Better Safe Than Sexy?
What happens when a nineteenth-century bridge has to meet twenty-first-century standards
In our summer 2005 issue Eric DeLony wrote about efforts to preserve the beautiful 1885 Bow Bridge, in Hadley, New York, a lenticular truss of an exceedingly rare kind that had come very close to demolition. With heroic advocacy by preservationists, sympathetic concern from local government officials, and a vital grant from the state department of transportation, the bridge was saved, and on August 25, 2006, it was reopened to traffic.
It’s not the same bridge as it was in 1885, of course. Modern safety and load requirements dictated some alterations, which have impaired its streamlined appearance. In the Fall 2006 newsletter of the Society for Industrial Archeology, Mark C. Kanonik, an engineer in Albany, New York, hails the reopening of the Bow Bridge while examining why it had to be altered and suggesting how we might learn from the process.
To qualify for the state grant, the bridge had to be capable of handling all legal traffic, including 36-ton trucks. This required the installation of a new steel-beam support system. The original truss has basically been reduced to an ornament, and some parts had to be removed. Adding to the clutter is a rugged safety railing required by federal regulations. Kanonik acknowledges the competing interests that had to be taken into account and has nothing but praise for everyone involved. Yet he suggests some changes that might make bridge preservation more historically accurate without sacrificing utility.
Regarding the load requirement, he questions the need to support monster trucks in such an out-of-the-way location. Moreover, he says, before the bridge’s closure in 1983, heavy industrial vehicles and fire engines routinely crossed it. By reducing the load-bearing requirement and increasing the bridge’s rated capacity to reflect decades of experience, it could have accommodated most routine and emergency traffic with less obtrusive alterations. To prevent crossings by illegal trucks, a low-clearance bar could have been installed across the roadway.
As for the railing, Kanonik writes that it had to “withstand a 4,400-lb. pick-up truck traveling at 45 mph and impacting the railings at an angle of 25 degrees, yet one approach to the Bow Bridge is posted at 10 mph, and the other approach is posted at 20 mph. Furthermore, the clear distance between the railings is only 13 feet, making it essentially impossible to impact the railings in the way they were tested.” A railing designed for more realistic conditions, he says, would have looked a lot less clunky.
The renovation was an encouraging example of private individuals and groups working with government to preserve our nation’s engineering past. The result, like most compromises, is not entirely satisfactory to everyone, but it manages to reconcile the legitimate concerns of disparate parties. The same kind of thing occurs elsewhere: When historic buildings are renovated, for example, they often need new fire exits or handicapped-access ramps, at some cost to their appearance.
Still, there’s no denying that the renovations have obscured much of the Bow Bridge’s beauty as well as its technology. No one advocates letting a bridge designed for nineteenth-century traffic stand unaltered in the twenty-first. Yet as Kanonik points out, by making the rules a bit more flexible and seeking creative solutions, the two eras can be blended in more harmonious ways.
Coffee, Tea, Or Collective Bargaining?
Stewardess. When’s the last time you heard that word? Half a century ago it connoted youth, beauty, and a boundless desire to please—as opposed to flight attendant , which suggests nothing more than someone in a drab uniform who points to the exits.
Stewardesses put up with a lot in the early days. As Kathleen M. Barry points out in Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (Duke University Press, 296 pages, $22.95), the pay was minimal; the upper age limit was 25, later raised to 28 (as one manager told trainees in 1935, “If you haven’t found a man to keep you by the time you’re twenty-eight, then TWA won’t want you either”); and the standards for appearance and grooming bordered on the fetishistic (“If you know that your feet are larger than average for your height and weight, we ask that you discuss the matter with your local TWA representative and possibly avoid an unnecessary trip to [the final interview]”).
Still, young women applied in huge numbers, hundreds for every available position. Why? Partly to be certified as the pinnacle of desirability; partly for the opportunity to travel; partly to attract and meet eligible men (early fliers tended to be wealthy); but also, in many cases, out of a genuine desire to help people. In the small, slow planes of the pre-jet era, stewardesses had plenty of time to spend caring for passengers. Before World War II, most airlines required their stewardesses to be trained nurses, though they kept this rule quiet for fear that it would make flying seem dangerous.
As planes got bigger and safer and flying got faster and cheaper, the stewardess’s job became much more of a grind. But when technological, legal, and societal changes reduced the emphasis on youth and beauty, longer careers strengthened the union movement. By the end of the 1970s, when Barry’s survey finishes, flight attendants were liberated and assertive—shunning high heels, for example, and taking no nonsense from lecherous passengers.
Femininity in Flight tells a fascinating story of how technology and femininity appropriated each other’s glamour—and how aviation and its handmaidens eventually descended from the clouds to become an ordinary industry and an ordinary group of workers.
From The Garage To The Smithsonian
About a decade ago, The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History started to work more aggressively at documenting recent inventions. To that end, in 1997 the museum instituted its Modern Inventors Documentation (MIND) program. MIND aims to ensure that the story of American innovation will include the contributions of “garage” inventors as well as those of greater renown.
The MIND program is a collaboration between two of the museum’s departments, the Archives Center and the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation. It collects and maintains records, advises inventors, and encourages the use of inventors’ records by researchers and the general public. Besides its own archives, the program maintains an online database that lists more than 1,800 collections of inventors’ papers at libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives throughout the country. MIND does not limit itself to strictly technical documents; its archive is also rich in family photographs and correspondence, clippings, marketing materials, and financial records. Closely related are the Lemelson Center’s video interviews with inventors, which are available at the Archives Center.
Through MIND’s efforts, the Archives Center now holds the records of Binney & Smith Inc., the inventor of Crayola crayons; Marion O’Brien Donovan, creator of a key precursor to the disposable diaper; and the Brannock Device Company, which made the foot-measuring instrument used in shoe stores worldwide. Its subjects range from well-known inventors like Howard Head, a designer of skis and tennis rackets, to little-known figures like Victor L. Ochoa, who devised a collapsible airplane around 1910, and young innovators like Matt Capozzi and Nathan Connolly, who as students at Hampshire College developed the Accessible Snowboard for athletes with lower-body disabilities.
Sometimes inventors or their descendants get in touch with MIND and offer to donate papers. In other cases the archivist, Alison Oswald, and her colleagues actively seek materials. MIND also advises inventors and their families in organizing papers, finding appraisers, understanding copyright issues, and choosing an appropriate repository. To encourage creative use of the archive, the Lemelson Center offers travel grants and research fellowships. For further information on MIND and the Lemelson Center, see http://invention.smithsonian.org .