Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged technology

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 man with beard and mustache in shirt and tie sits by a computer and television and smiles at camera
Jerry Lawson, circa 1980. Image from
Black Enterprise magazine, December 1982 issue, provided courtesy The Strong National Museum of Play.

In 1975, two Alpex Computer Corporation employees named Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel approached Fairchild Semiconductor to sell an idea—a prototype for a video game console code-named Project “RAVEN.” Fairchild saw promise in RAVEN’s groundbreaking concept for interchangeable software, but the system was too delicate for everyday consumers.

Jerry Lawson, head of engineering and hardware at Fairchild, was assigned to bring the system up to market standards. Just one year prior, Lawson had irked Fairchild after learning that he had built a coin-op arcade version of the Demolition Derby game in his garage. His managers worried about conflict of interest and potential competition. Rather than reprimand him, they asked Lawson to research applying Fairchild technology to the budding home video game market. The timing of Kirschner and Haskel’s arrival couldn’t have been more fortuitous.

Black man in suit with flower in boutonnière sits by a counter full of scientific equipment and examines yarn or fiber
A portrait of George Washington Carver in the Greenfield Village Soybean Laboratory. Carver’s inquisitiveness and scientific interests served as childhood inspiration for Lawson. / THF214109

Jerry Lawson was born in 1940 and grew up in a Queens, New York, federal housing project. In an interview with Vintage Computing magazine, he described how his first-grade teacher put a photo of George Washington Carver next to his desk, telling Lawson “This could be you!” He was interested in electronics from a young age, earning his ham radio operator’s license, repairing neighborhood televisions, and building walkie talkies to sell.

When Lawson took classes at Queens and City College in New York, it became apparent that his self-taught knowledge was much more advanced than what he was being taught. He entered the field without completing a degree, working for several electronics companies before moving to Fairchild in 1970. In the mid-1970s, Lawson joined the Homebrew Computer Club, which allowed him to establish important Silicon Valley contacts. He was the only Black man present at those meetings and was one of the first Black engineers to work in Silicon Valley and in the video game industry.

Refining an Idea


Box with image of boxy video game system, cartridges, and stick controllers, along with text
Packaging for the Fairchild Channel F Video Entertainment System. / THF185320

With Kirschner and Haskel’s input, the team at Fairchild—which grew to include Lawson, Ron Smith, and Nick Talesfore—transformed RAVEN’s basic premise into what was eventually released as the Fairchild “Channel F” Video Entertainment System. For his contributions, Lawson has earned credit for the co-invention of the programmable and interchangeable video game cartridge, which continues to be adapted into modern gaming systems. Industrial designer Nick Talesfore designed the look of cartridges, taking inspiration from 8-track tapes. A spring-loaded door kept the software safe.

Boxy yellow game cartridge with graphic label containing text, next to black box with graphics and text
Boxy gray cartridge with square label containing text and photo of five people in front of a black-and-white striped backgroundA Fairchild “Video-Cart” compared to a typical 8-track tape. / THF185336 & THF323548

Until the invention of the video game cartridge, home video games were built directly onto the ROM storage and soldered permanently onto the main circuit board. This meant, for example, if you purchased one of the first versions of Pong for the home, Pong was the only game playable on that system. In 1974, the Magnavox Odyssey used jumper cards that rewired the machine’s function and asked players to tape acetate overlays onto their television screen to change the game field. These were creative workarounds, but they weren’t as user-friendly as the Channel F’s “switchable software” cart system.

Boxy brown and black video game console with adapter and box with text and graphics in orange, yellow, and black
THF151659

Jerry Lawson also sketched the unique stick controller, which was then rendered for production by Talesfore, along with the main console, which was inspired by faux woodgrain alarm clocks. The bold graphics on the labels and boxes were illustrated by Tom Kamifuji, who created rainbow-infused graphics for a 7Up campaign in the early 1970s. Kamifuji’s graphic design, interestingly, is also credited with inspiring the rainbow version of the Apple Computers logo.

