Automatic Pinion Cutter, Used by the Waltham Watch Company, circa 1892 / THF110250
The roles women play in manufacturing are occasionally highlighted, but are often hidden—opposing states that these two stories from our collections demonstrate.
The Waltham Watch Company in Massachusetts was a world-famous example of a highly mechanized manufacturer of quality consumer goods. Specialized labor, new machines, and interchangeable parts combined to produce the company's low-cost, high-grade watches. Waltham mechanics first invented machines to cut pinions (small gears used in watch movements) in the 1860s; the improved version above, on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, was developed in the 1890s.
This article, “The American Watch Works,” from the July-December 1884 issue of Scientific American, discussed the women workers of the Waltham Watch Company. / THF286663
In the late 19th century, reports on the world-renowned company featured women workers. An 1884 Scientific American article specifically called out women’s work. The article explained that, “For certain kinds of work female operatives are preferred, on account of their greater delicacy and rapidity of manipulation.” Recognizing that gendered experiences—activities that required manual dexterity, such as sewing, or the exacting work of textile production—had prepared women for a range of delicate watchmaking operations, the Waltham company hired them to drill, punch, polish, and finish small watch parts, often using machines like the pinion cutter above. The company publicized equal pay and benefits for all its employees, but women workers were still segregated in many factory facilities and treated differently in the surrounding community.
The same reasoning that guided women’s work at Waltham in the 19th century led 20th-century manufacturers to call on women to produce an early form of computer memory called core memory. Workers skillfully strung tiny rings of magnetic material on a wire grid under the lens of a microscope to create planes of core memory, like the one shown above from the Burroughs Corporation. (You can learn more about core memory weaving here, and more about the Burroughs Corporation here.) These woven planeswould be stacked together in a grid structure to form the main memory of a computer.
However, unlike the women of Waltham, the stories of most core memory weavers—and other women like them in the manufacturing world—are still waiting to be told.
This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.
Sidney Houghton is one of the most interesting and yet-to-be-documented figures in the group surrounding Henry and Clara Ford. Many in the Fords’ entourage are colorful and well-researched, including Harry Bennett, Henry’s security chief, known as the notorious head of the Ford Motor Company “Service” Department; Henry’s business manager, Ernest Liebold, who handled all financial transactions; and even their son, Edsel Ford, whose life and important cultural contributions are thoroughly documented. The great Ford historian Ford R. Bryan tells the story of these figures in his book, Henry’s Lieutenants (1993). Bryan frequently mentions Sidney Houghton, most notably in his book Friends, Family, and Forays (2002).
Perhaps Houghton remains undocumented because he was British, and in the decades before Internet resources became widely available, American researchers like Bryan had limited access to British sources. Today, we are fortunate to not only have the profound resources of the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford at our disposal, but also digital access to repositories around the world. As Curator of Decorative Arts, I have spent considerable time trying to fully grasp the enigmatic Mr. Houghton—his biography, his business, and, most importantly, his relationship with Henry and Clara Ford. This blog is the first in a series that will delve into this mostly hidden story.
Now, you may ask, why should we care about the Fords’ interior designer? Seeing and understanding the interior environments that the Fords created to live and work provides us with great insight into their characters, creating a well-rounded picture of their lives. We can understand their motivations and desires and see how these changed over time. We can peel back the larger-than-life personas of the Fords that come with such public lives and see them as individuals.
What Do We Know About Sidney Houghton’s Early Life?
Researching Houghton was not easy. The first place I looked was Ancestry.com, but Houghton is a very common name in Britain. After a lot of digging and working with colleagues at The Henry Ford, I located Sidney Charles Houghton, who was born in 1872 and died in 1950. He was the son of cabinetmaker Charles Houghton, which likely led to his interest in furniture-making and interior design.
One of the questions still in my mind is: Where was Houghton educated? To date, I have not been able to find out which art school he attended—these records do not appear to be available online. What I do know is that he married in 1895, and had a family consisting of two sons by 1898. By 1910, according to the British census, his business, Houghton Studio, was established in London.
