The ‘American Girl’ is Missing

Posted on Updated on


By Ken Zurski

In the fall of 1927, Ruth Elder, a dental assistant from Lakeland, Florida, attempted to become the first woman to complete a transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. “When [Charles] Lindbergh reached Paris (in May),” the 23-year-old Elder said announcing her intentions, “I made up my mind that I would be the first woman to make the trip.”

But unlike Lindy, who was an experienced pilot, Elder admitted having little acquaintance with airplanes.  She was however an aspiring model and actress and if the flight helped her career, she exclaimed, so be it.

As expected, Elder’s daring-do was met with skepticism, even ridicule. “Men in the summer should strive to equal Lindbergh. Women should stay at home,” The Irish News snidely advised. Even Lindbergh, himself, without naming names, warned against dangerous missions without purpose.

Despite this, Elder had no reservations.  “I was determined to go as a co-pilot, not a passenger,” she vowed. In Florida, she took lessons from an instructor named George Haldeman. Then on Tuesday, October 11, 1927, Elder and Haldeman took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field in a specially built Stinson ‘Detroiter’ monoplane named American Girl.

Unlike Lindbergh, who became internationally famous after his successful flight, Elder’s popularity began the moment she announced her plan. Pretty with an infectious smile and a personality to match , Elder’s story and picture plastered the papers. Brightly colored scarfs she wore in her hair were mimicked by young girls who called them “Ruth Ribbons.”

Image result for ruth elder american girl

To a hungry press she was also a willing participant.  The instant hero Lindbergh was a challenge: shy, a bit aloof, and often irritated by all the attention. Elder relished it. She just hadn’t accomplished anything yet.  On that October day at Roosevelt Field, the press was there to watch her give it a go.

“Well here goes nothing, that may turn up something,” Elder thought to herself as the “American Girl’s” wheels lifted from the ground.



Thirty six hours later, with over 2,000 miles logged and just a few hours short of Paris, the flight was over.

Caught in a sleet storm and taking on ice, the two pilots ditched the reserve fuel to lighten the load. But when an oil pipe busted, there was no other choice. The ocean would be their landing strip.

Around the same time, in Paris, at the Le Bouget airport, a smattering of press and a few well-wishers gathered for the welcoming party. Elder’s plane was late and her fate, sent by dispatches around the world, was unknown. “Last seen 500 out at sea,” the stories read.

The American Girl was missing.

In the Atlantic, however, Captain Goos of the Dutch tanker Barendrecht noticed a plane in distress: “She came rapidly up to us and flying over the ship threw down two messages.” One ended up on the deck.  “How far are we from land and which way?” was the inscription. It was signed: Ruth Elder.

Several minutes later, the plane landed in the water next to the ship.

Soon enough the press got a telegram:  “We are safe,” it read. mort1

General Washington’s Goodbye was Filled with Gratitude and Regret

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski


In December of 1783, in a New York tavern, General George Washington said goodbye to the men he commanded and prepared for a private life at his home in Mount Vernon.

“I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable,” he said raising a glass.

He wept as he said these words: “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you.”

Image result for washington goodbye new york tavern

Washington’s outwardly show of emotion was a mix of affection and regret. The Continental Army, the men who fought to free new America from British rule,  were irascible. They felt disrespected by a Congress that refused back pay requests and promised pensions.

Greed was the reason for the refusal, lawmakers told them.  Instead of fighting for love of God and country,  they explained, many felt the needed to profit off it.  So the promised bounty, which was in addition to the $6 a month received during service, was rescinded.

But while freedom was an attribute worth fighting for, the men had families and mouths to feed as well. They demanded more compensation for their efforts. When Congress shut them out, the officers went to their general for help. But Washington had no power or influence over Congress. “I’m only a servant of the people,” he told them.

In return, the men chided Washington and other general officers by cancelling a dinner in their honor. Even King George II ridiculed America’s predicament. “If he does that,” the King sarcastically remarked, referring to Washington and the compensation,” he will be the greatest man in the world.”

But Washington was right. He had only a voice in the matter, not a vote. So in saying farewell to military life and his loyal men, the General’s sentiments were commendable  and deeply personal.

He was “suffused in tears,” one of his officers described, as he embraced each and every man.

