Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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Cyrus Field wanted to wire the world. A successful paper merchant turned telecommunications pioneer, Field established the American Telegraphy Company in 1856 and set to work raising the funds and gathering the minds needed to bridge the oceanic divide between Europe and America.

In 1858, after several failed attempts, an underwater cable—capable of transmitting telegraph signals across the Atlantic Ocean—was laid from Valentia, Ireland, to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. In August the first messages were sent, including an exchange between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan. It took 17 hours to transmit Queen Victoria’s 98 words. The triumph of the 1858 cable was short-lived; a month later, it failed, a victim of excess voltage in an attempt to increase the speed of messages.

This cable machine, built by Glass, Eliot & Co., was used to prepare telecommunications cable at Enderby’s Wharf in Greenwich, England, for the second transatlantic cable. Machines like these were used to create the core of submarine cable from iron and conductive copper—and then moved aboard a ship, where they applied a protective sheath made of galvanized steel, an insulating layer of gutta-percha and a final layer of jute to protect against abrasion. One mile of finished cable weighed almost a ton, but it was as flexible as a rope, built to withstand the pull of the ship laying it and hazards on the ocean floor.

In 1865, 2,300 nautical miles of cable were carried aboard the leviathan iron steamship, the SS Great Eastern. The ship left in July but was forced to return to port when the cable snapped and the end was lost at sea. A second cable excursion began a year later and was successful. This was the first truly sustainable and durable telegraph cable, continuing to carry the Morse code “text messages” of telegraph operators across continents—at a rate 80 times faster than the first cable. It remained in operation until the mid-1870s, by which time four additional cables had been laid.

This machine was essential to the “wiring of the world,” reorganizing basic materials into the spine of the first permanent transcontinental telecommunications network. These submarine cables—like the modern-day fiber-optic cables that carry the signals of Internet traffic—connected cultures and communities.


Learn more about how you can support artifacts like this in The Henry Ford's Archive of American Innovation by helping us spark innovation.

 

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The Henry Ford always goes big when it comes to hosting Maker Faire Detroit. 2016 promises to be no different. In fact, it might actually go just a bit bigger than ever before. 

The call for makers went out at the beginning of April, and the number and scope of innovators answering The Henry Ford's summon didn't disappoint. Visitors to the event can expect some old favorites to be on the scene such as Maker Works’ Great Maker Race and Cirque Amongus, as well as lots of opportunities to do some hands-on innovating and buy things DIY. But, the big story for Maker Faire 2016 (and we add extra emphasis on the word "big") is the locked-down appearance of MegaBots, said Shauna Wilson, senior manager of National Events for The Henry Ford. 

If you're not familiar with MegaBots, they are 15-foot-tall, internally piloted humanoid robots that fire cannonball-sized paintballs at speeds of more than 120 miles per hour. They made quite the media splash last year when they challenged Japan to a robot duel and they accepted. (The date and locale of the historic duel against Kuratas, Japan's 9,000-pound robot, are still to be determined.)  

Matt Oehrlein, one of the co-founders of MegaBots and a longtime fan and participant on the Maker Faire circuit, shared a few secrets about what his team will be bringing to Maker Faire Detroit. "Visitors can expect to see the six-ton, 15-foot tall MegaBots Mk. II that challenged Japan to a giant robot duel,” he said, “We'll be testing the weapon system of Mk. II on a scrap vehicle in The Henry Ford's parking lot." 

After weapon tests are completed, Oehrlein promises there will be plenty of meet-and-greet ops with the MegaBots team and the Mk. II. "Autographs and group selfies are welcome, too," he added. 

The Henry Ford's Wilson and Oehrlein agree that the match up of The Henry Ford, Maker Faire Detroit and MegaBots is a no-brainer. Noted Oehrlein, "The Henry Ford gives a historical look at innovation over time, and we believe MegaBots represents innovation of today. It will be amazing for people to come to Maker Faire Detroit, walk through The Henry Ford and see innovation over the years, and then come outside and witness a six-ton robotic beast representing today's advancements in technology. We are so excited to be a part of this story."

Did You Know? The MegaBot Mk. II made its debut at Maker Faire San Mateo in 2015. 

