The Nutty Professors

Illustrations by Max KornellFrom the moment curing the smog curse became a matter of public policy some 58 years ago, the letters and suggestions to officialdom started pouring in. Ragged-trousered inventors, reputable patent holders, trained chemists and engineers, garage dabblers and grease monkeys, dreamers, hucksters, crackpots and housewives offered hundreds of remedies, year after year, decade after decade, to Los Angeles’ original Air Pollution Control District. By 1955, the district was forced to establish an Evaluation Board, composed of the organization’s leading scientists, engineers and meteorologists. They met regularly, at headquarters on South San Pedro Street, fielding the steady stream of incoming ideas. S. Smith Griswold, the air pollution officer, dutifully replied to each with a personal letter explaining — with the kind of courtesy, directness and thoroughness altogether lacking nowadays — the shortcomings of the instigator’s plan. Sometimes, the agency subjected a concept to scientific analysis, reporting the results in pithy, rigorous memos without a hint of condescension. From 1955 to 1964 — during which statistics were carefully tabulated — a total of 7,528 ideas were evaluated. In 1959, for instance, the board conducted 320 field and office interviews, received 296 technical proposals and performed 184 individual case studies. In all, it took 1,270 man-hours to evaluate that year’s crop of over-the-counter proposals and devices. Things like mufflers, exhaust treatments, fuel additives and special carburetors held the imagination of amateur smog doctors (back then you could still lift the hood and modify your own car), although there was never a shortage of proposals to exhale the foul brew to some other part of the atmosphere or exile it to some other place on the planet.An occasional worthy insight popped up — usually long before its time. In February 1956, F.M. Peterson wrote from Fort Worth, Texas, urging the use of solar energy to eliminate air pollution. R.C. Hall, of Petroleum Essentials Inc., in San Marino, offered his company’s self-sealing “tank fill cap” as a means to prevent noxious vapors from escaping while tanker trucks pumped gasoline into stations’ underground storage tanks. The Air District acknowledged that the cap, patented in 1952 by Lloyd K. Wells and Staples X. Willard, would function as claimed, but, unfortunately, it would do little to cleanse the baleful air. (Twenty-six years later, in 1978, smog authorities changed their minds, mandating vapor-recovery boots at all Los Angeles gas pumps.) The most prescient idea, perhaps, came from Robert A. Felburg, a self-taught engineer and inventor, who lived in Westlake Village. In 1973, he urged officials to pare cars down from an average weight of 3,700 to 500 pounds, then predicted that such super-lightweight cars could be powered by electric batteries. “Upon deceleration or braking, the rotors and armatures of the... electric drive motors could actually perform a generator function,” he surmised, “and recharge the batteries somewhat, thereby recapturing energy normally wasted.” The first mass-production car to employ this technology, the Honda Insight, arrived in California in December 1999. Wash it. Most of the submissions, however, were ill-advised or ill-informed or ill-conceived — or all three. In 1967 Julian Heicklen, a respected chemistry professor at Penn State, said why bother installing expensive tailpipe emissions controls when you could more cheaply fumigate the air with Diethylhydroxylamine. He pointed out that DEHA scavenges the short-lived free radicals that fuel the airborne chemistry of smog. In effect, he had a way to break the chemical reaction before it took place. It’s too bad, then, that DEHA was a greater health risk than the smog it would have killed.Barney Girden, writing from New York in 1962, proffered a less rash, but equally ineffective “apparatus and method . . . (whereby) the rise and fall of tides are employed for exchanging tidal waters adjacent a land mass with fresh (cold) sea water, thereby to provide means by which climatic conditions of coastal urban areas may be controlled for eliminating smog...” Loosely translated, Girden thought he could harness the ocean to cool the air and break L.A.’s notorious inversion layer, the body of high-altitude warm air that traps smog inside the Los Angeles basin. A member of the Evaluation Board, Walt Hamming, was sufficiently tickled by the proposal that he scribbled a map of the air currents flowing from Santa Monica Bay, along with calculations of sea-air and land-air heat exchanges (known as Delta Ts) all over the margins of his copy of the memo discussing Girden’s wind-gradient plan. The formidable engineering problems aside, the idea didn’t add up: The inversion layer isn’t controlled by ocean breezes. Girden’s approach belonged to the school of “weather modification,” as Morris Neiburger dubbed it in Science magazine in 1957. Neiburger, who was head of UCLA’s meteorology department, kept a close watch on just about every suggestion ever made to deploy weather against smog. His published papers are full of