Image result for washington goodbye new york tavern

Peoria’s Glide and the First American Road Trip

Posted on Updated on

(The following is is a excerpt from PEORIA STORIES Tales from the Illinois Heartland – “A Motor Bug’s Delight.” by Ken Zurski)


On June 7, 1906 William S. Gehr of Wenatchee, Washington, his wife, Emma, and their dog, Snip, along with friends William Edward Camfield, wife Nellie, and 8-year-old sonWilliam Jr., boarded a Model E Glide for a cross-country jaunt from Wenatchee, about a hundred miles east of Seattle to New York City. “This is not a speed record,” Mr. Gehr proclaimed. “It’s a recreation trip.” But as the papers quickly noted, it was the first transcontinental attempt that included several women, a child, and a family pet.

Mr. Gehr was right.  The family had no intention of making any time constraints. They casually made their way across country, camping, fishing, hunting, and generally enjoying the great outdoors. If there was a breakdown, they would stop and enjoy the apparent respite, oftentimes staying put for several days just for rest and relaxation. Eventually, the papers caught on. This was no race; this was a vacation—the first family road trip.

On October 13, after spending nearly four full months on the road, the two families rolled into Peoria, Illinois, “tanned to a ripe berry color and with clothes and features coated with Illinois dust,” the Peoria Herald-Transcript reported.

Image result for jay bartholomew peoria glide


Illinois was certainly on the route, but Peoria was special for another reason. It was home to the Glide. Peanut roaster turned car maker, Jay Bartholomew didn’t let the opportunity slip by. He formally greeted the families in Princeville and escorted them to Peoria. “The travel-worn machine demonstrated its friskiness in covering the twenty-five miles to Peoria in a trifle over an hour,” the papers praised. When they arrived in front of the Bartholomew Glide factory, they were greeted by a large crowd and a rousing applause.

“A spade projected from the pile of baggage on the back of the machine, a tire worn until the canvas projected in a fringe; a deep dent in the radiator screen made by a forest stump, and a water line near the top of the tonneau…told some of the trials endured by the travelers.”

Mr. Gehr was an animated interview. While traveling in South Dakota, he told reporters, torrential downpours turned the road into an impossible “morass of gumbo.” They waited in the comfort of hotels until the weather cleared. Before that, in Yellowstone, a bear snatched their morning bacon. “The only adventure with wild animals,” Gehr explained. And in Montana, a group of Indians near the Flathead River laughed at their predicaments at first but eventually used their saddle horses to extricate the vehicle’s wheels from a deep hole. Then a farmer lent them a cowhide to patch a flat.

In Iowa, Gehr concluded, the travel was “fine,” hampered only by a stiff wind in Davenport that caused a brief delay.

Despite their weariness, the two families were clearly in good spirits. “We have enjoyed the trip immensely,” said Mrs. Gehr. “The hardships were only part of the journey and we enjoyed them as they came.” Even Gehr’s “handsome” Pointer, Snip, got a mention: “She (Snip) rode the entire trip in the front of the auto, acting as guard at night and made herself useful generally…proud of her position as if she was a full licensed chauffeur.”

The families were expected to stay in Peoria only a few days, but that turned into a full week before they set off again. The ambitious plan was to go to New York and complete the west-to-east journey, then travel to Washington, D.C., and south to Florida. Later, they would go to Mexico, taking their leisurely time along the way. But Bartholomew had other ideas for his now nationally recognized endurance machine.

A large auto tradeshow was coming up in New York City, and Bartholomew wanted the Gehr’s’ Glide to be a prominent feature. Whether the rich entrepreneur paid the families or just used his power of persuasion is not known. The Gehrs apparently agreed to the proposal, although it clearly meant big changes in their schedule. Now they had a deadline to meet. The big auto show was in December.

For the first time in their long journey, the Gehrs were in a hurry.

On November 23, the two families drove into Linesville, Pennsylvania, an impressive feat for sure, but still some 400 miles from their destination. Just five days later, on the 28th, the Glide made it to New York City, but the Gehrs did not. For reasons only explained by their obvious intent to get the vehicle to New York City within days, the roadster was loaded onto a railcar and shipped to the Big Apple instead. The Grand Central Palace Auto Show opened on December 1. They never would have made it on time. When the Glide arrived in New York City, Bartholomew never let on.  He had his showcase vehicle on display and the Gehr’s bold American road trip was over. Even the New York Times was duped. “While automobiles have previously crossed the continent,” the paper gushed, “this is the first time that the journey had been successfully accomplished by a regular touring car carrying its full compliments.”  The paper also pointed out that it was the first time the journey had been completed by women as passengers, two in fact, or three if you count the dog. Later, Emma Gehr’s journal would confirm any suspicions. They never made it all the way to New York, she stated, which would have truly constituted a transcontinental trip.

