At the age of 24, Polish-born mechanical engineer Tadeusz Sendzimir found himself in Shanghai, China, after escaping his homeland to avoid the draft for World War I. In 1918 he opened China’s first nail and screw factory, using jury-rigged drill presses. He spent his spare time walking along Shanghai’s canals and riverfronts, visiting machine shops and scrap iron dealers. He’d bargain in pidgin English with the shop’s assistant while the owner snoozed peacefully in the back, clutching an opium pipe.
Sometime in 1894, while his Great Lakes steamer W. P. Thew lay tied to a Cuyahoga River wharf in northeast Ohio, 48-year-old Capt. Richard P. Thew, failed farmer and hardware salesman, observed a railroad steam shovel take one clumsy scoop of ore after another from the heap on the wood docks and dump them into a hopper car sitting on nearby railroad tracks. He noticed that the shovel bucket’s teeth gouged the dock’s timbers and left much of the ore behind.
The Wrong Computer
James E. Strothman’s article “The Ancient History of System/360” (Winter 1990) incorrectly identifies the computer about which IBM’s chairman, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., wrote his famous memo citing its design and development by “34 people including the janitor.” The computer Watson was referring to was the CDC 6600, produced by Seymour Cray at Control Data Corporation in 1965. And it was not designed to compete directly with the 360 but rather was focused on scientific computing needs.
By the 1870s, much of shoe manufacturing was performed by machine. One intricate operation continued to defy mechanization: lasting, or fastening the upper part of a shoe to the inner sole. Shoes took on their final appearance while being shaped by hand over a wooden model of a foot called a last, and much manipulation was required to accurately form the leather around the last, especially at the heel and toe.
Early in 1924, 34-year-old Edwin Armstrong returned to Columbia University, the scene 11 years earlier of his breakthrough invention of the regenerative circuit, while only a sophomore. His device had amplified radio waves a thousandfold and made radio practical. This time he had set his sights on eliminating static from radio, a problem most felt was insoluble. “Static, like the poor, will always be with us,” declared the chief engineer of AT&T.
In 1900 the United States Weather Bureau hired 34-year-old electrical engineer Reginald Fessenden to develop a wireless system that could distribute forecasts and relay meteorological data. The Canadian-born inventor, a protégé of Thomas Edison, former consultant for Westinghouse, and professor at Purdue and Western universities, moved his family to Spartan accommodations at the Weather Bureau station at Cobb Island, Maryland, 60 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., in the Potomac River.
In early 1945 Laurence Marshall contemplated the imminent financial ruin of his company. Raytheon had enjoyed a lucrative business supplying the U.S. military with magnetrons, electron tubes that generated microwaves, a key component in the nascent technology of radar and the detection of enemy airplanes. But World War II seemed likely to end soon, and with it Raytheon’s lucrative military contracts. Raytheon needed to come up with something it could sell to civilians.
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.