Now that we are getting close to wrapping up our Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Museums for America grant to conserve, photograph, catalog, and rehouse artifacts from our collection, some of the staff who have worked on this grant would like to share interesting objects they’ve encountered over the course of the grant.
Marlene Gray, IMLS Project Conservator, has three objects she would like to share.
Dodge & Zuill Easy Model C Washing Machine, circa 1912 / THF186088
As the IMLS Project Conservator for the last year of the grant, clearing space for larger objects in storage was our main priority. However, there were chances to conserve some interesting objects, one of which was a copper electric washing machine from the early 20th century. The dazzling copper tub was a sight to behold while in the conservation lab. While cleaning it, I remember thinking how grateful I am that technology has come such a long way in making tasks simpler!
Next is this footwarmer from the mid-19th century:
This footwarmer was a cute object to conserve because of the decorative elements in the wood frame and pierced tin stove box. One of the wooden columns had separated from the rest of the object. The opportunity to completely reassemble the object and give it a thorough cleaning made it feel as though the little stove could still be heated for the approaching cold months.
The great thing about conservation is that you are always learning about history through ordinary objects. While the conservation treatment of this object involved relatively simple metal polishing and glass repair, learning about the inventor of the lubricator cup, Elijah McCoy, and his connection to Detroit was fascinating. I highly recommend exploring his story, like I did!
Next up are Susan Bartholomew and me, Laura Myles, Collections Specialists in the Registrars’ Office. We have worked closely cataloging and researching the objects that have been selected for the grant. It was hard to narrow down our favorite objects, or at least the ones we think are the most interesting, but here is a brief overview of some of the objects we enjoyed working with the most.
My name is Susan Bartholomew. I am a Collections Documentation Specialist and simply put, my role in this project was to update or revise catalog records for objects selected for the grant. This included identifying and applying accession numbers, which allow us to track an object both physically and digitally using our database, as well as conducting provenance research, and creating or modifying existing records in our database using cataloguing standards.
My personal highlights for this grant include the following.
Model of a Hook and Ladder Truck, circa 1900 / THF170406
This incredibly detailed handmade model of a turn-of-the-century fire truck is complete with removable ladders, firemen’s tools, and what are possibly the world’s tiniest leather fire buckets.
From the tiny to the huge, this is a shop sign in the form of a giant gold-painted tin teapot. It stands over three feet tall and four feet long from spout tip to handle. For more information about this unique giant teapot, check out this blog post Senior Conservator Louise Beck wrote about its surprising discovery.
A very early example of a type of telephone that had no batteries, this device operated on the same principle as two tin cans connected by a string, an idea that had been around for centuries. They were used in pairs and were connected over a short distance by a tightly stretched wire. With no dependence on electricity, they were advertised as being more reliable than battery-operated telephones. This unit was one of a pair used by the father of the donor to connect the flour mill he operated to the boats he used to ship his flour. One set would be at the mill and the other was placed on the wharf boat half a mile away.
And now, Laura Myles shares her favorites.
Like Susan, I have assisted with cataloging, but I also research objects more in depth to uncover missing dates and/or manufacturers, as well as approving records to go online into our Digital Collections. Working on the grant over the last three years has been a wonderful learning experience, as the objects are so varied you really have no idea what to expect.
Megalethoscope Slide, "St. Mark's Square," lit up / THF179345
Perhaps my most favorite object is the megalethoscope and its slides. One of the best parts of my job is rediscovering hidden treasures in the collection. While we knew this was something special by looking at it, it was not until we were working on the slides that we knew how truly special it was.
At first glance, it looks like the megalethoscope is a fancy magic lantern device—merely projecting the images on slides. The megalethoscope was designed by Charles Ponti while he was living in Venice, Italy circa 1862. Ponti photographed his travels through France, Switzerland, Italy, and Egypt, and it was these photographs that he turned into transparencies for his megalethoscope, costing five francs each at the time. These transparencies look like normal slides until they are inserted into the megalethoscope and manipulated to show night views painted onto the backs of the images but hidden by a dustcover. One of the 22 slides can be seen above. For even more information about the megalethoscope, here is a blog post written about its conservation and photography.
