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.
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.
If you’ve been watching Season Three of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, you’ve already gotten to learn about artifacts from our collection that include the quilts of Susana Allen Hunter, the Herschell-Spillman carousel, and the 1957 Cornell-Liberty Safety Car. We’re always working far ahead on these stories, though, so we’re currently digitizing artifacts for upcoming stories.
One segment will feature Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson explaining the origins of air mail. While sending a letter or package overnight may seem mundane today, it was once new and exotic. Daring pilots captured public attention, as demonstrated by the 1930 publicationCouriers of the Clouds: The Romance of the Air Mail.
See more artifacts related to air mail by visiting our Digital Collections—and keep watching The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation to learn more! Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Over the first half of the 20th century, many automakers focused their efforts on making cars more reliable, more comfortable and more powerful. Safety was a lesser concern. There were exceptions – laminated windshield glass, which didn’t break into sharp pieces, was in use by the late 1920s – but conventional wisdom held that safety didn’t sell. Customers wanted their cars to be faster, not safer.
By the 1950s, that attitude began to change. Cars were certainly faster by then, but they also had roads to accommodate the higher speeds. State-built turnpikes and Federally-funded Interstates had drivers zipping along at 75 miles per hour, and the booming postwar economy put more Americans behind the wheel each year. It’s little wonder that more drivers traveling at faster speeds led to a rise in accidents. By 1950, some 35,000 people were dying in auto accidents each year. Faculty members at Cornell University and officials at Liberty Mutual insurance took notice. In 1951, the two institutions teamed up to research a simple question: What causes injuries in automobile accidents?
Steering wheels and sharp edges could be lethal. (THF103543)
America’s highways became a laboratory, and police officers and emergency room doctors became research assistants. By carefully studying accident reports and medical records from around the country, the Cornell-Liberty team made several key discoveries. Car doors were a weak spot. Too often in an accident, a door was smashed open and one or more of the occupants was thrown from the vehicle. Furthermore, the team discovered that someone thrown from a car was more than twice as likely to receive serious injury. They learned that back seat passengers were three times safer than those in the front during a crash.
Researchers determined that the head was the most frequently injured part of the body, and that one in ten victims received a facial disfigurement. Contrary to popular belief at the time, the steering wheel provided no extra protection to the driver. Indeed, the wheel was often a cause of injury, being pushed into a driver’s chest during a crash. What’s more, control knobs, window frames and decorative ornaments often maimed accident victims.
Bucket seats cradle passengers while seat belts keep them secure. (THF90862)
The Cornell-Liberty team put its findings into practice by building a concept car that reduced or eliminated many of these dangers. Working from a 1956 Ford Fairlane, the team produced a car incorporating more than 60 protective features. In effect, they thought of their car like a giant egg carton designed to keep its fragile contents secure. The safety car’s accordion-style doors latched in three places, keeping them closed in a crash. Its bumper wrapped completely around the vehicle, protecting in low-speed accidents. Seat belts were prominent. Head restraints prevented whiplash injuries. The steering wheel and column were replaced by a pair of control handles. The dashboard, like other interior surfaces, was padded. Door handles were recessed. Unnecessary badges and baubles were removed.
The dashboard is uncluttered and the gauges are easy to read. (THF90865)
The best way to survive an accident is to avoid one, so the Cornell-Liberty team took driver visibility and distraction into account. The panoramic windshield – cleaned by five wipers – gave the driver an unobstructed view (as did the driver’s position, in the middle of the car rather than on the left side). Controls were kept to a minimum, and the oversized speedometer dial and gauges were placed directly below the driver’s sightline. The fuel gauge even had a “low level” indicator – something of a novelty in 1957. Indeed, the Cornell-Liberty team seemed to have anticipated every possible distraction; contemporary press reports noted that the offset front seats discouraged “necking while driving.”
Neither Cornell nor Liberty Mutual had any plans to manufacture or sell safety cars, of course. Instead, they hoped that their project would bring more attention to crash protection from the public and – more to the point – from automakers. A decade later, after some additional prodding from Ralph Nader and new government regulations, safety was an established priority in Detroit. And while the car you drive today may not have five windshield wipers or handlebar steering, it’s certainly got a bit of the 1957 Liberty-Cornell Safety Car inside.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
“The glory of soaring above God’s Earth and the satisfaction of taking the machine up and bringing it back to the ground safely, through my own skill and judgment, has melted away the boundaries of my life. Racing opens my door to the world. Don’t cut me off from the adventure men have been hoarding for themselves in the guise of protecting me from danger.” – unnamed female aviator, 1929
Several of the women aviators competing in the 1929 Air Derby gathered for this photograph at Parks Airport in Illinois. Included, from left-to-right, are Mary Von Mach, Jessie Miller, Gladys O’Donnell, Thea Rasche, Phoebe Omlie, Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart, Blanche Noyes, Ruth Elder, and Vera Walker. THF256262
The 1929 Women’s “Powder Puff” Air Derby was the first air race in which women aviators were allowed to participate, despite air races occurring internationally and nationally since 1909. By 1929, 117 women held pilot’s licenses in the United States and were breaking records, including some set by men, left and right. Twenty of these aviators arrived at Clover Field in Santa Monica ready to compete, but perhaps the greater motivation was to show the world how truly capable women aviators were.
