The Roy Chapman Andrews Society
The Roy Chapman Andrews Society

Roy Chapman Andrews: A Real Life Indiana Jones

The Roy Chapman Andrews Society
The Roy Chapman Andrews Society

Since the '80s, one name has been synonymous with adventure: Indiana Jones. The iconic film character has been envied and emulated by children, adults, and other fictional characters alike. With his hat and his whip, his brain and his brawn, and that amazing theme music, who hasn’t dreamed of being like Indy, roaming the world and hunting down treasure? One man, Roy Chapman Andrews, was very nearly the real thing. Though his adventures didn’t involve faces melting or hearts being torn out, they were still perilous and often produced artifacts of great significance.

An Adventurous Childhood

Roy Chapman Andrews Society

Roy Chapman Andrews was born in Beloit, Wisconsin in 1884. As a child, he was an avid explorer of local forests and waterways. In his autobiography, Under a Lucky Star, Andrews describes himself as “like a rabbit, happy only when [he] could run out of doors.” When he turned 9, Andrews received a little single-barrel shotgun, and as he grew up, he became a skilled marksman. He later taught himself taxidermy and used that skill to earn money for his education at Beloit College.

Andrews had known since he was a young boy that he wanted to be an explorer, and he realized that there would be risks in pursuing adventure—but he could not have imagined the peril that he would face on a routine hunting trip while he was still in college. When he was 21, Andrews was duck hunting on Wisconsin’s Rock River with Montague White, a member of Beloit College’s English department. It was March, so both the weather and the waters were cold. The river had also been rising steadily for days and held strong, dangerous currents. On what tragically became the last day of their hunting trip, Andrews and White’s boat was upset and they were thrown overboard, into the frigid river. Andrews was swept away by the current and struggled to swim towards shore. He managed to reach a submerged tree, and finally solid ground, but his friend was not so lucky. White, plagued by muscle cramps, had not made it to the bank, despite being a strong swimmer. This incident made a lasting impact on Andrews and seemed to set a precedent for his future, both in his additional brushes with death and in his attention to safety and detail in his fieldwork.

After graduating from college in 1906, Andrews hopped on a train to New York City to pursue another thing he had wanted since he was a boy: a job at the American Museum of Natural History. When Andrews reached the museum, however, he was told that there were no jobs available. Refusing to be discouraged, Andrews volunteered to scrub the museum’s floors. He was hired to clean and perform basic assistant duties in the taxidermy department, as well as to help the director of the museum with odd jobs when asked. Andrews quickly moved up the ranks and, despite several “better offers” throughout his early career, stayed on with the museum. He was soon doing the type of adventurous fieldwork he had dreamed about.

Andrews’ Early Career and Narrow Escapes

Archive.org

Andrews’ first major interest in the field was marine mammals—specifically whales. This fascination began when, after only being at the museum for seven months, he and colleague Jim Clark were assigned to retrieve the skeleton of a dead whale from a Long Island beach. The director instructed Clark and Andrews to retrieve every bone, but never believed they could do it because of how quickly the bones of beached whales sink into the sand. But Andrews and Clark returned to the museum with the entire whale skeleton; they had guarded it from a storm and retrieved it from the sand in freezing conditions (this whale's bones are still in the museum's department of mammalogy). Inspired by this retrieval, Andrews took part in many expeditions in Alaska, Indonesia, China, Japan and Korea, where he observed and collected marine mammal specimens. As Andrews’ career progressed, his subjects of study expanded and he continued to travel the world in search of animals and their remains.

Like the fictional Dr. Jones, Andrews found he had many brushes with death as he traveled the world. In this quote from his book On the Trail of Ancient Man, Andrews reflects on several of his nearly lethal experiences from his early career:

“In [my first] fifteen years [of field work] I can remember just ten times when I had really narrow escapes from death. Two were from drowning in typhoons, one was when our boat was charged by a wounded whale, once my wife and I were nearly eaten by wild dogs, once we were in great danger from fanatical lama priests, two were close calls when I fell over cliffs, once was nearly caught by a huge python, and twice I might have been killed by bandits.”

A Desert of Discovery

Andrews is best known for the numerous expeditions he led in the Gobi Desert during the 1920s. These expeditions began with the desire to survey the Central Asian plateau in its entirety, including collecting fossils, living animals, and rock and vegetation samples. Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the museum, put his full support behind Andrews, as he hoped the explorer and his team might find evidence that supported his pet theory that Central Asia was the staging ground, or place of origin, of all Earth’s life.

Andrews embarked on his first expedition in the Gobi in 1922. On this trip, Andrews and colleagues from the museum uncovered several complete skeletons of small dinosaurs, as well as portions of larger dinosaurs. These were the first dinosaurs ever to be discovered north of the Himalaya mountains in Asia. They also recovered preserved insects and other animal remains, and secured the largest single collection of mammals to come from Central Asia, including several new species. The results from this expedition, according to Andrews, simply scratched the surface of what could be gained from the Gobi Desert.

