Assistive technology refers to a wide range of products designed to help people work around a variety of challenges as they learn, work, and perform other daily living activities. Certain assistive devices allow people who are deaf or hard of hearing to access technologies that many take for granted, like telephones, televisions, and even alarm clocks. For a young woman in the 1970s and 80s, these products -- now in the collections of The Henry Ford -- also provided greater independence, broader access to popular culture, and improved communication with family and friends.
Hal-Hen Products Vibrating Alarm Clock, circa 1975 (THF158135)
In September 1975, just before leaving home to begin college, a young woman named Shari acquired this inventive alarm clock. It included a bedside clock connected to a vibrating motor, which attached to the underside of the bed and shook intensely when the alarm was triggered. The eager freshman looked forward to waking independently, “rather than trying to rely on others who would have a different class schedule” -- so it’s easy to imagine her dismay when she arrived at her dormitory to find bunk beds! The alarm “would shake and rattle the whole bunk,” creating “quite a rude awakening” for her bunkmate. After a few nights, the students figured out how to separate their bunk beds into twin beds. Even though the new arrangement made the small dorm room even tighter, Shari (and, undoubtedly, her roommate) finally considered the alarm clock to have been “a definite advantage.”
Brochure, "Real-Time Closed Captioning Brings Early-Evening News to the Hearing Impaired, circa 1981 (THF275615)
In December 1981, with money saved from her first job after college, Shari purchased a television caption adapter. At this time, a few programs, like the national news, were broadcast with closed captions for viewers who were deaf or hard of hearing. This text was visible only when activated, at first through separate decoding units.
Shari remembered -- especially as more shows began to include closed captions in the 1980s -- that this decoder “opened up a whole new world of entertainment.” She associated closed captioning with independence -- as she didn’t “have to pester other family members to ‘tell me what they're saying’” -- and participation, recalling, “No longer did I resign myself to reading a book in an easy chair in the same room while the rest of the family watched exciting shows on TV!” The Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 required televisions to have built-in caption display technology, decreasing the need for separate caption adapters and giving people access to on-screen captions almost anywhere they watched TV.
System 100 Text Telephone Unit, circa 1980 (THF173771)
In 1981, the same year she purchased her first TV caption adapter, Shari also acquired a teletypewriter, or text telephone, abbreviated TTY. This device connected to a standard telephone line, allowing communication via a keyboard and electronic text display. The technology was freeing -- Shari remembered that “it was wonderful to finally be able to independently make a few of my own phone calls” -- but also limited. At first, she could only communicate with someone else who had access to a TTY device. After she became a mother, Shari recalled loaning a TTY unit to a neighbor who also had small children, making it easier to “set up ‘play dates’ and just do the typical conversing young moms do.” In the late 1980s, some states implemented services to relay dialogue between TTY and non-TTY users. Eventually, spurred by state and federal legislation, relay systems improved nationwide, and TTY technology became more accessible and affordable.
In their time, these lifechanging devices represented the cutting edge of assistive technology. Ongoing research, technological advances, and new design approaches in the decades that followed led to improved products and more choices for consumers. Today, many users have adopted digital technologies. Email, text or instant message, and real-time video services enable communication, and digital devices, often connected to smartphones, offer solutions that address a range of user needs.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. Learn more about assistive technology on an upcoming episode of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.
It’s 1984. Turn on your Macintosh computer. Marvel at the convenience of the mouse under your hand. Point the arrow on your screen towards a desktop folder and click to open a file. Drag it and drop it somewhere else. Or, open some software. How about MacPaint? Select the pencil, draw some craggy lines; use the spilling paint bucket to fill in a shape. Move your arrow to the floppy disk to save your work. And then… imagine a worst-case scenario, as the ticking wristwatch times out. A pixelated cartoon bomb with a lit fuse appears. Your system crashes. The “sad Mac” appears.
Introducing the Icon Computer icons are visual prompts that when clicked on, launch programs and files, trigger actions, or indicate a process in motion. Clicking an icon is a simple gesture that we take for granted. In our current screen-based culture—spread between computers and smartphones—we might absent-mindedly use these navigational shortcuts hundreds (if not thousands) of times a day.