Boxy brown-and-black gaming console with two stick-shaped controllers
The Fairchild Video Entertainment System with unique stick controllers designed by Lawson. / THF185322

The Video Game Industry vs. Itself


The Channel F was released in 1976, but one short year later, it was in an unfortunate position. The home video game market was becoming saturated, and Fairchild found itself in competition with one of the most successful video game systems of all time—the Atari 2600. Compared to the types of action-packed games that might be found in a coin-operated arcade or the Atari 2600, many found the Channel F’s gaming content to be tame, with titles like Math Quiz and Magic Numbers. To be fair, the Channel F also included Space War, Torpedo Alley, and Drag Race, but Atari’s graphics quality outpaced Fairchild’s. Approximately 300,000 units of Channel Fun were sold by 1977, compared to several million units of the Atari 2600.

Rotating GIF featuring colorful images of various game cartridges next to their graphic boxes
Channel F Games (see them all in our Digital Collections)

Around 1980, Lawson left Fairchild to form Videosoft (ironically, a company dedicated to producing games and software for Atari) but only one cartridge found official release: a technical tool for television repair called “Color Bar Generator.” Realizing they would never be able to compete with Atari, Fairchild stopped producing the Channel F in 1983, just in time for the “Great Video Game Crash.” While the Channel F may not be as well-known as many other gaming systems of the 1970s and 80s, what is undeniable is that Fairchild was at the forefront of a new technology—and that Jerry Lawson’s contributions are still with us today.


Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

video games, technology, making, home life, engineering, design, by Kristen Gallerneaux, African American history

Virtual room with wooden floor and white walls covered with images; stacked barrels in the center of the room

The Henry Ford has long explored creative ways to share our world-renowned collections and provide our guests and visitors with exciting new ways to interact with them. Earlier this year, we launched a new virtual experience that we created in partnership with Saganworks, a technology startup from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

What we created is a Sagan: a virtual room capable of storing content in a variety of file formats, and experienced like a virtual gallery. The Henry Ford curated this Sagan to highlight some of the work the museum has done under the auspices of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, which focuses on providing resources and encouragement for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. Our Sagan highlights entrepreneurial stories and collections, displaying a sampling of objects we’ve digitized and content we’ve created, all in one place.

As a startup, Saganworks is continuously adapting and evolving its product, and we are happy to announce that we now have the ability to embed our Sagan right here within our blog for you to interact with. (Though please note that this is best experienced on desktop—to experience the Sagan on your phone, you’ll be prompted to download the Saganworks app.)
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Saganworks, entrepreneurship, by Samantha Johnson, technology

Empty auditorium with rows of seats and stage with curtains, a large screen with a piece of equipment projected on it, and several people on the stage

The auditorium at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference before guests arrive. / THF610598

The setting is sparse. The downward sweep of theatre curtains, a man seated stage left, backed by a hinged office cubicle wall. Technology in this image is scarce, and yet it defines the moment. A video camera is perched on top of the wall, its electronic eye turned downwards to surveil a man named Douglas Engelbart, seated in a modified Herman Miller Eames Shell Chair below. A large projection screen shows a molded tray table holding a keyboard at its center, a chunky-looking computer mouse made of wood on the right side, and a “chording keyboard” on the left. Today, we take the computer mouse for granted, but in this moment, it was a prototype for the future.

The empty auditorium chairs in this image will soon be filled with attendees of a computer conference. It is easy to imagine the collective groan of theater seating as this soon-to-arrive audience leans a little closer, to understand a little better. With the click of a shutter from the back of the room, this moment was collapsed down into the camera lens of a young Herman Miller designer named Jack Kelley. He knew this moment was worth documenting because if the computer mouse under Douglas Engelbart’s right hand onstage was soon going to create “the click that was heard around the world,” this scene was the rehearsal for that moment.

Three-ring binder black-colored page with a photo of entrance doors and a marquee with text; two people in front of doors
Entrance to the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco Civic Auditorium. / THF610636

“The Mother of All Demos”

On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) hosted a session at the Joint Computer Conference at the Civic Center Auditorium in San Francisco. The system presented—known as the oNLine System (or NLS)—was focused on user-friendly interaction and digital collaboration.

Man sitting in chair with attached console, with video cameras pointed at him; another man to side
Douglas Engelbart demonstrates the oNLine System. / THF146594

In a span of 90 minutes, Engelbart (wearing a headset like the radar technician he once was) used the first mouse to sweep through a demonstration that became the blueprint for modern computing. For the first time, computing processes we take for granted today were presented as an integrated system: easy navigation using a mouse, “WYSIWYG” word processing, resizable windows, linkable hypertext, graphics, collaborative software, videoconferencing, and presentation software similar to PowerPoint. Over time, the event gained the honorific “The Mother of all Demos.” When Engelbart was finished with his demonstration, everyone in the audience gave him a standing ovation.

