Former Vanity Faircontributing editor Rasenberger (High Steel) provides an entertaining survey of 366 distant American days (1908 was a leap year). As the author admits, history does not fit neatly into 12-month segments, and Rasenberger frequently has to reach for benchmarks. Yes, during 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model-T: the first affordable automobile. However, he'd actually invented the horseless buggy years before. These quibbles aside, what a difference a century makes, and how easy the confidence of 1908 looks by contrast with today. The imperially ambitious Theodore Roosevelt was president, and the world seemed ripe for redemption through American innovation, exploration and colonization. All righteous patriots applauded as TR dispatched his "Great White Fleet" on a "Friendship Cruise" round the world, to show off American might. Yet, as Rasenberger shows, a different reality lurked behind the red, white and blue banners. That same year, anarchist Selig Silverstein exploded a bomb in New York City, and throughout the South blacks died at the ends of nooses hoisted by lynch mobs. Rasenberger renders 1908 as a series of snapshots, and his camera never blinks. 44 b&w illus. (Nov.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
America, 1908: The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the Pole, the Invention of the Model T, and the Making of a Modern Nationby Jim Rasenberger
“An entertaining survey” (Publishers Weekly) through the highs and lows of a spectacular, pivotal year in American history—1908.
A captivating look at a bygone era through the lens of a single, surprisingly momentous American year one century ago. 1908 was the year Henry Ford launched the Model T, the Wright Brothers proved to the world/i>
“An entertaining survey” (Publishers Weekly) through the highs and lows of a spectacular, pivotal year in American history—1908.
A captivating look at a bygone era through the lens of a single, surprisingly momentous American year one century ago. 1908 was the year Henry Ford launched the Model T, the Wright Brothers proved to the world that they had mastered the art of flight, Teddy Roosevelt decided to send American naval warships around the globe, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series (a feat they have never yet repeated), and six automobiles set out on an incredible 20,000 mile race from New York City to Paris via the frozen Bering Strait.
A charming and knowledgeable guide, Rasenberger takes readers back to a time of almost limitless optimism, even in the face of enormous inequality, an era when the majority of Americans believed that the future was bound to be better than the past, that the world’s worst problems would eventually be solved, and that nothing at all was impossible. As Thomas Edison succinctly said that year, “Anything, everything is possible.”
“Rasenberger's research is voluminous and he is a master storyteller.”
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The Boy and the Machine
New Year's Day
Anything, everything, is possible.
Thomas Edison, 1908
On the cool, fine afternoon of January 1, 1908, a sixteen-year-old boy named Terrance Kego or Tego, as several brief accounts had it in the next day's papers stepped onto his bicycle at his home on West 131st Street and began pedaling down Amsterdam Avenue in the direction of Central Park. Other than his address and his occupation as a clerk, few details about the boy survive. A few more, though, can be surmised.
As he started down the wide avenue, descending from Harlem Heights to the valley at 125th Street, he would have passed through a sloping neighborhood of row houses and low apartment buildings occupied by working-class families. Because today was a holiday, and because the weather was pleasant, some of the families would have been out on the avenue, strolling the bluff above the river. Young children would have turned to watch Terrance glide by on his bicycle, hunched over his handlebars, cap pulled low on his head, wind pulling at the tail of his coat. Perhaps a few flecks of confetti escaped from the furls of his coat and fluttered out behind him like tiny bright moths.
Certainly Terrance had gone out to greet the New Year the previous evening. What sixteen-year-old boy could have resisted the tug of the street? He may have joined the swollen tide of revelers on 125th Street, where the festivities had continued, with occasional interruptions from the police, until nearly dawn. Or more likely, being a self-supporting and spirited adolescent the kind of go-getter, according to the next day's New York World, who had made a New Year's vow to "take no one's dust when on his bicycle" he'd traveled downtown to Forty-second Street to cast himself into that great cauldron of humanity that was Times Square on New Year's Eve.
