The Craftsman’s Utopian DoctrineK2JWD62021-07-29T21:56:22+00:00
The Craftsman’s Utopian Doctrine
The cultural and moral code of the Arts and Crafts Movement from 1895-1922
Charles Prowell’s writings have appeared in a number of publications over the years, from Fine Woodworking to Fine Home building to Alaska Quarterly Review.
THE UTOPIAN CULTURE
The Craftsman Aesthetic, in architecture, furnishings, and a multitude of accessories, arrived on the scene in the late 1800’s as a reaction to an increasingly complicated world driven by the enormous expansion of the Industrial Revolution. Although just a blip on the map of social activism, the Craftsman Doctrine associated with this aesthetic represented a timely rebuttal, a revolution not in the sense of Marxism or Poncho Villa but one driven by this heartening propensity for grounding ourselves. Digging in now and again over the course of history against the underbelly of a capitalistic democracy that rewards ambition with the temptation of prosperity that in turn triggers a repeatable corner of human nature toward greed and corruption. A lovely side of ourselves, greed and corruption, rising and falling within the checks and balances of a common populace that exerts itself, by sheer numbers, with a voice of morality. Enough! Enough is enough. A process that takes hold on multiple levels, simultaneously, and as the growing consensus becomes a national unified voice, we react less to, say, the pace of mechanical, scientific and industrial innovations that carried us from the tranquility of horse-drawn plows to an avalanche of time-saving gizmos, than to the accompanying social inequality of an era epitomized by the granddaddy of excess, the Gilded Age. The Craftsman Doctrine was just such a voice, drawn toward a pursuit of happiness born more from the process than the result. Simplicity in both design and morality. A consumption of principles, much like the Constitution itself, guiding us toward fulfillment.
The doctrine itself listed twelve truisms to live by:
The Value of Time
The Success of Perseverance
The Pleasure of Working
The Dignity of Simplicity
The Worth of Character
The Power of Kindness
The Influence of Example
The Obligation of Duty
The Wisdom of Economy
The Virtue of Patience
The Improvement of Talent
The Joy of Originating
The list reads like the guiding principles of any number of social or political manifestos. Marxism. Quakerism. Socialism. Buddhism . . .
From the perspective of a woodworker whose creed may have in fact been drawn from this very transition, or simply the result of a lifestyle more or less required by such a trade, the list has a familiarity with the culmination of days and months and years of doing what we do. No contemporary I know has ever consciously thought of, say, the Virtue of Patience (#10), but without it and you’re racing at an escalating pace toward a finished product and when you race, when the pace of your work in the shop becomes hurried, mistakes happen. Injuries happen. The focus shifts from the moment to the end-run and time becomes money. Whenever time becomes money you lose innovation and when you lose innovation you lose the willingness or compulsion to improve your talent (#11), to stretch or invent the new methodologies that allow for what can often become the defining detail, the signature. The joy of originating (#12) something new in that lifelong effort to avoid the repetition of what’s been done; replicating a 1700’s high boy chest in all it’s original detail in an act that for all its admirable precision and skill, is nevertheless a skill. Like typing, or writing a history bound by facts and chronologies. A defined enterprise with tangible and predictable timetables that cannot be confused with the intangible pursuit of innovation where timetables are pointless. Time has nothing to do with it. We don’t ask, or care, how long it took. We don’t climb into our time machine and re-metabolate to have lunch with Herman Melville or Leonardo De Vinci and ask, ‘So Leo, how long did it take to paint Mona Lisa?’ Who cares? We might, however, ask him about color, or when he added the smile as we might ask Herman Melville if he set out to write a whaling adventure and if the metaphysical whale was added in later drafts.
Woodworking is by its nature a solitary, contemplative life. It’s not a life spent with the verbal dalliance of a salesman or lecturer or teacher or anything requiring an immediate audience. Consequently, over the decades, much, or most, of our growth as woodworkers comes less from conversations with our contemporaries than a process of culling ideas and points of inspiration from wherever they present themselves. Drawn literally from everywhere–graphics, photos, architecture, sculpture, or paintings in a lifelong addiction of adding to the repertoire from which we pick and choose over the course of any given work. Examples (#7) of pieces and fragments of what’s been done and how those examples can be revised and morphed beyond recognition of the original.
The doctrine wanders, and we’re reminded of its activist origins as if reading Ralph Waldo Emerson, who himself offered his transcendental reasoning on Self-Reliance and Character and The Conduct of Life as a spiritualist in an era of cultural growing pains that influenced the voices of Thoreau and Amos Bronsion Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott) and Walt Whitman.
We stumble upon #4, 5, 6 and 8 and reflect beyond the working habits of a craftsman to the meditative cleansing of The Value of Character (#5) and The Power of Kindness (#6) and The Obligation of Duty (#8) and The Dignity of Simplicity (#4). Skilled tradesmen and artisans positing on something more than a reaction to the ramped up industry of the Gilded Age. A correction, suggesting we slow down, step off the roller coaster and re-calibrate our bearings.
To track the onset and reign of the Craftsman Movement begs an explanation of the times. The build-up. The cause and affect present in every change or shift throughout history. If you’re a reader of history, and you read enough, the patterns of reactions to earlier actions is like playing a game of dominoes where every day, every decade, every era is built on a linear chain of events where Boothe shoots Lincoln, annihilating Reconstruction, postponing racial equality by a century, furthering the divide between the South and North, the public lynchings of the 30’s and the discriminating separations well into the 60’s, revisited by The Voting Act of 1964 and Affirmative Action of the 80’s and the ingrained attitudinal approach to criminal justice resulting in penal codes that boast an incarceration ratio in our prisons of almost 40% African Americans, whose total census population represents only 14%. A chain reaction drawn from Boothe’s little derringer that would read with a very different chronology had the derringer jammed.
To read history as a discovery of who did what and when is to miss the point of reading history. The interrelation of why Mister or Miss Who did what he or she did when they did it becomes an engaging and absorbing crossword puzzle that is both relevant and enlightening only when the surrounding periphery falls into place. Like the crossword, every letter of every word solved will provide the clues to the succeeding answers. The clues that force you, in history, to think, or better, to ponder. Ponder the correlation and connection perhaps between a watering down of the Sherman Anti-Trust laws in the 90’s by Clinton, and furthered a few years later by Bush and why we now have two or three media entities vying for national control of our news and entertainment. Why did Clinton expand with a pen stroke the original 30 subsidies allowed Robert Murdoch or Time Warner to 1,200? Or Bush’s incentive to expand again to 3.200? And why did no one in New Orleans know where to find relief or food or water or shelter in the hailstorm of Katrina when the local radio station had disappeared into an unmanned affiliate with no local human broadcaster in sight. No one who knew the Ninth Ward from the Ninth Symphony.
The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was ushered through congress by Benjamin Harrison in 1890 as the one laudable action of his presidency. A stop-gap measure to curb the steamrolling industrialists and balance the playing field. To encourage the fair-play of competition and restrain the dominance of monopolies. Enacted by Harrison, but not actually enforced until 1903 with Roosevelt’s Big-Stick policies that ultimately marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. Monopolies came to be associated with anti-democracy, and without them the wider economy, the economy reflecting the working class, began to prosper and continued to prosper–albeit the usual recessional hiccups and the growing pains of the Great Depression–until Clinton and Bush backpedaled almost a century later with a forgiveness to the new internet tech giants and media expansionism of cable TV and suddenly there were daily mergers featured on the 4th or 5th page of the newspapers. Corporations swallowing one another in an escalating war of King of the Hill.
If you’re reading this essay as an accomplishment, to reach an end that provides you with answers and summaries, you’re reading for the wrong reason and you should stop and instead search out a good Dashiel Hammet mystery novel. Essays do not end with answers. There’s no point in skipping to the last paragraph. A good essay is a cumulative process, feeding your insights into known events and their correlations to one another sprinkled with the author’s inflections that, in a perfect world, leave you pondering, while driving to work, eating lunch, or with a cold beer on the back porch. Musing over the criss-crossing data toward some understanding, some interpretation arrived at through your own inherent need to make sense of something as simple as human nature. Why do we do what we do, and how what we do impacts what is ultimately done as a reaction to what we once did. (A sentence that reads like a semantically nightmare, and is certain to find the editor’s cut, but that bears a readable truth; what we do, everything we do, is accompanied by a series of reactions. The big events, like wars, and their endless recuperation for decades to come, but also a simple walk in a perfectly still woods and the eco system reverberating with every quiet step you take like a stone tossed into a glassy pond. What we do matters. How it affects the world around us matters even more.
A public figure molests and gropes an understudy and tells us how the behavior was an aberration and doesn’t define his or her real character. This is the public figure apologizing. But what can alternatively be read into such an apology is how we may, as human beings, have a sense of ourselves that’s not exactly accurate. A faux self that’s drawn from creeds like the Craftsman’s Doctrine or the Bible or the Quran or, well . . . as long as we’re listing guiding lights let’s throw in television and films and novels and the intemperate imprints of mothers and fathers. We cull from every source available in building a self that suits us. That suits our impression of ourselves with an intention toward the approval of our peers, but that in truth may not jive with our actions. The actions, when summarized and accumulated and metastasized become a delusional time bomb. Manifestations occurring on so many levels: The former model whose identity stemmed from a beauty that fades with age and consequently bolstered with cosmetic surgeries to prolong such an identity. A patch job that may serve to convince the former model, but to the impartial eye appears unnaturally grotesque. The examples are endless and extend to something as benign and existential as, say, the Statue of Liberty. As patriots of democracy and America, it defines our identity–Free Will, Open-Minded, Kind, Just, with Generous Hearts of biblical proportions. From across the Atlantic, however, the Soviet impression of the same emblem might represent Greed, Opulence, Excess, and a Materialism of Devilish proportions.
In the aftermath of the most psychologically devastating war in American history, Americans collapsed into a coma. Hearts struggled with a lingering vengeance conflicted by a softening humaneness in a need for stability. Wounds healed. Life slowly returned as it had been lived prior to the war. Simple, agrarian, digestible means of carrying on. Static. A stasis of having had enough drama and change in lieu of an economic nothingness that lasted until the late 1870s. A post-war recovery infected with the hateful carryover and the sharp divisions between those who spoke with an accent and those who didn’t, of those with black skin and those with white skin, of those with manufacturing capabilities and those without. A period of 15 years that has no similarities to the booming 1920’s that followed the first world war and the booming 1950’s that followed the second world war. The Civil War was not only engaged on our own soil, but against our own brethren, in a struggle for the survival of ourselves as a united nation. The pain was slow to heal. The hate, the resentment, the discriminating alignments (KKK, et. al.) were entrenched at a depth that forestalled progressive growth emotionally and economically. In many ways, we’ve never fully healed. Perhaps those 15 years would have been different had Lincoln survived. They would most certainly have been different were it not for the innovative energy of individuals on both sides of the Atlantic who presented the inventions throughout that century that helped to excite a populace into unparalleled growth. Too much growth, too fast, in some minds.
Almost everyone on both sides of the Mason Dixon were eager to return to a pre-war economy, a normalcy that was defined by the north as paying down the war debt and resuming a manufacturing trade unfettered by marauding southern armies, and defined by the south as a massive question mark ranging from the refuge of hillside caves during Grant’s Vicksburg siege back into homes that no longer existed, to a former southern gentry-driven culture supported by slaves that were suddenly, on the heels of an Appomattox accord, no longer a viable, or legal, means of generating income. A system in place for generations required to suddenly abide by an emancipation proclamation that upended the former protocol of trickle-down gentrified plantation wealth with a democratic distribution of 2/3rds of the population. The black population, set loose, theoretically, onto the open market as freedmen with the right to forge a living, a career, with the all-for-one ideology of democratic capitalism.
Had the south accepted their defeat ignobly, along with the north’s promised assistance, the shift as a cooperating bi-partisanship would have required educating a generation of African Americans toward the skill-sets needed to become contributing citizens. A plan that concurrently assumed the unlikely open minded compliance of a southern white population. Such a mass assimilation–proffered by Lincoln’s frequent reference throughout the war for a kind-hearted post-war–was derailed overnight by the southern sympathizer Andrew Johnson. And resurrected, on Johnson’s impeachment, by the Grant administration. An administration that founded the Justice Department for the sole purpose of reversing the chaos and hate and bloodletting and racism imposed–if imposed is the right word–by the Klu Klux Klan. Imposed, with its legal legislative connotations applied in real time as extortion controlling 2/3rds of all the counties in every southern state, and a majority of sympathizers–if sympathizer is the right word–in the remaining 1/3rd. Sympathizers by definition of fear and threatening reprisals and death. Grant was admirably optimistic when employing Federal troops to stem the violence and enforce the law of emancipation, but somewhat delusional–defiant/stubborn–in his assumption that a culture founded on the hierarchies of race would suddenly embrace the equanimity of equality.
With Grant came 8 years of peace and business-friendly leadership. An ultimate annihilation of the KKK (re-formed 50 years later as a non-related cousin to the original, but born from those same wounds and resentments that had never really healed). By the second term, the war debt was gone and African American voting rights had been protected enough to have elected a surprising show of black officeholders in every level of government throughout the south. If protected is the right word. Forced, by the overseeing leadership of a top lawman, an Attorney General appointed by Pres. Grant to command an army still associated, by the south, with the vicious, conquering war-time General Grant.
Let’s remember: To the North, Grant was worshiped on a par with Lincoln and Washington. To the South, however, he was a loathsome mongrel.
But this would have to do. A correction (i.e. the Civil War) festering since the ratification of Madison’s constitution was stalled by South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, and ultimately compromised on the begging advice of Benjamin Franklin to overlook the factions and move forward. If compromise is the right word. Showing up repeatedly in our history as the country expanded west and with each new territory came the Big Compromise– Slave states vs Free states– and resolved with the gray, ephemeral legislative language adopted with in the Missouri Compromise and the wishy-washy abstinence of FDR in 1936 trading an Alabama senator’s vote for the New Deal legislation in lieu of sending troops to enforce the law against a rampant culture of Sunday Family Picnic lynchings and the resurgence of a new KKK. A compromise that thrives to this day.
To the manufacturers and industrially ambitious in the north who had waited so patiently for this fair-minded oddity referred to as Reconstruction, the time had come to dismiss the South and it’s peculiarities as a minor itch of no real consequence. The notion being fancied toward assimilating the negro into the general economy was viewed with the country’s checkered history–hence the native American, shoveled off to reservations. The current administration was prone to leniency, with Grant arriving in office with a long history of impeccable character and moral fortitude that, oddly, appeared blind to the possibility of appointees and associates behaving with a less than scrupulous character. A life-long history of a hard-scrabble existence prior to the war that had a soft blind spot for those who appeared to have mastered success. A history of trusting his investments to a series of dishonest scams as a shortcoming that plagued him throughout his life. He trusted people. Therefore, or heretofore, the 1870’s of Grant’s presidency marked the beginning of a Gilded Age propelled, in part, by Grant’s umbrella of blindness. An industrial charge with no less determination than Sherman’s march through Georgia, lead by an unprecedented need to move forward. To grow. To profit. To innovate. To prosper. To wash themselves of the agony and stalemate of the decade of tension before the war and the 4 years of war followed by the vitriolic hate of the Johnson tenure followed by the immensely popular, worshiped war hero Grant followed by the continued and endless calamity of death and destruction knows as the South. An era, this Gilded Age, known as much for it’s industrial achievements as it level of rampant corruption and greed.
Ambition Greed Corruption
The unbridled growth of industry. A phrase that appeals to the American sentiment. The alpha male epitomizing progress but all too often in its recurring course, accompanied by exploding economic inequality, stagnant middle class earnings, see-sawing elections toward control of congress, electoral votes over popular votes, unchecked political and industrial corruption, forecasts of doom and gloom, and always, a division within the syntactical interpretation of patriotism. The blame game, with the weakest and most poorly represented–blacks, minorities, immigrants, native Americans, and the poorest of the white working class–absorbing the brunt of a concerted, easily defined opponent on a par with the acknowledged robbery of a buccaneering Rockefeller. His strong-armed monopoly on the railroads allowed the cheaper transport of crude oil between those early gushers in rural Pennsylvania to the refineries in New Jersey. Vanderbilt’s monopoly of New York ferries leading to greater monopolies of a shipping and railroad empire that moved the ever-increasing production of goods. Andrew Carnegie’s steel empire providing the materials that built the newly defined American city on the heels of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the phenomenal architect John Welborn Root’s innovation for steel-framed highrises. The railroad barons Crocker and Huntington who facilitated, and monopolized, western expansion.
A Civil Service system rooted in the malfeasance of appointments; job seekers with each new administration were expected to pay an ongoing extortion fee–a portion of their ensuing salaries–to the specific senator, and his political party, who nominated the applicant for the job.
Senators–the Millionaire’s Club–ruled their roosts like feudal barons. Enriched by this system of feudal appropriations (see above), the federal job posts were seldom filled by merit or skill-sets but more for their ability to regularly remunerate their senatorial overlords at a time in our history when senators were voted in not by general elections but appointed by state legislatures. Repeatedly since 1826, there were motions and votes in this chamber to correct this blatant wrong, but it wasn’t until the narrow, bitterly contested passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 that righted this long-standing wrong, instantly eliminating a Senator’s primary source of black market income.
A Republican political party holding the seats of power from 1860 to the early 1900’s, backed by the bullish tactics of the first political machine, Tammany Hall. Senatorial seats often auctioned off to the highest bidders in the local state legislature. An era of bilious politics and big personalities fueling the new social graces of a mud-slinging protocol. The result, over this 40-year span, was the passage of very little meaningful legislation. A hatefulness so transparent and a voting public with lines of separation so demarcated that, if we begin with the first seeds of separation planted with the sweeping populist victory of Andrew Jackson’s eight-year service, we have an astounding span of 56 years, between Jackson to Wilson, with only one full two-term president. Ulysses Grant.