Before the mid-1980s, after booting up their computers, people typically found themselves greeted by a command line prompt floating in a black void, waiting for direction. That blinking cursor could seem intimidating for new home computer users because it assumed you knew the answers—that you had memorized the machine’s coded language. The GUI (graphical user interface, pronounced “gooey”) changed how humans interacted with computers by creating a virtual space filled with clickable graphical icons. This user-centric form of interaction, known as “the desktop metaphor,” continues to dominate how we use computers today.
The 1984 Apple Macintosh was not the first computer to use a GUI environment or icons. That achievement belongs to the 1973 Xerox Alto—a tremendously expensive, vertically-screened system that only sold a few hundred units. After a few failed attempts, the multi-tasking GUI system finally found a foothold in the home computing market with the introduction of “the computer for the rest of us”—the Macintosh.
From Graph Paper to Screen Pixels After completing her PhD in Art History, Susan Kare briefly entered the curatorial sphere before realizing that she would rather dedicate her career to the production of her own creative work. In 1982, Andy Hertzfeld, a friend of Kare’s from high school, called with an interesting opportunity: join Apple Computer’s software group and help design the user experience for the then-developing Macintosh computer.
Kare took up Hertzfeld’s offer and set to work designing the original Macintosh icons, among them the trash can, the file folder, the save disk, the printer, the cloverleaf command (even today, this symbol appears on Apple keyboards), and the mysterious “Clarus the Dogcow.”
Since no illustration software existed yet, Kare designed the first Macintosh icons and digital fonts through completely analog means. Using a graph paper notebook, she filled in the squares with pencil and felt-tipped pens, coloring inside the lines of the graph as an approximation of the Macintosh’s screen. Despite the limitation of available pixels, Kare found economical ways to provide the maximum amount of visual or metaphoric meaning within a tiny grid of space—all without using shading or color.
Next Wave Kare’s icons and digital fonts exist beyond the lifespan of the Macintosh, appearing in later Apple products and even early iPods. Iterations and mutations of her icon designs continue to define the visual shorthand of our desktops and software today, migrating across systems and platforms: NeXT Computers, IBM and Windows PCs. Have you ever played Solitaire on a Windows 3.0 computer? If so, you’ve played with Kare’s digital deck of cards.
A physical version of Susan Kare’s Windows 3.0 Solitaire game.
Have you ever sent a “virtual gift” over Facebook like a disco ball, penguin, or kiss mark? Again, this is the work of Kare, whose work has been quietly shaping our interactions with technology since 1984—making computers seem more friendly, more human, more convenient—one click at a time.
Henry Ford used wireless radio to communicate within Ford Motor Company (FMC) starting after October 1, 1919. This revolutionary new means of communication captured Ford’s interest because it allowed him to transmit messages within his vast operation. By August 1920, he could convey directions from his yacht to administrators in FMC offices and production facilities in Dearborn and Northville, Michigan. By February 1922, Ford’s railroad offices and the plant in Flat Rock, Michigan were connected, and by 1925, the radio transmission equipment was on Ford’s Great Lake bulk haulers and ocean-going vessels. Historian David L. Lewis claimed that “Ford led all others in the use of intracompany radio communications” (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 311).
Ford Motor Company also used radio transmissions to reach external audiences through promotional campaigns. During 1922, FMC sales branches delivered a series of expositions that featured Ford automobiles and Fordson tractors. An article in Motor Age (August 10, 1922) described highlights of the four-month tour of western Oregon:
“The days are given over to field demonstrations of tractors, plows and implements, while at night a radio outfit that brings in the concerts from the distant cities and motion pictures from the Ford plant, keep an intensely interested crowd on the grounds until the Delco Light shuts down for the night.”
The Ford Radio and Film crew that broadcast to the Oregon crowds traveled in a well-marked vehicle, taking every opportunity available to inform passers-by of Ford’s investment in the new technology – radio – and the utility of new FMC products. Ray Johnson, who participated in the tour, recalled that he drove a vehicle during the day and then played dance music in the evenings as a member of the three-piece orchestra, “Sam Ness and his Royal Ragadours.”