Only a few years earlier, well within Terrance's young memory, New Year's Eve had been a quiet and civilized affair spent at home or on the streets of lower Broadway, where the chimes of Trinity Church rang harmoniously at midnight. These last several years, though, it had metamorphosed into something entirely different more like an election night bacchanalia, with a bit of Independence Day bumptiousness thrown in, plus some frantic energy all its own. The chimes still rang at the old church downtown, but the action was uptown now, and its pulsating center was right here at the nonsectarian intersection of Broadway and Forty-second street.
Arriving in Times Square, Terrance would have climbed directly into a press of bodies and a blizzard of confetti swirling under the dazzling lights of Broadway. The streets had been filling since early in the evening, tens of thousands of bodies funneling in from Union Square and the Flatiron district, from the Tenderloin, still others from the outer boroughs by streetcar or subway or ferry. "An acrobat could hardly have managed to fall down for a wager, so tightly did the people hold each other up," reported the next day's New York Evening Sun. A special correspondent for the Chicago Daily Tribune judged the noise in Times Square to be more varied than in previous years. "Slide trombones that yowled like a cat in torture, a combination of cowbells and street car gongs, tin horns with a double register, sections of iron pipe that could be rasped with files till they gave forth bellows that carried for blocks," were a few of the sounds the correspondent recorded. Shouts and squeals blended with these other sounds to create, as the New York Tribune put it, a "terrifying reverberation."
To step into that crowd was to release all sense of direction and decorum. It moved as an organic, unruly mass, drifting, lulling, then surging spasmodically. A sixteen-year-old boy on the last night of 1907 would have been astonished to find himself squeezed in among so many strangers; or, more to the point, among so many young women. While the usual distaff armor overcoats, ankle-length skirts, petticoats, shirtwaists, steel-plated corsets, undergarments did its job of keeping feminine flesh secured, the rules of Victorian modesty lapsed that night. Men and women ground against each other indiscriminately.
At every corner, meanwhile, temptation beckoned in the form of vendor carts stocked high with horns and nickel bags of confetti. Assuming you could get to one of these vendors, you could stick a horn into your mouth and stuff your pockets with confetti, all for a dime, then dash back into the swarm to discharge your colored specks into the face of a stranger. More aggressive boys and men squirmed through the crowd with small feather dusters "ticklers," they were called brushing the exposed flesh of women's faces and ears, then vanishing before they could be reprimanded or cuffed. Police Commissioner Bingham had issued an edict against the use of ticklers this New Year's Eve but nobody paid him any mind. Many of the women had taken matters into their own hands, covering their faces with heavy veils to ward off the feathers.
Near Forty-second Street, a group of enterprising young men pulled a clothesline across the sidewalk, tying one end to an iron post and drawing the other end taut to the curb. When young women approached, they raised the line a foot or two off the pavement. "Leap year, ladies!" they called. "Take the jump. Show what you can do for leap year!" Some women stepped down onto the street to walk around, but many accepted the challenge. They lifted their skirts above their ankles and jumped.
Young men executed most of the pranks that night, but the females were hardly blameless. Groups of them clasped hands to each other's shoulders to form daisy chains, then ran into the crowd, whipping through it with merry violence. Late in the evening, at Forty-sixth Street and Broadway was Terrance there to see it? a dozen young women encircled a well-dressed young man. Locking their arms together, they refused to let him escape. The young man repeatedly tried to bash his way out of their circle but the young women only pushed him back into the center, taunting and jeering him. A policeman finally rescued the hapless young man, but not before the women had kicked his silk hat down Broadway.
What Terrance could not have witnessed that night were the diamond-clad women smoking cigarettes inside the glittering precincts of Rector's and Martin's. These two Broadway restaurants, among others, had relaxed their usual restrictions and allowed female patrons to indulge in tobacco, a fact so remarkable it was recorded on front pages of newspapers around the country. Much as Americans would tune their television sets to watch the ball drop in Times Square in later years, they looked to New York that New Year's Eve for excitement, dismay, and provocation. On the night of the first-ever ball-drop, New York did not disappoint.
