When he jabbed a nightstick into the geezer sleeping in the snow, the cop figured he was saving the old guy from freezing to death. Instead, he inadvertently disrupted an offbeat 1958 experiment involving polar explorer Hubert Wilkins and a heap of chicken feathers. Wilkins, then 69, was a researcher at one of the strangest science labs on the planet.
Over the last 50 years, he and his colleagues at the Natick Labs have walked through flames, tangled with radioactive cockroaches and devoured weird foods in the name of military science.
Employed by the Army, they work to develop futuristic gear for soldiers. But many of their technological leaps eventually invade civilian life--from chicken McNuggets and freeze-dried coffee to bulletproof vests and self-heating parkas.
Still on the drawing board: courage pills, spray-on clothing and a modified nicotine patch that delivers vitamins and nutrients to people who don’t have time to eat. Perhaps the lab’s most outlandish project is a uniform that would change colors like a chameleon and enable troops to leap over 20-foot walls.
At first glance, the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center (as the lab is officially known) could pass for a sleepy college campus. Set on a grassy lakeside peninsula 20 miles west of Boston, it encompasses scattered buildings, tennis courts and a softball field.
But on closer inspection, things definitely get peculiar.
The air-conditioning can be set to 70 below zero. The chefs serve meals in toothpaste tubes. And the local church is an “instant chapel” that can be parachuted into war zones, complete with camouflage Jewish prayer shawls, compasses that point toward Mecca and a digital hymnal programmed to play hundreds of worship songs.
“There are all kinds of toys here,” says Natick Lab spokesman Jerry Whitaker.
Standing in a cubbyhole full of blinking lights and whirring machinery, research physical scientist Thomas Endrusick outlines Natick’s storied history. Wavy-haired and trim, Endrusick is one of the lab’s few links to its past. When he signed on in 1973 as a boot tester, some of the original scientists were still around, recounting various exploits.
“World War II was the real impetus for this place,” Endrusick says, hovering over a computer screen that flashes photos and charts to accompany his narrative. When U.S. forces plunged into combat in late 1941, their gear was absurdly out of date. The joke was that soldiers entered World War II with equipment left over from World War I, but the situation was actually much worse.
Because of isolationist sentiment between the wars, military planners assumed future combat would take place only on American soil. Thus, items designed to withstand the rigors of muddy trench warfare in France had been modified to handle little more than life on a military base in Georgia.
“We could fight in Minnesota in the winter and Florida in the summer, but that was it,” says Army historian Steven Anders.
The results were near-disastrous. Tents in the south Pacific disintegrated after two weeks because their fire-resistant finish lacked a fungicide to stop mildew. Food shipments got dumped at sea after the cans rusted. And when U.S. troops invaded the icy Aleutian Islands wearing uninsulated boots, they suffered more injuries from trench foot and exposure than from the enemy, Endrusick says.
Alarmed Army officials hired Georges Doriot, a former Harvard business professor, to whip things into shape. In 1942, he opened the Army Quartermaster’s first Research and Development branch, headquartered in Washington.
Before that, “it was unheard of to measure the width of foot space in a tank to see how much area a man’s shoes might use,” wrote Army historian Marcia L. Lightbody in a 1998 paper delivered to a conference of military historians.
Doriot recruited Ivy League professors, captains of industry, mountaineers, textile makers and jungle experts. To test cold-weather clothing, his team commandeered a frosty building in Lawrence, Mass., that was built to freeze-clean wool. For experiments on shoes, they trekked to a Virginia track rigged with gravel, concrete, mud, bricks, logs and a stream. Other researchers journeyed to Alaska, Indiana or Ohio to conduct work.
When the war ended, Doriot lobbied for a centralized research center. An “institute of man,” he called it. After Congress ponied up $11 million for the project, Pentagon officials reviewed 278 proposals from 40 states and decided to build the lab in Natick, Mass.
Long before the Army arrived, Natick had a reputation for quirkiness. Founded by Puritan missionaries in 1651, the town was built as a “praying Indian” village where Native American converts could live in wigwams on suburban-style plots of land. The original residents helped draft the first Indian translation of the Bible. Other innovations followed.
In 1858, the first modern baseball was created and manufactured in the town. In 1949, General Electric chose Natick as the site for its “House of the Future,” a showcase residence outfitted with such newfangled conveniences as the television, air-conditioner, garbage disposal, dishwasher and Stratoliner oven.