Ford and Fordson Power Exposition Caravan and Radio Truck, Seaside, Oregon, 1922 . THF134998
In 1922, Intra-Ford transmissions began making public broadcasts over the Dearborn’s KDEN station (call letters WWI) at 250-watts of power, which carried a range of approximately 360 meters. The radio station building and transmission towers were located behind the Ford Engineering Laboratory, completed in 1924 at the intersection of Beech Street and Oakwood Boulevard in Dearborn.
Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, March 1925. THF134748
Staff at the station, conveying intracompany information and compiled content for the public show which aired on Wednesday evenings.
Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, August 1924. THF134754
The station did not grow because Ford did not want to join new radio networks. He discontinued broadcasting on WWI in early February 1926 (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 179).
Ford did not discontinue his intracompany radio communications. FMC used radio-telegraph means to communicate between the head office in Dearborn and remote locations, including, Fordlandia, a 2.5-million-acre plantation that Ford purchased in 1927 and that he planned to turn into a source of raw rubber to ease dependency on British colonies regulated by British trade policy.
Brazil and other countries in the Amazon of South American provided natural rubber to the world until the early twentieth century. The demand for tires for automobiles increased so quickly that South American harvests could not satisfy demand. Industrialists sought new sources. During the 1870s, a British man smuggled seeds out of Brazil, and by the late 1880s, British colonies, especially Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) and Malaysia, began producing natural rubber. Inexpensive labor, plus a climate suitable for production, and a growing number of trees created a viable replacement source for Brazilian rubber.
British trade policies, however, angered American industrialists who sought to establish production in other places including Africa and the Philippines. Henry Ford turned to Brazil, because of the incentives that the Brazilian government offered him. His goals to produce inexpensive rubber faced several hurdles, not the least of which was overcoming the traditional labor practices that had suited those who harvested rubber in local forests, and the length of time it took to cultivate new plants (not relying on local resources).
Ford built a production facility on the Tapajós River in Brazil. This included a radio station. The papers of E. L. Leibold, in The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center, include a map with a key that indicated the “proposed method of communication between Home Office and Ford Motor Company property on Rio Tapajos River Brazil.” The system included Western Union (WU) land wire from Detroit to New York, WU land wire and cable from New York to Para, Amazon River Cable Company river cable between Para and Santarem, and Ford Motor Company radio stations at each point between Santarem and the Ford Motor Company on Rio Tapajós. Manual relays had to occur at New York, Para, and Santarem.
Map Showing Routes of Communication between Dearborn, Michigan and Fordlandia, Brazil, circa 1928. THF134693
Ford officials studied the federal laws in Brazil that regulated radio and telegraph to ensure compliance. Construction of the power house and processing structures took time. The community and corporate facilities at Boa Vista (later Fordlandia) grew. By 1931, the power house had a generator that provided power throughout the Fordlandia complex.
Generator in Power House at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931. THF134711
Power House and Water Tower at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931. THF134714
Lines from the power house stretching up the hill from the river to the hospital and other buildings, including the radio power station. The setting on a higher elevation helped ensure the best reception for radio transmissions.
Sawmill and Power House at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931.
Workers built the radio power house, which held a Delco Plant and storage batteries, and the radio transmitter station with its transmission tower. The intracompany radio station operated by 1929.
Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.THF134697
Radio Transmitter House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
Storage Batteries in Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
Delco Battery Charger for Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
Radio Power House Motor Generator Set, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
The radio power house is visible at the extreme left of a photograph showing the stone road leading to the hospital (on an even higher elevation) at Fordlandia.