The Socio Political Edge
Let’s take a moment to mull over that last factoid. If we look at the country with a chronological eye, a country of white male voters electing white male officeholders within a segregated gentrified class, we arrived with Jackson’s bombastic victory with what we might consider as the country’s adolescence. Hormones raging. Tempers flaring. Voters perched in confusion on a ridgeline between the emergence of two distinct ideologies, complicated by mass migrations over the Cumberland Gap toward an untamed west that, at the time, extended to this seemingly infinite distance of the Pacific Ocean. An adolescence that stumbled through the mid and late century with the enormous energy of a teenager with more guts than brains. The ongoing head-butting between the north and the south; the new uprising friction between a Jacksonian populist and a Virginia gentry of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe; the rising disparity of wealth by the late 1870’s between the founding agrarian model and the bullish titans of industry; the sheer range and scope of a President’s ruling responsibility pushed far beyond the former containment of the Appalachians; a rising frustration for feminine suffrage toward the first war of the sexes; and, of course, a literal watershed of mechanical and industrial innovations flooding the horse-drawn status quo of tranquility with a gadgetry explosion whose only comparison might, in the eyes of future historians, be the age of the internet. Imagining, for a moment, the level of voter dissatisfaction during these decades. The teeter totter indecision that paused long enough under General Grant’s relatively quiet eight-year reign to gain the first foothold toward an era of economic growth that, in all its boyish adolescence, ultimately went too far.
At the helm, a succession of ineffective leaders. Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland (Ugh. Again?), William McKinley . . .
Does anyone associate anyone on this list with any sort of lasting legacy? Any sort of memorable leadership? A string of puppets, acquiescing to the snowballing strength of powerful industrialists driving the veneer of a booming economy. We’re capitalists, after all. This isn’t Sweden, or the semi-socialism of a collective state. It’s America, where success over competitors is applauded and where failure is commensurate with weakness.
But we, as a democracy that embodies capitalism, have a recurring history of going too far. And how do we know when we’ve gone too far? The earliest rebuttals are buried as the whining cries of anarchists. Populist cries. Beginning with the lowest echelons of the economic ladder who no one listens to, and slowly building to the skill-sets of a middle class who might garner a grain of attention simply because they tend to vote and as portraits, as emblems of honest labor and family values, they represent, ideologically, the backbone of a constitutional creed taught in high school civics citing, again and again, equality punctuated by the pursuit of happiness.
A more reliable, and recurring index to our penchant for one-sided excess would be to follow the money, and when the money collapses, the mass psychology of cause and affect shows its underbelly. A phenomenon that was first experienced when Alexander Hamilton created the inaugural banking system that thrived on national debt, which in turn spawned the access to a trade credit that morphed into the speculation of bonds that marked the first separation of wealth inequality. Those with disposable income bought Hamilton’s bonds. Like-minded Federalists like John and Abigail Adams known for the frugal lifestyle of their Quincy farming income crossed over into a new strata of wealth management created by Abigail’s shrewd speculations. Whereas the Republicans such as Jefferson and Madison and Monroe, holding to their agrarian principles, eschewed this fake economy for the bean-for-a-bean integrity of supply and demand and consequently, all three died deeply in debt.
What goes up must come down, and what goes up with a spiraling ascendancy, a rocketing propulsion, comes down with a thud. Investments don’t shrink and shrivel with a slow emaciation, but rather, collapse overnight. The frenzy of neuroses caused by the same group, the shareholders riding the corporate profits built on unfair monopolies and unregulated greed and utterly blinded by spiraling dividends paid by the ambitious, persevering tycoons who built the entities and grew those entities through monopolies and labor deprivations and bolstered by business-friendly legislation ushered through a succession of one-term presidents whose reelections hinged largely on a robust economy. The value of shares rose commensurate to the basic activity level of those clamoring for a piece of the action, hence driving up the profits of not only the entities seated on the Exchange, but the portfolios of the investors until the value reaches an unrealistic plateau. But that plateau is an intangible vaporous demarcation made more so by the blinding euphoria of sudden wealth. The rising escalation of a level of wealth that far out-paces the Jeffersonian dictum of a bean-for-a-bean.
And so it arrives, suddenly. Overnight and over the course of the following day in a nightmarish frenzy of panic and horror and doom in a stampede of schizophrenic investors trying to sell their worthless stock to avert further losses, to escape the shocking reality of indigence and total destitution among a class who had, in their newfound wealth, grown complacent and lazy. The unparalleled precedent of industrial growth accompanied by game-changing innovations and the human nature of giving in to excess when preceded by periods of deprivations, such as the war. The personal enticement of wanting to make up for the hard times by an era of heightened enlightenment.
The first correction came in 1873, under Grant’s 2nd term, when his altruistic efforts toward the south’s assimilation and reconstruction were shoved aside and relegated to 3rd-page news against the mass psychology of growth and prosperity. A bombastic growth so pervasive and so unrelenting that it overshot it’s temperate barometer in four short years. But the fixation, the infectious taste of the new order failed to listen to it conscience. Failed to give way entirely and within months the escalation was born anew behind an indefatigable mindset described if not by arrogance, then certainly the blindness of a simple greed. And by 1893, during Cleveland’s non-consecutive 2nd term, it struck again. Harder and with more decisive results and with the equally labeled moniker of The Panic of 1893. Driven initially by the collapse of railroad overbuilding and shaky railroad financing which was singularly linked to the solvency of a westward expansion of silver mines and midwest farms and basically everything west linked by the rapid expansion of railroads that had become reliant on such railroads to market their products back east. Furthered by a run on the eastern banks followed by bank failures followed by a total collapse of 15,000 companies and 500 banks and the consequent unemployment followed by the loss of life savings held in failed banks all translated into a middle class who suddenly could not meet their mortgage obligations.
The Panic was severe enough that it spawned a wave of public doubt in a system built on industrial growth. A populist movement was born, demanding job relief with a series of the country’s first national strikes, such as the miner’s strike and the Pullman strike that shut down much of the railroad transportation, which in turn deprived a series of western railway towns such as Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver to be drawn into what was by then a transportation collapse extending from coast to coast.
The recovery began in 1897 and gathered speed with the bailout of the Klondike Gold Rush and by 1898 the pattern of excess was in full rebuild, undaunted, miraculously, by two quick depressions only 20 years apart. Unaware, or as yet uneducated, in how to fully interpret an economic collapse as a barometer to social collapse.
Between those two wake-ups, two pieces of legislature are worth noting. Chester Arthur was ushered into the presidency by the 1881 assassination of Garfield at the hands of a deranged job-seeker at a time when Civil Service positions were still allocated by appointments. Better known as the Spoils System, noted, you may recall, several paragraphs earlier. In passing the Pendleton Act, presidents were no longer besieged to fill the hundreds of government jobs up for grabs with each new administration. More importantly, Senators were no longer making their own appointments, and receiving an extortionist’s monthly kick-back from the salaries of those appointees. The Pendleton Act finally reformed the Civil Service, requiring positions to be distributed based on merit. A huge piece of social justice bandied about for decades and ultimately catching congress in a moment of weakness, saddened, apparently, by the tragic loss of the well-liked Garfield. The act represented a stand by Capital Hill against the snowballing etiquette of corruption. Not enough to end the siege, but a stand nonetheless.
Let’s pause for a moment to be reminded how landmark legislation is often accomplished. Garfield, like John F. Kennedy, had captured the country’s affection in the course of an abbreviated service cut short by assassination. Although he’s often overlooked in the presidential rankings, he was responsible for a number of fair-minded stands against the prevailing political machines. Purging the Post Office of it’s long-standing corruption and increasing our Naval strength, while promoting civil rights to African Americans. Most importantly, however, he overturned the senatorial courtesy of appointments mentioned above. A huge accomplishment, fostering a premonition among voters that the likable, small-town commoner would champion a cultural justice. Reminiscent of Kennedy’s push for civil rights and the Voting Act that, upon his death, blew through congress under the helm of Lyndon Johnson, Chester Arthur–Garfield’s successor–ushered the landmark Pendleton Act through congress with surprisingly little interference. And although history credits Johnson and Arthur, both were acting on a groundswell of public sentiment. Had they waited, or their timing stalled, both pieces of legislation would have been lost.
A few years later, separated by Grover Cleveland’s first term, Benjamin Harrison was elected in 1888. The grandson of president William Harrison (1841), he championed a piece of legislation to curb the growth of industrial corporations. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act prevented the large industrialists from forming trusts with extending branches of a corporation with the intent of monopolizing the competition. An act that has been challenged repeatedly over the course of its history, and utilized to its fullest intent by President Teddy Roosevelt as the last crushing stand to the dominance of industrial power (AKA Rockefeller’s Standard Oil). A stand that maintains the benchmark toward separating the Industrial Revolution of the Gilded Age from the Progressive Movement that defined the early decades of the 20th century. Although booted after a single term and unable to revitalize the still-suffering economy from the 1873 depression, we must credit Benjamin Harrison with this second act of resistance. The unparalleled rein of growth was being recognized for its equally damaging impacts on social justice as well as the crippling inability to exercise Jefferson’s Pursuit of Happiness.
But recognizing a wrong and correcting it are two very different discussions. In a controlling effort to purposefully manipulate the shares of a single railroad stock, the Panic of 1901 effectively marked the end of a 35 year period in American history remembered largely by its unrelenting growth from a horse-and-buggy era to the industrial mechanization of a modern age. A stretch of unrepentant greed and wealth on one end and the forgotten working classes on the other. On paper, gross domestic products tripled, where in reality, per capita real income actually grew more slowly than in the previous 35 years. By most standards measuring quality of life among the common worker, American life grew worse over the course of the Gilded Age. Ulysses Grant’s efforts to stabilize the south and allow freed slaves to pursue the American dream were lost to decades of southern white terrorists. Poverty reached cataclysmic levels. Working conditions and a lack of labor safety laws lead to unsafe factories where children as young as ten worked 12 hour days. The list goes on and on, from the putrid conditions of the Chicago stockyards to the competitive labor imbalance of the most open immigration policy in our history. The graph of morality during this age seems to have been anything but social justice.
So it only seems appropriate that, among the wave of awakening changes with the Big Stick policies of Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive era, there was a movement within the woodworking realm to move away from the escalating production aesthetics; the water-wheel simplicity of pre-Civil War machinery to the steam-powered shops of the Industrial Revolution created a change in architecture and design defined largely by the embellishments of intricate scroll work made possible by replicating lathes. Queen Anne latticework and the Victorian scroll work were largely the result of simplified methodologies on a production scale that belied, if not insulted, the act of one woodworker mastering a smoothing plane with two hands on the tool.
Gustav Stickley’s The Craftsman magazine was first published in 1901. The last issue was in 1916. Fifteen years coinciding with, and ultimately pacing, a wave of social reforms from Jane Addams Hull House, championing the advancement of women in the workplace, to the Fair Labor Standards Act restricting the employment and abuse of child labor, and setting the 8-hour day/40-hour week as a standard (championed originally by Robert Owen’s lasting mantra of “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”). An attentiveness, following 30+ years of a helter skeltered mad dash, that paused long enough to reconsider the intangible quotients of our lives beyond the value of productivity. A transcendental belch. An awakening to the privilege–the right–to develop hobbies, to engage on the sundry levels of courtship and romance with the light-headed ballast of untroubled leisure, to play hopscotch with your children, live a life that has time to scratch sentences in the early morning before sunlight. Sentences that have no real merit beyond whatever pleasure comes from penning words in succession with an oratorical lilt that feeds some vague grain of pleasure. Or walking the few blocks to the neighborhood city pool in the early light for a few laps of mindful repetition. Or a twenty minute nap in the loft of the shop at midday. Or a coffee break at mid-afternoon to bandy about some easy conversations with the regulars. Or on the way home the annual membership at the city course for four or five holes of golf without feeling guilty for not playing a full round or having actually kept track of one’s score since the 80’s. Or reading, say, a thousand-page book where the measured results of the last page are forestalled by a form of leisure seated squarely on the sentence level.
The magazine was more than an exposition of aesthetic style. The style, or designing motif, was a progression of Stickly’s traditional American furniture to the eventual influence of Europe’s William Morris that settled into the Stickley brand name we know today: Unembellished austere lines in quarter-sawn oak that carried over into the architecture of residential homes with the same spartenesque signature. A signature that defined a primitive elegance of moderate woodworking and carpentry skill levels to include a library of associated accouterments such as preferred color palettes as well as the recognizable graphics that found its way onto drapes and rugs and ultimately, the artwork and the unique typeface font adopted by architectural draftsmen of all persuasions.
But all the above was simply a vehicle for the deeper, more enriching content offered on a more existential level. The magazine published articles on art and design, crafts, gardening, as well as fiction, poetry, and even sheet music. It was a forum that provided an exposure of one man’s sensibility toward all of life and art, arriving at a time in our history when the populace was ripe for the slower pace of mental pondering. The dalliance of an existence not so pointedly linked to the driving force of production and profits. The meditative pace of leisure as a privilege and a right. With this paradigm in place and the periphery of happiness grows and matures to include the balance of pastimes, of art, music, theater, reading, athletics, social gatherings, and the due attention of kindred families raised under the assumption of free will.
In some ways, the Prowell Wood works presence has always exemplified a similar approach. Not a purposeful step in the shadows of Mr. Stickley, but simply an extension of a signature design and methodology extending far beyond the graphical interface of a product line. How our days, years and decades are lived. That gravitational pull to the shop and those hours in the shop passing with the acuity of so many levels of pursuit under a single roof in a single day among 10,000 days before and 10,000 days yet to come.
The first issue of the Craftsman Magazine stated the following creed: This Society was incorporated for the purpose of promoting artistic work in all branches of handicraft. It hopes to bring Designers and Workmen into mutually helpful relations, and to encourage workmen to execute designs of their own. It endeavors to stimulate in workmen an appreciation of the dignity and value of good design; to counteract the popular impatience of Law and Form, and the desire for over-ornamentation and specious originality. It will insist upon the necessity of sobriety and restraint, of ordered arrangement, of due regard for the relation between the form of an object and its use, and of harmony and fitness in the decoration put upon it.
It’s worth a mention how the patented innovations of this era were often, most often, not necessarily available to the wider reaches of our citizenry. Particularly in the early 19th century, when communication was limited to horseback and sailing voyages. So many of the discoveries listed below didn’t find their way into the socio economic mainstream until decades later. Due in part to the limited resources of the print media (advertising), but perhaps more so, the prerequisite of thriving economies required to fuel such changes.
The end of whale oil in lieu of the steadier, brighter, and considerably cheaper coal-gas light. A monumental convenience for the end user, and a welcome improvement for the whale population. But coal-gas was combustible and a direct contributor to a spike in fire alarms. It would be 40 years before coal-gas fuel was replaced with the even cheaper, and safer, Kerosene. (See 1840’s)
2) The Battery
The voltaic pile battery and the improbable idea of stashing energy for a later use.
Benjamin Franklin, in 1748, first coined the word ‘Battery’, referring to a system of glass plates, electrically charged as a transference of lightening.
It was Luigi Galvani, in 1860-68 who first understood the battery’s electrical basis for nerve impulse: A negative electrode to conduct the charged ions; A separator, separating the negative and positive impulses; A positive electrode; And a conductor, sending the impulses to their respective negative and positive electrodes.
In 1800 Alessandro Volta invented the Voltaic Pile as the first applicable means of generating electricity from a battery.
Volta’s ‘Voltaic Pile’ was only capable of carrying electricity for a short time. This was improved in 1835 by John Daniel’s ‘Daniel Cell’, adopting two electrolytes instead of one. Capable of sending about 1.1 volts, it was enough for the first real practical application, such as powering the eventual telegraphs, telephones, doorbells and was the go-to source of power for close to 100 years.
Without Volga’s mini voltaic battery, there would have been no Daniel Cell, and without the Daniel Cell . . . well, all we rely on today for battery power boggles the mind.
In 1859 Gaston Plante invented the first rechargeable battery, hence the car battery,
In 1866 George Leclanche invented the Carbon Zinc cell. A dry-cell battery that was transportable. Hence smart phone batteries,
solar power batteries, and the ubiquitous battery packs we’re never without, powering flashlights, camping gear, Xmas toys, etc.
Possibly the most humble entity among this barrage of luminaries. Putting an end to long sea voyages beset with rotting food supplies and the resulting deaths from scurvy. The posed dilemma: How to preserve food. How to preserve food beyond a few days and how to do so as a mobile convenience. Confounding us since the Egyptians. Although the Tin Can (and by this, we mean the ability to preserve food from spoilage) was first spiraled into fame by the Royal Navy, and would later find it’s overflow littered along popular trails and roadside gullies. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Heinz, of the catsup fame, moved the can from the battlefield to the family kitchen and the Age of Convenience began. And, perhaps, a trend toward women’s emancipation by halving the time the average housewife spent preparing dinner.
Wood or coal creates a fire that heats water that in turn creates steam that causes the wheels to turn. The level of power, or the rate of the wheel spin, can be regulated by opening or closing valves along the steam pipes. Thomas Savory’s original Steam Engine came along in the late 1600’s in England, but to America, it was Peter Cooper’s Tom Thumb in 1830 that hauled 36 passengers at 18 mph. A useful advantage, to say the least, in transporting Union troops during the Civil War. While during that same stretch of time, the Lincoln administration pounced on the innovation by funding the monumental transcontinental railroad, which of course changed everything.
First appearing in the 1600’s, the reverse imagery was cast onto paper and was merely an aid to painters and draftsman. Later, as the lens improved, images were projected onto entire walls, creating the first slide show. More importantly, we had a lens that transferred images, and we all know what ultimately followed.
A fairly simple invention that has changed little since it’s debut by the French physician René Laënnec in 1816 as a more reliable means of listening to internal heartbeats. Replacing what was called Immediate Auscultation, or placing an ear against the body. An uncomfortable procedure when the patient was a female. The breakthrough began with Laënnec putting his ear against a rolled piece of paper.
In moving from a Midwest of torrential spring rains and summer rainstorms, to the year-round drizzle and fog of San Francisco, the author was surprised to learn how few people actually owned a raincoat. The rain, although frequent, was more a steady mist, and therefore, seemingly, not worthy of proper foul weather gear. And, interestingly, a similar irreverence toward homes built without insulation in a city where the average temperature varied little from January to December. Easily the most boring weather forecasts in the entire country, with highs in the upper 60’s and lows in the low 50’s almost every day of the year. And yet, the low 50’s is not necessarily conducive to curling up in the evening with a good book. Consequently, the San Francisco Victorian of pre-1906 earthquake days is equipped with multiple fireplaces.
In the 1960’s four hoodlums managed the first and only purported escape from Alcatraz by sewing ands sealing raincoat sleeves into life preservers that made the swim to the mainland in 62-degree water somewhat possible. Although there has never been any evidence they actually arrived, there is also no evidence–beyond the washed up raincoat sleeves–that they perished en route. They simply vanished. On the lam in a San Francisco where no one wore raincoats anyway.
In 1823, Charles Macintosh patented a waterproof fabric and his name has become synonymous with the raincoat ever since.