Another object that I enjoyed researching was this naval cannon. While we know this cannon was accessioned in 1929, we do not have information about who made it or where it was used. Based on its estimated manufacture date, circa 1780, and similar design to British artillery, I reached out to the Royal Armouries, which helped eliminate the possibility of it being British in origin. Unfortunately, we do not know its history, but at least we know it was very likely made in the United States to be used on a merchant marine vessel.
This sign advertising the O. H. Perry Inne is one of my favorites just for its connection to the War of 1812 and Oliver Hazard Perry. On the front of the sign is a portrait of Perry, there is an eagle with seventeen stars above (although there were eighteen states by 1813, further adding to the mystery), and the words “Lake Erie” below on the reverse. Perry was regarded as a hero after defeating a British squadron in Lake Erie, which led to Detroit being freed from British control. Unfortunately, this sign’s history has been lost to time, although there are similar signs that have come up for auction. It seems likely that some local establishment capitalized on Perry’s name, probably along Lake Erie. We can only imagine the building it adorned.
One of the more recent objects to make my short list, and Susan’s as well, is this turtle spittoon. We think it is one of the cutest objects to have come through the IMLS pipeline, especially since spittoons themselves are not the most elegant of objects. Apparently turtle designs for spittoons were quite popular in their time, as well as remaining popular among collectors. The one in our collection is functional: pressing the turtle’s head flips open the shell to reveal the bowl.
If you would like to know more about the cataloging process, you can read more about that here (and see a few more interesting objects we have worked on as a result of this and a previous IMLS grant), and if you would like to know more about the provenance research Susan refers to, check out Associate Registrar Aimee Burpee’s blog post.
This is but a small sampling of some of our favorite objects from this grant. Over the course of the grant so far, we've digitized nearly 3,000 objects, and cataloged and conserved over 4,300 total objects. Unfortunately, this means that we had to be a little bit picky in what we shared here, but hopefully you will discover more of the treasures from our Collections Storage Building yourself while searching our Digital Collections.
Marlene Gray is IMLS Project Conservator, Susan Bartholomew is Collections Documentation Specialist, and Laura Myles is Collections Specialist, all at The Henry Ford.
The multisensory theater in Driven to Win at The Henry Ford.
American innovation knows no bounds, and racing, which combines technical excellence with the human endeavor, speaks to our constant need to push the limits of what’s possible. That’s why Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation has gathered one of the finest collections of innovative, powerful, record-busting race cars and automotive artifacts in the world.
Building on this unparalleled collection, The Henry Ford’s newest exhibition, Driven to Win: Racing in Americapresented by General Motors, gives guests a visceral sense of just how thrilling it is to “go faster and push the limits of racing.” BRC Imagination Arts partnered with The Henry Ford to help bring its incredible collection to life through emotional storytelling, and to get guests excited about “the lives of those who invented their way into the winner's circle and often changed the world in the process.”
The result: Fueled by Passion, the exhilarating, immersive experience at the heart of the new exhibition. The 15-minute sensory-filled experience shares the stories of five people who have empowered themselves to push their personal limits, and ignites the drive we all have to power our passions.
Through an initiative funded by The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation and The Avangrid Foundation, the Invention Convention Worldwide team at The Henry Ford has created a pathway to connect sustainability to invention for our students in the classroom. Through the lens of biomimicry, student inventors examine how some of humanity’s greatest inventions have been formed by the world around them and how they can tap into nature to find sustainable solutions, while problem solving by using biomimicry.
A great example of this comes from Florida fifth grader and 2020 Invention Convention participant Xavier Baquero-Iglesias and his invention SoleX Turf: Good for Your Sole, Good for Your Plant. SoleX Turf is an invention that uses the principle of photosynthesis and the practice of biomimicry. This artificial turf uses the principles of photosynthesis to collect and create energy from the sun while cooling the temperature of the turf to be more enjoyable for players.
Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt with Victory Champagne at the 24 Heures du Mans (24 Hours of Le Mans) Race, June 1967 / THF127983
Celebration of Success
Whatever the form of racing, every team wants to be in the Winner’s Circle. It’s where victors are crowned and reputations are made. The Winner’s Circle in our new auto racing exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America Presented by General Motors, puts five remarkable race cars on an honorary pedestal. They are connected to some of the greatest drivers, teams, and personalities in racing. They broke records, they broke traditions, and they broke new ground with innovative designs and ideas that influenced all who followed. The Winner’s Circle is a celebration of success.
This car, and especially its team, brought a fundamental change to NASCAR racing. The team owner, Carl Kiekhaefer (founder of Kiekhaefer Corporation, maker of Mercury outboard boat motors), brought a level of professionalism to his team’s operation that set a new standard in auto racing. His drivers and mechanics all wore matching uniforms, and his cars were immaculately prepared. He transported his cars in closed trucks rather than open trailers (providing more advertising space), and his teams were among the first to practice pit stops. That alone might not have influenced other teams to follow his example, but the clincher was his team’s domination of the series in 1955 and 1956. In 1955, driver Tim Flock scored 18 wins and 32 top-10 finishes on his way to the NASCAR championship. Then, in 1956, Kiekhaefer drivers Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson together won 22 of 41 races, including 16 in a row, with Baker taking the championship. After that season, Kiekhaefer dropped out of racing, but the professionalism he brought soon became the norm.
Racing legend A.J. Foyt made the most of this car’s dirt-track prowess. It was key to Foyt winning his first three Indy Car championships in 1960, 1961 and 1963. Race car builder Wally Meskowski engineered and built this car specifically for dirt-track racing, which comprised most of the USAC Championship (Indy Car) series in the early 1960s (the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of just three paved tracks in the series in 1960). From 1960 through 1963, Foyt drove this car in 26 races, and scored 13 of his 17 victories in it, all but three of them on dirt tracks. It was powered by the iconic Offenhauser four-cylinder racing engine that dominated Indy Car races from the late 1930s until well into the 1960s. Every Indianapolis 500 from 1947 to 1964 was won with an Offenhauser engine. The engine’s design, with the block and double-overhead-cam cylinder head cast as one unit, produced both the racing essentials: power and reliability.
Talk about a disruptor! This car could qualify as the greatest disruptor ever in American racing history. In 1965, Formula One champion Jim Clark drove this car to victory in the Indianapolis 500, marking that race’s first-ever win by a rear-engine car. A few years earlier, legendary road racer Dan Gurney had concluded that a car/engine combination designed using European Formula One technology could revolutionize the 500 and Indy Car racing. He brought Ford Motor Company together with Colin Chapman, the English builder of Lotus Formula One cars. That collaboration resulted in a lightweight Lotus chassis powered by a specially designed Ford V-8 engine. With its monocoque chassis, four-wheel independent suspension, and rear-mounted engine, the Lotus-Ford brought an abrupt end to the traditional Indy front-engine roadster’s long domination and established a new paradigm for American race cars.
In the 1960s, Ford Motor Company made the most massive sports car racing effort ever seen in America. The objective was to beat the dominant Ferrari team in the world’s most important sports car endurance race—the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The weapon was a family of cars best known as the Ford GT40. Ford’s first of four straight victories, in 1966, was won by the GT40’s Mark II variant, fielded by the Shelby American team and driven by New Zealanders Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme. The next year, Shelby returned with this car—the more powerful Mark IV. Its chassis was built of an aluminum honeycomb material used in aircraft construction, and the body shape resulted from hours of wind tunnel testing. The big 427-cubic-inch V-8 engine was based on Ford’s stock car racing engine and proved highly reliable. Drivers Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt beat the second-place Ferrari by 32 miles at a record-breaking average speed of 135.48 mph. That win was another first at Le Mans because, unlike the year before, the winning car was built in the United States. This was the first Le Mans win by an American car, built in the United States and driven by Americans.