Houghton in World War I
From Ford R. Bryan’s publications and resources in the Benson Ford Research Center, I knew that Houghton was in the British Navy during World War I. I searched the British National Archives and found his fascinating military service record. Houghton, I discovered, was an experienced yachtsman, and was commissioned as a commander. He helped to create patrol boats, called P-boats, that swiftly located enemy submarines. In 1917, he was sent to the United States to work with Reginald Fessenden (1866–1932), a Canadian-American inventor who worked in early radio. Together, they developed an early sonar system to locate enemy ships, submarines, and mines. For his contributions to the war effort, Houghton was awarded the Order of the British Empire, or O.B.E., in 1919.
Through the reminiscences of Ernest Liebold, held in the Benson Ford Research Center, I discovered that Houghton was brought into the Ford Motor Company’s war effort to create what Liebold called the Eagle boats. These were similar to the British P-boats. Unlike the relatively simple P-boats, though, the Eagle boats would be like a “young battleship,” according to Liebold. He went on to state that the boats would “have the eye of an eagle and would flit over the seas.”
Eagle Boat #1 on Launching Trestle at the Ford Rouge Plant, July 11, 1918. / THF270275
Eagle Boat #60 Lowered to Water, August 1919. / THF270277
Houghton came along, and he said, “We ought to have a listening device put on those ships to detect submarines.” That is where [Thomas] Edison came in to develop this listening device, and I think Houghton is the man who contacted him. I remember him coming out with a long rod and stuff, and it was so darned secret that nobody knew a thing about it.
They had a special room provided for it in the Eagle boats. It was to be this listening chamber in which the apparatus was placed. They could detect a submarine by the beat of its propellers. A magnetic signal could determine just exactly in what direction it was, [sic] and approximately, from the intensity of the sound of the beating of the propeller, they could tell just what distance and in what direction it was.
They would radio that information to the nearest battleship in a cordon of battleships, or destroyers or whatever they had. They would be able to attack the submarine, you see. That was the object of it.
As an integral member of the Eagle boat team, it is highly likely that Houghton travelled to Dearborn and met Henry Ford. We know from later correspondence that Henry and Clara developed an abiding personal friendship with Houghton which continued through the 1920s. They commissioned a series of projects, beginning with the Fords’ yacht, the Sialia—but I am getting ahead of myself. At this point, I would like to discuss Houghton’s work in interior design, specifically his role as an interior architect.
Sidney Houghton’s Studio
Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121214
Back Cover of Houghton’s Studio Catalogue, circa 1928. / THF121230
This brochure or trade catalogue gives us great insight into the Houghton Studio. We date it to the late 1920s, when the projects Houghton worked on for the Fords were complete. From the text, we can see just what the firm’s capabilities were. The back cover reads: “Designs and estimates for decoration and furnishing of every kind / from the simplest to the most exotic / always in good style / always at exceptional values.” What this tells us is that Houghton Studio was a rarity in the interior design world.
Houghton was an interior architect, meaning that he designed both interiors and furnishings—the woodwork, wall treatments, lighting, furniture, textiles, and accessories—to create a unified interior environment. In new construction, an interior architect would collaborate with the architect to create an interior in harmony with the architecture. This contrasts with our present-day conception of an interior designer as a person who simply selects existing furnishings that harmonize to create a unified interior aesthetic. Obviously, Houghton Studio’s clients were wealthy and able to afford the best.
Chateau Laurier National Hotel, Ottawa Canada. / THF121219a
Like most of his contemporaries, Houghton worked in a variety of styles, as demonstrated in the images above—from period revivals as seen in the Chateau Laurier National Hotel, in Ottawa, Canada, to his renderings for “Modern” furniture, done in what we would describe as the Art Deco style, which was synonymous with high-end 1920s taste.
List of Commissions in the Houghton Catalogue. / THF121229b
One of the most interesting pages in the catalogue notes several commissions to design interiors for yachts, which was a specialty of the Houghton Studio. The most important of these was a commission for the Sialia, Henry Ford’s yacht. The Fords purchased the yacht just before World War I, and it was requisitioned for use by the U.S. Navy in 1917. The ship was returned to Henry Ford in 1920. At this point, Sidney Houghton was asked to redesign the interiors.
Henry Ford’s Sialia
Henry Ford’s Yacht, Sialia, Docked at Ford Rouge Plant, Dearborn, Michigan, 1927. /THF140396
According to Ford R. Bryan, the cost of the interiors was approximately $150,000. As seen here, the interiors are comfortable, but relatively simple. During the 1920s, the Fords occasionally used the Sialia, but Henry and Clara Ford preferred other means of travel, usually by large Ford corporate ore carriers, when they traveled to their summer home in Michigan’s upper peninsula. According to the ship’s captain, Perry Stakes, Henry Ford never really liked the Sialia, and he sold it in July of 1927.