With his curiosity piqued, Andrews wanted to dig deep beneath the surface he and his team had scratched, so he proposed and led several more expeditions into the desert. His second expedition, in 1923, provided some of the most groundbreaking finds of Andrews’ career. Arguably the most scientifically significant of these finds was the skull of a small mammal, no bigger than a rat, that had lived alongside the dinosaurs; very few skulls of mammals from this time had been discovered before this one. The skull was found by Walter Granger, the chief paleontologist of Andrews’ team, embedded in sandstone from the Cretaceous period. Not knowing what sort of creature the skull belonged to, Granger labeled it “unidentified reptile” and sent it to the museum so it could be removed from the stone, identified, and perhaps analyzed further. When word came back in 1925, during Andrews’ third expedition, that the skull did not belong to a reptile but instead to one of the earliest known mammals, the team was thrilled. After hearing this news, Andrews and many members of his expedition were resolved to find more remains of these tiny creatures. During this expedition, the team found seven additional mammal skulls, as well as parts of mammal skeletons.

Probably the most famous find to come out of one of Andrews’ expeditions also came in 1923. It was only the second day after making camp that George Olsen, a paleontology assistant, made the find. He rushed into camp reporting that he had found fossil eggs, but was met with quite a bit of skepticism and teasing. Andrews and the others were, of course, still curious to see what Olsen had found, so went to investigate after they finished their lunch. Lo and behold, Olsen had found eggs—dinosaur eggs! There were three eggs exposed, broken out of the neighboring sandstone ledge, and other full eggs and fragments that could be seen embedded in the rock. This was a momentous find because, at that time, scientists weren’t actually sure how dinosaurs reproduced. It was assumed that dinosaurs laid eggs, as they were reptiles, but it had never been confirmed until Andrews’ team found the eggs.

Scientific American

A total of 25 eggs were retrieved during this expedition and the team thought that the location of these finds probably indicated that the spot was a popular breeding ground. What’s more, it wasn’t just eggs that Olsen found; upon further investigation of the first egg site, the skeleton of a small dinosaur was discovered above the nest. It was posited, at first, that this dinosaur was trying to steal the eggs from their nest for a meal, so it was dubbed Oviraptor (egg seizer). Based on later finds of this same dinosaur, however, scientists now believe it was much more likely that the eggs belonged to that dinosaur and it was protecting them.

Andrews found that the public was so facinated by the eggs that they didn't care about the other discoveries made on the expedition. While the constant focus on these eggs irritated Andrews, he found a way to use this to his advantage. He needed more money to mount further expeditions, and while he found support from several rich backers, it just wasn't enough. To spread the word that the small contributions the public could afford would be appreciated, Andrews and the director of the museum, Henry Fairfield Osborn, decided to auction off one of the dinosaur eggs they had recovered. All the publicity for this auction included pleas for funding; Andrews is quoted in a New York Times article saying, “We have felt there is no good reason why we should not sell one of these eggs. We have twenty-five of them . . . There is no desire on our part to make any money for the museum, but only to help defray the expenses of the Asiatic expedition.” In the end, Andrews collected $50,000 in public donations in addition to the winning bid of $5000 for the egg, which was won by Mr. Austin Colgate and given to Colgate University as a gift.

Austin Colgate (right) gives Roy Chapman Andrews a check for the dinosaur egg. Photo courtesy of Colgate University's Geology Department.

And a Desert of Danger

The staggering finds made by Andrews and his team were not the only excitement to be had on these Gobi expeditions, however. In Under a Lucky Star, Andrews recounts many dangerous encounters the desert provided. In one instance, Andrews was on his way back from a supply run when he encountered some bandits. He was driving down a steep slope when he saw, at the bottom, four men with rifles on horseback. Knowing he couldn’t turn around on the rocky slope, Andrews decided his best course of action was to head straight for the bandits with some speed. He remembers that as soon as he hit the accelerator, the horses “went mad with fright.” The bandits tried to reach for their rifles, but found that all their effort was needed just to stay on their horses. While three of the ponies ran off into the desert, the fourth, scared stiff, was left behind. Andrews drove right up next to it and, though he easily could have killed the bandit, took a couple of shots at the hat the bandit wore and chased him away. Andrews writes that the hat, which “bobbed up and down . . . was too great a temptation to be resisted.”

Another incident in the desert had Andrews and his team nervous to sleep in their own camp at night—but not because of bandits. The team had their camp set up on high ground and, on one particularly cold night, a great number of incredibly poisonous pit vipers slithered up the slope seeking warmth. The first to notice this invasion was Norman Lovell, a motor engineer, who saw one of the serpents crossing a patch of moonlight in his tent. Lovell was about to get out of bed to kill the snake when he thought to look around before putting his bare feet on the ground. He noticed two snakes coiled around the posts of his bed and the original emerging from under a gasoline box near the head of his cot.

