixture of 86 percent water and 14 percent wood pulp. But it wasn’t until construction began on a 1,000-ton model in Canada that engineers encountered the problem of “plastic flow.” In layman’s terms, the ship started to melt, which caused it to sag under its own weight unless kept at a crisp 3°F. The designers attempted to sidestep the issue by rigging the boat with a complex refrigeration system and reinforcements consisting of 10,000 tons of steel—the very resource they’d been trying to avoid using in the first place.

After almost a year of working and reworking the concept, Britain’s Royal Navy finally learned the same hard lesson most of us learned with our first popsicles and they ditched the project. The boat was allowed to sink to the bottom of Patricia Lake and do what ice does best: melt.

3. The $40 Million Sunburn

In 2010, the U.S. military deployed a weapon straight out of a comic book: a heat ray that could stop bad guys in their tracks! Known as the Active Denial System, the satellite-dish–sized device blasted extremely high-frequency waves that made targets feel unbearably toasty.

But after running up a $40 million tab over a decade of research, the military recalled the weapon after about a month. Why the quick flip-flop?

The government never made an official statement on the matter, but it seems the heat ray wasn’t such a hot idea. Far from delivering a paralyzing blast, the ray unleashed all the pain of a bad sunburn. And while that’s fine for controlling mildly unruly crowds, you don’t want to go into battle with a weapon that can be defeated by a good coat of SPF-30.

4. Killer Drum Solo

When Hitler erected a 7-foot-thick concrete wall along the European coastline, Britain’s Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapon Development drew the task of finding a way to burst through. Its solution: the Great Panjandrum—two 10-foot-tall wheels linked by a drum carrying 4,000 pounds of explosives. Rockets attached to the wheel rims were meant to propel the payload forward at 60 miles per hour, crashing the great drum past everything until it hit the wall.

The only problem? If some of the rockets failed—which they did with alarming regularity—the Panjandrum careened off course. When the fireworks on the right wheel failed during its first test run in 1943, the designers addressed the glitch as only weapons engineers can: by attaching more rockets.

Sadly, some problems can’t be solved with extra rockets. A documentary crew recorded what would be Panjandrum’s final road test and nearly lost a filmmaker in the process. As one observer reported, “[A] clamp gave: first one, then two more rockets broke free: Panjandrum began to lurch ominously.

It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began to turn to starboard, careening towards [the filmmaker], who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming. Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him.”

The cameraman managed to emerge unscathed, but the Panjandrum did not, meeting an early retirement before it ever rolled into battle.

5. Holy Bat Bomb!

During World War II, an oral surgeon named Lytle Adams contacted the White House with a novel idea. Bats could be the Allies’ new secret weapons!

Troops could strap little bombs to bats, airdrop them into Axis strongholds, and watch the destruction from a safe distance. Strangely, the idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Bats can carry more than their own weight in flight. They’re also plentiful and cheap; four caves in Texas alone housed millions of the critters.

Franklin Roosevelt was enamored of the concept, and in 1942, he greenlit the project. He also convinced Adams to abandon dentistry to pitch in with the effort. By 1943, Adams and the Army had recruited thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats for the job, while Louis Fieser, the inventor of napalm, designed their one-ounce detonating packs. According to plans, a carrier with 26 stacked trays—each containing 40 little bat homes—would parachute into the industrial cities of Japan’s Osaka Bay. The bats would then fly off and wedge themselves into the nooks and crannies of buildings to sleep off their jet lag—at least until a timer detonated their packs.

Only the bats never got to carry out their kamikaze-style mission. During one test run in Carlsbad, N.M., the bats got loose, roosted under a fuel tank, and incinerated the facility. Fed up with bats, the Army handed the hot potato project to the Navy, which foisted it on the Marines. Eventually, the Marines pulled off a successful test on a mock Japanese village in Utah.

Good news for bats, though: In the time it had taken to perfect the bat explosives, the military had designed a slightly more efficient and predictable weapon: the atomic bomb.

6. Russia Goes Full Circle

Boats share the same basic design for a reason. Unfortunately, nobody bothered telling that to the Imperial Russian shipwrights who in 1874 unveiled a proudly distinct vessel they called Novgorod. In theory, the ship’s circular design—just over 100 feet in diameter—provided a stable platform for large guns, making it the perfect defender for the Russian coast.