Parlor on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92100
Bedroom on Sialia, Henry Ford’s Yacht, circa 1925. / THF92098
Following the Sialia commission, the Fords found a kindred spirit in Houghton. The archives contain ample correspondence from the early 1920s, with the Fords asking Houghton to return to Dearborn. Houghton subsequently received a commission to design the interior of the Fords’ Fair Lane railroad car in 1920. Between 1920 and 1926, Houghton was deluged with projects from the Fords, including the redesign of the Fair Lane Estate interiors, design of Henry and Edsel’s offices in the new Ford Engineering Laboratory, interiors for the Dearborn Country Club, as well as interiors for the Henry Ford Hospital addition.
In the next post in this series, we will look closer at several of these projects and present surviving renderings from the Fair Lane remodeling, as well as furniture from the Engineering Laboratory offices.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Off at the back of the museum’s Made in America: Power exhibit is a rangy apparatus—a water pump made mostly of wood, mounted on a granite plinth. Its business end, a clanking group of wrought- and cast-iron components, represents a beginning point for the technology seen in full flower in the Allegheny locomotive in the Railroads exhibit. Institutionally, we are fortunate in having both the world’s oldest surviving steam engine and one of the most advanced examples of reciprocating steam technology as applied to railroads.
The Newcomen Engine, circa 1750—the world’s oldest surviving steam engine. / THF110472
The importance of the Allegheny locomotive—both institutionally and historically—is hard to overstate. It is both straightforward and paradoxical: an overwhelming machine that has great human appeal; close at hand and yet impossible to fully take in; a blunt instrument of industrial efficiency enshrined on a teakwood floor in an approachable museum setting. In short, it is both plainly stated and chameleon-like—a perfect museum artifact.
Historically, it represents a technology played to the limit of tight physical constraints imposed by a railroad’s right-of-way (sharpness of curves, size of adjacent structures, axle loading of track and bridges). The Allegheny represents a masterfully trim packaging of all the components necessary to make an efficient steam locomotive—a technology pushed to a particular limit with spectacular results.
The refinements embodied by the Allegheny were the result of the Lima Locomotive Company’s chief mechanical engineer, William Woodard, and his relentless pursuit of “superpower.” His success was borne out by designs that demonstrated a 25 to 30 percent increase in efficiency—success that resulted in a steam design revolution that spread to all American locomotive manufacturers.
Ingersoll-Rand Number 90 Diesel-Electric Locomotive, 1926 / THF67890
Despite its virtually complete lack of visual charm (not a shred of rugged elegance here; this is the classic “box on wheels”), the Ingersoll-Rand Diesel-Electric Locomotive on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is actually one of the most significant items in our railroad collections. This engine was part of a calculated and savvy business move by Ingersoll-Rand (partnering with General Electric and American Locomotive) to produce a new locomotive type to challenge the steam locomotive—a deliberate attempt to break into the massive railroad market using internal combustion technology. While Ingersoll-Rand never really gained a foothold in the field, its venture played a successful part in the practical demonstration of this new form of motive power.
Hindsight suggests certain inevitability in the demise of the steam locomotive—an inflexible and inefficient mechanism compared with the modular, easily deployed workhorse diesel. From a 1920s perspective, however, the diesel had little going for it. Overly complex and unproven, it seemed a minor interloper in an industry with so much invested—both monetarily and intellectually—in what was then a mature and refined technology. Even then, however, there were factors starting to work against the all-pervasive steam locomotive, specifically the mid-1920s moves by New York City and Chicago to ban the use of steam locomotives within their city limits on account of pollution concerns—fertile soil for the growth of alternative technologies.
Ingersoll-Rand's Diesel-Electric Locomotive #90 in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 1926. Ingersoll-Rand used the locomotive in the railyard at its Phillipsburg plant for some 40 years. Donated to The Henry Ford in 1970, the locomotive received a cosmetic restoration in 1983. / THF271022
There is a touch of David and Goliath about this artifact when viewed in the context of the sheer numbers of steam locomotives then in service. This and other units like it were the unassuming thin end of a wedge that was to revolutionize the railroad scene. In 1925, there was just one diesel to 63,612 steam locomotives in mainline service in the United States; by 1945, there were 3,816 diesels to 38,853 steam locomotives; and by 1960, the final year for steam on Class I railroads here, there were 28,278 diesels to 261 steam locomotives.