Just before midnight, a hush fell over the crowd. All eyes rose to the top of the Times building. Up there, hovering over the city beyond the glare of powerful searchlights, poised at the tip of the seventy-foot flagpole, a giant glittering sphere waited to fall. It was five feet in diameter, seven hundred pounds in weight, and cloaked in 216 white lights. Nobody could have guessed they were about to witness the debut of a custom that would still mark the New Year a century later; nor was it likely, at this moment, that anyone was peering so far ahead. It was enough, in the remaining seconds of 1907, to contemplate the difficulties of the year behind and the promises of the year ahead.
The crowd began to count backward: tens of thousands of voices rising to the sky above New York, joined together in anticipation of something new and marvelous. Then the gleaming orb fell and bright white numbers flashed on the roof of the Times building: 1908: 1908: 1908.
At the end of the long glide down to 125th Street, Terrance could either pedal furiously to gather speed, then take his chances dodging whatever traffic might be passing along 125th Street thereby preserving his momentum for the long ascent to Morningside Heights or he could veer east on 125th Street. The latter was the easier, more sensible route. The thoroughfare would have been quiet on New Year's Day. A few horses would be standing at the curb before their carts, snorting patiently. An automobile might rumble past, but automobiles were still scarce in Harlem, since not many people living on fifteen or twenty dollars a week could afford one. Other than the piles of horse manure, which Terrance would be mindful to dodge, the street promised a smooth ride over macadam.
A few effortless blocks, then Terrance would turn south again, skirting Morningside Park. To his right, across the park, rose the stony cliffs of Morningside Heights. Atop them, blotting the weak afternoon sun, loomed the gray walls of St. John the Divine, the great cathedral begun the year Terrance was born and still in the infancy of its construction. The plain of Jewish Harlem spread out to the east. The road was flat all the way south to Central Park. Terrance's legs would still be fresh when he got there.
Had there ever been a finer time to be an American boy on a bicycle than on that first day of the new year of 1908? Certainly the interests and passions of a sixteen-year-old had never coincided so perfectly with those of his country. America was very much an adolescent itself, brash and exuberant, stirring with strange and urgent new longings, one moment supremely confident and clever, the next undone by giddiness and hormones. The psychologist G. Stanley Hall had recently coined the term "adolescence" to describe the passionate "new birth" that occurred in humans between childhood and maturity. It was, wrote Hall, a phase characterized by "storm and stress," but also by joy and delight, as "old moorings were broken and a higher level attained." The description fit the America of 1908 as well as it did any teenager.
Mainly, what a sixteen-year-old American boy and his country shared was a sense of their own glorious futures. Only a few months earlier, in October of 1907, a financial panic "the flurry," the papers insisted on calling it had sent stock prices tumbling and thrown millions of Americans out of work. Already, though, the economy seemed poised to rebound and resume its relentless growth. To an ambitious boy already in possession of a bicycle and a job, the future was limitless.
This morning, the World had published an essay to greet the New Year in which the paper's editors looked back to the past, then ahead into the future. The title of the piece was simply "1808 1908 2008." The World began by noting how far the country had progressed over the previous century. In 1808, five years after the Louisiana Purchase and two years after Lewis and Clark returned from their transcontinental journey, the country's population was a mere seven million souls. The federal government was underfunded and ineffectual. The state of technology of transportation, communication, medicine, agriculture, manufacturing was barely more advanced than during the Middle Ages of Europe.
Now, in 1908, with the population of America at almost ninety million, the federal revenue was forty times greater than it had been a century earlier and America was on a par with Britain and Germany as a global power. U.S. citizens enjoyed the highest per-capita income in the world and were blessed with the marvels of railroads and automobiles, telegraph and telephone, electricity and gas. Banks of high-speed elevators zipped through vertical shafts of the tallest buildings on earth. Pneumatic tubes whisked mail between far-flung post offices in minutes. Men shaved their whiskers with disposable razor blades and women cleaned their homes with remarkable new devices called vacuums. Couples danced to the Victrola in the comfort of their living rooms and snuggled in dark theaters to watch the flickering images of the Vitagraph. Invisible words volleyed across the oceans between the giant antennas of Marconi's wireless telegraph, while American engineers cut a fifty-mile canal through the Isthmus of Panama.
