Kurt Vonnegut in the ‘House of Magic’

17:27 minutes

GE scientist Vincent Schaefer breathes a cloud into a freezer, as colleagues Irving Langmuir and Bernard Vonnegut (Kurt Vonnegut's brother, at center) look on. He'll nucleate this laboratory-made cloud with dry ice to create snow. Photo by GE News Bureau
GE scientist Vincent Schaefer breathes a cloud into a freezer as colleagues Irving Langmuir and Bernard Vonnegut (Kurt Vonnegut’s brother, at center) look on. He’ll nucleate this laboratory-made cloud with dry ice to create snow. Photo by GE News Bureau

General Electric called it the “House of Magic.” In the 1940s and 50s, The company’s research lab in Schenectady, New York was known as a scientific playground and hotbed for invention. Free to pursue pure research, GE scientists ended up developing turbocharged jet engines, portable X-ray machines, and a new way to enhance rainfall: cloud seeding. The scientist who refined that “rain-making” technique was a young, pompadoured chemist named Bernard Vonnegut.

Today, it’s Bernard’s little brother, Kurt Vonnegut, who’s the big name. But in her new book, The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic, author Ginger Strand makes the case that to understand Kurt and his fiction, you need to understand Bernie…and GE. She joins Ira to explain how Bernard’s cloud-seeding invention made its way into Cat’s Cradle, and how Kurt’s questions about the ethics of the “House of Magic” inspired his fiction. Read an excerpt.

Bernard Vonnegut’s GE colleague Vincent Schaefer demonstrates cloud-seeding in the lab. Vincent seeded this “lab cloud” with dry ice, but Bernard discovered that silver iodide was an even more effective seeding agent—a breakthrough discovery for cloud-seeding. Video courtesy of miSci, Schenectady, New York.

Kurt's brother Bernard Vonnegut advised the military's cloud-seeding initiative, Project Cirrus. Here, a Project Cirrus plane seeds a cloud with dry ice, creating a dramatic trench in the cloud. Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps
Kurt’s brother Bernard Vonnegut advised the military’s cloud-seeding initiative, Project Cirrus. Here, a Project Cirrus plane seeds a cloud with dry ice, creating a dramatic trench in the cloud. Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps

Segment Guests

Ginger Strand

Ginger Strand is the author of The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). She’s based in New York, New York.

Heard on the Air

  • Read an excerpt from The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic, by Ginger Strand

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The year was 1947. Business was booming for the General Electric Company. Sales of light bulbs, turbines, and motors were up. World War II was over. And washing machines were in. But in its 1947 annual report, GE saved the real exciting news for last. With a trumpet fanfare, they announced that GE scientists were finally doing something about the weather. Researchers had manufactured real snow and rain using a brand new technique cloud seeding.

NARRATOR: For the first time in all history, there is now open to man the possibility of exerting some control over the weather, probably the most remarkable achievement of the year.

IRA FLATOW: GE scientists were making rain, the company said. And the scientist who perfected the technique was a young pompadoured chemist named Bernard Vonnegut. Bernie’s little brother Kurt worked at GE too. He was a PR man, a struggling writer who barely survived the firebombing in Dresden. And he was both fascinated and horrified by GE’s headlong rush into the future. My next guest says Bernard’s discoveries and GE stuck with Kurt Vonnegut his entire writing life. Ginger Strand is the author of a new joint biography of Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut. It’s called The Brothers Vonnegut Science and Fiction in the House of Magic. She joins us to talk about it. Ginger, welcome to Science Friday.

GINGER STRAND: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: A great book. And as I was reading it, I was amazed that no one has told this story before.

GINGER STRAND: I felt that way the whole time I was writing it actually, which was– there was one point where I said to a friend, I really can’t wait to finish writing this book because I really want to know how it ends.

IRA FLATOW: So tell us how they both got involved with General Electric.

GINGER STRAND: Well, Bernard Vonnegut, who was 8 years older than Kurt, went to work for GE right after the war. He had been conscripted by the chemical warfare service during the war itself. And he was doing research into deicing of aircraft, which was a very compelling little fact to me. He was actually helping those bomber planes get in and out of their bombing missions. In the process of doing that, he met up with a couple of GE scientists, began to share information with them, and as a result, was invited to apply to GE immediately at the end of the war, which he did.