1988 Chevy-Penske PC-17 Indy Car
1988 Rick Mears Winning Indy Car Replica, on loan courtesy General Motors Heritage Center. / THF185962
In 1988, Rick Mears qualified the original version of this car on the pole and won Penske Racing's seventh Indianapolis 500. The win marked Mears’ third victory at one of motorsports’ most renowned events, and contributed to him becoming one of the most respected drivers in Indy car racing history. That year, all three Penske team drivers—Mears, Danny Sullivan, and Al Unser, Sr.—piloted the new PC-17 chassis powered by redesigned Chevrolet engines. The Penske team swept the top three qualifying positions on pole day. Mears’ four-lap qualifying speed of 219.198 mph became the new Speedway standard, and the Penske team, led by Mears’ win, took two of the top three podium positions (Unser placed third).
Opening Day is behind us, so baseball season is now in full swing (pun intended), and the return of Historic Base Ball in Greenfield Village is just around the corner. Celebrate this beloved sport with a few artifacts and stories from our collections.
H.J. Heinz Company Baseball Team, circa 1907 / THF292401
The H.J. Heinz Company, at the forefront of employee welfare during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, offered many recreational activities for its workers. This photograph from 1907 shows the Heinz company baseball team, comprised of its employees.
Portrait of a Baseball Player, circa 1880 / THF94413
In the decades following the Civil War, base ball clubs came to represent a community’s identity and honor. Players donned colorful uniform shirts to make the team readily visible to its supporters and opponents alike.
This bright red wool base ball shirt is a great example of uniforms of that time. The oversized “A” would have identified the community, company, or school the team represented, while the “BBC” stood for “Base Ball Club” – the two-word phrase later changed to “baseball” in 1884.
World Tournament of Historic Baseball in Greenfield Village, August 2007 (Photographed by Michelle Andonian) / THF52274
In 1867, Detroit hosted the World Base Ball Tournament. To commemorate this event, Greenfield Village hosts the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball every summer—one of the finest exhibitions of historic base ball in the country, playing by 1867 rules.
Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball was canceled last year, but it will be back in 2021! Until then, you can learn more about historic baseball at Greenfield Village by watching this video.
Touring the current exhibit Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection gives me pause and allows me time to reflect on a career spent in craft. As an artist working at a world-class museum, I am afforded a unique opportunity to explore these connections in a variety of ways. Craft, to me, at its core is about connections, whether through the physical touch of an object, the experience of making, or our basic human desire to create. They not only signify our fundamental needs and speak to functionality, but they can also serve to illustrate our thoughts and ideas.
Crafts and human beings have been inextricably tied for eons. Ceramics and textiles are ancient, reaching back to the dawn of civilization. For example, the art of glassblowing dates to 50 BC, starting with the Phoenicians in Mesopotamia. Because of this lineage, I find a deep personal connection to materials and processes. Each has its own language to decode and understand, and therefore, a unique resonance for me. When making work, I look to what materials seem most appropriate—steel speaks a different language than wood, and glass than ceramics, each eliciting a different response from the viewer. The relationship to each material is also directly related to the creative process. I find that these bonds stem not only from the solitude of practice but also from how materials interact when placed together. I am often surprised how similar they all are—like romance languages stemming from Latin, they seem to have a singular focus at their core.
