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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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Illustration of standing woman in elaborate dress and jewelry, holding fan

Image of Martha Coston from her 1886 autobiography. (Not from the collections of The Henry Ford.)

Inventor Martha Coston overcame 19th-century gender stereotypes to help change the course of the Civil War, as well as boating safety. In 1848, tragedy struck when Martha’s husband, a successful inventor formerly employed in the Washington Navy Yard, died as a result of chemical exposure from his gas lighting experiments. His death was followed by the deaths of two of their children and a mother Martha was close to, and a relative mishandling Martha's remaining money. Martha was left a single mother with minimal support.

Illustration of elaborate pedestal topped with urn or jar, surrounded by  smaller illustrations and decorative elements
Sylvic Gas Light, B. Franklin Coston, Patentee, Washington City, D.C. N.B., Gas Light Generator, 1845. / THF287321

Martha needed a way to support herself and her two remaining children. Within her husband's papers, she discovered drawings for a pyrotechnic night signal that could be used by ships to communicate. After finding that the invention didn't work, she took on years of experiments in hopes of creating a functional signal flare. With no knowledge of chemistry or scientific methodology, Martha relied on others for help. Men often ignored her, didn't take her seriously, or deceived her.

Twisted wires stranded together and banded on both ends and in the middle with brass
Section of the First Transatlantic Cable, 1858. / THF77301

The signal set used three colors to create coded messages. As a patriotic woman, Martha wanted flares that burned red, white, and blue. While she had developed recipes for red and white, blue remained elusive. A breakthrough came in 1858, when Martha was in New York City watching fireworks during celebrations for the first transatlantic cable.

Etching with crowd of people, statue, fireworks and lights in a night sky; also contains text
Illustration from an 1858 Harper's Weekly depicting the New York translatlantic cable firework celebration. / THF265993

Inspired by the fireworks, Martha wrote New York pyrotechnists looking for a strong blue, corresponding under a man's name for fear that she would be ignored. Instead of a blue, Martha was able to locate a recipe for a brilliant green. In 1859, Patent No. 23,536, a pyrotechnic night signal and code system, was granted, with Martha Coston as administrator—and her late husband as the inventor.

Gun with wooden stock and very short barrel
U.S. Army Model 1862 Percussion Signal Pistol, circa 1862. / THF170773

The U.S. Navy showed high interest in Martha's invention, but stalled the purchase of the patent until 1861, after the Civil War erupted. With a blockade of Southern ports in place, the Navy needed Martha's flares to communicate. Her business, the Coston Manufacturing Company, produced the flares and sold them at cost for the duration of the war. New York gun manufacturer William Marston produced the signal pistol above to exclusively fire Coston's multicolored signal flare.

Three men in elaborate uniforms, two standing, one seated
A carte-de-visite depicting the "Official Escorts for the Japanese Ambassador's Visit to the United States,” circa 1860. Admiral David Dixon Porter is pictured right. / THF211796

In her 1886 autobiography, A Signal Success: The Work and Travels of Mrs. Martha J. Coston, Martha acknowledged the use of her flares in the success of the blockade. Confederate ships known as blockade-runners regularly sailed at night, and Coston's flares helped Union ships pursue these runners effectively, often resulting in prize money for the ship's officers. Admiral David Porter, pictured on the right above, wrote Martha about the impact her flares had on military operations, saying:

"The signals by night are very much more useful than the signals by day made with flags, for at night the signals can be so plainly read that mistakes are impossible, and a commander-in-chief can keep up a conversation with one of his vessels."

In January 1865, Wilmington, North Carolina, remained the last open port of the Confederacy. To cut the port off, Admiral David Porter and Major General Alfred Terry coordinated a joint assault of sea and land forces. The ensuing conflict, known as the Battle of Fort Fisher, resulted in a Union victory.

