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Sic Transit

Spring/Summer 1991 | Volume 7 |  Issue 1

BROOKLYN, N.Y.: Riding the New York City subways has been known to inspire many different feelings, but a sense of history is not usually one of them. To be sure, there is a lot of antique equipment in operation; however, a straphanger on a crowded C train in July is not likely to consider the old-fashioned rotary fans to be charmingly quaint. Still, a system that began construction in 1903 and now moves a billion people a year over 710 miles of track must have a lot of history behind it. A good portion of that history is on view at the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn—but how long the museum will last is in question. Like many a subway trip, the museum’s future is fraught with uncertainty and prone to sudden stops. City budget cuts are threatening its existence.

The museum’s site is itself a part of subway history: an abandoned station from a shuttle that used to connect the Borough Hall and Hoyt-Schermerhorn stops. Today it retains the appearance of a regular subway station (except all the lights work), and it augments that pleasant ambiance with displays of photographs, architectural drawings, old turnstiles, signals, switching equipment, and various other transit memorabilia.

Including cars. One difficulty with preserving railroad cars has always been finding a place, and a reason, to store them during the period when they’re too old to be useful and too recent to be historic. That was not a problem for the Transit Museum. “People stuck old cars in unused tunnels,” says Gail Dawson, the museum’s deputy director. “They sat there for decades, and nobody knew.” Thanks to these guerrilla preservationists, the museum has cars dating as far back as 1903, with wicker seats, real leather straps, and wooden doors.


Every museum presents a unique set of challenges for its staff. One that faced the Transit Museum was re-creating old-time subway advertisements. The problem is not availability; there are plenty of beautiful vintage ads on hand. Unfortunately, though, visitors tend to steal them. The museum is working on getting reproductions printed of the rarer ones; in the meantime it is making do with some more recent, less valuable ads from its collection. This gives a more realistic feel than having no ads at all; still, it is a bit disconcerting to stroll through a 1930 A train, perfectly restored and immaculately clean (another false note, but understandable), and look up to see Reggie Jackson in a Yankee uniform, or six Miss Subways finalists all with Farrah Fawcett hairdos.

Through the years the New York City subways have used well over a hundred different types of cars. The reason for this profusion lies in the system’s history. The subway started out as three separate companies, each with its own ownership and technical standards. In 1940 they merged under government operation, but to this day they use different equipment, and the cars from one line often will not fit through another’s tunnels. This administrator’s nightmare is a buff’s paradise, however. A retired surgeon in Vermont named George T. F. Rahilly has taken it upon himself to build a model of every type of car that has been used in the New York City subways, including work trains and garbage haulers. Dr. Rahilly fashions his two-foot-long models out of such exotic materials as beer cans, and he is able to turn one out in a couple of weeks.

If he succeeds in building models of every type of car, it’s not clear whether he will still have the Transit Museum to send them to. A Metropolitan Transportation Authority meeting in January slashed the museum’s funding and gave it until July to find a way to support itself. The price of admission has been raised from $1.15, the price of a subway token, to $2.00 (though the fare will doubtless catch up soon). Other plans include selling off duplicate artifacts, cutting staff, and soliciting private support.

At every stop modern-day subway conductors repeat the incantation “Watch the closing doors.” Enthusiasts are hoping that, come July, the staff of the Transit Museum will not have to make the same melancholy announcement.

ON THE ROAD: American society shapes a new technology; soon the technology turns around and starts shaping American society. An example of this familiar story is the subject of Allan D. Wallis’s Wheel Estate: The Rise and Decline of Mobile Homes (Oxford University Press, $24.95). Once you get past the unfortunate title and the author’s sometimes cumbersome style (he’s a professor of public policy and you can tell), this story of how an automotive accessory became an important source of housing says a lot about how the country has developed during this century.

The Transit Museum preserves and brings to life the New York subway system’s past. Its own future is in jeopardy.