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Artifacts Recovered from an Alamogordo, New Mexico Landfill, April 2014, Site of the 1983 Atari Video Game Burial - THF122265

The Strongest Sandstorm of the Year
A 30-foot-deep pit in constant danger of collapsing in on itself. Mercury-laced pig remains. Unexploded World War II ordnance. Poisonous gas. Two years ago, the threats were real in the desert landscape of Alamogordo, New Mexico, as archaeologists prepared to commence an important historical dig.

For video games. In a landfill.

In April 2014, the Atari burial ground of urban legend was excavated and artifacts exhumed to worldwide media acclaim. More important, a global conversation about what archaeology is or should be began. And a new strand of the scientific study of human history, culture and its preservation that had been somewhat underground was given newfound legitimacy.

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Excavation Crew in April 2014 at the Alamogordo, New Mexico Landfill, Site of the 1983 Atari Video Game Burial - THF122241

Punk Archaeology
Known as “archaeology of the recent past,” punk archaeology is archaeology at the margins, focusing on documenting and preserving histories and cultures thought of by others as either too strange or obscure for serious study. Thriving on a DIY work ethic, volunteerism and community outreach, it bridges the gap between science and instant communication with a curious public.

This movement began in 2008 when two professors of archaeology, Bill Caraher andKostis Kourelis, started casual conversations about how quite a few Mediterranean archaeologists they knew of also had punk rock associations or predilections. Those chats jump-started a blog, where the two started bantering online about themes shared between punk rock and their own archaeological methods. How punk rock and archaeology share an irreverence of tradition, an interest in abandoned spaces and see value in objects discarded. How they both embrace destruction as part of the creative process. How punk music has archaeological underpinnings in its songs — not in their reproduction of the past necessarily, but in their preservation of the past through brazen critique.

The blog ultimately led to the publication of the book Punk Archaeology, a manifesto of sorts about how we can use punk music as a tool to think about archaeology in different, more playful ways. But like punk, the play is serious and has, at its core, a social conscience.

As a collective study, punk archaeology realizes that as the speed of consumerism and technology continue to increase at such a rapid rate, it threatens to leave no real archaeological record. That by recording the recent past and the artifacts left behind almost as it happens, punk archaeologists can retain information for future use by scholars of culture, technology and even trash. Punk archaeology strives to give a voice to history that can be too easily ignored or forgotten by the mainstream.

The now-infamous Atari excavation marked the first official punk archaeology gig using real archaeological methods for digging, documenting and preserving artifacts less than 50 years old. I was lucky enough to lead the team on the dig, which included Caraher, Richard Rothaus (fearless field director), Raiford Guins (video game historian) and Bret Weber (sociologist).

All of us have one foot in punk history and the other foot in either classical antiquity or the American West. We were willing volunteers, happy to participate in a project that would be a first-of-its-kind technology excavation. All captivated by the weirdness surrounding the story behind it and mindful of how punk embraces the weird and does so on a shoestring.

A Tale of Trash
Urban legend had it that in 1983 video game giant Atari buried millions of copies of its notorious flop, E.T. — The Extra-Terrestrial, in a landfill in the New Mexico desert. Trucked over from Atari’s warehouse in El Paso, Texas, and dumped, the games sat among heaps of trash, subject to nightly thefts by adventurous kids who would sneak in and grab from the pile, until everything was finally driven over with heavy machinery and covered with a slurry of concrete and alternating layers of sand and garbage.

The facts and fiction of the tale had long been debated in certain circles. Some rumors claimed that Atari buried the goods to rid itself of the game thought to have singlehandedly caused the video game crash of the mid-1980s. Others said that the dump never happened. No way could a company as huge as Atari do such a thing.

Years later, online chat rooms still continued to buzz, speculating about the truth of the legendary disposal and cover-up, with some Internet conspiracy theorists claiming that perhaps as many as 5 million games had been buried, still entombed beneath a solid concrete slab.

Finally, 30 years after the supposed event, a film production company secured the rights from the city of Alamogordo to excavate the old landfill as part of the documentary Atari: Game Over on the video game crash. When I learned of this agreement, I wrote to Fuel Entertainment to see how they planned to manage the “archaeology” of the excavation. A few months later, our team was invited to participate.