In practice, the Novgorod was a disaster, a fact that became abundantly clear as it floated into the Danube to take part in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. Since the ship’s hull wasn’t streamlined, faster boats had to tow the floating bucket into battle. Russia was in no hurry to get the Novgorod in the mix, though. The circular design had clear limitations in combat: The odd shape meant that each time its cannons fired, recoil spun the vessel like a top. In short, it was a slow, cumbersome ship that couldn’t really fire its guns. After enduring much snickering from the Turks, the Russians decided to keep the Novgorod tied up at port, finally relegating it to the scrapyard in 1912.

7. The Puke Ray

Many weapons have the unfortunate side effect of being lethal, so defense agencies are always on the lookout for more humane ways to stun the enemy. In 2007, the military thought it had found it in the “sick stick”: a flashlight that unleashed a kaleidoscopic pulse that caused vertigo, nausea, and hurling.

The idea for the weapon dates all the way back to the 1950s, when helicopter pilots started mysteriously crashing. Investigators determined that the frequency of choppy flashes of sunlight shining through a chopper’s spinning blades caused dizziness and disorientation. Tinted glass and helmet visors solved the pilots’ problems, but the U.S. military started wondering whether it could use the effect to its advantage.

While the sick stick gets two thumbs up for twisted creativity, the weapon has major flaws. First, a target has to look directly at the light to feel the effects—why not just turn and run? Or wear shades? Also, the gadget’s unwieldy size—15 inches long, 4 inches wide—made it cumbersome in the field.

A Department of Homeland Security newsletter criticized the sick stick, deeming it “more transportable than portable.” Before long, the military abandoned the $800,000 project.

But the idea didn’t die there. In 2009, a pair of hardware hackers slapped together their own version for $250 using a flashlight from Sears, $3 LEDs, a nine-volt battery, and a heat sink from a computer processor—enough to make the government queasy.

8. The Führer Gets an Air Rifle

During World War II, Hitler’s Third Reich was hell-bent on shooting down Allied planes. But conventional weapons weren’t the only defense. A factory near Stuttgart built a massive air cannon—a 3-foot-diameter, 35-foot-long cast-iron tube packed with an explosive mixture of hydrogen and ammonia that, upon detonation, would eject a “shell” of compressed air. The Nazis hoped these shells would create whirlwinds to swat Allied planes out of the sky.

In trials, the WindKanone was a destructive force. The weapon shattered wooden planks from 650 feet away. Still, there’s a big difference between breaking stationary lumber and nailing airborne targets. Even when the gusts nailed planes flying as low as 500 feet, pilots were barely thrown off course. Never ones to waste creative energy, the Nazis redeployed the air cannon as an anti-infantry weapon. But it was hopeless in the field as well—its gargantuan size made it an easy target for bombs. After a few disastrous outings, the WindKanone sat unused, gathering rust at a testing facility until confused American troops stumbled across it in April 1945.

9. Popping the War Balloons

In 1944, Japanese troops set 9,000 balloons adrift over the Pacific. Beneath each of the 33-foot-diameter spheres dangled a 35-pound high-explosive bomb and eight 15-pound firebombs. After spending three days floating the jet stream, the balloons were to jettison their loads over the continental U.S., sparking forest fires and generating mayhem.

Lucky for us, the wind is a fickle ally. Only 389 of these Fu-Gos or “fire balloons” made it to the States, and even fewer exploded. One landed in Nevada, only to be discovered by cowboys and turned into a hay tarp. Two landed back in Japan. Only one bomb claimed any American casualties, and even that was more of a tragic debacle than a crushing military victory.

Five kids and their pregnant Sunday-school teacher stumbled upon the balloon in the Oregon woods—hardly the sort of PR coup that would buoy Japanese spirits. Dismayed by the poor results, the Japanese scrapped balloon bombs in 1945. [More on the balloon bombs: In 1945 a Japanese Bomb Exploded in Oregon, Killing Six.]

Illustrations by Jesse Lenz. This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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5 World War I-Era Tips for Celebrating Thanksgiving in Strange Times

Thanksgiving Day menu from November 1917 at Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Thanksgiving Day menu from November 1917 at Fort D. A. Russell in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
National World War I Museum and Memorial

The year 2020 has been one of hardships, sacrifices, and reimagined traditions. As the United States enters the holiday season with COVID-19 cases at a record high, this reality is more undeniable than ever.

Thanksgiving may look different for many people this year, but it won’t be totally unprecedented. Whether you’re connecting with people remotely, entertaining a smaller group, or trying out a new menu, you can find guidance in the records of Thanksgivings past.

As a 1918 newspaper article from the National World War I Museum and Memorial’s archives reads, “The thanks of the Yanks may differ this year from that of peace-time Novembers, but [...] the spirit of the day is always the same, however much the surroundings may differ."

