The First Viral Video Ever Was Recorded 45 Years Ago Today


On November 9, 1970, George Thornton, an engineer at the Oregon Department of Transportation, had a mission: remove a 45-foot sperm whale washed ashore the Oregon coast just south of the Siuslow River. But how?

As The Oregonian‘s Stuart Tomlinson puts it in Thornton’s obituary in 2013:

ODOT officials struggled with what to do with the whale. Rendering plants said no thanks. Burying was iffy because the waves would likely have just uncovered the carcass. It was too big to burn.

So the plan was hatched: Let’s blow it up, scatter it to the wind and let the crabs and seagulls clean up the mess. So Thornton and his crew packed 20 cases of dynamite around the leeward side of the whale, thinking most of it would blow into the water. At 3:45 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, the plunger was pushed.

The whale blew up, all right, but the 1/4 mile safety zone wasn’t quite large enough. Whale blubber and whale parts fell from the sky, smashing into cars and people. No one was hurt, but pretty much everyone was wearing whale bits and pieces.

At that moment on November 12, 1970—45 years ago today—the decaying whale erupted into the public consciousness and eventually became a viral sensation. It was keyboard cat before cats had keyboards. “[It] went viral before the internet had the infrastructure to support viral videos,” Andrew David Thaler wrote in Vice‘s definitive history, “when mailing a six minute clip via USPS was faster than downloading.”

 

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

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