Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

imls-logoAs we start a new year, it’s a good time to look back on the first half of The Henry Ford’s IMLS-funded grant to work on electrical objects, and to take stock for the future.

We had a busy and productive fall 2016, with some new adventures thrown in with continuing progress on objects themselves. If you haven’t already seen them, you should check out our Facebook Live videos – we’ve done a few so far (in October, November, and December), and the plan is to continue doing them on the first Friday of each month.

imls-5Gaulard & Gibbs transformer on the shelf before treatment (29.1333.229).

This Gaulard & Gibbs transformer had several conservation issues when we first saw it, most notably that the wooden base had broken under the strain of the weight of the object itself. You can see this in the before picture, where the object is lying on its side because it cannot stand anymore. There are also faint hints of color along the metal tabs that run up the body of the object.

imls-4The Gaulard and Gibbs transformer after treatment (29.1333.229).

You can see that this transformer had a fantastic transformation during conservation treatment – simply removing years of built-up dust revealed a very vivid red and black coloration. The broken wooden base was also very successfully repaired, and it is now possible for the object to stand on its feet again. When it’s packed for storage, it will be lying down again, so that the weakened wooden base isn’t put under too much strain for long periods of time.

We featured this object briefly in our Facebook Live videos – you may have noticed, if you tuned into both, that you could see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ as they happened.

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The interior of a meter, with strange accretions on white enameled metal. Note that this view is of the reverse of the top face (29.1333.63)

We’ve also encountered some interesting materials and material problems in the first half of our IMLS grant work. One of the most interesting was this strange accretion, found on the interior of a meter. Those brownish bulbs appeared to be seeping into the object from the top, but were only present on the enameled portions of the metal. They were friable and lighter on the inside than the outside. We looked at samples under the microscope, and even attempted to culture a sample, in case it’s a type of mold (it does not appear to be). We’re still not sure what exactly they are, but we will continue to try to figure it out! Mysteries of the museum, indeed.

imls-2An ohmmeter with a great example of hard rubber – note that the cylindrical casing which would usually go over the black area is removed in this photo (31.1217.235)

We have also recently come across a fantastic example of perfectly preserved hard rubber. The base of the object is one solid slab of hard rubber, but the protected interior area has retained the original black, mirror-like finish. The discoloration and matte surface of hard rubber occurs primarily from light exposure over time, and the colors possible range from a light black to the red-brown color on this object. We’ve put the exterior cylindrical case back on the object, sealing it well, so that the very tight case can continue to preserve this fantastic interior. 

imls-1Conservator Cuong Nguyen and Conservation Technician Andrew Ganem working on motors in their lab.

We have also been very fortunate to have Cuong and Andrew working with us for a little while. They're tackling some larger motors, which take longer to complete. Their help allows Conservation Specialist Mallory Bower and I to continue to work at the pace necessary to keep the project on target, while ensuring that as much of the collection as possible is treated. We greatly appreciate their help.

As always, this is only a small sampling of what we have been up to on the IMLS project. Please feel free to stop by our window at the back of the museum and see what we’re working on – there is always something interesting on our desks. Keep your eyes peeled for our next Facebook Live, as well. As we continue to move into 2017 and are fully into the second half of the project, we are excited to continue our work and continue keeping you updated

Louise Stewart Beck is the IMLS Project Conservator at The Henry Ford.

The Henry Ford proudly announces that the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded our institution a grant to again offer the Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop “America’s Industrial Revolution at The Henry Ford” for K-12 teachers. The workshops will be held July 9-14, 2017 and July 16-21, 2017.

Participating teachers will explore the varied ways that Americans experienced social change between 1760s and the 1920s through lecture/discussions by noted scholars and by visiting select sites at The Henry Ford, Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum, including Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory, working farms, historic transportation, and Ford Motor Company’s Rouge industrial complex. In addition, participants will explore archival sources in the Benson Ford Research Center and dedicate time to lesson plan development with colleagues.

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“Learning by doing” - Scything, pre-Industrial Revolution. 

Next year will be the eighth time The Henry Ford has hosted the America’s Industrial Revolution workshop. This deep learning experience has touched almost 500 teachers in the past 11 years – we estimate over 700,000 students have been impacted!

This year we are making some exciting tweaks that will make the week even more fruitful and more fun.