A convenience, to say the least, over the friction of sticks and stones in use for several thousand years prior. And likely resulting in the subsequent proliferation of pipes, cigars, and cigarettes, and arsonists.
In 1669, Hennig Brand, of Hamburg, accidentally discovered phosphorous in a crazy experiment to turn putrefied urine into gold. Thus providing the one key ingredient to the match that wasn’t readily available in nature.
In 1826, John Walker accidentally discovered that a stick coated in antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum, and starch could create friction.
The following year Samuel Jones furthered that ‘friction stick’ and created what he called Lucifer–matches he marketed in the southern and western states.
In 1892, Joseph Pusey invented the matchbook, but with the oversight of placing the striking surface on the inside, such that all 50 matches would ignite at once!
In 1910, with a push to ban the ignitable and dangerous phosphorous, the Diamond Match Company received a patent for a ‘non-poisonous’ match.
In the 11, congress passed a law to ban white phosphorous and The Diamond Match Company subsequently gave up their patent.
The Diamond Match Company currently makes more than 12 billion matches a year, using a safer magnesium metal.
Buried and burrowed like Roman ruins into the hills in and around San Francisco is a system of WWII concrete bunkers with walls 6′ thick. Reinforced with re-bar and steel girders and seemingly, impervious to the likelihood of a second Japanese invasion on the heels of Pearl Harbor. In San Francisco alone, where real estate is valued by the square foot, large tracts of untrodden wilderness remain hosts to these testaments of fear and preparedness. They remain, to this day, because razing them requires requisitions from the City Supervisors to fund bulldozers and cranes and explosives. An act that would ultimately create space, in a city with limited space. But always, every few years, the motions for funding are lost to so many, far more pressing needs. And so they remain. They are charming. such as those sidled along the 7th hole of Lincoln Park Golf Course to overlook the Pacific and Golden Gate Bridge, coked beneath 75 years of impenetrable thicket.
Concrete changed the way we build. Readily available, affordable materials on every continent to mix the cement that builds nations. Or bunkers.
Concrete and cement are not the same thing. Concrete consists of water, aggregate, and Portland cement. Cement, as in Portland, simply acts as the bonding agent.
As an amalgamated mix of liquids and semi-solids to create solids would lead us first to the Egyptian pyramids in 3,000 BC, with their mix of mud and straw, linked with gypsum and lime for mortar.
A few thousand years later, in 300 BC, the Romans built the Coliseum with a mixture of lime, volcanic ash, and saltwater. The interaction produces calcium aluminum silicate hydrate as the bonding material. Some consider the results to be not only stronger than today’s heat-processed Portland cement, but environmentally greener with a release of far fewer carbon dioxides into the atmosphere. But although stronger, Roman concrete took longer to dry and hence the switch to Portland cement facilitated the profit/loss of modern building trends.
Joseph Aspdin, in England, in credited with inventing modern Portland cement in 1824.
Alvord Lake Bridge in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, was built in 1889 as the first reinforced concrete bridge,. It still exists today.
The first concrete road was built in Bellefontaine, Ohio in 1891. Concrete roads and highways are still in use throughout the country, more notably portions of the Lincoln Highway (The nation’s first highway), and Rt 66. Elsewhere, of course, but they are fast disappearing all together in lieu of the less expensive asphalt.
The first concrete building was the Ingallls Building, in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1903.
In 1903, none other than Thomas Edison designed the first concrete homes in Union, NJ. They still exist today.
In 1913, ready-mix was introduced, with the idea of mixing i9n a central location and delivered by truck to site locations.
The tallest building built from concrete is the 311 South Wacker Drive tower in Chicago. Built in 1992,with its notable top floor panorama vista and restaurant.
The typewriter played a large role in the author’s family, and in his own life until that exciting day in 1994 with the appearance in the Prowell home of that Macintosh Color Classic. Son Sam at 14 calling out, “Dad, going online!” As if it warranted an official notice. Sometimes, bored, the four of us would watch the screen-saver fish swimming across the screen. Beyond these shattering impacts, the typewriter was one of the single most weapons in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Suddenly around the turn of the century, as the machine went mainstream, young women from small towns all over America were flooding the cities with the marketable skills of typists. A sustainable salary affording decent, albeit small, apartments and the freedom of disposable income to shop and frequent the jazz clubs on the weekends and feel, as never before, like the full and proud human beings they were.
Prior to the first practical typewriter, from Christopher Latham Sholes in 1867, there were a bevy of instruments intended to mechanically simulate the act of writing. Some such instruments were as big as a piano. It wasn’t until Sholes subsequent models was the typewriter capable of speeds far exceeding that of handwriting. In 1873 he joined with Remington (think guns) to manufacture a product that first appeared on the market, called The Remington. The unique cylinder with line spacing and carriage return remained essentially unchanged for a century.
The first electric typewrite was created by Thomas Edison in 1872, which later became a ticker-tape printer.
The original patent for anything similar to the Remington was in 1829, by William Burt for his typographer machine.
I imagine, somewhat,on those nights when I have nothing else to disturb my sleep, that one day I might go blind. I began wearing glasses at 6 to correct a malady that processed whatever Mrs. Winters wrote on the chalkboard backwards! I worry, on those damnable nights in my adulthood, that I’ll wake up blind and be suspended from what I’ve done since I was a child. Build things. Today’s tools, for all their digital wizardry, cannot be operated by a blind person. The RPMs of a blade cares little whether the operator can see, or cannot see; they will whisk off an arm in a split second and feel no apology. I do not, however, lose sleep over any blindness that would put an end to my lifelong love of reading books. Thanks less to the existence of braille, than the ubiquitous presence of audibles, Kindles, and Books-on-Tape.
Louis Braille himself, at age three, lost the sight in one eye as the result of an accident with his father awl, and the other eye due to sympathetic ophthalmia, an inflammation of both eyes following trauma to one. At 15, he invented a system for reading a schematic of raised dots, and in 1829, at 20 years old, he published is first braille book, titled Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them.
Braille, as an arrangement of from one to six raised dots arranged in relative positions to represent alphabetized characters, has since been adapted to almost every known language.
6) Film Development
Two of my sisters had a passion for photography. An interest in the photographic skills of taking a picture, but also the magic of manipulating images and light in the darkroom. To witness the negative image come slowly to life via some mysterious amalgam of science and chemistry. It was the Frenchman Nicephore Niepce, caught up in the fad of lithograph, which lead to experimenting with what was later termed heliography, where Nicephore and his brother produced the earliest known surviving image made in a camera. Interesting, in that their work with this was secondary to the time and expense spent developing a combustible engine called the Pyreolophore, which propelled a model boat along local rivers. It was that focus that sent his brother Claude to live in England and years later, during a visit, he convinced his brother Nicephore to present to the the Royal Academy his success on creating these images with light. The Royall Academy rejected the idea, however, based primarily on the fact that Nicephore was unwilling to fully disclose his process. Returning to France, he continued his work, partnering with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, Anticipating the recognition and financial success that never came. Four years after his death in 1833, his partner debuted the daguerreotype, which became a commercial success, overshadowing Niépce’s heliograph. (See #1. `1930’s, below)
Innovations and breakthroughs are so often the result of partnerships. An individual toils alone for years until his thought process is traveling in circles. Daguerr would not have arrived at his commercially successful Daguerreotype without the earlier partnership with Nicephore Neipce. And how often we see the earliest, original breakthrough fall short of commercial usage and how perhaps these efforts are consumed with the science, the parameters contributing to the ultimate working model, when the follow-up has the great advantage of the improvements to that working model alongside its potential commercial application. Thus the importance of Daguerr’s partnership with Neipce in bringing the product to market.
Samuel Colt’s patent for the ‘Texas Pistol’ came along in 1835. How was if different from the scores of other revolvers in use? We might start with the cylinder chamber and how with each expended round, the cylinder must be rotated to the breech by hand, rather than by the simple act of cocking the hammer. Big difference. A one-handed repeating weapon that surely explains the Lone Ranger’s double holster. The 6-gun on each hip drawn to fire two repeating weapons simultaneously. A fair amount of mechanical wizardry allowing not only for the cylinder to advance, but insuring it advanced with a locking pin that partitioned the hammer nipple from discharging simultaneous chambers. Because the action of the cylinder/hammer required absolute precision to prevent misfiring, it is to Colt’s credit that he turned to machines and the precision they offered over the variables of his competitor’s hand-made models. The expense and foresight to establish a factory–in Britain–toward this end was instrumental in not only the required tolerances, but it enabled him to produce the product on a production scale that reached the consumer with an affordable price tag. Like Edison, a master of inventiveness and production. The world as it was known changed forever.
Like the typewriter, the sewing machine ultimately provided yet another tool toward the women’s suffrage movement. A generation of women with a skill-set offering living wages. The Frenchman Barthelemy Thimonnier is credited with the first model that mechanically created a ‘chain stitch’ in 1829. A devise that could sew 200 stitches a minute, compared to a tailer’s rate of 30 stitches per minute. It was called the Couseuse. Things get sticky when Thimonnier secures a partner in an agreement that pushes forward the red tape and financing and drawings to secure a patent. In both names. Before the patent was issued, Thimonnier secures his own backer and moves to Paris to open a factory and signs another contract–with his current backer–and everything is unfolding wonderfully until one morning 200 independent tailors storm the factory, ransacking the premises and destroying 80 Couseuses, throwing the pieces out the windows. A challenged culture about to be displaced, the independent tailors considered the machine ‘arm-breakers’ and dangerous competitors. Thimonnie’s had to flee for his life and the enterprise folded soon after.
If we follow the time-lines only, The Connecticut born Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization technology to process rubber arrived within months of the first practical appearance of the bicycle. How one creation provides the missing link to the final stages of another. The process itself was entirely chemical, unlocking the molecular structure of rubber extracted from a tree to where it withstood heat and cold. The results were a chain reaction equivalent to the appearance of plastic. Automotive tires (Goodyear Tire Company), pencil erasers, life jackets, balls, gloves, shoe soles (Goodyear Shoe Company). The road to success, like so many others, shows the perseverance of a hungry entrepreneur who mixed and tested chemical reactions added to latex using the pots and pans in his wife’s kitchen, as well many nights spent in debtor’s prison, which at that time were short-term detention centers sentenced by a judge for failing to pay one’s debts. Obsessed, he sacrificed his health (inhaling toxic fumes), sold his family’s furnishings, even his children’s textbooks. Ultimately in 1839 he stumbled upon a mix where the rubber didn’t melt or freeze and soon after he founded the Naugatuck India-Rubber Company in Naugatuck, CT. He patented the process and in an interesting twist, he grew his financial worth not by the growth of a single factory but by licensing a multitude of other rubber manufacturers who subsequently sprouted up in Naugatuck. Manufacturing plants profiting under his license such as Keds sneakers and Uniroyal Tires. Today, the main thoroughfare of the town is named Rubber Avenue. Unfortunately, Goodyear spent much of his fortune fighting patent infringements. He died in 1860 at only 59, $200,000 in debt.
When we think of early bicycles, we’re want to recall the Wright Brother’s thriving little bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio in the late 1880’s. Cornering the exact appearance of the original concept, however, involves more mystery than fact. We know that by the early 1800’s, a rudimentary for bearer was in common use. In 1817, Baron Von Drais expanded the unicycle by creating a front wheel that could be steered, while also adding a padded seat. He secured a patent for what was at the time called a vélocipède. And that’s more or less the last we hear of Baron Von Drais , as the fad gained popularity before disappearing almost completely. Until 1863 in Paris, when pedals were added to the original vélocipède concept. Not until 1869 did the trend catch on in America, where a number of carriage makers began manufacturing what was becoming better known as the bicycle. Riding academies and sporting races followed, and then just as quickly faded away. Not only were they heavy and cumbersome, but cities began passing ordinances against them in the interest of pedestrian safety. In the 1870’s wire spokes appeared in the wheels, significantly reducing their overall weight. Their popularity again rose in the states, and quickly fell off again. The high front wheel was somewhat dangerous and vulnerable to sudden stops that sent the rider head over heels across the front wheel . By the 1880’s the ‘Safety Bicycle’ was developed with two wheels of equal diameter, as well as chain-driven gears and quickly, in the vein of one invention spawning another, John Boyd Dunlop developed the pneumatic tire. The production of the bicycle in the states rose as a result from an estimated 200,000 in 1889 to 1,000,000 in 1899.
* We all have our stories regarding favorite bikes as a testament to the lasting and practical usage of such an invention. The author’s own lasting memory is of the 3-speed Schwinn English racer. A gift awarded on June 6th–his 10th birthday. On June 8th the gravel road along their farmhouse in rural Illinois was freshly tarred and without thinking, the new lovely wonderful bike left the long front drive and onto the formerly accepting gravel road and within 10 yards it came to a sticky, laboring stop. There were weeks with his grandfather across the river spent dismantling the parts and soaking them in buckets of solvents and if the bike was never again the same, or even close, what was gained was the inadvertent knowledge of breaking down and reassembling the first of countless bicycles over the coming decades.
How can we, with a straight face, include something like wrenches in the same discussion as, say, vulcanization. Was it Gertrude Stein who said, ” A wrench is a wrench is a wrench?” Or perhaps ” The wrench without a bolt is the wrench no more?” But there is an interesting history to this most useful tool: Jack Johnson, of the heavyweight boxing fame, patented a wrench n 1922. And as an urban legend that first appeared online in 2015, it was claimed that the term Monkey Wrench derived as a racial slur to the champion’s accomplishment. Well, urban legends aside, the original wrench was first patented by Solymon Merrick of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1835. And Charles Moncky, a Baltimore mechanic, invented the monkey wrench around 1858 (Moncky’s wrench was purposefully twisted as an eponymous signature.). In 1870 Daniel C. Stillson received a patent for the Stillson pipe wrench. And in 1913, Robert Owen Jr, of Shawnee, Ohio, patented the “Double Acting Wrench” (ratchet wrench), which, among wrench enthusiasts, must hold a hierarchy of relevance. And now we have the chronology of truth regarding wrenches.
One wonders, among the ones who still remember a time prior to email and texting and whatnot, when we once licked stamps and mailed letters, wondering, those few, why such fascination with these smallish little emblematic tariffs collected like diamonds by the likes of President Franklin Roosevelt whose only hobby was that of collecting rare stamps. And why the Post Office continues to this day to issue such a variety of stamps from which to choose when really, who cares? The only mail mailed these days are those payments to utility companies or tax returns not managed online, or maybe a great grandmother somewhere who sends off a crisp 5-dollar bill as a birthday acknowledgment to a grateful great granddaughter (Say that 3 times quickly: grateful great granddaughter). The explanation of such variety in stamps may be the opportunity to tell the history of a nation, with the specific stamps of a specific era not only identifying the date a letter was sent, but providing a window into the events and people who were noteworthy to the culture. The world’s first postage stamp was the Penny Black, appearing in 1840 and bearing the image of Queen Victoria. But the first postal service–the act of delivering letters–was in 1680 as an act of public service that guaranteed the quick delivery of a letter anywhere in London. Recipients were expected to pay, which obviously had it’s problems. But eventually, as in 150 years later, the 1-cent stamp was issued and instantly England seemed much smaller. As for its placement on the upper right-hand corner, the explanation was simply that 80% of England was right-handed–expediting the cancellation process. The first American stamp was issued in 1847. A 5-cent stamp depicting an image of Benjamin Franklin (The first Postmaster general of the United States). The rate covered up to a half-ounce letter up to 300 miles. The 10-cent stamp, with George Washington’s image, covered greater distances and heavier weights. In the ensuing 150 years or so, there have been 130 different stamps depicting Benjamin Franklin. The first issuance of American stamps was similar to a national currency; a single pay-up-front fee of 5-cents bought the ability to correspond. To connect. And for a country that, by 1840, was expanding at a dizzying pace, this became an instant act of unifying a suddenly divided nation (This, in the immediate aftermath of Andrew Jackson’s election, marking the first populist president in the White House and pitting the more coarse, somewhat bombastic Jacksonian Tennessee personality against the more reserved colonial gentry who occupied Capital Hill for the first 6 consecutive presidencies.).
1) Howe Sewing Machine
“As I speak in court today, over one million men in the field, in our great struggle, our Civil War, are clothed, knitted, and covered by fabric sewn on machines using my inventions.”
Elias Howe, inventive genius and sewing machine pioneer. Although Howe did not invent the sewing machine itself, he did invent the first ‘lock-stitch’ and was consequently awarded the first U.S. sewing machine patent in 1846, based on his placing the eye of the needle at the bottom end and creating a semi-automatic form of feeding the work. Like Goodyear, with rubber manufacturers springing up everywhere, Howe’s development lead to an entire industry of sewing machine manufacturers who were dependent on his patented techniques (including, among so many others, Isaac Singer) and like Goodyear, Howe spent a lifetime in court fighting off patent infringements. And in the end with his death at only 48, the once bankrupt inventor turned wealthy industrialist was left with an estate valued at a small fraction of it’s pinnacle. “The sewing machine has sparked the greatest manufacturing expansion in] history and will bring employment to millions. Our world has changed forever.” Clothes became cheaper and more readily available. New York retailers Brooks Brothers reduced their turn-a-rounds from 6 weeks to 6 days. Hats were made ten times faster. An entire army, the Union Army, was clothed.
And prior to all this, the industry employed thousands of women , young girls, children, hand-stitching every article from clothing to upholstery, shoes, and sails. Many of the younger girls lost their eyesight, stitching 12 hours a day. The working conditions in these sweat shops were deplorable, long long before labor laws, and although the advent of the sewing machine changed things dramatically, the working environments were only marginally improved. It would take Chicago’s Triangle Fire in 1911, almost a hundred years later, before real activism for better working conditions would result in the earliest legislative mandates regarding workplace conditions.