The Story of W. Alton Jones and ‘The Big Inch,’ America’s First Pipeline

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski


W. Alton Jones was one of “Ike’s Millionaires.”

Ike, of course, was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and “Ike’s Millionaires” was the term used mostly by the Washington press to describe the President’s closest friends.

The men who made up this elite group, including Jones, referred to themselves as “The Gang.”

Jones, a Midwestern farm boy who became the CEO of a large oil corporation, certainly fit “The Gang’s” profile. Wealthy, powerful, and influential, Jones joined the ranks of others whom the President socialized. Among them was a newspaper publisher, the president of a distillery, a Washington lobbyist and perhaps most fitting of all, an investment banker who happened to oversee the nation’s most storied golf course, Augusta National. Oftentimes, when Eisenhower asked, “The Gang” would travel, some great distances, and usually on a moment’s notice, to play golf.

That’s why on March 1, 1962, Jones boarded an American Airlines flight from New York City bound for Los Angeles. He was set to rendezvous with his buddies in Palm Desert, California, beckoned by Eisenhower, of course, who was now in semi-retirement. A year before, after serving two presidential terms, Eisenhower relinquished the office to a young Massachusetts Senator named John F. Kennedy who defeated Ike’s vice president at the time, Richard M. Nixon. Now removed from the rigors of the White House, Eisenhower was looking forward to a visit from his old pal Jones for a week of golf and a planned fishing trip.

Jones had a history of appeasing a president’s demands. Twenty years earlier, when Franklin Roosevelt faced an international and homeland crisis, Jones was instrumental in planning and constructing an ambitious pipeline project named “The Big Inch” that even by today’s standards is considered to be the most “amazing government -industry cooperation ever achieved.”

The culmination of his efforts came on Feb 19 1943. That day, as newspaper cameras clicked, Jones gripped a nearly foot-long steel gate valve and gave it a firm push. An unseen stream of crude oil moved effortlessly from the stationary end of a long pipeline to the holding tank of a nearby train car. The gathered crowd gave the gesture a hearty round of applause.

It was all symbolic, of course.

The oil which snaked through the newly built and ambitious pipeline from Texas to Norris City, Illinois had arrived the previous month. A pipeline extension east to Pennsylvania, which was currently being built, was still several months away. But for now the first part of the plan – to move the precious commodity from the oil fields in Texas to a rendezvous point in the Midwest – was complete. Norris City was chosen for its connections to other rail lines. The significance of “turning” the handle the papers noted “started the first flow of oil from the Texas-Illinois pipeline into tank cars for shipment east.”

Norris City is in the far southeastern part of Illinois and nestled in White County which borders Indiana to the east. In the early part of the 19th century, many migrants traveling west ended their journey just across the Ohio River.  The gateway across the Ohio was just 25 miles from Norris City, in Shawneetown, Illinois.  In nearby Carmi, the county seat, just 13 miles to the northeast of Norris City, the new inhabitants settled, thanks to its proximity to the resourceful Wabash Rivers. Lacking a river through or near it, the land that would become Norris City would have to wait for the railroads to come before it prospered. Settled in 1871 it was incorporated in 1884. Today there are just over a thousand people who call Norris City home.

In 1943, however, it became the oil center of the Midwest.

You might say that the person who indirectly put Norris City on the path to this distinction, was a German U-boat commander named Reinhard Hardegen.

Richard Hardegen

In April of 1942, under Hardegen’s command, two U.S. oil tankers were sunk off the coast of Georgia, near the coastal community of St. Simons Island.  Hardegen waited for just the right moment before giving the order and unleashing torpedoes that spit from the water and locked on its target.  The tanker Oklahoma went down first followed by the slightly smaller but equally vital, Esso Baton Rouge. Both were filled with oil. Both took direct hits.

It’s not as if the captains of these ships were forewarned of the danger. President Roosevelt had feared the large transports would be easy targets, especially the tankers, and issued a national emergency for the industry and citizens alike to be on the lookout for any suspicious activities.  But efforts like antisubmarine patrols were sporadic at best and calls for community vigilance fell mostly upon deaf ears. Residents who lived off the Georgia coast either forgot or flat-out ignored requests for “nighttime” blackouts.

Then the strikes began.

Dozens of ships were being taken out, one by one; a Norwegian transport ship here, a Swedish cargo ship there, and so on.  The Germans had a name for the successful missions, which also described the rising tensions created by the U-boat’s presence near the American coastline. They called it Operation Drumbeat.