Explore our Ingersoll-Rand locomotive and the transition from steam to internal combustion power further here.
This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
On August 12, 1981, as members of the press gathered in the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom in New York City, one of the largest technology companies in the world was about to make an announcement. At the time, the name “IBM” was mostly associated with the room-sized installations of mainframe computers that the company had become famous for in the 1950s. They cost millions of dollars to purchase, needed their own air-conditioned rooms, and required specially trained staff. They were found in large corporations, universities, and research facilities—but not in a typical home. That was about to change with the introduction of the IBM Model 5150, also known as the IBM PC.
The idea of internally producing a small, affordable computer was at odds with IBM’s corporate culture. One naysayer remarked that “IBM bringing out a personal computer would be like teaching an elephant to tap dance." Nonetheless, a development team was formed, and the lofty goal of completing the project in one short year was established. “Project Chess” began its race toward the finish line. The team of twelve was fronted by Don Estridge and Mark Dean, who designed the ISA bus (an interface allowing easy expansion of memory and peripherals) and color graphics system.
Part of the success story of designing the 5150 in such a short span of time is an exception to a long-standing IBM company rule: the engineers were allowed to include technology made by outside companies, rather than building every aspect of the PC, from the ground up, themselves. This is why the IBM PC uses an Intel 8088 microprocessor, can run on Microsoft DOS, and is compatible with software made by other companies. It was also released under an open architecture model—a philosophy that would soon lead to a flood of PC-inspired “clones.”
An Atari 800 computer: an early attempt by a video game company to harness the home computing market. / THF155976
In truth, the IBM PC was not the first small home computer, and by entering this market, the company would face competition from Commodore, Atari, Tandy, and Apple—all of whom had produced successful microcomputers beginning in the mid-1970s. To match the wide reach of these rivals, IBM sold their machines at convenient retailers like Sears and ComputerLand. Importantly, it was affordable by 1981 standards at an introductory price of $1,565. And… it fit on your desktop.
A positive effect of IBM creating a PC is that it helped to legitimize the notion of home computers beyond specialists and the home hobbyist crowd. IBM was essentially a well-recognized “heritage brand” by 1981, so the type of consumers reluctant to invest in a computer produced by a scrappy start-up were suddenly scrambling to put deposits down for a 5150. Whereas as “young” computing companies (many of which started out as video game companies) were under threat of being swallowed up in a competitive market, IBM projected an aura of measured reliability and was trusted to stick around.
Ironically, while IBM’s plan was to break out of the office and into the home, PCs were purchased in bulk by businesses to populate desks and cubicles. A visual unity was established in office environment—fields of putty gray and beige personal computers.
The IBM 5150 arrived at an important “boom” moment in computing history. It is evidence of an established company challenging its established design modes by harnessing emerging technologies. And IBM’s decision to pivot proved to be a timely decision too, since affordable microprocessors began to render behemoth, expensive mainframes largely obsolete. But most importantly, the IBM PC—and the wave of computers like it that followed—were designed with the non-specialist in mind, helping to make the personal computer an everyday device in people’s homes.
The “Sam Hill,” on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, is, in many people’s eyes, an example of the quintessential American locomotive. No argument here—in fact, for this writer it is certainly, along with the Mississippi riverboat, one of the utterly and absolutely quintessential American mechanisms.
Well, first, it captures a fundamental sense of youthful abandon hardwired into the American character. Locomotives like this were in their day the fastest and most glamorous ways to travel on Earth. The nature of their flamboyance captures a characteristically American engagement with technology’s possibilities—a machine as a canvas for the celebration of ambition, achievement, and a brighter, faster future. The liberal application of gold pinstriping and polished brass—even in some instances the incorporation of landscape scenes and further personalization with antlers and weathervane-like figures—all capture a uniquely American manner of celebrating and owning what was in fact a highly advanced technology.
And second, from a mechanical standpoint, the Sam Hill represents a supremely innovative technology. Its combination of flexibility, light weight, and high power output were the result of a distinctly American set of circumstances. The twisting, grade-heavy nature of our railroads—a situation that arose from the clash between low-investment/fast-return attitudes and American topography and distances—ensured that imported British locomotive technology would end up being transmuted into something entirely new. Locomotives such as the Sam Hill are the direct result of that process.
