Model Year 1825
BY WILLIAM B. MEYER
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.
As America entered the First World War, in 1917, an Armenian named Garabed Giragossian petitioned Congress to investigate his miraculous and eponymous Garabed, an invention that would provide unlimited energy, “a natural force that we can utilize and have energy as we like, without toil or expense.” First he secured the endorsements of the director of music in the Boston Public Schools, the president of the board of trustees of the Boston Public Library, and the president of a shipbuilding concern; when he began his lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill, reports about hi
Thomas Jefferson had a good eye for real estate on a grand scale. But when the notion of a canal linking the Great Lakes with the Hudson River near Albany, New York, was put before him in 1809 by two New York State legislators, he dismissed it out of hand. “Why, sir,” he said, ”… you talk of making a canal three hundred and fifty miles long through a wilderness! It is a little short of madness to think of it at this day!”
A small, hand-propelled German submarine, the Brandtaucher, sank in 1851 in sixty feet of water, with her captain, Wilhelm Bauer, and two crew-members aboard. Her hull immediately began to collapse under the pressure of the sea. Captain Bauer, who had built the tiny craft, knew that if he could keep his two companions from panicking while allowing the water to rise steadily inside her, the interior and exterior pressure would equalize and they would be able to open the hatch and get out. They did.
On the greeting-card racks this past Christmas could be seen a minor technological miracle—a Christmas card that upon opening showed a small yellow light that glowed while the card played a tinny but recognizable version of “Jingle Bells.” The yellow light was the latest addition to a novelty that made its first appearance a couple of years ago—the electronic greeting card.
Most great monuments of nineteenth-century American engineering, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, dominate the surrounding landscape. By contrast, the Hoosac Tunnel, dug through a mountain in western Massachusetts, is inconspicuous, as tunnels naturally are. Yet it stands in the front rank of the projects of its age by whatever standards of measurement one chooses. On the one hand, its construction, which began in 1851 and ended in 1875, took almost two hundred lives, damaged many reputations, and nearly claimed the solvency of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
NEWARK, N.J.: Confronted with the dolorous industrial flatlands that stretch away to the south of Newark, New Jersey, most tourists would agree with the visitor who characterized the area as miles and miles of “robot vomit.” But it is a paradise to members of the Society for Industrial Archeology. This organization of historians, architects, engineers, and other enthusiasts recently took a one-day bus trip through industrial New Jersey to visit places that any other tour would want to avoid. I went along.
For 12 million years it trickled, meandered, and snaked, before bursting violently loose to slash to its final destination. Then, one winter day in 1935, this ancient, tempestuous journey abruptly ended in a remote canyon as the last of more than 5 million buckets of concrete was poured onto the crest of a 726-foot wall that blocked its path. Observers watched in awe as the nation’s wildest river puddled up behind the massive structure. Soon the benign-looking pond would reach back for 115 miles to a depth of 500 feet, the largest human-made lake in the world.
At about five o’clock one morning this past October, the retired physicist Willard S. Boyle received a scientist’s ultimate wake-up call. At first he couldn’t bestir himself—who could be calling at this ungodly hour?—but the phone was insistent, so his wife dragged herself out of bed.
A couple of minutes later, she was shaking him awake. “Stockholm is calling.”
On April 26, 1944, the 72-year-old Orville Wright posed for a photograph at the controls of a Lockheed Constellation, a triple-tailed, four-engined behemoth that could reach 340 miles per hour and had a ceiling of 24,000 feet. Only four decades earlier, Wright had taken the Flyer, a fragile creation of wire, wood, and muslin, on the first controlled, powered, and human flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. He noted that his first wobbling flight of 120 feet had been shorter than the Constellation’s wingspan.
“Now you don’t have to miss ‘Kojak’ because you’re watching ‘Columbo’ (or vice versa),” crowed 1976 Sony Betamax ad copy that drew millions of people to buy a revolutionary new device called the videocassette recorder (VCR).
While its initial pull was home video recording, most VCR users didn’t know how the set the clocks on their decks and so couldn’t record a thing. The flashing “12:00” on the VCR became a national punchline. It was clear that Americans wanted VCRs so that they could rent and watch prerecorded movies, not record programs.
Apple’s iPhone was not the first cell phone with an integrated music player (the Samsung Uproar, 2000), nor the first with a touchscreen interface (LG Prada, 2007). And phones with touchscreens had been available for nearly a decade. The iPhone wasn’t even the first on which a user could download and install mini applications (the Palm OS–powered Handspring Treo 180, 2002). So what was so special about it?
After 18 hours of labor on June 11, 1997, Sonia, the wife of 45-year-old software engineer Philippe Kahn, finally kicked him out of her Santa Cruz, California, maternity ward room. So he adjourned to a nearby desk and started fiddling with his laptop, cell phone, and digital camera. He’d planned to take pictures of their newborn, transfer the pictures from the camera to his laptop, post the pictures to a Web site, and e-mail his friends—all of which was then relatively advanced, technologically speaking.
While some technologies are easy to explain—the video recorder, wireless telephony, or the portable computer, for instance—others require a bit of explanation and hands-on experience before users “get” it.
Reaching the portable computer intersection of uniting smallest effective size with highest reasonable usefulness has tortured personal computer makers for 30 years. Over the last decade, the functionality side of the equation has won out. As soon as portable PCs could match the full functionality of a bulky stationary model—becoming so-called “desktop replacements”—laptop sales started to take off.