Washington took notice. Roosevelt ramped up government efforts to arm the ships with Navy guns, especially the larger ones, but it didn’t come soon enough. Shortly after the order was issued, Commander Hardegen took out the two tankers.

This time, the drumbeat was felt on land too.

The concussion from the torpedo blast rattled windows in homes on St. Simons Island, disrupting an otherwise peaceful night for the shore dwellers. In the darkness, the two wounded tankers limped along until their hulls scraped the shallow bottom.  The cargo of oil, tons of it, spilled like blood out of a wound into the open sea. Two dozen crew members lost their lives in the attack and dozens more were rescued by Coast Guard cutters, or private yachts.

For the Germans it was a good night. “The last hours have passed,” the ecstatic Hardegen telegraphed back to his superiors, referring to the ships hit, and the two tankers, he explained, that “lie at the bottom, sunk by the drum beater.”  He claimed to take out 12 ships total that night, although it was later believed to be 10.

The quick succession of U.S tanker strikes were more than enough for an already irate Roosevelt. With strict orders to the Commander in Chief of the Navy U.S. Fleet, the tankers were forbidden to move north of the Florida straits.

The ban solved the U-boat dilemma for now, and saved further embarrassment of U.S ships being attacked so close to shore, but there was another formidable question to address – and soon. How do you get the oil east?

W. Alton Jones knew oil, especially how to move and sell it. Born to a poor family in rural Missouri, Jones grew up book smart and savvy. He attended Vanderbilt University for business and eventually became an executive at Cities Service Companies, a natural gas and electricity supply company based out of Texas. He rose quickly through the ranks and became its CEO in 1940. When Roosevelt needed a plan to move oil quickly and efficiently inland, he called on the big oil companies, like Standard, Gulf and Shell, among others, to do it. Jones became the president of the hastily organized consolidation of oil conglomerates known as the War Emergency Pipelines, Inc. or WEP for short.

Rail lines were already moving oil across country, but the trains were slow, costly and oftentimes delayed. Pipelines were being used, mostly for gas, but they were small in diameter and traveled only short distances. Pipeline technology, however, was literally growing.  Larger steel pipes called “The Big Inch” were introduced that had openings of 12 inches or more.

So far, the bigger pipes were just for show. There was no pressing need. But that would change. With 35-million dollars allotted from the hefty war chest budget, more of the steel pipes were ordered and mass production began.

“No one ever sank a pipeline,” Jones reassured the President.

“The Big Inch” project was on.

It didn’t take long to build either.  Construction began in August of 1942 and less than six months later nearly 531 miles of 24-inch diameter pipe was laid from Longview Texas, through Arkansas, Missouri and ending in Norris City. Each individual pipe section was 38 to 44 feet long and weighed nearly 4500 pounds. Eight pipe laying crews of upward of 400 men each worked round the clock. Some dug trenches, some drove the trucks that hauled the pipes, some laid the pipes, and others welded it together. Mile-by-mile they carried on.

Along the way, there were obstacles.  Where rivers needed to be crossed, like the Mississippi, specialized companies were brought in to lay the pipe along the river’s bottom. If rock was encountered on the trail, dynamite was used. The pipeline’s route met no barrier it couldn’t cross, following land already used by railroads, and passing underneath roadways and bridges

As construction continued, plans were being made to extend the line from Illinois to Pennsylvania, soon to be called “Little Big Inch.” But until then, the first line would serve its purpose.  In April of 1943, when Jones turned the valve and sent the oil streaming into waiting rail cars, the operation could have been described, quite fittingly, as a well-oiled machine.

Related image
W. Alton Jones (center) turning the valve at Norris City, IL –  photo courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library

And not one dissent. From idea to construction, the pipeline was met with little or no resistance. Environmental issues, like the ones being debated today, would have likely halted the project in its tracks – or at least delayed it until all pressing issues were hashed out, agreed upon, or debunked.

But at the time, a need for such a line far outweighed any honest concerns and questions. Like what would happen if it sprung a leak? And how would that disrupt the wildlife, streams, etc.?  All these questions would have been time-consuming diversions. A war was on and American lives were at stake. There was no time for debate. “The line is a tool for the quickest possible defeat of our enemies”, said Ralph K. Davis, a spokesman for the government agency handling oil for the war, “rather than a channel for supplying any but the most essential needs of civilian consumption.”

The numbers were impressive: “The oil is flowing through the line at a rate of 50,000 barrels daily and is expected to reach of maximum of 300,000 barrels within six to eight weeks,” The New York Times reported. “In the line at all times will be 1, 525,000 barrels of oil.”

