Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation



Pioneering modern designer Ruth Adler Schnee’s bold textiles have broad appeal. Her furnishing and drapery fabrics were favorites of the everyday consumer and leading architects alike, including Minoru Yamasaki, Paul Rudolph, and Buckminster Fuller. Adler Schnee’s textiles, which feature vivid color and abstracted organic forms, added whimsy and depth to the sleek, minimal aesthetic popular in the mid-century period.

Learn more about Ruth's work in this video, and see examples of her designs in this expert set.

design, furnishings, women's history

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"Happy Macintosh" icon from the book, Icons: Selected Work from 1983-2011, available at the Benson Ford Research Center.

It’s 1984. Turn on your Macintosh computer. Marvel at the convenience of the mouse under your hand. Point the arrow on your screen towards a desktop folder and click to open a file. Drag it and drop it somewhere else. Or, open some software. How about MacPaint? Select the pencil, draw some craggy lines; use the spilling paint bucket to fill in a shape. Move your arrow to the floppy disk to save your work. And then… imagine a worst-case scenario, as the ticking wristwatch times out. A pixelated cartoon bomb with a lit fuse appears. Your system crashes. The “sad Mac” appears.

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The Macintosh Personal Computer introduced Susan Kare’s icons to the world in 1984.

Introducing the Icon
Computer icons are visual prompts that when clicked on, launch programs and files, trigger actions, or indicate a process in motion. Clicking an icon is a simple gesture that we take for granted. In our current screen-based culture—spread between computers and smartphones—we might absent-mindedly use these navigational shortcuts hundreds (if not thousands) of times a day.

Before the mid-1980s, after booting up their computers, people typically found themselves greeted by a command line prompt floating in a black void, waiting for direction. That blinking cursor could seem intimidating for new home computer users because it assumed you knew the answers—that you had memorized the machine’s coded language. The GUI (graphical user interface, pronounced “gooey”) changed how humans interacted with computers by creating a virtual space filled with clickable graphical icons. This user-centric form of interaction, known as “the desktop metaphor,” continues to dominate how we use computers today.

The 1984 Apple Macintosh was not the first computer to use a GUI environment or icons. That achievement belongs to the 1973 Xerox Alto—a tremendously expensive, vertically-screened system that only sold a few hundred units. After a few failed attempts, the multi-tasking GUI system finally found a foothold in the home computing market with the introduction of “the computer for the rest of us”—the Macintosh.

From Graph Paper to Screen Pixels
After completing her PhD in Art History, Susan Kare briefly entered the curatorial sphere before realizing that she would rather dedicate her career to the production of her own creative work. In 1982, Andy Hertzfeld, a friend of Kare’s from high school, called with an interesting opportunity: join Apple Computer’s software group and help design the user experience for the then-developing Macintosh computer. 

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“Floppy Disk” save icon from the book, Icons: Selected Work from 1983-2011, available at the Benson Ford Research Center.

Kare took up Hertzfeld’s offer and set to work designing the original Macintosh icons, among them the trash can, the file folder, the save disk, the printer, the cloverleaf command (even today, this symbol appears on Apple keyboards), and the mysterious “Clarus the Dogcow.”

Since no illustration software existed yet, Kare designed the first Macintosh icons and digital fonts through completely analog means. Using a graph paper notebook, she filled in the squares with pencil and felt-tipped pens, coloring inside the lines of the graph as an approximation of the Macintosh’s screen. Despite the limitation of available pixels, Kare found economical ways to provide the maximum amount of visual or metaphoric meaning within a tiny grid of space—all without using shading or color.

Next Wave
Kare’s icons and digital fonts exist beyond the lifespan of the Macintosh, appearing in later Apple products and even early iPods. Iterations and mutations of her icon designs continue to define the visual shorthand of our desktops and software today, migrating across systems and platforms: NeXT Computers, IBM and Windows PCs. Have you ever played Solitaire on a Windows 3.0 computer? If so, you’ve played with Kare’s digital deck of cards.

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A physical version of Susan Kare’s Windows 3.0 Solitaire game.