The “Sam Hill” poses with a New York Central diesel locomotive, nearly a century its junior, in Greenfield Village in May 1953. / THF133489
The development of these locomotives did not come about through what we would now consider “rational” research methods; instead, they grew out of hands-on, seat-of-the-pants engineering knowledge. This homespun advanced engineering and humanized high tech is characteristic of, and crucial to, the American industrial experience.
Learn more about the history and innovative engineering of the “Sam Hill” here.
This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
Lawn care takes commitment. Implements designed to reduce the time required to improve a lawn's appearance hit the commercial market during the mid-1800s. Push-powered lawn mowers in a variety of configurations from that era gave way to motorized models, with riding mowers gaining popularity in the 1950s. (For more on the evolution of lawn mowers, check out this expert set.) The American Marketing and Sales Company (AMSC) went one step further in the 1970s. AMSC’s autonomous Mowtron mower, the company proclaimed, “Mows While You Doze.”
AMSC released the futuristic mower, invented in 1969 by a man named Tyrous Ward, in Georgia in 1971. Its designers retained the familiar form of a riding mower, even incorporating a fiberglass “seat”—though no rider was needed. But Mowtron’s sleek, modern lines and atomic motif symbolized a new day in lawn care.
If the look of the mower promised a future with manicured lawns that required minimal human intervention, Mowtron’s underground guidance system delivered on that promise. Buried copper wire, laid in a predetermined pattern, operated as a closed electrical circuit when linked to an isolation transformer. This transistorized system directed the self-propelled, gasoline-powered mower, which, once started, could mow independently and then return to the garage.
AMSC understood that despite offering the ultimate in convenience, Mowtron would be a tough sell. To help convince skeptical consumers to adopt an unfamiliar technology, the company outfitted Mowtron with safety features, such as sensitized bumpers that stopped the mower when it touched an obstacle, and armed its sales force with explanatory material.
Mowtron’s market expanded from Georgia throughout the early 1970s. The Mowtron equipment and related materials in The Henry Ford’s collection belonged to Hubert Wenzel, who worked as a licensed Mowtron dealer as a side job. Wenzel had two Mowtron systems: he displayed one at lawn and garden shows and installed another as the family mower at his homes in New Jersey and Indiana. Wenzel’s daughter recalled cars stopping on the side of the road to watch whenever it was out mowing the lawn.
Display used by Mowtron dealer Hubert Wenzel. / THF623554, detail
Mowtron sales were never brisk—in fact, Hubert Wenzel never sold a mower—but company records show that the customers willing to try the new technology appreciated Mowtron’s styling, convenience, and potential cost savings. One owner compared her mower to a sleek Italian sports car. Another expressed pleasure at the ease of starting the mower before work and returning home to a fresh-cut yard. And one customer figured his savings in lawn care costs would pay for the machine in two years (Mowtron retailed at around $1,000 in 1974, including installation).
Despite its limited commercial success, the idea behind Mowtron had staying power. Today, manufacturers offer autonomous mowers in new configurations that offer the same promise: lawn care at the push of a button. (Discover one modern-day entrepreneur’s story on our YouTube channel.)
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
The modern race shop encompasses a combination of scientific research, computer-aided design and engineering, prototyping, product development and testing, fabrication, and manufacturing. Here you can go behind the scenes to see how experts create winning race cars, using their knowledge in planning and problem-solving.
You can learn about key elements for achieving maximum performance through an open-ended exploration of components of the cars on display, as well as through other activities. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) principles are a key focus here.
This is the actual car that won the LMGTE Pro class at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans. The win was historic because it happened on the 50th anniversary of Ford’s first Le Mans victory in 1966, but over that half-century, racing technology advanced enormously, and the engine is half the size (a 3.5-liter, all-aluminum V-6 compared with a 7-liter, cast-iron V-8). But twin turbochargers (vs. naturally aspirated intake), direct fuel injection (vs. carburation), and electronic engine controls (vs. all mechanical) gave the GT engine almost 650 horsepower, versus slightly over 500 horsepower for the Mark IV.
Computer-aided design and engineering, aerodynamic innovations to maximize downforce and minimize drag, and electronic controls for the engine and transmission all combine to make the 2016 Ford GT a much more advanced race car, as you would expect 50 years on. The technology and materials advances in the GT’s brakes, suspension and tires, combined with today’s aerodynamics, make its handling far superior to its famous ancestor.
