Monday, July 23, 2012

America: Fat and Greedy--But Always Speedy

From time to time I bump into an International traveler visiting America for the first time, and I love to ask what about our country has surprised them most. Inevitably they comment on the giant portions at restaurants, probably a kind way of saying how fat we all are.  One young man last summer said, “You’re all shorter than I expected” (nothing like feeding a complex).  New York, I’m sometimes told by first-time visitors, is dirty but a blur of sound and motion.  California is sunny (even if they haven’t been there yet, and certainly not if they have been to San Francisco).  And all of them want to visit Disney World, though whether that lives up to their expectations, I’m not sure.

While not always pleasant, these critiques are certainly illuminating. Sometimes, too, they take a more serious tone.

From 1946 to 2004, Englishman Alistair Cooke delivered his Letter from America every week on BBC4.  Cooke’s first letter, written when he departed aboard the Queen Mary from a bleak London starved for heat and electricity, is here.  He found eggs and bacon and sausage and pancakes for breakfast five mornings in a row, but stomachs too shrunk from the war’s deprivations for anyone to enjoy the feast more than two consecutive days.  He arrived in a New York City that had been unable to build new hotels during the war and was now unable to accommodate its flood of visitors, taxis hobbling along with doors secured by string, and women (with their complicit husbands standing awkwardly in a second line) hoping to purchase nylons.

Arguably the most famous "international visit" to America ever was that of Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette, second only to Washington as a “rock star” in the early Republic.  Arriving in New York Harbor 122 years before Cooke, he went on a 13-month “Farewell Tour” through 24 states where he received an outpouring of affection, honors and gifts almost daily. In June 1825, before departing, he helped lay the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument.  He also kept a journal, or more accurately, his private secretary, Auguste Lavasseur, did.  It said a lot of things Americans wanted to hear--Lavasseur’s major goal was in publicizing to French Liberals the success of the great American experiment--so it gets re-published regularly.

Lafayette, Dickens and Kipling: Speed

One of the defining characteristics of America, Lavasseur found in 1824, was the speed of the country.  Traveling an average of 11 miles per hour, Lavasseur wrote, “Often we passed through so many villages and so many towns on the same day that my memory could not retain all the names faithfully.” And in Lockport, New York, alongside the building of the Erie Canal, he was struck “with astonishment and admiration.  In no other place have I seen the activity and industry of man grappling with nature as in this burgeoning Town.   Short on necessities to “satisfy the prime needs of life,” he still found “a school in which the children come to be taught while their fathers build the dwelling which is to shelter them,” and “a printing press which each morning gives birth to a newspaper.”

Now skip ahead just 18 years to 1842 when the American railroad had begun to put an end to the canal age, almost before it began. Just 30 years old, renowned British author Charles Dickens visited the country for the first time, writing home to a friend about American railroads.  You walk down the main street of a large town: and, slap-dash, headlong, pell-mell, down the middle of the street; with pigs burrowing, and boys flying kites and playing marbles, and men smoking, and women talking, and children crawling, close to the very rails; there comes tearing along a mad locomotive with its train of cars, scattering a red-hot shower of sparks (from its wood fire) in all directions; screeching, hissing, yelling, and painting; and nobody one atom more concerned than if it were a hundred miles away.” 

Now, jump ahead another 57 years to a second renowned British author. Rudyard Kipling toured Chicago in 1899 and was profoundly unimpressed.   “Having seen it,” he wrote, “I urgently desire never to see it again.  It is inhabited by savages.  Its water is the water of the Hugli, and its air is dirt. . .They told me to go to the Palmer House, which is a gilded and mirrored rabbit-warren, and there I found a huge hall. . .crammed with people talking about money and spitting about everywhere. Other barbarians charged in and out of this inferno with letters and telegrams in their hands. . . there was no colour in the street and no beauty—only a maze of wire ropes overhead and dirty stone flagging underfoot.

Chicago, about 1899
When Kipling hired a cab driver “to show me the glory of the town,” the driver “conceived. . .that it was good to huddle men together in fifteen layers, one atop of the other, and to dig holes in the ground for offices.  He said that Chicago was a live town, and that all the creatures hurrying by me were engaged in business. That is to say, they were trying to make some money.  Then, he concluded, “the papers tell their readers in language fitted to their comprehension that the snarling together of telegraph wires, the heaving up of houses, and the making of money is progress.”

