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.
On September 19,1985, the most disastrous earthquake in North American history struck Mexico City. More than twenty thousand people were killed after a layer of wet clay amplified a distant temblor and set downtown buildings rocking. Hundreds of the buildings collapsed, crushing or trapping their inhabitants. But it could have been far worse. Thousands more buildings stood, including the landmark Latinoamericana tower.
In the spring of 1887, the emperor himself came out to the Steinfeld firing range a few kilometers from Vienna to watch the Austrian Army trials for rapid-firing weapons. Franz Joseph seemed particularly impressed by the performance of the Nordenfeldt model, a gleaming five-barreled rifle demonstrated by a team of two—one man feeding the cartridges, the second carefully cranking out 180 shots per minute. The day’s last entrant was a huge, bearded American—the inventor, salesman, and demonstrator of a small British firm’s only product: a squat, rather ugly gun.
At 5:04:40 on Saturday morning, May 26, 1934, the first diesel-powered, stainless-steel, streamlined train pulled out of Union Station, Denver, on a dawn-to-dusk race for Chicago. Called the Zephyr, it had been delivered to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in Philadelphia just six weeks earlier and had traveled west in a series of short trips. To reach Chicago before sunset, it had to cover 1,015 miles nonstop in less than fourteen hours.
Fate has put this mechanism in the hands of Fred Litwin, and it couldn’t have found a better curator.
On June 4, 1896, the editor of the Binghamton, New York, Republican offered what most of his readers must have regarded as a rather startling prediction. The airplane, he remarked, would likely be the work of bicycle makers.
We always used to ask, how could the foremost technological nation in the world not have an agency dealing with its technological past,” says Eric DeLony, principal architect for the Historic American Engineering Record, a federal project based in Washington, D.C. He began asking this question in the late 1960s, when, as a graduate student in architecture, he became involved with the Historic American Buildings Survey, the WPA-born archive of historic architecture.
LACKAWAXEN, PA.: The sight of a canalboat crossing a river was hardly remarkable in 1849 when, on April 26, a local crowd and engineers from all over the country gathered on the banks of the Delaware River in upper Pennsylvania. The boat in view was an ordinary barge. What was curious was how it got from shore to shore—floating inside a wooden flume suspended thirty feet above the water from two iron cables, which dipped across the river over stone piers.