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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

The Wrist-Twist Instant Steering System


In the days prior to airbags, that round thing jutting out of the dashboard of your car – aka the steering wheel – could be deadly in a head-on crash.  Not only that, but the steering wheel can block out portions of the instrument panel and, at times, obstruct the driver’s vision.

In 1965, aerospace engineer Robert J. Rumpf set out to redesign the steering wheel in an attempt to overcome these problems.  His solution was called the Wrist-Twist Instant Steering system, it consisted of two 5-inch (12.7 cm) plastic rings located to the left and right of where a standard steering wheel would sit.  Think of an elongated airplane yoke with two small rings at either end.  The positioning of these two wheels removed them from both the line of sight and from possible impact with one’s head in an accident.

Installed in four 1965 Mercury Park Lane convertibles, one could use one or both of the wheels, which were tied together by a chain, to steer the vehicle. Driving was supposedly simplified with the Wrist-Twist system, but those who had the opportunity to test drive one found that it was less intuitive to learn than a standard steering wheel. 

There is a video of the Wrist-Twist system in action on YouTube.  It is a bit sexist in its implication that women are inferior drivers, but it clearly shows how it works. I had to laugh when a woman demonstrated how easy it was to parallel park with this new steering system – if you watch carefully, another car is moving backward.  In other words, she was really driving out of the parking space and they ran the film in reverse to make it look like she was parking the car with ease.

The Wrist-Twist system never caught on. It’s hard to say why, but my guess is that it made a simple device far more complicated than it needed to be.

Illuminated Tires


Next up we have tires that were developed by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company that were first introduced to the public in 1960.  The cool thing about these tires was that they could be lit up in a rainbow of colors.

This was not done by having lightbulbs of varying colors shine down from above.  Instead, the tires were made from a specially compounded synthetic rubber named Neothane that was translucent in nature. The tires were made by pouring the liquid Neothane into molds, a colored dye then added, and then cured in an industrial oven.  Forget about those boring black rubber tires; these Neothane tires could be made in hot pink, green, blue, or whatever color suited the buyer’s taste.

To light up the tires, electrical current was fed through a special wiring device to eighteen small bulbs that were mounted in the rim. 

The tires were most famously installed on the Golden Sahara II, a late-1950s concept car, but these vibrant colorful tires never caught on.  There are pictures of the tires online, so be sure to search them out. My hunch is that if they were reintroduced today, more buyers would purchase them to spruce up their wheels.

Highway Hi-Fi Record Player


A new accessory that buyers of Plymouth, Dodge, Chrysler, DeSoto, and Imperial vehicles – all manufactured by the Chrysler Corporation – could opt for in 1956 was the Highway Hi-Fi system.  It was a specially developed record player that was mounted in a shock-proof case that was installed just below the central portion of the dashboard. 

Anyone who is old enough to remember records knows that they were notorious for skipping. Not so with the Highway Hi-Fi player. Tests demonstrated that it was nearly impossible to make the needle jump a groove, no matter how bumpy the ride is. 

Six long-play records could be stored in the Highway Hi-Fi’s case, but these were not ordinary records. They were specially designed by CBS Laboratories and were 7 inches (17.8 cm) in diameter). Each side could play up to forty-five minutes of music or one-hour of speech.

Chrysler's Highway Hi-Fi system mounted under the dashboard of a car.
Chrysler’s Highway Hi-Fi system mounted under the dashboard of a car. Image originally appeared on page 16 of the December 1955 issue of Audio magazine.

Santa Stuck in Chimney


Santa is a very busy guy around Christmas time, but on December 18, 1955, he decided to pay a visit to a children’s holiday party being held by the Naubuc Fire Department at the Goodwill Grange Hall in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

To make his grand entrance, a large chimney was constructed on the stage. Apparently, Santa had put on a few too many pounds over the past year and he got stuck as he made his way down the chimney. All the audience could see was a chimney with Santa’s boots dangling down.

Someone blurted out, “Call the fire department!” which couldn’t have been too hard since they were sponsoring the party. Two firemen came to Santa’s rescue and the party continued.

