John Grover of Bountiful, Utah, recently sent me a fine version of an urban legend I call "The Technology Contest." He remembers hearing it told in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1939 or 1940, but never again since World War II.
Here's an abbreviated version of his story, which he calls "The Legend of the Wispy Wire." While the story is old, its subject is a timely one - the intense competition between two manufacturing countries.Just before the war a German manufacturer sent a request to an American steel company, asking it to make a sample of a special steel wire - four feet long and as thin as possible.
The most experienced metallurgists and wire-drawers in the company's Youngstown plant were assigned to the job. After a truly Herculean effort, the perfect piece of wire was ready.
So delicate was this wire that a breath would blow it away. It could barely be seen with the naked eye. Company employees curled it up in a black-velvet-lined jewel box.
A special courier carried the box to Germany to get the response of the manufacturer who had ordered the sample.
The courier was welcomed at the plant and given a glass of schnapps while the box was taken to another room for experts to inspect its contents.
Before the man had finished his drink, the box was returned - now sealed with wax - and the courier given the instructions, "Your answer is in the box. Please do not open it until you return to your plant."
Back in Youngstown, with all the top employees of the steel plant looking on, the company president opened the box, expecting an order for large quantities of this high-quality wire.
But the box contained only the original piece of wire, coiled just the way it had been packed. Experts inspected the sample closely, wondering what "answer" they were expected to find in the box. Finally, one of the metallurgists started to inspect the wire with a jeweler's eyepiece, and he suddenly gasped and stood bolt upright.
He asked the courier, "How long did you say they had the wire?"
The courier answered, "Not more than two minutes, or three at the outside."
"Good heavens, man, look!" the metallurgist said, handing over the eyepiece.
First the courier and then all the top men in the steel plant looked again, using the magnifier. They all gasped at what they saw.
The Germans had taken the piece of fragile, almost microscopically thin wire, and in less than three minutes had drilled a hole down its center!
Thus the Germans topped the Americans in a mysterious display of industrial one-upmanship.
Grover thought this story was "past ripe" when he heard it the first time, and he recalls that it was debunked by the time the United States entered the war and it would have seemed unpatriotic to tell it thereafter. He wondered if I had ever encountered the story.
Yes I have, but (sad to say) I cannot remember where or when. In 1940 I was 7 years old and living in Michigan, so it's possible that I heard it at about the same time Grover did.
The drilling of the wispy wire was also the climax of the version I recall, although I remember nothing about a velvet-lined box, a courier or a glass of schnapps.
To the best of my recollection, the foreign manufacturer who ordered the sample was in Japan rather than Germany.
Thinking about the legend now, I wonder if its ancestor isn't the story about Robin Hood shooting an arrow into the shaft of his rival's arrow sticking in the bull's eye of the target, a feat allegedly repeated with a six-shooter by various American frontier heroes, who fired one bullet through the whole left by another.
Perhaps one of you readers can supply some further variations of this wartime legend from nearly 50 years ago.
C) 1989 United Feature Syndicate Inc.