November 21, 2013
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, a pall was cast over the country that some people say we’ve never emerged from. It is thought to represent a loss of innocence, or at the very least, a loss of naiveté that forever changed the country in a profound way. But on a more local level, it also also changed Dallas’s Dealey Plaza – not physically, but symbolically and emotionally. It changed the meaning of the urban park.
Dealey Plaza wasn’t always a symbol of loss or a sight of conspiracy. It was built in the late 1930s as a symbol of optimism, an Art Deco, automotive gateway into Dallas that was part of a larger, only partially realized Civic Center Plan designed by city engineers. Though parts of Dealey Plaza (named after an early publisher of the Dallas Morning News) are still quite beautiful, especially after a recent renovation by architects Good Fulton & Farrell, the area is forever marred by Kennedy’s assassination and visited by thousands of curious tourists each year hoping to get some insight into this particularly dark point in American history. Perhaps no other place in America has been as thoroughly documented, as exhaustively measured, mapped, modeled, photographed, and even acoustically tested.
A long time ago, on my own first trip to Dallas I was shocked to see a small ‘X’ painted in the road, marking the precise spot where Kennedy was sitting at the moment he was shot. At the time I thought it was an official monument but I’ve since learned that it is maintained by one of the conspiracy theorists who holds court near the assassination site. From the grassy knoll, you can see the X, the permanently open window on the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shot that killed the President. Along the perimeter of the plaza were vendors selling books, magazines and DVDs describing myriad conspiracy theories, some of which were elaborated on in posters and flyers. It seemed to me that Dealey Plaza had become a built manifestation of one of those obsessively assembled conspiracy maps that TV detectives inevitably find in the apartments of psychopaths. The only thing missing was string connecting everything together.
Every visitor to the plaza is drawn to the former Book Depository, a building that came close to becoming another casualty of Dealey Plaza. Originally erected in 1901 as a warehouse for the Chicago-based Rock island Plow Company, the seven-story brick building was built on the foundations of a previous structure that burned earlier that year. Its architect is unknown, but the masonry-constructed Romanesque building appropriately bears some resemblance to very early Chicago skyscrapers, exemplified by H.H. Richardson’s Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store and the work of Adler and Sullivan (which, though visually similar, was pioneering in its use of steel-frame construction). Rock Island owned the building until 1937, after which time it was sold and changed hands, housing a variety of tenants. By 1963 a tenant was in place in that would forever be associated with the building: the Texas School Book Depository.
The Texas School Book Depository operated in the building for 7 years after the assassination, and after they moved out the building gradually fell into disrepair. For years after the assassination, there were those people who believed that the building should be razed, but the city wouldn’t grant demolition permits even as local politicians were doing everything they could to discourage further associations between the city and the assassination. Their efforts were, of course, in vain. The site was heavily visited throughout the 70s and there was intense curiosity about the building and the assassin’s perch.
In 1977 the building at 411 Elm Street was bought by Dallas County, renovated, and reopened in 1981 as the Dallas County Administration Building. But the sixth floor remained unoccupied. According to the National Register of Historic Places (pdf), which recognized the Dealey Plaza district in 1978, “it’s strong negative historical associates made it unsuitable for use as County offices.” Plus, there was already talk of opening some sort of museum to answer the questions of the many visitors while also preventing “the proliferation of private ventures” looking to capitalize on the area’s historic significance.
That wouldn’t happen until 1989 when The Sixth Floor Museum finally opened, restored and adapted under the general supervision of architects Eugene George and James Hendricks. A collaboration between Dallas County and the non-profit Dallas County Historical Foundation, the Sixth Floor Museum “chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.”
It is a way to partially transform the building from a place imbued with malice, regret and morbid curiosity, to a place of education, understanding… and morbid curiosity. The museum has been designed to maintain the integrity of the building and the feeling of the warehouse space, as well as the views out onto Dealey Plaza. Though no original evidence is on display, two areas–the sniper’s perch in the far southeast corner and the spot where the rifle was found–have been authentically restored to almost exactly the way they looked on November 22, 1963 using original photos and duplicate book boxes. These two areas are protected by glass walls, preserved as a piece of American history.
The assassination of President Kennedy charged the area with new meaning. Once nothing more than an ambitious piece of urban planning, Dealey Plaza and the former Book Depository building now make up the most famous crime scene in America. 50 years later it remains a symbol of a national tragedy and the failure of one of the world s greatest powers to to protect its leader. To close, this excerpt from the National Register of Historic Places seemed quite apt.