If considered strictly from the perspective of a political platform, we have John Jay, or Jefferson or Adams or Franklin in Britain and France hammering out treaties over months of negotiations and once signed, waiting for next scheduled crossing to send their messenger scampering down to the docks with the urgency of worldly affairs in the balance followed by a six weeks passage across the north Atlantic in January while in Washington, the White House burns and Dolly Madison rushing from room to room grabbing portraits and memorabilia to throw in the wagon and rushing just moments ahead of the British army to the temporary encampment across the Potomac where James paces, furious with no word from the French pledging support. How can we begin to express the regional, national, and global transformation brought about by this ingenious gizmo dreamed up by Samuel Morse. It essentially laid the groundwork for the age of communication, followed by the radio and short-wave frequencies, the telephone, fax, and ultimately, the internet. This need to communicate: The sonic waves of whales and dolphins; the territorial markings of animals on land; the smoke signals of Native Americans, beginning with the early Egyptians. And like so many new inventions, the telegraph was made possible by Volga’s battery (see above 1800-1809), enabling the reliable storage of electrical current. Working alone, the Yale educated Morse turned his interest from painting to electromagnetic, mentoring with the physicist Joseph Henry to ultimately create a single circuit connection that sent the signal across a wire to be received at the other end. Requiring only wire, a battery, and poles to connect the wires. With it came the natural development of a code of dots and dashes to signify letters of the alphabet. The Morse Code. Morse’s telegraph was improved over the years by the use of better insulated wire to minimize interference, as well as Edison’s Quadrafelx system, allowing four simultaneous messages to share the same line. All this lead to the Western Union Telegraph Company in the 1850’s, founded by Ezra Cornell (founder of the Cornell University). By 1861 Western Union lauded its first transcontinental telegraph line, and by 1866, the trans-Atlantic cable connecting North America with Europe. By 1940, there were 40 such cables spanning the Atlantic. Today, well . . . the internet is not as we might like to imagine as a magical cloud, an ephemeral wave of inter connectivity, but, alas, more lines. Lines and lines and lines criss-crossing the globe. Bundles of lines, connected to way stations reminiscent of the Western Union stations. Servers, that might be considered massive battery storage facilities, energy-hungry reservoirs of information moving coded messages from one to another as grandma in South Africa writes to her granddaughter in Alaska a happy birthday email arriving within seconds. The electric telegraph changed the way we fought wars, and how journalists covered such wars, and of course the ability to wire money across great distances.
Transporting crops from the bread basket of the Midwest to the markets back east has a long and ingenious history. Beginning, in large part, with the Erie Canal, which in turn lead to a need to amass the stockpiles of grain that would allow the canal to maximize it’s capacity. Joseph Dart modeled the first grain elevator on the steam-powered flour mills, where the elevators were located along the canal (and later the railroad lines), and with the use of a series of conveyor belts, the grain was efficiently loaded onto the waiting barges. In the world of the author’s upbringing, rural mid-state Illinois, the sight of grain elevators was as ubiquitous as the silos in the barnyards of every farm. We harvested our corn, moved it from the combine to the silo with long chutes that also shucked the corn from the husks.( Silos, by the way, that were havens for rats and rodents). Here it remained, hedging the fluctuating markets that would rise and fall until either the grain market reached a peak or the desperation of needing to sell regardless, we moved it to the grain elevators–located along the Illinois Central rail line, or the IC–by means of large open trucks provided by the elevators, where it was drawn up into the massive storage buildings by means of armed chutes with conveyor belts. The farmer and the owner of the elevator negotiated a price beforehand and in the weeks leading to the harvest of late August, early September, this rumored price-point was the talk that occupied the conversations. If you felt the price could be bettered elsewhere, you paid a larger fee to have an elevator in another county truck the crop. The elevators were competitive, but also in compliance with one another to essentially dictate the grain markets for a given season. Certain markets, such as Danville, Illinois, harvested a predominant soybean crop, and therefore the entire county is known for the peculiar stench of soybeans stored in every elevator scattered throughout that county.
If we consider the innumerable achievements in medicine over the centuries, advancing from lobotomies and transfusions or even the understanding of sterilizing against infection and the spread of bacteria as a communicable passage of disease , perhaps the one single most achievement that has had an impact on all of us is the ability to conquer pain. To mitigate the debilitating, ever-present level of pain that doesn’t go away, that is constant, that ultimately breaks down our ability to reason, to function. The history of mediating pain covers a lot of ground, from the use of herbal concoctions to hypnosis to acupuncture to cocaine, but it was Dr William T.G. Morton who first publicly and successfully performed surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846 using ether as an anesthesia. In 1894 medical students E. Amory Codman and Harvey Cushing developed the first anesthesia record as a means of establishing effective dosage by observing respiratory and pulse rates. By 1901, monitoring blood pressure was added (Riva Rocci). By 1903, respiratory rate and heart rates. In 1944 Sweden’s Torsten Gordh introduced the first local anesthetic (lidocaine).
Are we guilty of increasing this essay’s word count as a pay-per-word contract by throwing in the first dentist chair? While we’re at it, let’s include the first barber’s chair or the first reclining rocking chair or the first toddler’s high chair. Or skip this entry all together.
In 1846 Abraham Gesner demonstrated for an audience on Prince George Island a process for distilling coal to create something he called kerosene, a yellow liquid that when poured into an oil lamp with an absorbent wick, burned a beautiful pale flame. Also known as paraffin oil, kerosene was safer and considerably cheaper than whale oil and would ultimately spark a global technological, industrial, and cultural boom. Eventually the distillation from coal was replaced with petroleum–even cheaper–and all of a sudden we entered the oil era. A race, actually, to discover and mine this black fluid, this liquid gold. By the 1860’s there were hundreds of drill rigs and dozens of refineries, all in the northern Pennsylvania woods. By the end of the century, every public building and most homes were lit by kerosene lamps, in addition to improving production in factories and the marine safety of lighthouses and in an accidental twist, kerosene on fire also lead to the beginning of the dry cleaning business. In the 1850’s Gesner founded the North America Kerosene Gas Lighting Company in New York, which later became Standard Oil. The Standard Oil of John D. Rockefeller who cornered the kerosene market by illegally dominating the railways that transported the crude oil from the extraction sites of Pennsylvania to the Standard Oil refineries that made him the richest man in the world. A system that was challenged by Teddy Roosevelt, effectively breaking up the monopoly and creating the Sherman Anti-Trust law. A law that has perhaps been challenged so often in the decades since that it’s become synonymous with capitalism itself; the irrepressible urge to eliminate competition and corner the market in the vein of Microsoft and Amazon and can we always count on having a Teddy Roosevelt who’s up to the fight of challenging corporations that have grown so large they’re often beyond legislative control?
–Although eventually upstaged by Edison’s bulb–who by the way learned from Gesner’s business acumen by co-founding Edison Electric Lighting Company–much of rural America continued to rely on kerosene lamps well into the 1940’s and a huge portion of the 3rd world (Nigeria, etc) still to this day relies almost entirely on kerosene lighting.
1) Singer Sewing Machine
Is there any invention on this list that’s been through more iterations than the sewing machine? Isaac Singer completes the cycle, with a history of acting and early entrepreneurship with his inventions of a rock drilling machine and later a wood and metal carving machine. The interesting distinction with the latter is his foray into manufacturing, and although the venture ended when the factory was ruined from an explosion, he returned to an earlier interest with the sewing machine. The resulting developments included a foot pedal, increasing the speed to 900 stitches a minutes. A considerable improvement over Howes machine, but in applying for the patent, he was sued by Howe for plagiarism, and lost. Undaunted, Singer secured a financial partner and in 1857 created I.M. Singer & Co. Within three years the company was the largest sewing machine manufacturer in the world and America’s first international company. Although Singer went on to develop 22 additional patents, we must consider his greatest strength as a manufacturer. Perhaps our first inventor with a production-minded price-point that in turn brought the suddenly affordable sewing machine into the American home.
To understand the full impact of Pullman’s legacy, we begin with Chicago. Since the 1850’s, this was the economic center for grain, meat, and lumber of the west. A trend that began with the short-lived Illinois Canal, linking the Mississippi to the reversed-current Chicago River and thus making full use of the original intent of the Erie Canal: Western settlements could formerly only sell their products to an eastern population by circumnavigating the long circuitous route down the Mississippi and around Florida to the eastern seaboards. The Canal itself unseated St. Louis as the dominant economic hub almost overnight and consequently production skyrocketed. Midwestern crops, Plains states cattle, and western states lumber had been provided with a means of transporting goods to markets. But the canal’s relevancy was short-lived, lasting only three years before the tracks were laid for the Illinois Central railroad line ( The IC. by the way, receives heavy use to this day and the go-to method of travel during the author’s childhood from mid-state Champaign to Chicago and later, from college in Carbondale to Champaign.). The railroads spiraled Chicago into the country’s 2nd largest economic hub–behind the NY harbor), spawning a chain reaction over the coming decades of Chicago architecture and ultimately the Columbia Worlds Fair of 1893 (see 1890’s below). The railroad, and in particular Chicago’s pivotal position in this growth, circumvented not only the continental shipping trade but quickly came to signify the Westward Ho cry that civilized a mass migration of covered wagons to stage coaches, to passenger cars on an Iron Horse. Abbreviating the 4-6 months of a covered wagon train to six days (Later, in 1876, an Express train traveled from New York City to San Francisco in 83 hours!). So . . . it should come as no surprise how quickly the old Immigrant Gap of the wagon trains fell into disuse and a market appeared for a means of comfort beyond the railroad’s passenger coach seat. Enter George Pullman, who offers comfort and luxury by means of dedicated sleeping car. A rolling apartment, essential, for those who could afford it. Spurned by the railroads initially because the Pullman Car required extensive revisions to the existing track infrastructure, the idea gained traction when the funeral procession of Lincoln’s body was transported from Washington back to Illinois by a Pullman car and immediately the railroad companies responded by making the necessary changes to the tracks and platforms and suddenly, the now famous Pullman Car was in demand, brought about by one of the more interesting marketing phenomenons in the history of inventions.
Pullman’s success culminated with over 2,100 cars running on some 160,000 miles of track and over 12,000 employees accommodated by the creation of the first company town south of 111th street in Chicago, complete with with schools, churches, and libraries. The town was heralded as the Utopian alternative to the normal testaments where factory workers had previously lived, as well as offering a new standard of living to the large segment of black porters, drawn from the Jim Crow south. The final economic crash of the Industrial Age came in 1894 and George Pullman’s as the epitome of industrial acumen, took center stage. At a congressional hearing, tracing the devastating crash to Pullman’s Porter Strike, he is quoted in his testimony as such: “”The object in building Pullman was the establishment of a great manufacturing business on the most substantial basis possible, recognizing that the working people are the most important element which enters into the successful operation of any manufacturing enterprise.”
And from one embittered striker: ” We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell”
The concept of a company town lived on, unfortunately, with the most notable being Henry Ford’s Fordlandia in the middle of the Amazon jungle. But Pullman’s expansive vision lives on and can be visited today along Pullman Avenue on the 4,000 acres of what was then open prairie south of the city limits. What we’re met with, as a modern-day tourist, is a class system no longer defined by the hierarchy of the working residents but by the architecture that depicted and labeled those hierarchies. Every level of his employee workforce had a corresponding architectural form. Executives lived in detached homes; foremen in handsome row houses; skilled workers in smaller quarters; and unskilled workers in small two-room apartments. The rents charged were set by Pullman. There was one church, in Pullman’s assumption that if their factory used interchangeable parts, why couldn’t his workforce subscribe to a common interchangeable religion? To trace the demise of Pullman is to trace the end of the Gilded Age. The initial impact of the 1894 depression was mild and thought to be no worse than the two earlier depressions of the 1970’s and 1880’s. But it was enough to cause Pullman to lower the cost of a ticket to his sleeping cars, lower his workforce wages, but not lower their rents. Ultimately, the workers became disenfranchised and went on strike. The largest strike the nation had known to date, quelled only with the appearance of federal troops and although the workers were forced back to work, the Supreme Court ruled shortly thereafter that a company town in itself was illegal, forcing Pullman to sell off the homes and structures that were ultimately incorporated into Chicago.
In the end, Pullman died with a reputation so tarnished his family worried his former employees may attempt to desecrate the grave. His was buried in Graceland Cemetery in a deep grave covered with asphalt, concrete and steel rails.
Notes and Facts:
Today, the 1st class Pullman cars can once again be experienced on the IC line from Chicago to New Orleans. In possession of the original blueprints and specifications, the company has of late been rescuing the cars one at a time from railway museums and private collections.
At it’s peak in the 1920’s, Pullman Sleepers accommodated 35,000,000 passengers a year.
Abraham Lincoln’s eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln became president of the Pullman Palace Car company following the death of George Pullman in 1897.
Louis Pasteur should be arguably considered one of the greatest saviors of humanity, and quite possibly the single-most important figure in the history of medicine. In 1854, as the dean of the science faculty at the University of Lille in France, Pasteur discover that microscopic organisms–bacteria/germs–was responsible for souring wine, beer, even milk. He learned to transform the organisms by boiling, then cooling liquids. Hence the process of fermentation in brewing spirits, wine and beer. His basic principles were as follows:
All fermentation is caused by a micro-organism
There’s a particular ferment for every given fermentation
A sterile culture medium is required for ferment growth
Medium has to be seeded with absolute ferment particles
The process came to be known as pasteurization.
Pasteur went on in succeeding decades to further his interest in bacteria and germ theory by developing immunities to malaria and smallpox, exposing his subjects to a form of the bacterial culture that in turn created an immunity. We learned, consequently, that the attenuated culture could be extracted in the form of what came to be known as the vaccine ( Cure the disease with a vaccine drawn from the disease’s own germ culture). Pasteur ultimately developed vaccinations for rabies, malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis and cholera. Not to mention his advancements in pasteurizing milk, which of course lead to dairy farmers transporting their product beyond the local village without risk of spoilage. The lives that have been subsequently saved as a result of Pasteur’s germ theories is incalculable, and thus place him at or near the top of medical science history.
4) Mass-Producing Steel
Britain’s Henry Bessemer developed a process in 1850 drawn from an earlier William Kelly patent that relied on a system of air-blowing the carbon out of pig iron. Resulting in a lighter, more malleable steel and much cheaper to produce. To then, the preferred metals were either iron ore or cast iron. During the Crimean War, the old cast iron cannons had become insufficient to handle the newer explosives, hence the motivation for Bessenmer’s patent. Motivated by a spate of counterfeits, British Stamp Office was in need of a better metal for a counterfeit-proof official stamp. Bessemer’s solution was an embossed stamp. The innovation was improved to include a a movable feature for changing the date of the stamp that made it essentially forgery proof.
By the 1860’s and ’70’s , everything from appliances to tools, machines, ships, buildings, and infrastructure had turned to the stronger, more affordable steel. And of course, the building boom, as in the Chicago Skyscraper, built on the innovative methodology of a steel framework. No longer limited to the 6-story structures built on stone, brick, and masonry, the steel skeletal framework was conveniently coupled with a renewed patent by Otis’ elevator that brought a safety stop to the plaguing issue of failing elevators and by the 1880’s the race to dominate the Chicago skyline was on. Furthered by the arrival of central heating, central cooling, and electrical plumbing pumps. And of course the telephone. Prior to this, prior to the safe elevator and the arrival of affordable steel, highrises were limited to how many floors those businessmen returning from lunch were willing to climb step by step. c,limb up to a 6th story office in the August heat without plumbing pumps, air conditioned,safe elevators, and a means of communicating between buildings beyond the means of human messengers. (See below, in multiple entries: the introduction of Air Conditioning, Elevators, Highrise Foundations, and Telephones.).
1) Gatling Gun
As a 5th grade pastime during recess, we played a game with no rules. Half of us lining up along one side of the field and the other half on the other side and we simply ran at each other, meeting somewhere in the middle of the field in a pummeling act of boyish hand-to-hand combat. That would be during the 5 years the author, me, spent living in the exiled nothingness of Oklahoma. We called the game Alamo, which leads to the remembered daydreams of actually being a part of the Alamo, fighting against the overwhelming odds of Santa Anna’s well orchestrated army. Alongside Davy Crockett and Sam Bowie. Changing the course of that history in this time-traveling daydream by wielding a Gatling Gun. Stunning my heroes with my bravery and dogged fighting skills but mostly, the act of mowing down the charging army as if spraying a garden hose into an army of red ants. One man, or boy, single-handedly annihilating the enemy.
Dr. Richard Gatling invented the first weapon capable of loading and firing sustained bursts of ammunition. A nifty hand-cranked breakthrough in the competitive art of warfare that morphed into Al Capone’s Tommy Gun and ultimately left us today with the lawful AK Assault rifle bandied by the itchy fingers of what’s becoming a worrisome trend of social psychopaths.
The original 58-caliber 6-barrel version of the Gatling Gun fired an inconsistent 300 rounds per minute, thwarting Gatling’s attempts to sell the weapon to the Union Army. The improved version was a 10-barrel 30 caliber that fired a reliable 400 rounds per minute and was adopted by the Union Army on 1866. It remained in use until it was eventually replaced in the early 20th century with the Maxim single barrel machine gun. Gatling sold his patent in 1870 to the Colt Manufacturing Company.
A lasting quote, which reads with a bizarre twist of logic: In 1877, he said “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine–a gun–which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.” ( The Gatling Gun, by Paul Wahl and Don Toppel. Arco Publishing, 1971).
Mankind has a weakness for things that go boom. Ca-Pow! Nifty little sticks that tucked efficiently into the saddlebags of the pack horses traipsing across the Sierras during a gold rush known now as much for the legends and lore of the West as the decimation of a pristine wilderness with the act of lighting a fuse toward the ensuing BOOM that exposed the gold that relegated the pickax to a minor role in history. A joyful pastime employed by the coal miners surrounding the authors family farm in Southern Illinois a hundred years later, and the endless roadway and railroad tunnels dismissing the circumventing route around the mountain passes for the more direct trajectory of through the mountain.
As a Swedish construction engineer, Alfred Nobel looked to enhance the production of bridges by turning his attention to the volatile nitroglycerin, invented in 1846 by the Italian Ascanio Sobrero. Nobel mixed the liquid nitroglycerin with silica that created the malleable paste called dynamite. The paste could be packed into long tubes that could be inserted into bedrock to facilitate footholds and mid-plinth bridge supports.
In total, Alfred Nobel held some hundred and fifty-five patents in the fields of electro chemistry, optics, biology, and physiology. Upon his death, he bequeathed 94 percent of his total assets toward the creation of the Nobel Prize, an endowment fund honoring various achievements in chemistry, literary work,service toward peace, physical science, , medical science and physiology.
Self-propelled projectiles that travel under or on the water. In the realm of sea battles, the arrival of the torpedo provided an alternative to the traditional battleships with their heavy cannonry and slow cumbersome movement. Utilized by both the lighter, quicker surface ships, as well as early submersibles. The actual concept of a torpedo goes back centuries, citing Syrian engineer Hassan al-Rammah whose described in 1275 “an egg which moves itself and burns”.