Fixing the Human-Hardware Gap

In 1957, Engelbart established the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at SRI to study the relationship between humans and machines. It was here, in 1963, that work on the first computer mouse began. The mouse was conceptualized by Engelbart and realized from an engineering standpoint by Bill English. All the while, work on NLS was percolating in the background.

Page from three-ring binder containing photo of man sits in chair with attached console with feet up on a nearby table that also holds what appears to be a large monitor; office furniture around him
Douglas Engelbart kicks back with the NLS at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). / THF610612

While Engelbart was gearing up to present the NLS, Herman Miller Research Corporation’s (HRMC’s) president and lead designer Robert Propst was updating the “Action Office” furniture system. Designed to optimize human performance and workplace collaboration, Action Office caught Engelbart’s attention. He was excited by its flexibility and decided to consult with Herman Miller to provide the ideal environment for people using the NLS. Propst sent a young HMRC designer named Jack Kelley to California so he could study the needs of the SRI group in person.

Two men, one seated and one standing, among office furniture holding a computer, phone, and books or binders
Jack Kelley and Douglas Engelbart testing Herman Miller’s custom Action Office setup at Stanford Research Institute. / THF610616

After observing and responding to the needs of the team, Kelley recommended a range of customized Action Office items, which appeared onstage with Engelbart at the Joint Computer Conference. One of the items that Kelley designed was the console chair from which Engelbart gave his lecture. He ingeniously paired an off-the-shelf Shell Chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames with a molded tray attachment to support the mouse and keyboard. This one-of-a-kind chair featured prominently in The Mother of All Demos.

Office cubicle with chair in front of computer with large boxy monitor
An unobstructed view of Jack Kelley’s customization of an Eames Shell Chair with removable, swinging tray for the NLS. The chording keyboard is visible at left, and the prototype mouse is at right. / THF610615

During the consultation, Kelley also noticed that Engelbart’s mouse prototype had difficulty tracking on hard surfaces. He created a “friendly” surface solution by simply lining the right side of the console tray with a piece of Naugahyde. If Engelbart was seen to be controlling the world’s first mouse onstage in 1968, Kelley contributed one very hidden “first” in story of computing history too: the world’s first mousepad. Sadly, the one-of-a-kind chair disappeared over time, but luckily, we have many images documenting its design within The Henry Ford’s archival collections.

Photo pasted onto black three-ring binder sheet depicting a person in front of a keyboard with a monitor to the side and copystand in front of them
A closer view of the world’s first mousepad – the beige square of Naugahyde inset into the NLS tray at bottom right. / THF610645

The computer scientist Mark Weiser said, “the most profound technologies are the ones that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” If this is true, the impact of Engelbart’s 1968 demonstration—supported by Kelley’s console chair and mousepad—are hidden pieces of the computing history. So as design shaped the computer, the computer also shaped design.


Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

Herman Miller, design, by Kristen Gallerneaux, computers, technology

Factory topped with several smokestacks and a water tower, with cars driving by in front

Exterior View, Ford Highland Park Plant, 30 March 1932; Object P.833.56894.1 / THF237509

When Ford Motor Company engineers developed the assembly line at the Highland Park Plant back in 1913, they were seeking to increase production volume in order to provide more automobiles to the general public at a reasonable cost, and in a reasonable time.

Move ahead more than 100 years to 2020, where the staff of The Henry Ford and the Benson Ford Research Center (BFRC) are operating a modern assembly line to digitize images and documents from our collections and make them available online.

By some estimates, The Henry Ford holds roughly 26 million 2D and 3D objects, with the majority of that total – some 25 million items – contained within the archival collections at the BFRC. Clearly, there’s a lot to move down our “assembly line”!

As is the case with auto assembly, there are a number of stations along our line, beginning with material selection, then material retrieval, cataloging, imaging, storage, import, export, and finally ending with online display. Improvements made to the speed and efficiency at each of these stations can lead to gains in the production rate of the entire line.

Graphic with text
This graphic shows where Rapid Capture imaging fits into The Henry Ford's overall digitization process.