But it was the military that jolted the tiny suburb into the Space Age. Before the lab, Natick was a slumbering hamlet of 19,600 set amid farms, orchards and an old-fashioned downtown dominated by a Grandmother’s Mincemeat factory, a saw manufacturer and the old baseball plant (later converted to condos). The future Army base was a wooded grove known for its juicy blueberry patch. “No one was keen on losing that,” says lifetime resident Dorothy Deslongchamps, 67.
The atmosphere slowly shifted once the lab opened in 1954. One sign was the local high school science fair, where student experiments veered into such arcane territory as “radioisotopes in agriculture” and “loss of effectiveness of DDT and chlordane on body lice and cockroaches.”
For residents accustomed to knowing each other by name, the lab also brought lots of unfamiliar faces. (Today, the lab employs 1,000 people, mostly civilians, and the town’s population has swelled to 32,170.)
Perhaps the most fabled new arrival was explorer Wilkins, a swashbuckling Australian whose pre-Natick feats included the first airplane flight over the North Pole and the first submarine voyage under the Arctic cap. He also achieved renown as a combat photographer during World War I, strapping himself to an airplane wing to snap pictures, says Paul Dalrymple, a retired Army scientist who worked with Wilkins.
The daredevilry continued at the Natick Labs. After developing a prototype flameproof suit, Wilkins tested it himself by walking into a roaring gasoline fire. And when someone stuffed an experimental sleeping bag with processed chicken feathers, it was Wilkins who got poked by the policeman’s nightstick while trying it out.
Fittingly, the arctic chamber in Natick’s climate simulation building was named after Wilkins following his death in 1958.
Other early researchers shared his penchant for unorthodox testing methods. During World War II, when Doriot’s team was tinkering with a bulletproof vest made from glass and nylon, two Navy officers regularly volunteered to try it out. “One would get up [and] put the vest on, and the other one would take a revolver out and shoot at him,” Doriot recalled in a 1977 speech.
Endrusick adds: “There were no rules back then. No oversight committees or safety regulations.”
Not surprisingly, some of Natick’s experiments got mighty weird.
During the 1960s, scientists tried to figure out if sunscreen could shield soldiers from radiation. So they rubbed some lotion onto anesthetized pigs and herded them into the lab’s solar furnace, a curved mirror the size of a drive-in theater screen (now located in White Sands, N.M.) that focused the sun’s rays so intensely it could burn holes through blocks of metal. “That wouldn’t be allowed today,” Endrusick says.
In 1974, researchers zapped a bunch of flying cockroaches with ultraviolet radiation in a pest control experiment that went awry. According to a recent story in the Boston Globe, the bugs were then shoveled into plastic garbage bags, doused with carbon tetrachloride (a liquid pesticide) and shipped to the town dump.
Alas, the carbon tetrachloride dissolved the bags and, within a few months, surrounding homes were crawling with jumbo roaches. Marco Kaltofen, a local environmental activist and amateur town historian, says it took six months of daily DDT and chlordane spraying to eradicate what he refers to as the “Attack of the Mutant Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.”
Partly because of such incidents, nobody was too shocked in the early 1990s when groundwater beneath the lab was revealed to be a soup of toxic chemicals. Natick was designated a Superfund cleanup site in 1994, and the Army is shelling out nearly $1 million a year to decontaminate the area, a task expected to continue for at least 27 more years, according to the Boston Globe.
“Other than that, the lab is a pretty good neighbor,” says Jay Ball, one of Natick’s five town selectmen. “For the most part, it’s like they’re not even there. They have a very low profile.”
Fortunately, jumbo winged cockroaches aren’t the only things that military research has produced for mankind. Napoleon launched the canning industry in the late 1700s by offering 12,000 francs to anyone who could develop a reliable method of food preservation for his troops. Likewise, margarine was invented at the behest of Napoleon’s nephew, who needed a butter substitute for the French navy in 1870.
Natick’s legacy is far more extensive. When astronaut John Glenn orbited Earth in 1962, he squeezed dinner from an aluminum toothpaste tube of applesauce prepared by Natick chefs. (The lab’s current tube menu--which includes sloppy Joes, clam chowder and toffee pudding--is still used by Air Force U2 pilots.) Natick also supplied NASA with freeze-dried salads, sandwiches and ice cream.
However, the military denies responsibility for Tang. “We’re always given credit for that,” says Jerry Darsch, director of Natick’s food lab. “But General Foods invented it.”