But it was the British engineer Robert Whitehead who substantially improved an earlier model created by the Austrian Navel officer Giovanni Luppis (A floating weapon driven by ropes extended from the shore). Whitehead’s model was tubular, and self-powered by compressed air. It was presented to the Austrian Imperial Navy in 1866. Whitehead’s later improvements corrected the tendency to wander off course by adding a hydro static valve and pendulum that allowed the torpedo’s depth to be adjusted at a per-determined depth.
Although the torpedo never lost it’s popularity as a war faring weapon, it’s apex of effectiveness might be the German U-boat dominance of the North Atlantic during the both the first and second world wars. Trolling the waters beyond the British blockade in the years prior to America’s official involvement in first war, the fleet of Germain U-boats were positioned to intercept American Merchant ships suspected of carrying supplies to the British war effort. The most spectacular encounter involved U-Boat U-20 stalking the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915. Ultimately sinking the liner in a series of direct torpedo hits to the starboard hull in a startling breach of war protocol. The Lusitania sank in only 18 minutes, killing 1,196 civilian passengers. There are theories, and documented evidence, that the British Naval Admiral, a young Winston Churchill, was aware of the U-20’s position and failed to warn the captain of the Lusitania as a ploy to incite American anger toward the Germans and hence, expedite President Wilson’s reluctance toward an official declaration of war as a British ally. The American support was considered a crucial factor in turning the losing tide of the war, bringing to the effort a level of resources, wealth, and manufacturing strength never before witnessed on a world stage. The result was the irreversible place of the American military at the apex of world power and the consequent role of a global marshal that continues to this day.
Had Whitehead not developed the torpedo, and the Lusitania not sunk, and America had continued it’s Wilsonian policy of isolation by resisting Britain’s pleas . . . well, the British–and French– would almost certainly have fallen to the German offensive and the balance of the present-day European Union would be somewhat altered. But more so, the imaginative scenario of an American state built on the infrastructure of peace and prosperity with the plaguing reality of who then fills the role of the benign, or supposedly benign, protector of the oppressed. Upon entry into New York Harbor, that plaque mounted to the Statue of Liberty, with it’s endearing–supposedly mindful–truths upon which a democracy was built.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Like so many of the inventions on this list, the stapler as we know it today separates itself from it’s predecessors by the issuance of a patent It was George McGill who in 1867 patented the first ‘push stapler’ with the capacity to press the staple through the paper. Although it held only one staple and had to be re-loaded with each sequence. It wouldn’t be until 1895 that the H.E. Hotchkiss company patented a stapler that fed multiple staples. And yet the instructions to re-feed the staples required the use of a screwdriver and a hammer! In 1937 that the namesake we now associate with the product made it’s debut. The Swingline #3 could be fed by hand, as a cartridge of multiple staples. And in the years since, there have been no real improvements. (Personally, this author prefers paper clips over staples. Less invasive? Less violent?)
5) Transatlantic Cable
I’ve often imagined this act of connecting one continent with another by means of vulnerable wires stretching across an entire ocean. The leap from Pony Express to Stage Coach to Railroads, all limited to man’s physical transference, to the complexity of a telegraph that in 20 short years accomplished the unthinkable. To the common mind of any American not versed in circuits and electromagnetic–nearly all of us–there surely was a belittling effect to the technology of communicating across continents. A sense of mankind limited to the flesh and bones of sowing their fields against the advancing science that must certainly have been met with doubt and skepticism and even disdain. All happening too fast, one farmer talking to another like two dots in the endless open landscape of, say, Nebraska. All happening too fast.
With two ships donated for the cause by both America and the UK, the first attempt failed after only six days and 380 miles off the coast of Ireland when the cable snapped due to a malfunction in the braking system that limited the rate of descent. The ships returned to port and a year and half later, in June of 1857, with 700 miles of new cable, the two ships met in the middle of the Atlantic, joined their respective cables, and almost immediately the cable broke. They re-spliced and managed almost 40 miles before it broke again. On the fourth attempt, they managed 146 miles before it broke yet again. Undaunted, both ships returned to Ireland and in less than a week, with plenty of reserve cable, they made their fifth attempt, again beginning from mid-Atlantic. On August 5th, 1858, both ships successfully reached their ports of Valencia Harbor in Ireland and Trinity Bay in Newfoundland. Two weeks later the first communication was sent: ” Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.” Unfortunately, the message was issued with a high voltage and not the weak currents applied during the testing. The cable lasted only three weeks before transmissions ceased to work.
Several years later, a single ship–the enormous Great Eastern, left Valencia in July of 1865 and succeeded in laying 1,200 miles before the cable snapped. Weeks passed, hoping, without success, to salvage remnants of the expensive sunken cable. More cable was manufactured, yet again, and the same Great Eastern, carrying enough cable to span the entire length. On July 27, 1866, the final end of the cable was pulled ashore at the tiny Newfoundland fishing village known as Heart’s Content. The Great Eastern had laid an average of 120 nautical miles of cable per day for a total of 1,686 nautical miles.
Within days, the Great Eastern sailed again, reaching the mid-Atlantic to spend 6 weeks locating the lost cable from it’s earliest attempt, dredged up from a depth of 16,000 feet. The splayed ends were repaired and on September 8th a second transatlantic cable was completed. It was reported, due to the time differences, that messages were actually received hours before they were sent. And as with so many innovations, the usage was expensive. The initial rates were $1 a letter, payable in gold–at a time when a common laborer earned an average of only $20 a month.
Within 20 years, there were 107,000 miles of undersea cables linking all parts of the world. The original two cables lasted only through the 1870’s, and it wouldn’t be until the 1880’s that the newer cables could manage more than a single transmission at once. Oddly, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the first satellite communications offered an alternative to cable communications. And yet, today, 2018, the globe is a spiderweb of physical cables spanning oceans everywhere, driven by the onset of the internet and prior to the technology of satellites. In the manner of our atmosphere littered with the junk of early satellite launches, the ocean floor is a maze of cables. A scene that might compare the earth today as a giant motherboard. Telephone poles carrying bundles of internet cable to buried fiber optic cables, we might remind ourselves that on a basic level, the internet is reduced to a massive mesh of long wires. 90% of intercontinental communication is transmitted through wires at the bottom of the oceans. Hundreds of thousands of miles of wires. In some cases, up to seven miles deep. And because cable speed is still today considerably faster and cheaper than satellites, the trend shows no signs of slowing down.
*Like so many of the innovations on these pages, the fiber optic global internet communications was made possible by the efforts of the transatlantic cable, which in turn was made possible by Mores’s telegraph which was in turn made possible by Tesla’s DC current.
*So, if you’re stuck, in life, caught in a seemingly trapped, immobile, inescapable dead end, go left, go right, go forward. But go. Each step, in the physics of mental mobility, makes the next step suddenly more accessible. You cannot go from the Pony Express to fiber optic cables in a single step.
1) Mail Order
A certain youngster was once raised on farms in central and southern Illinois during an era when the arrival by mail every year of the new Ward’s catalog was an event forever etched into the fabric of that culture. A culture that seems now so hopelessly lost to irreverence. Heartland farms, by their very nature, are comparatively remote. Consequently, as I recall, there was a heavy reliance on both the S&H booklet of accumulated Green Stamps, and the Montgomery Ward catalog for everything from school clothes to a specific toy–a boy-toy–that was received one Xmas with a lead mold for four soldiers in varying positions of attack, along with a chunk of lead and a Bunsen burner to melt the lead–and poison your lungs–along with a ladle to pour the melted lead into the molds. And even a selection of paints to paint the newly minted soldiers according to your political, geographical , and ancestral leanings toward Yankees or Rebels. A collection quickly grew. An army of Rebs and Yanks in their poised and painted lead-ness, hauled out beyond the barnyard, around the back side of the Hereford’s trough adjacent to what was referred to as Slave Hill, coined long ago with crooked wooden markers of those slaves who made their way to Cairo to cross the river and up through the farms and the Shawnee forest to freedom and, well, the eventual markers on a hill on our farm center pieced with a long-dead bottle tree purported, as legend went, to ward off evil spirits on this particular hill, this rise overlooking the footpath to both the river below and the well-trodden Moinwengans horse trail leading to the fertile west field and here, with my bag of mortar borrowed from the #2 shed, I built paved roads that circled the manure pile such that there were battle placements and exact encampments to simulate the battle of Bull Run, scattering my painted leads with the precision of what history I had read and studied and there they were, everything in place and waiting for any one of my sisters to agree to play the enemy, to engage themselves so there was a battle, a bloody skirmish. But which sister? One was too young and would simply put the soldiers in her mouth as if they were stiffened licorice; the other too nice such that she would hold two opposing soldiers in each hand and have them kissing and being friends. No, it was the oldest, with the killer instincts, who agreed in exchange for favors to be later named before she would reluctantly make her way out to the manure pile in her immaculate stretch pants and monogrammed blouse to take her place on the opposite side of the pile of dried dung. One two three and the sudden calamity of exploding dirt and screaming injured soldiers and hollering charges and then she would stand up, brush the dirt from her knees and swagger back across Slave Hill and the barnyard to the house and I would be left alone, okay with the indebtedness of her participation.
Where was I?
Right. Wards catalog. Assuming there are those very very few of you who long ago embarked on this essay and who, for reasons unknown, are still with me, the Wards catalog was a massive tome lasting the course of a full year, with it’s dog-eared pages and checked wish lists to the idle pastime of a simple game where my sisters and I would open it to a random page to select anything on that page, for free. A game that required no bartering or pleading appeals for a battling opponent. Just a page-turning game on cold winter night three months in to the standard six months of those gray, bitter cold winters.
Founded in 1872 by Aaron Montgomery Ward in Chicago, Illinois (Two-and-a- half hours up the road from the legendary manure pile.). With start-up capital of only $2,400, Ward, like today’s Bezos of Amazon, had the idea of amassing merchandise at wholesale prices he could sell directly to the consumer without the middle-man of retail intermediaries. Initially, those consumers were the farmers in those rural areas to the north, south, east, and west of Chicago, such as that ancestral farm of Moingweenan fame (see above). All was good with the rapidly growing venture until 1893, when Ward’s exclusive market made way for Sears Roebuck, and Company. During the 1890s. on the heels of the financial panic (See above. Way above). During that span, Sears outdistanced Wards in Merchandising, sales, and advertising. It never relinquished it’s leading position. The one-two leading entities in American retail for a hundred years and more. Montgomery Ward opened its first retail store in 1926 and by 1930 there were 566 of them across the country. What anyone would call growth. Re-read that last fact: In four short years, from one store to 566 stores! By this time, obviously, retail sales out-performed catalog sales. In 1986 Wards ended its 113 -year history of mail order sales. By the 1990’s, the market for discount department store retail made room for the explosion of the mega-retail outlets such as Target and Wal-Mart. In 2001 Ward’s closed its last retail store, and in 2004 the company was re-launched as an online-only store. Sears, meanwhile, continues to hang on by a thread, in part because the aforementioned farm-boy youngster lives only a few blocks from a specific Sears who sells a specific, yet commoner’s quality pair of pants and cotton t-shirts of a desirable thread count at the retail listed, less a sale price, less again at the counter another discount until the shopper leaves the store not sure if they should be happy, or saddened by the need and necessity of this retailing icon to starve its coffers in what can only result, in due time, with the end of an inaugural retailing industry that introduced competitive retailing to several generations of American consumers.
2) The Telephone
Well now, who among you hasn’t heard the story of Mr Bell’s telephone. And his worthy assistant, the loyal Watson. No one. We all know this story, and the impact his little gizmo has had on the daily lives of everyone on the planet earth since the words “Mr Watson–come here–I want to see you” played out through Bell’s lips into that first mouthpiece to Watson’s receiving end separated by a single wall back on March 10, 1876. I say we skip it all together. It’s important. No doubt. As much so as anything invented during that entire century. But beyond those abridged children’s books commemorating the event we all read in 3rd grade, what more can I add? Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and in the 150 years since, we’ve learned to share the most inconsequential events of our daily lives with anyone who equally enjoyed this act of idle commensuration. Talking yakking chattering as the first early stages of social media that brought us away from the front porches and personable gatherings that once, over a few millennium, occurred within proximity of a physical listening ear.
It was a party line, linked to a wall-mounted phone above the small desk separating the kitchen from the laundry room that overlooked the north field and the house gardens where on those rare rare rare occasions when any of us actually needed to make a call only to hear the voices of our neighbors, chatting away. Hanging up quietly and trying again 20 minutes later and the Widow Drew’s voice still motoring away until at some juncture our mother would break in and announce she needed to make a call which lead to another 20 minutes of visiting conversation before eventually the Widow and her counterpart Madge or any one of a dozens local women would ring off and the line was momentarily free. All ours. All ours to call anyone, until someone else picked up mid-conversation and then someone else and someone else and you’ve got a dozen silent people on the line with only two of them engaged in a conversation, heard by all.
To some–most–the telephone is a blessing. A game changer. A social godsend. A business lifeline. A teenager’s holy grail. To others–only a few, admittedly– it’s perhaps the most annoying contraption since the Polaroid.
3) Light Bulb.Phonograph. Motion Pictures.
During the 1870’s Thomas Edison hit his stride. The immortality of his genius mingled with the discipline of productivity at a pace of efficiency and focus that boggles our minds. Pick one. Any one. Each of his Big Three. All three, in one form or another, was initiated in a single decade, changing so many lives in so many ways forever more that to consider the combined implications and consequences of them all is to toy with re-inventing a typical day in the typical life of a typical American.
We stroll down city sidewalks at night brightened against thieves and danger. We shop in stores open late after sundown. We read at night in our favorite chair for more than a hour without ruining our eyes by candlelight.
We can enjoy the music we love by translating an entire symphonic orchestra onto a magical plate in the convenience of our own home.
We can bring the imagery in our our minds to life, witnessing a recreation of the world around us, dappled with the story lines and entertaining plot twists formerly experienced only by live stage performances. And although this patent wasn’t formally awarded until as late as 1892′, his earliest forays were a part of that productive Edison decade of the 1870’s.
So much from this one epic center in Menlo Park, NJ. Reaching a populace in quick succession with a reception of expected entitlement. By now, the Gilded Age was in full bloom. Jobs were plentiful thanks to the industrialization of machinery and every class, from the unskilled to the highly skilled were working. With the result of disposable incomes on a relative scale. The obvious expectation and even entitlement would be the sundry of conveniences as proof the ‘good life’ was in full bloom. We deserve the magical phenomenon of something beyond lamps lit by whale oil and combustible kerosene; we deserve the entertainment of a moving picture created solely as a means to entertain; we deserve the opportunity to play music from a mechanical box and dance across the living room floor as a reminder, a reiteration that the grim existence that once and seemingly forever suffocated any sense of lightness was gone gone gone.
There is far too much to say about Thomas Edison himself. The Menlo Park studio and riveting process of his inventive determination. Of the voluminous writings on his life, one of the better and more readable is the page-turner Edison. Inventing the Century, by Neil Baldwin.
4) Barbed Wire
It is an obvious leap from a Westward Ho migration to the compulsive urge to stake off one’s claim with a fence. But fencing in the vast tracts of the western prairie with wood posts and split wood rails was the methodology of an earlier wave, with the manageable plots of Kentucky and Tennessee settled with that first road–The National Road–over the Cumberland Gap with the intent to farm. The plains of Illinois, Missouri and Kansas, however, with their seemingly endless horizons, gave rise to livestock. To cattle and sheep, both of which were grazers and required the larger acreage and the rotation of healthy fields. Sectioning that rotation, allowing the natural grasses of one field to replenish, required a solution brought on by Joseph Gidden of Illinois. Long long before those early tracts were diminished into the 300-acre family farms on which the author was raised in an era when the barbed wire had by then been relegated to the open country ranches of Wyoming and Montana. There was no barbed wire on that Prowell farm, corralling the Herefords between the west field while the north field recovered. This act was accomplished by the more modern approach of low-voltage electrical current, humming through miles and miles of wire fence such that if a certain youngster and his idle pals in their teen years searched for amusement, they might exercise a brainless pastime of seeing who could stay on their feet longest while peeing onto the low-voltage circuitry. (An evolution that was so widespread throughout the myriad of Illinois farms that the county fairs began offering the thrill-seeking attraction of a bright candy-apple red apparatus similar in appearance to a stand-up scale. One inserted their quarter and stood on the small platform and faced the option of a quick crank of a knob all the way to right and be zapped with such an impact to send one scuttling face down into the dirt. Or . . . turn the knob slowly, measuring your stamina in increments as the voltage meter was raised, cheered on by those same brainless pals until you simply froze. Unable to move. Possessed by a current that had in effect stymied the muscle tissue from the most basic reflex. The attraction was relatively short-lived and by college, still seeking a pastime, they disappeared under the legalese of liability, replaced by the rise of Freak Tents with the naked-bearded-woman and two-headed-calf and the smallest-man-on-earth and tallest-man-on- earth until by graduation, the sensibilities of a modernizing Illinois culture took offense with the widespread, startling ignorance of an entire generation of Illinois farmboys.
Gidden patented his fence a year after visiting one of the county fairs mentioned above, improving on a demonstration of wire studded with nails. Two years later, partnering with Isaac Ellwood, they produced over 600,000 pounds of barbed wire. Within three years, with some 570 various patents awarded for barbed wire, Gidden sells his interest for $60,000 plus royalties. In the intervening years, like so many examples on this list, there followed a three-year legal battle over patent infringement. Ultimately Gidden won and was thus recognized as the inventor of the barbed wire fence. Let’s add that the invention made him extremely rich and by the time of his death in 1906 he was one of the richest men in America, with assets at one million dollars. A lasting legacy was his gift of 63 acres to found Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois.