“Dictators and emperors have leveled cities and sown their ground with salt for acts of regicide. But a democracy may [face] a harder test. It may encourage the preservation of sites of pain and horror, as well as triumph and grandeur. Dealey Plaza’s sad fate is to have the former far outweigh the latter.”
November 8, 2013
October 28 marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the end for New York’s old Pennsylvania Station. It took three years and countless hours of manpower to tear down what was the fourth-largest building in the world. In remembrance of the station, last Wednesday the Center for Architecture held the event, Lights, Camera, Demolition: Penn Station Recalled on Stage & In Pictures. The highlight was a reading of a The Eternal Space, a new play about the unlikely relationship between two men – a construction worker photographing the station as he tears it down and an aging professor determined to save it. Photographs documenting the entire life of Penn Station–some famous, some never seen–are critical to the play, serving as a background for the actors, silently telling the story of a changing city and offering their own compelling provocations alongside a compelling debate about progress, preservation, and of course, Pennsylvania Station.
Following a reading of the play, a panel was convened to discuss the station, its legacy, and the photographs that continue to inspire. Panelists included playwright Justin Rivers, myself, noted biographer of Penn Station Lorraine Dhiel, and renown photographer Norman McGrath, whose vast archive of personal photos includes hundreds of never-before-seen images documenting the demolition of Penn Station, photos that feature prominently in the play (and in this post).
Pennsylvania Station was designed by McKim, Mead, and White in 1902. McKim, a Beaux-Arts educated architect and co-founder of the American Academy in Rome, was the lead designer on the project which was a grand display of his idiosyncratic Beaux-Arts Classicism. He draws inspiration from the great train stations of Europe, the Baths of Caracalla, John Soane’s Bank of England, and surely myriad other sources, all artfully combined into a monumental pink granite structure. It was a testament to the our technological prowess, craftsmanship, and artistry. It was a monument to our culture; a station scaled to the ambitions of a country at the peak of its power – a modern Rome. And indeed, at times it seemed that all tracks lead to New York – or, to be more specific, Penn Station. It was to be a gateway to the city.
But times change. And cities change. By 1963, New York was a very different place and Penn Station was no longer the gateway into the city. New highways and air travel gave travelers more, sometimes better, options. And while automotive infrastructure was being built by governments, privately owned railways were going bankrupt and bleeding passengers. In a time of high speed and efficiency, Pennsylvania Station was a decadent, inspiring and expensive masterpiece. As it fell into decay and disrepair, the owners of the railroad believed they had no choice but to sell the rights to build on their valuable property, making it possible for a new, modern, and incredibly ugly Madison Square Garden to rise where Penn Station stood, while the while the waiting rooms, ticketing areas, and train concourses were pushed underground. The opposition to the demolition was led by a small but local group, but at the time the city was powerless to stop it. And it seems that few New Yorkers held the station in high regard because although the Penn Station that exists in the popular imaginary looks like this:
The station was quite a bit worse for wear in 1963:
McGrath’s color photos of Penn Station’s demolition capture the vast spaces in all its Piranesian glory and communicate a sense of its scale in an almost morbid way. The demolition may have been an ignoble end to a truly beautiful building but it was undeniably sublime.
By the time of its demolition, Penn was full of unsightly newspaper kiosks, advertisements, and an jarring, modernist ticket counter that drastically changed the circulation through the building’s waiting room. But that is not the Penn Station we remember. There’s a line in The Eternal Space about a soldier who died in World War II: “how perfect he seems in death.” The same could be said about the station. Penn Station lives on through widely distributed photographs depicting the station at the peak of its monumental grandeur, such as those seen at the top of this post. The Penn Station we miss–even those of us who weren’t even a gleam in our father’s eye at the the time of its demolition–is one that hadn’t existed for a long time. And yet, these photos create a longing.
Wednesday night it occurred to me that contemporary architectural renderings serve a similar purpose. A good rendering of a beautiful design evokes a sort of reverse nostalgia; not a longing for something that’s gone, but a longing for something to exist. They can be incredibly convincing and they can reach a massive audience incredibly quickly. Renderings have become powerful tools for architects, planners, and developers. Are they informative? No doubt. Are they manipulative? Maybe a little.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
After all, the nostalgia-provoking photos of old Penn were/are manipulative in their own way. Images of a pristine Penn Station were used by advocacy groups to sway public sentiment and garner support for new policy, eventually leading to new legislation and the formation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission – the first organization in the city empowered to protect New York’s architectural heritage.