Etching of ships with fireworks bursting above them
Illustration from an 1865 Harper's Weekly depicting the fall of Fort Fisher. / THF287568

According to Admiral Porter, Martha Coston's flares played a critical role. He later reminisced, "I shall never forget the beautiful sight presented at ten o'clock at night when Fort Fisher fell.... The order was given to send up rockets without stint and to burn the Coston Signals at all the yard-arms."

After the war, Martha Coston continued to improve upon her invention, filing several more patents—this time in her own name. When the United States Life-Saving Service, precursor to the United States Coast Guard, began using the Coston flare, Martha's invention became standard safety equipment for all boating vessels. Worldwide adoption of her invention led to the success of Martha's business, Coston Supply Company, which focused on maritime safety and stayed in business until the late 20th century.

Several images with men in wet-weather gear, working
Illustration from an 1881 Harper's Weekly depicting the United States Life-Saving Service using the Coston flare. / THF287571


Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, women's history, inventors, Civil War, by Ryan Jelso

Claude Harvard faced many racial obstacles over the course of his young life, but when he addressed a crowd of students at Tuskegee University in 1935, he spoke with confidence and optimism:

“Speaking from my own experience, brief as it is, I feel certain that the man or woman who has put his very best into honest effort to gain an education will not find the doors to success barred.”

One of the few, if not the only, Black engineers employed by Henry Ford at the time, Claude had been personally sent to Tuskegee by Ford to showcase an invention of his own creation. Even in the face of societal discrimination, the message of empowerment and perseverance that Claude imparted on that day was one that he carried with him over the course of his own career. For him, there was always a path forward.

Four men in suits wearing headphones sit at a table with equipment on the table and along the wall behind them
Claude Harvard practicing radio communication with other students at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272856

Born in 1911, Claude spent the first ten years of his life in Dublin, Georgia, until his family, like other Black families of the time period, made the decision to move north to Detroit in order to escape the poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow laws of the South. From a young age, Claude was intrigued by science and developed a keen interest in a radical new technology—wireless radio. To further this interest, he sold products door-to-door just so he could acquire his own crystal radio set to play around with. It would be Claude’s passion for radio that led him to grander opportunities.

At school in Detroit, Harvard demonstrated an aptitude for the STEM fields and was eventually referred to the Henry Ford Trade School, a place usually reserved for orphaned teen-aged boys to be trained in a variety of skilled, industrial trade work. His enrollment at Henry Ford Trade School depended on his ability to resist the racial taunting of classmates and stay out of fights. Once there, his hands-on classes consisted of machining, metallurgy, drafting, and engine design, among others. In addition to the manual training received, academic classes were also required, and students could participate in clubs.

Young men sit around a long table looking at a man standing at one end
Claude Harvard with other Radio Club members and their teacher at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272854

As president of the Radio Club, Claude Harvard became acquainted with Henry Ford, who shared an interest in radio—as early as 1919, radio was playing a pivotal role in Ford Motor Company’s communications. Although he graduated at the top of his class in 1932, Claude was not given a journeyman’s card like the rest of his classmates. A journeyman’s card would have allowed Claude to be actively employed as a tradesperson. Despite this obstacle, Henry Ford recognized Claude’s talent and he was hired at the trade school. By the 1920s, Ford Motor Company had become the largest employer of African American workers in the country. Although Ford employed large numbers of African Americans, there were limits to how far most could advance. Many African American workers spent their time in lower paying, dirty, dangerous, and unhealthy jobs.

The year 1932 also saw Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company once again revolutionize the auto industry with the introduction of a low-priced V-8 engine. By casting the crankcase and cylinder banks as a single unit, Ford cut manufacturing costs and could offer its V-8 in a car starting under $500, a steal at the time. The affordability of the V-8 meant many customers for Ford, and with that came inevitable complaints—like a noisy rattling that emanated from the engine. To remedy this problem, which was caused by irregular-shaped piston pins, Henry Ford turned to Claude Harvard.