While Santa was handing out gifts to the approximately one-hundred children in attendance, a real alarm came in for the fire department. The firemen rushed off to put out a grass fire located on Buttonball Lane.

On December 18, 1955, Santa got stuck in a chimney. Library of Congress image.

Gift of 4-Tons of Fertilizer


Everyone loves getting gifts, particularly very large ones. But sometimes bigger isn’t better. For example, consider the case of Norval H. Milliken, who lived on McAnulty Road in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For Christmas of 1945, someone gave him four tons (3628 kg) of fertilizer. A pink ribbon completed this unusual gift.

For a greeting card, “Merry Christmas and a Prosperous Summer” were crudely painted on some wood and wrapped in tissue paper. Someone was having a good laugh with this gift.

Milliken did do some gardening, but nothing on the scale of needing so much fertilizer. In addition, he asked his friends and members of his garden club if they had gifted him this stinky prize. None seem to know anything about it.

It took a bit of detective work on Milliken’s part, but he ultimately traced the gift back to an Army buddy who had recently been released from the service. His friend confirmed that he sent the manure.

Norval Milliken may have needed a manure spreader for the unusual Christmas gift that he received. Image is from the Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth collection.

The Most Beautiful Ape in the World Contest


Lastly, one of my favorite movies of all time is 1968’s “Planet of the Apes.” The movie proved to be so successful that four sequels were made in quick succession. As a promotional stunt for the fourth film, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” a contest was held to find “The Most Beautiful Ape In The World.”

An advertisement in the June 10, 1972 issue of the Los Angeles Times reads, “Girls… 18 and over! Enter the most Beautiful Ape in the World beauty contest! Sponsored by Gary Owens of radio station KMPC. Monday, June 12, 1972 – Century City Mall, near Broadway Department store – 12 noon. Winner to receive a one-week film role in producer Arthur P. Jacobs’ next Apes film. Music! Stars! Beautiful Apes! Judges, from the newest Apes movie are Ricardo Montalban, Don Murray, Hari Rhodes and Natalie Trundy.”

Each of the contestants was required to wear hotpants or bikinis during the competition. In addition, the young women had to cover their faces with an ape mask and were “judged solely on the basis of their figures and ability to climb trees.”

The winner of the contest, 24-year-old Dominique Green of Malibu, California, was guaranteed a one-week contract to appear in the fifth movie, 1973’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” $350 in cash (approximately $2,150 today), and supposedly all the bananas she could eat.

So, did this make Ms. Green a movie star? According to the Internet Movie Database, the only film that she appeared in was “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” Her role is listed as “Female Ape (uncredited).”

Colorized photograph of Gary Owens hosting the Most Beautiful Ape contest. Contestant number 2, Dominique Green was named the winner.
Colorized photograph of Gary Owens hosting the Most Beautiful Ape contest. Contestant number 2, Dominique Green was named the winner. Original black and white image appeared on page 87 of the June 15, 1972 publication of the Los Angeles Times.

World Posture Queen Pageant


It was reported on Wednesday, July 1, 1964, that 17-year-old Barbara Gander had been selected from a pool of 20 finalists to be the winner of the World Posture Queen Pageant in Denver, Colorado by judges from the American Chiropractic Association.

The first of these contests was held in Michigan in 1955 by the Michigan Academy of Chiropractic. The following year, the pageant went national and international the next. While poise and personality factored into the judging, the most important of the criteria was to have a perfectly straight spine. And the way they determined this was by giving each of the contestants an x-ray.

As unusual as his contest may seem, it proved to be quite popular. Just as in your typical beauty pageant, winners of local pageants would move on to compete on a state level before advancing to the national level. The search for a World Posture Queen ended in 1969, although local contests did continue for a few more years.