We reached the Atari level 30 feet underground on April 26, 2014, to the cheers of hundreds of Alamogordo residents, gamers, pop-culture mavens, news media and even the creator of the E.T. video game, Howard Scott Warshaw. Copies of more than 40 Atari games, plus Atari 2600 consoles and controllers, were excavated, some still boxed, in shrink wrap or with price tags from Target and Wal-Mart on them.

So a legend was proven true. But what about the archaeology? And what should be done with the artifacts recovered and the stories they held?

As we examined the recovered games, we spoke to the crowd and to the media. Traditional archaeological digs and excavations rarely have public onlookers, but we welcomed the audience, sharing what we found. Punk archaeology is public archaeology. And while the Internet usually takes a passing interest in archaeological projects, typically leaving any news of discoveries to professional journals and books, this was different. The excavation of the Atari burial ground trended globally on Twitter and Facebook, prompting a public debate as to what archaeology is.

For all of us on-site in New Mexico, the excavation yielded artifacts from our recent past that had been discarded as trash — considered artifacts now because they represent a culture, a heritage for people of a certain age. They are a statement to the corporate culture and mindset of a time.

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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," Recovered from Landfill, Alamogordo, New Mexico, April 26, 2014, Site of the Atari Video Game Burial of 1983- THF159970

And now, they are recognized for their significance by the likes of institutions such as The Henry Ford, the Smithsonian Institution, the Strong Museum of Play and the Vigamus video game museum, all of which accepted items recovered from the Atari burial ground as part of their collections — once again giving further legitimacy to the legend, the dig and the recovered items as important artifacts in the study of 1980s pop culture and human history.

DID YOU KNOW? The science of photogrammetry, which merges photos, landmarks and geometry, was used during the Atari burial ground excavation. 

DID YOU KNOW? University of Arizona’s Garbology Project, begun by professor William Rathje in the 1990s, sought not only to see what happened to objects after they became trash but also to learn what modern American culture treated as garbage.

See all of the artifacts related to the Atari Video Game Burial of 1983 in our digital collections.

By Andrew Reinhard. This story originally ran in the January-May 2016 edition of The Henry Ford Magazine. See the full story here.

 

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Conservation specialist Mallory Bower and collections specialist Jake Hildebrandt removing objects from shelving in the Collections Storage Building.


imls-logoThe Henry Ford has recently embarked on a new adventure, thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) which allows us to spend time working on the electrical collections currently housed in the Collections Storage Building. This is The Henry Ford’s second IMLS grant dedicated to improving the storage of and access to collections. The
first grant focused on communications technology, and was completed over two years, ending in October 2015. At the end of that grant, more than 1000 communications-related objects were conserved, catalogued, digitized, and stored, marking a huge improvement in the state of the collections and their accessibility. We have similar goals for this grant, as we aim to complete 900+ objects by October 2017.

An Edison System Ammeter, one of the first objects treated in the course of the new IMLS grant.

The ‘electrical’ theme of the grant includes objects like meters and motors, rheostats, transformers, and switches. We will easily be able to make it to 900 objects without including appliances, lightbulbs, or batteries, so those will unfortunately have to wait for another time (or another grant?).


You may have seen a
previous blog post about the process of treating objects included in the IMLS communications grant. A new conservator, Louise Stewart Beck (that’s me!), and a new conservation specialist, Mallory Bower, have been hired specifically to work on this project. We’re joining Jake Hildebrandt, Collections Specialist; Clara Deck, Senior Conservator; and several other members of the historical resources staff who are involved with the grant.

We are really pleased with our progress thus far, having passed the 100-object completion mark this past week! The objects that we’ve completed are working their way through the rest of the process, including cataloging, photography, and packing, and eventually will all be viewable on The Henry Ford’s newly-redesigned website for all to see. In the coming months, we will have more “sneak peeks” into our work and the electrical collection, including object highlights, interesting treatments, and curatorial discoveries. Stay tuned.

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

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The first Ford Motor Company vehicle ever produced was made at the company’s first factory, located on Mack Avenue in Detroit. The Mack Avenue Plant is so significant to Ford history that it was
reproduced, at a smaller scale, in Greenfield Village in 1945.  We’ve just digitized a few images related to the original Mack Avenue Plant, including this 1903 photograph of plant employees. Visit our Digital Collections to see more artifacts related to Mack Avenue.

