November 27, 2013
The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (then known as the Macy’s Christmas Parade) was held in 1924 and culminated in front of Macy’s department store in New York City, where the elaborate holiday window displays were unveiled. Thousands gathered to see the displays, which were designed by Anthony Frederick Sarg, a noted puppeteer and theatrical designer. Sarg was also the artistic director / mastermind of the parade and, during the fourth annual Macy’s Christmas Parade in 1927, he introduced the enormous inflatable cartoons and caricatures that would become almost synonymous with the annual holiday tradition.
Creativity was in Sarg’s genes. Born in Germany, his father was an artist, his grandfather a wood-carver, and his grandmother was a painter who gave the young Sarg a collection of mechanical toys that may have inspired the imagination of the burgeoning designer. But it wasn’t until he saw a performance by famed puppeteer Thomas Holden, who essentially invented the marionette, that Sarg found his calling. He began experimenting with puppet designs and stagings around 1917, eventually earning renown for his particularly sophisticated puppet shows that included performances of Faust and Don Quixote. After World War I, Sarg moved to New York City and quickly gained a reputation as a practical joker, the life of the party and a tireless worker. In his various ventures, the designer, inventor and illustrator worked on cartoons, children’s books, mechanical toys, advertising and of course, window displays and balloons.
These first parade balloons were filled with oxygen not helium, and were propped up by teams of puppeteers – usually just Macy’s employees drafted into parade service. These balloons, such as 1920s biggest cartoon star Felix the Cat (above), were cruder and smaller than today’s Godzilla-like monsters but still charmed and captivated the throngs of onlookers who came to ring in the holiday season.
Other early balloons included a 20-foot-long elephant, a 60-foot-long tiger and an enormous hummingbird. In 1928, the parade culminated with a release of the now-helium-filled balloons into the skies above the city. The stunt was a crowd-pleaser and the following year, the balloons were designed with release valves to make their ascent easier and Macy’s offered rewards for their capture and return. The tradition that continued until 1932, when a daredevil pilot thought it would be fun to capture the balloons with her biplane and nearly crashed when the rubberized canvas wrapped itself around the plane’s wing.
The rubberized silk balloons were produced by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, and their archives at the University of Akron include some amazing pictures of these early behemoths.
October 24, 2013
Walter Hunt (1785-1859), a 19th century engineer and machinist, was only a bit player in the history of the sewing machine but he was a prolific “Yankee mechanical genius” who had a penchant for invention and innovation. Unfortunately for him, he was also a Yankee business dunce. Well, that’s not entirely fair. He was reportedly a benevolent man who believed in helping others over making a profit. But his business acumen was lacking and he rarely had the capability to do more than sell the rights to his designs for much less than they were worth. Hunt’s hundreds of inventions include a saw, a steamer, ink stands, a nail-making machine, a rifle, a revolver, bullets, bicycles, a shirt collar, a boot heel, and a ceiling-walking circus device. Some of these items are still in use today and though Hunt’s name is not well known, his creations are.
Hunt designed the safety pin (top image) in three hours to settle a $15 debt to one of the many draftsman he tasked with drawing up his patents. Similar pins had existed for ages but nothing so efficient, made from just a single piece of wire. The draftsman, J.R. Chapin, later paid Hunt $400 for all the rights to every variation of twisted wire than Hunt could think up.
Hunt also played an early but critical role in the successful development of the American Arms industry. His 1849 design for a “Volitional Repeater” rifle made clever use of several other recent discoveries in repeating mechanisms, breech loading and bullets. While it was a brilliant display of innovation, it was also prone to failure. In characteristic fashion, Hunt sold his design to entrepreneur George Arrowsmith. Soon after, the design went into production by the Robins and Lawrence Arms Company, where three men worked on improvements to the firing mechanism: Benjamin Tyler Henry, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson. Thanks to Hunt’s faulty design, the partnership of Smith & Wesson was born. In 1855, an arms conglomerate directed by Oliver F. Winchester bought out Smith & Wesson’s company among other purchases, eventually forming the New Haven Arms Company, which produced one of the most fearsome weapons of the Civil War: the Henry repeating rifle. None of it would have happened without Walter Hunt’s volitional repeater.
