The modern encyclopedia stands as a bastion of secure knowledge and sober precision. Yet there was a time when reference publications flirted with bold forays into the unknown. Would you believe, for example, that our own World Book once sponsored a search for the Loch Ness monster? It’s all part of the files of weird World Book.
As early as A.D. 565, people began reporting sightings and descriptions of a creature living in Loch Ness, a deep freshwater lake in Northern Scotland. According to the most common descriptions, the creature has flippers; one or two humps; a thick, tapering tail; and a long, slender neck. Some observers think the Loch Ness monster may be related to a dinosaurlike reptile. Others believe it resembles a modern sea animal, such as a manatee or seal. No scientific evidence has been found to support any of these claims, however, and most biologists believe the monster, nicknamed “Nessie,” does not exist.
But not all of them. Among those to give the idea serious scientific consideration was Roy Mackal. Mackal was a biologist at the University of Chicago with an interest in cryptozoology, the search for legendary creatures. In 1969, he teamed up with the former Navy submariner Dan Taylor, Jr., who had built his own one-person submarine. Their expedition to Loch Ness was sponsored by the World Book Science Service, and Taylor’s submarine, called the Viperfish, bore the name of World Book Encyclopedia in huge letters along its side.
Taylor and Mackal equipped the Viperfish with air-powered biopsy harpoons, hoping to snag a piece of the monster’s flesh for scientific analysis. But the project was plagued by technical problems. The little yellow submarine proved to be slow and leaky, and several times Mackal worried that Taylor would drown. Also, the Viperfish’s lights were not bright enough to see far in the murky waters of Loch Ness. Dozens of dives yielded no hard scientific evidence of the creature. But Taylor did report one close encounter. While diving at a depth around 250 feet (75 meters), he felt the craft being slowly rotated to one side and saw billows of silt stirred up in the water. It was only after the craft had returned to surface that Taylor suspected he may have just had a close brush with Nessie.
Cryptozoologists have yet to produce hard proof of the Loch Ness monster’s existence. And the old Viperfish today stands decommissioned on the grounds of the Loch Ness visitors center. But after a long, hard day of careful editing and fact-checking, the World Book science team still dreams of an altogether more intrepid quest for knowledge.
Jeff De La Rosa