Lovell was not the only one to encounter vipers. Many others found snakes hiding in their shoes and caps and among their rifles. Fortunately, the cold temperature made the snakes sluggish and slow to strike; the men killed 47 snakes in their camp that night. Everyone came out of the incident unbitten and unscathed, but certainly much more wary. Andrews even recalls how he was frightened and how he screamed when he, sometime later, stepped on something soft and round; to his embarrassment and fortune, it was only a coiled rope. This experience certainly made Andrews share Indiana Jones’ dislike of snakes.

Andrews Gives Up the Gobi

Wikimedia Commons

Andrews thought there was still much to be learned in the Gobi Desert, but political situations in Mongolia and China forced him to suspend expeditions after 1930. Andrews found that his team was severely restricted in the work they were allowed do and the data they could record, not to mention the drastically increased levels of physical danger they faced from bandits and others hostile towards outsiders.

While this phase of Andrews’ career was over, though, another was getting ready to begin. In 1934, Andrews became the director of the American Museum of Natural History and held this post until January 1, 1942, when he decided to turn the museum over to a younger generation of scientists. After retirement, Andrews and his wife Yvette moved to California. He spent much of the rest of his life writing about his many adventures and died of a heart attack in 1960.

Is Andrews the Inspiration for Indiana Jones?

It is widely believed that Andrews was the inspiration for the ingenious adventurer Dr. Henry Jones Jr. While George Lucas never cited Andrews, or anyone else, as a specific real-life model for Jones’ character, it is known that he took a lot of his inspiration for the series from movie serials of the '40s and '50s that he had seen and enjoyed as a child. It is likely that these movie serials Lucas was fond of took inspiration, in turn, from the scientists and explorers of Andrews’ time. Due to his work and discoveries in the Gobi Desert, Andrews is one of the best-known of this crowd and an influential figure in promoting scientific study. However indirect the inspiration may be, there are no doubts in many people’s minds that Andrews was a model for the famous whip-wielding professor. Andrews even consistently wore a ranger hat on his expeditions; Indy fans know that Dr. Jones, too, would never be caught leaving his hat behind.

Andrews’ Legacy

Being the Indiana Jones of his time, however, is not Andrews’ only legacy. The Roy Chapman Andrews Society was formed in 1999 in Andrews’ hometown of Beloit to honor the explorer and his influential work. According to the society’s website, the founders were “intent on building more awareness of one of the 20th Century’s most famous explorers,” as well as promoting the small town of Beloit. In honor of Andrews’ life and achievements, the society presents the Distinguished Explorer Award (DEA) every year to an explorer or scientist who has made or contributed to making scientific discoveries of world-wide significance. This year’s award was presented to Dr. John Grotzinger for his work as the lead scientist of the Mars Curiosity expedition.

Sources: The Roy Chapman Andrews Society; Unmuseum.org;  Beloit University.

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Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Rosa Parks's Former House in Detroit Will Be Sold at Auction
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's

The humble wooden house that Rosa Parks moved into after fleeing to Detroit in the fallout of her historic Montgomery bus protest will be auctioned off by Guernsey’s next month. The house has been taken apart, reassembled, and displayed in different locations over the years—including destinations as far-flung as Berlin, Germany—and the structure could theoretically be rebuilt anywhere.

The sale of the home will be part of Guernsey’s “African American Historic & Cultural Treasures” auction to be held July 25-26 in New York City, and proceeds from the house will benefit the Rosa McCauley Parks Heritage Foundation.

The fact that the home is still standing is testament to the resilient spirit of Rosa Parks, but it wasn’t always in such great shape. The home, formerly owned by Parks’s brother, fell into disrepair over the years and was slated to be demolished by the city of Detroit.

That’s when Parks’s niece, Rhea McCauley, stepped in. She bought the house for $500 and handed it over to Ryan Mendoza, an artist who promised to preserve the structure as a monument. He took it apart, transported it thousands of miles to Berlin, and rebuilt the house in his yard, where it remained on public display.

“A lot of people did think that that house was not worth saving because there’s so many in Detroit that looks just like that house,” Mendoza told the BBC. “It sort of goes without saying that she’s a national icon and what she did was so important for so many millions of people even if they don’t know it.”

Most recently, the home was displayed as part of a symposium with the Rhode Island School of Design.

After Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, she lost her job and received a steady stream of death threats. Two years later she and her family decided to move north, and the Detroit home she shared with 17 other relatives represented “a place of love and of peace,” McCauley told the BBC.

Also heading to the auction block is a handwritten account of Rosa Parks’s first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., in August 1955, about four months before her bus protest. She wrote of her first impression, “I was amazed and astonished at the youthful appearance and the profound and eloquent speech delivered by Rev. M.L.K. Jr. I knew I would never forget him.”

Other notable items up for sale include a Jackson Five recording contract, signed by Joe Jackson; original score sheets of music from The Supremes and The Temptations; and hundreds of movie posters documenting African Americans’ role in film.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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