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



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“Nobody'd ever imagined it, a full computer that could run programs could be that small.” — Steve Wozniak

How did a meeting in a garage provide the inspiration for a new king of home computing? 

On a rainy day in March 1975, some of the most radical minds in computing gathered in the garage of Gordon French in Menlo Park, California. At this—the inaugural meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club—technical genius and countercultural ethics fused with the obsession to push technology to its limits for social good. It made for an inspiring (if not competitive) environment. Steve Wozniak, then an engineer working at Hewlett-Packard, had been given a flyer for that first Homebrew meeting by a co-worker. He attended and walked away with the inspiration to create an affordable and powerful computer for the everyday home user. This was the beginning of the Apple 1.

Wozniak wanted to provide the maximum amount of computing power using the least amount of components. Thanks to the powerful new 6502 MOS microprocessor chip, he found a way to condense his design onto a small rectangular circuit board holding a total of 60 chips. He also gave some thought to a user-friendly interface. The Apple 1 is the first personal computer that allowed people to type on a keyboard and have their text show up on a television monitor.

In 1976, Wozniak’s engineering skills, coupled with his friend Steve Jobs’ bold marketing moves, led to an order for 200 assembled Apple 1 motherboards by ByteShop owner Paul Terrell. And the word assembled here is important—the Apple 1 is the first preassembled personal computer ever sold. Before the Apple 1, computer enthusiasts built their systems from kits, soldering components and pairing them with clunky interface components like teletype machines. Wozniak later reminisced: “Nobody'd ever imagined it, a full computer that could run programs could be that small.”

Ironically, when it came time to find the money to produce the circuit boards for the first Apple 1 order, Wozniak’s contribution was raised by selling his HP-65 calculator, a follow-up model to the HP-35. When the Apple 1 circuit boards arrived, they were assembled and tested over the course of 30 days at the Jobs family home. This was the humble, almost cottage-industry-like beginnings of what would become one of the world’s most profitable companies. When Wozniak and Jobs took their first order, they had no way of predicting what the future would bring.

03_gift_fullFrom our Archive of American Innovation to your living room. Take home a piece of history when you give today. Your support will spark innovation among future change makers. Donate $150 or more and receive a limited-edition, signed and numbered museum-quality print (while supplies last).

Inspired by the Apple 1A breakthrough in manufacturing invented by Apple Inc. Captured by internationally renowned photographer Lisa Spindler, 12" x 12," unframed. 

Learn more about Apple 1:



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Go to the back of the museum, over in the area filled with hulking power-generating machinery, next to the grey mass of the Spokane water turbine, and you’ll find something new.  Or rather something almost a century old that’s new to the area.  Actually, you’ll find twelve things.  Or rather 795.  Okay, let me explain…

What you’ll find is a group of 12 display panels created in the mid-1920s for the L. Miller and Son lumber and hardware store of 1815 W. Division Street, Chicago, Illinois.  The installation consists of six panels of hand tools and six of hardware, all logically, carefully, and gracefully arrayed on green felt backing, mounted in glass-fronted doors.  Now they are arranged gallery-like on the wall, but originally they hinged out of a floor-to-ceiling cabinet system of shelves, bins, and drawers custom-fitted into the store’s long narrow retail space.  

The original business was founded by Louis Miller, a Russian immigrant who had arrived in the United States in 1894.  Miller and his family served a neighborhood made up of immigrants from Poland, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine (the second and third floors of part of the store property housed Russian and Polish social clubs).   The clear visibility of the store’s stock of tools and hardware made it easier for customers with a language barrier to find what they needed.  The display’s elegant arrangement was great salesmanship but could also serve a problem solving function: viewing tools and components is rather like scanning a menu of possible solutions. 

The neighborhood underwent several transformations over the years.  The final wave of European immigrants, primarily from Poland, arrived in the 1940s and 50s as refugees; Kennedy Expressway construction cut a wide swath through the area, and once completed in 1960 served to cut it off from neighborhoods to the east; by the 1970s many residents were fleeing to the suburbs and the area was becoming rife with gang activity.  The store, in its original location on Division (the “Polish Broadway” that served as the dividing line between the Wicker Park and East Village neighborhoods), endured through all these changes except for the most recent: gentrification.  The subsequent rise in property taxes finally prompted the need for the company to move to a new location. 