The biggest change is that we are adding a bus tour of Industrial Revolution-era Detroit. Participating teachers come from all over the country (and sometimes abroad, if they are teaching in military schools, etc.) and they just can’t miss our neighboring city which had such a pivotal role in America’s industrial story. On Monday evening, the second night of the workshop, teachers will take a tour bus to explore a few key areas of Detroit. We will visit Hamtramck, Highland Park, the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant and Corktown, allowing us to move through Detroit history from the era of a frontier surrounded by farmland, to a growing city fueled by industrial production that came to spawn the king of American manufacturing, the automobile industry. 

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Henry Ford designed the Model T in a secret room at the Piquette Plant. 

We have found that participating teachers are often history junkies (just like ourselves) hungry for more learning. So, during our daily site visits to Greenfield Village we will use our knowledgeable master presenters as guides. We invite you to try to stump them with the great questions we know teachers always have.

Speaking of historical learning, we have updated the workshop reading list to include some more recent and more diverse pieces of scholarship on the Industrial Revolution. I particularly enjoyed Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend by Scott Reynolds Nelson. It tells about a historian’s journey to uncover the real story behind the folk song about John Henry, investigating if there was truly an African-American convict working on the railroad who died in a contest with a steam drill.

We want to encourage more useful lesson-planning time, too. So we have allocated time during the day to spend with colleagues of similar grades/subjects to plan lessons and to visit the Benson Ford Research Center to make use of our primary sources. We will also encourage teachers to use those primary sources virtually through our online collections. Teachers will see our rich collections in use by the scholars each morning, too.

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Read and touch primary sources at the Benson Ford Research Center. 

And it’s not just for social studies teachers. The workshop will be useful in many types of K-12 classrooms. Obviously if you teach the period of the Industrial Revolution, or eras following it, this background is indispensable for you. Science, technology and engineering teachers will discover concrete, society-changing examples of the concepts they teach. English Language Arts teachers will experience a taste of the eras that produced literature like Little House on the Prairie, The Jungle, Mark Twain, slave narratives, and (from across the pond) Dickens’ many works. Art teachers may find themselves inspired by the beauty of the machinery, as did Diego Rivera and Charles Sheeler at the Ford Rouge Factory.

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Rivera was inspired by the Ford Rouge Factory for his “Detroit Industry” fresco cycle at the Detroit Institute of Arts. THF116582 

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? To learn more about the workshop, and to apply, please visit thehenryford.org/neh. Applications are due March 1. 

Christian W. Overland is Executive Vice President of The Henry Ford and Project Director, America’s Industrial Revolution at The Henry Ford.

Catherine Tuczek is Curator of School and Public Learning at The Henry Ford. 

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Undoubtedly, our 1931 Bugatti Type 41 Royale is one of the most popular automobiles in the The Henry Ford’s collection. Rarely off display, the Royale has been a fixture in Henry Ford Museum for decades. It’s rare to walk by the car and not see at least one person snapping a photo, studying the label, or simply daydreaming about what it’s like behind that big steering wheel. And why not? The Royale has everything going for it: beautiful styling, superb engineering, and a princely price tag – not to mention, as one of only six in the world, exceptional exclusivity.

Needless to say, it would take something very special for us to loan the Bugatti to another museum. Our friends at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles have presented us with just such a reason. Last month, the Petersen opened an exciting new year-long exhibition, The Art of Bugatti. Automobile aficionados know the Bugatti name via the magnificent race and road cars built by Ettore Bugatti in the 1920s and 1930s. But Ettore was just one member of this remarkably artistic Italian-French family. Ettore’s father, Carlo Bugatti, designed exquisite furnishings. Ettore’s brother, Rembrandt, was a talented sculptor. (The elephant that sits atop our Royale’s radiator is based on a piece by Rembrandt Bugatti.) Ettore’s niece (and Rembrandt’s daughter), Lidia, was an accomplished artist.

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The Bugatti Royale’s distinctive elephant mascot was cast from a sculpture by Rembrandt Bugatti, brother of Royale designer Ettore Bugatti.

Furniture, paintings, sculpture, silver and – of course – automobiles from each of these three Bugatti generations are featured in the Petersen’s show. The broad-ranging exhibit even reaches into the present day. Volkswagen, current owner of the Bugatti marque, has loaned a 2016 Bugatti Chiron to the show. The two-seat supercar, capable of an astounding 260 miles per hour, carries forward Ettore Bugatti’s tradition of elegance combined with performance.

