Serial doodler, drafter, and brainstormer, New Hampshire–born Earl S. Tupper was an inventor obsessed with improving everyday household objects. His rough sketches, scrawled with a fountain pen over rapidly yellowing notebook paper, include an eyebrow shield to allow more precise penciling; adjustable glasses; hairpins that wouldn’t fall out; and garter hooks that remained fastened. “My purpose in life [is] to take each thing as I find it and . . . see how I can improve it,” he wrote.
Before 1930, refrigerators were not only bulky and expensive but extremely dangerous. Chemicals used as refrigerants—ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide—were not only toxic but highly combustible. In 1929 a leak in a methyl chloride refrigeration system caused an explosion that killed more than 100 people in a Cleveland hospital. It was no wonder that consumers preferred their old iceboxes. That would all change in 1930 with the invention of Freon by a General Motors researcher.
Look at a sixteenth-century merchant or tax collector as he appears in the paintings of artists like Quentin Massys and Marinus van Roemerswaele. Not only the man’s costume but also the tools of his trade are unfamiliar.
He works with two kinds of information: loose documents on shelves, or perhaps hanging from bands, and bound volumes of entered transactions. Absent are filing cabinets, loose-leaf binders, card indexes, and rotary card files. We take these and other commonplace devices for granted—or rather we consider them survivals of the world before word processing.
My great-uncle, George S. Morison, one of America’s foremost bridge builders, died July 1, 1903, exactly (as he undoubtedly would have said) six years, five months, fourteen days, and six hours before I was born. What follows begins with some incidental intelligence that has nothing to do with his work; these, listed in no order of relative importance, are just some of the things I know about him:
THE DISAPPEARING RECORD: A few years after the last American troops left Vietnam in 1973, the Pentagon turned over a big batch of microfilm, more than one hundred rolls, to the National Archives. The film carried every enemy document captured by U.S. forces during the war—a spectacular trove of information for some future historian, and most of it not existing in any other form. But no historian now would dare approach that file, because the automated, coded index to the three million random images cannot be read by any instrument known to still exist today.
The big Allis-Chalmers triple-expansion engine is dead, but not to Walter Wilson and Daniel Hoffman. These men are, respectively, division foreman and manager of pumping and maintenance for New Jersey’s Hackensack Water Company; but back in the 1940s they were just starting there as two young engineers fresh out of the Navy, and the engine was very much alive. In fact, it seemed like home to them: “When you were up at the top there,” Hoffman says, gesturing to a lofty catwalk close under the high roof of the pumping station, “and she was going, it was just like being on a ship at sea.”
Tom Crouch’s excellent piece on the bicycle’s relationship to flying and airplanes (“How the Bicycle Took Wing,” Summer 1986) is another valuable contribution to a long-neglected segment of our history. When I was a boy in the 1920s, the conventional wisdom viewed the Wrights as unsophisticated repairmen who somehow got lucky in the quest for powered flight, a notion far from the reality of their having anticipated nearly every avenue of inquiry that has since come to characterize the design and development of aircraft.
Even as late as a century ago, the diet of most Americans depended largely on what vegetables and fruits were available at the moment. “Putting up foods”— such as the drying and smoking of meat and the canning of fruits and vegetables—was an integral and often exhausting aspect of domestic life. Toward the end of the 19th century commercial canners began offering a wider variety of foodstuffs but still couldn’t compete with fresh food in flavor or nutritional value.
While Thomas Edison’s 1879 lightbulb represented an epochal advance, it remained far from perfect: its carbonized cellulose filament gulped power. In 1905 managers at General Electric’s pioneering research laboratory in Schenectady, New York, decided to figure out a way to improve filament performance. They hired 32-year-old William Coolidge, a research assistant to Arthur Noyes at MIT’s Department of Chemistry.
Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, which at the start of the 19th century made large-scale cotton growing profitable, pumped new life into the fading institution of slavery, ensuring that something much like slavery would last long after the Civil War. It would take another century for American ingenuity to finally rid the world of the need for hand picking cotton.
After the Civil War thousands of impoverished veterans rushed to the territories to stake their claims under the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered adult white male citizens 160 acres of land west of the Mississippi. Under the law’s terms, homesteaders would become owners of their land if they lived on it for five years and made annual improvements, one of the simplest of which was fencing.
While sitting in an underground auditorium in Washington, D.C.’s Federal Triangle recently and listening to a visionary panel of policy wonks and geeks discuss the future of American communications, I was struck by how much Abraham Lincoln would have appreciated—and supported—the Federal Communications Commission’s new National Broadband Plan. The high-speed wired and wireless communications system it envisions will revolutionize the communication business and the fabric of American society on the order of magnitude that railroad and telegraph lines did in Lincoln’s day.
In February 1837, Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury called for information from the “most intelligent sources” to help prepare a report to Congress on the propriety of establishing a “system of telegraphs” for the United States. Of the 18 responses he received, 17 assumed that the telegraph would be optical and its motive power human. The only respondent to envision a different operating force was Samuel F. B.
THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER STOOD AT THE CENTER, literally and figuratively, of the United States’s westward expansion during the nineteenth century. By far the most prominent name in taming the powerful river was James Buchanan Eads. From the 1830s through the 1850s this supremely capable engineer salvaged hundreds of wrecks with a series of ever-larger diving bells, gaining in the process an intimate knowledge of the river’s bottom.
In the all the recent hoopla about high-definition television, there have been some pretty astounding claims. Television manufacturers’ advertisements and marketing materials, salespeople in electronics stores, and the media (especially the technology media) have invariably described the crystal-clear quality of an HDTV picture as nearly lifelike, akin to looking through a large picture window.
Just for a little while, in the second race of the America’s Cup regatta last February in Valencia, Spain, the defending champions thought they had it made. Two days earlier, the Swiss Société Nautique de Genève’s Alinghi 5 yacht had started the first race with a substantial lead, but the challenger, the USA-17 had come from behind to win. Now, midway through the first leg of the course, Alinghi 5 was again ahead. If it could hold on, it would even the score of the best-of-three contest and force a third and decisive race for the cup.
“Faster, faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death,” rhapsodized writer Hunter Thompson about America’s love of speed and motorcycles, which stretches back more than a century. While most people who think of U.S. motorcycles imagine a Harley-Davidson, there was a time when Indians ruled the American roads—big and efficient Scouts and Chiefs, which rolled out of the “Wigwam,” the Indian plant in Springfield, Massachusetts.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 4 this past June, it already was obsolete. It had been eclipsed by HTC’s EVO 4G, which runs on Sprint’s nascent 4G WiMAX network. EVO’s big leap forward centers on Sprint’s 4G network, which can deliver data such as Web pages, e-mail attachments, and music and video streams and downloads up to 10 times faster than 3G networks.