Americans celebrating Thanksgiving at home and abroad during World War I had to deal with food shortages, being away from family, and, in 1918, a global pandemic. Mental Floss spoke with Lora Vogt, the World War I Museum’s curator of education, about what people making the best of this year’s holiday can learn form wartime Thanksgiving celebrations.

1. Mail Treats to Loved Ones.

Thanksgiving postcard from 1918.National World War I Museum and Memorial

Even when separated by great distances, families found ways to share food on Thanksgiving a century ago. “We have all of these letters from service members saying thanks for the candy, thanks for the cakes, thank you for the donuts—all of these foods they were sent from their loved ones when they couldn't be together,” Vogt tells Mental Floss.

If you're spending Thanksgiving apart from the people you love this year, sending them a treat in the mail can be a great way to connect from a distance. Just remember that not everything people mailed to each other during World War I belongs in a modern care package. “I would suggest you forgo the live chickens,” Vogt says. “The USPS has been through so much this year already.”

2. Try a New Recipe.

Food shortages made ingredients like sugar, wheat, and red meat hard to come by during World War I. In 1918, the U.S. government released a cookbook titled Win the War in the Kitchen, which featured ration-friendly recipes. Americans aren’t dealing with the same food shortages they saw during World War I (or even March 2020) this Thanksgiving, but an unconventional celebration could be the perfect excuse to recreate a dish from history. Some recipes from Win the War in the Kitchen that could fit into your Thanksgiving menu include corn fritters, lentil casserole, carrot pudding, Puritan turkey stuffing, and maple syrup cake with maple syrup frosting. You can find the full digitized version of the book at the National World War I Museum’s online exhibit.

3. Depart From Tradition.

This year is the perfect opportunity to break the rules on Thanksgiving. That means instead of sitting down to a stuffy dinner at a set time, you could enjoy a relaxed day of eating, drinking, and binge-watching. This excerpt from a 1918 letter written by serviceman James C. Ryan to his mother may provide some inspiration:

"Had Thanksgiven [sic] dinner at Huber's over in Newark. Collins was in Cleveland on a furlough and Huber and his wife was alone with me [...] Started off with a little champagne and I certainly did put away an awfull [sic] feed. Had several cold bottles during the day and after coming back from a movie we had a few and some turkey sandwiches."

“Starting off with a little champagne does not sound like a bad plan,” Vogt tells Mental Floss. “And it was very much a small pod. They have their variation of Netflix, and then turkey sandwiches at the end of the day. Certainly some similarities and some inspiration there.”

Thanksgiving festivities were also unconventional for soldiers serving overseas in World War I. While stationed "somewhere in France" on November 29, 1918, Hebert Naylor wrote to his mother describing a Thanksgiving with two big meals—and not a turkey in sight:

“We came back and had breakfast at 10 o’clock. It consisted of pancakes, syrup, bacon and coffee. We had the big dinner at 4:30 PM and I tell you it was quite a dinner to be served to so many men. It consisted of baked chicken, creamed corn, french fried potatoes, lettuce, pie, cake and coffee. This was the first pie and cake I had since I left home and believe me it tasted good.”

4. Find Normalcy Where You Can.

Thanksgiving 1918 for the 79th Aero Squadron at Taliaferro Field, Hicks, Texas.National World War I Museum and Memorial

No matter what your Thanksgiving looks like in 2020, making room for a couple of traditions can provide much-needed comfort in a year of uncertainty. Even people celebrating during wartime 100 years ago were able to incorporate some normalcy into their festivities. On November 29, 1917, serviceman Thomas Shook wrote about seeing a football game while at army training camp: “In the afternoon several of us went to the Army vs. Ill. U. football game. There sure was some crowd. Army lost the game first they have lost.”

Keeping some classic items on the menu is another way make the day feel more traditional. Army trainee Charles Stevenson wrote to his grandmother on Thanksgiving 1917: “We had about the best dinner I ever ate today—turkey, cranberry sauce and cranberries, fruit salad, mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, tea and mine [sic] pie. Pretty fine eating for the soldier bosy [sic].”

5. Share What You’re Thankful For.

During the Great War’s darkest moments, some service members were still inspired to express gratitude when Thanksgiving rolled around. Thomas Shook wrote in a letter to his parents dated November 28, 1918 that after surviving the war, he had now escaped the Spanish Flu that was infecting many of the men he served with. Despite the hardships he endured, he was thankful to have been spared by the virus and be on his way home.

Wherever you are this Thanksgiving, sharing what you’re grateful for with loved ones—even if it’s by phone, Zoom, or a handwritten letter—is a simple way to celebrate the holiday.