Our Bugatti Royale will be away at the Petersen for five months. The car leaves Henry Ford Museum in mid-January 2017 and returns in mid-June. While it’s away, we’re going to fill the Bugatti’s place in Driving America with another special luxury car from our collection: J.P. Morgan, Jr.’s 1926 Rolls-Royce New Phantom Limousine. It’s been several years since the Rolls-Royce has been on view, so the loan provides a special opportunity for The Henry Ford’s visitors, too.

We are proud to be a part of this wonderful new Bugatti exhibition, and we encourage anyone visiting southern California between now and October 2017 to stop by the Petersen. It’s properly regarded as one of the world’s finest auto museums, and The Art of Bugatti only adds to that reputation.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford

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For the past two years The Henry Ford has had the privilege of honoring a select group of educators who demonstrated the ability to teach their subjects in innovative ways, inspiring their students to think creatively. They accomplish in their classrooms what we at The Henry Ford strive to accomplish every day with our guests; conveying innovation concepts and practices.

Now, The Henry Ford and Litton Entertainment are proud to sponsor a third year of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation Teacher Innovator Awards so that another crop of educators can be honored. Just as The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation seeks out the stories of forward-looking visionaries and innovators each week, we are looking for teachers who showcase an original and creative approach to teaching, inspire innovation in their students, exhibit resourcefulness, engage students, and are making a positive impact on not only their classroom but their community, colleagues, administrators, school, and/or district.

Twenty teachers in total will receive prizes, with the top ten grand prize winners receiving a week-long “Innovation Immersion Experience” at The Henry Ford. Winners will be announced in June.

Nominate yourself or a teacher you know by completing the online submission form (click on the “apply now” button). Tell us what innovation means to you and show us how you teach it to your students. Be sure to include supporting materials that show an innovative teaching methodology, curriculum, and/or model in action. All entries must be submitted by the February 28, 2017 deadline.

Please be sure to read our official rules carefully before nominating. For more details about the awards or the television show please go here.

We look forward to learning how teachers across the country are innovating in their classrooms.

Frederick Rubin is the Engagement and Learning Coordinator at The Henry Ford

MichiganAgriculture is an important collecting focus for The Henry Ford, so we’re very honored to have the Michigan Farm Bureau join us as a partner. Catherine Tuczek, our curator of school and public learning, sat down with Education Specialist Amelia Miller to talk about the importance of agriculture in today’s classroom.

Why does it make sense for The Henry Ford and the Michigan Foundation for Agriculture and Michigan Agriculture in the Classroom to partner together?
The Michigan Agriculture in the Classroom program strives to provide educators with standards-based lessons which teach about local agriculture through classroom subjects such as science, social studies, English language arts, math and more. To partner with The Henry Ford allows us a direct link to put these lessons in the hands of the teachers. With the historical agriculture exhibits and The Henry Ford’s focus on innovation, it makes sense to showcase modern agriculture, showing the progression in agricultural technologies throughout time. 

Where do most people learn about agriculture these days?
Knowledge of food and agriculture is no different than any other topic. Consumers today turn to social media for information about their food and the way it’s raised. 63% of Michigan consumers say they prefer to purchase products grown and raised in Michigan. Today’s consumer expects transparency between farmers, food processors and consumers. About half of U.S. consumers want to learn about food safety and the impact of food on their health directly from food labels; while about 40% want to learn about animal well-being, environmental impact and business ethics from company websites. (source: Center for Food Integrity

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What are common misconceptions children have about agriculture? 
Many students (and parents!) draw conclusions from their immediate surroundings. Less than 2% of the U.S. population live on farms or ranches, with this disconnect comes misconceptions. Often, students guess their milk comes from a grocery store cooler rather than a dairy cow. Careers in agriculture don’t just mean working on a farm, from sales and marketing to plant science to animal health jobs are available in business, biology, mechanics, and more. Today’s agriculturalists are very technology-savvy people. Farmers utilize advancements in plant breeding and genetics to grow more food on less land while utilizing less water, fertilizer and pesticides than ever before. 98% of Michigan farms are family owned rooted in the tradition of raising plants and animals in our Great Lakes state. No matter the size of the farm, these farmers are working to take care of the land, animals, plants and the environment.