Engine sitting on a stand
1932 Ford V-8 Engine, No. 1 / THF101039

To solve the issue, Harvard invented a machine that checked the shape of piston pins and sorted them by size with the use of radio waves. More specifically, the machine checked the depth of the cut on each pin, its length, and its surface smoothness. It then sorted the V-8 pins by size at a rate of three per second.  Ford implemented the machine on the factory floor and touted it as an example of the company’s commitment to scientific accuracy and uniform quality. Along with featuring Claude’s invention in print and audio-visual ads, Ford also sent Harvard to the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago and to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to showcase the machine.

Machine on display under a sign with text, with images along wall behind
Piston Pin Inspection Machine at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. / THF212795

During his time at Tuskegee, Harvard befriended famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, who he eventually introduced to Henry Ford. In 1937, when George Washington Carver visited Henry Ford in Dearborn, he insisted that Claude be there. While Carver and Ford would remain friends the rest of their lives, Claude Harvard left Ford Motor Company in 1938 over a disagreement about divorcing his wife and his pay. Despite Ford patenting over 20 of Harvard’s ideas, Claude’s career would be forced in a new direction and over time, the invention of the piston pin sorting machine would simply be attributed to the Henry Ford Trade School.

Despite these many obstacles, Claude’s work lived on in the students that he taught later in his life, the contributions he made to manufacturing, and a 1990 oral history, where he stood by his sentiments that if one put in a honest effort into learning, there would always be a way forward.


Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, technology, radio, manufacturing, making, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, engines, engineering, education, by Ryan Jelso, African American history

Black box with knobs and text; two batteries at side

Pocket Radio, circa 1925, manufactured by the Auto Indicator Company of Grand Rapids. / THF156309

Today, the portability of audio entertainment has become second nature to most people around the world. With relative ease, a person can put in/on a pair of headphones, wirelessly connect to a handheld device of their choosing and pick from a wide variety of options, including music, podcasts, audio books, etc. While we have become accustomed to this comfort and convenience today, in the early 1920s, “portable” and “wireless” tech, like the battery-powered “Pocket Radio” manufactured by the Auto Indicator Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was considered cutting edge in the audio entertainment industry.

The roots of the portable nature of the Pocket Radio can be traced back to Thomas Edison’s 1877 unveiling of his phonograph. The machine, which was the first to practically demonstrate that sound could be recorded and reproduced, proved that an audience didn’t have to be physically present in order to enjoy a listening experience. By the 1910s, subsequent improvements of the phonograph by other inventors and companies had brought a booming audio entertainment industry to the masses.

Three men in suits, two standing and one seated, around a piece of equipment
Thomas Edison, Charles Batchelor and Uriah Painter with Edison's Phonograph, April 18, 1878. / THF111744

Consumers grew used to the idea that the sounds they enjoyed could be listened to on their own time and in their own space – all with the help of their own personal phonograph. When World War I broke out, portable versions of phonographs found their way to the front lines not only for military use in the training of recruits, but also to entertain troops. The much-needed musical reprieve provided through a phonograph boosted morale by helping soldiers, individually or in groups, briefly escape the terror happening around them.

Wooden cabinet with four thin legs and decorative elements; top open to show machinery
Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph, 1919. In the years just after World War I, Americans loved listening to music on their phonographs. Thomas Edison's Diamond Disc Phonograph Company was at its peak of production. / THF63458

Wartime also provided an opportunity to explore another cutting-edge technology that had gained traction before the war – wireless communication in the form of radio waves. During World War I, the U.S. government took over the fledgling radio industry and instituted a ban on civilian use of radio in order to further their wartime experimentation. After the war, the ban was lifted in 1919, and by mid-1922 a “radio craze” was sweeping the nation, as Americans became infatuated with the new technology. Around the country, broadcasting stations began to spring up to serve the thousands of listeners seeking to tune in to hear music, news and more.

Man at a microphone is surrounded by many people with various noise-making items
Behind the Scenes of a Radio Drama, 1923 / THF120581

In 1924, partners in the Auto Indicator Company of Grand Rapids sought entry into this market with their Pocket Radio. As one of the first companies to patent and manufacture signal lights for automobiles, their demonstrated business savvy showed they understood that the increasing affordability of the automobile and a booming post-war economy meant more consumers on the go – and these consumers wanted to take their audio entertainment with them.