Hunt is sometimes called the man who gave away a fortune — an appellation that could apply for a number of reasons. The images included in this post are only a very few of Hunt’s many designs. There’s little doubt that he was not a particularly gifted businessman who was constantly in debt, spending all his money on patents and other costs related to his almost compulsive inventiveness. Nonetheless, he seems to have truly been a man who enjoyed the process of creation over reward and riches, though he ultimately did okay for himself thanks to his various designs for bullets and casings. Hunt could’ve been another Edison, but he didn’t have the discipline. Instead, he spent his life in the shadow of men like Oliver Winchester and Elias Howe. And sadly, that is how he spends his death as well. I haven’t been out to pay a visit to Hunt’s grave yet, but according to the comprehensive sewing history website Sewalot, Hunt’s grave, which is not entirely immodest, can be found in the shadow of the much larger burial monument of Elias Howe.
October 16, 2013
In the early years of the 19th century, the invention of the sewing machine was all but inevitable. Factories were filling with seamstresses and tailors, and savvy inventors and entrepreneurs around the world saw the stitching on the trousers. There were an incredible number of machine designs, patents, and — some things never change — patent lawsuits.
Here’s a brief overview describing some of the greatest hits (and misses) to illustrate the heady mix of industrialism, politics and revolutionary rhetoric that surrounded the development of the sewing machine.
The design of the first sewing machine actually dates back to the late 18th century, when an English cabinetmaker by the name of Thomas Saint drew up plans for a machine that could stitch leather. He patented the design as “An Entire New Method of Making and Completing Shoes, Boots, Spatterdashes, Clogs, and Other Articles, by Means of Tools and Machines also Invented by Me for that Purpose, and of Certain Compositions of the Nature of Japan or Varnish, which will be very advantageous in many useful Appliances.”
The rather prolix title partly explains why the patented was eventually lost – it was filed under apparel. It’s not known if Saint actually built any of his designs before he died, but a functioning replica was built 84 years later by William Newton Wilson. Though it’s not exactly practical, the hand-cranked machine worked after a few slight modifications.
In the first half of the 19th century there was an explosion of sewing machine patents – and patent infringement cases. In 1814, Viennese tailor Josef Madersperger was granted a patent on a design for a sewing machine he had been developing for nearly a decade. Madersperger built several machines. The first was apparently designed to sew only straight lines while later machines may have been specially made to create embroidery, capable of stitching small circles and ovals. The designs were well received by the Viennese public but the inventor wasn’t happy with the reliability of his machines and he never made one commercially available. Madersperger would spend the rest of his life trying to perfect his design, a pursuit that would exhaust his last penny and send him to the poorhouse – literally; he died in a poorhouse.
In France, the first mechanical sewing machine was patented in 1830 by tailor Barthélemy Thimonnier, whose machine used a hooked or barbed needle to produce a chain stitch. Unlike his predecessors, Thimonnier actually put his machine into production and was awarded a contract to produce uniforms for the French army. Unfortunately, also like his predecessors, he met with disaster. A mob of torch-waving tailors worried about losing their livelihood stormed his factory, destroying all 80 of his machines. Thimonnier narrowly escaped, picked himself up by his mechanically-assembled bootstraps, and designed an even better machine. The unruly tailors struck again, destroying every machine save one, with which Thimonnier was able to escape. He attempted to start over in England but his efforts were for naught. In 185,7 Barthélemy Thimonnier also died in a poorhouse.
So things didn’t turn out well for three of the more prominent early enablers of prêt-à-porter apparel in Europe. But what was going on across the pond? What was going on in that upstart nation of go-getters, problem solvers, and destiny manifesters? Well that’s where things get really interesting.
Walter Hunt was a prolific inventor and was described by Smithsonian curator Grace Rogers Cooper in her 1968 paper, The Invention of the Sewing Machine, as a “Yankee mechanical genius.” He designed a nail-making machine, a plow, a bullet, a bicycle and the safety pin, which was designed in three hours to settle a $15 debt. A clever man who was attuned to the tenor of the times, Hunt understood the value of a machine that could sew and set out to built one in 1832. He designed a simple machine that used two needles, one with an eye in its point, to produce a straight “lock stitch” seam and encouraged his daughter to open a business producing corsets. But Hunt had second thoughts. He was dismayed by the prospect that his invention might put seamstresses and tailors out of work, so he abandoned his machine in 1838 having never filed for a patent. But that same year, a poor tailor’s apprentice in Boston named Elias Howe began working a very similar idea.