Chiropractors study a spinal column X-ray as Miss Alabama, Miss Utah and Miss Minnesota as part of the World Posture Queen competition.
Chiropractors study a spinal column X-ray as Miss Alabama, Miss Utah and Miss Minnesota as part of the World Posture Queen competition. Image appears on page 13 of June 28, 1956 publication of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Rita Hayworth Beautiful Legs Contest


On August 3, 1952 it was announced that the Worth Theater in Fort Worth, Texas would be sponsoring a beautiful legs contest to help promote Rita Hayworth’s latest film, “Affair in Trinidad.” The competition was open to any young woman, whether single or married, who had never acted or modeled professionally. All she had to do was complete the contest entry blank printed in the Fort Worth Star and send it, along with a photograph of herself in either a bathing suit or playsuit, to the theater. From the submissions received, the judges would select the top twelve girls solely on the basis of their legs. Then, on August 15, the dozen selected would compete for the best legs in front of a live audience just prior to the premiere of “Affair in Trinidad.”

Advertisement for one of the many Rita Hayworth Beautiful Legs contests. Image appeared on page 16 of the September 19, 1952 publication of the Spokane Chronicle. (Click to enlarge.)

At first glance, it seemed as if the winner of the contest would win an all-expenses-paid trip to Trinidad, plus a two-day trip to New York, a bon voyage party, a contract with a New York model agency, and an additional $3,000 worth of assorted prizes.

But the devil was in the details. In reality, the top winners in Fort Worth would receive prizes from a local women’s clothing store. The grand prize winner would have her photograph forwarded to New York for national judging. That is because the same contest was occurring in cities and towns all across the United States.

The winner of the Rita Hayworth Beautiful Legs Contest in Fort Worth was 18-year-old Miss Charlyne Campbell, a senior at Polytechnic High School. The following May, Charlyne competed in the Miss Fort Worth Pageant. She was described in the newspaper as, “a blond with blue gray eyes, weighs 125 pounds and is five feet, five inches tall. Miss. Campbell has a 37-inch bust measurement, 23-inch waist and 36-inch hips.”

Needless to say, Charlyne did not win the contest. Miss Bettie Harbin, a sophomore at Texas Christian University, was crowned Miss Fort Worth. That made Miss Harbin eligible to compete in the Miss Texas contest, but she lost out to Paula Marie Lane, of which The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, “The 18-year-old miss is 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs 128 pounds. She has a 36-inch bust, 34-inch waist and 37-inch hips. She was graduated from Cleburne High School this spring and has ambitions to be an airline stewardess or a model.” Paula Lane went on to compete in the Miss America contest but lost out that year to Evelyn Ay, Miss Pennsylvania.

Fort Worth’s Rita Hayworth Beautiful Legs contest winner Miss Charlyne Campbell. Image appeared on page 5 of the August 16, 1952 publication of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Submarine Rodeo


On July 8, 1961, the Pleasant Lake Lyons Club in Indiana held their annual Submarine Rodeo scuba competition. Each year, this event attracted several thousand enthusiastic fans to watch the various diving events that were scheduled.

Some of the contests included the Weight Carry, the Recovery Dive contest, and a Compass Course event.

But, the highlight of this event was the last contest of the day. It was a diving contest that involved homemade midget submarines. These various crafts had been built from old aircraft parts, boilers, and steam fittings. Contestants in this contest came from great distances to compete. Basically, the divers had to use all of their diving skills to capture one of these elusive submarines.

According to the article, the first Submarine Rodeo was held in 1959 at Pleasant Lake. The contest continued through the mid-1960s, although it is unclear when they held it for the last time. It was reported that one of the big problems with these homemade submarines was that Lloyd’s of London refused to insure any of them.

Advertisement for the 1963 Pleasant Lake Submarine Rodeo that appeared on page 12 of the July 17, 1963 issue of the Steuben Republican. (Click on image to enlarge.)

The Ghost Plane


On August 30, 1955, a pilotless airplane circled Sydney, Australia and its suburbs for nearly three hours. Today, we live in a time of remote-control planes, but that was not why this airplane was flying around without a pilot.

Thirty-year-old trainee-pilot Anthony Thrower was practicing his takeoff and landings at the Bankstown Aerodrome when suddenly “The motor went dead when I was 10 feet [3 m] over the runway. I got down safely and applied the brakes. I decided to start the Auster by myself.”