Stone Road Leading to Hospital, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929. THF134709
Radio Transmitter Station, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929. THF134707
Back at FMC headquarters in Dearborn, Ford announced in late 1933 that he would sponsor a program on both NBC and CBS networks. The Waring show aired two times a week between 1934 and 1937, when Ford pulled funding. Ford also sponsored World Series broadcasts. The most important radio investment FMC made, however, was the Ford Sunday Evening Hour, launched in the fall of 1934. Eighty-six CBS stations broadcast the show. Programs included classical music and corporate messages delivered by William J. Cameron, and occasionally guest hosts. Ford Motor Company printed and sold transcripts of the weekly talks for a small fee.
On August 24, 1941 Linton Wells (1893-1976), a journalist and foreign correspondent, hosted the broadcast and presented a piece on Fordlandia.
Program, "Ford Summer Hour," Sunday, August 24, 1941. THF134690
Linton Wells was not a stranger to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, he and his wife, Fay Gillis Wells, posed for a tintype in the village studio on 2 May 1940.
Tintype Portrait of Linton Wells and Fay Gillis Wells, Taken at the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, circa 1940. THF134720
This radio broadcast informed American listeners of the Fordlandia project, in its 16th year in 1941. Wells summarized the products made from rubber (by way of an introduction to the importance of the subject). He described the approach Ford took to carve an American factory out of an Amazonian jungle, and the “never-say-quit” attitude that prompted Ford to re-evaluate Fordlandia, and to trade 1,375 square miles of Fordlandia for an equal amount of land on Rio Tapajós, closer to the Amazon port of Santarem. This new location became Belterra. Little did listeners know the challenges that arose as Brazilians tried to sustain their rubber production, and Ford sought to grow its own rubber supply.
By 1942, nearly 3.6 million trees were growing at Fordlandia, but the first harvest yielded only 750 tons of rubber. By 1945, FMC sold the holdings to the Brazilian government (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 165).
The Ford Evening Hour Radio broadcasts likewise ceased production in 1942 after eight years and 400 performances.
First portable “superhet” radio receiver, made by Edwin Armstrong in 1923. THF 156549
Edwin Armstrong’s First Portable Superheterodyning Receiver
A far cry from today’s pocket-sized MP3 players, the radio pictured above nonetheless advanced the idea of “portable radio.” This device was created in 1923 by Edwin Howard Armstrong—an inventor and pioneering electrical engineer. As the world’s first portable “superhet” radio receiver, this set is powered by six vacuum tubes, has a compartment for a battery, and a detachable horn for amplifying sound. It can be latched shut and conveniently carried by its handle, like a suitcase.
Armstrong’s legacy is rooted in three essential advances in radio history: regenerative circuits, superheterodyning, and frequency modulation (known to us today as FM radio). Individually, each of these concepts acted as some of the most important discoveries in radio history. Together, they helped to raise radio up to a new level. These concepts amplified radio waves, allowing voices to be carried rather than the dots and dashes of Morse code, and by extension, turned radio into an accessible and collective experience.
Superheterodyning The superheterodyning principle discovered by Armstrong is embedded within the radio receiver above, and has carried over to virtually every modern radio created since. Heterodyning involves mixing two different radio frequencies to create a third frequency, which could be used to tap into very sensitive high-frequency radio waves. Modern radio as well as televisions and cell phones owe a lot to the “superhet” concept.
Edwin and Marion Armstrong, on the beach, 1923. THF 120661
Tunes for the Honeymoon Not only was Armstrong an intrepid inventor, he was also a daredevil. His shy persona was a contrast to his bold innovations and daring publicity stunts. Before he married his wife Marion, he climbed to the top of the RCA tower in New York City to impress her. Apparently, it worked—because we soon see Marion and Armstrong on their honeymoon, sitting on the shore of Palm Beach in Florida. Armstrong built the portable radio in this image as wedding gift to Marion, and it is the same radio in the collections at The Henry Ford.
Marion Armstrong at The Henry Ford, 1967. THF 131774
Armstrong’s Legacy Armstrong was well known in his own time, and was highly respected. His story is also tragic, because he spent decades of his career in legal battles over patents that other inventors raised against him. Even though he would receive credit for his contributions to radio, much of that vindication came after his 1954 death. In the image above, we see Marion Armstrong donating her husband’s radio to The Henry Ford in 1967.