Paul Lachance, a Rutgers nutrition professor who ran NASA’s space-food program, says Natick was his “right arm” for feeding Mercury and Gemini crews. The lab’s work paved the way for the backpacking food industry, he adds.
Chicken McNuggets and McRibs also owe their existence to the Army. “Whether Natick is the official grandfather of McNuggets, I don’t know,” says William Benjy Mikel, a food science professor at the University of Kentucky. “But the lab did a lot of early research in the field of ‘restructured’ meats,” the technology McDonald’s later made famous.
The forerunner to today’s energy bars was a chocolate-and-kerosene concoction devised in 1937 by Paul Logan, an Army colonel at the Quartermaster’s Food & Container Institute, which later became part of Natick. The idea was to create a compact food source for emergencies. Working with the Hershey chocolate company, Logan added raw oat flour to keep the bar from melting in tropical weather--and a splash of kerosene to discourage GIs from eating the bar as a snack. The kerosene was soon removed, but Logan needn’t have worried about troops eating the candy in nonemergencies. Even without petroleum additives, the bar “had a tendency on occasion to produce headaches and nausea,” according to Army archives, which offered no further details.
Natick officials also boast of the military’s role in developing Spam, M&Ms;, freeze-dried coffee and process cheese spreads, among other things. However, some of the claims are subject to dispute.
Although Spam was a staple of GI rations during World War II, most experts say the Army had nothing to do with inventing it in 1937. Darsch, Natick’s food lab chief, agrees: “I’m not sure we want to take credit for Spam.”
The origin of M&Ms; is tougher to pin down. Official Mars Inc. lore says candy baron Forrest Mars Sr. got the idea while visiting Spain during the Spanish Civil War. After watching soldiers gobble “pellets of chocolate encased in a hard sugary coating,” he returned home to formulate M&Ms; in 1941. Other sources suggest Mars copied Smarties, a British candy introduced in 1937. Natick officials offer a third story: The Army asked Mars to develop a chocolate product that would melt in your mouth, not in your desert sands.
“I’m not sure if our urban legend is more valid than theirs,” Darsch says. “But we talk to Mars people at various trade shows and they have never disagreed with our story.” (Mars officials didn’t respond to a Times request for comment.)
On the coffee and cheese fronts, Natick might be on firmer ground. Although the history of freeze-dried java and non-refrigerated cheese spreads is hazy, several sources indicate the Army commissioned research in the field.
Possible embellishments aside, it’s clear the lab has played a major role in food research, especially in perfecting food irradiation. The latest breakthrough is the “indestructible sandwich.” Similar in taste and appearance to the Hot Pockets sandwiches sold in supermarkets, Natick’s tangy barbecue chicken recipe has the added benefit of being able to endure 80-degree temperatures for three years without spoiling.
Researchers spent eons plotting how to stop the barbecue sauce from making the bread soggy. “We took the sandwiches to hospitals and ran MRIs on them to check moisture activity,” Darsch says.
More oddities are in the pipeline, including a prototype combat uniform that would give soldiers Superman-style eyesight and jumping ability. The bulletproof suit would also include wrist-mounted weapons fired by voice command and battery-powered T-shirts containing miniature heaters and air-conditioners. Sensors would monitor the soldier’s vital signs, warning him if he gets dehydrated or needs to load up on food.
Some of these gizmos already exist; others await advances in nanotechnology, a budding field in which atoms and molecules are altered to give a material new properties. For instance, clothing fibers could be engineered to sense their surroundings and change colors to blend in. And eyesight could be enhanced by implanting microscopic night-vision devices in human eyes.
The ability to jump over walls in a single bound might come from energy-storing shoes, according to a March press release from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is working on military nanotechnology with Natick, DuPont and Raytheon.
“Imagine the psychological impact upon a foe when encountering squads of seemingly invincible warriors protected by armor and endowed with superhuman capabilities,” said MIT nanotechnology apostle Edwin Thomas.
Then again, sophisticated gadgetry can’t do everything. That’s why Natick’s John Munroe wants to find a courage pill. During a study of war games in Louisiana, he says, researchers noticed that 10% of the soldiers made 90% of the kills.
If a chemical to reduce fear were synthesized, GIs would be far more effective, he reasons. “You can give our guys all these neat gadgets, but if they get out there and freeze under fire, it’s all useless,” says Munroe, whose Natick ID card hangs from a neck strap that reads, “Nowhere to hide.”
“It’s not just about how much high-tech stuff we have,” he concludes. “It’s about who we are inside.”