How Did the Exhibit Make Its Way to The Henry Ford?
During the 1950s the owners had already phased out the hardware side of the business in order to concentrate on lumber and construction materials.  The display remained in place, fondly remembered—and occasionally visited—by a dwindling number of locals.  In early 2011, with the business’s move looming, owner Bob Margolin (grandson of the founder) and I began to discuss The Henry Ford’s potential interest in acquiring the display.  In April Bob indicated that he would be travelling to Michigan on business and we agreed that bringing a sampling of the display—a panel or two to look at more closely—would be a good idea.  On the sunny afternoon of Friday April 29 I went out to meet him in our employee parking lot adjacent to Lovett Hall: he hadn’t brought a sampling, he’d brought the entire display, and had already started carefully propping the panels adjacent to one another against the side of his van—much to the fascination and enthrallment of numerous staff leaving for the day.  An amazing sight, it was as if the display had lurched out of the shadows to literally claim a day in the sun—and offer a kind of final proof of its sales power, even though there was no longer any stock of tools for it to sell.

The acquisition went ahead.  Now, precisely five years later, the display is on exhibit.  It is a museum of tools within a larger museum.  It is an artifact in its own right but it is made up of artifacts.  It is made up of stunningly ordinary stuff—the workaday items ordinarily built into homes or hidden in toolboxes—but it celebrates everyday practicality and resourcefulness.  Like a great many museum artifacts it is a paradox: in a state of rest, set sparkling in Made in America—but also active, continuing to work its magic, prompting an urge to build, fix, construct—making you want to somehow do something…

Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Senior Director, Historical Resources at The Henry Ford.

Learn more about the L. Miller and Son Hardware and Tool Display in this collection of artifact cards.

 

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Architects for social impact look, listen and then create experiences that restore community, human dignity and eventually evoke change

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Many architects today are discovering that success doesn’tnecessarily depend on talent, vision or how you apply learned design practices in the real world. Much of one’s success, in fact, relies on an ability to listen to and empathize with the needs of the community you’re trying to serve. And oftentimes, these needs aren’t simple, pretty or cut-and-dried. 

Architect Michael Maltzan faced such a situation when he was brought on board to build an apartment building in downtown Los Angeles for the homeless. While many of today’s homeless shelters and low-income houses seem drab and without character or aesthetic beauty, Maltzan’s Star Apartments is just the opposite. The striking modular shaped structure adds visual impact to the neighborhood. And while most homeless housing is focused on the much-needed concept of basic shelter — without extra amenities or attention to detail — Maltzan’s design includes a community space with a state-of-the-art kitchen, an edible garden, exercise classrooms, art studios and a basketball court built on the top level of what was once a parking structure.

“I feel that carefully thought-out designs can contribute to a person’s rehabilitation,” said Maltzan, who understands the power of shelter and safety to help transform a life from uncertain to hopeful. “Whether it’s a single-family home, a museum or a school, you have to bring your highest level of design and focus on what makes the individual program unique."

Residents of Star Apartments describe the feeling of having what most overlook everyday — a front door with a lock, a doorbell, running water — as life altering. 

Kenneth Davis is a peer counselor at the Skid Row Housing Trust, which built Star Apartments in 2013. He is also a resident of the complex. “Once I moved in and closed my door, my life flashed before me,” said Davis, who had to transition from a life behind bars and then on the streets to living in his own apartment. “At 49 years old, I finally had my own closed door. This made me feel as safe as others in society. It was phenomenal to hear my doorbell. It was music to my ears. The effect my home had on me: It gave me tranquility. I did not want to go backwards in life ever again.”

Davis returned to school and completed a drug and alcohol studies program and became certified as a mental health peer specialist for the Skid Row Housing Trust. Actions, he said, that are a direct result of having a place he could call home. “I see the same effect of permanent, supportive housing in residents. Eyes glowing in the groups that I facilitate, eager to participate from a good night’s sleep on a soft bed. I’ve seen mental illness and addiction addressed and tackled daily because of the power of a locked door.”

Add in the fact that the Skid Row Housing Trust also provides on-site access to health care and job training services, and that makes Star Apartments, as well as the trust’s two-dozen other buildings, a successful working example of design for social impact.