That’s when he swung the propeller around to start the engine. As soon the engine turned over, the brakes on the airplane failed and it took to the sky without him aboard.

“I tried to hold it by a strut but I couldn’t make it.” And, “Away she went…”

He began to run toward the control tower in an effort to alert them as the plane flew in the opposite direction. And then, “I looked over my shoulder and got a terrific fright. The plane had turned right around and was chasing me.”

Thrower was unharmed and eventually, the plane climbed to an altitude of 10,000 feet (3 km) before leveling out. Royal Australian Air Force jets were called in to pursue the runaway plane but were unable to bring it down.  Eventually, the wind pushed the plane out toward the sea where two Australian Navy Sea Furies shot it down.

Lieutenants John Bluett, RN, and Peter McNay, RN, reliving their successful action against Anthony Thrower’s pilotless Auster in 1955. Image appears on the Australian Navy website.

Legal to Fly Airplanes on Sunday


The first documented blue law within the state of Pennsylvania, which placed restrictions on Sunday activity, was passed in 1779. Further restrictions were put into place in 1794 “for the prevention of vice and immorality, and of unlawful gaming, and to restrain disorderly sports and dissipation.” It strictly forbids “any worldly employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day, commonly call Sunday, works of necessity and charity only accepted.” This included, “any unlawful game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever.”

Of course, the times change and there were challenges to the law, especially as more modern forms of transportation came about. In particular, a new situation arose in 1919 when members of a Sunday observance association filed charges against Lieut. John C. Howard for carrying passengers in an airplane on the Sabbath.

On October 25, Philadelphia City Solicitor John P. Connelly offered up his opinion on the matter. He stated, “I cannot see how travel in the air on Sunday is calculated to interfere with the rest, quiet and right of citizenship to worship any more than travel by trolley cars, taxicabs, hired carriages or automobiles.” He added, “… travel by streetcars, by steam railways, by hired cabs, and in these later days, by taxicabs and other vehicles, both upon land and water, and for pleasure or necessity, has become universal, and has come to be tacitly if not explicitly regarded as within the exceptions to the Act of 1794.”

A decision was handed down on November 6 by an unnamed police magistrate, who had pondered over this violation for ten days, concluded that flying an airplane on Sunday in no way violates the Pennsylvania blue laws.

“Birds fly on Sunday and I therefore do not see how the law is violated by a birdman who runs an air taxicab on the Sabbath.”

Lillian Boyer was an early “wing-walker.” Photograph from the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive on Flickr.

Man Steals Railway


On July 3, 1938, Joseph Gemma, a resident of Providence, Rhode Island, was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $500 ($9,200 today) for stealing “a railroad in broad daylight.” He had previously appealed his case to the state Supreme Court, but they upheld the lower court decision and ruled that he must pay the penalty for his crime.

And just how does one steal an entire railroad?

You do it in tiny little pieces. Gemma had created a false sales agreement for the abandoned Harrisville – Woonsocket Railroad two years prior, which supposedly allowed him to have a gang of workers remove 250 tons of rails, piece-by-piece, and sell the iron for scrap.

1943 photograph taken in Camden, Missouri. Looking east on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad where it crosses over the Wabash Railroad tracks. Library of Congress image.

Airplane Golf Match


On June 25, 1923, a very unique golf match was held at the Olympia Field Country Club in Chicago, Illinois. It was a round of airplane golf, which pitted a team of nine professional golfers against nine amateur golfers.

So, you are probably wondering how would aerial golf work? Well, not as well as the event planners had hoped. The basic idea was that there were two airplanes from which golf balls would be dropped down as near as possible to the putting greens on the course below. The professional golf balls had white ribbons attached to them and the amateur balls had red ribbons. Wherever these balls landed, the players on the ground would substitute undecorated balls and attempt to drop them into the hole with the fewest number of strokes.

Things got off to a rocky start when one of the two airplanes involved hit a sprinkler during a practice run. As a result, the other airplane had to drop golf balls for both teams.