To bring that speed and efficiency to archival imaging, the BFRC uses a process we refer to as Rapid Capture digitization. Developed by several institutions as an approach to increasing the scale of digitization, Rapid Capture is part technology, part process, and part philosophy.

Technically, Rapid Capture is rather simple. The equipment consists of a copy stand, lighting, a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, and a computer equipped with photo editing software.

Photograph lying on black fabric with lights on either side and a camera pointed downward at it
Rapid Capture station.

The important feature of the camera is its full-frame sensor, which can create a 400-pixel-per-inch image of an item as large as 9 × 14 inches, allowing us to provide users with high-quality images for the majority of our archival materials, which can be easily viewed, downloaded, and used for presentations or reports.

At the click of the shutter button, the camera can record an entire image – perhaps an 8 × 10 photographic print – without the cycle time of a more traditional flatbed scanner. If you’ve used a digital camera or a camera phone to take personal photographs, then you know how quickly you can take tens or even hundreds of snapshots. The same holds true for Rapid Capture, with the limit on imaging rate being the safe and proper handling of the archival material, not the time spent waiting for the scanner to make a pass.

On certain projects, we are able to capture both sides of a photographic print in less than 60 seconds, translating to nearly 500 prints imaged in a single day. Our flatbed scanner can produce 10-12 images per hour, or both sides of just 48 prints per day. Starting with a single Rapid Capture workstation in February 2011 and now utilizing two workstations, we have produced nearly 100,000 production images since the launching the process.

Process, or efficiency in process, is also an important part of Rapid Capture. For example, since material handling is one of the keys to the speed of Rapid Capture, we work to select and schedule material in groups having similar sizes or formats and that are located together physically, such as the box of 8 × 10 photographic prints shown below.

box standing vertically; folder open in front of it with photo lying on top
8 x 10 photographs from our collection foldered within an archival box.

Another example occurs in the post-processing of images, which can also be done in a batch manner, including exposure correction, cropping, and derivative image creation. By using automated scripts, much of this work can be done unattended, and in the case of large batches, performed in the overnight hours.

Finally, Rapid Capture is in some ways a philosophy. Rapid Capture puts a premium on user access to large numbers of images, and in doing so forces trade-offs in areas such as perceived image quality and image resolution. An example of this trade-off can be seen in some of our Rapid Capture images, which appear slightly tilted, such as this image from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

Photo of train with steam coming from it at tentpole-like station with a number of people standing around
Railway Station at Haines Corners, Catskill Mountains, New York, circa 1902; Object P.DPC.014510 / THF204908

Rather than spend additional time on each image to create a perfect alignment, we’ve chosen to spend that additional time producing more images, with the assumption that you, our users, would want to see more “stuff,” and can accept some imperfection.

A second compromise involves image resolution. While the camera can produce images sufficient for online viewing and use in presentations, the images may not be adequate for advertising or commercial publication. We’ve accepted that a certain number of items may need to be reimaged at some point for publication use, but that the potential rescanning effort is outweighed by the ability to both produce and store more lower-resolution images.

Our implementation of Rapid Capture has proven to be very successful. In nearly 10 years of operation, we’ve created a large number of images that meet our goals for quality, usefulness, production time, and cost. And, as we celebrate our #digitization100K milestone of 100,000 digitized objects on our Digital Collections, we can also point to the more than 38,500 objects that are illustrated using Rapid Capture images as another measure of that success.

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digital collections, by Brian Wilson, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, digitization, archives, photography, technology

When the initiative to digitize the collections of The Henry Ford was proposed, the sheer scope and magnitude of the project was yet to be completely imagined. As the Loan Manager for The Henry Ford, I’ve noticed one happy and unforeseen outcome – due to our digitization efforts, our loan process has become measurably more efficient.

The Henry Ford's Loan Program at a Glance

Given that only roughly 10% of The Henry Ford’s holdings are on exhibit, the loan program is one way to allow a wider audience access to our collections. At any given time, we have artifacts on loan to many other museums, libraries, and archives around the world, who display them to their visitors—sometimes for years.

Here’s a look at our loan program by the numbers: The Henry Ford is represented in 16 states, 5 countries, and 3 continents by 45 active outgoing loans showcasing 256 artifacts. Both 3D objects and archival material are represented by everything from transportation artifacts to designer clothing to automotive design drawings. Some of these artifacts currently on loan follow—click through the links in the captions to their Digital Collections records to find out where they are!