This connectivity has transformed our digital world. For centuries, craft has lived in the guild system of master and apprentice, and this long-standing arrangement has created a path for generations to pass on the skills and traditions of each artist. Today in America, this tradition has primarily been assigned to universities, which are now tasked with the distillation of information from lengthy apprenticeships (glassmaking was a seven-year appointment) to a few short years. However, as a former college faculty member, I witnessed student skills develop rapidly in this digital age. The level of sophistication and awareness that students arrive with is far more advanced than previously, given the rise of social media. Digital communication has shortened the learning curve for young artists in understanding their craft. When viewed as a resource, certain pitfalls of making and unique techniques can be shared and recognized through social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube. No longer are artists islands unto themselves, but part of a global community where information and understanding are at their fingertips. But make no mistake, there is no shortcut for honing skills. Craft will always demand the prolonged communication that an artist has with their chosen medium.
Occasionally, my role at the museum requires me to create exact reproductions for use in programming and I relish the chance to search through the collection with our curators discovering hidden treasures. The opportunity to study artifacts from hundreds of years ago is one I am truly grateful to have. Here, in front of me, are the movements and expressions of each artist left crystallized for me to examine. I think of all the craftspeople that came before me, how their movements transcend time, and their work on display for me to experience in my own way. The craft hasn’t changed, the actions of the artist are still the same—it is the unspoken language of craft, the secret language that makers speak.
Joshua Wojick is Crafts and Trades Program Manager at The Henry Ford. You can see Joshua, along with Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable, walk you through a live demo in Greenfield Village’s Glass Shop on our Facebook page here.
For decades, Sir John Bennett's shop—with its figures of mythological giants Gog and Magog—has intrigued and enthralled Greenfield Village's visitors. Prior to 1930, the jewelry and clock shop was a popular presence many thousands of miles away in London, where its animated giants chimed the quarter-hours above the busy thoroughfare of Cheapside.
While London and Dearborn would seem to have little in common, Gog and Magog—if they could talk, as well as chime—might disagree. Exposure to the weather has been a continuous element in their over 125 years of timekeeping in both England and America. Climate has taken its toll on the figures. So, during the winter of 2005–2006, The Henry Ford undertook an extensive restoration of the Sir John Bennett figures.
This was not the first time that the figures, or "jacks," as they are known in the world of clocks, had been given a thorough restoration. When Henry Ford originally brought them to the United States in 1931, he had them repaired and repainted. A second restoration and repainting took place in the 1970s.
Pre-restoration deterioration on the feet of one of the carved wooden figures.
The 2005–2006 restoration, in addition to reversing damage and safeguarding Gog and Magog for future generations, also offered an opportunity to attempt to determine what the wooden figures originally looked like. Deeply carved recesses were carefully excavated in order to discover clues to the original color scheme. Conservators also studied a similar set of Gog and Magog figures in London's Guildhall; a set in Melbourne, Australia; and many historical prints and illustrations to compare our paint analysis with other known examples.
One finding was that the giants' chain mail had, at some point, been painted the color of their clothing. The chain mail is now painted to look like metal rather than cloth. Areas of the giants' armor were found to have traces of gold leaf in the recesses. Also, successive paint layers and weathering had obscured a number of decorative elements in the giants' armor. Previous restorations had used gold-colored paint on the armor, which eventually oxidized and turned brown. In 2005–2006, all the decorative armor components were coated with gold leaf.
The figures themselves were in poor structural condition, with many breaks and numerous large cracks. With a view to preserving as much of the original figures as possible, the decision was made to inject a deep penetrating resin into the porous wood, rather than cut out and replace damaged sections.
Newly restored Gog and Magog await their return to the Sir John Bennett shop.
Of course, Gog and Magog are not the only figures in the facade of the building—Father Time and a Muse are also in attendance to assist in the job of chiming. Made of plaster rather than wood, these figures were given structural repairs and then gilded with 1,400 sheets of gold leaf. During the repair work on the Muse, decorative elements were discovered on the harp under layers of paint and filler. The decoration was carefully restored, and can be seen on the front vertical post of the harp. A maker's name, "Brogiotti," was also revealed during the restoration.
Finally, the internal mechanisms for all four figures were repaired, and additional lubrication points were added to help minimize future wear.