From the glories of the present, the World turned to the question of the future: "What will the year 2008 bring us? What marvels of development await the youth of tomorrow?" The U.S. population of 2008 would be 472 million, predicted the World. "We may have gyroscopic trains as broad as houses swinging at 200 miles an hour up steep grades and around dizzying curves. We may have aeroplanes winging the once inconquerable air. The tides that ebb and flow to waste may take the place of our spent coal and flash their strength by wire to every point of need. Who can say?"
Not a day passed without new discoveries and advances achieved or promised. This very New Year's Day Dr. Simon Flexner of the Rockefeller Institute was publicly declaring his conviction (in a medical paper read at the University of Chicago) that human organ transplants would soon be common. Meanwhile, the very air seemed charged it was, actually with the possibilities of the infant wireless technology. "When the expectations of wireless experts are realized everyone will have his own pocket telephone and may be called wherever he happens to be," Hampton's Magazine daringly predicted in 1908. "The citizen of the wireless age will walk abroad with a receiving apparatus compactly arranged in his hat and tuned to that one of myriad vibrations by which he has chosen to be called.... When that invention is perfected, we shall have a new series of daily miracles."
As a New Yorker, Terrance would have been keenly aware of how abruptly daily miracles were transforming the modern world. The city provided an education in rapacious progress, evolving at the jumpy speed of a Vitagraph picture, escalating toward some yet unwritten but marvelous destiny while accompanied by the tune of pounding rivet guns and 310,000 jangling telephones six times more phones than in Paris, the New York Telephone Company bragged, and twice as many as in London. Though London remained the largest city in the world, New York was a close second, and twice as large as its nearest American competitor, Chicago. And still growing by leaps and bounds.
"The great city of New York is in that stage of its development in which it may be likened to a youth who is neither man nor boy," observed the New York Tribune later that January. "It is in the transition stage. It has not yet lost the ungainliness and awkwardness of the growing youth, but every day can see fresh evidence of its coming symmetry, strength and beauty."
The population of the city had risen by one million inhabitants since Terrance turned nine and continued to grow at a rate of ninety thousand per year. In 1907, the largest influx of immigrants in the nation's history 1.29 million had arrived on American shores, most of them sluicing through New York's Ellis Island, and many staying to settle in East Side tenements and add themselves to the enormity of the city. As the population grew, the city's infrastructure expanded at a mind-boggling rate. Terrance was twelve when the longest and most intricate subway system in the world opened under the streets of New York. A year before that, the Williamsburg Bridge had opened, and since then two new remarkable bridges, the Manhattan and the Queensboro, had been rising over the East River. Tunnel workers were meanwhile blasting and digging beneath both the East and North (Hudson) Rivers. Within the next two months of 1908, two tunnels would open under the rivers, one to Brooklyn, the other to New Jersey. Back aboveground, the Singer Building, the tallest skyscraper in the world, was nearly complete downtown. Already ironworkers were raising the steel of a taller building, the seven-hundred-foot Metropolitan Life tower on Madison Square.
Like giant fingers, these towering new structures pointed insistently to the sky. Railroads and automobiles had penetrated the terrestrial interior, subways and tunnels and mine shafts had delved into the subterranean, and now man would conquer air. Architects and visionaries imagined future metropolises of one-thousand-foot towers connected by webs of high-altitude bridges and catwalks; of civilizations of airborne people who would live above the earth and traverse the crowded skies in various aircraft. A headline in that morning's Times echoed the prediction: many may fly in 1908. The newspaper quoted the French aviator Henri Farman: "Twelve months from now we will have aeroplanes which will fly ten or twelve miles easily without once touching the earth." It was an absurd, fantastic proposition, and yet
Anything, everything, was possible. If you doubted Thomas Edison's confident assessment, you might look to Harry Houdini for confirmation. The famed illusionist lived with his wife and mother at 278 West 113th Street, just down the block from where Terrance was passing now. Inside his handsome brownstone Houdini was putting the finishing touches on his latest act, the Milk Can Escape, for a late January debut in St. Louis. But even Houdini's Milk Can Escape paled next to the marvel of flying. Nothing, really, compared to flying. (A point Houdini himself would concede when he purchased an airplane a few years later.) Most Americans still considered airplane flight more of a fantastical dream than a practical reality in these early hours of 1908. The names of Wilbur and Orville Wright were only vaguely familiar, and those who knew of them had little reason to assume these taciturn bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, would emerge as victors in the race to the sky.