Drawing of sleek blue car on blue background
Rendering of Mustang Design Proposal by William Shenk, 1967-1968 / THF174987

Long gray skirt and gray jacket with black belt, buttons, and collar
Suit, Worn by Elizabeth Parke Firestone, 1949-1950 / THF28855

Toy truck with red cabin, white bed, and red winch in bed, with AAA logo on side
Toy Tow Truck, 1937-1946 / THF300268

In the “Old Days”

In the past, loan requests were accomplished curator-to-curator by phone call or (gasp!) written letter. It was a laborious process for a curator to search thru many and various artifact information resources in order to assist a potential borrower in developing an exhibition.

In the late 1990s, searchable collections management databases began appearing, and an electronically generated object report could at least be created and shared with a potential borrower. While this was a tremendous aid in all respects, it was still a challenging proposition to meet a borrower’s requirements and expectations with regards to potential loans.

Serendipity

The Henry Ford’s digitization initiative began in 2009, and while transforming the loan process was not a targeted goal of digitization, it has since become a very useful tool for borrowers from other institutions seeking artifacts that will complement their vision for an exhibition. For the remaining requests that don’t originate with our Digital Collections website, all artifacts are digitized before a loan is delivered, so while they are not on-site, they have a “digital presence” at The Henry Ford.

Today, 90% of all loan requests are made after borrowers peruse our Digital Collections website. Recently I received a loan request in the form of an user set, one implement in our digitization toolbox that allows a researcher, casual browser, school group, or curator to create a custom set of favorite artifacts from our collection. For an example, check out my own Expert Set, On the Road with The Henry Ford, which highlights some of our artifacts currently on loan! (If you’d like to create your own artifact user set, simply click “Add to Set” from any artifact page in our Digital Collections and log in or create a free account. You can create, save, and share as many sets as you like!)

As we all become more comfortable with embracing new technologies, I see this trend only expanding the significant impact of the collections of The Henry Ford. Not only are our Digital Collections a way to attract new audiences and provide them with new and better experiences, they are also a valuable work tool!

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technology, digital collections, by Patrice Fisher, digitization, #digitization100K, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

GIF cycling through a wide variety of objects
This GIF runs through fewer than 1/10th of 1% of the artifacts available for you to discover in our Digital Collections.



If you’ve ever liked or commented on a photo of one of our artifacts on social media…

If you’ve ever looked at an image from our collections reproduced on a wall or label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation…

If you’ve ever used one of our digital interactives in the museum…

If you’ve ever visited one of our exhibit pages for the museum or our district pages for Greenfield Village…

If you’ve ever looked at one of our blog posts or expert sets

If you’ve ever visited our Digital Collections


If you’ve done any of these things, then you’ve had an encounter with our digitization program.

As you might be able to tell from that list, digitization of our collection now underpins much of what we do, and helps us fulfill our mission to inspire people to learn from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation to help shape a better future. For about a decade, The Henry Ford has been systematically adding artifacts to our website, and today we are proud to announce that we have just added our 100,000th artifact. We are using this opportunity to kick off a month-long celebration during the month of November, and will be giving you behind the scenes looks at the digitization process, sharing fun facts about digitization and our Digital Collections, and counting down the most popular digitized artifacts of all time.

A tractor sits in front of a building
Our 100,000th digitized artifact is this photo--of the 100,000th Fordson tractor. / THF146392

As an institution that holds artifacts in the public trust, we have always cared for them and documented them. But the amazing expansion of the digital realm over the last decade has given us new ways to expand access to our fascinating and significant stories. According to the Pew Research Center, when we embarked on this effort in earnest around 10 years ago, one-quarter of Americans did not use the Internet, only 4 of 10 Americans participated in social media, and American smartphone usage was rare.

Website screenshot with text and images
Our original Digital Collections website.

Our beginnings, too, were humble.  Our initial digitization efforts in the early 2010s were funded by generous gifts from Lynn and Paul Alandt and Benson Ford, Jr., on behalf of the Benson and Edith Ford Fund. Our first collections website began with only 500 artifacts included—the very first being this 1929 Ford Model A Coupe used by Henry Ford.