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CONNECT, CREATE, CHANGE

This idea that the people you are designing something for have a voice that needs to be heard before you start creating is at the heart of the social impact movement seeping into the world of modern architecture. The notion that improving living conditions and preserving a sense of community for everyone should be paramount before a design is drawn or a foundation laid.

Some of the most mainstream examples of design for social impact do not necessarily tackle such hardhitting societal issues as homelessness, either.

Celebrating its fifth anniversary in San Francisco, Pavement to Parks has made a commitment to converting underutilized street space into urban parklets and plazas that help foster neighborhood interaction, support local businesses and reimagine city streets. Most are temporary interventions, but some, such as the Jane Warner Plaza at Castro and Market streets designed by Seth Boor of Boor Bridges Architecture, have become permanent neighborhood fixtures.

The temporary spaces often occupy parking spots and underused curb space, and add much-needed friendly, colorful and quaint public gathering areas in what might
otherwise be a concrete-centric landscape. The Ocean Avenue Mobile Parklet, for example, made its way up and down San Francisco’s Ocean Avenue, spending six months at one location before it moved to the next.

Designed and built by public high school students who are architecture interns at the Youth Art Exchange in San Francisco, the parklet project introduced students to the philosophies of social impact design to connect community, create commerce and beautify the neighborhood.

In San Francisco’s Outer Sunset District, the Noriega Street Parklet replaces three diagonal parking spots. The unique shape of the space gave designers the opportunity to create two separate, usable areas well suited to the diverse groups they knew made up the community. One is larger and more open for children, strollers and owners and their pets. The other is more protected and intimate for the quieter and older crowds.

In contrast to the Noriega Street Parklet’s angles and sharper edges is the whimsical, elongated design of the Sunset Parklet on Judah Street. If studied close enough for long enough, it looks somewhat like an ancient Viking longship, with modern-day addons, of course, such as a bike rack. Developing the spaces between a business and the street to help make cities more livable: What was once a guerrilla idea has become institutionalized with endless opportunities for access and inclusion.

Parklets are now popping up everywhere, from college campuses in Iowa to spaces across the world in Chile.

LISTEN, OBSERVE, UNDERSTAND
Liz Ogbu PortraitOn the more serious side of design for social impact is architect Liz Ogbu of Studio O, who has personally created an entire practice revolving around solving social issues through humancentered design practices. Actively involved in shaping some of the world’s leading public interest design nonprofits, Ogbu is part of the inaugural class of Innovators-in-Residence at IDEO.org, the sister nonprofit of the international design firm IDEO, which supports spreading human-centered design to improve the lives of low income communities across the globe

Ogbu has designed everything from thought-provoking exhibits and resource spaces for day laborers to public sidewalk plazas. She takes great inspiration from the concepts shared by pioneer architect Le Corbusier, who once said, “A house is a machine for living in” as well as “The home should be the treasure chest of living.”

“I have been on this long journey of linking up what is normally taught as architecture and design to the physical and tangibles of the containers in which people live their lives,” Ogbu said. “I want the process to be more active. I want to create more than just the container, giving people more agency to be able to shape it.”

Most recently, Ogbu found herself tackling how to upgrade sanitation services for residents of a remote village in Ghana. While she was there, she observed men, women and children often standing in long lines for public toilets. “We spent a week just talking to the people in their homes,” said Ogbu. “We talked to moms, pastors in churches, staff while they worked, in order to understand what their lives were like in general.”

At the end of this information gathering, Ogbu helped formulate plans to increase access to a pay toilet system in public spaces that would aid in the sanitation issues and generate much-needed revenue.

“The heart of human-centered design is the idea of empathy. It is important to take the time to listen, observe and understand people,” said Ogbu. “Just because someone is poor does not mean that they do not have desires and aspirations.”

Ogbu stresses the value of listening to the challenges and responding with designs that solve problems. “Developing deep empathetic skills and including people as part of the process of design is not social design, it’s just good design,” she added. “Whether you are building a gorgeous tower being paid for by a multibillion-dollar company or working on a toilet project, you are always trying to preserve the beauty of the project and the people it serves.”

By Julie Wolfson. This story originally appeared in the January-May 2016 edition of The Henry Ford Magazine.

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A hydrogen-fueled Prototype from Colorado’s Wheat Ridge High School charges up Jefferson Avenue at the 2016 Shell Eco-marathon Americas.