Have you ever sent a “virtual gift” over Facebook like a disco ball, penguin, or kiss mark? Again, this is the work of Kare, whose work has been quietly shaping our interactions with technology since 1984—making computers seem more friendly, more human, more convenient—one click at a time. 

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Disco ball “party” icon from the book,
Icons: Selected Work from 1983-2011, available at the Benson Ford Research Center.

skare6Kare-designed bandana and tea towels woven on a Jacquard loom.

Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

communication, design, by Kristen Gallerneaux, technology, computers, women's history

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Portrait of Aloha Wanderwell Baker, 1922-1928, THF274629

Secretary. Driver. Mechanic. Lecturer. Explorer. Cinematographer. Filmmaker. All of these job titles, and many more, were held by one extraordinary woman in the 1920s. Her global adventures, visiting more than 40 countries on four continents, earned her the moniker, “The World’s Most Widely Traveled Girl.” And throughout it all, Aloha Wanderwell Baker challenged societal norms, built a career for herself, and created an inspiring legacy of curiosity and resourcefulness.

The young woman who would become Aloha Wanderwell Baker was born Idris Galcia Hall in Winnipeg, Alberta, Canada, in 1906. After her father was killed in action at the Third Battle of Ypres during World War I, Idris’ mother decided to move with both of her daughters to Europe. Young Idris, enrolled in a French convent school, longed for adventure and world travel. According to her memoir, Call to Adventure!, she was a girl who, “desired to sleep with the winds of heaven blowing around her head, and who preferred the canopy of stars and the Mediterranean moon to the handsome but dust-catching and air-repelling draperies of the school furnishings.” With these yearnings, Idris’ time at the school would not be long.

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Captain Walter Wanderwell Business Card, THF274644

In 1922, young Idris’ future would be forever changed when a traveler known as Captain Walter Wanderwell arrived in Nice, France. Cap, as he was more commonly known, was Polish-born Valerian Johnannes Pieczynski. In 1919, Cap and his wife Nell founded the Work Around the World Educational Club, or WAWEC, to promote world peace, provide educational opportunities, and monitor global disarmament. To accomplish these goals, Nell and Cap competed in a global driving race, the winner being the team to rack up the most miles. Along the way, the teams would sell promotional pamphlets, host lectures, and screen their adventure films as a means to raise money and educate the public. Corporate funds were also sought, such as Cap contacting Henry Ford in 1922 about purchasing the negatives for educational films that were shot. By the time Cap wrote that letter to Ford, he and Nell were physically separated, in Europe and North America, and essentially separated in their marriage.

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Correspondence between Ford Motor Company and Walter Wanderwell, 1921-1922, THF274639

And so it was in Nice, in October 1922, that Cap and Idris’ paths would cross, and her future would forever be changed. In her memoir, she talks about seeing an advertisement for Cap’s lecture in the local newspaper, sneaking out of school to attend. Utterly inspired and captivated by the images she saw, young Idris spoke with Cap afterward. During the conversation, he mentioned his need for a new expedition secretary. The Nice newspaper also carried an ad for this position with the headline, “Brains, Beauty and Breeches-World Tour Offer for Lucky Young Woman.” Going against contemporary norms, the woman who accepted this position would forego skirts for breeches, promise not to marry for at least three years, and be prepared to rough it through Africa and Asia. At the age of 16, Idris, with her mother’s permission, joined the Wanderwell Expedition and became known as Aloha Wanderwell.

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Postcard, Wanderwell Expedition 1921-192?, THF274627

Between October 1922 and December 1923, the Wanderwell Expedition crisscrossed Europe in their Model Ts. Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Poland - all were visited, some multiple times. Along the route, Aloha learned the skills that would carry her career into the future. After leaving the tour for a few months due to an argument with Cap, Paris became a bore and Aloha longed to be back on the road. She tracked the expedition down in Egypt, and met up with the crew in March 1924.