The derby, from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, was to be completed over nine days with the total time in flight recorded each day. The aviator with the shortest flight time overall, for both the DW (heavy aircraft) and CW (light aircraft) classes, would win the top prize. In order to qualify to compete, the aviators, like their male counterparts in the National Air Races, were required to have completed over 100 logged hours in flight. Several of the twenty aviators did not actually meet this qualification but flew anyway. Unlike their male counterparts, however, there were restrictions placed on the women’s aircraft engine strength. One of the aviators, Opal Kunz, had her newly-purchased 300 horsepower Travel Air airplane deemed “too fast for a woman” and was forced to rent a 200 horsepower plane for use in the derby.
The nine-day derby saw multiple mishaps. Both Florence “Pancho” Barnes and Ruth Nichols crashed their planes but managed to escape unscathed. Phoebe Omlie accidentally landed in a field where the local Sheriff nearly arrested her for alleged drug smuggling, while numerous other aviators discovered suspected sabotage efforts to their aircraft. Ruth Elder, lost on the leg to Phoenix and needing directions, accidentally landed in a field of grazing bulls, causing her to panic that the red color of her airplane would incite anger. The farmer’s wife relayed her location and Elder quickly resumed flight without damages. Tragically, on the second day of the race, Marvel Crosson perished when she crashed in the Arizona desert. Despite calls to suspend the race after Crosson’s death, the remaining women decided that finishing the race would best honor their fallen friend.
On the final day, August 26, 1929, fifteen of the original twenty women crossed the finish line in Cleveland, Ohio. Louise Thaden won the DW class and Phoebe Omlie won the CW class. As Thaden was lauded for her first-place finish, she addressed the crowd, “The sunburn derby is over, and I happened to come in first place. I’m sorry we all couldn’t come in first, because they all deserve it as much as I.”
The Henry Ford recently added over 200 artifacts related to women aviators to the Digital Collections. Of the women aviators who competed in the 1929 Air Derby, the collection includes archival materials for five of them; Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Elder, Mary Von Mach, and Ruth Nichols. Numerous other significant early female aviators that did not participate in the 1929 Air Derby are also represented in the collection.
Katherine White is Associate Curator of Digital Content at The Henry Ford.
African-American quiltmaker Susana Allen Hunter turned the "fabric" of everyday life into eye-catching quilts with an abstract, asymmetrical, and often, modern feel. Created from the 1930s to the 1970s, Susana Hunter's quilts reflect her life in rural Wilcox County, Alabama—one of the poorest counties in the United States.
Strip Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73619
Susana Hunter made handsome, unique quilts, fashioned literally from the fabric of everyday life.
Susana's quilts are pieced in a design-as-you-go improvisational style found among both blacks and whites in poorer, more isolated pockets of the rural South. People living in these more remote areas had less access to quilt pattern ideas published in newspapers or printed in books. For fabrics, rural women depended on mail order catalogs or whatever was available in the local store. These "constraints" left quiltmakers like Susana Hunter free to use their imaginations. Bedsheet Pieced Together from Commercial Sugar Sacks by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1970. THF94355
Making an improvisational quilt top required a continual stream of creativity during the entire process, as the quiltmaker made hundreds of design decisions on the fly, fashioning an attractive whole out of whatever materials were at hand. Overall visual impact mattered most—not minor details such as whether a patch in a row had a square or rectangular shape. Size and shape was determined by the scraps available at the time.
Sewing Thimble Used by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1969. THF93486
Handmade Fan Used by Susana Allen Hunter. THF44759 For Susana and her husband Julius, life often meant hard work and few resources. The Hunters were tenant farmers who grew cotton and corn, tended a vegetable garden, and raised hogs, chicken and cattle. They lived in a simple, two-room house that had no running water, electricity or central heat. The outside world came to them through a battery-powered radio and a wind-up phonograph. Though the Hunters didn't have much in the way of material goods or the latest 20th century technology, they never went hungry, raising much of their own food.
Portrait of Susana Allen Hunter, June 1960. THF125834
Susana Hunter wanted all of her quilts to be different. Some of her quilt designs have a warm, homey feel. Many resemble abstract art. Other quilts pulsate with the visual energy created by many small, irregular pieces of vividly-colored fabric sewn together. Still others incorporate cornmeal or rice sacks, often reserved for quilt backing, as part of the design of the carefully-pieced quilt top.
Spotlight on The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation: Season 2, Episode 10
Forgo the needle and thread — all you need to make clothes from scratch is a computer and an idea.
In fashion, “printed” usually refers to patterned fabric. But when it comes to one company, it actually describes the way clothing is made.
