"Adequacy is sufficient: everything else is irrelevant."
Adam Osborne, founder of the quintessential boom-and-bust Silicon Valley tech company, built the first portable computer in 1981. The Henry Ford holds examples of the few products the ill-starred Osborne Computer Corporation ever developed. What can Osborne’s innovative products and boom-and-bust company history tell us about computing and the high-tech economy?
Hollis Baird (1905-1990) was an inventor, entrepreneur, and, eventually, engineering teacher. Born along the Maine/New Brunswick border, by the mid-1920s Baird had made his way to Boston. He was active in the exciting field of television—in the 1920s and ‘30s. We usually associate television with the prosperous years after World War II, but inventors had been attempting to send pictures over radio waves for many decades. One of the few surviving Baird televisions is in the collections of The Henry Ford.
Mechanical television is based on the premise that a spinning disk can scan an image to be sent by radio, which can then be received by another spinning disk synchronized to the first. Hollis Baird produced televisions as the Baird Receiver Company from 1925-8, after which he founded a company with A.M. Morgan and Butler Perry called the Shortwave and Television Laboratory. Shortwave and Television sold radios and mechanical televisions and, beginning in April 1929, operated Boston’s second experimental television station, W1WX (later known as W1XAV,) which transmitted 60-line mechanical television images, including a speech by Boston’s mayor in 1931.
The television (39.554.1) is a Shortwave and Television Laboratory Model 26/36, sold as a kit or as a finished set. This was the viewer; it would have been connected to a radio receiver. That’s a 3” screen, for watching narrow-band television programming.
Historian of television and The Henry Ford volunteer Tom Genova operates a television history website, where he has put up a wonderful Shortwave and Television Laboratory brochure from 1930 called The Romance and Reality of Television. The brochure clearly explains how mechanical television works and seems aimed at a broader audience than the radio amateurs who usually bought early televisions.
After Shortwave and Television Laboratory dissolved operations in 1935, Baird and his colleagues founded a new company called General Television Corporation. During this time Baird also taught radio telegraphy at a school in Boston. After General Television, too, was shuttered in 1941, Hollis Baird moved on to a career as an educator. He taught electrical engineering and physics at Northeastern University’s Lincoln Institute, starting in 1942 as part of the Engineering, Science, and Management War Training program. He retired in 1976 after a long career as professor and administrator.
Baird had the fortune—or misfortune—of sharing his last name with John Logie Baird, one of the inventors of mechanical television. The colorful Scottish inventor and entrepreneur (early products included soap and socks for trench warfare) demonstrated television at London’s Selfridge’s department store in 1925 and had convinced the BBC to produce television programming through the 20s and 30s.
On this side of the Atlantic, Hollis Baird, who was no relation, took pains in Baird Receiver Company advertising to say that his products were not, in fact, made by the other Baird. The fact that he needed to put disclaimers in his advertisements indicates that this was a common problem, one that Hollis Baird probably didn’t mind if it led to better sales. But the name confusion has meant that Hollis Baird’s name has been mostly occluded by John Logie Baird’s. Even experts were confused: when this television was last on exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum, the label identified it as a John Logie Baird TV. Luckily, this Baird television is such a compelling object that it rewards further research—uncovering the story of an American inventor in a field that no longer exists.
Thanks to Michelle Romero at the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections for research assistance.
Suzanne Fischer is former Associate Curator of Technology at The Henry Ford. She typed this post on an 1880s index typewriter and sent it to the blog editor via telex.
On August 11, 1909, as his ship struggled off Cape Hatteras, telegraph operator Theodore Haubner had an urgent choice to make: How should he call for help?
Haubner worked the key on the commercial steamship S.S. Arapahoe. His ship had just broken her propeller shaft and was drifting off the North Carolina coast.
For years, ships in trouble had used the telegraph code “CQD,” which means “calling all stations—distress.” But a new code for distress had recently been agreed upon: “SOS.” Would anyone recognize it?
Deciding to split the difference, Haubner signaled SOS as well as CQD—and his ship was picked up just twelve hours later.
Haubner had sent the world’s first SOS signal. He later donated his headphones and telegraph key to The Henry Ford, where they are now on exhibit in our Driving America exhibit.
Wireless telegraphy, perfected only a decade earlier by inventor and entrepreneur Guglielmo Marconi, used radio waves to connect ships with one another as well as with stations on land. In 1904, CQD was adopted by Marconi Company wireless telegraph operators as their emergency signal.
But an international industry would need an internationally standardized emergency signal. At the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention in Berlin, in 1906, participants agreed on SOS as the international distress signal. They chose SOS not because it was an abbreviation for any particular distress call (it does not stand for “save our ship,” as many have thought), but because it was easy to send and receive - three dots, three dashes, three dots. When the Arapahoe was drifting, the signal was just coming into use.
So why are these telegraph artifacts in an exhibit on cars?
When Haubner sent that first SOS in 1909, American culture was adjusting to a feeling of new, wider horizons. Wireless telegraphy was one of many technological marvels making their way into culture and, more slowly, into everyday life. Another of those marvels was the automobile.
Driving America puts cars into the context of these new visions of the future - this optimism that new technology, standardized across the world, could do anything.
Saving a ship was only the beginning.
Suzanne Fischer is the Associate Curator of Technology at The Henry Ford. She typed this post on an 1880s index typewriter and sent it to the blog editor via telex.
Steve Jobs, Apple’s visionary co-founder, passed away yesterday, and the web is filled with an astounding outpouring of respect and gratitude for his work. It’s a testament to the impact personal technology – mass-produced consumer products – can have on people’s lives.
At The Henry Ford, we document not only the work of innovators, but the ways people use technology in their everyday lives. We collect artifacts that by their physicality and tangibility, their heft and their look, connect visitors to history and the lives of the people who used them. The Apple products in our collection – including an Apple IIe, a Lisa, a Macintosh, an iMac, an iPod and an iPhone – were used by ordinary people to write, teach, do business, play games, listen to music and connect to each other. Jobs’ product genius was in making those activities easy, transparent and fun – and in making the products highly desirable.
In the early 1980s, with Jobs at Apple’s helm, the company popularized the mouse and “graphic user interface” – the cheerful icons and desktop and folder metaphors that we still use in everyday computing. These innovations made computing accessible to everybody, not only people who could code. Over at our OnInnovation site, Steve Wozniak, Apple’s brilliant engineer co-founder, talks about how making computing fun and easy was the company’s goal from the beginning.
Jobs famously described the company as located at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. He infused a respect for creativity, intelligence and design into the company’s products – integrating color graphics quite early, for instance, and making one of his own passions, music, the key to a new kind of product, the digital music player.
The products Apple made under Jobs were never cheap. They were aspirational consumer goods that promised to make your life better, to make you a cool nonconformist, to make you “think different.” Did they? Maybe and maybe not, but Jobs’ legacy reminds us that our tools can change not only the way we live our lives, but the way we think about ourselves.
Suzanne Fischer is former Curator of Technology at The Henry Ford.