After failing to build a machine that reproduced his wife’s hand motions, Howe scrapped the design and started again; this time, he inadvertently invented a hand-cranked machine almost identical to Hunt’s. He earned a patent for his design in 1846 and staged a man-vs-machine challenge, beating five seamstresses with work that was faster and in every way superior. Yet the machine was still seen as somewhat scandalous, and Howe failed to attract any buyers or investors. Undeterred, he continued to improve his machine.
A series of unfortunate business decisions, treacherous partners, and a trip oversees left Howe destitute in London. What’s more, his wife’s health was failing and he had no means to get back to her in America. He was very close to suffering the same fate that befell Thimonnier, becoming just another dead inventor in the poorhouse. After pawning his machines and patent papers to pay for steerage back to the States in 1849, the distraught Howe returned to his wife just in time to stand by her bedside as she died. Adding insult to injury, he learned that the sewing machine had proliferated in his absence – some designs were almost copies of his original invention while others were based on ideas he patented in 1846. Howe had received no royalties for any of the machines- royalties that likely could have saved his wife’s life. Destitute and alone, he pursued his infringers fiercely, with the single-minded dedication of a bitter man with nothing left to lose. Many paid him his due immediately but others fought Howe in court. He won every single case.
Soon after the conclusion of his last court case, Howe was approached with a unique offer. An machinist by the name of Isaac Singer had invented his own sewing machine that was different in almost every way than Howe’s; every way except one – its eye-pointed needle. That little needle cost Singer thousands of dollars in royalties, all paid to Howe, but inspired the country’s first patent pool. Singer gathered together seven manufactures –all of whom had likely lost to Howe in court– to share their patents. They needed Howe’s patents as well and agreed to all his terms: every single manufacturer in the United States would pay Howe $25 for every machine sold. Eventually, the royalty was reduced to $5 but it was still enough to ensure that by the time Elias Howe died in 1867, he was a very, very rich man, having earned millions from patent rights and royalties. Singer didn’t do too bad for himself either. He had a penchant for promotion and, according to American Science and Invention earned the dubious recognition of becoming the first man to spend more than $1 million dollars a year on advertising. It worked though. The world hardly remembers Elias Howe, Walter Hunt, Barthélemy Thimonnier, Josef Madersperger, and Thomas Saint, but Singer is practically synonymous with sewing machine.
October 11, 2013
Today, we collapse space and time without even thinking about it. With a touch of our fingers, we can instantly extend ourselves into the ether and around the world from the backseat of a station wagon. We have become a culture of conjurers and time lords. Ok, that might be overstating things a bit, but you get the idea.
The wondrous information and communication technologies that define our age have their origins in some of the most basic of scientific principles and were first manifest in the 18th century electric telegraph. But that too had a precedent. Originally, the word “telegraph” –literally “to write at a distance”– referred to a relay communication system developed in 18th-century France by the Brothers Chappe. The Chappe semaphore telegraph consisted of a series of towers topped with three rotating arms or panels that could be moved into nearly 200 standard positions, each assigned a unique value or meaning. Messages could be relayed across vast distances by transmitting from one tower or hill (hence, “Telegraph Hill”) to another up to 15 miles away; operators used telescopes to observe and decode the message before doing the hard work of cranking their own semaphore panels into place to relay the message further down the line.
It was the fastest way to send messengers and in the early 19th century a young but battle-weary American government offered $30,000 (roughly $440,000 today) to anyone who could build a semaphore telegraph system spanning 1,000 miles. It seemed an impossible task. The challenge was largely ignored and promptly forgotten – but never rescinded. Years later, in 1837, Samuel Morse would hear of the offer and approach Congress with an invention that must have seemed like magic or some sort of hoax.