Black car on grass in front of a brick wall with windows
Our first digitized artifact was this 1929 Ford Model A Coupe, used by Henry Ford. / THF87486

As time went on, the number—and breadth—of artifacts we had digitized grew. By 2012, we’d reached 8,000 digitized artifacts; by late 2013, we’d hit 20,000; and two years ago, we hit 75,000. At the same time, technology proliferated—smartphone usage skyrocketed, and web users started to rely on being able to access information anywhere, any time.

Over the years, we’ve digitized artifacts being put on display in new exhibits both large and small, new additions to the collection, artifacts used in The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, objects that tell innovation learning stories, and many other “hidden gems” that may not have been on display for many years. They underpin innovative new interactive experiences in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, and allowed us to present a comprehensive online content program during the current coronavirus pandemic.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that if you’re a fan of The Henry Ford, you’ve probably benefitted in some way from our digitization program.

So we invite you to join us throughout the month of November here on our blog, as well as our social media channels, to learn more about the many steps that go into this process and the experts on our staff who make it happen—and to learn some fun and interesting facts about our collections along the way. The first week will provide an overview of our work; the week of November 9 will focus on collections management and conservation; week three will focus on the work of our registrars; and we’ll wrap up Thanksgiving week with a highlight on our imaging staff.

And don’t forget to check out our Digital Collections for yourself—share your favorites with us on social media using the hashtag #digitization100K.

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digital collections, #digitization100K, technology, by Ellice Engdahl, digitization, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

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

Boxy blue vehicle in doorway; one person on hands and knees looking underneath; 2 other people standing nearby
The Mcity Driverless Shuttle arrives at The Henry Ford.

Thanks to a generous gift from the University of Michigan (U-M), The Henry Ford recently acquired its second autonomous vehicle: a driverless shuttle used by U-M’s Mcity connected and automated vehicle research center. Readers may recall that we acquired our first AV in 2018 – a 2016 General Motors Self-Driving Test Vehicle. While the GM car was an experimental vehicle focused on technology, the Mcity shuttle took part in an intriguing project more focused on the psychology of consumer trust and acceptance of driverless vehicles.

From June 4, 2018, through December 13, 2019, Mcity, a public-private research partnership led by U-M, operated this driverless shuttle at U-M’s North Campus Research Complex in Ann Arbor. The project’s purpose was to understand how passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers interacted with autonomous vehicles. In effect, the project was a way to gauge consumer acceptance of a decidedly unconventional new technology.

The shuttle donated to The Henry Ford is one of two fully-automated, electrically-powered, 11-seat shuttles Mcity operated on a fixed route around the research complex throughout the course of the study. The shuttles were built by French manufacturer Navya. In late 2016, Navya had delivered its first self-driving shuttle in North America to Mcity, where it was used to support research and to demonstrate automated vehicle technology. In June 2017, Mcity announced plans to launch a research project in the form of an on-campus shuttle service that would be open to the U-M community.

The Mcity Driverless Shuttle operated on a one-mile loop around the North Campus Research Complex at speeds averaging about 10 miles per hour. The service ran Monday-Friday from 9 AM to 3 PM. While its route avoided heavy-traffic arteries, the shuttle nevertheless shared two-way public roadways with cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. It operated in a variety of weather conditions, including winter cold and snow; but was not used in more extreme weather, such as heavy snow or rain.

Side view of boxy blue shuttle with large windows and several people visible inside; grass in foreground and building in background
The Mcity Driverless Shuttle on its route at the University of Michigan’s North Campus Research Complex. (Photo credit: University of Michigan)

While the shuttle and its technology are impressive enough, the impetus behind its use is arguably more important to The Henry Ford. The Mcity research project was the first driverless shuttle deployment in the United States that focused primarily on user behavior. Mcity’s goal was to learn more about how people reacted to AVs, rather than prove the technology. The two shuttles were equipped with exterior video recorders to capture reactions from people outside the shuttle, and interior video and audio recorders to capture reactions from passengers inside. On-board safety conductors, there to stop the shuttle in case of emergency, also observed rider behavior.