Father Time and the Muse show off their new coats of gold leaf.
The clock mechanism was in need of a complete overhaul. Many of the bronze bearings—separate components fitted into the clock movement's large cast iron frame—had become worn and needed to be "re-bushed" to bring the mechanism back to its original operating specifications. During cleaning, conservators discovered that all of the cast iron framing was originally painted a blue-green with white pin striping. All of this original paint was carefully cleaned and preserved.
Conservator Malcolm Collum reassembles the restored Sir John Bennett clock movement.
During the 1931 reconstruction of the building and clock in Greenfield Village, a number of components were replaced. Cleaning the mechanism helped us gain a better understanding of the extent of Henry Ford's restoration: the modern steel components lack the dark graining found in the original wrought iron pieces. These dark lines are called "slag inclusions," remnants of a glass-like material that gets worked into the iron during the smelting and production processes.
Gog and Magog receive the most attention from visitors—understandably, given their size, character, and animation—but higher up, fully exposed to everything the Michigan climate has to offer, is one of the most vivid elements of Sir John Bennett's shop: the dragon weathervane. The dragon—made of hammered copper and detailed with sharp claws, taut bat-like wings and a fiery tongue—is a quiet masterpiece of design, craftsmanship, and balance. Its swept-back wings and extended tail are designed to catch even the slightest breeze; its head is weighted with lead in order to balance the body and allow for free pivoting.
The dragon weathervane is readied for removal from its perch.
When the dragon was removed from its perch in late 2005, it was found to be in stable condition. Structural repairs were followed by a thorough cleaning to remove corrosion and degraded metallic paint. Finally, rather than simply repaint the dragon, we returned it to its original splendor with a coat of gold leaf.
Dragon weathervane during gilding.
Repaired and resplendent, silhouetted against a Dearborn rather than a London sky, the dragon once again watches over the visitors who gather to watch Gog and Magog.
Malcolm Collum is former Conservator at The Henry Ford and Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Vice President, Historical Resources, at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series in May 2006.
Factory-built buggies made the pleasures of carriage ownership affordable for a new group of people. Whether in town or on the farm, people loved these inexpensive, lightweight vehicles. The piano box buggy—named for its resemblance to 19th-century square pianos—was the most popular of all. Buggy owners quickly became accustomed to the freedom and control offered by personal vehicles.
Buggies in many styles poured out of factories by the thousands during the late 1800s. / THF124829
People could even buy buggies from mail-order catalogs. / THF119797
Farmers especially enjoyed owning buggies—designed to carry people—rather than having to go everywhere in a farm wagon made to haul goods. This typical buggy at a Michigan farm in 1894 is occupied by Milton Bryant and his sister Clara’s son, Edsel Ford. / THF204970
Owning a buggy meant feeding, watering, and cleaning up after a horse. These ongoing costs made early automobiles seem less expensive by comparison. / THF212464 (detail)
This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Noah and Rebecca Webster moved to their New Haven, Connecticut, home in their later years to be near family and friends, as well as the library at nearby Yale College. This painting of Noah dates from about this time.
New research and evolving historical perspective often lead us to reinterpret Greenfield Village buildings. So, furnishings change to reflect these richer or more accurate stories. This is what the Webster dining room looked like in 1947.
Guests—including visiting clergymen, publishing associates, Yale faculty, and political leaders—would have called at the house or would have been invited to gatherings in the home. This is the Webster parlor.
The dining room furnishings, like those in the rest of the home, reflect a household whose elderly inhabitants started housekeeping decades before. The Websters would have owned most of their furniture, tableware, candlesticks, and other items for decades. The Connecticut-made clock on the mantel would have been a bit newer, since it dates from 1825–1835.
The early 1800s Chinese export dishes would have likely been bought decades before. Quite fine and fashionable when new, the sturdy dishes would have survived to be used at everyday meals and for family gatherings many years later.
The Websters would have acquired other furnishings more recently--including newly available whale oil lamps, which provided brighter lighting than candles. In coastal New Haven, whale oil was readily available.
Do stop by the Noah Webster Home when Greenfield Village opens this spring and see what the Websters are having for dinner as they “gather” with their children and grandchildren! And for even more Village building makeover stories, see also this recent post from Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life Donna Braden.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life and Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
The growth of commercial aviation in the United States presented a challenge—how could airports control aircraft within the increasingly crowded space around them? The earliest efforts at air traffic control were limited to ground crew personnel waving flags or flares to direct planes through takeoffs and landings. Needless to say, this system needed improvement.
The first air traffic control tower opened in 1930 at Cleveland Municipal Airport. Pilots radioed their positions to the tower, where controllers noted the information on a map showing the positions of all planes within the airport's vicinity. Controllers radioed the pilots if a collision seemed possible and gave them permission to land or take off. Soon, all large American airports employed towers operated by the airports' respective municipal governments and staffed by growing crews. Smaller airports, though, remained dependent on a single controller (who might also handle everything from the telephone switchboard to passenger luggage). Additionally, some pilots treated controllers' instructions as mere suggestions—the pilots would land when and where they pleased.
Before air traffic controllers began communicating with pilots by radio, airports relied on ground crew personnel to direct planes through takeoffs and landings. / detail of THF94919
Airlines recognized the need for formal oversight and attempted to supply it themselves. They formed Air Traffic Control, Inc., in 1936 to regulate traffic at larger airports. This new agency worked well but applied only to commercial aircraft. It became clear that only federal supervision could regulate all commercial and private air traffic at the nation's airports. The Civil Aeronautics Act, passed by Congress in 1938, established the Civil Aeronautics Authority—the forerunner of today's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—to establish safety guidelines, investigate accidents, regulate airline economics, and control air traffic.
The post-World War II economic boom brought a surge in air travel, as well as larger and faster jet aircraft. But the nation's air traffic control system remained unchanged. Upgrades came only after a tragic mid-air collision between two passenger planes over the Grand Canyon in 1956. All 128 passengers and crew aboard both flights perished. Public outrage forced the widespread implementation of radar, a technology greatly improved during the war, into the management of U.S. skies.
Into the 1960s, air traffic controllers augmented radar signal displays with hand-written plastic markers that identified each plane and its altitude. Integrating computers with radar eliminated the need for written markers, as information about each plane automatically displayed on radar screens. This improved radar system, referred to as the Automated Radar Terminal System, finally made its way to metropolitan airports in 1969, when the FAA contracted with Sperry Rand to build control computers and radar scopes.
This computer-integrated radar scope, used at Detroit Metro Airport from 1970 to 2001, was one of the first units capable of displaying an airplane's identification number and altitude directly on the screen. In this photograph, panels have been removed to reveal the unit’s internal components. / THF154729
This radar scope display panel is the first of those scopes to be produced. It was installed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in 1970. This unit, and others like it, sat in the tower's radar room. It was used to monitor and control aircraft within 35 miles of the airport. Two people worked the unit in tandem, sitting on either side of the display screen. While this arrangement made maximum use of expensive equipment, it led to inevitable difficulties—users sometimes disagreed on screen contrast settings. With the introduction of single-user LCD displays in the 1980s and 1990s, this unit was downgraded to training use and then retired from service in 2001.
Today, radar itself is facing retirement from air traffic control. Aircraft can relay their positions to each other and the ground without radar through Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, which combines GPS technology with high-speed data transfer. Required in most controlled airspace as of January 1, 2020, this new system provides more accurate location information. It also allows closer spacing of aircraft in the skies, increasing capacity and permitting better traffic management.
Though it was outpaced by newer technologies, this computer-integrated radar scope—the first of its kind—survives in the collections of The Henry Ford as evidence of the critical developments that produced the safe and efficient aviation system we rely on today. To discover more aviation stories, visit the Heroes of the Sky exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, or find more on our blog.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.