Though best known today for the coded system of dots and dashes that (perhaps unjustly) bears his name, Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) started out as a promising painter. By 1815, the young Morse was making a solid living as a portraitist. As is wont to happen for young artists (not to mention young countries), Morse’s fortunes rose and fell dramatically for the next few years as he traveled back and forth between America and Europe, eventually painting The Louvre, which he hoped would be a masterpiece of the caliber never seen by American audiences. In 1832, Morse boarded The Sully and set sail for his return to America, but during the month-long voyage, his life would change course dramatically.
Aboard the Sully, Morse had a conversation with a fellow passenger about recent experiments in electromagnetism. Although he was completely ignorant of the scientific principles behind the discovery, he became fascinated by the possibility of sending coded messages over a wire. Morse made a few impossible sketches describing a system of an electromagnet and basic stylus to transcribe a primitive code and left the ship determined to realize his invention, reportedly telling the captain as he departed, “If you ever hear of the ‘telegraph’ as one of the wonders of the world, remember that it was invented on the Sully.”
Over the next five years, Morse would slowly develop his idea while continuing to paint, teach at New York Univeristy, and flirt with poverty. Unsurprising given Morse’s complete naiveté reading electricity, there was a lot of trial and error in the early development of the telegraph and, although popular histories tend to perpetuate the myth of the individual genius who single-handedly changes the world, there were many other people were critical in the development of the telegraph.
Leonard Gale, a chemistry instructor at NYU, taught a struggling Morse how to make a basic electromagnet and helped him assemble a primitive apparatus that could send a signal of 1,000 feet. Joseph Henry, a pioneer in electromagnetics, developed the electric relays that made it possible for telegraph signals to travel great distances (and later became the first Secretary of the Smithsonian.) Some the greatest contributions came from Alfred Vail, Morse’s assistant and the son of one of his benefactors, who was largely responsible for developing the coded system of dots and dashes that would ultimately bear Morse’s’ name.
By 1837 Morse had completed a prototype of the device he first sketched aboard the Sully. Built from one of his easels, it was far too large and incredibly rudimentary, but it worked.
The prototype was really just a proof-of-concept used to get Morse the $30,000 offered by the government long ago. Congress begrudgingly funded the project and in 1844 the famous first telegraph message traveled almost instantaneously across the 40 miles between Baltimore and Washington D.C.: “What Hath God Wrought.” America had entered the information Age. The telegraph exploded. Within the next 10 years, 23,000 miles of telegraph wire crossed the country and the made a significant impact on westward development. New business emerged and new jobs were created to install and maintain the system of wires.
Though Morse’s name ended up on all the patents, it was the inventive and unaccredited Vail who came up with the familiar telegraph key and was responsible for miniaturizing the machine to make it practical. Over the course of their collaboration, Morse and Vail developed several other designs for a telegraph and spent a lot of time in court, defending their patents from infringement.
Other inventors and designers always found ways around Morse’s patents, creating improved, or at the very least, idiosyncratic, versions of the telegraph.
Various machines were developed and abandoned, operating companies were formed and disbanded, and lines were built and broken, but the telegraph lived on, slowly connecting the country and significantly aiding westward expansion. By the 1860s, most of these patents had been bought by the upstart Western Union Telegraph Company, who combined the best aspects of every telegraph design and gave order to the now transcontinental telegraph network. For the first time, space and time collapsed in 19th century America and suddenly great distances didn’t seem so great.
May 22, 2013
Our recent post on the history of the cuckoo clock inspired some research into other examples of early, non-timekeeping robot birds. For centuries, birds–pigeons and canaries in particular–have been a popular subject for inventors and engineers experimenting with early mechanical systems and robotics. Take, for example, Bubo, the ancient clockwork owl seen in the 1981 film Clash of The Titans. Bubo was forged by Hephaestus to aid Perseus in his quest and Bubo was, of course, purely fictional. There were however, actual avian automatons in actual ancient Greece.