Although today’s radio formats are shifting towards satellite and subscription services, if you’ve ever listened to a car radio where you a spin a dial to tune in to a station—you’re listening to Armstrong’s FM radio.
The sonic imprints of his legacy continue to bleed into our everyday lives: from voices on the airwaves, to entertainment on the road, to enlivening a relaxing walk with headphones—or a summery day with music at the beach.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
We bring hundreds to thousands of new artifacts into our collection every year, and many of those enter our digitization stream so visitors can access them online. We’ve just digitized a series of posters that came into the collection in September 2016.
Created around 1960 by the Ford Motor Company Research and Information Department, the educational works depict a number of ways humans have measured length, including the fathom, and how these measurements have increased in precision over time.
Raymond Taylor and E.T. Paull’s “A Signal From Mars March and Two-Step,” 1901 imagines two inhabitants of Mars using a signal lamp to communicate with Earth. THF129403
The concept of "life on Mars" and "Martian Fever" was not incited in the pages of the tabloid magazine Weekly World News—but actually reaches much further back to 1877—with Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. The astronomer himself was not to blame: a single word in his report—canali, which is Italian for “channels”—was misinterpreted to mean "canal" once translated into English. In Schiaparelli’s time, telescopes became more advanced and powerful, allowing him to make detailed maps of the planet’s surface. At the time of this mapping, Mars was in “opposition,” bringing the planet into close alignment with Earth for easier observation. While creating his maps, however, Schiaparelli fell victim to an optical illusion. He perceived straight lines crisscrossing the surface of the planet, which he included in his records, assigning them the names of rivers on Earth. These were the canali—and the source of a misunderstanding which morphed into a self-perpetuating legend about intelligent, ancient, canal-building Martian lifeforms.
Much to Schiaparelli’s annoyance, the American astronomer Percival Lowell continued to pursue this "life on Mars" theory. Beginning in 1895, Lowell published a trilogy of books about the “unnatural features” he saw through his telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona. He created his own maps of the planet, much of which Schiaparelli believed to be pure fantasy. In reality, the imagery Lowell was seeing was likely caused by diffraction illusion in his equipment. Lowell was not alone in popularizing the concept of an intelligent Red Planet. The astronomer, psychical researcher, and early science fiction writer Camille Flammarion published The Planet Mars in 1892, which collected his archival research and historic literature exploring the idea of an inhabited planet. In 1899, Nikola Tesla claimed to have tapped into intelligent radio signals from Mars; in 1901 the director of Harvard’s Observatory Edward Charles Pickering claimed to have received a telegram from Mars.
In 1901—the year that Raymond Taylor and E.T. Paull’s "A Signal from Mars" sheet music was published—"Mars Fever" had officially taken hold, as scientists and enthusiasts alike actively explored the potential for two-way communication with Mars. This piece of music, made in tribute to the planet, is a prime example of the exoticism of science, space travel, and speculation about the limits of technology (along with a few missteps) colliding with future-forward, popular, and artistic culture.
Amazing Stories, September 1950. THF344586 Speculative thinking about Mars did not end in 1901—it has continued to provide a source of inspiration and exploration for both popular and scientific cultures. The Red Planet and its hypothetical inhabitants often appeared in early pulp and science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. The first issue of Amazing Stories was published in April 1926 by inventor Hugo Gernsback, and was the first magazine to be fully dedicated to the genre of science fiction. Gernsback himself is credited as the “father” of science fiction publishing—or, as he called it, “scientification.” The magazine introduced readers to far-reaching fantasies with journeys to internal worlds like Jules Verne’s “Trip to the Center of the Earth,” and explorations of other dimensions and galaxies, time travel, and the mysterious powers of the human mind. Throughout its publication of over 80 years, Amazing Stories included many fictional accounts of Mars, including H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds,” Cecil B. White’s “Retreat to Mars,” pictured here, E.K. Jarvis’s “You Can’t Escape from Mars!”