5) The Combustion Engine
It’s hard to pinpoint the authentic arrival of the world’s first combustion engine. There was John Barber, who’s turbine appeared in 1794, followed by a succession of innovations that has continued to this very day. So let’s be practical and consider the first two-stroke combustible engine patented by Karl Benz in 1879. If for no other reason, it’s an engine that has survived, by a name we recognize. Using the compressed air of two pistons, or cylinders, to power everything from today’s motorcycles to lawnmowers to generators. Meanwhile the auto, and the jet engine, has continued on a developmental pace that is scarcely recognizable to even the not-so-distant Chevy-6 engines of the mid-1960’s, when every teenage boy had a go as recreational mechanics. Garage floors scattered with cotter pins, flywheels, timing chains, and even the weighty mass of head blocks with troublesome knocks swirling around a smeared copy of Chilton’s Automotive Manual not so dissimilar to that alternate boy-bible Boy’s Life, where the fatherless among us could learn to tie a fly or pitch camp or skin a rabbit before digesting the full appreciation of what Field and Stream had to offer in the form of manly fiction with its adverbial diction. Man vs beast when often the beast was as innocuous as a ribboned brown trout pitting dinner on the open fire from starvation in the wild. None of which has much to do with cars or Chevy 6’s or the 2-stroke engines that officially got things rolling in the transportation department, which in turn, in very short order, redefined an agrarian culture into a commuting culture. Gravel roads became paved roads. Paved roads propagated into county roads and state highways and ultimately Eisenhower’s Interstates with it unforeseen mass migrations hither and thither until bye and bye that day arrived when holidays–Xmas/Thanksgiving–had everyone all at once traveling back home, back to the Ole backwater, the decidedly un-hip home where Mum and Dad remained dug in, at home with lifelong neighbors and shopkeepers and church socials and front porch evening breezes shared with their incredibly hip grown offspring moaning the absence of cable and Internet and this, this . . .this thing, this black, heavy, admittedly elegant sculpture positioned on the ancestral side table in the front foyer as a nifty replacement to the cell’s displacement. The black rotary phone.
There’s no going back. The combustion engine, in it’s liquid state of constant change and improvement, is largely accountable for a level of industrial and cultural growth over the last 150 years that simply cannot be reversed. Improved, perhaps, by the tampering modifications that replace fossil fuels with solar and hydro and ever-more powerful batteries, but the cultural infrastructure is as stubbornly positioned as the ruins of a lost civilization. Convincing ourselves to re-populate the small towns and forgo the commute; to rekindle the local trade and commerce through locally-owned retail; to be present throughout the week and weekends as a tangible contributing resident; to resist the dalliance of importance, as in the connotations of a workaholic on-the-go type-A who’s so admirably affixed to the robotic notion of work + more work = success, which in turns completes the formula of self-importance, which is exemplified by a show of wealth. Not due entirely to the combustion engine, but the engine is as accountable as the abetting driver of a bank robber’s getaway car.
1) Photographic Film:
Nice when we can begin with a known name. In 1885 George Eastman invented–or developed, pun intended–print film. A process of coating dry emulsion onto wax paper. In 1889, transparent film –negatives and slides–was invented by coating the same emulsion on cellulose nitrate plastic, or celluloid. Restricted by its flammable quality to movie film and not available to still camera film. In 1908, coating the same emulsion but with better methodologies lead to Safety Film. In 1951 Eastman Chemical invented cellulose triacetate, an improvement in the movie film genre.
Film itself was a replacement to Mathew Brady’s glass plates. A huge difference, one would think, in eliminating the bulky, fragile, temperamental glass for the flexible convenience of film on a roll. The sort of difference that initiates a systemic change in culture. Smaller cameras and the birth of spies. Accessible usage and the resulting profusion of everyday lives caught on film. History being recorded for the first time without the stiff, poised formality that falsely presents the past as eras of serious contemplative repose. Candid glimpses, with smiling subjects.
But we can no more credit Eastman himself than we can credit Elon Musk with the improved battery that allowed the improved performance of the Tesla electric car. Eastman, by now endowed with the wealth of the original emulsion process, hired the MIT chemist Henry Reichenbach, offering him unlimited financing and facilities. Shortly thereafter, Eastman founded a company to manufacture a $25 camera with a roll of 100 exposures, and Eastman Kodak was born. At its peak, Eastman Kodak had 145,000 employees, hiring the best and brightest engineers at top salaries.
A long run at the top, by any standards. Eastman Kodak today, however, is the ghost of a blindsiding thrust in digital film, and the 130-year-old company exists for the most part in the past tense. But still alive. Betting, most recently, on cryptocurrency with a brand called Kodak Coin. Still theoretically in the photography business, KodakCoin is all about the technology that allows photographers to create a permanent, immutable record of ownership of their photographs. An issue that holds some promise in an age of digital theft and the leniency of intellectual rights. But if we look to Wall Street for confirmation, the gamble is tenuous at best.
2) Fountain Pen
Let’s remind ourselves that the ball-point pen arrived after the fountain pen, and how before the fountain pen there was . . . the quill, dipped into an inkwell. As a youngster, attending a school in the farming community of Sydney, Illinois, our desks had the vacant openings in the upper right corner that once housed the inkwell. The desks were old, pockmarked by carved initials and the blotched stains of spilled ink. This for those students dipping their pen-points throughout the day to accomplish a few words at a time, and the certain missteps of an overly saturated pen dripping onto the assignment like splatter bombs.
The earliest fountain pens had reservoirs where a water-based ink was fed to the nib by gravity. Much later–as in 1913–the Sheaffer Pen Company patented a pen with a simple lever that released the ink. And later still–as in the author’s junior high school days–Sheaffer introduced small replaceable cartridges that were sold separately, like bullets for a gun. Suddenly the fountain pen enjoyed the convenience of efficiency. The ubiquitous use of the fountain pen met it’s match, however, in 1950’s, with the introduction of the disposable Bic pen–by far the best selling pen in the world. A pen, in assorted colors, that was a staple for anyone raised in the 50’s, costing just .19¢. A pen with a small plastic cap that was ideal for gnawing molars as well as removing the empty cartridge and the nib for a retro-fitted blowgun. Spit-wads, sent like projectiles in study hall not so different than the snowball fights during recess.
Does anyone read Samuel Pepys? He’s best known for penning a diary during his early years prior to becoming the Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under King George II. His diary was a daily account of life in London for a decade, beginning in 1665. Writers who write diaries are not the same as writers who write books. The diarist is a compulsive communicator, in an age before social media when the colloquial voice was rarely encountered in print. Thus, those diaries that merited publication, and survived, provide us with a perspective on life in the form of a time capsule. A chatty, informal account of daily activities and thoughts and in Pepys’ instance, those thoughts happen to include, in 1663, the first printed mention of a . . . metal pen to carry ink.”
So the need to improve on the quill was present. But the first actual patent didn’t arrive until 1848 when Azel Storrs Lyman secured an Americana patent for a fountain pen with a “method of supplying ink to pens from a reservoir in the handle”. What Stores–and those before him–didn’t understand was the requirement of air pressure in releasing the ink from the reservoir to the nib. Not so different from pouring water from a full bottle, or how the drainage lines in our homes are equipped with vertical vents that rise through the roof-line to insure the flow of liquids with the displacement of air. It wasn’t until 1870 that Duncan MacKinnon and Alonzo T. Cross invented a variation they called the Stylographic Pen, which used a wire in a tube, and a valve to displace the air to allow a steady flow of ink.
The reality of the fountain pen as a feasible solution began of course with the W.A. Sheaffer Company. A 3rd-generation jeweler by trade, Walter Sheaffer’s first idea for a lever-filled pen was recorded in 1907. In the back of his jewelry store he improved on the 1907 model toward a lever and pressure bar to deflate the ink reservoir’s rubber ink sac. Although the design was patented in 1908, it wasn’t until 1912 that Sheaffer the jeweler became The W.A. Sheaffer Pen Company, with it’s first sales office in Kansas City, MO. The pens were hand made by seven employees, including Sheaffer’s young son Craig, which in essence insured the legacy of one of the most enduring American family businesses, dating to the original jewelry store in 1854. The company was incorporated in 1914, with earnings that year of $17,000– enough, apparently, to place a full page ad in the Saturday Evening Post.
But in a repeating scenario with so many of our innovators, the Sheaffer’s enter an era of litigation. Beginning early on with a 1914 suit by Brown and Bigelow of St Paul, MN for one million dollars. Walter, holding 51% of the company, was confident of his defense, but he also understood the cost in both money and time away from work. In a departure from our history of litigations, Sheaffer focused on the rare tactic of convincing Brown and Bigelow to drop their suit. There are no financial details available, but within a year the suit was in fact dropped and we should assume the agreement involved a cash buy-out.
In 1920, two years after moving their manufacturing into a former plow plant, Scheaffer’s Lifetime Pen was introduced for $8.75. Three times the price of any competitor’s pen, but the pen was a success and became the best selling pen in America. In 1938 W A. Sheaffer resigned as President and his son Craig succeeded him as president. In November 1951, the 50 millionth Sheaffer pen came off the assembly line, and in 1952, following two years of secret development, they introduced the Snorkel Ball-Point Pen with the greatest promotional campaign of the company’s history. Followed by the Lady Sheaffer Pen and the PFM (Pen for Men), packaged together in a handsome, felt-lined case.
The Sheaffer pens, throughout their history, offered limited releases of countless models and designs over the years, and have consequently enjoyed a collectible status few companies experience. Build the best product you can build; convince the buyer to spend more on the weight of it’s lasting integrity, and remain in business far beyond the legacy of the original family heirs.
The W.A Sheaffer Pen company’s present day perspective, drawn from their web site: The Sheaffer brand today reflects who you are–it’s your signature, a reflection of your personality, ambitions and image. Our fine writing instruments provide a welcome “escape” from the hectic pace of modern times, and our exciting range of fresh luxury finishes complements any attire or mood. Most importantly, we do all the of the above while continuing to provide the superior writing experience you expect!
3) Cash Registers.
I cannot think of cash registers without first being drawn back to the young Ben Prowell. At five or six years old he owned a wood toy register with blue and red functioning buttons that enacted a spring-loaded cash drawer. And because we lived near downtown with a steady flow of foot traffic up and down the sidewalk, the young entrepreneur with a fascination for exchanging goods for currency was often seated at the foot of the driveway–with his usual retinue of neighborhood girls–selling everything from light switches artistically adorned with decoupage images of his favorite basketball players clipped from magazines, to baseball/basketball trading cards individually wrapped in brown paper in quantities of five per package. Priced from 25¢ per package and up–depending on his affinity to not only their trading value according to the card-trading shop downtown, but also his own bias toward particular players. The various schemes, these early acts of trade, business, and the flow of currency, were not so different from his work in the shop at that early age; he showed up, put in an hour’s work, was paid, and with his neighborhood following waiting at the foot of the drive, marched down to the local sweet shop to spend it all. Every last penny.
On a Sunday afternoon in late August in the midst of a heat spell when the temperature was near 100 in a part of the world under the influence of a coastal fog that normally resisted such temperatures, he set up his little table. His little chair and his little cash register and arranged his hand-packaged offerings of trading cards, and waited. Waited for the passing strangers visiting from San Francisco or the Midwest or even the trickling of neighborhood locals walking to and from the grocery store. But on this day of excessive heat, the sidewalk was empty. He rearranged the presentation of his offerings and counted and recounted the ready change in the cash drawer, and waited.
From the house, on the couch against the front picture window, his parents watched. The heat was tormenting. How long would he last? The usual band of girls eventually left their post in the shade of the carport twenty feet back from the point-of-business and he continued to wait, without a single sale.
Eventually I went to the black rotary phone in the dining room and called our neighbors on the far corner, who were in their late 80’s. And another neighbor directly adjacent to us, in her late 70’s, and yet another neighbor across the street, in her early 80’s. Within ten minutes they appeared, braving the sort of heat none of us were accustomed to, making their way nonchalantly down the walk to his little table.
From the picture windows, we watched as they fingered the little packets and made small talk before bringing out their little coin purses to buy several wrapped packets of something they didn’t need. Within five minutes Ben cleared the table, put everything away, and joined us in the breeze of the living room floor fan to count his earnings on the coffee table. Sorting his earnings into the respective compartments of this now famous red and blue cash register.
The register, it will be noted, survived. Along with boxes of memorabilia and boxes of Legos and Playmobiles and Hot Wheels and Kindergarten art and an autographed photo of Tiger Woods. Boxes of baby blankets and special cowboy boots and special newborn onesies and a sundry of Mrs Prowell’s hand-knitted pastimes. All of it passed on as Ben and his brother Sam turned 30, if for no other reason than as a means of recording a childhood once lived.
Meanwhile . . . the Cash Register, which for many of you will dredge up memories of the corner drug store as a reminder that the register itself has become obsolete. But before the cash register, there was, according to the 1870’s businessman James Ritty, a tendency for the store clerks and employees to dip their fingers into the till without detection. Mr Ritty is credited with the first register, with the simple protective feature of a high-pitched bell that rang each time the till was opened. Problem solved.
4) Toilet Paper.
I see, to this day, Toilet Paper as an image in my mind of traveling undeveloped countries with a roll of this valued commodity tucked in the backpack as vital as the bota bag of spare water and a not-too-distant imperative from the passport and paper money tucked into the money belt strapped to my waist. There is of course never an offering of toilet paper in those restrooms consisting of porcelain standing-troughs with the imprints of feet–where to put your feet–in a stooping, semi-crouching posture. A common expectation throughout the 3rd world of a few decades ago, and yet, never comfortable or dignified. An indignity magnified on those days without paper and how that might in some twisted way explain one’s penchant for the fat paperbacks of The Brother’s Karamazov or any of Michener’s boilerplate novels. What’s a missing page or two, or three?
The reality of the arrival of toilet paper is linked as much to civility and comfort as it is to basic hygiene. And how, coincidentally, those cultures with a scarcity of this commodity are also those cultures of an equatorial southern hemisphere where bacteria thrives, and communicable diseases are far more prevalent.
The Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company was the result of a patent by Zeth Wheeler in 1871. Offering the product in a convenient roll of perforated sheets,wrapped in plain brown paper. So this marks the beginning of a product that has not changed nor been improved upon (beyond the options and varieties of softness and scent), and a marked departure from the former single 2″ x 3″ sheets appearing historically from the earliest mention in China 1391.
In 1935 The Northern Tissue Company advertised their product as splinter-free.
And in 1942, the first 2-ply paper was introduced. Which marks the end to any and all succeeding improvements and innovations of what is certainly the simplest and least complex patent on this list.
Technically, the inventions listed and explored on this list are purported to have had some impact in creating, furthering, and sustaining the culture of the Industrial Revolution. But in all honesty, I doubt the productive efficiency of Tesla or Marconi or the Wright brothers had anything to do with the consumption of Coca Cola. Let’s proceed, nevertheless.
But first, how is it that a secret sauce can be kept secret for so long? There are any number of alternative colas, and frankly I can’t tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi and RC Cola. But it’s Coca Cola that has permeated into every niche on the globe. If, deep in the Amazon jungle, you prefer not to drink the unsafe water or any of the hugos made from such water, there is only bottled Coke. The recognizable signs advertising Coke–rusted, faded, bent and twisted–are nailed to the front of the smallest little thatched-roof tiendas in the most remote locations. Every drug store fountain, bar, restaurant, movie theater, super market, food mart, and even the controversial vending machines in our schools. Is this the result of a phenomenal marketing plan? The result of an exceptional product, driven by consumer demand? The theories of coke/cocaine/addiction?
My own weakness for this soft drink has, for a couple of decades now, been limited to the movies, along with a bag of popcorn. I simply cannot sit in a movie theater without a Coke and popcorn (Although honestly I cannot recall when I last saw a movie in a theater.). Habits die gradually and one day you realize you’re utterly free from donuts, processed foods, fast-food restaurants, saturated fats, and surgery soda drinks. Oh, and Oreos, which for so many years was a staple, coming in from the shop every day to sit at the kitchen table for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, a glass of milk, and four Oreo cookies until . . . until one day an errant uneaten Oreo was left in the sudsy kitchen sink and a day later, that Oreo was as tangible and indestructible as the dirty dishes that shared the sink. The white center icing was unchanged, like new. Experiences like that can often nudge us toward changing our habits.
In 1886,the pharmacist Dr John Pemberton developed the syrup itself, which was added to carbonated water and proclaimed to be a “Delicious and refreshing drink”. According to the Coca Cola Company’s official history. We learn that Pemberton sold portions of his business to various parties in 1888, just two years before his death. A major expansion occurred 1899 when three partners in Chattanooga, Tennessee won the rights to the first Coca-Cola production bottling plant. It wasn’t until 1916, in an effort to distinguish itself from the rising competitors, that over 1,000 Coca-Cola bottling plants decided on a distinctly contoured patented bottle design. A recognizable bottle as reminiscent of the product as the logo itself.
Leaving the official Coke web site and we learn a slightly different history:
The original recipe contained five ounces of coca leaf in every gallon of syrup. By 1903, the coca leaves were replace with spent leaves, dropping to cocaine quotient to just a tenth of the original coca recipe. Today they use a coca leaf extract, manufactured in Maywood, NJ. The only plant in the country allowed to process the coca plant.
The earliest history of radar had its origins in the experiments on electromagnetic radiation by German physicist Heinrich Hertz in the late 1880s. Hertz himself drew his research on the earlier theoretical work of Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who formulated the initial equations toward an electromagnetic field, determining that both light and radio waves are examples of electromagnetic waves governed by the same fundamental laws but having widely different frequencies. The result was theoretical, and suggesting that radio waves could be bounced off metal objects, similar to light waves.
In 1904, the basis of Hertz’s work was the means by which a German designer Christian Hülsmeyer filed for patents in several countries for ‘an obstacle detector and ship navigation devise.’ It wasn’t until 1930, however, before the market surfaced. The advent of long-range, heavy payload bombers caused a need by major countries to develop a means of detecting the approach of hostile aircraft. The United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, the Soviet Union, Italy, the Netherlands, and Japan all began experimenting with radar during this period, geared exclusively for military purposes. By the start of World Wat II, many of these countries had some form of operational radar in service. There were six radar detectors stationed in Hawaii and responsible for detecting the approach of Japanese warplanes toward Pearl Harbor. And yet, because the technology was new and somewhat skeptical, the detection wasn’t fully acknowledged until bombs began to fall.
The technology leaped forward in the 70’s and 80’s with the ability to identify the specifics of a target, while also the creation of what is known as the Doppler frequency, with the ability to use frequencies in tracking targets such as Anti-Ballistic Missiles. The growth into digital radar was adopted for such commercial uses as airport controllers, tracking not only the multiple locations of arriving airplanes, but the weather patterns that determined the safety of various flight plans.
Radar might be consider an early taste of a shrinking planet. The ability to detect, monitor, and forecast the globe from a distance was a juvenile peek into the contentedness of the eventual Internet.
7) Tesla’s Electric Motor
Most of us today associate Tesla with Elon Musk’s electric car. And there are enough of you arriving with such at the Prowell shop that we’re appreciative of the current benchmark for electric alternatives.