Kipling, of course, gave us a glimpse of America in its Gilded Age--and it wasn’t pretty.  But with “barbarians charging in and out,” and “creatures hurrying by me” engaged in making money, it certainly was speedy.

There are other visitors throughout the years, some more charitable than others.  A countryman of Lafayette and another accomplished statesman, Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, worked in New York City from 1865 to 1869 and summed up his impressions succinctly with, “America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.”

Emil Ludwig and the Future of Speed

The most fascinating visit, however, at least as it anticipated modern times, was from German author and biographer Emil Ludwig, who toured the United States in 1928 and wrote about it for The New York Times.

First, like Lafayette and Kipling, he found everything, everywhere on the move.  “Speed has become the goddess of the new era,” he wrote.  In fact, Ludwig described a scene that can only be termed an early form of "surfing": “When a young man in New York lured me into his motor car and showed me with tokens of much satisfaction how he could listen by radio, while motoring, to the latest jazz hits, and, at the same time, enjoy the details of the latest crimes supplied him in gigantic headlines by the newspapers handed to him as he drove, he seemed to me merely the most scatterbrained youth imaginable—able to appreciate in reality neither the road ahead of him, nor the music, nor the newspapers; capable merely of gliding quite blasé along a warm stream of piled—up sensations.”

Does that not sound a little bit like 2012?

Then Ludwig warned--and this will hit home with my Luddite friends (not to mention Nicholas Carr and maybe Jaron Lanier): “This is man’s memory being weakened. . .for such a person the echo of a talk, of a walk, of a glance at a starry sky, or a letter or a book is lost in the blur of a thousand fleeting images.”

Then, for those of us moderns with a “password problem,” Ludwig addressed the bane of early 20th-century America: numbers.  “For how many numbers does this modern technical age of ours imprint upon the brain of a modern human being, even as it drives out worldly wisdom and the finer feelings!  Numbers, numbers—how many numbers must he retain concerning his motor car, hat, shoes, collar—concerning streets, houses, floors—telephones, street railways, sport scores, exchange quotations. . .Small wonder that, with every brain cell packed to overflowing, he can find no place for poetry, none for aphorisms, none for the precious thoughts of philosophers—none even for God!”

Through it all, Ludwig noted, Americans appeared better adapted to such a world.  More charitably than Kipling in Chicago a generation before, he wrote, “I marveled at the calmness of people in the turmoil of the streets, the riot of numbers, the confusion of mechanized melodies and noises—everything.”  Europeans had experienced quiet for centuries, he said, whereas “Americans trained from early youth in the hard school of impressionability and strife.”

Again, reflecting a fear many of us feel now, Ludwig wrote that there would be no more legends created.   “Now that every happening becomes known. . .to the whole world within a few hours, the mystic veils behind which men in earlier days sought to make themselves better or their foes worse are rent asunder, and reality is revealed beyond fear of distortion. Gutenberg was reproached with having overcome priests and kings and made himself the first democrat in a new world; similarly, the inventors of the rapid tempo of modernity, of the wireless telephone, of the reproduction of word, tone and image, may be credited with having speeded up this development one thousandfold.”

Finally, in what can only be called a “pre-Twitter moment,” Ludwig remarked on the incredible ability of two lovers to communicate across the sea: ”Let us imagine him, during those embarrassed moments which always occur in love talks, whispering to her: ‘Speak—just speak—no matter what you say!’”

So, my fellow American: we are fat, we crave money, we multitask to the detriment of God and our neighbors, we speak without having anything to say, and we do it all at chaotic, breakneck speeds.

I think it must be true. 200 years of international visits can’t be completely wrong.