Wallis notes the various names that have been used—trailer, mobile home, manufactured housing—and tracks the changes in function and status that they have reflected. Through the 1930s most trailers were homemade. Their designs became increasingly elaborate, and manufactured models started to sell, as year-round trailer living, instead of occasional vacation use, became popular. Then came World War II, when trailers were used as cheap, and often quite wretched, temporary housing for defense workers.

After the war the trend toward permanent occupancy continued, with mobile homes better designed for the purpose than the hastily thrown-together wartime models. “Trailer parks” were getting fancier too. They had originally been one-night stopovers for auto travelers, and later they were occupied for the month or season by itinerant laborers, or those who simply liked wandering and disliked paying property taxes. Eventually the parks became regular villages, with streets and playgrounds and residents who lived for years or even decades in homes that were mobile in name only.

There are many stories in Wheel Estate : the increasing size and sophistication of the homes; struggles over zoning and taxation, and the social attitudes they reveal; the development of mobile-home communities, in many ways closer to the small-town ideal than most actual small towns today. But perhaps most interesting is the way mobile homes became, by an unplanned, haphazard process, what architects had been unsuccessfully designing since the early days of industrialization: pleasant, affordable manufactured housing. Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller, and many, many others had tried to come up with affordable prefabricated dwellings, and none had succeeded on a large scale. It took a group of small manufacturers, clustered mostly in Michigan and Indiana, following no design but the dictates of the marketplace, to make these architects’ visions a reality. Today one American dwelling in ten is a mobile home, including a fifth of all new houses and two-thirds of all low-cost ones. And it all started when motorists patched together a few junked auto parts in their back yards.

DAYTON, OHIO: The Dayton area is filled with important sites and artifacts in the history of technology. Most of them, predictably enough, have to do with aviation. But the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) is out to change all that. If it has its way, the first name that people associate with Dayton will not be Orville and Wilbur Wright but Frederick Kohnle.

Surely you’ve heard of Frederick Kohnle. He invented the automatic pinticketing machine, “the first successful machine for mechanizing the identification and price marking of retail merchandise.” Those words appear on a plaque at the Engineers Club in Dayton, where an early model (c. 1902) of the device was recently designated a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. Kohnle’s invention eliminated the need to write out and attach a price tag for each individual item by hand, and while that may not quite pull in the crowds as well as a nice XB-70 Valkyrie, ASME is pleased to make this important advance available to historians, engineers, and the general public.

There are ninety-seven other National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmarks, as well as thirty-two international landmarks, eleven regional landmarks, five sites, and two collections. Not all have the immediate appeal of the pin-ticketing machine, but the wide variety of things on the register demonstrates the importance of mechanical engineering to every area of technology. There are items as big as the Holland Tunnel and as small as the first postage meter. The list stretches from 1647 (the Saugus Ironworks in Massachusetts) down to 1976 (the Pierce-Donachy heart pump). Some landmarks are still in operation, some have been restored, and with an unfortunate few, a plaque is all that’s left to mark the site.

One of ASME’s most popular landmarks is the monorail system at Disneyland (1959), which moves some 340,000 passengers per year through the park. A few of these may have been attracted more by Minnie Mouse, the Matterhorn, or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but it is nonetheless heartening to see such interest in technological history on the part of the public.

And as the program continues—eleven landmarks are scheduled for designation this year—there will be ever more opportunities for enthusiasts to add to their life lists, and for those with a more casual interest to learn a little about what made America the world’s biggest energy user. “George Washington slept here” will always be snappier than “James B. Hill invented the steam-driven traction ditcher here” (Findlay, Ohio, 1902), but thanks to ASME, the fathers (and mothers) of this country’s technology will not be overlooked.

For a nifty brochure listing ASME Mechanical Engineering Landmarks, write ASME Public Information, 345 East Forty-seventh Street, New York, NY 10017, or call 212-705-7740.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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