But the contribution to the war effort was the biggest draw.

In Norris City, after Jones released the oil, Davis, the government spokesman, spoke to the crowd. Echoing the sentiments of the President, he said: “The future is scarcely more certain than it was 200 days ago when the first pipe was laid. It was apparent then that the security of America required a new ocean of oil for defense. It is even more apparent today that we need still greater oceans of oil for the crushing attack that can alone insure ‘unconditional surrender’ – the full and complete victory for freedom that we have pledged to the world.”

The pipeline survived after the war ended. It was retired briefly before being leased to a Tennessee company that used it to move gas due to a fuel shortage caused by a coal strike. Afterwards it was sold and used by private petroleum and gas companies. Most of the original piping is still in place and today is listed as a National Register of Historic Places.

In Illinois, the southern town of Patoka may be the oil capital of the state now with the largest tank farm in the region and the furthest eastern transfer point of the Keystone pipeline. But Norris City and “The Big Inch” cannot be forgotten. Remnants of its significance, like the old lines and pump houses, still dot the landscape.

Ironically, Reinhard Hardegen, the U-boat commander whose attack on the two U.S tankers initiated the shipping ban and set the pipeline idea in motion, returned to his hometown of Bremen, Germany after the war and had a long and lucrative career in the oil business. Many internet sites indicate the war veteran is still alive today, at the age of 102. (Note: Since the original publication of this article in 2015, Hardegen passed away on June 9, 2018.)

In contrast, the man who oversaw the building and operation of the pipeline project would later spend his wealth and resources trying to make the world a better and safer place. W. Alton Jones became widely known as the oil man turned philanthropist for his support and contributions to many causes, including environmental activism.

Tragically in March of 1962, at the age of 71, Jones was killed, along with 94 others, when American Airlines Flight 001 crashed shortly after takeoff in New York City.  The plane bound for Los Angeles lost attitude and nosedived into Jamaica Bay.

Jones was on his way to see his good friend Dwight D. Eisenhower for a week of golf and fishing.

Eisenhower and W. Alton Jones

(Sources: The Big Inch and Little Inch Pipelines – Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation, 200; The New York Times, Feb 20, 1943

Straw Hat to Freedom: Robert Smalls and the Commandeering of the CSS Planter

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski


The guards on lookout at Fort Sumter had little to worry about on the morning of May 13, 1862. The sun was just coming up, and a ship moving through Charleston Harbor at that early hour, likely on orders, was not an unusual sight.  They knew the CSS Planter well. There was no alarm. But there was a protocol to follow. The soldiers waited. Then two loud steam blasts came from the ship’s whistle. A closer look at the pilothouse would confirm it.  The man at the wheel was a wearing a straw hat. The sentinel boys urged the steamer on by waving their hats in salute.

“Blow them damn Yankees, to hell,” they shouted as the Planter continued out to sea.

Once safely out of view from the fort, the man in the straw hat ordered the crew to take down the confederate flag.  In its stead, a white flag was raised, a signal of surrender. The ship reached the Union blockade just outside the harbor.  The crew aboard the blockade ship, Augusta, especially the commanding officer, was skeptical at first. A Rebel steamer heading towards them from enemy waters was suspicious. But the wayward ship offered no resistance. Once on board, they found eight black men on the deck and in the hold, five women and three children. The commanding officer demanded to know their intentions. The man in the straw hat stepped forward. He was also wearing a captain’s uniform.  His name was Robert Smalls. “I’m a slave,” he said, “and I want to be free to serve the United States Navy.”

Just days before in cramped room near the boat’s dock, the plot was hatched. One of the Planter’s slave workers mentioned how careless the rebel crew of the ship had become when going ashore on leave. At least one rebel soldier needed to stay behind and guard the ship, but oftentimes the whole lot would abandon the vessel, leaving it unattended, a clear violation of policy. Perhaps they were too trustworthy of their black counterparts. But, as one man suggested, perhaps their carelessness was an opportunity.

Robert Smalls was one of the enslaved workers, and the most skilled. He knew the waters around the harbor well and oftentimes piloted the boat. Plus it was suggested he looked a lot like the captain. That may have been in reference to his diminutive size – or in jest. Regardless, Smalls had a plan.

Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1839. He was short and stout, perfect for working on the docks.  When the war began, Smalls was hired out by his master to work in the shipyards.  Smalls eventually studied maps and taught himself enough navigational skills to become a good pilot. He was sent to work on the Planter, a former cotton-bale boat now used to transport supplies to Rebel troops. Smalls would work and his master would get paid. In return, Smalls family could stay with him. But freedom is what Smalls wanted for his family, not a compromise.