RM_Mar222016_5326How can agriculture enrich traditional curriculum like science, social studies, math or English Language Arts? 
Agriculture can be the tangible subject which brings any content area to life. With educational trends focusing on inquiry-based learning, agriculture provides a living platform to ask questions or present scenarios. Beginning in preschool, students explore basic plant science through growing seeds, labeling plant parts and drawing conclusions that some plants produce edible fruits or vegetables. Similarly animal science can be integrated into cell biology, nutrition or physiology. When we think about advanced science, we also think about math.

MurrayLakeChicksLifeCyclePhoto_websizeThese two foundational concepts go hand in hand as students progress in physics, chemistry and biology all of which are necessary in plant, animal and food science. Agriculture, food and natural resources is Michigan’s second largest economic sector, easily connecting to third and fourth grade social studies. The Mitten State’s unique geography creates many microclimates which allow our state to be the second most diverse food producing state in the nation, growing more than 300 different agricultural commodities. Not to be forgotten, English Language Arts (ELA) can tie all these subjects together. Particularly at elementary levels, reading and ELA is of a primary focus. Utilizing recommended Agriculture Literacy texts and their partnering lesson plans, teachers can pair ELA standards with connecting science standards within one lessons.

Noll-113How can agricultural education enrich children’s personal lives? 
There is great reward in seeing the fruits of our own labor. Learning to care for the land or animals is one of our most basic life skills. With trends focusing on unplugging from our electronic device toting society and theories about “Nature-Deficit Disorder” creating the “No Child Left Inside” movement, agriculture education encourages children to learn from the environment. Hands-on lessons focusing on growing plants, caring for animals or studying natural resources gets students out of the classroom. Agriculture education easily caters to all learning styles providing visual, kinesthetic and auditory teaching methods.From early on, society encourages children to consider “what they want to be when they grow up.” While many answers are simple, familiar responses such as firefighter, teacher or doctor, those are just three of the wide world of careers available, each requiring varying levels of post-high school training. Between 2015 and 2020 we expect to see 57,900 average annual openings for graduates with bachelor’s degrees or higher in agriculture.  A farmer or veterinarian may be popular career choices amongst children, but reality is agriculture needs scientists, engineers, business managers, marketing professionals, graphic designers, agronomists, animal nutrition specialists, food processors, packaging engineers, mechanics, welders, electricians, educators, and government officials. (source: USDA, AFNR Employment Opportunities)

What are the most important components in agricultural education?
There are five basic groupings of agricultural literacy lessons: Agriculture and the Environment; Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber and Energy; Food, Health and Lifestyle; STEM; and Culture, Society, Economy and Geography. These National Agricultural Literacy Outcomes developed by the National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization focus agriculture learning and assist in aligning lessons with national education standards. If K-12 teachers utilize these groupings when incorporating agriculture into curriculum, students will effectively gain an understanding of agriculture in their daily life.

As with any topic of study, utilizing authentic resources, which are founded in research-based theory is also an important component of agricultural education. Product marketing can often lead consumers astray as to the potential health benefits or risks of food and fiber products. Focusing on teaching accurate agricultural lessons from credible resources will mitigate this confusion in the grocery store aisles. 

myfarmWhat are some easy first steps or activities for agricultural education, that a teacher or parent can try?
In Michigan, agriculture is all around us! Ready to go lesson plans paired with state and national standards can be found online from Michigan Agriculture in the Classroom or search more options from the National Agriculture in the Classroom organization. Play learning games on your tablet or computer from My American Farm or visit their educator center for free to download lessons and activities.  Gain first-hand knowledge by visiting farm markets around the state, the Michigan 4-H Children’s Garden at MSU, Michigan Grown Michigan Great or any of these Breakfast on the Farm events. Other national organizations such as Nutrients for Life, Journey 2050, Discovery Education, Food Dialogues or Best Food Facts provide great resources for agriculture, food and natural resource learning!

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Some time ago, The Henry Ford’s digitization team started a project to digitize selected photographs of Greenfield Village buildings. More than 2800 photos and two years later, we have finally completed this project, a celebration marked by the team with mini-cupcakes and commemorative coasters featuring some of our favorite images from the project.