IRA FLATOW: And so while he was at GE, and while Bernard was working at GE, it was nicknamed the house of magic.

GINGER STRAND: Well, the research lab, the GE research lab, was nicknamed the house of magic. The scientists actually didn’t like that name. They said

IRA FLATOW: They didn’t?

GINGER STRAND: No. They said, we’re not doing magic. We’re doing science. It’s all real. But it was a great handle for the PR guys. So they kept using it.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s a lot like Bell Labs in those days. You come in. You just sky. You do whatever you’d like. And discover things.

GINGER STRAND: Very much. Very much. The scientists were allowed to do pure research in addition to helping make GE’s light bulbs ever better.

IRA FLATOW: So here was Kurt. He’s working at GE. But he’s not working on the science part, is he?

GINGER STRAND: No. He was recommended by his older brother for a job there, because he had some newsroom experience. He’d worked on his college paper, his high school paper. And he’d in fact worked in the city newsroom in Chicago for a little while. But he also had a science background. He had been a biochemistry student at Cornell before he dropped out to join the military. So he was able to go in and kind of speak to the things that GE was doing at the time. And he was also a very good writer.

IRA FLATOW: So he’s writing all these great press releases about the great stuff that’s going on.

GINGER STRAND: Exactly. Press releases rolling off his typewriter about GE’s latest new invention.

IRA FLATOW: And let’s talk about one of the great discoveries that you mention in the book. And that is this cloud seeding experiment where GE scientists discover that cloud seeding is really a low-tech, doesn’t take much to do it. They discovered cloud seeding. And they did it in a home freezer, one of GE’s own freezers?

GINGER STRAND: Yes. They had Irving Langmuir, the Nobel laureate, and Vincent Schaefer, who worked with Bernard Vonnegut, hypothesized that clouds often hold a lot of supercooled water, water that is below the freezing point but has not condensed yet and become heavy enough to fall as rain. So they thought, well, let’s see what we can do. Let’s see if we can try to make it rain. So they brought in a GE freezer, just a box freezer like you have in your garage. And they lined it with black velvet and shone a light on it so that they could see it. And then they just breathed into it and formed a little cloud. And then they just began spraying it with things to see if anything would produce a little miniature snowstorm right there in the freezer.

IRA FLATOW: And it worked.

GINGER STRAND: Well, there was one day where the freezer, it was so hot in the lab, that Vincent’s freezer couldn’t keep up. So he just threw in a block of dry ice. And presto. There was a miniature snowstorm. The first discovery was that dry ice would nucleate, as they say, clouds. Bernard subsequently discovered that the chemical silver iodide would do the same thing.

IRA FLATOW: Such serendipity always working all the time. Now GE, which loved to make movies of these things. And they made a film of scientist Vincent Schaefer doing this icebox experiment. And here he is making artificial snow.

VINCENT SCHAEFER: Using our home freezing units such as this, we can farm supercooled cloud just like those in the natural atmosphere by breathing into the box. This cloud is made up of liquid water droplets. They are not snow crystals as yet. But by taking a tiny piece of dry ice such as this and scratching it so a few tiny fragments fall into the supercooled cloud, long streaks develop just like the paper trail from an airplane. These contain millions and millions of tiny, submicroscopic snow crystals which grow very fast and assume exactly the same forms that natural snowflakes show in an ordinary snowstorm.

IRA FLATOW: Now did you have to learn why this worked?

GINGER STRAND: Yeah, to some extent, yes. I spend a lot of time– what would be the right word– harassing, perhaps–

IRA FLATOW: Haranguing?

GINGER STRAND: Cloud physicists. They harangued me. Yeah. I actually followed some people around who were doing some cloud seeding in the Sierra Nevada. And that was really interesting.

IRA FLATOW: And so why does it work? What’s going on there?

GINGER STRAND: It’s actually pretty straightforward with the silver iodide. I mean, a cloud, a water droplet, in order to become heavy enough to fall, typically needs something to adhere to. Sometimes they will cling to each other. But if there’s not enough of that going on in the cloud, they might just hang out there in the sky. If you nucleate them, if you give them a nucleus to cling to, they will fall out as precipitation. And that’s how the silver iodide works.