But that’s all in the past. There’s a lot of talk these days about the future of Penn Station thanks to the recent decision by New York City Planning Commission to renew Madison Square Garden’s permit for only 10 years and a design competition recently organized by the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), who invited four prominent local architects to submit a vision of Penn Station’s future. These projects are described in length on the MAS site but I just wanted to focus on one project –one image, really– that I think really starts to get at this idea of inverse nostalgia:
This rendering from Shop feels so well thought-out. It seems to have been carefully designed to imitate the iconic photos of New York’s two great train stations. To speculate a bit, I think architectural renderings in general will become more influential as they evolve to either become 1) more realistic, and/or 2) more artistic – that is to say, able to be considered a work of art, or at the very least to be able to evoke an emotional response. I think the above rendering is more a case of the latter. The soft lighting, the sunbeams, the massive space and sense of scale. It’s beautiful. And it evokes some halcyon past. This photo of Grand Central came immediately to mind:
Images have power. Even before this recent discussion about moving Madison Square Garden, Penn Station has had a hold on New Yorkers’ imagination thank largely to its photographs. As for its future – what should a modern Penn Station be like? Should there even be a new Penn Station? Those are questions people will be asking a lot over the next 10 years. Architects will talk about sustainability and new technologies and radical formal possibilities, and civic space –all important considerations to be sure– but at the end of the day, if there is going to be a new Penn Station it should be beautiful. It needs to satiate that longing and mitigate that sense of loss felt every time we see a picture of what was or an image of what could be.
October 31, 2013
It’s not Halloween until you’ve carved a pumpkin.
But as the clock ticks down to All Hallows Eve—and you scramble to outdo that smug Heisenberg grin your neighbor carefully carved last weekend—you might have stepped back from the kitchen table, cursing the slimy, stringy gourd innards tangled around your hands, and wondered why you were doing this to yourself.
(Or, perhaps, if the money you dropped on that electric pumpkin carving knife was really worth it).
All arrows seem to point to an old Irish legend about a man named Stingy Jack, who convinced the devil not to send him to hell for his sins when he died. The trick was on Jack, though, when he did die later—heaven shut him out, too, for bargaining with the man downstairs, and he was left to wander and haunt the Earth. Irish families began to carve crude, wild faces into turnips or potatoes come Halloween, illuminating them with candles to scare Jack and other wandering spirits away.
When immigrants brought the tradition to America in the 19th century, pumpkins became the vehicle for ghoulish faces. In 2012, Farmers harvested 47,800 acres of pumpkins in 2012, crops worth $149 million, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. This year, the National Retail Federation estimates consumers will spend $6.9 billion on Halloween products, including those handy carving tools and kits.
The genius behind those tools is a group smaller than you might think. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says there have been fewer than 50 (probably closer to 30) patents issued for pumpkin or vegetable carving tools or kits, most of them issued in the past 40 years.
And while today we’ve become obsessed with clever ways to carve a pumpkin (yes, extremepumpkins.com does exist) most inventions stick to the classic Jack-o-Lantern face.
One of the earliest patents relied on simple tools — cords, plates and screws— to allow even the youngest and clumsiest among us to create a scary-looking gourd.
Harry Edwin Graves, from Toledo, Ohio—a state that yields the third highest number pumpkins in the United States each year—earned a patent in 1976 for his invention, which he called simply an “apparatus for forming a jack-o-lantern.”
Graves knew, according to his application, that “It has been a very difficult, if not impossible, task for small children to make their own jack-o-lantern from a pumpkin” because the thick wall of the vegetable can be tough to puncture using kid-sized hands and arms.
His solution: a metal or plastic contraption that surrounded the pumpkin, with small plates in the shapes of a mouth, nose and eyes. By slipping the invention over the pumpkin, children can turn a screw on the front of each facial feature, engaging a blade that cuts through the shell and then retracts.
But threading plates together—or wielding a steak knife—was still for many a cumbersome task.
And so with the 1980s—along with cringe-worthy neon clothing choices, MTV, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince—came a decade bursting with new patents for carving pumpkins.
In 1981, Christopher A. Nauman, of Frederick, Maryland, earned a patent for a method of carving Jack-o-Lanterns that was safer, he said, because it relied on cookie-cutter facial features and not carving objects.
While using cookie cutter shapes wasn’t a new idea, Nauman distinguished his design by contouring the cookie cutters to better fit against the curved surface of the pumpkin. And, when users hit the top edge of each shape, the cookie cutter presses directly through the pumpkin, which means users don’t have to go searching for pins or knives to pry the cookie cutters out of the pumpkin’s face.