Small group of people in a field with two cars and a table covered in gear
Like many Americans during the 1920s, these two couples, their children, and a family dog, answered the call of the open road. The families have set up in an open field while auto touring. / THF105461

By today’s standards, the four pound (12 x 3 x 3 inches) “Pocket Radio” would not be considered “pocket-sized.” But in 1924, the summer tourist or picnicker that bought this radio for $23.50 would have understood that “pocket” referred to the pocket door of an automobile, where the radio could be stored. Without having to worry about bringing physical records to play on a portable phonograph or lugging around an early battery-powered table-top sized radio, a Pocket Radio owner could tune in to any broadcast station within five miles, and, with the addition of an aerial or ground receiver, could listen to a broadcast station that was 1,000 miles away.

Piece of equipment
Operadio 2 Portable Broadcast Receiver, 1923-1927. The Operadio 2 was among the first generation of commercial portable radios. While a "mobile" device weighing 30 pounds may be laughable to us now, the Operadio was a groundbreaking device. / THF160275

A seemingly smart product, the Pocket Radio didn’t bring the business partners of the Auto Indicator Company much success. By the mid-1920s, they had given up on the radio and molded their former business into the Multi-Selecto Phonograph Company, an unwise decision in a turbulent time. Throughout the 1920s, while the phonograph remained a viable product, the industry underwent significant strain with the changes brought on by the advent of the “Golden Age of Radio.” While companies tried to stay afloat by selling hybridized products that combined the radio and the phonograph, like many other phonograph companies of the time, the Multi-Selecto Phonograph Company wouldn’t make it out of the Great Depression.

Wooden cabinet with knobs and machinery inside
Victor Electrola, 1927. By the late 1920s, radio tuners, phonographs, amplifiers, and loudspeakers began to condense into one unit. Manufacturers housed this technology within attractive wooden consoles, accepted as furniture within consumer's living rooms. / THF159418

Today, the Pocket Radio serves as documentation of an exciting time in the history of technology, where new ideas met at a crossroads to provide the consumer with more personal freedom in how and where they enjoyed their entertainment choices.


Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

portability, technology, radio, Michigan, communication, by Ryan Jelso

THF166150

Examining the social and economic context of The Henry Ford's rare Paul Revere teapot. Other examples can be seen in some of the country's premier art museums. THF 166148

Today, coffee and tea are enjoyed by millions of people, including blog readers. While connoisseurs of these beverages take their enjoyment very seriously, the relative affordability of these caffeinated drinks means that almost anyone can “benefit” from a caffeine boost and also enjoy their flavors. The resulting billion-dollar industries help power the world economy – and its workforce.

America has an especially close relationship with these drinks, one that dates back to before the country was formed. In modern times, coffee has dominated American tastes, but until the 20th century, Americans favored tea. Although still popular, tea drinking in America can be traced back to trade with China by Dutch merchants in the early 1600s.

THF102595

Today, fast-paced Americans prefer their caffeinated beverages on the go, often consuming them from disposable drinkware. This is in marked contrast to colonial America, where these beverages would have been served from vessels made to impress and consumed as part of elaborate entertainments expressing the host’s good taste. THF 102595


Dutch traders not only introduced Chinese tea to their colony in present-day New York, but also introduced it to Europe. The hot drink quickly rose in popularity and by the end of the 1600s, tea became the most favored hot beverage in Britain. To support the mass consumption by its citizens at home and in its colonies, England became heavily involved in the China trade and the importation of tea.  

As social customs evolved around the drinking of tea, so did the equipment used to consume the beverage. Wealthy citizens could afford to have their teapots fashioned in silver and silversmiths in the colonies, like Paul Revere, learned how to create silver designs from imported English examples. Son of Apollos Rivoire, a French immigrant and Boston silversmith, Paul Revere got his start as his father's apprentice. 

