In the early twentieth century, odor researchers Ernest Crocker and Lloyd Henderson created a classification scheme that allowed them to number and catalog every smell in the world. Kind of like a Dewey decimal system for smells. Every different odor was assigned a four-digit code.
Their system was based on the premise that every smell is a combination of four "primary odors." So the four-digit code was created by judging and listing the relative strength of each primary odor.
Crocker would sometimes telephone Henderson and call out a number: 6443! 8257! Henderson would have to guess what it was – Old grapefruit rind? Tomato sauce? Shaving lotion? Most times, according to Crocker, Henderson would be right. They would go on "smelling binges" in the Arnold Arboretum, putting a number to each blossom.
The problem was that judging the relative strength of each primary odor in any one smell turned out to be a very subjective process. Other people struggled to replicate the numbers that Crocker and Henderson came up with. So their system was never adopted by other researchers.
Henry Gray of Newcastle suffers from "lexical-gustatory synaesthesia," which means that he experiences people's names as smells or tastes. He says that the name 'Kirsty' smells of urine, and 'Duncan' is "like a bird dipped in smoky bacon crisps."
Makes me wonder what my name would smell like. I'm sure it's not anything good.
to determine, by means of a well-developed scientific methodology, whether there are unique signatures in emanations that can be used to identify and distinguish specific high-level-of-interest individuals within groups of enemy troops or combatants, and if so, to develop enabling technology for detecting and identifying those specific signatures. The program consists of an interdisciplinary team of performers using state-of-the-art techniques to evaluate the statistical, biological and chemical nature of individual emanations. Once the nature of the chemosignal has been characterized, performers will determine the impact of non-genetic factors (e.g., diet, stress, health, age) on the signal in order to determine whether the signal can be robustly extracted from a complex and varied chemical background. If an exploitable robust signature is identified, the program will then pursue detector development.
I haven't been able to find out what's become of the program since 2007. Though I'd wager that the U.S. government hasn't completely abandoned the idea since being able to identify people by their smell would be a hard-to-defeat surveillance technology. (Assuming that we all really do have a unique 'odortype' that can't be camouflaged with fragrance or by eating stinky food).
However, I did find a report on the program from 2005 that included the interesting detail that they field-tested the technology on seven sets of twins at Williamsburg, VA and Research Triangle Park, NC:
a field study was planned and conducted by RTI. In this study, identical twins and a family member (sibling or parent) were recruited. Each group went to either Williamsburg, VA, or Research Triangle Park, NC, for a four-day stay at a hotel. During this stay, daily sweat samples were collected onto polydimethylsiloxane membranes, as described in earlier reports to DARPA/ARO. A total of seven sets of twins were recruited. The goal was 30 twin pairs. Given the relatively poor response rate and the need for project resources to adequately address the data processing and statistical analysis needs of the overall USD program, the field study was terminated.
Research by biologists Noam Sobel and Idan Frumin reveals that after a handshake people frequently lift their hand to their nose and sniff it. The researchers hypothesize that this is to smell the body odor of the other person.
Sobel also conducted a fascinating experiment with his graduate student Idan Frumin to see what people did with their hands after a handshake. Their team secretly videotaped people after they shook the hand of someone new, someone they had just met for the first time. Here's their delicious discovery: A few seconds after the handshake, the experimental subjects would inevitably sniff their own hands, to gain some odorous information about the new person.
"When we showed them the videos, many of the subjects were completely shocked and disbelieving," Frumin told me. "Some thought we had doctored the videos - not that we had the computing power or the expertise to do so."
. . . When Frumin now goes to conferences, he sometimes stands back and watches people unconsciously sniffing. "Sometimes I catch myself doing it too. People tell me I've ruined handshakes for them, that they've become very self-conscious about shaking hands, especially with me."
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, the marketing team for Lux soap repeatedly warned consumers that if they didn't wash their clothes everyday, they risked having "undie odor". Some details from Suellen Hoy in her book Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness:
Lever Brothers, the makers of Rinso, Lifebuoy, and Lux soap, revised its advertising copy over the years to reflect the changing cultural meanings of soap itself... In 1916, Lux was "a wonderful new product" for "laundering fine fabrics:; by the mid-twenties it could also preserve "soft, youthful, lovely feminine hands" and, by the early thirties, prevent "undie odor" as well—"She never omits her Daily Bath, yet she wears underthings a SECOND DAY."
Francis Countway, the president of Lever Brothers and the individual most responsible for the "discovery" of body odors and the "stop smelling" ad pitch, was inspired by Listerine's successful advertising campaign against the previously unknown halitosis. Countway and his associates admitted, while Lever Brothers' business boomed, that they cared little "about the opinions of softies who think that the Body and Undie Odor copy is disgusting." They were simply doing their job, "bringing cleanliness into a dirty world."
The East German Stasi did a number of strange things, but perhaps the strangest was its attempt to create a scent library of its population. It was analogous to a fingerprint library, and was based on the premise that everyone had a unique scent which could be used to track them, if need be. From Dog Law Reporter:
The most interesting use of police dogs concerned scent identification, a method analyzed by Dutch and other researchers, but adapted by the unique paranoia of the Stasi. As early as 1973, the Stasi began collecting smell samples of a large number of citizens. Sometimes this was done with a special chair that the subject was asked to sit on during a visit to the police station. The chair had a dust cloth on top of the seat that was clamped into place by a removable frame. The subject had to sit in the chair for ten minutes, but after the interrogation was over, the dust cloth was removed and stored in a glass jar.
Sometimes Stasi officials did not bother with being subtle and merely told subjects to put a cloth under their armpits or even under their pants in the groin area. The cloth was carefully handled by tweezers in an effort not to allow contamination by other human scents.
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.