You can’t talk about American sports car racing without America’s sports car. The Chevrolet Corvette was in its fifth styling generation when the race version C5-R debuted in 1999. The Corvette Racing team earned 35 victories with the C5-R through 2004, including an overall victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2001. This is the car driven by Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell, Franck Freon, and Chris Kneifel in that Daytona win.
Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon earned Ford its first win at Le Mans with the #2 GT40 on June 19, 1966. Ford celebrated that victory with another one on June 19, 2016—exactly 50 years later. / lemans06-66_083
Learn more about sports car performance with these additional resources from The Henry Ford.
The growth of commercial aviation in the United States presented a challenge—how could airports control aircraft within the increasingly crowded space around them? The earliest efforts at air traffic control were limited to ground crew personnel waving flags or flares to direct planes through takeoffs and landings. Needless to say, this system needed improvement.
The first air traffic control tower opened in 1930 at Cleveland Municipal Airport. Pilots radioed their positions to the tower, where controllers noted the information on a map showing the positions of all planes within the airport's vicinity. Controllers radioed the pilots if a collision seemed possible and gave them permission to land or take off. Soon, all large American airports employed towers operated by the airports' respective municipal governments and staffed by growing crews. Smaller airports, though, remained dependent on a single controller (who might also handle everything from the telephone switchboard to passenger luggage). Additionally, some pilots treated controllers' instructions as mere suggestions—the pilots would land when and where they pleased.
Before air traffic controllers began communicating with pilots by radio, airports relied on ground crew personnel to direct planes through takeoffs and landings. / detail of THF94919
Airlines recognized the need for formal oversight and attempted to supply it themselves. They formed Air Traffic Control, Inc., in 1936 to regulate traffic at larger airports. This new agency worked well but applied only to commercial aircraft. It became clear that only federal supervision could regulate all commercial and private air traffic at the nation's airports. The Civil Aeronautics Act, passed by Congress in 1938, established the Civil Aeronautics Authority—the forerunner of today's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—to establish safety guidelines, investigate accidents, regulate airline economics, and control air traffic.
The post-World War II economic boom brought a surge in air travel, as well as larger and faster jet aircraft. But the nation's air traffic control system remained unchanged. Upgrades came only after a tragic mid-air collision between two passenger planes over the Grand Canyon in 1956. All 128 passengers and crew aboard both flights perished. Public outrage forced the widespread implementation of radar, a technology greatly improved during the war, into the management of U.S. skies.
Into the 1960s, air traffic controllers augmented radar signal displays with hand-written plastic markers that identified each plane and its altitude. Integrating computers with radar eliminated the need for written markers, as information about each plane automatically displayed on radar screens. This improved radar system, referred to as the Automated Radar Terminal System, finally made its way to metropolitan airports in 1969, when the FAA contracted with Sperry Rand to build control computers and radar scopes.
This computer-integrated radar scope, used at Detroit Metro Airport from 1970 to 2001, was one of the first units capable of displaying an airplane's identification number and altitude directly on the screen. In this photograph, panels have been removed to reveal the unit’s internal components. / THF154729
This radar scope display panel is the first of those scopes to be produced. It was installed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in 1970. This unit, and others like it, sat in the tower's radar room. It was used to monitor and control aircraft within 35 miles of the airport. Two people worked the unit in tandem, sitting on either side of the display screen. While this arrangement made maximum use of expensive equipment, it led to inevitable difficulties—users sometimes disagreed on screen contrast settings. With the introduction of single-user LCD displays in the 1980s and 1990s, this unit was downgraded to training use and then retired from service in 2001.
Today, radar itself is facing retirement from air traffic control. Aircraft can relay their positions to each other and the ground without radar through Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, which combines GPS technology with high-speed data transfer. Required in most controlled airspace as of January 1, 2020, this new system provides more accurate location information. It also allows closer spacing of aircraft in the skies, increasing capacity and permitting better traffic management.
Though it was outpaced by newer technologies, this computer-integrated radar scope—the first of its kind—survives in the collections of The Henry Ford as evidence of the critical developments that produced the safe and efficient aviation system we rely on today. To discover more aviation stories, visit the Heroes of the Sky exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, or find more on our blog.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.