THF155178

Pictured here, an English teakettle-on-stand. Paul Revere imitated designs from English silver objects and pattern books in order to create silver in the most fashionable styles. THF 155178 

After his father died in 1754, Revere started his career producing a wide variety of silver objects, including elaborate teapots for his wealthier clients. By the 1760s, the colonies faced increased taxation as England attempted to pay off their war debt from the French and Indian War. High taxes on imports like tea angered colonists, resulting in boycotts that affected what Revere could produce as a silversmith.

These taxes led Revere to join a resistance group known as the "Sons of Liberty" whose members included some of his customers angered by the increased taxation. The organization helped fuel anti-British sentiment in the colonies and Revere aided the groups’ cause by printing propaganda that provoked colonist anger towards the Crown. 

THF8141

As a member of the Sons of Liberty, Paul Revere helped energize the movement toward American independence by printing illustrations like this one of the Boston Massacre. An active citizen, he was part of numerous other civic organizations. THF 8141

In 1773, with tensions mounting, Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty protested England's control over the tea trade by boarding recently docked British tea ships in the Boston harbor and dumping some of their tea chests overboard. The British responded to the event, known as the Boston Tea Party, by shutting the port of Boston and stripping the Massachusetts colony of its right to self-government. 

War erupted in 1775 when Britain moved to seize the colonists' gunpowder and firearms outside of Boston. Revere made his famous midnight ride during this time to warn some of his fellow patriots that the British were on their way to arrest them. While patriot duties limited Paul Revere's silversmithing during the Revolutionary War, he returned to his craft as the war came to an end in the 1780s.  

Post-war American silver customers preferred the neoclassical design that became popular in Europe during the war. In the years before the War, silver customers had preferred the Rococo style, an aesthetic known for its ornate decorations and curvilinear body designs. In contrast, neoclassical silver celebrated the classical style of Greece and Rome, making use of symmetry, hard lines, and an emphasis on simple forms. As a master craftsman, Revere developed an elegant and personal interpretation of the neoclassical style.

THF166149

This 1782 teapot shows Revere’s experimentation with the neoclassical style.


The neoclassical teapot shown above was created in 1782 by Revere. Only six teapots featuring this cylindrical body are known to exist and were some of the last that Revere hand-forged, hammering or "raising" them up from a block of silver. In 1785 Revere acquired silver rolling machinery that he used to produce silver sheets. These sheets were cut to form standardized pieces and allowed Revere's shop to produce silver products more quickly. An example of a Revere teapot made from this later method can be seen in our collections here.

THF166147

On the bottom of the 1782 teapot, the clear markings of Revere are stamped next to a monogram that can be attributed to Joseph and Sarah Henshaw of Boston. THF 166147

With the assistance of the Massachusetts Historical Society, home of the Revere Family Papers, Revere's own record books identified Joseph Henshaw as the patron for this teapot. The records show that on February 22, 1782 Paul Revere made a note that he needed to make a teapot and spoons for Joseph Henshaw. By April 27, 1782 it appears that Revere had completed the order and marked the weight of the teapot as "16-17". This weight of "16-17" can be seen scratched on the bottom of the teapot in the upper right of the picture above.

Joseph Henshaw was a prominent Boston merchant. With his wife Sarah, the two used their home to help plan further American resistance by occasionally hosting "Sons of Liberty" meetings. It was his membership in this radical group that led Joseph Henshaw to form a friendship with Paul Revere. While this teapot is a good representation of the tea culture that existed in the colonies, it is also a symbol of Revere and Henshaw's relationship, a relationship that helped establish the United States of America.

See more on Paul Revere's life from our Digital Collections in this expert set.

Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

design, making, #THFCuratorChat, by Ryan Jelso, decorative arts, beverages

Although medical history is not currently a focus of The Henry Ford’s collections, we do have numerous medical artifacts because they relate in some way to a different area of our collections, such as public life, transportation, buildings and architecture, or design. New Associate Curators of Digital Content, Katherine White and Ryan Jelso, combed through The Henry Ford’s collection looking for artifacts that were medically innovative, either as physical innovations or as representations of innovations in the medical profession. The objects they found were initially acquired for their relation to a different collections area, but they tie closely to the development of today's medical technologies and practices.

THF165298
A Civil War surgeon used this government-issued Field Operating Kit, initially acquired by The Henry Ford as a public history artifact, at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863. It contains all the tools needed to perform the most common Civil War medical procedure – amputation.

New Weapons Technology Leads to New Surgical Techniques
In 1849, French military officer Claude-Etienne Minié invented a hollow-based cylindrical bullet, which was more accurate over long distances than its predecessors and more quickly loaded into a rifle barrel due to its slightly smaller size. The minié bullet provided a significant advantage to those on the offensive; however, the bullet was immensely destructive to those on the defensive. Due to its hollow nature, the projectile became misshapen upon impact and its ragged edges caused significantly more internal damage than the solid bullets used previously.

Both the Union and Confederate Armies utilized the minié bullet extensively during the American Civil War. The damages wrought by this particular bullet surely contributed to the war’s astronomical death count, but also contributed to the advancement of amputation surgery. While amputation had been used throughout the ages, Civil War surgeons innovated numerous surgical advancements. Immediate amputation of an injured limb before infection spread to healthy tissue became standard and drastically decreased battlefield mortality rates.

THF129988
The Henry Ford's broad transportation collection covers the motorization of ambulances during World War I. Take a look at a few archival photographs that document the Model T's role in this important part of ambulance history, here.

The Motorization of Medical Care
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries spurred technological innovations that would change how wars were conducted in the decades to come. By the beginning of World War I in the early 20th century, military units had become increasingly motorized, replacing the horses and wagons of past wars. Armies employed mechanized military vehicles like tanks, airplanes and submarines along with new forms of chemical warfare to inflict mass casualties during what became known as "The Great War." With a surge in casualties, quick transportation of the wounded away from the battlefronts to safer hospitals became a life-saving priority. To meet this need, volunteer services and individual armies experimented with and developed motor ambulance corps, eventually making them commonplace.

The torn up roads, heavily shelled areas, and muddy terrain of the war-torn European continent made lighter vehicles preferable. While other makes and models were present, lightweight Ford Model Ts made up a large percentage of the ambulances in service during World War I. The vehicles’ ability to traverse the war environment along with their easy maneuverability made them popular among ambulance drivers. Other advantages of Model T ambulances included their low cost, economical fuel usage, and ease of operation for the average solider or volunteer. The standardization of Model T parts also meant that maintenance for these ambulances could be performed readily, extending each vehicle's service life and allowing medical professionals to tend to the wounded quicker than ever before.

THF1696
As a part of the historic building collection in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford, Doc Howard's office serves as an example of the 19th century origins from which modern American medicine would evolve.

A Snapshot of Mid-19th Century Medicine
Representative of a typical early rural doctor's office, this mid-19th century building is where Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard (1823-1883) practiced an eclectic combination of conventional, botanical, and homeopathic medicine. Born in New York, Howard moved to Tekonsha, Michigan, and began his career as a farmer, eventually deciding that he wanted to become a physician. He first attended Cleveland Medical College from 1850-1851, later entering the University of Michigan's School of Medicine, where he took classes from 1851-1852. Although medical school records list him as a non-graduate, Howard moved back to Tekonsha and went on to practice medicine until his death in 1883.

In the 19th century, medical professionals had a limited understanding of illnesses and often relied on bloodletting or other purging methods to "balance" the body and keep diseases at bay. Along with minor surgery, these common practices were available to Dr. Howard as he traveled across his community attending to pregnancies, chronic diseases, tuberculosis, dental problems, and various wounds. To aid him in treating his patients, he relied on the early pharmaceutical medicines that could be found on the market during this period. However, he also kept a laboratory in his office where he could experiment with developing his own medicines through a wide personal stock of plants and minerals.