The earliest example dates to 350 B.C.E. when the mathematician Archytas of Tarentum, who some credit with inventing the science of mechanics, is said to have created a mechanical wooden dove capable of flapping its wings and flying up to 200 meters, powered by some sort of compressed air or internal steam engine. Archytas’ invention is often cited as the first robot, and, in light of recent technological advancements, perhaps we could even consider it to be the first drone; the very first machine capable of autonomous flight. Very few details are actually known about the ancient mechanical dove, but it seems likely that it was connected to a cable and flew with the help of a pulley and counterweight. This early wind-up bird was chronicled a few hundred years later in the pages of a scientific text by a mathematician, Hero of Alexandria.
In his treatise on pneumatics, Hero also outlined his own designs for several different types of artificial birds that could move and sing in response to flowing water that pushed air through small tubes and whistles concealed within his carved birds. From these basic designs, the interest and intrigue surrounding mechanical birds, and automatons in general, only grew as the centuries passed.
It’s well known that Leonard da Vinci was fascinated by the idea of human flight. He obsessively observed the motion of birds in flight and created dozens of designs for flying machines of all shapes and sizes – from bat-winged gliders to corkscrew helicopters. He dissected and diagrammed bird wings in efforts to unlock the secrets of flight, recording everything in a codex dedicated to flight written in the early 16th century. Around that same time, da Vinci used what he learned to create a mechanical bird for a stage production. The bird was by all accounts a relatively simple thing that flapped its wings via a mechanism activated as it descended down a cable. During da Vinci’s day, such high-wire birds were used in Florence as part of the “Scoppio del Carro” tradition, during which a mechanical dove known as the “Columbina” is used to help ignite a cart of fireworks as a way to ring in the Easter Holiday. The tradition continues today. In the incredibly entertaining but historically dubious television series “Da Vinci’s Demons,” the titular artist creates a highly elaborate mechanical dove that bares more of a resembles to Haphaestus’s Bubo than to a simple theatrical prop:
Perhaps the most famous mechanical bird appeared during the 18th century when French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson astounded the public with a duck that could quack, rear up on its legs, bow its neck, flap its wings, drink, eat, and, most impressive, poop. As they say, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck – unless it’s a robot, that is. Vaucanson charged a steep fee to witness his famous clockwork canard and the gold-plated duck quickly became the talk of France, even earning the acknowledgment of Voltaire, who wryly commented, “without the shitting duck of Vaucanson, there would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France.”
Vaucanson alleged that his creation used a complex system of artificial bowels filled with chemicals to “digest” the grain, then evacuate it through the duck’s mechanical sphincter (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write). While it made Vaucanson famous and was surely a hit at parties, the duck’s digestion digestion was a hoax – though still quite impressive. In reality, it used an elaborate mechanical system concealed in the podium wherein grain was collected in one chamber and artificial excrement made of dyed breadcrumbs was released from another. However, the hoax was not revealed for more than 100 years. Long after the digesting duck had been forgotten, it was re-discovered in a pawnshop attic, repaired by Swiss clockmaker, and eventually fell into the hands of magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the man from whom Houdini took his name, before disappearing once again in the late 19th century. Robert-Houdin was also a clockmaker who used his talent to create several of his own elaborate automata.
To perfect his mechanical birds, Robert-Houdin spent his days climbing trees and listening to bird songs, trying to reproducer them on his own. The next step was to create a whistle tuned to a specific birdsong, then figure out a system to play the whistle while animating the bird’s beak and wings in sync with the sound. Houdin then took his mechanical bird a step further. He created an innovative combination of automata that included both a basic android –more specifically, a mechanical woman– and a mechanical canary. The “woman” cranked a serinette –a type of music box often used by real people to teach real canaries to sing– that played a song the canary would then imperfectly imitate. The process was repeated: the woman cranked the serinette again, but on the second turn, the canary’s imitation improved. The process continued until the canary “learned” the song and could reproduce it perfectly. Robert-Houdin’s automaton not only reproduced a song, but also the apparent learning of a song.
There were many other different types of automata built during the centuries that these early robot birds were crafted, but these early robot birds were both displays of technological savvy and reflections of trends (training canaries was all the rage in 19th century France), as well as expressions of man’s efforts to understand and to master the natural world. Our fascination with the mechanics of bird and birdsong continues to this day. In our next post, we’ll look at some of the more recent bird-machine hybrids.