Historically speaking, however, Nikola Tesla’s AC induction motor is widely considered one of the ten greatest discoveries of all time. Quite a statement, considering what we’ve examined in our limited scope of the Industrial Revolution. An induction motor, we learn, with rotating magnetic fields that made unit drives for machines possible, while also allowing AC power to become economically feasible. Created in his small shop at 89 Liberty St, NY in 1887-8 and sold that same year to Westinghouse, with Tesla spending all of 1890 in Pittsburgh, PA instructing Westinghouse engineers on both practical and technical applications. So we have one of the few on our list who has eschewed the lure of business and it’s expected profits for the imperative of who he was. What he was. Such as, say, Albert Einstein who sought the security umbrella of Princeton as opposed to, say. Oppenheimer’s partnership with the federal government regarding . . . the bomb. So, in administering to the integrity of you, as parents, who among these two would you want your sons and daughters emulating? Just the two choices, please; one who effectively ended the war, saving untold lives, and one who’s theories continue to resonate and prompt our critical thinkers towards unknown truths.
Tesla emigrated to the states in 1884 from what is now Croatia. He worked briefly with Thomas Edison before setting up on his own shop to produce a string of innovations, almost all of which were patented by others in a trend unique to Tesla–avoiding the interruptions and distractions of the lengthy, and expensive, patenting process in lieu of forays into electrical generators similar to batteries (Dynamos); the induction motor; pioneering radar technology; x-ray technology; remote control and rotating magnetic fields; and of course his contributions to AC electricity and the Tesla coil. His alternating AC current remains the predominant electrical system used across the world today, while his coil is still used in radio technology.
The AC alternating current itself changed everything. Providing a method to drive electrical power safely, and consequently provide the conduit that was missing in Edison’s plans to light up New York City. In selling the patent to Westinghouse–and in their employ for a year–the two heavyweights Westinghouse and Edison engaged in a fierce and sometimes ugly campaign pitting Tesla’s AC rotating current against Edison’s DC direct current. In the end, Westinghouse won the prized commission to power the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago. An exposition that would set the gold standard for all expositions before and after.
While Edison partnered with JP Morgan to found the Edison Electric Company with the intentions of wiring New York’s residential homes, his progress was stunted by repeated malfunctions in the limits of using a direct current (DC), which in turn resulted in frequent fires. At the same time, 1895, Tesla embarked on the concept of creating the power itself. The power that drove his AC current through the wires and into the market. This was accomplished with the first hydroelectric power plant, at Niagara Falls, which in turn powered the entire city of Buffalo, NY. Due largely to this much publicized feat, his AC current won out over Edison’s DC current, furthering AC’s path to ultimately powering the world.
Just a year later, on to new horizons, Tesla created his Tesla Coil. Accomplished in part by his wisdom in releasing the AC Patent to Westinghouse. While Edison toiled for years on the pratfalls of business, Tesla was busy laying the foundation for all succeeding wireless technologies. And with this coil, he opened the way to study fluorescence, x-rays, radio, wireless power and electromagnetism in the earth and its atmosphere.
But he wasn’t finished yet. In 1900, he set about building a global wireless communications system, transmitted through a large electrical tower (Sound familiar?). His altruistic intention was to provide a means to share information and offer free electricity throughout the world.
Huh? Could this be one of the first turnarounds from the Gilded Age Robber Baron mentality to the enlightenment of the ensuing Craftsman movement? The adjustment on our global attitudes toward an All-For-One and One-For-All mentality? Not one single inventor of those we’ve explored in this exercise has shown such tendencies as Tesla’s insouciant purity for mankind. His work on the Electrical Tower, which actually began on 1901, and backed by Edison’s former benefactor JP Morgan, was set on Staten Island and known as WardenClyffe.
The story thickens. As work progressed on the project, investors began to doubt the basic premise of anything not aligned to profits. All of it complicated by Guglielmo Marconi, making his own advances in radio technologies, and with the backing of Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison to boot. Tesla had no choice but to abandon the Wardenclyff project. By 1908, Tesla filed for bankruptcy and the tower was sold for scrap to help pay off his debts. Tesla suffered from a nervous breakdown, recovered enough to manage a few consulting roles, while his ideas, still flowing, became more and more fanciful. He died in 1943 at 86 years old, poor and reclusive.
1) The Escalator
I’ll confess that when offered the choice between escalators and stairs ,I will always always take the stairs. And I’ll continue with this until I’ve reached an age when I can no longer walk without the help of walkers, canes, or wheelchairs. Walking is fun. Standing immobile on an electric escalator is the poor man’s delusion of living the easy life. The good life, asking as little of us required to keep body and soul together.
Fortunately, for Jesse D Reno, the patent holder, and Otis Elevator, the manufacturer, the rest of the world felt differently. A fairly simple mechanism with a series of steps linked together by a single chain looping gears at the top and bottom, with the top gear driven by a motor. Unlike the elevator, with its rippling effect toward the ensuing expansion of high-rises beyond the standard six floors and the elevator’s game-changing ability to access the lofty heights of ten, then twenty, and ultimately the 165 floors of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the tallest building in the world.
The first escalator appeared in an amusement park in what what we might consider the original roller coaster, and ultimately, in 1895, found its first true function in Europe, Harrods Department Store in Knights bridge. Otis Elevator made its debut, exhibiting it’s first Step Elevator in the Paris Exhibition of 1889.
2) The Zipper
From the eroticism of foreplay to the indispensable functionality of the denim fly. The arrival actually begins back in 1851 when Elias Howe (see above, Howe Sewing Machine, 1840’s) received the first patent for an Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure. A patent he set aside to focus instead on his growing apparel business. Forty years later, Chicago’s Whitcomb Judson improved Howes’ patent for a Clasp Locker. Because it went to manufacturing, we recognize Whitcomb as the Father of the Zipper, even though the word zipper didn’t appear on the patent or marketing promotions.
In1917, Gideon Sundback made the substantial improvement from four fastening elements per inch to eleven, while also adding a locking clasp.
The naming of the Zioper itself came from BF Goodrich in 1918 for their rubber galloshes. Promoting Zip’er Up, Zip’er Down, in an era before aluminum or stainless steel and what must surely have been a rusting corroding feature for anything such as foul weather galloshes.
3) The Vacuum Cleaner
In this repeating vein of motorized convenience, the Industrial Revolution embodied the modernity of gadgets. The ancient, Neanderthalic, working class broom was no longer sufficient. So, St Louis’ John Thurman in 1898 patented a gasoline-powered Pneumatic Carpet Renewer. About the size of a snowmobile, it wasn’t exactly portable. Thurman’s little business advertised in the local paper for door-to-door service at $4 a visit (or $110 today).
It wasn’t until 1901 that Herbert Cecil Booth reversed Thurman’s mechanics toward an actual sucking vacuum, receiving several patents in 1901 alone. And although the technology worked, it was neither portable nor sensible for home use. Throughout the early 1900’s there were innumerable patent applications but ultimately it was the 60-year-old janitor James Murray Spangler who invented the first portable vacuum ready for home use. Built from a tin soapbox, a pillowcase dust collector, and a broom handle, powered inside the tin soapbox was an electric motor he pulled from a sewing machine that powered a fan and a rotating brush. The makeshift machine collected dirt and blew it out the back and into the attached the pillowcase.
Of course Spangler lacked the funds to promote or manufacture the invention, but as luck would have it, one of his customers was his cousin Susan Hoover, married to the leather manufacturer William Hoover. Hoover bought the patent from Spangler–while also making him a partner–and the young company began mass-producing their Suction Sweeper. By 1912, they dominated the market and the Suction Sweeper took on the eponymous title of The Hoover.
4) The Roller Coaster
Depending on how one defines Roller Coaster, they first appeared anywhere from the 16th and 17th centuries in Russia (More like giant toboggan runs). But it wasn’t until the late 1880’s, when Lamarcus Thompson introduced the first chain-driven roller coaster on Coney Island. Called the Switchback Railway, it traveled 6 mph and cost a nickel.
5) The Diesel Engine
Rudolf Diesel was a Bavarian immigrant born in Paris, and an engineering graduate of the Munich Polytechnic Institute. In 1893, he filed for his first Diesel engine patent based on the first of several scientific papers he published describing an internal combustion engine* that ran on almost any kind of fuel, ignited by heating it up through compression. At the time, the standard gas combustion engines were large, inefficient, and expensive. For the expanding manufacturing plants, the only alternative was steam, which was even more inefficient. He had hoped, altruistically, to level the playing field by offering a more affordable and efficient power source to the small industrial shops. The diesel was adaptable in size and cost and had the great advantage of running on a variety of available fuels from vegetable oil to peanut oil. By the end of the century, everything from power plants to cars were running on diesels. Including the large industrial shops he had hoped to mediate.
By 1900, Rudolf Diesel was worth millions. On September 13, 1913, while crossing the English Channel on the way to a business meeting in Belgium, he mysteriously vanished. According to an article appearing in the New York Times, “On the arrival of the vessel at Harwich at 6 o’clock this morning he was missing, His bed had not been slept in, though his night attire was laid out on it.”
While his death was officially ruled a suicide, the circumstances around it kept Diesel in the news for years. Some conspiracy theorists suggested that he had been assassinated by German spies because of the Diesel engine’s significance in the early British U-boat designs, or that his rivals in the business world wanted him out of the way. Rumors and theories of his disappearance, or whereabouts, continued for decades. Regardless, what he brought to the industrial manufacturing world was above reproach. The diesel engines of today maintain the original technology in powering everything from heavy trucks to power plants to virtually all marine craft from cabin cruisers to massive cargo ship and oil tankers.
* (see above 1870’s)
6) The World’s Fair
So much has been written about the World’s Columbia Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago. We might look upon this phenomenal achievement as the ultimate opportunity to define, in one setting and over the course of 6 months, all that had been accomplished under the directing energy of Daniel Burnham. With a goal of surpassing the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, and in particular Gustave Eiffel’s Eiffel Tower, Burnham lured America’s most notable architects to create a series of Beaux-Arts pavilions along the lake shore of what is now Millennium Park. Many of those buildings still exist: The Palace of Fine Arts is now the Museum of Science and Industry. The grounds and landscaping of the fair were managed by the visionary landscape architect Frederick Olmsted. Olmsted was at the peak of his career, with such legacies behind him as New York’s Central Park and the 2,500 acres of the Biltmore residence in Asheville, NC–the largest private residence ion the country, as well as owning the distinction of establishing the country’s first full-scale office for the practice of landscape architecture. There are any number of back-stories swirling about throughout the 3-year construction schedule, from George Ferris’ late but successful completion of the world’s first Ferris wheel to the darker side story of a cunning serial killer H.H. Holmes who used the fair to lure young women to their death.
*An excellent book on both the fair and the murders of H.H. Holmes is Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. A National Book Award finalist on 2010.
7) Radio Transmission
Unlike the transatlantic cable (see 1860’s) or Morse’s telegraph (see 1840’s) Guglielmo Marconi’s first transatlantic radio transmission circumvented the need for cables. Marconi’s original breakthrough came while still in Italy in 1894, but with little backing he moved to England, where he set up a small wireless telegraph company that regularly sent messages within a 10-mile radius. In 1899 he transmitted across the English Channel. That same year, in an act of promotional genius the likes of which we’ve seen again and again in these pages, Marconi equipped two ships crossing the Atlantic with transmitters that reported the progress of the America’s Cup sailing race. He found the attention he needed, and two years later he had secured the financing to transmit his transcontinental transmission.
In doing so, he disproved those who believed the curvature of the earth would limit his transmission to only 200 miles. A valid concern, considering the longest of his earlier trials had been over the English Channel, and the limited understanding of the principles of radio transmissions. Was it held to the same physics as light, or sound? Would it bend, and if so, what would cause such a bend? With the success of that first transatlantic trial, covering over 2,000 miles from England to Newfoundland, the transmission, if traveling lineally, might have been headed into deep space, when in fact it was reflected off the ionosphere and bounced back down toward Canada.
In 1909 Marconi was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.
The globe was growing increasingly smaller. Morse’s telegraph, Bell’s telephone, the transatlantic cable, and Marconi’s radio transmission all contributed to a world of more immediate communications. All relegated to the transmission of sound. Whereas Orville and Wilbur Wright’s contribution suddenly closed the unthinkable gap of transporting man as the crow flies. A small flight, in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, NC encompassing 852 feet in 59 seconds. A distance, with persistent developments, improvements, and endless trials, that quickly grew in distance traveled and time aloft. In 1909 the U.S. Government bought its first plane, a Wright Bros. bi-plane for $25,000. In 1912, a Wright Bros. plane was armed with a machine gun as the first armed flight in the world. The more personable story of these two brothers began as partners in a small but successful bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. This story, their story, is one of the more fascinating examples of the indefatigable determination of inventors.
*An excellent book on Wilbur and Orville’s lives is David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. 2015 Simon & Schuster.
2) Bottle-Making Machinery
In January of 1977 I was in Bariloche, Chile. A small but somewhat notable ski resort that was , in the January summer, more or less empty of visitors. Which is why a lone traveler crossing the southern Andes toward Patagonia connected with a young family of two 10-ish year-old daughters, a mother, and a father who worked for the Sao Paulo division of the international corporation of Owens-Illinois Glass. A corporation of such scale that it was recognizable to a 27-year-old wayward traveler from San Francisco. As former Bay Area residents, they offered me the first conversations with native English-speaking westerners in several months. Needless to say, we became friends. The girls and I frequently went off to the little yellow clapboard cinema in the evenings to give their parents what I assume was some much appreciated time alone; the mother and I passed hours talking of the Midwest, where we were both raised; and the father and I had delightful conversations about books and basketball and our favorite San Francisco niches. Ultimately they ended their little vacation and returned to Sao Paulo and I carried on over the Andes into Patagonia, assuming the episode like so many episodes would be lost to the deeper reaches of my re-collective memory. And now, 40 years later, it resurfaces.
At only 10-years-old, Michael Joseph Owens began a long apprenticeship at a glass company in Wheeling, West Virginia. In 1888 he was hired by Edward Libby at the Toledo Glass Company in Toledo, Ohio. Following a series of quick promotions, he founded in 1903 the Owens Bottle Machine Company. His machines could produce 240 bottles per minute, while reducing labor costs by 80%. By 1919, he and Libby formed a partnership to form the Owens Bottle Company and in 1929 they merged with the Illinois Glass Company to form the Owens-Illinois. (It’s worth noting that Michael J. Owens had also worked for Edward Libby at the Toledo Glass Company alongside Edward Drummond.).
Because in the 1880’s the Toledo area represented large supplies of natural gas and high silica-sandstone–two ingredients required in producing glass, there were numerous glass companies located within a short distance of one another. A consortium, essentially, of shared technology. At the time, they were all blowing glass to produce bottles. A slow and tedious process. Owen bottling machine took the bottling industry from hand-blown labor to mechanized production. The more affordable output, bottles, dramatically impacted the growth of the soft drink and beer industries.
The best line I’ve ever read regarding the word crayon was by David Foster Wallace in his novel Infinite Jest:“I could write what you know, all you know, with a blunt crayon on the side of a shot glass.”
Crayola, like Coca-Cola and Singer, Jello, Bell and so many others, has survived as one of the most recognizable and eponymous brands in the American marketplace. Building a company resting on the founder’s ingenuity for innovation, and growing that company over generations, and succeeding in maintaining that company’s market prominence, even dominance, is deserving of the highest accolades, both as a cultural continuum to the capitalism of a free-market Democracy, and as symbols of trust built over time. And let’s not overlook the product itself, the lasting quality of a superior product.
The first box of Crayolas arrived in 1903, containing 8 colors, and suddenly the titans and monopolists of the Gilded Age, coming headlong against the Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, had their interests pared down to where . . . to where they were left to amuse themselves with coloring books? Today there is a choice of 120 different colors, expanding the limits of our coloring creativity exponentially. But more: we can be amused with Crayola products that glitter, that glow in the dark, that smell like flowers, and even Crayolas that change colors, which in itself is either an oxymoron, a paradox, or a redundant insult to to sovereignty of any of the existing 120 colors.
4) Air Conditioner \
Let’s start with the architectural high-rise. Until the late 1850’s, skyscrapers were limited to a modest six stories by three factors: 1) The alluvial shift experienced in the foundations of buildings of more than six stories; 2) The elevator’s occasional slipping cable; 3) The discomfort of returning to the office in the stifling August heat fresh from lunch and cocktails to negotiate six flights of stairs and finish out the working day in a waterfall of perspiration. All three of these limitations were resolved in a succession of breakthroughs that began with the Chicago School of Architects and their development of structural foundations–a raft of timbers, steel beams, and iron I-beams–that initiated the age of high-rises and skyscrapers. Meanwhile, the mid-century electric motor that kick-started Elisha Otis’ safety elevator lead to increasing the speed and ascent of height and ultimately, a cable lock-brake that put an end to slipping cables. But to leave it at that–ten to fifteen floors structurally sound and conveniently reached, would have put an end to the Chicago high-rise craze had it not been for a new system of cooling coils that eliminated the insufferable humid conditions of a 10th floor office.
The phenomenal cooling convenience was quickly adopted by movie theaters, eliminating the unappealing discomfort of a crowded cinema on a summer evening. Cool, circulating air literally spawned an industry–a movie industry that now had comfortable venues to peddle their films, while also adding matinée showings to their ticket sales.
Air conditioning is the brainchild of Willis Carter, who in 1902 formed the Carrier Engineering Company with six other engineers. They debuted their first prototype at the St Louis Fair of 1904, pumping 35,000 cubic feet of air per minute to cool the 1,000-seat rotunda and other rooms within the Missouri State Building. It marked the first time Americans experienced the concept of comfort-cooling.
In 1929 Frigidaire introduced a new split-system cooler the size of a radio cabinet–small enough for home use.
In 1930 General Electric’s Frank Faust offered the improvement of developing a self-contained room cooler, followed by 32 ensuing prototypes between just 1930 and 1931.
The following year Henry Galson developed a more compact, inexpensive version.
In the late 1930’s H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman filed a patent for an air conditioning unit that could be placed on a window ledge.. By 1947, 43,000 of these systems were sold — and, for the first time, we could manage an air conditioning upgrade on a serviceable budget.
By the late 60’s the author, like so much of America, enjoyed his first inhabitant with central air conditioning in the uncompromising, devilish hell-hole of Oklahoma City.
Today, 87% of all households in America are air conditioned.
5) Radio Receiver
Today, radio technology is at the center of everything. Home and car radios; televisions, cell phones, satellite communications, and of course the ubiquitous wireless technology. To operate so many diverse areas, the technology has changed beyond recognition from Marconi’s original concept (yes, that same Marconi). The developments were the work of innumerable people, most of whom were ordinary engineers or radio enthusiasts who remain unknown and unheralded.