IRA FLATOW: Now I understand being the curious person that you are, and a great writer, you actually did the same experiment in a home, in your home freezer. Can we do this at home? Is this something–

GINGER STRAND: You can! It was irresistible, actually, because while I was working on this project, I think it was around the holidays. And someone sent me one of those boxes of Omaha steaks. Yeah. And they come with some dry ice. And I got very excited. And other people in my household were laughing at me. But I was determined to try this. So I kind of emptied out the freezer and breathed into it, made a cloud, and threw the dry ice in. And sure enough, there was like a tiny miniature snowstorm right there.

IRA FLATOW: Now of course, once word gets out about something like this from General Electric, you knew the military is going to show some interest in it, right?

GINGER STRAND: Particularly in that period, when every new scientific advance is being investigated for its potential as a new super weapon.

IRA FLATOW: And so they saw it and thought, hey, if we can make it rain or cause storms someplace, we’ve got a weapon that we can use.

GINGER STRAND: Yeah. They were thinking that way. And the GE scientists were not. The GE scientists were thinking, hey, we can bring rain to the desert maybe, or prevent hail storms from damaging crops. The military was thinking, if we can make, if we can steer a hurricane, we can really mess with Cuba.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] I remember, I can remember seeing cloud seeding experiments in the early ’70s in Florida. And I was actually watching them do this. So long story, long story short, they were telling me that they were more worried that they couldn’t control the rain if it happened. And they were worried about we’ll have to stop these things if we don’t know how to stop the rain.

GINGER STRAND: Yeah. Well, there was a similar incident in New York City in 1950 where the city was running out of water after a couple years of drought and decided to cloud seed the Catskills in order to produce rain. And after a very soggy summer and a disastrous flood in the fall, they were promptly slapped with many, many lawsuits.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. That’ll stop it really fast. Let’s get back to Kurt now. So now we’re seeing all these wonderful things going on in a refrigerator in GE. And Kurt is seeing all these things. And he wants to write stuff about it?

GINGER STRAND: Yeah. So Kurt, Kurt and his brother were quite close. They lived next door to each other. They socialized together. Kurt met all his brother’s friends. He asked Bernard to explain things to him when he didn’t understand them. And Bernard is growing, at this time, more and more concerned about the work he’s doing, not only is the military kind of eager to turn it into a weapon, but he’s also concerned that people might use it carelessly, that it really should be controlled and kept track of. So Kurt’s watching Bernard go through this. And he had been writing stories, unsuccessful stories, one after the other. And he started to write a new kind of story which featured scientific advances and scientists grappling with the moral implications of them.

IRA FLATOW: And so GE’s stuff that he’s seeing start showing up sort of disguised in his story.

GINGER STRAND: Thinly disguised, really, if you look at it. I mean, that was a very surprising thing to me mucking around in the GE archive. I just kept turning over story after story that was obviously the precedent for an early Kurt Vonnegut work of fiction.

IRA FLATOW: In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Ginger Strand, author of this new joint biography of Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut, The Brothers Vonnegut Science and Fiction in the House of Magic. It’s really a magical book. Let’s talk about Kurt’s Report on the Barnhouse Effect, which is directly resultant from the work he’s looking at.

GINGER STRAND: Very much so. Professor Barnhouse discovers that he can control something that people thought couldn’t be controlled. In his case, it’s not weather. It’s telekinesis. He’s got some ability to move things around. Immediately, the military gets involved. They want to make it into a new super weapon. Professor Barnhouse is dubious about it. They take over his project. They give it a sci-fi code name, Project Wishing Well. Bernard’s project had a sci-fi code name. It was called Project Cirrus. And they start trying to weaponize it. And Professor Barnhouse has to figure out how to stop them.

IRA FLATOW: Oh yeah. There it is. And Kurt’s breakout novel, Cat’s Cradle, where do you see the Bernard Vonnegut and GE in that book?

GINGER STRAND: It’s all over that book. It really is. Kurt often spoke in later years about how he had based the character of Felix Hoenikker on Irving Langmuir, Bernard’s superior colleague. But the description of Ice-nine, which of course, is a form of ice that’s stable, is solid at room temperature, is very much, uses the same exact wording that Bernard used to describe his own invention to Kurt.

IRA FLATOW: How did GE react to this? Did they get alarmed they just start seeing these things showing up as fiction or?

