In the spring of 1954, residents of Washington state began to notice a strange phenomenon. Pits and dings started appearing in the windshields of their cars at an alarming rate. Explanations ranged from the mundane to the fanciful, but very little concrete evidence was found. All that could be confirmed was that over the period of one month, people claimed that someone—or something—was leaving holes in their windshields.
The Origins of the Windshield Pitting Mystery
In late March 1954, people from the town of Bellingham, Washington began spotting dings in their car windshields. Residents reported the damage to the police, who theorized it to be the work of vandals and their BB guns. Had the incident remained confined to Bellingham, perhaps that would have been the end of it. But it did not.
Reports of windshield pitting soon spread to nearby towns. By mid-April, news reached even Seattle. As more newspapers covered the so-called pitting epidemic, more reports of windshield damage came flooding in. The concern reached such levels that motorists stopped police cars in the middle of the street to submit reports, and soon escalated to assistance being requested from Washington Governor Arthur Langlie and President Dwight Eisenhower.
What Caused the Windshield Pitting?
While the initial hypothesis of hoodlums vandalizing cars with their BB guns was perhaps the most logical of the theories to come, many people refused to accept it. The damage was so widespread. It couldn’t all be the result of vandalism, surely.
However, alternative theories—while more appealing to locals—weren’t any more believable. One such theory revolved around a new radio transmitter at a nearby naval radio station. People believed it produced sound waves capable of causing physical oscillation in glass.
Others thought the dings were caused by cosmic rays or fallout from H-bomb tests. The ideas sounded interesting in theory, but when pressed to explain how either could have caused the damage, nothing materialized. And perhaps most astonishing of all, some people thought the pits were the result of hatching sand flea eggs. Never mind that it was highly unlikely that any insect, or its eggs, could survive the windshield manufacturing process.
Given the widespread reports, law enforcement officials launched an investigation. They looked at 15,000 cars in the impacted areas and found that more than 3,000 cars had sustained damage. But as their investigation continued, they reached the conclusion that the damage was neither the result of vandalism nor nuclear fallout.
Instead, officials believed the pits and dings had always been there. People had only just noticed them.
“5% Hoodlum-ism and 95% Public Hysteria”
Sergeant Max Allison, a representative from the Seattle PD’s crime laboratory, famously stated that the windshield pitting reports were “five percent hoodlum-ism, and 95% public hysteria.”
In other words, car windshields sustain dings and pocking through natural usage. Perhaps a small fraction of the 1954 incident can be explained away by rowdy youths and poorly aimed BB guns, but the majority are the result of natural causes. Through routine usage of a car, drivers wouldn't necessarily notice the damage. After all, you look through a windshield under normal circumstances, not at it. People noticed the pits and dings only after newspapers called attention to it.
And with that, just as quickly as reports of nefarious windshield damage began, they abruptly ceased by the end of the following month.
Today, most people consider the Seattle windshield pitting incident a textbook example of mass delusion. For example, while 3,000 damaged cars sounds like a large number, it’s still only a fraction of the 15,000 cars examined, which in turn barely make a dent in the millions of cars in Washington state. In other words, the number of windshields may seem like a lot, but only because we’re focusing on it. Take a step back and look at it in the context of all the cars in the state, and the picture tells a different story.
But why were Washington residents susceptible to believing the popular conspiracies explaining the windshield damage? First, we need to look at the circumstances that give rise to mass delusions. They depend on a few factors: rumors and false yet plausible beliefs, media influence, reinforcement of false beliefs by authority figures, and recent geo-political events.
All these things were present during the spring of 1954. Local newspapers covered the windshield pitting incidents. The damage began after that new radio transmitter was built. Was it just a coincidence? The mayor believed the threat was credible enough to contact the state governor and American president.
But perhaps it's this last factor that influenced people the most: Anxiety over nuclear testing and nuclear fallout pervaded the minds of many Americans. Paranoia and heightened sensitivity created an environment where seemingly minor things could only be the result of a hostile external threat.
Collective Delusions Live On
Mass delusions have occurred all throughout history. The Seattle windshield-pitting epidemic was one. The Salem Witch Trials were another. But before we dismiss collective delusions as an artifact of the past, let's remember that history tends to repeat itself.
During the summer of 2020, residents across the United States began receiving mysterious packages in the mail. True crime aficionados might assume these packages contained threatening letters or body parts. They didn’t. They contained seeds from China.
As reports of the mysterious seeds flooded the internet, warnings quickly followed. Don't plant the seeds because they might wreck your local ecosystem. Throw the seeds away because they might be a biological weapon. Rumors and speculation proliferated across Facebook and Twitter. Government agencies eventually intervened and deemed the seeds to be part of an illicit e-commerce strategy known as a brushing scam, in which companies boost their search rankings by creating fake transactions in order to post highly positive reviews.
But a year after the mystery seed mailings, The Atlantic offered up another explanation: They’re the result of forgotten orders the recipients had placed via Amazon months before.
Just as circumstances had primed Washington state residents in 1954, the American public was susceptible to a mystery seed conspiracy because of global events in 2020. A pandemic that originated in China upended normal life. Political conditions worsened. All these things contributed to a collective anxiety that paved the way for a conspiracy about some seeds that arrived in the mail.
Times may change, but human nature does not.
Featured photo: Justin Cron / Unsplash