Mcity staff monitored ridership numbers and patterns throughout the project, and riders were encouraged to complete a survey about their experience that was developed by Mcity and the market research firm J.D. Power. Survey questions ranged from basic inquiries about age and relationship to the university, to more specific inquiries about reasons for riding, degree of satisfaction with the service, interest level in AV technology, and – most significantly – degree of trust in the shuttle and its driverless capabilities. The survey data was then analyzed by J.D. Power. You can learn more about the results through Mcity's white paper, "Mcity Driverless Shuttle: What We Learned About Consumer Acceptance of Automated Vehicles."

Along with the shuttle itself, U-M has kindly donated examples of the special signage installed by Mcity in support of the shuttle project. There are no current government regulations – at the federal, state, or local levels – for signage along a driverless vehicle route. Mcity developed its own signs to alert other road users to the shuttle’s presence. Samples include signs proclaiming “Shuttle Stop” and “Attention: Driverless Vehicle Route.”

Autonomous vehicles are coming to our streets – it’s no longer a question of “if,” but of “when.” Indeed, the Mcity shuttle project proves that AVs are, to an extent, already here. These driverless vehicles promise to be the most transformative development in ground transportation since the automobile itself. Self-driving capabilities will fundamentally change our relationship with the vehicle. The technology promises improved safety and economy in our cars and buses, greater capacity and efficiency on our roads, and enhanced mobility and quality of life for those unable to drive themselves. The Mcity Driverless Shuttle represents an important milestone on the road to autonomy, and it marks an important addition to The Henry Ford’s automotive collection.

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autonomous vehicles, Michigan, research, alternative fuel vehicles, technology, by Matt Anderson

In recent months, we previewed a new virtual experience that we’ve created in partnership with Saganworks, a technology startup from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Today, we are happy to officially launch this experience for you to interact with!

Virtual barn-like space with many colorful images on the walls, with fruit tree & crates as well
A view of the Produce Industry section, featuring items from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, the Label Collection, and photographs of Entrepreneur-in-Residence Melvin Parson’s time at The Henry Ford.

What we’ve created is a Sagan: a virtual room capable of storing content in a variety of file formats, and experienced like a virtual gallery. The Henry Ford and Saganworks have partnered together to use this Sagan to highlight some of the work the museum has done under the auspices of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, which focuses on providing resources and encouragement for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. Through this grant, we have been given the opportunity to examine some of our collections through an entrepreneurial lens, digitizing thousands of artifacts and sharing these stories through blog posts, expert sets and interviews with our Entrepreneurs in Residence. Our Sagan highlights these entrepreneurial stories and collections, displaying a sampling of objects we’ve digitized and content we’ve created all in one place – starting with those related to our collecting themes of Agriculture and the Environment and Social Transformation.

Virtual space with wood floor, white walls, and black-and-white images on the walls
Text panels, like the one seen here, are featured throughout the Sagan to provide information about the items you’re seeing in that section.

As previously mentioned, our Sagan is experienced like a virtual gallery with objects and photographs arranged on the walls – similar to an exhibit. Unlike an exhibit, however, the Sagan does not have extensive labels throughout. Instead, one brief text panel can be found in each section of the Sagan describing the collection within that space and how it relates to entrepreneurship.

Once you’re in the Sagan, you’ll have the opportunity to move throughout the space using the arrow or WASD keys on your keyboard and can scan the room by right-clicking and dragging your mouse in the direction you want to view. (Laptop users can hold the “control” key and use the trackpad to scan the room as well.) Within the Sagan, you’ll find photos and documents that we’ve digitized as part of the Initiative for Entrepreneurship. To view an item up close, select the artifact and click on the description that appears or double-click the artifact itself. On tables throughout the Sagan, you’ll also find digital content elements, such as blog posts and artifact sets, that provide further context. Double-clicking these elements will take you to the blog or set on The Henry Ford’s website.

Virtual gallery space with artifacts on walls and a stack of barrels
This stack of vinegar barrels was customized and created by Saganworks exclusively for The Henry Ford’s Sagan.

One of the exciting features we were able to incorporate within our Sagan is 3D artwork customized for The Henry Ford by the talented artists at Saganworks. Our 3D artwork includes an orange tree, fruit crate stands with life-like fruit, pickle barrels, and a larger-than-life stack of vinegar barrels, representing the vinegar products sold by the H.J. Heinz Company. Also visible within the space are virtual furniture pieces created by Saganworks and available to anyone who uses the program to help customize a space and create a mood within each room.

Empty virtual room on right; "furniture" panel on left with chair and shelf options
There are tons of furniture options to help furnish your virtual space from bookshelves and couches to sculptures and decorative artwork.