When the slave crew members agreed the plan could work, it was just a matter of time. They tucked away provisions in the hold of the ship, alerted others to be ready when called, and waited. In three days an opportunity presented itself. That day was Tuesday, the thirteenth of May.

Most of the white crew on the Planter had gone ashore on leave and the ship was left docked, alone and unguarded. Before sunrise, and still under the cover of darkness, Smalls would gather the men.

Harper’s Weekly’s later described the story:

At length, on Monday evening, the white officers of the vessel went on shore to spend the night, intending to start the following morning for Fort Ripley, and to be absent from the city for some days. The families of the contrabands were notified and came stealthily on board.

Smalls would pilot the ship. His figure would be seen first by the soldiers at the fort, so he put on the captain’s uniform and pulled the straw brimmed hat down over his face.

At about three o’clock the fires were lit under the boilers, and the vessel steamed quietly away down the harbor. The tide was against her, and Fort Sumter was not reached till broad daylight. However, the boat passed directly under its walls, giving the usual signal—two long pulls and a jerk at the whistle-cord—as she passed the sentinel.

Smalls kept his head low below the brim. The fort’s sentinel were familiar with the straw hat. The captain of the Planter always wore it with his uniform. The steamer’s whistle blew and the soldiers waved and cheered the ship onto battle. That was the last time they would see the Planter carrying the colors of the confederate flag.

Once out of range of the rebel guns the white flag was raised, and the Planter steamed directly for the blockading steamer Augusta. Captain Parrott, of the latter vessel, as you may imagine, received them cordially, heard their report, placed Acting-Master Watson, of his ship, in charge of the Planter.

Smalls, a former slave and black man, could only serve as a volunteer in the Union Navy and eventually the Army, but he fought in 17 battles and continued to serve on the Planter, now a federal ship. Smalls never wavered from danger. In one incident, the Union commander had ordered the Planter beached when enemy fire was too strong. But Smalls knew they were doomed if they went ashore. He took the wheel and piloted the boat to safety. That earned him a captain’s distinction.

After the war, Smalls got into politics eventually serving as a U.S. Congressman from South Carolina. He is still celebrated in his hometown of Beaufort and recognized as a hero, just as he was after the daring escape.  Among his many admirers was Abraham Lincoln. Upon hearing of the Confederate ship’s confiscation and its contraband, the President sent a telegram to his subordinates in the field to immediately send Smalls to Washington.

At the White House, Lincoln personally thanked him for his bravery.


A Thomas Edison Protégé Might Be The Unsung Pioneer of Moving Pictures

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski

William Kennedy Dickson

In 1879, at the age of 19, William Kennedy Dickson found himself in a burgeoning America with the promise of a good future for an aspiring entrepreneur who had just finished his education at England’s prestigious Cambridge University.

Dickson, who had a background in electrical invention, immediately sought work with an American scientist who was hiring a team of minds to do experiments on electricity at his lab in Menlo Park, California.

Go see Edison, Dickson was told.

Thomas Edison.

So he did.

Just being a fine chemist and intellectual wasn’t enough for the demanding Edison. He fired several qualified men because they “didn’t get results.” But Edison liked Dickson right away and put him in charge of his metallurgy laboratory.

Dickson also had a knack for photography, and Edison needed someone to document his work in pictures.  So in addition to his experiments in the lab, Dickson became a creative force behind the camera too.  A mission that would eventually lead him to head Edison’s efforts in finding a way to make pictures move.

But the phonograph came first. With it, Edison had a business and a product to sell. Entertainment, however, was not Edison’s strong suit.  Most of his products were focused on labor and used primarily for industry, like the diction phonograph. But leisure time was becoming important to Americans, and Edison saw a need to transition from production tools to consumer goods. The wax recording was a good example.

album3-1Alexander Graham Bell’s team came up with the original idea for the Graphophone, based on Edison’s previous phonograph design. It used wax over the cylinder and listening tubes for hearing. Bell’s group approached Edison for a partnership, but Edison refused. Instead he took their idea and perfected it, making a better and cleaner sounding phonograph, using the wax technology.

Before the turn of the century, the phonograph would be mass produced along with similar machines, including Bell’s. But even before the playback machines were ready for the market, Edison was sensing another profitable venture in the entertainment industry.

In 1888, he drew a sketch of a device he called the Kinetoscope, “an instrument which does for the eye, what the phonograph does for the ear.” This machine, he said, would “reproduce things in motion.” But added, “be cheap, practical and convenient.”

