This is probably the closest real-life approximation to the Armed Forces' destroyer of foodstuffs. Photo via Department of Defense.
The idea wasn't to kill you. The idea was to fuck you up for your own good—unless you were an insurgent, in which case spasming, puking, shitting your pants, clutching your stomach (your insides burn), and hallucinating could well have been the fleeting first course of your uprising slowly fading, even starving, into oblivion.
The mission to create a foodstuff degrader occupies a curious place in the US Defense Department's long and sordid history of biological and chemical research and development. By the 1960s, the Army was already steeped in its so-called psychedelic Manhattan Project at Maryland's Edgewood Arsenal. Some of its engineers were busy designing mind-control bombs packed full of 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate, the incapacitating agent better known as BZ. But until then the Army, let alone the Armed Forces writ large, had never quite confronted the problem with food head on.
Which is to say that food can always go very, very bad. Large stocks or batches of any particular foodstuff sometimes must be deemed hazardous. It can happen without warning and for any number of reasons (bacteria or fungal outbreak, terror plots, among other things) and becomes a matter of safeguarding the populace by labelling the reserves as inedible, transporting them out of sensitive areas, or maybe even destroying them altogether. Only that's just not always tenable, especially during emergencies or times of crisis. When there's simply no time to apply warning signs to doomed grain heaps, say, or when hauling away or destroying those reserves becomes a logistal nightmare, what should we do?
It was a public health issue, if anything, and still is. But it also had explicit wartime implications. The Secretary of the Army knew as much, putting out the call in 1964, as the theatre of war(games) roiled the Gulf of Tonkin, for a method of effectively and efficiently dealing with food reserves gone, or deemed, bad.
The trick lay in developing unique mixtures of psychoatives and contaminants capable of degrading so-called "condemned" food stocks so clearly that anyone in relative proximity to the caches knew damn well that the foodstuffs had indeed intentionally been debased, and as such weren't edible or fit for human consumption or food production, period.
Cross section of food-spoiling "contaminant disseminator", via US Patent Office.
It took time. Inventors William H. Collins, Vincent J. DiPaola (a former Edgewood staffer), and Louis M. Sherman plodded along for 16 years, from the thick of the Vietnam Conflict right into the Reagan era until finally, with a suitable approach to degrading foodstuffs "in such a vivid manner", the three inventors were awarded US Patent No. 4,479,889 (pdf) in 1984 for their Compositions and Method for Degrading Foodstuff. And perhaps most notably they recognized the potential in all those hallucinatory derivatives of d-Lysergic acid—agents like d-Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25) that are resistant to degradations of air and light—to get the point across that this food isn't for eating by kicking up waves of "drunkeness filled with fantasy and exaggerated images."
Here's how it worked. Just about every cocktail pumped into this food-fucking gadget was made up of at least one psychoative agent, sometimes more. Collins, DiPaola, and Sherman cited numerous chemicals, from podophyllium resin to benzyl diethyl ammonium benzoate to emetine hydrochloride to acid, that they considered to be ideally suited for debasing condemned food reserves. They made the case for convulsives, emetics, purgatives, internal vesicants, and hallucinogens, sure, but did so in decidedly broad strikes. Their thinking was that in the quest to see "even the most foolhardy" human, someone who out of brazen disregard for power or sheer desperation might ignore the warning signs of contaminated food, whatever it took was what it took, and that was that.
So there was no Holy Grail. The sky was the limit, but came in different colors, smells, tastes—bold sensory cues that served to further deter civilians from gorging themselves, and so fit into the inventor's recipe like so:
- Physiological agent (1 - 50 percent)
- Taste additive (5 - 20 percent)
- Odorant (0 - 5 percent)
- Dye (0.5 - 5 percent)
- Solvent (50 - 90 percent)
The patent write up gets into the weeds of four specific "preferred formulations," the toxicological effects and lethal dosages for which were derived from lab mice. Critically, the researchers had to be sure the various compounds developed could not kill. Nevermind acid, the possibility of foodstuff doused in something like croton oil being ingested by unwitting "friendly peoples" was very real.