Cookie cutter-shapes were also the inspiration for Thomas C. Albanese’s design, but his 1987 patent—which he claimed could “overcome the shortcomings of the prior art”—included a detachable handle. The handle gives enough leverage to push the beveled edge of the shapes, from eyebrows to crooked teeth, through the pumpkin wall; the hollow shapes also hold on to the cut piece of pumpkin as it’s removed from the gourd, so stray hunks of the shell aren’t trapped inside the lantern, though admittedly that last step seems to work better in theory than in practice.
But the real advent of what we know today as pumpkin carving kits came in the late 1980s, thanks to a man named Paul John Bardeen.
Bardeen, according to patent documents, is considered among the first to develop tools that allowed Halloween lovers to carve intricate designs on their pumpkins, instead of crude, block-shaped faces.
He developed new saws and small knives, but more importantly, pattern sheets, which allowed pumpkin carvers to take a lot of the guesswork out of the process.
Bardeen died in 1983, but his children, wanting to continue his legacy, formed a company now known as Pumpkin Masters to sell the kits and continue to dream up ways to simplify or improve the carving process.
Bardeen apparently never filed a patent of his own, but his son, John P. Bardeen, used his father’s design to earn his own patent on a pumpkin carving kit in 1989, taking the kit to the mass market for the first time. The kit packaged slightly more sophisticated saws and drills with a number of pattern sheets, decorated with a series of holes in the shapes of facial features and other designs. Carvers used a corsage pin to poke holes through the surface of the pumpkin, and after removing the sheets, connected the dots with cutting tools to form faces or drawings of cats and bats. A bonus: the kit also included an instruction book that detailed which tools to use when carving some of the kit’s designs.
Bardeen’s kit got traction in the late 1980s when he appeared on “Monday Night Football” with a pumpkin carved to show the likeness of the show’s hosts; he reportedly (did he or didn’t he? We can’t confirm?) went on a “pumpkin tour” in the years that followed, carving pumpkins for “Seinfeld” and the “Today Show,” among other stars, and perhaps sparking new imagination behind the lanterns people put out on their porches.
But even after etching words, animals and celebrity faces into pumpkins became all the rage, the market for new pumpkin tools kept chugging to the tune of “Pumpkin Carving for Dummies”- or, more recently, avoiding the actual act of carving all together.
In 2000, John P. Bardeen’s former wife, Kea Bardeen, developed a kit that included transfer sheets so consumers could literally “slap and go.” Some sheets are pre-made, already stamped with bright colors, while others are drawn without color or blank, so they can be decorated and embellished with markers and paints. The designs are pressed and transferred onto the surface of the pumpkin with a transfer sheet and paste, water solvent or glue.
The beauty of this design, for those who despise the thought of spending days picking stray pumpkin seeds off the floor, is choosing how much work to put into your pumpkin. It would be especially useful for young children, as the kit is essentially a giant coloring book (that makes, compared to paper and crayons, just a bit more of a mess). But going this route—which more or less makes your creation irrelevant after dark—is technically just pumpkin painting, an activity most of us preferred to put behind us come kindergarten.
Enter the lazy man (or woman)’s way to carve.
In 2001, Michael A. Lani developed carving plates that poke holes into a pumpkin’s surface, but unlike Bardeen’s design, this invention does the hard work for you. The design involves a flexible plastic plate with pins arranged in the shape of a Jack-O-Lantern face, which lets you poke the design into a pumpkin with just a simple push of the plate — much faster than working through dozens of holes with a single corsage pin.
And for those of us for whom pins are too much work — or really need to let out some of that anger from the office— the Halloween pumpkin punch out kit might be the best option. The 2008 design by Laraine and Randy Reffert of Ohio includes metal facial features that you quite literally punch through the surface of the pumpkin, usually with a hammer.
But even pumpkin carving has had to eventually join the electronics age.
In 2009, a group of inventors from Ohio patented an electric knife with a blade adapted to cut through the shell and pulp of a pumpkin—but, thankfully, “not readily cut the skin and flesh of humans.”
The knife, though plastic, allows for “faster, more precise carving of pumpkins with less physical force being required.” The knife, powered by batteries, is turned on or off with a push button on the front of the handle so you can stop and go as needed.
Now, everyone from Martha Stewart to the Boston Red Sox have printable templates on their site — and there are even ways you can carve any picture into the front of a pumpkin, too.
It seems the bar for Jack-O-Lanterns is climbing each year, and if you want to keep up it could be time to call in the big guns. A Google search for electric pumpkin carving knives didn’t yield any products from Emerald Innovations, LCC, to whom the patent is licensed, but similar products are available for anywhere from $4 to $34 — which could just be the price of having the best pumpkin on the block.
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.