So what else makes The Henry Ford’s Sagan extra special? Our collections, of course. Items from the following collections are featured within our Sagan:

H.J. Heinz Company Collection (broken into two sections) Explore further by visiting the collection record, finding aid or the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.

  • Production – Entrepreneur H.J. Heinz entered the processed food industry in 1869 when he began selling horseradish out of his family home. Upon achieving success, his product line quickly expanded to include other products, such as pickled foods, condiments, and preserves. The items shown here document the production aspect of the H.J. Heinz Company, including photographs of the farms where the fruits and vegetables were grown and harvested, as well as images of the factory where the items were processed and packaged and the employees who worked there. The featured content element describes a Heinz employee notebook we found in our collection.
  • Marketing – H.J. Heinz was at the forefront of creative marketing. He rarely missed an opportunity to market his “57 Varieties” – a catchy slogan he created despite offering a line of more than 60 packaged food products. A prolific promoter, Heinz aimed to reach consumers in stores, at home, and everywhere in-between. The items shown here document the many advertising strategies of the H.J. Heinz Company, including streetcar advertisements, trade cards, labels, advertising drawings and illustrations, and photographs of elaborate grocery store displays. The featured content element explores other aspects of H.J. Heinz’s entrepreneurial journey.

Richard J.S. Gutman Diner Collection –
The American diner is recognized as an icon of roadside architecture and entrepreneurial enterprise. The items shown here come from the collection of Richard J.S. Gutman, the leading expert on American diners. Photographs, trade catalogs, menus, and matchbooks help tell the story of innovation and entrepreneurship from the craftsmen and designers who built the dining cars to the owners and operators who served customers every day. Explore further by visiting the press release, finding aid or the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.

Recipe Booklet Collection – Recipe booklets allow us to examine the changing eating habits of Americans and discover early products from some of the well-known companies in the food industry today. For many companies, recipe booklets were a method of marketing, offering creative uses for their products. Featured content elements include a history of the Jell-O Company and an opportunity to browse the booklets from the entrepreneurial companies included in this section. Explore further by visiting the finding aid or the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.

Detroit Publishing Company Collection – The Detroit Publishing Company (1895–1924) was an entrepreneurial venture that produced, published and distributed photographic views of the world. The company’s photographers captured images ranging from the exotic to the ordinary, including special events, everyday activities, infrastructure, various industries and views of cities and countrysides. The images shown here document the West Coast fruit industry, including photographs of the fields and groves where the fruit was grown, and images of the fruit being packaged and crated for shipping. Explore further by visiting the collection record, finding aid or the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.

Label Collection - Labels are important advertising tools that inform customers what a product is, who produced it and where it comes from. As competition increased within the West Coast fruit industry and the canned food industry in the late 1800s, labels and brand identification became even more important. The labels shown here include some of the entrepreneurial companies within our larger Label Collection. Featured content elements explore the history of labels, the process of lithography (how labels were made) and the entrepreneurial journey of “The Fruit King.” Explore further by visiting the artifacts we’ve digitized from the collection.

Entrepreneur-In-Residence Program, Melvin Parson – Melvin Parson, founder of We The People Growers Association, was the Spring 2019 Entrepreneur in Residence at The Henry Ford, funded by the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship. Driven by his mission for equality and social justice, Farmer Parson uses vegetable farming as a vehicle to address social ills. The featured content element links to an interview with Parson where he shares his journey and mission to secure equality and social justice through urban farming. Explore further by visiting the artifacts related to Parson that we’ve digitized.

Virtual space with image of smiling man with shovel and text panel on wooden wall
Visitors to our Sagan have the opportunity to click on individual items located on the walls or can interact with our content elements (blog posts and expert sets) throughout the Sagan. The content element featured here is an expert set of video clips from an interview with Melvin Parson, spring 2019 Entrepreneur in Residence at The Henry Ford.

Have we piqued your interest yet? Click here to explore our Sagan on your own (please note that this experience will be best in the Chrome browser on a desktop computer). After providing your name and email, you’ll be able to fully enjoy this new virtual experience we’ve created. Or, if you're on your mobile device, check out our narrated walkthrough right here:

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Saganworks, technology, entrepreneurship, educational resources, by Samantha Johnson