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What Is It? Game 124

Don your Mad Scientist lab coat, folks ... it's time for this week's collaboration with the What is it? Blog. Can you guess what the strange contraption above is?

Contest rules are simple: place your guess in the comment section below. One guess per comment, please. You can enter as many guesses as you'd like. You have until the answer is revealed at the What is it? Blog (duh!)

Prizes: free Neatorama Mad Scientists T-shirts to the first person who guessed correctly, and to three submitters of the funniest albeit incorrect guesses.

For more clues, check out the the What is it? Blog. Good luck!

Update 1/25/10 - the answer is: A rotary spark-gap transmitter that would have been part of an amateur radio station back in the 1920s. Congratulations to Russell who got it right first (but submitted many guesses in one comment. I'll let it slide this time, buddy!) and to Mikhael J who got it exactly right. Three additional winners: mci209 (Tweety's Worst Nightmare), Jenn the Hen (My Little Frankenstein Monster Maker kit) and Lactose the Intolerant for the effort ;)

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This is a 1944 U.S. Navy Ratatosk Encryption Device, which used trained squirrels to transmit secure, unbreakable radio messages during World War II. The device was used for a few months on Navy battleships, but were phased out when other, more effective coding techniques became available.

The United States' war effort in the Pacific required secure radio communications, but complex electromechanical devices like the German Enigma cipher machine did not fare well in the humid tropics and the oceanic salt air. Other methods of sending secure battle plans were needed.

Enter the famous behaviorist B. F. Skinner. After the collapse of the Guided Pigeon Bomb project, Skinner believed that he had more to offer the war effort. He trained several dozen American Gray Squirrels to recognize letters and numbers and to translate them into sounds only understandable by other squirrels. The transmitter squirrel would read a series of letters and transmit a series of squeaks and squeals into the microphone on top the squirrel cage, which would be transmitted over radio. The receiver squirrel would hear the squirrel 'language' and tap out the Morse code plaintext to a waiting radio operator, or, in later versions, on a large typewriter-like board that would record the message on paper.

In all, 76 squirrels were trained and proficient in cryptography and radio operation. They were inducted into the U.S. Navy, given the titular rank of Ensign or Lieutenent J.G., and were dispatched to the Pacific Theater. Contrary to some popular accounts, they were never issued tiny Navy uniforms. They initially saw service on battleships and aircraft carriers.

Unfortunately, the Navy didn't forsee some frailities inherent in squirrels at war. Soon after they started service, the Navy discovered that squirrels became incredibly seasick and were often unable to function. Several squirrels were lost to fights with ship rats. Questions were raised about the loyalty of the Gray Squirrels to the United States when a handful were discovered to have friends and associates among the mistrusted Eurasian Red Squirrel community, though investigations never proved any of the accusations. Eventually the project was abandoned when it was discovered that Navajo Code Talkers were much more hardy and easier to use.

Most historians forget the brave sacrifice and service of the U.S. Navy Secret Squirrel Squad. No squirrels have received any honorary medals or citations for bravery. They have been forgotten by most, although not all. To this day, a small group of zoologists and PETA activists have unsuccessly lobbied for full veterans' benefits to the surviving family of these loyal and interpid servicecreatures along with full burial rights in Arlington National Cemetery. Until the day when the U.S. Government recognizes their selfless devotion to their country, though, the brave squirrels will be mostly forgotten.
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This is the very machine that Pinky and the Brain tried to use once to try to take over the world and to let all people on it bow and grobble to their great and charismatic despot- The Brain.

...But as usual they failed miserably. Instead the machine made Bush Jr. President of the USA...
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