And yet the patent's chemical requirements were still very much broad by design. Compared to the device's technical specs, together with just how you were to go about getting the job done, the cocktails almost look cute.
No, it did not take a skilled marksmen to handle the device. (To hear its inventors tell it, doing so was "simple".) But the shape and size of a food store dictated "the sites for disseminating the contaminant liquid." This is precisely why Collins, DiPaola, and Sherman fashioned their device to be carried and utilized "more conveniently in the manner of a gun," not a hulking cannon. The thing was optimized for destroying stored foodstuffs very quickly, with few agent formuations, and with minimal manpower.
To wit: The three researchers concluded that the amount of physiological agents you'd need to thoroughly degrade one ton of grain, say, was based on "a practical limitation" that came out to about one pound of choice contaminate. They added:
The average one-ton cache of base food is about 4-feet wide by 4-feet long by 2-feet deep. [requires that each disseminator be inserted approximately 8 to 12 inches from each corner to a depth of about 2 to 4 inches. The launcher gun is then fired. The entire operation including liquid coating of the surface, should be accomplished within 2 minutes. On larger caches, additional disseminators would be used. As a guideline, one disseminator container 6 inches long and one inch in diameter may be used to contaminate up to 500 pounds of rice. Therefore, if two tons of rice are to be degraded, eight disseminators will be required. On small caches of grain of about 200 to 600 pounds in size, a single disseminator should be sufficient. For grains under 100 pounds or in bags, the contents are preferably dumped on the ground and contaminant liquid is poured over them. The disseminator should be inserted to a depth of about 4 inches before initiating.
Which apparenly was all well and good when you had to clearly label as unfit for consumption, for fear of a sickened public, a specific food stock that deemed unfit for consumption. But what about when you had a bunch of the enemy's food on your hands?
Initiator housing attached to the disseminator, via US Patent Office.
This is where the tale of the Army's psychoactive squirt gun really gets interesting. Cached foods were crucial to uprisings and the success of insurgents. As the researchers put it:
Guerrillas must have food on which to subsist. Since grains such as wheat or rice make up the greater portion of the food consumed daily, uprisings may be quelled by denying insurgents any access to stored grains.
So then why not just outright destroy the stuff? Why take pains with what's essentially a spry, souped-up SuperSoaker to rain on some bad guy's sustenance when you could light up his ramshackle grain elevator with enough TNT to send it all back to the goddamn Stone Age?
Simple. All blowing up a giant heap of grain, cereal, dried fruit, or whatever, really does is scatter all those individual seeds and kernels and keep their insides (potentially the very "condemned" stuff you're trying to snuff out) in tact, to boot. Same goes for torching that grain elevator or wheat storehouse. Gasoline, kerosene, napalm, even—these are all combustibles that in the end might just char a few outer layers of coating while leaving the "edible" components largely unscathed, and blown far and wide.
A high-powered, ultra-fine spray was the way to go, then. In the annals of anti-ingestible and/or denatured patents, the Army's food-fouling spray gun sticks out like a something pulled from some B-list DARPA's dustbin of aborted ideas.
There's really no telling what the thing actually looked beyond schematics, however. As far as we know, no photos of the foodstuff degrader exist. It might not be all that off base to imagine it as akin to present-day spray tech developed by a company like Sono-Tek, whose ultrasonic atomizing nozzle was as of 2012 being used (pdf) in chambers for all manner of aerosol dissemination R&D at the Army's Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah.
Even still, we can only imagine. And we can also safely assume the irony of a tripped-out kernel was lost on Collins, DiPaola, and Sherman, who at the height of the first real psychedelic heydey figured the best way to keep you, mere citizen, from cracking into delegitimized foodstuffs was to soak the stuff in LSD, among other things. At least it wouldn't kill you.
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