THF65726
The Henry Ford obtained this Eames Molded Plywood Leg Splint as a design history artifact. It can be found in design museums throughout the world and is included in The Henry Ford Museum’s “Fully Furnished” exhibit.

Experimentation with Plywood Provides Medical Solution
The Museum of Modern Art held a design competition in 1940 entitled Organic Design in Home Furnishings, which aimed to spur development of modern furniture that adequately addressed the era’s changing way of life. Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, friends and peers at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, entered multiple molded plywood chair designs into the competition and won two of the six categories. At the time, molding or bending plywood was still a quite progressive process and molded plywood was not yet commonly used in mass-produced goods for the public. Along with his wife, Ray, Charles Eames continued experimentation with molded plywood after the competition.

America’s entry into World War II brought shortages of many materials, including metal. Splints for broken limbs had historically been produced of metal, although metal splints were not ideal for military use due to their weight and inflexibility. Charles and Ray Eames, perpetual problem-solvers, designed a lightweight, strong, and flexible leg splint produced through their innovative method of molding plywood. The Eames molded leg splint became a highly effective solution for the military as well as a highly sculptural design object.

THF154645
Represented in The Henry Ford's large American public life collection is the late 19th- and early 20th-century phenomenon of patent medicines, over-the-counter drugs that consumers used to self-medicate.

Consumerism Helps Standardize Early Medicines
In the late 19th century, an increasing body of medical knowledge had begun to revolutionize the practice of medicine. However, a lack of scientific understanding of early medical drugs meant that drugs used in treatment were often inadequate and could even exacerbate illnesses. At a time when disease was still widespread, Americans sought cures for any number of maladies and tried nearly anything to get relief. Entrepreneurs took advantage, using advertising to make claims and promise cures with manufactured patent medicines. Such patent medicines rose to popularity in the last quarter of the 19th century, but the industry was unregulated and manufacturers were secretive about their recipes.

Some of these concoctions contained harmful ingredients or ingredients used in unsafe quantities. Cocaine, alcohol, opium, and heroin were some of the common ingredients that could be found in early patent medicines. These examples, as well as other additives, could result in addiction or even death, prompting national legislation that prohibited misleading health claims and required manufacturers to list their product's contents. In the United States, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 helped stop the manufacture of drugs and products considered poisonous, adulterated or mislabeled.

Some of the patent medicines in our collection were analyzed in 2013 through a partnership between The Henry Ford's conservation staff and the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department at University of Detroit Mercy. Their findings, as well as more information on patent medicines can be found here in our Digital Collections.

An artifact, especially an innovative artifact, often has multidisciplinary significance. An object that is distinctly medical in nature may be equally as significant, or even more significant, as a public history or design history artifact. The Henry Ford’s collections boast countless significant artifacts with histories that reach across subject matter boundaries, such as this grouping of medically innovative artifacts. 

By Katherine White and Ryan Jelso, Associate Curators, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. This post was made possible in part by our partners at Beaumont. Beaumont is a leading high-value health care network focused on extraordinary outcomes through education, innovation and compassion. For the latest health and wellness news, visit beaumont.org/health-wellness

Eames, patent medicines, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Dr. Howard's Office, design, by Ryan Jelso, by Katherine White, healthcare

THF233600

Artifact: John Burroughs' Album of Pressed Wildflowers, gathered during the Harriman Alaska Expedition, 1899

To tell the story of this artifact, we have to take a journey. A journey back in time and then a journey into nature. We have to visit a time in U.S. history when western land expansion had reached its near completion and U.S. citizens had only just begun to realize the natural wonders that these lands encompassed. To begin this journey, let’s explore what it means to innovate with a question:

When you think of historical innovators, who do you think of?

Henry Ford? Thomas Edison? These two historical titans of industry shaped the 20th century with technology that they endlessly, feverishly, worked on to improve. How about John Burroughs? Continue Reading

travel, nature, John Burroughs, by Ryan Jelso