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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Edison’

Too Good to Succeed

July 23, 2013 | by

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Very often you have to be a lone nut to come up with a really original idea.… People are very insular … even [in] a great city like New York … people are like fish swimming around in aquariums and all they know is the water in the aquarium.
—Francis Ford Coppola

In the summer of 1938, when the first issue of Action Comics introduced the world to Superman, its cover featured the Man of Steel lifting a steel-framed Chrysler Airflow, “the first sincere and authentic streamlined car,”1 above his head. It was the 1937 model, down to its rounded, beetle-brow hood and tapered rear, its grooved speed lines and triangular back “opera” window, its whitewall tires and condensed, newly horizontal grille. The following year, when Universal Pictures decided to make a film version of the popular radio serial The Green Hornet, the screenplay called for the hero to drive a car with “ultramodern lines,” something that looked fast. (“That thing travels faster than the bullets I send after it,” notes a patrol officer during a chase scene.) But by then, the Airflow—a vehicle vastly superior in speed, safety, and comfort to anything on America’s roads—had been so maligned in the public’s imagination, thanks in part to a competitor’s expensive smear campaign, that, decades later, it would still be spoken of as the greatest failure in automotive history. Instead, Universal chose a 1937 Ford Lincoln Zephyr. The name was meant to evoke the Burlington Zephyr, a 1934 streamlined train (featured in the 1935 film The Silver Streak). When The Green Hornet returned as a TV series in 1966, the Black Beauty returned as a Chrysler Imperial, modified to fire rockets as the 200-mph Black Beauty, the Green Hornet’s signature transport, its speedster “look” augmented with stylized lightning bolts painted on the fender skirts and a “Flight of the Bumblebee” soundtrack.

Chrysler’s 1929 coupe had been inspired, claimed company ad men, by “the canons of ancient classic art … authentic forms of beauty which have come down the centuries unsurpassed and unchallenged,” its radiator with cowl molding suggested the repetition motif in a Parthenon frieze, its front elevation replicated the Egyptian lotus leaf pattern. “This patient pursuit of beauty will doubtless prove a revelation to those who have probably accepted Chrysler symmetry and charm as fortunate but more or less accidental.” The following year, the new models were said to be “as distinctive and charming” as the Parisian couture of Paquin and Worth. But the focus soon shifted from ancient history and European aesthetics to what was taking shape in the New World’s own backyard. Walter P. Chrysler was a self-made man who understood the importance of tenacity and vision. In 1905, he had borrowed a considerable amount of money to buy a car that caught his eye for the sole purpose of dismantling it to see how it worked. A few years later, he was General Motors’s first vice president, and not long after that, he quit to start a rival company that was now riding high. In 1933, despite a debilitating economy—wages nationwide had dropped sixty percent, more than twelve million Americans were unemployed, and business as a whole was running at a net loss exceeding five billion dollars—Chrysler turned a considerable profit, the only company to produce more cars that year than it had in its Parthenon-Egyptian Lotus phase, just prior to the crash. Read More »

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Bird-watching on Capitol Hill

July 2, 2013 | by

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In 1972, Ralph Nader published the book Who Runs Congress? The paperback retailed for $1.95, and was to be the first of several publications by Nader’s Congress Project, a rag-tag group of students, volunteers, and writers. A better title for the book might have been Who Ruins Congress: its pages overflowed with acts of bribery, corruption, and incompetence allegedly committed by members.

The Congress Project attempted to investigate every member of Congress, eventually producing extended profiles of every senator and member of the House of Representatives. Many of the profiles ran in local newspapers before the 1972 elections; many of their authors, including James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, and David Ignatius, went on to meaningful careers in political journalism. Along with its publications, the Congress Project lobbied for transparency in the legislative branch. It fought to open Congressional committee meetings to the public and published the committee votes of members.

The Congress Project also inspired one of Ralph Nader’s major talking points on the need for citizen activism: Congress, Nader argued, needs to be watched. Millions of Americans pass their time watching birds when they should be watching Congress. Nader hoped to make Congress-watching as popular a pastime as bird-watching.

I thought of Nader’s aspirations two weeks ago as I sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives. The House was marching through the final amendments of the Farm Bill, one of the country’s most sweeping pieces of legislation. It regulates everything from farm subsidies and agricultural research to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Farm Bill comes before Congress every five years, and I wanted to watch the final hours of debate.

There’s been a lot of interest in the nitty-gritty details of democracy these days. Millions held their breath as the Supreme Court announced its rulings, glued to CNN and refreshing SCOTUSblog. Thousands watched the Texas Tribune’s live-stream of the epic filibuster by Wendy Davis on the floor of the Texas Senate. While the numbers haven’t quite risen high enough to match the hoards of birders in this country, there’s an increasing desire to witness political history as it happens. Read More »

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Happy Birthday, Huck!

December 11, 2012 | by

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published on December 10, 1884, in England. It remains one of the most-challenged American novels. In its honor, a 1909 Edison film of Mark Twain, taken at his home, Stormfield, in Connecticut.

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And Everywhere That Mary Went

December 6, 2012 | by

On December 6, 1877, Thomas Edison made one of the first recordings of the human voice, a phonograph recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Below, Edison recites the nursery rhyme.

This was not Mary’s sole claim to fame. The nursery rhyme, written by Sarah Josepha Hale and published in Boston in 1830, was inspired by the story of a young girl named Mary Sawyer, who had an inseparable pet lamb. The tune was added shortly thereafter. To this day, a statue of Mary and her lamb stands in the town center of Sterling, Massachusetts.

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