The man Edison chose to command this new venture was his chemist and photographer William Dickson.

It didn’t take long for Dickson and the team to come up with something functional. Applying the phonograph’s cylinder design and photographic celluloid Dickson was already using in his picture-making, within five months, a prototype emerged which showed considerable promise. Edison and Dickson tinkered with technology already established, like the telegraph, and applied it to their experiments. Dickson also used a Tachhyscope for inspiration. It used a series of pictures rotated and illuminated by a light and projected on a screen. Dickson hooked it up to the phonograph and produced what is in essence the first talking picture. He showed it to Edison. In the film, Dickson raises his hat and says “Good morning Mr. Edison, glad to see you back. I hope you are satisfied with the Kinetograph.” Dickson then counts to ten on his fingers; the sound perfectly synced to the image.

Edison was impressed, but didn’t like the idea of a picture projected on the wall. He thought it was impractical. Further experiments, he directed, should be on movies for coin-slots, similar to the phonograph. Dickson clearly disappointed by Edison’s reaction, kept the projection idea in mind while setting his team to work on the next design: a box with a viewing slot.

By 1897, the phonograph business was booming and everyone wanted in. Columbia gained control of American Gramophone and promptly sued Edison for patent rights. The suit was dropped after Columbia discovered their machines also relied on Edison’s earlier technology. A bidding war began over pricing. Most phonograph models were around $30, but Edison built a cheaper model called the “Gem” for only ten bucks. Kinetoscopes were selling too, but it was a much different process.  Edison could see the technology side of both of his entertainment machines, but not the art. He left that up to others, like Dickson, who made the films. Staged scenes of prize fights and vaudeville performers were the most popular.

Edweard Muybridge

Things were changing for Dickson, however. He grew tired of making the same movies and sought work elsewhere. He left Edison in 1895 and joined Woodville Latham owner of the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company who was already experimenting with light-focused over-sized images projected on a screen.

Dickson soon found out he wasn’t the only one interested in the projection idea.  Many others had researched it over the years, including Eadweard Muybridge, who projected drawings of animals in motion. At one point, Muybridge brought his Zoopraxiscope to Edison hoping to solve the problem of putting actual photographs on the cylinder, like the phonograph did with sound. Edison was interested only in the prospect of the invention, not the actual product. Again Edison thought he could improve on an original design. The problem was projection, something Edison had little interest in at the time.

But thanks to Muybridge and Dickson, the projection idea did not fade away.  In fact it flourished under those who believed it was the future of moving pictures. By the time a projection system was ready for public use, Dickson’s new employer Latham had been been bought out by another company headed by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Both inventors and investors, Jenkins and Armat needed someone who could produce the machines and supply films. They asked Edison to join in. The projector, called the Vitascope would soon be changed to the Projectoscope, Edison’s improved design. When the first motion picture was shown to a New York theater audience in 1896,  Edison would get credit for it. Dickson and other early pioneers of the projection system were left in the dark. Especially Dickson ,who would remain mostly anonymous.

But that would change.

album3-1Perhaps slighted by Edison’s unwillingness to share public credit with him, Dickson wrote a book titled “History of the Kinetoscope, Kinethograph, Kinetoscope & Kinetophonograph.” In it, Dickson gives himself credit for the work in Edison’s lab and claims “co-patentee” honors with Edison on the Kinetoscope design. Edsion objected, especially the part about Dickson being the co-inventor. “Mr. Dickson will get full credit for the work he has done without trying to ram it down people’s throats,” Edison angrily rebutted.

Through the years, historians have debated Dickson’s role in moving pictures.  Some claim Dickson was a product of Edison’s meticulously controlled experiments and first rate facilities. Anyone with Dickson’s background would have made the best of it, they argue. Others believe Edison was ruthless and loved fame more than acknowledgment. He absolutely refused to share success with others.

Regardless of the discourse, Dickson eventually returned to London where he died in 1935 at the age of 75.

But all is not lost.

Today, Dickson is known exclusively for inventing one machine called the Mutoscope.

Slighted by Edison on the projection design, and receiving no attribution for his role in creating it, Dickson made another variation of the Kinetoscope using a simple “flip-book” design run by a crank rather than electricity. The Mutoscope soon found an appreciative audience. It began to appear in amusement parlors in the U.S. and pleasure piers throughout Europe. It served mostly one purpose: satisfying men’s desires to view busty ladies in various stages of undress.

“What the Butler Saw” is what they called the Mutoscope in England.