How strange, then, that before the end of the year the Wrights would be more celebrated than Houdini more celebrated, in fact, than just about anyone on earth. And the boy, who turned and leaned now, swooping across 110th Street to the park entrance, would learn the story, along with every other American, of how Wilbur Wright discovered the secret of aerial equilibrium by riding a bicycle.
Terrance would have entered the park from the northwest corner, turning east under the bare trees and joining the automobile traffic on the six-mile loop of the Central Park Drive. Not long ago, the park had been restricted to bicycles and carriages, or, on snowy winter days, to horse-drawn sleighs. Within the last several years, automobiles had come to dominate the drive, and now they roared by Terrance, their engines whining and smoking. Inside the open-bodied cars, parties of "automobilists" enjoyed a bracing holiday lark. The women sat snug in squirrel and ermine, their pink cheeks obscured by veils; the men hunkered in masculine bearskins and wore thick goggles over their eyes.
Automobiles had been available in the country for ten years but were still largely vehicles of sport rather than of utility. And with newly acquired speeds of nearly a mile a minute, they assured an experience far more invigorating than any provided by a horse or bicycle or sleigh. By 1908, speed limits were in effect on city streets but drivers tended to ignore them. Speeding, or "scorching," was an integral component of the sport.
An ad for Dewar's scotch in Harper's Weekly succinctly captured the devil-may-care attitude of drivers in the early part of the century. An automobile soars over a hill as a gleeful ménage frolics within the open chassis. One of the passengers is reaching back over his shoulder into a basket, pulling out a bottle. "There is no more exhilarating sport or recreation than automobiling," reads the ad copy. "The pleasure of a spin over country roads or through city parks is greatly enhanced if the basket is well stocked with Dewar's Scotch 'White Label'."
Over two hundred thousand cars would ply American roads by the end of 1908, most produced by the five hundred or so American automobile manufacturers that had sprung up since 1901. The vast majority of these companies would soon go out of business, devoured or made obsolete by larger companies. For the moment, though, automobiles came in an array of Whites and Waynes and Haynes, of Stearns and Moras and Bakers, of Pierces and Popes and Thomases an endless list of eponymous entrepreneurs who had seen the motorized future but would have no place in it. They came in every shade and shape, these automobiles, but the fashionable color was red and the prevailing size was large. As Collier's humorist George Fitch would describe it later in the year, the ideal automobile of 1908 included "room for seven people, a whist table, half a ton of lunch, a cord of golf sticks, a barrel of gasoline, half a peck of small bills for fine money, and a kit of embalming tools in case of emergency."
The embalming tools, Collier's readers understood, were to handle the mess of human casualties that automobiles routinely strewed in their wakes. If automobiling was still sport, it was clear by the start of 1908 that it was an exceedingly dangerous sport. "We have become so perfectly accustomed to being whirled along at the rate of sixty miles an hour in our luxuriously appointed motors and private cars that we fail to recognize the positively death-dealing agents of destruction which we are driving through thickly populated streets or along narrow country roads," warned a New York Times editorial in January of 1908. Later in the year, Scientific American provided an alarmingly opaque explanation of the forces that made automobiles so lethal:
The kinetic energy which a projectile possesses in virtue of its mass and velocity is necessarily expended in destructive action when the flight of the projectile is suddenly arrested by an obstacle of any sort. The destructive effects are divided between the projectile and the obstacle in the inverse ratio of their respective powers to resist deformation.
All of which seemed to mean that when an automobile came into contact with a smaller object, the smaller object was doomed.
Not everybody considered automobiles health hazards. Indeed, many physicians and health officials looked to them as a salvation from the grime and disease that plagued cities. Not only did they offer the benefits of a restorative drive in the fresh air of the countryside, but they also promised cleaner air within the cities. To understand how anyone could have believed automobiles a remedy to air pollution, it helps to recall that more than 120,000 horses tramped the streets of New York in 1908, and that each of these horses dropped about 22 pounds of manure a day, for a total daily deposit of over 2,640,000 pounds. When the manure dried, it drifted through the air as a thick dust that infected nasal passages and respiratory tracks. A writer in Appleton's magazine blamed twenty thousand deaths a year on horse dung in 1908. The automobile, he wrote, would overcome "the absurdities of a horse-infected city."
