The giant Muon g-2 electromagnet that inched its way through the Chicago area last week wasn't the first scientific marvel to snarl traffic even as it excited imaginations.
Rear Adm. Richard Byrd's massive Antarctic snow cruiser made nearly the reverse trip in October and November 1939, as it made its ponderous way from Chicago to Boston.
The 37-ton vehicle was 55 feet long, 15 feet wide and could hit maybe 15 mph on its 10-foot wheels. The brainchild of Dr. Thomas Poulter, Antarctic explorer and scientific director of the research foundation at the Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology), the snow cruiser was designed to allow Byrd to explore many more miles of territory during the brief South Pole summer.
The much-ballyhooed beast's first public test run on Oct. 24, 1939, was not encouraging. Pulling out of the Pullman Cottage Grove Avenue factory at 111th Street and Cottage Grove, it had trouble getting up any speed, broke down a couple of times and got stuck in a South Side underpass, causing a traffic headache. Poulter managed to get out of that jam but lost so much time he had to park the vehicle at Soldier Field for the night instead of Grant Park, where crowds were waiting to view it. Amazingly, Poulter took the cruiser out for just one more test, putting his baby through its paces in the challenging Soldier Field parking lot. He scrapped plans to test it on the Indiana sand dunes. Time was a-wasting.
The scheduled eight-day cross-country trip started at 3:15 a.m. Oct. 26, but ground to a halt just hours later because of mechanical troubles. Before it puttered into Boston 19 days later, the snow cruiser had suffered numerous other breakdowns, collided with a truck, hit a bridge in Ohio and slid into a creek, and caused the mother of all traffic jams in Massachusetts when more than 70,000 cars in a 20-mile radius ended up parked on highways and neighboring roads as the behemoth struggled along.
While the snow cruiser was turning into a punch line, Byrd's Antarctic expedition was serious business, the first time in 100 years that the U.S. had financed an official survey of the continent. The specter of world war intensified national efforts to lay claim to whatever natural resources lay under the ice.
Unfortunately, the snow cruiser's best days were behind it. See, the vehicle had trouble with snow, the Tribune reported in June 1940, six months after it arrived at the South Pole. Then World War II intervened. By the time the U.S. returned in 1946, the cruiser was buried in snow and ice. No attempt was made to dig it out.
But according to a 1963 story, the vehicle's travels weren't over. Its icy tomb broke off from the Ross Sea ice shelf and floated away.