Though, maybe someday we should clue them in about doggie bags.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Weathermakers to the World 2.0 (Behind the scenes, again, sort of)

The former site of Sackett & Wilhelms, today's ISPC.
Picture the second floor circa 1902 with 60 multi-color
presses and a weekly deadline to churn out Judge magazine.
On July 16 I had the opportunity--thanks to UTC Climate, Controls and Security/Carrier, CBS This Morning, ISPC Brooklyn (and here) and CooperKatz, to tour the former Sackett & Wilhelms printing facility (circa 1900 till sometime in the 1920s) in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.  After researching the history of air conditioning for a year and launching Weathermakers to the World at the Library of Congress (and here), this really was a special treat--to visit "ground zero" where Willis Carrier's invention of modern air conditioning was first installed and operated.

To steal a phrase from Lexington and Concord, it was at Sackett & Wilhelms that "the cool, dry blast felt round the world" originated.  (By the way, if you want to see some of the things S&W printed, see here.  They were a well-known, high end NYC printer that did, among other products, Judge magazine--see here for images.  Spoiler alert: It was Judge that was giving S&W fits.)  

I was never so excited to stand next to rusty old
pipes in my entire life.  This is where the cool water from
a local well entered the building and was pumped into the
first a/c apparatus.
In other words, air conditioning started in a factory, and it was first and foremost about humidity control and only later about temperature.  In fact, it would take about 30 years for a residential market to evolve, and another 20 (thanks to Depression and War) for a/c to really escape its industrial orbit and migrate to the urban apartment and suburbs.  When it did, though, it did so with a vengeance.  The Huffington Post article here has a good summary of Weathermakers, and of this migration.  The New York Times also did a great city blog feature here.

Anyway, for a visit to the Sackett & Wilhelms site, see the CBS This Morning video segment here

And, of course, if you want to put Willis Carrier on Mt. Rushmore--on this, a 96F in Boston--click here.   

The original blueprints return to the building 110 years
later, with our CBS The Morning cameraman watching me
pretend that I know how to read them.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Weathermakers to the World - Behind the Scenes

The Mechanical Weather Man, a fixture
of Carrier advertising in the 1920s.
copyright © 2012 Carrier Corporation · a UTC company
Throughout much of 2011 I labored away on a history of Carrier Corporation at the kind invitation of the good folks at Carrier, now part of UTC Climate, Controls and Security.  The mission, which involved a small team of talented people at the company (see here for the official website) and equally talented folks at the Pinckney-Hugo Group in Syracuse (who designed the book), was to deliver a coffee-table history of the company focused on its founder, Willis Carrier, and its century-plus record of leadership, innovation, and sustainability.

Our book team wanted to avoid the typical corporate history tome, full of mind-numbing 6-point font and a 450-page throw-weight.  In fact, we were kind of thinking “cool museum,” where you might see an artifact that you like and decide it’s worth reading about.  Whenever I forgot this point I would hear the gentle reminder from my teammates, “less text, more pictures, Eric.”

Launching at the Library of Congress
Earlier this month we launched the final product of our labors, Weathermakers to the World, at the Library of Congress on a suitably tropic 99F day in Washington, D.C.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Two-Wheeled Singularity

Readers to this blog know that from time to time I mention the Singularity, which, if science (and science fiction) writers are correct, will descend upon humankind sometime around 2045.  It’s the moment when machines will finally be smart enough to build even smarter versions of themselves, and build themselves into us, in ways that are so complex that no human intervention is, or possibly could be, required.

Nobody quite knows what the Singularity will look like--we have a fancy term for that kind of befuddlement called an “event horizon”--or how fast it will go, or if it means good things or bad for the human race.  (The first Singularity was the move from hunting to farming, the second the Industrial Revolution. That's two wins. Feels like we might be due for a loss.) Becoming one with machines frankly doesn’t sound like that much fun; it’s a kind of evolution, but one that Charles Darwin didn’t cover in his last chapter.

Needless to say, I was interested to learn that there was something akin to the Singularity that occurred in the United States in the 1890s.  First introduced to Americans at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the bicycle had by 1895 become a national mania all its own with bike clubs and weekend rambles convening from sea to shining sea.

We know a little bit about manias--what happened to genealogy after Roots, martial arts after Karate Kid, golf after Tiger Woods 1.0.  In fact, by the mid-1890s Americans had suffered through the first mania for golf and another for tennis shortly before the bicycle arrived on the scene.

By the 1890s, bicycle sales in the United States reached $100M annually, a most healthy industry for the times.  Everyone was riding.

In 1898, scientist and inventor William John McGee wrote about the bicycle in classic American terms; it “first aroused invention, next stimulated commerce, and then developed individuality, judgment, and prompt decision on the part of the users more rapidly and completely than any other device.”  It was not simply a hobby, McGee believed, but a technology that informed and uplifted in a uniquely American way.

My great-grandmother, Alice Conant, heading out in
style.  Note the smokestacks of the Gilded Age behind her.
Alice was born in 1870 and I won't even try to guess her
age in this picture except to say it's "circa close."
“For although,” he continued cheerily, “association with machines of all kind. . .develops character, the bicycle is the easy leader of other machines in shaping the mind of its rider, and transforming itself and its rider into a single thing.”  

Come again?  Machines develop character? The bicycle is shaping the mind of its rider, transforming the bike and rider into a single thing?  Isn’t that what happens in the Singularity, when human and machine become one?

Of course, we laugh.  How quaint.  But remember the first time you rode a bike, probably as a child?  It was an incredibly empowering experience, one step short of flying.  Imagine a nation of 60 million people being exposed to that phenomenon, nearly simultaneously.

It would have been nothing short of mystical, just as future generations will (laugh at us and) try to understand our reaction to the iPhone, which not so long ago was referred to by some as the “Jesus Phone.”  In other words, maybe we’re no less immune to mystical experiences with our technology now than we were in 1895.

The last time I felt like I was truly one with a machine--and the machine was in control--was when I was speeding down a very steep, ice-covered hill on one of those crazy flying saucers. People were shouting, "Steer by leaning! Steer by leaning!"


Anyway, that was my last brush with the Singularity, and, while it didn’t put me in the hospital,  it didn’t make me very happy, either.  Moreover, I have a wee bit of anxiety that when the real Singularity arrives and a Google goggle sprouts spontaneously from my cornea, the good folks in Silicon Valley are going to advise that my best option is to “Steer by leaning.”

What the Bicycle Did

Not only did the bicycle take our great-grandparents on a mystical adventure, but it did a couple of other important things for the country.  Bicycle ads were the first, for example, where women were depicted outside the home in non-domestic settings.   The bicycle club--like today’s Starbucks in certain countries--was a safe and acceptable place for members of the opposite sex to associate.

Riding a bike in a skirt?  But then
I remembered, when I was in
high school, the girls' basketball
team still wore skirts.  Fortunately,
we evolve.
 The bicycle was also an important family member of the primary mechanic trades, which descended from firearms to sewing machines to bicycles to the automobile.  Many talented mechanics participated in two or three of those trades during their lifetimes, shepherding knowledge across the decades and industries.  In American Tool Making and Interchangeable Manufacturing, Joseph Woodworth argues that the manufacture of the bicycle highlighted the capabilities of the American mechanic like nothing else—”in the design and manufacture of special machinery, tools, fixtures, and the installation of the interchangeable system of manufacturing in a thousand and one shops, once thought to be impractical.”  

Indeed, bicycle manufacture helped to develop sheet metal stamping and electric resistance welding techniques that Henry Ford would credit as important contributors to his assembly line.
On top of it all, the bicycle boom of the 1890s helped the nation weather the depression of 1893.

Pretty impressive, the America bicycle.  Of course, if you want to experience that same sense of two-wheeled Singularity now you have to cough up $5K for a titanium frame and wear a get-up that would fit well at auditions of the Big Apple Circus.  And then you can ride 35 sweaty miles on a Sunday morning with a dozen others from your local cycling club, show up at my local breakfast diner, take over all the tables so real customers can’t be served, stink up the place with your sweat and banana pancakes while you pour on the fake syrup and sneak outside for cigarettes and pretend you’re actually being healthy by cycling and then leave crummy tips for the wait-staff and the seat of every chair sticky from syrup and damp from your derrieres.

Oops. . . 

Didn’t mean for that to all come out, my serious cycling friends.  

But I must say, given the current version of the two-wheeled Singularity, a Google goggle in the cornea suddenly doesn’t seem so awfully bad.