Bay Area-based startup Electroloom is using 3-D printing to create seamless garments that are soft as butter. Its innovative electrospinning process ultimately makes it possible for anyone with some CAD ability to design and produce fabric items on demand. Dubbed field-guided fabrication, it entails making a mold, placing it in the Electroloom machine and watching as 3-D printer nozzles layer microscopic fibers up around it. Still in its infancy, the technology has so far been used to make simple garments such as beanies, tank tops and skirts.
After the Electroloom appeared on The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation earlier this year, The Henry Ford Magazine caught up with co-founder and CEO Aaron Rowley to talk more about the technology and the possibilities yet to unfold.
THF Magazine: How did the idea for Electroloom come about? Rowley: I’ve been working in the technology industry, as have my co-founders, and we saw an obvious lacking in terms of 3-D-printing capability — it couldn’t make soft goods and material things like clothing, towels, shoes — anything that’s soft and flexible. We wanted to expand 3-D printing to produce those items. We knew that it would be extremely valuable, so we set out on this hypothetical task. We just started prototyping and designing, and that’s where the original genesis came from.
THF Magazine: How has your company evolved? Rowley: When we first started working, we were in a garage and in our apartments working on the kitchen floor. Then, we began to work out of a technology shop and maker’s space, a community of people that supports a facility that has equipment, classes and training. We also participated in accelerated programs, which catapulted us to the next level. While the origins of this project were truly conceptual, when we were successfully getting fabrics and soft material, that’s what propelled us into building these larger, more robust machines.
THF Magazine: How does the Electroloom work? Rowley: The simplest way to describe it is that we convert liquids into textiles. Basically, we use electricity to pull on the liquid, and the liquid, as it’s being pulled on, then hardens into a fiber and as you pull that across a gap — let’s say inside of a machine — that liquid converts into a fiber as it dries. The final product is completely seamless.
THF Magazine: So what does the fabric feel like? Rowley: The fibers that we work with are actually single fibers, really tiny micro- or even nanoscale fibers. They’re very, very small, which makes the material very soft. The fabric has been described as a hybrid between cotton and suede. The texture on the surface is soft like suede, but it’s got the look and dimensions of cotton and polyester with comparable thickness.
THF Magazine: What’s next for the Electroloom? Rowley: We are in the middle of fundraising right now. We also received a grant from the National Science Foundation specifically for projects pursuing advanced technology and nanotechnology. We are exploring some private investments, too. The goal is to expand the team to refine the technology and, later this year or early next year, have an actual set of machines “out in the wild” as well as our own clothing brand.
THF Magazine: How do you see this technology being applied? Rowley: We’ve been approached by several clothing brands interested in working with the technology and product design teams who want to work with this method. A few stores are even interested in having the tools in-store to engage with customers. We’re flushing this out to determine what’s most doable in the near future. We’ll be settling on something soon and making some cool announcements.
THF Magazine: Do you really see people using Electroloom to make clothing in their own homes? Rowley: I try to discern between near-term realistic stuff and what’s our bigger vision. Having people make things in their homes is far off, but the goal is to, over the years, refine this technology so if somebody did want to have this in their home to print fibrous products — from kitchen towels to socks and underwear — to supplement actually going out and purchasing these items in stores, we would love for that to happen and for people to be able to add customization, colors and shapes.
Did You Know? It takes between eight and 14 hours to encapsulate a mold with printed fibers in the Electroloom.
How it Works
See the full episode of The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation here.
Back before diners were considered revered icons of mid-20th-century American culture, Henry Ford Museum's acquisition of a dilapidated 1940s diner raised more than a few eyebrows. Was a diner, from such a recent era, significant enough to be in a museum?
Happily, times have changed. Diners have gained newfound respect and appreciation, as innovative and uniquely American eating establishments. A closer look at Lamy's diner reveals much about the role and significance of diners in 20th-century America.
In a typical day at The Henry Ford I find myself answering patron questions or assisting with research. Then, there’s the not-so-typical day when I’m coordinating and work on the Special Access team.
July 13, 2015, was one of those not-so-typical days. I found myself face to face with someone people may call one of the most fascinating inventors in history, Nikola Tesla. You might be asking, how does one find herself in this position? Well, let me show you.
The Special Access Program is designed to allow for closer examination of artifacts in storage, access to artifacts beyond visitor barriers, or filming behind the scenes at The Henry Ford. It allows patrons (film crews, enthusiasts, model makers, etc.) access to our collections that can’t be accommodated in the usual ways such as viewing exhibits and items on display, searching collections online, or viewing material in the public reading room.
In fact, the artifacts from the collection are some of the biggest stars of our television show, The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, so the Special Access team is very busy during filming. The first episode of season 2 – filmed in part on this day in July – features the work of Nikola Tesla. I brought several objects to “center stage” for the shoot, including the death mask of Nikola Tesla, shown above. I worked with our Exhibits team to move the electroplated copper mask and its beautifully designed pedestal (which together weigh more than 50 pounds!) from a case in the Made in America exhibition to a sturdy table. It joined several objects that I had moved temporarily from collections storage to the museum for filming: