In March of 1938, Zenith Radio Corporation introduced a remarkable product—an elegant listening device, priced at $19.95, designed to allow parents to monitor their children after bedtime. The equipment and its setup could not have been simpler: The transmitter, called a “Guardian Ear,” could be placed close to the child’s crib or bed; the receiver, called the “Radio Nurse,” would be set close to wherever the parents happened to be spending their time. Both components would be plugged into electrical outlets, with the house wiring acting as the carrier for the transmitted sound.
The idea for the Radio Nurse originated with Zenith’s charismatic president, Eugene F. McDonald, Jr. Like all parents, McDonald was concerned about his baby daughter’s safety—especially in the wake of the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s young son. As a result, McDonald experimented with an ad hoc system of microphones and receivers that allowed him to keep an ear out for his daughter’s well-being. Satisfied with the system’s workability, he handed it off to his engineers to create something more reliable and marketable. The finished product, however, was much more than a marriage of concerned fatherhood, ingenuity, and engineering; the presence of another creative mind—that of Isamu Noguchi—resulted in an industrial design classic. (Discover more Noguchi-related artifacts in our Digital Collections here.)
Instructions for Zenith’s Radio Nurse baby monitor depicted how the transmitter and receiver might be used in the home. / THF128154
Noguchi was responsible for the styling of the system’s most visible, and audible, component—the Radio Nurse receiver. Minimally, he had to create a vessel to house and protect a loudspeaker and its associated vacuum tubes, but actually his task was much more challenging: He had to find a way to soften a potentially intrusive high tech component’s presence in a variety of domestic settings.
His solution, remarkably, was both literal and paradoxical: He created a faceless bust, molded in Bakelite, fronted by a grille, and backed by the suggestion of a cap—an impassive abstract form that managed to capture the essence of a benign yet no-nonsense nurse. Shimmering in a gray area where the abstract and figurative appear to meet, it strikes a vaguely surrealist note—it wouldn’t be out of place in an image by Giorgio de Chirico or Man Ray. A touch of whimsy is incorporated: Adjusting the concealed volume control wheel amounts to a kind of tickle under the unit’s chin, subtly undermining the effect of the stern Kendo mask–like visage. Still, with its human-yet-mechanical features, the Radio Nurse remains slightly sinister and finally inscrutable.
Zenith’s 1938 Radio Nurse was made from molded phenol-formaldehyde resin, more commonly known as Bakelite, the first totally synthetic plastic. / THF188679
But was it neutral enough to sit close at hand without, in silence, striking its own discordant note? Its poor sales might suggest otherwise, although apparently it was a technical problem, broadcasts transmitting beyond the confines of a house’s own wiring, that gave customers cause for complaint. Alarming as the Radio Nurse might be when finally provoked into uttering one of Junior’s broadcasts, the possibility that some unknown voice might start to speak through that blank grille would surely have made the unit’s presence somewhat suspenseful.
Marc Greuther is Vice President of Historical Resources and Chief Curator at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series and was published in the September-December 2007 issue of The Henry Ford Living History Magazine.
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.
Tucked away among the rolling stock and locomotives on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is an unassuming piece of railroad equipment, modest and apparently devoid of style or character. This little locomotive is one of the most significant items in the collection. It is one of the first locomotives to successfully use internal combustion instead of steam as its power source.
The decline of steam By the mid-1920s the design and development of steam locomotives had become rigorous and scientific. The dominance of steam, however, was being challenged. Could the internal combustion engine with its higher efficiency, ease of operation, and reliance on cheap fuel become an alternative power source for railroad operations? Smoke abatement rulings in Chicago and New York City provided a further incentive for researching alternatives to steam power.
Success with internal combustion General Electric's internal combustion engine/railroad interests dated back to 1904. However, by 1920 they had not developed a suitable engine. In late 1923, the Ingersoll-Rand Company successfully developed a locomotive to General Electric's specifications. Over the next 13 months it was tested on 10 different railroad systems. Its success led to a production run of variant engines that ended in 1937 when Ingersoll-Rand withdrew from the locomotive-building field. Cheaper than steam The American Locomotive Company supplied the car bodies for these early locomotives. Assembly took place at the General Electric plant in Erie, Pennsylvania. Ingersoll-Rand supplied the engines, building their sales pitch around low operating cost. Number 90, the sixteenth unit built, was delivered in December 1926 and used as a promotional demonstrator, switching in Ingersoll-Rand's Phillipsburg, New Jersey, plant rail yards.
Ingersoll-Rand's Number 90 Diesel-Electric Locomotive, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, probably 1926. THF271020
Efficient design Number 90's blunt appearance hardly suggests speed or glamour, but compared to steam locomotive switchers its angular outline appears neat and businesslike. The operator's positions -- located at either end -- are clean and tidy, partitioned from the heat of the engine, located in the center of the car. The locomotive's operation is streamlined even if its style is minimal. Subsequent collaborations between industrial designers and railroad companies produced locomotive designs that would further emphasize Number 90's utilitarian appearance.
The job of the switcher Switchers worked out their years in dirty yards assembling the freight trains that were as much a part of the railroad experience as the fastest overnight express. Number 90 continued in use as a switcher in the Ingersoll-Rand plant until the late 1960s by which time the diesel revolution that it had helped begin had swept steam power aside in the United States.
Maker: General Electric/Ingersoll-Rand/American Locomotive Company Engine: 6-cylinder diesel Horsepower: 300 @ 550 rpm. Displacement: 5655 cu. in. Generator: 200 kilowatts, 600 volts Traction motors: 4 @ 95 horsepower each Weight: 60 tons Tractive effort: 36,000 lbs. Speed: 30 mph. Gift of Ingersoll-Rand Company
Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Senior Director of Historical Resources at The Henry Ford.
John was motivated the same way many photographers with a deep appreciation for history are: he wanted to capture things that had become overlooked, structures that were endangered, vulnerable, and on the brink of destruction. But rather than choosing a neighborhood, or town or region he chose what could be found along the edges of all the old roads, the pre-interstate routes stretched throughout the United States—like a local historian of endless highways. His finest images look like stills from a perfect road movie, and they capture an element of the nation’s essence and identity—mom and pop businesses, motels, diners, crazy signage and attractions, clamoring for the attention of motorists, played out against distance and motion.
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.
The broad iconic power of steam engines is maintained by the continued appeal of steam locomotives—an appeal kept fresh no doubt by Thomas the Tank Engine or the Hogwarts Express of the Harry Potter series. The visual impact of the earliest stationary steam engines, while less defined in the popular imagination, is undeniable when encountered in person: early beam engines exert a powerful presence, whether through their immense scale, exposed mechanical elements, or general complexity. And there is often a note of recognition—they are often identified by visitors as distant relatives of the familiar bobbing pumps found in oilfields.
One day in 1948—or maybe ’49—a beat-up Ford pulled up outside a workshop in Arcadia, California. John Wills, the boat builder who owned the workshop, was about to play host to a then largely unknown architect and designer—a visitor on a mission related to an industrial process that Wills had developed. This battered fiberglass chair shell, perched on a trash can, was made as a result of that day’s visit. It represents an early single step in a lengthy design and production process. The result was an enduringly popular landmark design, a chair design you’ve likely sat on, a chair mass-produced to the point of invisibility.
John Wills’ visitor was none other than Charles Eames. Eames was attempting to solve a design problem that had been absorbing him and his wife Ray for the better part of a decade: how to use modern, inexpensive materials to make furniture of extreme simplicity and affordability. Charles, his wife, and a number of close collaborators had become adept at molding plywood through work undertaken for the United States Navy in World War II. After the war their plywood experiments continued, leading to their work with the Herman Miller Company of Zeeland, Michigan, who began to market the Eameses’ designs.
The profitable industrial production of single-piece plywood chair shells proved to be impractical—but what about other materials? The pursuit of a solution to this basic design dilemma led Charles and Ray to investigate other materials such as stamped metal—which proved too heavy—and fiberglass-reinforced plastic. Which is where John Wills comes in: he had developed a fiberglass-plastic formula that could harden at room temperature, without the use of pressure. To the Eameses, manufacturability was a fundamental and necessary component of any good design. By reducing the production steps—not having to heat the shells to harden the material, not having to construct the chair’s shell out of multiple parts, and by adopting a process that reduced production failures—the design could be made more cheaply and profitably. Consequently the resulting design would offer, as Ray put it, “the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least.”
Prototype chair by Charles Eames. (Object ID.95.167.1)
Charles Eames had brought Wills a craft paper mockup of the chair he wanted to prototype. Wills told him that the cost of the experimental finished shell would be $25 and that it would be ready in a week or so. Charles Eames returned to the workshop to find that Wills had in fact made two shells: each was examined and sat in, raised to a convenient sitting height by way of a makeshift base made from corrugated metal. Finally however, Eames could only afford to pay for one of the shells, leaving this example behind in Wills’ workshop where it remained, perched on a garbage can for almost fifty years.
The development and refinement of the design continued, first with Zenith Plastics of Gardena, California, and then at the Herman Miller Company. It went into production in 1950 and proved to be an instant success, spawning all manner of variants and a great many imitations. In the 1990s, environmental concerns led to the cessation of its production, pending the development of suitable recyclable plastics. In 2000, the chair, now made from a new polypropylene blend, was returned to the market by Herman Miller.
This battered-looking artifact was a very early step in this design and production story. And it is a reminder that messiness and tentative first steps are a part of every design process: the sleek Eames-designed plastic chairs that have found their way into homes, meeting rooms, cafes—indeed anywhere where affordable and durable seating is required—had to start somewhere.