GINGER STRAND: Not at first. I don’t think. There was one telltale detail that I was able to uncover, which is that not a single bookstore in Schenectady would stock Player Piano, Kurt’s first novel when it came out, which was also very much a portrait of GE at the time that he was there.

IRA FLATOW: But everybody else was buying it up like hotcakes.

GINGER STRAND: Yeah. Yeah. Well, Bernard told Kurt that there was a sort of underground traffic in Player Piano coming up from New York City to Schenectady.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI Public Radio International, talking with Ginger Strand, author of The Brothers Vonnegut Science and Fiction in the House of Magic. As a New Yorker, I used to see Kurt all over the city here at bookstores and whatever. He loved New York.

GINGER STRAND: Yeah. I never met him. That’s sad.

IRA FLATOW: You could never mistake Kurt Vonnegut in a store. And he used to wear a trench coat. It was great to see that. Bernie and GE really never figured out how to prove that cloud seeding worked, did they? Have they come any closer? I mean, these seeding experiments are still going on, aren’t they?

GINGER STRAND: They are. And in fact, a recent study has established, was conducted by the state of Wyoming, and has established that with the right kind of cloud, in the right kind of environment, you can expect the right kind of cloud seeding to increase the yield of your winter storms by 5% to 15%. But it’s been debated and argued for many, many years.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We talked earlier about the Paris Climate Conference. See any connection between Bernard’s story and what’s happening with the climate change?

GINGER STRAND: Very much so. What the GE scientists were doing and the meteorological community, generally, at this time, and cloud seeding was a very controversial issue among the meteorologists, but they were laying the groundwork for climate science. They were trying to figure out what– is it possible that human beings can have an effect on the climate? And many people said, of course it’s not possible. And others said, no. We really should think about this.

IRA FLATOW: And how did Kurt feel? Did he start getting a reputation as a science fiction writer? Did he like that or?

GINGER STRAND: That was very problematic for him. In some ways, he liked it. But in other ways, he once said, asked why he chose to write science fiction early in his career, he said, there was no avoiding it, because General Electric was science fiction. He really felt he was writing social satire that was very clearly and directly based on what he saw going on in the world today.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s peaked your interest now that you’ve written this book? Any followup ideas now that you’ve gone in to find these connections you never thought existed?

GINGER STRAND: Yeah. I think that’s something that I generally do is put odd things together. And the next book will surely be odd.

IRA FLATOW: OK. We’re not going to hear about that. Let’s go to John in Sacramento. Hi John.

JOHN: Hello. My question is, it’s not clear to me from this stage is where is this now? For example, it didn’t break the drought in California last year. But I know people in the Sierra Nevada feel like they’re not getting rain, because it’s being stolen from them by cloud seeding. So I’m curious as to what’s happening now?

IRA FLATOW: Conspiracy theories.

GINGER STRAND: Well, it’s an important question to be asked of cloud seeding. Does it steal water from the downstream communities? And in general, the cloud seeders will tell you no. What cloud seeding does is it makes the clouds more efficient. If you think of a cloud not as a reservoir of water, but as a factory for making water, it makes more sense. The cloud actually produces more rain. It’s more efficient when you cloud seed it. The problem is, of course, that you can’t cloud seed a sky that doesn’t already have clouds full of water in it. It only works where you have enough water in the pipeline, as it were, coming into the environment. So you can’t really cloud seed.

IRA FLATOW: You can’t create the cloud.

GINGER STRAND: You can’t make the cloud.

IRA FLATOW: The cloud has to be there. And you hope that you can get it to rain.

GINGER STRAND: You don’t make a cloud. You just build a better cloud.

IRA FLATOW: I can’t think of a better way to end this conversation than building a better cloud, which is what they tried to do over there at GE. It’s all in a great book. And these are really– It’s a nice book of The Brothers Vonnegut Science and Fiction in the House of Magic. Ginger Strand is the author. Thank you very much.

GINGER STRAND: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: For taking time. And good luck with the book.


IRA FLATOW: Happy holiday. You can read an excerpt from it. And it’s really good. You can see a video of GE scientists making that snow that we talked about. You can see that video at sciencefriday.com/vonnegut. Excerpt from the book, this cool video. It’s an old one. It’s nice to look at. sciencefriday.com/vonnegut.

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