While all the buildings have a strong relationship to Henry Ford—the majority were selected by him and added to the Village under his watch—the final building we imaged is one of the most important to Henry’s story: his birthplace. We imaged over 175 photos of Ford Home, including this November 5, 1920 shot of the house on its original site.

Visit our Digital Collections and search on any building name to see more—or see some staff favorite photos in our Expert Set.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

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The original paint surface on the 1967 Ford Mark IV race car is very unstable. The Stringo helps us move the car with minimal handling.

Moving cars can seem like a no-brainer – they are designed to move, and they are at the core of our modern understanding of mobility. Much of our modern infrastructure, from roads and bridges to GPS satellites, is designed around getting cars to move from place to place quickly and efficiently. Cars that drive themselves seems a likelihood that is just around the corner.

So moving cars that are part of museum collections shouldn’t be a big deal, should it? Well, you’d be surprised.

The Henry Ford has over 250 cars, trucks, and other motorized vehicles in its collection, and each presents its own special set of problems when it comes moving them. To start, we keep only a handful of cars operational at any one time, and even those that are operational can’t be run indoors. So we have to push cars, which has the effect of making every little detail about the cars a big deal.

Do the tires hold air? Do the wheels roll? Do the brakes work? Does the transmission and drivetrain move freely, or is the engine stuck in gear? What kind of transmission does it have? How heavy is the car? Is it gas, electric or steam powered? Does the car need electric power to release the steering or move the transmission? What parts of the car body can be touched? Is the paint stable or flaking; is it original or was the vehicle repainted? Is the interior original or replaced? Can you sit on the seats or hold the steering wheel? All of these questions and more go into our decisions about how were go about moving one of our historic vehicles.

We make use of a variety of tools to help us move cars: dollies, rolling service jacks, Go-Jaks ®, flat carts or rolling platforms, slings, and forklifts. Some cars are easy, and move into place with one person steering and a few pushing. We use dollies or rolling jacks to move the car in tight quarters, or if the wheels don’t roll properly. Other cars are more problematical – we’ve even removed body sections of cars with fragile paint, to avoid having to push on those surfaces. Others have fragile tires which can’t even support the weight of the car. Moving a car like that is more like moving a large sculpture than a vehicle.

Recently, we’ve added a new tool to our car-moving toolbox. Thanks to a generous gift from the manufacturer, we’ve acquired a Stringo ® vehicle mover. It’s a bit like an electric pallet jack for cars – it picks up and secures two wheels of a car and then pulls or pushes the car where ever it needs to go. We can make car moves now with just one or two people, instead of as many as six, and can do it almost without touching the car at all.

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We moved this 1901 Columbia Electric Victoria on floor jacks. The tires were old and brittle, so they rolled poorly.

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The Goldenrod, a 1965 land speed racer had its own set of rolling gantries for moving.

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This 1950 Chrysler New Yorker can roll on its own tires.

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To get this 1959 Cadillac up onto an exhibition platform, we needed to get it on dollies, and roll it up a ramp.

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Our Stringo captures the front wheels of the 1964 Mustang and moves it, so a car can be moved by one person.

With hundreds of car moves ahead of us in the not-to-distant future, we are looking forward to making good use of our new Stringo ®.   

Jim McCabe is Special Projects Manager at The Henry Ford.

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As featured on: The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation


Bandannas have been popular presidential campaign items since at least the 1840s. While wealthy, urban gentlemen sported neatly folded linen or silk handkerchiefs, farmers and blue-collar workers preferred to carry colorful cotton bandannas like this one. They dangled them from the hip pockets of their overalls or the front pockets of their frock coats worn to church on Sunday.  At political parades and rallies, they would whip them out to twirl them by hand or swing them from atop a pole.  They also used them to decorate front porches and even flew them from buggy whips while traveling by horse and carriage.

This bright red bandanna was created by the National Kerchief Company for Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential campaign of 1912. Roosevelt had assumed the Presidency in 1901 after the tragic assassination of President William McKinley and he was re-elected in a landslide in 1904.  But he declared that he was not running for re-election in 1908 and, instead, backed his close friend and Secretary of War, William Howard Taft. Although Roosevelt’s backing helped Taft win the 1908 election, Taft became increasingly conservative and lacked Roosevelt’s energy, personal magnetism, and public support. Roosevelt’s own disenchantment with Taft finally convinced him to oppose him in the 1912 election. When Republican Party leaders decided to nominate Taft, Roosevelt organized his own party—the Progressive Party.