Standing left to right are H.G. Wells and Henry Ford at Cotswold Cottage, Greenfield Village, 1931. This photograph was taken 7 years before the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of Wells’s War of the Worlds. This radio-play used media as an all-too-effective storytelling device, inciting a public panic about an alien invasion in the process. THF108523 In 1924, with Mars once again in opposition to Earth, a new round of astronomical experiments and observations emerged. In order to test theories of advanced cultures inhabiting the planet, the inventor Charles Francis Jenkins and astronomer David Peck Todd were commissioned by the US military to conduct a study to “listen to Mars.” For the purposes of this experiment, Jenkins created an apparatus called the “radio photo message continuous transmission machine,” capable of creating visual records of radio phenomena on a long strip of photographic paper. Jenkins’s device was connected to an ordinary SE-950 NESCO radio receiver, serving as the “listening ear” in this experiment. Any incoming signal would trigger a flash of light on the paper, creating black waveform-like lines and thus revealing any chatter of alien radio waves.
The Army and Navy proceeded to silence radio activity for short periods over the three days of Mars’s closest course, believing that anyone who was bold enough to defy military-ordered radio silence would surely be extraterrestrial in origin. The Chief of US Naval Operations, Edward W. Eberle, sent this telegram on August 22nd:
7021 ALNAVSTA EIGHT NAVY DESIRES COOPERATE ASTRONOMERS WHO BELIEVE POSSIBLE THAT MARS MAY ATTEMPT COMMUNICATION BY RADIO WAVES WITH THIS PLANET WHILE THEY ARE NEAR TOGETHER THIS END ALL SHORE RADIO STATIONS WILL ESPECIALLY NOTE AND REPORT ANY ELECTRICAL PHENOMENON UNUSUAL CHARACTER AND WILL COVER AS WIDE BAND FREQUENCIES AS POSSIBLE FROM 2400 AUGUST TWENTY FIRST TO 2400 AUGUST TWENTY FOURTH WITHOUT INTERFERRING [sic.] WITH TRAFFIC 1800
Radio Receiver, Type SE-950, Used by Charles Francis Jenkins in Experiment Detecting Radio Signals from Mars. THF156814 When the paper was developed, the researchers were surprised to find that it contained images. These graphics were interpreted by the public to be “messages” composed of dots and dashes and “a crudely drawn face” repeating down the thirty-foot length of film. Jenkins, however, feared that his machine would be perpetrated as a hoax, so when the films were released he did so with this caveat: “Quite likely the sounds recorded are the result of heterodyning, or interference of radio signals.” While the popular press used these images as confirmation of life on Mars (in fact, this 1924 experiment has appeared as “evidence” in the tabloid, Weekly World News), the scientific community provided logical explanations: static discharge from a passing trolley car, malfunctioning radio equipment, or the natural symphonic radio waves produced by Jupiter. The SE-950 radio used by Jenkins in this experiment is now part of The Henry Ford’s collection: a simple rectangular wood box with knobs and dials that easily hides its deeper history as part of an experiment to communicate with Mars.
From Schiaperelli to Lowell; from the adventure tales of H.G. Wells to the first science fiction magazines of Hugo Gernsback; from a curious piece of turn-of-the-century sheet music to an even stranger experimental radio—Mars has acted as an inspirational and problematic site for creative and scientific pursuits alike. In July of 1964, the fly-by images gathered by the spacecraft Mariner 4 put an end to the most far-flung theories about the planet. As Mariner 4 transmitted images back to Earth, there were no signs of canals, channels—or a populated planet. And finally, in recent years, technological innovation has allowed our knowledge of Mars to grow at a rapid pace, with NASA’s on-planet rover missions and SpaceX’s Falcon and Dragon vehicle programs. Martians or not, despite the fact that the Red Planet lingers an average of 140 million miles away from Earth, it continues to broadcast an inspirational signal of astounding strength, which reaches straight into the human imagination.
Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communication and Information Technology, The Henry Ford.
( Telegram from the Secretary of the Navy to All Naval Stations Regarding Mars, August 22, 1924, Record Group 181, Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments, 1784-2000, ARC Identifier 596070, National Archives and Records Administration.)
