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Focal Plane: Wandering weaponry

This is the seventeenth instalment of the GoobNet Focal Plane, an occasional series wherein we highlight an unimportant social problem, trying to make you care about it. Use the Whine Control, above and right, to view other instalments.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, located in Cambridge, MA, USA, has recently acquired a new addition: an antique cannon dating back to the turn of the twentieth century, with some sort of brass fitting about its barrel. This device, with a distinctive bright red mount, has been described as identical to one that formerly stood at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA, USA.

Prof Cassandra Schott is not convinced, though. To her, the story does not seem to fit together; something about the cannon itself is off.

"This is the muzzle here," says Cass, as she prefers to be known, pointing to the end of the barrel. "Where is the K-text? All cannons of this type had an inscription here, called the K-text. But this one has none. Why?"

Is this cannon a fake? Or was it merely a manufacturing defect? And what is the true history of this "Fleming Cannon"? Only GoobNet Enterprises, Inc [which doesn't actually exist however] is up to the task.

Conventional wisdom

Supposedly, a cannon built in the 1870s and used in the Spanish-American War, or the Franco-Prussian War depending upon whom you ask, eventually made its way to the Southwestern Academy in San Marino, CA, USA, an LA suburb that is even more rich and snotty than Pasadena. In 1972, it migrated to Caltech's campus, after a prank that the academy seemingly declined to reverse.

The cannon's base was then painted red, and it became a campus fixture outside Fleming Hovse, the Ali G of Caltech undergraduate houses. It was again stolen in 1986, travelling down the 210 to Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA, USA.

"This was the golden age of cannon thefts," says Joe Funsestino, a Mudd alum who today serves as the director of the Intercollegiate Board for Pranks, Hacks, and Other Assorted Mischief. "Michigan's cannon was stolen by Ball State. Florida State's cannon 'mysteriously' appeared at Florida Atlantic. And the cannon at Gonzaga, the 'Big Bulldog', made an excursion to the University of Portland."

Funsestino recalls that the cannon's appearance at Mudd had profound effects. "It was the biggest thing that had ever happened at Mudd. It was like winning the Final Four, the Rose Bowl, and the... ummm... whatever other college sports thing is noteworthy. The Women's Final Four, I guess. Being a Division 3 school, Mudd doesn't get much of an opportunity to celebrate things like those, so this was the best we could do. The Flems were hilarious. They kept trying to get it back, and when we finally did return it, they went insane. They tried to run us off the road, and I heard someone's car was smashed."

'In need of a vacation'

According to the story, the cannon continued to sit in front of Fleming after it was returned, fired at several events over the course of the year. It was then transported last weekend to MIT, using the familiar movers' cover story.

"That thing was in need of a vacation," says Josie Spitzer, a recent graduate of Caltech who lived in Avery. "I was a Flem for about a year and a half, and they were so obsessive over that thing. It grossed me out. It was like that one Family Guy where Peter gets that sports car because he's feeling inadequate."

The alleged theft has caused mixed reactions from Caltech's alumni pool. Reactions on one message board ranged from "omg wtf mit sux" to "I wont miss that cannon" to "Who the hell cares?".

Another chapter, it seems, has now been added to the history of the Fleming cannon. Or has it?

The other side

Prof Schott, visiting MIT from the State Central University of Maine, is investigating this cannon's story. She is widely considered the leading cannonologist in the world. On this day, she has examined the cannon from all angles.

"I'm very skeptical," she says. "This doesn't look like a K4 at all. I classify cannons using a new scheme that I'm still developing, but the K4 class covers just about all cannons similar to this from that time period. And one thing they all had in common was the K-text. Indicates where it was made, by whom, for whom, and so on. But there's none here."

There is more. According to the legends about the cannon, it had a mass of about 1,700 kg. This one clearly totals at 1,449 kg, even including the brass fitting. Where is the missing mass?

To find out, we examined photographs from Caltech's archives, from Mudd's records of their cannon theft, and from various other sources. The results were shocking.

'I never heard it'

We pointed Prof Cass Schott to this photograph recording Mudd's performance of 1986. It immediately raised her eyebrow.

"This one seems to have no K-text either," she says. "Overall, some of the details, like the angle, the barrel width, and the foot placement seem to be different from the archive pictures. But it does match up well with the one sitting at MIT right now."

We also spoke to individuals at Caltech who would know about the cannon. But Phil Emmup, a current student, has no knowledge.

"I've never seen any cannon," he says. "When rotation ended, they told me we could go see which house we're in after the cannon went off. I never heard it. I think they were making it up."

Caltech's president, Prof Dave Baltimore, was similarly dumbfounded. "Cannon?" he asked us. "I don't believe we have a cannon on our campus. Today I walked across the entire campus. I went from BI all the way to the Broad Center, and I saw nothing remotely resembling a cannon."

But the final piece of the puzzle was finally unearthed when we spoke to another Mudd alum, Rich Hellessey, who claimed to have witnessed the cannon being stolen. We confronted him with the evidence of our Caltech sources and of Prof Schott.

Web of deception

Hellessey finally admitted, "Well, okay, we technically didn't steal the cannon. We assembled a replica and placed it on our campus."

But why?

"Well, when we had the idea of stealing Caltech's cannon, we went there to look at it. And we could not find it. We went to what was clearly Fleming Hovse, where it should have been. Nothing. It gradually became clear to us that it was an illusion. Techers had been conditioned to believe that there was a cannon there. So we pretended to steal it, and their illusion was shattered."

Taking another look at the archived photographs, it became clear that they were all digitally manipulated, such as this image in which the cannon is clearly too dark for the surroundings. The cannon had never been at Caltech at all.

MIT students then confirmed that the object currently on their campus is the same false cannon that Mudd used twenty years ago; it had remained in a secret underground lair in the intervening time.

So, feel free to keep the cannon, MIT. Eventually, the illusion will pass, and Techers will overcome their self denial.

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