equations that invariably spell doom to the ideas, which ranged from plowing under the Transverse Range to getting everyone to water their lawns (both aimed at knocking out the inversion layer) to putting smoke generators along the coast (designed to arrest the formation of photochemical smog). Blow it Away. Among the kookiest notions Neiburger took pains to dispel was warming all the air below the inversion layer, thus “punching a hole in it.” Every day of the week this folly would have consumed the amount of crude oil refined in Los Angeles during 12 days. It would also have created an endless heat wave, with average temperatures soaring to 100 degrees daily. Neiburger commented, wryly, “Those who prefer these high temperatures to the smoggy conditions which are the unfortunate corollary to the otherwise more salubrious climate the inversion layer brings can achieve the same result with much less effort by moving to desert communities, such as Indio or Thermal.” With similar wit, Neiburger dispatched hovering helicopters to blow fresh air downward from above the inversion base (too costly, noisy and dangerous), blasting tunnels through the mountains (even 50 tunnels would have no noticeable effect on smog, and the energy used to export the smog would require the total annual electric output of 12 Hoover Dams), focusing sunshine with giant mirrors to heat the air, causing smog to rise into the upper atmosphere (no amount of polished glass could generate the necessary heat), and stringing fog nozzles along the mountains, 2,000 feet above sea level, propelling smog out to sea (the atomizers would consume roughly five to 10 times the total water supply of the city). A different idea, but one involving water, came from Charles Henry, who lived in the Frampton Trailer Lodge, in Harbor City. Contrary to prevailing evidence that tailpipe and smokestack emissions were polluting the basin, Henry believed that smog was caused by natural gas escaping from a fissure in the ocean floor extending from Santa Monica to above Ventura. His solution, which he said was obvious, was to send fire boats into the bay to spray seawater on the escaping gases before they could flow ashore. On December 6, 1965, Raymond G. Holmes, the executive secretary of the Evaluation Board, spent two hours talking to Henry, “regarding his unique ideas of the sources of Los Angeles smog.” The kindly Holmes reported that the discourse had been “pleasant. I attempted, at some length, to dissuade Mr. Henry from his rather startling notions, but to no avail.”Henry was not the first, nor would he be the last, to suggest that you could waterlog smog. He merely had a goofy diagnosis and a wacky solution. He was a mild-mannered, if obsessed, man, contemplating the hazy horizon from the vantage of slot number 30, in a trailer park near San Pedro. Fittingly, he believed the white-collar boys had made a colossus of a bantam.Given Engineering, on the other hand, understood the magnitude — and science — of the problem, and had sufficient resources, plus nerve, to put forth an appropriately outsize answer. The defense contractor, in fact, cooked up the whopper, the grandest scheme ever promulgated to whisk away the bourbon-hued muck that blanketed the city and shrouded the mountains, whole. Even with hindsight, you’ve got to admire the audacity of the idea: Build a sewer system for smog. Install 160 miles of 20-foot diameter, watertight, gas-proof concrete conduit connected to vents in the mountains high above the flatlands. Giant fans would push the smog at 100 mph through the pipes and shoot it “harmlessly into the atmosphere above the inversion layer.”In December 1954, Sam Given delivered the “air sanitation plan” to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Bound in buff-colored boards, with a mahogany-colored binding — and replete with a five-foot-long foldout engineering diagram — the plan would cost between $200 million and $300 million and be completed by 1960. Given explained, with the confidence of Eisenhower-era American know-how and the Spartan assurance of unassailable truth, that the pipeline “does not appear to us... to be any more difficult to accomplish than... planning, designing and installing our massive and effective sanitary sewer system.” The same old glitch comes up, however. On a hot day, it was calculated back then that Los Angeles had a mass of contaminated air weighing 250 million tons. Thirty-one billion kilowatt hours of electrical energy would be needed to move the air just 30 miles away. At the time, that would have been about a quarter of the nation’s electrical output. Apparently, the more meretricious, the more plausible the proponents believed their idea to be.Smog has proved as intractable as the schemes to cure it have proved improbable. Still, who can say? Maybe something as unlikely as Hrant Eknayan’s patented “Pollution Minimizing Device and Method for Internal Combustion Engines” — a device for eliminating unburned hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide from auto exhaust — will be the answer to the insufferable air choking us all. Maybe one of those crank letters isn’t crazy at all?