Cyrus Field wanted to wire the world. A successful paper merchant turned telecommunications pioneer, Field established the American Telegraphy Company in 1856 and set to work raising the funds and gathering the minds needed to bridge the oceanic divide between Europe and America.
In 1858, after several failed attempts, an underwater cable—capable of transmitting telegraph signals across the Atlantic Ocean—was laid from Valentia, Ireland, to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. In August the first messages were sent, including an exchange between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan. It took 17 hours to transmit Queen Victoria’s 98 words. The triumph of the 1858 cable was short-lived; a month later, it failed, a victim of excess voltage in an attempt to increase the speed of messages.
This cable machine, built by Glass, Eliot & Co., was used to prepare telecommunications cable at Enderby’s Wharf in Greenwich, England, for the second transatlantic cable. Machines like these were used to create the core of submarine cable from iron and conductive copper—and then moved aboard a ship, where they applied a protective sheath made of galvanized steel, an insulating layer of gutta-percha and a final layer of jute to protect against abrasion. One mile of finished cable weighed almost a ton, but it was as flexible as a rope, built to withstand the pull of the ship laying it and hazards on the ocean floor.
In 1865, 2,300 nautical miles of cable were carried aboard the leviathan iron steamship, the SS Great Eastern. The ship left in July but was forced to return to port when the cable snapped and the end was lost at sea. A second cable excursion began a year later and was successful. This was the first truly sustainable and durable telegraph cable, continuing to carry the Morse code “text messages” of telegraph operators across continents—at a rate 80 times faster than the first cable. It remained in operation until the mid-1870s, by which time four additional cables had been laid.
This machine was essential to the “wiring of the world,” reorganizing basic materials into the spine of the first permanent transcontinental telecommunications network. These submarine cables—like the modern-day fiber-optic cables that carry the signals of Internet traffic—connected cultures and communities.
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.
Almost exactly two years ago, The Henry Ford embarked on a project to identify, conserve, photograph, catalog, rehouse, and make available online at least 1,000 items from our communications collections. This project was made possible through a generous $150,000 Museums for America grant (MA-30-13-0568-13) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, or IMLS. Though we will continue to work on some straggler artifacts that have not yet made it through the entire process, the grant officially ended on September 30, with a total of 1,261 artifacts available online. One of the very last artifacts to be added during the official grant period was this computer trainer, used in the metro Detroit area in the 1960s to teach students to operate computers, a skill increasingly needed in the American workforce. You can see some of the other artifacts that worked their way through the IMLS grant process by browsing our digital collections for such communications-related artifacts as typewriters, radio receivers, phonographs, amplifiers, cameras, motion-picture cameras, mimeographs, and magic lanterns, among many others. We extend our thanks once again to IMLS for enabling us to make these significant collections accessible to everyone.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
A date, and a place, written by hand: 10.-22.-38. Centered underneath: Astoria. The letters are composed of bold strokes, defined at the edges and flaking towards the center. The whole arrangement seems to be crumbling towards the bottom of the page, like it is made of dust that could be wiped away by the backstroke brush of a hand. Its purpose uncertain, this is not a “note to self” to be in a place, on a certain date—this is the first successful Xerox copy ever made.
The inventor of the modern photocopier, Chester Carlson, began thinking about mechanical reproduction and the graphic arts at a young age. His first publishing effort was a newspaper called This and That, circulated among family members when he was ten years old. The first edition was handwritten, with later issues composed on a Simplex typewriter given to him as a Christmas present in 1916. In high school, Carlson was forced to work multiple jobs in order to support his impoverished and ill family; one of these jobs found him sweeping floors at a printing shop. Working around printing machinery inspired him to publish a science journal, but the tedium of setting type by hand, line by line, led him to give up on this idea quickly. The machines did not support the quickness of his mind. It was in these frustrations with printing equipment—the fussiness of equipment that reproduced documents during his youth—that motivated Carlson to create the instantaneous printing process that would eventually be central to the creation of the Xerox photocopier.