Whatever their impact on air pollution and public health, the real disagreement about automobiles was driven more by economic status than by environmental concerns. Automobile owners tended to be wealthy as a matter of tautology. Since most models cost between two and four thousand dollars (two to four years of salary for one of the working men who lived in Terrance's neighborhood), only the well-off could afford to buy them. The fact that the machines brought out the worst excesses of the rich, confirming what many Americans already believed about them they were callous, feckless, selfish, and ridiculous added to the resentment of those who could not afford them. "Nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of the automobile, a picture of the arrogance of wealth," declared Woodrow Wilson, the president of Princeton University, in 1906, airing a view that was as reasonable as it was wrong.
Wilson, like many others, failed to take into account the ripening attraction of the automobile, fatal or not, to all classes of Americans. Before the end of 1908, a forty-five-year-old Michigan native named Henry Ford would begin manufacturing a revolutionary new machine that would be so affordable, so dependable and useful, that few Americans of any class would be able to resist its charms. By the time Wilson became president of the United States in 1912, even socialists would be driving Model Ts.
Terrance was pedaling hard now through the northern reaches of Central Park, the grade of the drive rising under him in a long, ascending S. The automobiles would be chugging past him, their tires spewing bits of oiled gravel, their engines venting smoke. In the gloaming of late afternoon, a few drivers had probably turned on their glaring acetylene headlights to better see the way under the trees. Terrance, the boy who vowed to take no one's dust, would rise from the seat of his bicycle, tilting forward, his legs pumping and his skin prickling.
Of course, it was impossible for him to overtake an automobile on the rise of the steepest hill in Central Park; then again, who's to say? Maybe he convinced himself he could do it; maybe he focused intently on the tonneau of the automobile in front of him and decided to show its occupants a thing or two about speed. Inside the car, a chauffeur was at the wheel. A family sat in the back. From the corner of his eye, Terrance might have gauged that they were wealthy even by the standards of automobile owners. He would have noticed the haughty prep school boys, home from Groton for the holidays, and the daughters sitting primly in ermine. One of the girls was fifteen. Maybe she turned and her eyes met his, issuing a challenge he couldn't refuse.
What happened next is unclear. News accounts vary. In one, the automobile confronted heavy traffic and abruptly stopped. In another account, the chauffeur, changing lanes to pass another car, pulled out in front of Terrance. "As it was slowing down the Kego boy crashed into the tonneau," is how the Times reported it. The Herald was slightly more graphic: "Running into the rear of the automobile, Tego was thrown forward, striking the car." The World, typically the most colorful of the lot, painted a fuller, though not necessarily more accurate, picture: "Tego put on steam, and as he rounded a turn, crashed into the rear wheel of the auto and was hurled to the ground." The result, in any case, was the same: Terrance Kego, or Tego, lay unconscious at the rear of the automobile.
The back door of the automobile opened and a man with a moustache and bowler stepped out. The man was no longer young but not so old as to require the cane he customarily carried. He was largely built, but soft, almost diffident, as he set his foot onto the macadam. He might have looked vaguely familiar to other automobilists who witnessed the accident and paused to rubberneck. His name was J. P. Morgan Jr., or simply Jack to those who knew him. Jack Morgan was a man who turned few heads in his own right. His father, though, was among the most celebrated men in the world and never more celebrated than now. In the wake of the financial panic a few months earlier, J. P. Morgan Sr. had been credited with single-handedly saving Wall Street and restoring faith in the American economy. Even before this recent triumph, numerous regal encomiums had been attached to him. He was the Duke, the Zeus, the Pope of Wall Street. These days, most often, he was simply the King.