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Aloha Wanderwell Arrives at the Sphinx, 1924

After Cairo, the expedition wound its way through the Middle East, then sailed on to Pakistan and India. They covered more than 2,200 miles before sailing to Malaysia. The travelers then made their way up to Cambodia, where they marveled at Ankor Wat, and then went on to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. They went up through Tientsin, Peiping, and Murkden before being granted visas to travel to Siberia. Japan was visited after Russia, and then the Wanderwell Expedition sailed for North America.

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Driver Aloha Wanderwell on the Hoist Lifting Her Ford Model T from Aboard Ship, Shanghai, China, 1924,THF96385

They made landfall in Hawaii, where Cap filmed Aloha next to the Halemaumau volcano. When the expedition arrived in California, Cap left for a few weeks, traveled to Florida, and legally divorced Nell.  Upon his return to California, Cap proposed to Aloha, and they wed in April 1925. Over the next few months, they drove throughout the American West and Midwest, ending up in Detroit that August and ultimately ending in Florida. Their first child, a son named Valri, was born there that December.

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Captain Walter Wanderwell Filming Aloha Wanderwell on the Edge of Kilauea Volcano, 1924, THF274631

In 1926, the Wanderwells were traveling through Cuba, Canada, and the northeastern United States before they sailed for South Africa, where Aloha reunited with her mother and sister. There, in April 1927, Aloha gave birth to the couple’s second child, a son named Nile. Three weeks later, with Aloha’s mother caring for the children, the expedition left again to traverse the eastern coast of Africa. North they drove, through Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, where on October 13, 1927, Aloha celebrated her 21st birthday in Nairobi. This journey ended in France, where the Wanderwells reunited with their children and the family returned to the United States. The film documenting these journeys, With Car and Camera Around the World, debuted in 1929.

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Aloha Wanderwell Driving Car between Limpopo River and Sabe River, Mozambique, 1927, THF274633

The following year in 1930, Cap and Aloha were traveling to Brazil, visiting the Mato Grosso region in an effort to search for lost British explorer Lt. Colonel Percy Fawcett. Flying to the interior of the Amazon rainforest, the Wanderwells’ plane had to make an emergency landing, ending up in the territory of the Bororo tribe. Over the next month, Cap and Aloha befriended them, and when Cap left to obtain replacement parts, Aloha stayed with the Bororos and filmed her experiences. The resulting film, Flight to the Stone Age Bororos, remains part of the Smithsonian’s anthropological film library to this day. Another film focusing on this trip, The River of Death, can be viewed through the Library of Congress.

The next Wanderwell expedition was to be an ocean voyage throughout the Pacific. A yacht, The Carma, was being fitted out for this journey, although it was not to be. In December 1932, Captain Wanderwell was shot and killed on board, a case that remains unsolved. The year after Cap’s death, Aloha married former WAWEC cameraman Walter Baker. The couple continued to travel and film their adventures. Over the years, the travel grew less, but Aloha continued to give lectures and presentations about her adventures. Aloha Wanderwell Baker passed away in Newport Beach, California, in 1996, about a year after Walter.

Aloha’s films, photographs, and writings have allowed later generations to learn of this extraordinary woman who followed her passion. In an age where women were expected to wear dresses and work within the home, she wore breeches and traveled the world. Aloha cultivated skills in jobs that were traditionally reserved for men, and used that knowledge to further her career. She turned a desire to be out in the world into a lifetime of learning and exploring. And in the end, her desire to “sleep with the winds of heaven blowing round her head” drove her to follow her heart, keep an open mind, and learn from the world.

Janice Unger is a Processing Archivist, Archives & Library Services - Benson Ford Research Center, at The Henry Ford.

Source:
Wanderwell, Aloha. Aloha Wanderwell Call to Adventure!: True Tales of the Wanderwell Expedition, First Woman to Circle the World in an Automobile (Touluca Lake, California: Nile Baker Estate & Boyd Production Group, 2013), pages 21-26.

imlsThis blog post is part of a series about storage relocation and improvements that we are able to undertake thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

In the course of our work as conservators, we get some very exciting opportunities. Thanks to a partnership with Hitachi High Technologies, for the past few months the conservation lab here at The Henry Ford has had a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) with an energy-dispersive x-ray (EDX) spectroscopy attachment in our lab.

hitachi-usWhat does this mean? It means that not only have we been able to look at samples at huge magnifications, but we have had the ability to do elemental analysis of materials on-demand. Scanning electron microscopy uses a beam of electrons, rather than light as in optical microscopes, to investigate the surface of sample. A tungsten filament generates electrons, which are accelerated, condensed, and focused on the sample in a chamber under vacuum. There are three kinds of interactions between the beam and that sample that provide us with the information we are interested in. First, there are secondary electrons – the electron beam hits an electron in the sample, causing it to “bounce back” at the detector. These give us a 3D topographical map of the surface of the sample. Second, there are back-scattered electrons – the electron beam misses any electrons in the sample and is drawn towards a positively-charged nucleus instead. The electrons essentially orbit the nucleus, entering and then leaving the sample quickly. The heavier the nucleus, the higher that element is on the periodic table, the more electrons will be attracted to it. From this, we get a qualitative elemental map of the surface, with heavier elements appearing brighter, and lighter elements appearing darker.

microsope-scanConservation Specialist Ellen Seidell demonstrates the SEM with Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation volunteer Pete Caldwell.

The EDX attachment to the SEM allows us to go one step further, to a third source of information. When the secondary electrons leave the sample, they leave a hole in the element’s valence shell that must be filled. An electron from a higher valence shell falls to fill it, releasing a characteristic x-ray as it does so – the detector then uses these to create a quantitative elemental map of the surface.

scanA ‘K’ from a stamp block, as viewed in the scanning electron microscope.

The understanding of materials is fundamental to conservation. Before we begin working on any treatment, we use our knowledge, experience, and analytical tools such as microscopy or chemical tests to make determinations about what artifacts are made of, and from there decide on the best methods of treatment. Sometimes, materials such as metal can be difficult to positively identify, especially when they are degrading, and that is where the SEM-EDX shines. Take for example the stamp-block letter shown here. The letter was only about a quarter inch tall, and from visual inspection, it was difficult to tell if the block was made of lead (with minor corrosion) or from heavily-degraded rubber. By putting this into the SEM, it was possible a good image of the surface and also to run an elemental analysis that confirmed that it was made of lead. Knowing this, it was coated to prevent future corrosion and to make it safe to handle.

Elemental analysis is also useful when it comes to traces of chemicals left on artifacts. We recently came across a number of early pesticide applicators, which if unused would be harmless. However, early pesticides frequently contained arsenic, so our immediate concern was that they were contaminated. We were able to take a sample of surface dirt from one of the applicators and analyze it in the SEM.

scan2An SEM image of a dirt sample from an artifact (left) and a map of arsenic within that sample (right).

The image on the left is the SEM image of the dirt particles, and the image on the right is the EDX map of the locations of arsenic within the sample. Now that we know they are contaminated, we can treat them in a way that protects us as well as making the objects safe for future handling.

We have also used the SEM-EDX to analyze corrosion products, to look at metal structures, and even to analyze some of the products that we use to clean and repair artifacts. It has been a great experience for us, and we’re very thankful to Hitachi for the opportunity and to the IMLS as always for their continued support.

Louise Stewart Beck is the project conservator for The Henry Ford's IMLS storage improvement grant.

technology, collections care, by Louise Stewart Beck, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, conservation, IMLS grant



I'm very pleased to announce that The Henry Ford has launched a $150 million comprehensive fundraising campaign to help advance the workforce of tomorrow.

At The Henry Ford, we believe that access to the ideas and innovations that have shaped our country should be available to everyone, regardless of backgrounds and barriers. We want to aggressively and intentionally leverage our unique assets, both physically and digitally, to educate, influence and inspire tomorrow's leaders.

This campaign, The Innovation Project, will help The Henry Ford provide the resources necessary for us to build digital and experiential learning tools, reimagine existing exhibitions and programs, and create new opportunities to advance innovation, invention and entrepreneurship. All of this has the ultimate goal of unlocking the most powerful resource on earth: the next generation.

logoTo date, we have raised more than $90 million toward our goal. Over the course of the next five years, the work of The Innovation Project will positively impact all of our venues. From new programs and activities across the campus to cutting-edge digital enhancements to existing exhibitions, we will make connections through our Archive of American Innovation to usher in new immersive experiences that will inspire learners of all ages.

Already, we have realized enhancements made to Heroes of the Sky in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, courtesy of Delta Air Lines, and the new Davidson-Gerson Gallery of Glass in Greenfield Village and the Davidson-Gerson Modern Glass Gallery in the museum.

Another early success of the campaign was the recent acquisition of The STEMIE Coalition, a nonprofit global consortium of invention education stakeholders and education change agents best known for its National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE), which we hosted this past June connecting more than 400 students from 21 states to our collection.

We are pleased to have already made so much progress, blog_COLLAGE but there is much more to do! We need your help. We want YOU to be a part of our future and join us in providing equal and unfettered access to the collection, programs, exhibitions and STEM-based learning curriculum that will help us grow the workforce of tomorrow.

Please visit theinnovationproject.org to learn how you, too, can be a part of The Innovation Project. Your belief in The Henry Ford and our mission means so much to us, and I thank you for your continued support.


Patricia E. Mooradian is President & CEO of The Henry Ford.

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Mrs. Potts type flatiron made by A. C. Williams Company of Ravenna, Ohio, 1893-1910. THF171197

A "Cool Hand" Who Always Came to the "Point"

In the early 1870s, a young wife and mother had a better idea for making the arduous task of ironing easier. Her name was Mrs. Potts.

At this time, people smoothed the wrinkles from their clothing with flatirons made of cast iron. These irons were heavy. And needed to be heated on a wood stove before they could be used—then put back to be reheated once again when they began to cool. (Automatic temperature control was not to be had.)   

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Mary Florence Potts was a 19-year-old Ottumwa, Iowa, wife and mother of a toddler son when she applied for her first patent in October 1870, one reissued with additions in 1872.  Mrs. Potts’ improved iron had a detachable wooden handle that stayed cool to the touch. (Conventional irons had cast iron handles that also got hot as the iron was heated on the stove— housewives had to use a thick cloth to avoid burning their hands.) Mrs. Potts’ detachable wooden handle could be easily moved from iron to iron, from one that had cooled down during use to one heated and ready on the stove. This curved wooden handle was not only cool, but also more comfortable—alleviating strain on the wrist.

Mrs. Potts’ iron was lighter. Rather than being made of solid cast iron, Mrs. Potts came up with idea of filling an inside cavity of the iron with a non-conducting material like plaster of Paris or cement to make it lighter, and less tiring, to use. (Florence Potts’ father was a mason and a plasterer, perhaps an inspiration for this idea.)

Previous iron design had a point only on one end. Mrs. Potts’ design included a point on each end, to allow the user to use it in either direction. 

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THF214642Mrs. Potts appeared on trade cards advertising her irons. This one dates from about 1883. THF214641

Mrs. Potts’ innovations produced one of the most popular and widely used flatirons of the late 19th century. It was widely manufactured and licensed in the United States and Europe with advertising featuring her image. Mrs. Potts’ iron was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Millions of visitors attended the exhibition.

The Potts iron became so popular that by 1891, special machines were invented that could produce several thousand semicircular wood handles in a single day, rather than the few hundred handles produced daily with earlier technology. Mrs. Potts' type irons continued to be manufactured throughout the world well into the twentieth century.

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Though Mrs. Potts proved her inventive mettle with her innovative flatiron design, it appears that she did not reap spectacular financial rewards—at least by what can be discerned from census records and city directories. By 1873, the Potts family had moved from Iowa to Philadelphia, where her daughter Leona was born. They were still living there in 1880, when the census mentions no occupation given for any family member. Perhaps, if Mrs. Potts and her family became people of leisure, it was only for a time. Whether through need or desire, the Potts family had moved to Camden, New Jersey by the 1890s, where Joseph Potts and son Oscero worked as chemists. Joseph Potts died in 1901. By 1910, Florence and Oscero were mentioned as owners of Potts Manufacturing Company, makers of optical goods.

Mrs. Potts’ creativity made the tough task of ironing less onerous for millions of women in the late 19th century. And—though most are unaware—the story of the inventive Mary Florence Potts lives on in the many thousands of irons still found in places like antique shops and eBay.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

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A special section of The New York Times  this month compiled a list of the 10 coolest museums in the world. With shout-outs to the Lego House in Denmark and the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., we were excited and honored to see Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation kick off the list.

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Visitors to the museum have long known what makes it such a cool destination, as The New York Times pointed out – we're "chock-full of inventions, machines and pieces of Americana to explore, including a 1952 Wienermobile."

But what else makes our museum so cool? Take a look at just a few of the well-known artifacts, exhibits, and experiences that inspire our younger visitors every day and challenge them to think differently.

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Walk Around the Set of The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation

Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, along with Greenfield Village and the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, is the home to Emmy Award-winning The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation with host Mo Rocca on CBS. Every Saturday morning our correspondents showcase present-day change makers from all over the world who are creating solutions to real needs.

Rosa Parks Bus Driver Side View - The Henry Ford

The Rosa Parks Bus

Inside this bus on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a soft-spoken African-American seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white man, breaking existing segregation laws. Today you can step inside the bus yourself and take a seat as you immerse yourself in the courage of Rosa Parks.

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Driving America

Driving America is an opportunity to look at America’s favorite mode of transportation in a different way.  Stand back in awe as you explore some of the earliest automobiles to take to America's roads, and then immerse yourself in our interactive exhibits to dive deep into our digital collections.

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Build a Model T

Do you think you could build a Model T just like Henry Ford? Pick up a wrench and see if you could build a quality product in 2018.

Dymaxion House - exterior - The Henry Ford

Dymaxion House

Enter Buckminster Fuller's circular aluminum dwelling, and sample a suburbia never realized. To some people Dymaxion is a giant Hershey’s Kiss. Others sense a kinship with the Airstream travel trailer. Painstakingly restored, it’s the only remaining prototype in the world.

Mathematica a World of Numbers and Beyond inside Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation_KMSPhotography

Mathematica

Math can be playful, thanks to the ideas of designers Ray and Charles Eames. Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond connects math to the world around us all.

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Steer the Allegheny

What does it look like from the conductor's perspective on the Allegheny, one of the largest steam locomotives ever built? Step up to seat and see for yourself.  

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Maker Faire Detroit

Which event is a wild two-day spectacle of maker inventions and creations at the home of American innovation? Maker Faire Detroit, housed inside and outside of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.  

Who else made The New York Times list? Take a look.

The 10 Coolest Museums in the World

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When Thomas Edison decided to develop a commercial lighting system he had to do far more than design a light bulb and generator: he and his collaborators had to devise the entire system -- right down to the wire insulation and fuses. Even the electrical measuring instruments that were needed to chart the progress of experiments had to be sought from other fields such as telegraphy.

Edison demonstrated his lighting system to the public for the first time in December 1879, but the system was hardly a workable commercial product. Many refinements -- to increase durability, reliability, and cost-effectiveness -- would be needed before his lighting system could be described as a competitive product. One of the most important missing elements was a meter for keeping track of customers' electricity usage. The electrical meter that Edison and his collaborators devised was an ingenious device -- an arrangement that allowed the amount of electricity a customer used to be weighed.

The meter, known as the Edison Chemical or Electrolytic Meter, was in essence a laboratory apparatus installed in the basements of customers' buildings. It consisted of two glass jars filled with a zinc sulphate solution; immersed in each jar were a pair of electrodes -- matched pairs of zinc plates. The operation was deceptively simple. A portion of the current flowing into the customer's electrical system passed through the plates, causing an electrolytic reaction. The more electricity a customer used, the more zinc would be transferred from one plate to the other. It was this difference in weight that allowed the electrical bill to be determined. Usage was calculated on a monthly basis: an Edison employee would replace the previous month's plates with a new set whose weight had already been carefully recorded. The old plates were taken away to have their weight checked and a bill calculated. The body of the meter had to be tough and tamper-proof -- hence the term "ironclad" that was used to describe this all-metal meter. Later units were wooden boxes with a metal door. In either case, the enclosure was secured with the kind of lead seal that is still used to guard modern electric or gas meter mechanisms.

Meters like this remained in service in some installations well into the 1890s. Many customers were distrustful of this metering method, asserting that the plate removal and remote calculations allowed them no way of checking whether the company was padding their bills. Modern numerical meters allow consumers to see a read-out of their electricity, gas, or water usage. However, the meters' settings -- and indeed the consistency of different meters -- is still something we trust to the utility company.


Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Senior Director, Historical Resources, at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series.

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Writer demonstrating proper posture and hand-holding position, c. 1800. THF286087

In her recent article, “Cursive: Dead or Alive?” (The Henry Ford Magazine, June-December 2017), author Anne Trubek asserts that, today, cursive writing “is becoming retro-cool, more interesting precisely because its utility has largely passed.” 

Indeed, the importance of penmanship—as cursive writing was once called—has radically declined as part of school curricula in recent years.  It is no longer required in most states’ Common Core standards—due to increased technology use, the rejection of repetitive drills as teaching tools, and the higher importance placed on reading and math in government-issued tests.  However, not everyone agrees that eliminating it from the curriculum is desirable, arguing that mastery of cursive writing helps with hand-eye coordination, long-term memory, problem-solving, and idea generation. 

The heated debate about the need for young people to learn cursive writing—or not—raises the question of how we got here.  In fact, the story of handwriting in America is one of continual adaptation to technological and social change, and in no small part the influence of two innovators whose names have been largely forgotten today—Platt Rogers Spencer and Austin Norman Palmer.

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A trained engrosser transcribed the original 1776 version of this document—the Declaration of Independence—from Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft. THF92259

In the 1700s, as more people learned to read and printed materials became more available, reading became a desirable skill.  But writing?  That was reserved exclusively for the wealthy and for those whose profession required it—like merchants, bookkeepers, legal clerks, and engrossers (those trained to transcribe the final draft of a document in a large, clear hand).  

Handwriting in those days was tedious and difficult, including learning how to fashion quills from goose feathers, mix ink, rule lines on paper, and use the ink-filled quill without spotting or smudging the paper.

Writing became a more widely accepted and embraced skill during the early 1800s, as self-trained writing masters traveled around the country offering courses of instruction.  In more populated urban areas, they offered private writing courses in what were in essence the first business colleges.

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To motivate students, teachers often bestowed awards for good penmanship, like this 1877 example. THF286089

In small towns and villages, writing masters taught the rudiments of handwriting to students in the growing number of common, or public, schools.  Learning to write came to be considered as important a skill as reading and arithmetic for schoolchildren (actually, boys) in preparation for their future roles in industrial America.

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The word “Penmanship” on the cover of this 1867 Spencerian writing book exemplifies that very writing method. THF286020

One particular writing master, Platt Rogers Spencer, would become so successful that his approach to handwriting almost completely dominated penmanship education during the post-Civil War period.  Spencer realized that, to truly influence how most Americans learned to write, he needed to go right to the source.  So he brought penmanship lessons directly to  teacher-training schools.  From there, the popularity of his writing method spread to public and private education at all levels—from business colleges down to primary schools.  So pervasive and dominant was his influence that Spencer became known as the “Father of American Handwriting.” 

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This fancy trade card gives an idea of the level of expertise in penmanship that students of the Toledo Business College would attain. THF225626

Spencer’s unique approach to handwriting reduced the alphabet to a few elemental principles, equating each letter—and parts of each letter—to natural forms like waves, sunbeams, clouds, and leaves.  In this way, he could claim that his approach was not just a series of mechanical movements but also a “noble and refining art.”  At the same time, his handwriting lessons emphasized order and precision.  With students from different walks of life—rural and urban, rich and poor, obedient and unruly, foreign- and American-born—all practicing exactly the same lessons, Spencer could claim that learning his handwriting method would mold America’s young people into reliable citizens and obedient future workers.

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The Ford Motor Company logo is an example of Spencerian writing, which Henry Ford learned in school. THF104934

Spencerian became the dominant handwriting method in America from the 1860s into the early 1900s.  It seemed to fit everything that Americans strived for.  That was, until penmanship entrepreneur Austin Norman Palmer came along, claiming that Spencerian handwriting was all wrong for Americans.  He argued that Spencerian script was too ornate, too meticulous, too slow, too tiring, even too feminine.  What Americans wanted and needed, he argued, was a “plain and rapid” style adapted to “the rush of business,” a style that was masculine and unsentimental.

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As shown in this 1920s language composition book, students learning the Palmer method were taught to pride themselves on their penmanship, which was considered a judge of good character. THF247435

Palmer introduced a new approach—one which forced the muscles to move in certain patterns—over and over and over, with the idea that the muscles would imprint the memory of these movements into the brain and become habit.  Though the approach was radically different, Palmer’s goal—like Spencer’s—was ultimately about social control.  Disciplining the body, he asserted, would also force students to conform to the conventions of society.  He came down particularly hard on left-handedness, which he considered deviant, and he insisted that left-handers learn to write with their right hand.

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Students of Henry Ford’s Edison Institute school system hard at work practicing their writing skills, 1944. THF126142

The Palmer method began displacing the Spencerian method of handwriting by the 1890s and, by the second decade of the 1900s, millions of Americans had become “Palmerized.”  In truth, given the limited resources and lack of teacher training in many communities—as well as negative attitudes by both teachers and students toward the rigorous requirements of this method—the Palmer method was not strictly enforced in most school systems and it was often combined with other handwriting methods.

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This type of school desk, made in the 1940s but used well into the 1960s, contains a hole for an ink bottle to be used with a dip pen. THF158363

Paralleling new studies in child psychology and new approaches to childhood education, two trends emerged in the 1900s.  First was the realization that young children simply did not possess the motor skills to learn cursive writing, leading to a new emphasis on learning printing first and cursive writing later.  Second, a new attitude emerged that writing could be more than a mechanical movement—it could become an outlet for self-expression. 

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The brightly colored images on this early 1970s school box, used for holding writing implements and other school supplies, were inspired by those of Peter Max and other psychedelic designers of the era. THF169170

Coinciding with these trends were new forms of technology—from typewriters to word processors to personal computers—that, by the end of the century, displaced the need for handwriting in our society.  Meanwhile, ink-dipped steel pens of the early 1900s were replaced by ballpoint and rollerball pens later in the century, and by Smartphones and iPads today.

As Americans, we tend to romanticize and revive that which we have lost.  So it comes as no surprise that, as computers have replaced the necessity of handwriting, so handwriting has become an art, a craft, the province of “makers”—equated with creativity and self-expression. 

We’ll see what lies in store for handwriting into the future. 

For further reading on this topic, take a look at, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (by Tamara Plakins Thornton, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford and handwrote this blogpost—believing that putting pen to paper helps her think more creatively than typing on a computer keyboard.  

THF133277Four Gallon Stoneware Crock, 1878-1896. THF133277

0012_003620170524_KMSPhotographyIn 19th-century America, sturdy waterproof stoneware pottery became popular for utilitarian items such as crocks, jugs, and butter churns. The rough-textured outer glaze was created when common rock salt was thrown into the kiln during firing, which vaporized and combined with melted silica from the pottery.

The blue decoration--made with a cobalt oxide glaze mixture--lent variety and artistry to these otherwise plain pieces.

Today, House Industries has their own salt-glazed pottery project with Eldreth Pottery

The pottery is one of the few manufacturers in the world that continues to employ the centuries-old technique of glazing ceramics with salt during the firing process. The application is difficult to control, giving each piece of stoneware a unique texture and distinctive colored finish.

See their pottery inspiration examples in "A Type of Learning" in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and learn more about the ongoing artistry of salt-glazed stoneware in our digital collections.