When I was a young child (around 1983ish) I was told a few old wives’ tales by those who you naturally assume know better – old wives. Yes, I know now why untrue things are called old wives’ tales but I was young then and had yet to learn. So it was that I thought cleaning my plate somehow fed the starving children of Africa (you’re welcome), eating crusts would give me curly hair (it did, just not on my head) and that eating carrots would give me better night vision.
Now I don’t want to give you the impression I’m some sort of terrifying creep who stalks the night (like that Bruce Wayne fellow) but that last one really interested me. I looked it up as my hair was as straight as it could be despite eating crusts of bread and I was afraid I’d be fooled again. This was pre-internet if you can imagine/remember such a thing, so looking like that up involved reading several books and cross referencing the information. I found out that carrots were a good source of vitamin A and that vitamin A was related to night vision. While there was nothing to say that eating carrots improved night vision there were reports that decreased amounts of vitamin A could make night vision worse. I was convinced and started eating these horrific orange vegetables as often as possible, forcing them down despite the fact they usually made me feel sick. I practised my night vision at night (well, duh!), trying to read in the dark and mistaking my eyes becoming accustomed to the dark and my knowledge of the pages of my favourite book for actual carrot-induced progress, but it was all a con.
In this case it was a con that went back forty-three years at the time to 1940 and the Second World War. Between July 10 and October 31st 1940, Germany attacked the Britain in what later became known as the Battle of Britain. The battle stands apart from all previous military conflicts as it was the first major campaign to be entirely fought in the air. Germany wanted to completely overwhelm the British air defences and, once Britain was defenceless, get them to surrender. However, the British forces had a secret weapon up their sleeve – radar. New advances and techniques had been discovered that the British kept to themselves at the time and used to defend the realm. Using these techniques, British gunners were able to shoot down planes with unerring accuracy even in the dead of night. As this was a closely guarded military secret the Royal Air Force convened a small council to come up with some misinformation to put spies off the scent.
Rumours were spread that British gunners were eating tons of carrots in order to improve their night vision. Files seized during and after the war point out the overwhelming success of the misinformation campaign. German gunners and pilots had carrots introduced more heavily into their rations and study into this phenomena had been given higher priority than improving radar techniques. So total was the spread of this misinformation that forty-three years later I was still being told it as fact and seventy-two years later I still have a hard time finding any proof of the truth of the matter.
And the truth of the matter is this; carrots do not help you see in the dark, but they do help to win wars.