In America, it became more widely known as a “peep show.”

Dickson gets credit for that.


(A good portion of the retelling of this story comes from Edison: A life of Invention by Paul Israel).

The Man Who Put the Brick in ‘Brickyard’

Posted on Updated on

Morton 2
Carl G. Fisher

By Ken Zurski

Carl G. Fisher was a bicycle enthusiast. He built them, he raced them, he even delicately guided one across a tightrope just to prove there versatility. He was nicknamed “Cripple,” or “Crip” for short, because his friends thought he was destined to suffer a permanent injury. As one worrisome acquaintance described: “He frequently, in bursts of speed, took spills and ended up with many bruises and cuts.”

Undeterred, after dusting off, Fisher would try it again.

That was his style.

Born in Greensburg, Indiana in 1874, as a young boy Fisher moved to Indianapolis with his mother after his parents separated. Due to a severe case of astigmatism, he dropped out of school early and worked odd jobs, like a grocery store clerk, to support his family. At age 17, along with his two brothers, Fisher opened a bicycle shop.

With the advent of the automobile, Fisher saw another business opportunity. “I don’t see why an automobile can’t be made to do anything a bicycle can do,” he told a friend. In 1904, Fisher converted his bicycle business into an automobile repair shop. To promote his new venture, he asked a crowd to gather at a downtown Indianapolis building. He then pushed a vehicle off the roof.  The vehicle landed on its tires, still upright. The crowd roared its approval. It was showy and effective, similar in style to a more famously known promotional trickster named P.T. Barnum. Fisher later admitted he deflated the tires so the car wouldn’t bounce.


Despite his knack for self-promotion, Fisher had more serious concerns about the newfangled motor vehicle. First was being able to drive it safely in the dark. He invented a headlight that used compressed gas to light the way. It was a revolutionary idea. Soon, the Fisher-patented lights were being manufactured in plants throughout the Midwest. The process however was not safe for workers. The chemical tanks kept blowing up. “Omaha left at four-thirty,” one wire read announcing the unfortunate closing of another plant. The tanks were eventually lined with asbestos and the blasts stopped. The headlights became the standard and Fisher in turn became a very wealthy man.

With money and power in his hands, Fisher took to the automobile like he did the bicycle – with deering-do. He raced a modified Mohawk on small tracks at fairgrounds in Indiana mostly built with wooden boards. But Fisher wanted more. He wanted more speed. more thrills and more excitement. Inspired by European tracks that had long straightaways and sweeping curves, Fisher suggested a proving ground track in Indianapolis would be beneficial to the automobile industry as a whole, testing the limits of engines and body styles. Plus, the racing would be a hoot too.

Morton 5

He and other local financiers put up $250,000 in capital to build the track, a two-and a half mile oval, that became known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  On Aug 9 1909, the first car races took place. It was a disaster. Six drivers were killed along with two spectators. The race was scheduled for 300 miles, but Fisher mercifully stopped it at 235 miles. The drivers and their machines, Fisher explained, were not the issue. The problem was the track, made of crushed stone, was too rough.  The frequent tire blow outs led to disastrous and deadly results.  Fisher had to make a change.

He recommended they pave the tracks with bricks instead. But it was costly. So he convinced his investors to help pay for it. Over 3-million bricks were laid. On Memorial Day 1911,  the first 500-mile race was run. Driver Ray Harroun in a vehicle named “Wasp” won the inaugural contest with an average speed of just over 74 mph. “There were but four tire changes,”  the winning vehicle’s manufacturer boasted the next day. “Three of the original tires finished the race.”  The bricks, they subtlety implied, made the difference.

The track later picked up the moniker, “Brickyard.”

Morton 6

Fisher didn’t stop with improvements to racetracks however. He felt everyday drivers were being shortchanged by the lack of public roadways. At the time, most roads were just dirt paths and few went long distances. In 1912, at a dinner party for automobile manufacturers, Fisher unveiled an ambitious plan to build a highway that would span the country, from New York to California. He urged the auto executives to come aboard. Within 30-minutes, he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in support.

Ironically, the one man who refused to contribute was an automobile pioneer from Detroit who thought the automakers should stick to making automobiles, not roads. The government, he explained, should be responsible for that.

His name was Henry Ford.

Thanks to Fisher’s persistence, however, Lincoln Highway (today it’s portions are more formally aligned with the coast-to-coast Interstate 80),  became the first transcontinental highway for motor vehicles.

But Fisher’s testament, such as it is, lie in the bricks. Still a fixture at the track’s finish line.

Image result for brickyard indy