Friday, April 19, 2013

Who Saved the Beluga Whale

The Beluga Whale - Delphinapterus leucas - is an Arctic and sub-Arctic cetacean.  It is also known as the White Whale;  although the term Whale is not completely accurate as "whale" usually denotes a baleen dental structure.  The Beluga is really a member of the suborder Odenticeti, or toothed cetaceans (including dolphins and porpoises).

The beluga is listed as "nearly threatened" by the Endangered Species Act.  But that is slightly misleading as its population has been growing, albeit slowly, since the early 1930's.  The worldwide population is now estimated to be 150,000.  The main threats to the beluga population are 1) hunting (by humans), 2) predation (by killer whales and polar bears), 3) habitat contamination (especially in rivers), and 4) disease.

But this is background information only.  I am focusing on the "threat" that no longer exists.  The unlisted threat that (shamefully) nearly drove the beluga into extinction in the 1920's.  But at the same time, this threat also deserves credit for saving the beluga.
I am, of course, speaking of the Automobile industry.

It was the Gilded Age.  Although humbled by the sinking of the Titanic, it had found new life in flight and in the burgeoning automotive industry.  The internal combustion engine had been invented almost twenty five years earlier.  But, due to costs, almost nobody could afford a car until mass pruduction techniques lowered the car's price substantially.

But technology and the law would collide to create the unintended consequence of the beluga's near-demise.  Relevant to this was inter-vehicle communications.  Today, we mearly honk our horns.  But early motorists, when coming to an intersection, were required by law to disembark from their vehicle, look both ways, fire a gun (preferably a shotgun) in the air warning other motorists in the area, and look both ways down the intersection again before re-entering their vehicles and continuing through the crossroads.

Of course, when there were only a few thousand cars nationwide, this was not a material problem.  But, with Ford's Model T, the resulting mass of automobiles required new laws for the new-fangled machines.  It took hours for lines of cars to get through intersections and the constant gunfire was scaring the horses and wounding pedestrians.  A new law limiting the number of vehicles on the roads to three was proposed but later killed in committee when politicians realized how much tax revenue would be lost.

So, what to do about the literal, legal, and metaphorical roadblock?  Some new method was needed to allow drivers to communicate with each other without getting out of their cars, without scaring horses (still prevalent on the streets), and without injuring pedestrians.

Enter the beluga whale.  They produced a high-pitched tweeting sound that was audible for several city blocks.  They were plentiful.  But most of all, they were small enough to cram into an automobile's engine compartment.  After pushing and pulling the cetacean into place, it was a simple matter of attaching electrical wires to the pectoral and dorsal fins and then manage the electrical discharges via a simple switch in the passenger compartment.

And viola!  The automobile horn was born!

At this point, most readers will be completely incredulous at the very idea that Belugas could be used in this manner.  But collective memories are short.  So let us review a few historical facts.
  1. As seen above, a new inter-automotive communication system was needed.
  2. The Beluga Whale emits a strong, audible sound.
  3. The Beluga Whales (especially infants and pups) are relatively small.
  4. Early automobile engines were also relatively small.
  5. Man's superiority over nature was unquestioned.
  6. Electricity was widely accepted as a way to produce involuntary reactions (which contunues to this day).
Visit any substantially large vintage automobile show and closely evaluate any antique motor car from the 1910's and 1920's.  Notce that the engine cover (or hood - as it is known today) is much larger than the engine it covers.  It had bo be.  The extra room in the engine compartment was necessary to accomodate the beluga whale, which would have been a standard safety feature of any car during the Roaring Twenties.

For two or three years (depending upon the automotive historian you interview), all was well.  However, severe drawbacks became very apparent.
  1. The electrical jolt necessary to get the beluga to wail often shorted out the electrical system.
  2. Motorists had to stop every two miles to wet the white whale down.  By the way, this is the original reason for water being available with air at filling stations.
  3. The beluga consumes approximately 800 poinds of food per day.
  4. It poops about 600 pounds per day.
  5. The dwindling infrastructure of the Whaling Industry could not keep up with demand.
  6. The beluga (a tooth-baring cetacean) frequently bit the very people who were trying to care for it.  Side note:  "Biting the hand that feeds you." refers to the Beluga Whale, not to dogs.
  7. At unpredictable intervals, the Beluga would try to escape - producing cataclysmic results to the automobile's suspension at the very least and in other cases forcing the horseless carriage into buildings or oncoming traffic.  Although, Laurel and Hardy did have two scenes in separate films where such incidences produced hysterical results.
This situation was dire.  Purchases of Shotguns escalated.  Pedestrians purchased surplus World War One helmits.  Stock prices of buggy whip companies rose sharply.  City and State legislatures were once again considering the limit of 3 cars per city block.  All of these were in anticipation of the demise of the Beluga.

Enter DELCO (Dayton Engineering Laboritories Company) of Dayton, OH,  Already a prestigious firm for creating an electic motor for NCR's cash registers in 1906 and inventing the electric car starter in 1911, DELCO set out to conquer the daunting task of saving both the auto industry and the Beluga Whales.

AND SO THEY DID!!  In just 42 working days from concept to prototype, DELCO created the first ELECTRIC car horn.  There was a small delay, as they tried to copy the high-ptiched tweet of the whale.  But they settled on a sound reminiscent of the noble beasts name:  "Ba-looo-gah!"  Tears of joy filled the streets of every city from Boston to New York.  Rehabitated whales were released into the wild where they were preyed upon by the inuit tribes and killer whales.

Today, antique car horns are still made by companies such as Assured Automotive Products - who sells an antique "Ah-hoo-ga" horn to avoid copyright infringement lawsuites.  But everyone knows they are flattering the original.

And so, with the help of the very industry that would have destroyed them, the Beluga Whale was saved. 

Long live Detroit!
Long live the Beluga Whale!  (which is realy an odenticeti)

And now you know ... the rest of the story.  (um ... I'm still trying to get this cleared by my attorney)


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