The gas mileage in our cars is nothing to sneeze at these days. The average for all new light-duty vehicles sold in the United States is around 25 miles per gallon. Buy a gas/electric hybrid like the Toyota Prius or the Chevrolet Volt and the equivalent mileage jumps to about 60. Go with the all-electric Tesla Model S and you’re looking at an equivalent of almost 90 miles per gallon. Good numbers, but you’d have to multiply them by ten to be taken seriously at the Shell Eco-marathon Americas.

For the second year in a row, Shell brought its super-mileage competition to Detroit. More than 1,000 students on 124 teams from high schools and colleges throughout the Western Hemisphere gathered in the Motor City April 22-24 to compete toward a simple goal: to tease as much mileage out of a gallon of gasoline (or its equivalent) as possible.

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Students from Michigan’s Lapeer County Education and Technology Center are fans of The Love Bug, judging by their Urban Concept vehicle.

If you’re fan of
The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, then you might recall that the competition was featured in the show. Cars compete in two classes. The Prototypes are stripped-down, highly aerodynamic designs, while the Urban Concept vehicles look a bit more like production cars. Teams may use either internal combustion engines (fueled by gasoline, diesel, natural gas or ethanol) or electric motors (fed by lithium-based batteries or hydrogen fuel cells.) This year’s overall winner was Université Laval of Quebec City with 2,584 miles per gallon. Fellow Canadians from the University of Toronto weren’t far behind with 2,364. California Polytechnic State University rounded out the podium with 1,125. (Complete results are available here.)

How do teams achieve these extraordinary numbers? Streamlined shapes and lightweight materials are big parts of the equation, but the teams also shut off their engines and coast as much as possible along the 0.6-mile course laid out through downtown Detroit. But competing vehicles have to maintain an average speed of at least 15 miles per hour over ten laps, so they can’t rely too heavily on momentum.

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Inspection is rigorous. Many teams struggle with the brake test, in which their car’s brakes must hold the vehicle (with driver) perfectly still on a 20-percent grade.

It’s an all-in commitment for the students. Teams began arriving in Detroit on Tuesday, and most of them stayed in tents set up on Cobo Center’s lower level. If they weren’t sleeping or competing on the track, odds are that the students were working on their cars in the paddocks that covered much of Cobo’s main hall. Each vehicle has to pass a rigorous safety and compliance inspection before it’s allowed on the track, so there’s always fine-tuning to be done.

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Everybody loves to build a Model T.

In addition to the competition, there were many other attractions for the public to enjoy. The Henry Ford was pleased to have a presence in Cobo Center alongside the Michigan Science Center, the MotorCities National Heritage Area, FCA and other organizations. We brought two of our signature experiences – the “Build a Model T” activity and the operating replica of Henry Ford’s Kitchen Sink Engine – along with the replica of the
1896 Quadricycle and the 102.5 mile-per-gallon Edison2 X Prize car. We also brought several auto-related clips from The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation to inspire the teams and event visitors alike.

On Saturday, I was privileged to moderate a panel discussion with students and staff from Maxwell High School of Technology in Lawrenceville, Georgia. The group won the grand prize in Quaker State’s 2015 Best in Class Challenge, in which they had six weeks to turn a plain-vanilla 2003 Chevrolet Impala into a head-turning street machine. The competition, with its tight time and money restrictions, gave the students a new appreciation for teamwork – not unlike the cooperation that is so crucial to Eco-marathon teams.

The Shell Eco-marathon Americas will be back in Detroit in 2017. If you missed the event this year, be sure to get to Cobo Center next time to enjoy one of the most exciting and innovative motor vehicle challenges around.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

hybrid cars, alternative fuel vehicles

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If you visit the
Wright Home in Greenfield Village, the presenter in the house will probably draw your attention to the bookcase in the living room.  Many of these books, along with more housed in the Benson Ford Research Center, did indeed belong to the Wrights, and were used by Orville and Wilbur Wright, their sister Katharine, or their father Milton.  We’ve just digitized over 50 Wright family books, including this 1892 copy of Medea used by Katharine Wright.  Other examples include The Principal Works of Charles Darwin, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and A Manual of Instruction in Latin.  Browse the list of titles to see what other bookish ideas may have influenced the young Wright Brothers by visiting our Digital Collections.

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

antique books, Wright Brothers