At the end of the match, the amateurs won by sinking the golf balls in twenty-five strokes.  The professionals took twenty-six strokes to do the same, although it was pointed out that the white ribbons attached to their balls were wider than the red ribbons, causing their balls to travel a greater distance before striking the green.

J.S. Conroy piloted the airplane for the winning team in the airplane golf match held at the Olympia Field Country Club in Chicago, Illinois. Image appeared on page 13 of the June 30, 1923 issue of the Palladium-Item

Horseless Age Is Not Far Away


In 1912, Gleeson Murphy, vice-president of the General Motors Truck Company predicted that the age of the horseless city was not very far away.  He thought that the horse could disappear from city streets within the present generation.

“Today the horse is a municipal luxury. He cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the streets clean and is a menace to health, especially in the crowded city districts. The horse has retarded the proper sanitation of cities more than any other obstacle. We have tolerated the horse all these years because he has been a necessity, but his day of usefulness is past; he is going into decline. For thousands of years he has been a common beast of burden, but the horseless vehicle has been his undoing. His day of supremacy is now a matter of history.”

“Municipalities, corporations and even smaller firms, who have use for only a single job, are changing their horse equipment for the new as speedily as it can be brought about.”

“To make this statement that it is only a question of time before cities will take some legal action to remove the horse from the streets is not stating an improbability.” He continued, “It is simply a matter of education and time; but that time will surely come, and within the next decade or so.”

1914 photograph of the City Bakery horse-drawn delivery wagon. R.W. Scott (?), proprietor, standing beside the horse and Mrs. Scott (?) and a dog are sitting on the carriage seat. Image from the Galt Museum & Archives on Flickr.

Mother Tells Baby That Armed Robber is a TV Repairman


It was reported that on July 6, 1955, 24-year-old Mrs. Annette Kotler of Hartford, Connecticut heard someone knocking on the door of a second-floor apartment in her building at 390 Vine Street. The building was your typical two-story flat of that time period. When she heard the knock, Mrs. Kotler had been giving her three-year-old son Lawrence a bath and thought nothing of it. 

But just a short time later she heard someone knocking on her own kitchen door. She opened the door until the safety chain was stretched to its limit. There she saw a tall, thin man who was wearing a rainbow-colored.

He asked, “Can I have a drink of water?”

Suspicious, Mrs. Kotler attempted to close the door, but he stuck his foot out and prevented her from doing so. At that moment, he drew out a long-barreled revolver and told her to “Opened the door.” He threatened to shoot both Mrs. Kotler and her son if she did not.

She felt that she had no choice and opened the door to let him in. As the man walked into their dining room, she took her son into the bedroom and, in an effort to comfort him, told young Lawrence that it was only a “man who was here to fix the television set.” She gave him a toy, laid him down in his crib and he fell asleep.

The robber demanded money to which Mrs. Kotler replied, “I don’t have any.”

He asked, “Where is your pocketbook,” as he proceeded to open every drawer in the house in search of money.

Mrs. Kotler gave the bandit $3 in bills that she had in a kitchen cabinet, but he didn’t take the change that was there. He also demanded that she take off her wedding ring, but she refused. She told him that if he got any closer, she would let out a scream.

She estimated that the robber was in the apartment for about fifteen minutes before leaving. He warned her, “If you call the police, I will return tonight and kill you and your baby.”

Mrs. Kotler ignored his threat and first called her husband and two neighbors before notifying the police.

One month later, Mrs. Kotler claimed that on August 3, 1955, she had been assaulted in the hallway of her home. She claimed that she had gone shopping with her mother, Mrs. Sadie Gypstein, and had parked her car outside while her mother waited in the car. As Mrs. Kotler entered the rear hallway, a young man hit her on her left shoulder. Mrs. Kotler was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital and examined, but the doctor observed no bruises or injuries.

That was the fifth complaint that Mrs. Kotler had made to the police over the previous twelve months.

My dad’s oldest brother Marvin was a radio and television repairman. I found his faded business card while cleaning out my grandparents’ summer bungalow.