It was originally a Scot named Maxwell who proved, in theory, that magnetic radio waves existed.
Followed by the German Heinrich Hertz who demonstrated that Maxwell’s theory in fact worked, transmitting what he called Hertzian Waves. He did this by creating a spark that jumped a gap to a second circuit less than a meter from the fist circuit.
Herz’s circuits were limited by their close range, and it was Marconi, years later, who focused on transmitting waves across greater distances, as we read in his entry of the 1890’s.
In 1898 Nikola Tesla developed a radio/coherer based remote-controlled boat, with a form of secure communication between transmitter and receiver. Tesla called his invention a “automaton”.
In 1900, the Canadian inventor Reginald A. Fessenden became the first person to send audio by means of electromagnetic waves, transmitting over a distance of about 1.6 kilometers. Six years later on Christmas Eve 1906 he became the first person to make a public radio broadcast.
In 1910 the common term Radio was introduced into the American vocabulary.
By the 1920’s the household radio saturated our need to share in the rising existence of celebrities. The entertainer as celebrity was suddenly only a switch away.
6) Safety Razor
Toward this vein of our Gilded Age lives becoming less laborious we’ll add the safety razor that replaced the Flintstones of the prehistoric period and the copper blade of the Egyptian period and ultimately the perilous straight razor that for centuries was in itself possibly responsible for the history of fashionable beards.
The premise was to copy the carpenter’s plane, where the blade seats itself on a flat steel Iron, and held stable by a Lever Cap. The blade feeds through a slot in the plane’s bottom, or sole. Thus exposing only the tip of the razor, or blade.
King Camp Gillette was a traveling salesman who tired of sharpening his straight razor on a leather strop. Along with engineer William Emery Nickerson, he produced the first straight razor of ultra-thin carbon steel that he claimed could be used for 20 shaves. The razors, patented in 1901 and on the market by 1904, were cheap and disposable and put an end to the leather strop. The revenues from the replacement blades surpassed those of the razor itself. By 1910 he was a millionaire, which he lost in the 1929 crash. The brand itself lasted 101 years before it was bought by Proctor & Gamble in 2005.
In 1926, Gillette built a large home on 588 acres of land in Calabasas, California. The mansion was later owned by Clarence Brown, a famous MGM film director, and then by comedian Bob Hope and others. The property is now a state park called King Gillette Ranch, and was thankfully preserved.
As an interesting side note, Gillette was the first to use a sales technique where he sold the actual razors at a loss. With the affordable razors in hand, the customer was in some sense a prisoner to the repeating purchases of the replaceable blades, sold at a high profit. That remains true today, with replacement blade cartridges considerably more expensive than the razors themselves.
7) Color Photography
For 100 years, photography was black and white, with its primary medium being the portrait. From the start there was a demand for color photographic portraits, drawn from the historical premise of painted portraits, utilizing a rich pallet of mixed oils for color.
The early attempts for color were hand-tinting the daguerreotypes.
In 1907 the Frenchmen Auguste and Louis Lumière created Autochrome. A tricky process that required longer exposure times and a black background.
in 1937 Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes invented the modern era of color photography while working at Kodak Research Laboratories with the introduction of Kodachrome. It offered rich warms tones and sharpness and was the preferred film for over 70 years, despite its complicated processing procedures.
We list the helicopter because, although it’s inception was in 1910, the technology, like so many innovations, was a process that occurred over several decades and funded by the Gilded Age economy.
The actual concept of a helicopter might be traced back to the 1500’s with Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings of an ornithopter flying machine.
In 1784, French inventors named Launoy and Bienvenue invented a toy, or model, with a rotary wing that could lift and fly.
The first piloted–and unsuccessful–helicopter was invented by Paul Cornu in 1907.
In 1924 French inventor Etienne Oehmichen built and successfully flew his helicopter one kilometer.
But it is the Russian-born Igor Sikorsky who is undoubtedly the Father of the Helicopter. It was his 1910 design that was the model for future improvements
By 1940, Igor Sikorsky’s successful VS-300 had become the model for all modern single-rotor helicopters. It had the control capabilities to fly safely forwards and backward, up and down and sideways.
9) Instant Coffee
Some inventions are better off un-invented. The very idea of instant coffee leads us to assume our lives had spun out of control. Pressed by time to such an extent that we search for means to circumvent the lapse of boiling water toward the purpose of . . . to what purpose? What purpose could possibly be served in supplanting taste with expediency? Well, soldiers in the field come to mind, as well as the backpacker trekking the wilderness.
It’s been around since the 1770’s, although the actual patent was secured in 1890 by the New Zealander David Strang.
The first time instant coffee was mass produced was in America around 1910 by George Constant Louis Washington.
In 1938 Nescafe lead the market with a less acidic product that co-dried coffee extract along with an equal amount of soluble carbohydrate.
In the 1960’s, the freeze-drying process in use today was developed.
“I am very happy despite the rats, the rain, the mud, the draughts [sic],
the roar of the cannon and the scream of shells.
It takes only a minute to light my little oil heater and make some George Washington Coffee…
Every night I offer up a special petition to the health and well-being of [Mr. Washington]. -“
American soldier, 1918 letter from the trenches
10) The Model T
Henry Ford’s Model T, or Tin Lizzie, was one of those breakthroughs that almost instantly altered the American culture. It defined an era of mass assembly-line production that enabled the end result of a cost-effective product that was within the budgetary means of a typical working class American. A product that required an expensive set-up investment in building out the production process, but that resulted in a product that didn’t really change from 1908 to 1927. The ever-improving efficiency of the production allowed the price of the touring car version to be lowered from $850 in 1908 to less than $300 in 1925. A direct reversal from what we’ve come to expect, where product price-points tends to follow either the cost of living indexes or inflationary fluctuations.
Although initially offered in a variety of colors, the bulk of its production history was relegated to one color, black. The engine was simple: four cylinders cast in a single block and the cylinder head detachable for easy access and repair. The engine generated 20 HP and had a speed of 40-45 mph. For the first two decades, the engine was started by a hand crank. A 10-gallon fuel tank was situated under the front seat. There were two forward gears and a reverse.
The arrival of the Tin Lizzie could be likened to the toddler who leaves behind the reliance on a parent-powered stroller. For the first time Americans were freed from the reliance of animals for personal transportation. It was the beginning of the road trip, which we might add was also the beginning of the end of a personal mobility that not only shrank the country, but spawned a demand for roads, and more roads, and bigger and better roads.
Perhaps even more important was the model Ford created for the modern corporate production identity. An identity of making money first, and products second. Fordism. An identity that not only thrives today, but has come to dominate the choices we have in our selection of goods and products. The beginning of modern capitalism with the emergence of the large, production-minded corporations flush with revenues. Expanding beyond America, with early Ford factories setting the stage for globalism, and ultimately, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling of Citizen’s Unite defining such juggernauts as people.
Henry Ford, the ruthless, determined, unsentimental modernist, accumulated 190 billion dollars in todays prices. Several times whatever Bill Gates is worth. He and Carnegie and Mellon and others represented the first of mankind’s mega rich individuals who weren’t tsars, kings, or pharaohs.
But in all fairness, Ford became what he became by offering a product that improved our lives. By raising our standard of living. By inaugurating the change that lead to the automobile-driven economy and lifestyle still very much in affect today. The mobility, but also the concept of production pricing, where we now fully expect a flat-screen TV to drop in price with every passing year from it’s original cost when it was first introduced. The production, assembly-line model of manufacturing that, to this day, still follows the lessons of the Model T.
The lesson that convinced a century of others (shareholders) to despise the pride and craftsmanship of a hand-made product for the corporate profits and consumer afford-ability that explains the presence of Wall Mart and Amazon and the ubiquitous Made in China stamps we began deferring to in the 1950’s. Cheap, affordable, and cheaper, and more affordable, and all of it with the consumer’s absolute quiescence of a disposable product. But to suggest we might, as a culture, have been better off had Ford never existed is to suggest that we prefer being relegated to the horse-drawn buggy and bicycle, which beyond the mass transit of railroads, ships, and stage coaches, defined the only means of personal individual transportation prior to the affordable Model T.
There are a number of really fascinating biographies of Henry Ford. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. by Greg Gandin. 2010. Picador Publishers.
1) Military Tanks.
In the early 1500’s, Machiavelli wrote his entreaty The Art of War. Although his earlier book, The Prince, might be a more recognizable title, The Art of War has for centuries been a must-read for every aspiring commander from Alexander the Great to Adolf Hitler. Worth mentioning as we consider the invention of the military tank alongside one of Machiavelli’s lesser known rules: Men, steel, money, and bread, are the sinews of war; but of these four, the first two are more necessary, for men and steel find money and bread, but money and bread do not find men and steel.
Gain an advantage over the enemy with the invention of large weapons, with an imposing amount of steel and firepower. That they be slow, bulbous, claustrophobic, and as exposed to the enemy artillery as the side of a barn door seem not to have deterred their importance in every sustained military confrontation since the British developed the weapon as a response to the trench-style warfare of World War 1. An armored vehicle with conveyor-belt-like tracks over its wheels that could break through enemy lines and traverse difficult territory. It made it’s first appearance at the First Battle of the Somme near Courcelette, France as a hot, noisy, unwieldy contraption that suffered frequent mechanical malfunctions. The ensuing improvements were unveiled in 1917 at the Battle of Cambrai. The Mark IV, securing its place in future engagements when 400 of the Mark IV’s captured 8,000 enemy troops and 100 guns. Production of the vehicles was overseen by British army colonel Ernest Swinton and William Hankey, secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defense.
Eighty years of subsequent development bring us to the U.S. Army’s Abraham Tank, which reaches speeds of 42 mph, withstanding fire, as well as shelling a target with accuracy at a distance of one mile.
But let’s return to Machiavelli’s The Art of War. Rummaging through the bookshelves in the den to find the tattered paperback copy that originally belonged to my oldest son who, with the inimitable thirst of his general curiosity, read the treatise when he was only 15. His father, me, borrowed and ultimately commandeered the book that now allows me to locate the dog-eared page that lists his Rules of Engagement. Which, oddly, expose us to the exact opposite spectrum of human behavior than that championed by the Craftsman Doctrine.
Machiavelli’s Art of War takes the form of Socratic dialogue between the warrior Lord Fabrizio Colonna and Florentine nobles. Fabrizio was a real person, but his character in this book has been interpreted as a stand-in for Machiavelli himself. In Art of War, the dialogue explains and predicts changes in European warfare and military affairs as a consequence of larger social, economic, and technological evolution. The text is wide-ranging. At the end of the dialogue, in Book Seven, Machiavelli’s Fabrizio offers 27 “general rules” of war, which are listed here:
What benefits the enemy, harms you; and what benefits you, harm the enemy.
Whoever is more vigilant in observing the designs of the enemy in war, and endures much hardship in training his army, will incur fewer dangers, and can have greater hope for victory.
Never lead your soldiers into an engagement unless you are assured of their courage, know they are without fear, and are organized, and never make an attempt unless you see they hope for victory.
It is better to defeat the enemy by hunger than with steel; in such victory fortune counts more than virtue.
No proceeding is better than that which you have concealed from the enemy until the time you have executed it.
To know how to recognize an opportunity in war, and take it, benefits you more than anything else.
Nature creates few men brave, industry and training makes many.
Discipline in war counts more than fury.
If some on the side of the enemy desert to come to your service, if they be loyal, they will always make you a great acquisition; for the forces of the adversary diminish more with the loss of those who flee, than with those who are killed, even though the name of the fugitives is suspect to the new friends, and odious to the old.
It is better in organizing an engagement to reserve great aid behind the front line, than to spread out your soldiers to make a greater front.
He is overcome with difficulty, who knows how to recognize his forces and those of the enemy.
The virtue of the soldiers is worth more than a multitude, and the site is often of more benefit than virtue.
New and speedy things frighten armies, while the customary and slow things are esteemed little by them: you will therefore make your army experienced, and learn (the strength) of a new enemy by skirmishes, before you come to an engagement with him.
Whoever pursues a routed enemy in a disorganized manner, does nothing but become vanquished from having been a victor.
Whoever does not make provisions necessary to live (eat), is overcome without steel.
Whoever trusts more in cavalry than in infantry, or more in infantry than in cavalry, must settle for the location.
If you want to see whether any spy has come into the camp during the day, have no one go to his quarters.
Change your proceeding when you become aware that the enemy has foreseen it.
Counsel with many on the things you ought to do, and confer with few on what you do afterwards.
When soldiers are confined to their quarters, they are kept there by fear or punishment; then when they are led by war, (they are led) by hope and reward.
Good Captains never come to an engagement unless necessity compels them, or the opportunity calls them.
Act so your enemies do not know how you want to organize your army for battle, and in whatever way you organize them, arrange it so that the first line can be received by the second and by the third.
In a battle, never use a company for some other purpose than what you have assigned it to, unless you want to cause disorder.
Accidents are remedied with difficulty, unless you quickly take the facility of thinking.
Men, steel, money, and bread, are the sinews of war; but of these four, the first two are more necessary, for men and steel find money and bread, but money and bread do not find men and steel.
The unarmed rich man is the prize of the poor soldier.
Accustom your soldiers to despise delicate living and luxurious clothing.
2) The Bra
In the 1550’s, the arrival of the corset was the result of a ban on thick waists at court attendances. A ban implemented by Catherine de Médicis, wife of King Henri II of France. For the following 350 years, women relied on a system comprising of whalebones and steel wire to experience a form of waistline torture. Eventually, in 1913, a New York socialite named Mary Phelps Jacob patented the ‘Backless brassier’ as a solution to the newest fashions of plunging necklines and sheer fabrics. As a socialite and not a businesswoman, she wisely sold the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company, who made over 15 million dollars from the bra patent over the next 30 years.
In the early 1920’s Maidenform –founded by Ida Rosenthal and husband William–created the first bra with discernible cup sizes.
In 1927 Sam and Sara Stein’s FayeMiss Lingerie Company introduced the Wonder Bra, offering underwiring and side padding designed to uplift and add cleavage.
In 1947, Frederick Mellinger– the man behind Frederick’s of Hollywood–created the first padded bra. He followed-up the next year with the first Push-up Bra.
In the feminist movement of the late 1960’s, the bra was deemed an instrument of women’s torture. In a much publicized act, they staged a bra-burning protest. Initiating an era, we’ll note, fondly supported by the author of this article.
In 1977, two woman joggers, Lisa Linda and Polly Smith, created the first Sports Bra from a pair of jock straps. Teaming up with clothing designer Hinda Miller, they went into business manufacturing what was subsequently called the Jogbra.
In 2000, Gisele Bundchen modeled the Red Hot Fantasy Bra in a Victoria Secret fashion show, valued at $15 million. Made from red satin and hand-cut Thai rubies and diamonds, it’s listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most extravagant and expensive items of underwear ever created.
In 1996, the average bra size was 34B. By 2011 the average cup size had gone up three sizes to a 36DD. As a result, the Bravissimo company created the KK cup, accommodating requests for something larger than the KK cup sizes. The company Goddess sells bras up to an N Cup.
3) Crossword Puzzle
I was first introduced to the addiction of the crossword by my grandmother, who I’ll add also practiced triple-entry bookkeeping as a form of mental mindfullness. Every day, returning from the shop, I’ll have a short glass of wine and work my way through the daily crossword on the front porch as a separation between the work day and the anticipation of dinner. I accomplish these in ink and about three-fourths the time will do so without a mistake. If, however, I attempt the crossword of a new editor, featured in a different newspaper, such as the NY Times, I am utterly lost. Each editor develops a unique style, coupled with the nuances of recurring patterns.
The first crossword puzzle was invented by the journalist Arthur Wynne, of Liverpool, England. Immigrating to the states, he wrote his first crossword while employed by the New York World newspaper in 1913.
4) Stainless Steel
Although iron has been in use for over a thousand years, the arrival of stainless steel is relatively recent. So what makes stainless steel so important? Within the materials science world, it has revolutionized a usage so widespread that it’s hard to imagine the world today without it. What it offered, that iron did not: For starters it does not rust, therefore enabling it’s use in exterior application fully exposed to the elements, whereas iron and bright steel will ultimately corrode if not continually maintained with protective coatings (think the Golden Gate Bridge, which is in a constant state of being painted it’s iconic rust red). Stainless also boasts high heat resistance (of up to 1200°C [2192°F]); it is malleable and can be formed into patterns more easily; it can be welded (unlike copper and brass). Lastly, it is strong and durable.
It was Harry Brearley of Sheffield, UK who in 1913 discovered ‘Rustless Steel.” Although there were others devoted to this effort before him, it was Brearlry who introduced chromium to molten iron to produce a metal that did not rust. Chromium being the ingredient that resists corrosion.
It’s interesting to review a time-line of sorts with regards to its various usages and impact on a multitude of industries.
Between 1919 and 1929, stainless steel was adopted for surgical scalpels and kitchen cutlery.
In 1928, proving its hygienic capacities, the first fermenting vat was developed to brew beer. (note, corrosion itself is a form of bacteria.).
In the 1930’s the first stainless steel train was built, eliminating the need to paint and re-paint and re-paint.
Followed the next year with the first stainless aircraft.
1935, the stainless kitchen sink
1965 the first underwater stainless camera. (Hence, Lloyd bridges popular TV show Sea Hunt, with it’s underwater scuba-diving photography.).
*Stainless steel is 100% recyclable, and will not degrade when reprocessed, making its sustainability unmatched when compared to other metals.
So how is it actually made? It begins with explosions that loosen the bedrock into chunks. The chunks are loaded into a giant crusher that grinds it to dust. The dust is emptied onto a conveyor that if fed through a series of giant wheels with powerful magnets that separates the ore from the dust. The ore is then heated into marble-size pellets that becomes iron ore. Using furnaces heated by solid carbon coal, with small deposits of limestone to remove impurities, the marble-sized iron ore is heated into liquid molten iron at a temperature of 2,700-degrees Fahrenheit. Moving this liquid molten iron to a different location, it is joined by steel scraps in another furnace that blasts high-purity oxygen blown into the furnace at super-sonic speeds to create molten steel from molten iron.
From here the molten steel is poured into vats and set to vacuum forms to create solid shaped slabs. We now have cold steel forms that can be moved yet again to the giant presses and lasers that fabricate the slabs into its various final specifications, typically 9″ thick x 3′-5′ wide x 40′ long. The entire process, from the initial explosion to the cold slab is automated and untouched by human hands.