Like his larger-than-life father, Jack Morgan was a tall, burly man. His facial features were similar to his father's, too, though he lacked his father's fantastically florid nose and piercing dark eyes. He lacked his father's iron will and imperious temperament, too. He had lived in the great man's shadow for so long that he was, at forty-one, something of a shadow man. He was also, though, a millionaire many times over. And if his father was King, then he, only son and heir apparent of the House of Morgan, was de facto prince.
Jack Morgan walked over to the boy, stooping slightly, as he always did. Terrance lay unconscious on the ground, his eyes closed but his chest heaving in shallow breaths. With the help of his chauffeur, Jack Morgan carried the boy to the roadside and laid him down. Then, according to the New York Press, he did something his regal father would never have done: "The millionaire knelt down and placed the boy's head on his knee." Together, they waited for help to arrive.
All the remarkable new possibilities available to Americans at the start of 1908 did not undo some hard realities. When a boy on a bike collided with an automobile, the result was as Scientific American had explained predictably bad for the boy on the bike. And if, metaphorically speaking, America at the start of 1908 was a boy with a full heart and high hopes, the country was also a kind of pitiless machine.
Machine metaphors were fashionable in the early twentieth century. A few months before Terrance took his New Year's Day bicycle ride, the writer and historian Henry Adams had self-published a book, The Education of Henry Adams, in which he described a revelation he'd experienced standing before a row of dynamos at the Paris Exposition of 1900. These gargantuan electricity-generating machines overwhelmed Adams. "To him, the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight," wrote Adams, describing his thoughts in the third person. "As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross." Adams had stumbled upon what was for him a perfect representation of the churning, gnashing power of the modern age that made people like him feel painfully obsolete. "At seventy, it is hard not to take one's helplessness seriously," he wrote to his old friend Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes on New Year's Eve, 1907 the day before Terrance's ride in the park.
It is fitting that the device Adams used to convey his obsolescence was already a bit fusty by the time he published the Education. Electricity had been a fact of life in America since 1882, the year Thomas Edison wired lower Manhattan with direct current. Urban Americans were taking it more or less for granted by the early 1900s. Dynamos were impressively large and mesmerizing in their power, but compared to other rapidly advancing technologies of the early twentieth century, they were dinosaurs. The interest of Americans had been captured by a newer, smaller technology of the internal combustion engine.
The internal combustion engine was (and still is) the hidden mechanism that allowed automobiles to move. About 10 percent of automobiles ran on steam or electricity in 1908, but the gasoline-powered engine was the clear future of automotive technology. It was also the engine that had sent the Wright brothers aloft in 1903 and would, in short order, allow humans to fly through the air at will. The internal combustion engine had not been invented in America, but by 1907 had already proved to be the most significant technological innovation in American history.
Its metaphorical possibilities were as potent as its physical properties. An internal combustion engine, like any engine, is a transformative medium, ingesting one kind of energy in this case, the dormant explosiveness of gasoline and releasing another. As gasoline detonates in the confines of a compression chamber, the force of its explosion pushes a piston, which turns a crank shaft, which spins the wheels. Energy is not created; it is converted from a fuel into a force.
America at the start of the twentieth century was such an engine of conversion. Certain forms of energy went in; other forms came out. The fuel that entered the machine was of course the natural resources cut and dug from its land crops, timber, coal, petroleum but it was also the human labor that harvested these resources and fed them into the machine: the millions of American men and boys toiling in coal mines and steel mills, in cotton and tobacco fields; the women and girls in sweatshops and textile factories. The working poor gave nearly all their waking lives to labor, ten or twelve hours a day with only Sundays off, for $12 or $15 a week.
In addition to being physically demanding and low paying, much industrial work was extremely dangerous. Altogether, about thirty-five thousand American workers died on the job annually in the first decade of the twentieth century about ninety-six per day and another half a million were injured, giving America one of the highest worker-accident rates in the world. Adding an all too Copyright © 2007 by Jim Rasenberger
Meet the Author
Jim Rasenberger is the author of The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America's Doomed Invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs and High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline. He has written for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Smithsonian, and The Wilson Quarterly, among other publications. A native of Washington, D.C., he lives in New York City with his wife and sons.
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America 1908 has been written in a way that you capture the flavor of 1908 and the change that was about to sweep the country. You sense the hard times they went through.