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The rich imagery on this bandanna was intended to be an emotional appeal to voters, reminding them of how much Roosevelt had endeared himself to them a decade ago.  First, the hat in the center of the bandanna symbolizes Roosevelt’s decision to run for President after a hiatus of four years, by proclaiming “My hat is in the ring.”  But this is not just any hat.  It is a slouch hat, a wide-brimmed felt hat that was commonly worn by the U.S. military since the Civil War and was still popular among cowboys and other Westerners.  One side of the brim was often pinned up, allowing wearers to sling a rifle over their shoulder.  This, in fact, was the type of hat that Roosevelt had made famous as he heroically led the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War in 1898.  

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Teddy Roosevelt’s initials printed around the outside of the hat were designed to look like a cattle brand, evoking Roosevelt’s ranching years in the Dakota Territory during the 1880s.  During that time, he developed a love for the West, for cowboy life, for vigorous exercise, and for nature—all passions he brought to the White House and instilled in the American public during his Presidency.

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Around the outer edge of the bandanna appears the caricatured image of Roosevelt himself, immediately recognizable through the slouch hat, spectacles, and mustache.  The bandanna he is wearing was also a part of his Rough Rider uniform.  Bandannas, in fact, became an iconic part of every Rough Rider’s uniform, popularized by the Western cowboys who joined Roosevelt’s volunteer cavalry and then embraced by everyone—even the high-falutin’ Eastern college men and intellectuals who were Roosevelt’s friends.  Teddy Roosevelt himself had worn a blue bandanna with white polka dots with his custom-made khaki Rough Rider uniform.  This likely accounts for the polka-dot background on the bandanna’s outer edge. 

When Roosevelt joined the 1912 Presidential race, his run for re-election would prove to be the most impressive and exciting third party candidacy in American political history.  In the end, however, the Roosevelt-Taft split in Republican votes opened the door for Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the election.

A bandanna full of symbols, in itself a symbol of Teddy Roosevelt—the Rough Rider, the hero, the cowboy, the everyman.  It is a wonderful example of an object whose symbolic references people understood at the time and whose playful design can still delight us today. 


Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, enjoyed delving deeper into the symbolism behind her favorite Presidential campaign item in The Henry Ford’s collection. 

 

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The Cornell-Liberty Safety Car – space age and safety conscious. (THF90867)

We have our share of unusual-looking automobiles in Henry Ford Museum. The Tucker, the Belly Tank Lakester and the Comuta-Car all turn heads. But there’s only one that looks like it just flew in from the Spacely Space Sprockets factory: the 1957 Cornell-Liberty Safety Car. Behind that endearingly odd exterior, though, was a serious five-year effort to save lives by making American cars safer.

Over the first half of the 20th century, many automakers focused their efforts on making cars more reliable, more comfortable and more powerful. Safety was a lesser concern. There were exceptions – laminated windshield glass, which didn’t break into sharp pieces, was in use by the late 1920s – but conventional wisdom held that safety didn’t sell. Customers wanted their cars to be faster, not safer.

By the 1950s, that attitude began to change. Cars were certainly faster by then, but they also had roads to accommodate the higher speeds. State-built turnpikes and Federally-funded Interstates had drivers zipping along at 75 miles per hour, and the booming postwar economy put more Americans behind the wheel each year. It’s little wonder that more drivers traveling at faster speeds led to a rise in accidents. By 1950, some 35,000 people were dying in auto accidents each year. Faculty members at Cornell University and officials at Liberty Mutual insurance took notice. In 1951, the two institutions teamed up to research a simple question: What causes injuries in automobile accidents?

THF103543Steering wheels and sharp edges could be lethal. (THF103543)

America’s highways became a laboratory, and police officers and emergency room doctors became research assistants. By carefully studying accident reports and medical records from around the country, the Cornell-Liberty team made several key discoveries. Car doors were a weak spot. Too often in an accident, a door was smashed open and one or more of the occupants was thrown from the vehicle. Furthermore, the team discovered that someone thrown from a car was more than twice as likely to receive serious injury. They learned that back seat passengers were three times safer than those in the front during a crash.

Researchers determined that the head was the most frequently injured part of the body, and that one in ten victims received a facial disfigurement. Contrary to popular belief at the time, the steering wheel provided no extra protection to the driver. Indeed, the wheel was often a cause of injury, being pushed into a driver’s chest during a crash. What’s more, control knobs, window frames and decorative ornaments often maimed accident victims.

THF90862Bucket seats cradle passengers while seat belts keep them secure. (THF90862)

The Cornell-Liberty team put its findings into practice by building a concept car that reduced or eliminated many of these dangers. Working from a 1956 Ford Fairlane, the team produced a car incorporating more than 60 protective features. In effect, they thought of their car like a giant egg carton designed to keep its fragile contents secure. The safety car’s accordion-style doors latched in three places, keeping them closed in a crash. Its bumper wrapped completely around the vehicle, protecting in low-speed accidents. Seat belts were prominent. Head restraints prevented whiplash injuries. The steering wheel and column were replaced by a pair of control handles. The dashboard, like other interior surfaces, was padded. Door handles were recessed. Unnecessary badges and baubles were removed.

THF90865The dashboard is uncluttered and the gauges are easy to read. (THF90865)

The best way to survive an accident is to avoid one, so the Cornell-Liberty team took driver visibility and distraction into account. The panoramic windshield – cleaned by five wipers – gave the driver an unobstructed view (as did the driver’s position, in the middle of the car rather than on the left side). Controls were kept to a minimum, and the oversized speedometer dial and gauges were placed directly below the driver’s sightline. The fuel gauge even had a “low level” indicator – something of a novelty in 1957. Indeed, the Cornell-Liberty team seemed to have anticipated every possible distraction; contemporary press reports noted that the offset front seats discouraged “necking while driving.”

Neither Cornell nor Liberty Mutual had any plans to manufacture or sell safety cars, of course. Instead, they hoped that their project would bring more attention to crash protection from the public and – more to the point – from automakers. A decade later, after some additional prodding from Ralph Nader and new government regulations, safety was an established priority in Detroit. And while the car you drive today may not have five windshield wipers or handlebar steering, it’s certainly got a bit of the 1957 Liberty-Cornell Safety Car inside.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. 

The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation

Making America Better

September 23, 2016 Think THF

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The attendees are members of the Presidential Commission on the Development of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. From left, they are: Dr. Robert Wright, commission Chairman; Renee Amoore; Vicky Bailey; Andrew McLemore, Jr.; Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.; Senator Rick Santorum, R-Penn.; Michael Lomax; Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga.; Harold Skramstad, Jr.; Barbara Franco; Robert Wilkins; Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; Cicely Tyson; Lerone Bennett, Jr.; Congressman John Larson, D-Conn.; Eric Sexton; Claudine Brown; Larry Small, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; Currie Ballard. White House photo by Paul Morse. 

NMAAHC-logo_mobileWe celebrate a new national museum for the citizens of the United States – the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The idea of a national museum for African Americans started 100 years ago when black Civil War veterans announced their intentions in Washington D.C. to create a building on the Mall that would commemorate the deeds, struggles and contributions of Black Americans for the advancement of our nation. In 1929, the same year Henry Ford opened his museum complex in Dearborn, Michigan, President Herbert Hoover appointed a commission to study the idea of establishing an African American museum. However, the commission languished and was eventually dissolved 15 years later.

The Civil Wars veterans’ dream to commemorate the history and culture of African Americans was  revived by civil rights icon and U. S. Representative John Lewis, who knows about perseverance and leadership through his many key roles in the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement. For 15 years, Representative Lewis co-sponsored and reintroduced legislation annually to establish a national museum to preserve and present African American history and culture. The museum bill finally passed in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and, on December 16, 2003, President George W. Bush signed the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act authorizing the creation of the new Smithsonian Institution museum. John Lewis attended the presidential bill signing ceremony along with members of the African American Presidential Commission, including The Henry Ford’s President Emeritus Harold Skramstad.

In July 2005, Lonnie Bunch was appointed as the founding Executive Director to lead the establishment of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Mr. Bunch’s vision is that the stories, objects and lives presented in the museum will “make America better.” On September 24, 2016, the museum opened to the public with a dedication ceremony led by President Barack Obama. Our new national museum enables current and future generations to engage in their history at an institution destined to, as Mr. Bunch hopes, “make America better.”

Christian W. Overland is Executive Vice President of The Henry Ford.