33

According to Tom Waits a Japanese freighter was raised from the seabed by means of ping pong balls, Donald Duck comic style.

Here is the quote:

A Japanese freighter had been torpedoed during WWII and it's at the bottom of Tokyo Harbor with a large hole in her hull. A team of engineers was called together to solve the problem of raising the wounded vessel to the surface. One of the engineers tackling this puzzle said he remembered seeing a Donald Duck cartoon when he was a boy where there was a boat at the bottom of the ocean with a hole in its hull, and they injected it with ping-pong balls and it floated up. The skeptical group laughed, but one of the experts was willing to give it a try. Of course, where in the world would you find twenty million ping-pong balls but in Tokyo? It turned out to be the perfect solution. The balls were injected into the hull and it floated to the surface.

Myth-busters say plausible, but did this happen with the Japanese ship?

I know proving negative is impossible, but may be it's a positive I failed to google?

  • Donald Duck is also apparently responsible for the first mention of CH2 (methylene), as discussed in another question skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/10155/… – Henry Apr 20 '18 at 23:37
  • 2
    A smaller scale version was replicated on mythbusters. mythbusters.wikia.com/wiki/Ping_Pong_Salvage_Myth – Fizz Apr 21 '18 at 2:57
  • I seem to recall an episode of MythBusters where they tried to raise a smallish motorboat with ping pong balls. They found it was theoretically possible but a) it would only work if the depth was less than the crush depth of the ping pong balls and b) the sheer cost of the ping pong balls needed made it impractical. I can't remember exact details so I'm posting a comment rather than an answer but the Mythbuster episode suggests that raising a ship as big as a freighter would just be impractical (and impossible if too deep) – GordonM Apr 23 '18 at 10:42
45

Yes, raising a freighter by injecting balls into the hull did happen, but

  • not with a Japanese ship
  • not in Tokyo harbor
  • and not specifically using ping-pong balls. [1]

This link provides the whole story, but the bullet point variant is this:

  • Freighter Al Kuwait capsized 1964 in Kuwait harbor.
  • Danish inventor Karl Krøyer came up with the idea of using plastic balls "made of expandable polystyrene foam" to lift the ship. [2]
  • The method was patented in the UK and Germany.
  • A Dutch patent was also applied for, but turned down citing a 1949 Donald Duck comic (The Sunken Yacht) as prior art.

[1]: It is absolutely possible that a Japanese ship was raised in Tokyo harbor using ping-pong balls. But seeing as Mr. Krøyer successfully received patents on his technique, a ship-raising in Tokyo would likely have happened at a later time.

Anyway, I interpreted the question as not referring to the Tokyo raising specifically, but asking about "raising a ship with buoyant balls" in general.

Also, the story of Mr. Waits making reference to both the balls and the Donald Duck cartoon makes it seem like an amalgamation of the real events in Kuwait and the Dutch patent being denied.


[2]: Related question at physics.SE showing that a ping-pong ball would be crushed at depths beyond ~30-50 meters.

  • 1
    Styrofoam is "expandable polystyrene foam", in case anyone is wondering what type of material was used. – Laurel Apr 20 '18 at 16:53
  • 23
    I like it when the answer to "Did X Y Z happen?" begins "Yes, but not X, not Y, and not Z" – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 20 '18 at 20:28
  • 4
    @guenthmonstr So much for my dynamite based roadrunner trap... – user40410 Apr 20 '18 at 20:54
  • 6
    @HagenvonEitzen, if you could watch Star Trek and build a teleporter based on the information presented in the show, it would count as prior art and grounds for denying the patent. That's likely what happened here: the Donald Duck comic was sufficiently detailed to establish that there was nothing novel in the proposed patent. (Simply showing "you can do this" isn't prior art, showing how you can do this is.) – Mark Apr 20 '18 at 21:04
  • 9
    Is there primary source evidence that the Dutch patent was turned down citing the Donald Duck cartoon? The page you linked to says, "It remains an open question whether the Dutch patent office in fact used this document as prior art to refuse the patent application" and this page claims it is a myth created by a "gifted journalist" that Donald Duck was cited as prior art. – unutbu Apr 21 '18 at 1:44

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .