By Ken Zurski
On April 8 1931, Amelia Earhart , in full pilot jumpsuit mode, stepped into an autogiro, a horizontally propelled winged aircraft she had been testing with other pilots for more than a year. Earhart, who two years earlier had become the first woman to fly an airplane solo over the Atlantic, was trying to break another record, an altitude peak, in the mostly untested autogiro.
At the time, an autogiro, was considered an unstable and unproven contraption. But there were advantages. It could take off from a relatively small space and fly just as high and as long as its front-propelled counterpart. Unlike the airplane, however, It could also stop on a dime and seem to float in the sky. Landing was simply lowering itself to the ground. A large rotor blade sat on top and provided lift. The blade was free spinning and powered by air from an engine-propelled rotor on the side that also provided thrust.
Introduced in the 1930’s, autogiros, was considered a more practical and efficient alternative to the airplane, if only they could be as reliable. Today, a smaller version, called a gyrocopter, is similar to the original design, minus the wings. So when you talk about the pioneer fliers of the autogiro, or the forerunner of the modern day helicopter, one person must be recognized.
One you famously know.
The aforementioned Amelia Earhart.
With a large contingent of press on site and an appreciative crowd, Earhart in her thick insulated overalls gave it a go. Her first attempt failed. Perhaps as some noted, she was testing her own – and her aircraft’s – capabilities. Maybe she would abandon the next attempt, the press speculated. She answered that question by going up again, this time reaching a height of 18,415 feet and breaking – or making –a new record. She safely brought the craft back to the ground.
She was lauded in her efforts, but wanted more. So did the press. They figured she would try a transcontinental trip in an autogiro, the first of its kind, which she did successfully. But her efforts were overshadowed by another pilot named John Miller who quietly attempted the same feat without the fanfare or publicity that Earhart demanded. He completed the route first, although both pilots had no idea of the other’s intentions.
That same year in 1931, Earhart crashed her autogiro at an airshow in Detroit. Her husband, George Putnam, was the first to arrive at the wreckage: “I saw Amelia emerge from the dust and wave her hands in the air,” he said. “She was unhurt.” But Putnam was on the ground, writhing in pain. In his haste to reach the wreck site he tripped, fell and cracked three ribs. “Never had I run so fast,” he described afterwards, “until one of the guy wires caught my pumping legs exactly at the ankles.”
Unaware of her husband’s injury, Earhart happily waved to the crowd.
While she was glad to walk away unscathed and Putman’s predicament was just an unfortunate accident, it would be her last call with the autogiro.
She went back to an airplane.
Tragically, six years later in 1937, we all know how her story ends.
By Ken Zurski
Nearly every May in the 1930’s, a radio performer named Robert Spere staged rallies in New York City promoting a day set aside not just to honor moms, but dads as well.
His plan was to change “Mother’s Day” to “Parent’s Day.”
Spere, a children’s program host known as “Uncle Robert” told his attentive audience: “We should all have love for mom and dad every day, but ‘Parent’s Day’ is a reminder that both parents should be loved and respected together.”
Mother’s Day became a national day of observance in 1908. But there was no enthusiasm for a day set aside for fathers. “Men scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving,” one historian wrote.
Retailers, however, liked the idea and promoted a “second Christmas” for dads with gifts of tools, neckties and tobacco, instead of flowers and cards. But it never gelled. Even Spere’s “Parent’s Day” idea died when the Great Depression hit.
It wasn’t until 1972, under President Richard Nixon, that “Father’s Day” officially became a national holiday.
By Ken Zurski
In the mid to late 19th century as railroad lines expanded and towns literally grew on land where the trains ran, depot buildings were built to accommodate riders on the various stops. Today, grainy pictures show the old depots with long stretched decks and indicator signs welcoming passengers to “Ponca City” as the photo below illustrates, among many others. But look closely and you’ll see large barrels on the rooftops, maybe one maybe more. In some instances, if the depot is long and thin, a line of barrels covers the roof’s top, strategically positioned in between the buildings brick chimney’s.
Much debate has been made about these barrels, but there purpose was apparent: save the depot from burning to the ground. Basically, it was a fire suppression method, an early and primitive sprinkler system, if you will.
Here’s how it worked:
The barrels were solid and thick, made of hardwood (usually oak, walnut, hickory or whatever was available) and bound by heavy iron or steel hoops. This sturdiness was to keep the liquid, in this instance water, from leaking out. In many remote locations where water was scarce, there was no water tower, and the air was dry. So he threat of fire from a passing or stopped train was increased. The trains pulling into the station were especially threatening to the depot. Cinder sparks from the wood and coal engines would land on the roof and ignite. If caught in time, someone from the station, usually a ticket agent or even a passenger would go to the roof and open the barrels. In most cases, a permanent ladder was placed atop the slanted roof and another along the narrow crest to make it easier, in theory, to reach the barrels before the building went up in flames. Water-filled Barrels were also placed near chimneys since a stoked fire from a pot belly stove could easily create a spark which ignited the roof.
In 1869, a large roundhouse in Truckee, California caught fire and burnt to the ground. Nearly a dozen engines were parked inside. Luckily, a nearby mill worker spotted the blaze and alerted the night watchman. The building with its oil soaked boards went up quickly, but most of the engines were saved. The trains carried lumber freight along the Central Pacific line from Truckee to nearby Sacramento, so a large supply of timber was stacked inside and along the back wall. Since there was no proper supply of water nearby, saving the roundhouse, more like a tinderbox in this case, was hopeless. Thankfully, no one was killed.
When the Truckee roundhouse was rebuilt a new characteristic was added: the rooftop water barrels. After that, it was reported, several more fires flared up, but were quickly put out.
History cannot record all the near misses, but the Truckee roundhouse fire is a good example that the makeshift safety feature worked in principle at least that while the threat of a fire could not be eliminated, perhaps the resulting inferno could. Not a fully reassuring notion, for sure, but what other choice did they have?
If anything, it helped calm nerves each time the train whistle blew and the sparks flew.
By Ken Zurski
In the heart of Brooklyn, in 1858, a group of men known as the Pastimes, hiked up their wool trousers, buttoned-down their flannel shirts, and ran onto an open grassy field to play a game they fondly referred to as “base ball.”
The team was one of several in the New York area, but the Pastimes were different. Instead of being a ragtag lot of patchwork players, the Pastimes billed themselves as more refined and high-minded. Many of the members were prominent citizens, some even held government jobs. They enjoyed spending the day together, socializing and being seen.
Base ball, the game, they said, was just good exercise.
To signify their self-worth, the Pastimes arrived at away games in carriages and usually in a line. “Like a funeral procession passing,” remarked one observer. You couldn’t help but notice.
After the game they invited their rivals, win or lose, to a fancy spread of food and spirits. Oftentimes this was the reason for getting together in the first place. The game was the appetizer. The day’s highlight however was the feast. The opposing players rarely complained.
Despite the revelry off the field, the Pastimes did actually play the game. But it hardly represented what we know baseball to be today. Pitchers tossed the ball (there was no “throwing” allowed) and strikes were rare. With no called balls, a batter could wait through 30 to 40 tosses or more before deciding to hit it. The batter was out when a fielder caught the ball on a fly or on “a bound.” And player’s running the bases rarely touched them. After all, who was going to make them? “What jolly fellows they were at the time,” wrote Henry Chadwick, a New York journalist and Pastimes supporter, “one and all of them.”
Most of the early history of baseball hails from New York, with Cooperstown, considered to be the place where the game was invented and the current site of the Baseball Hall Of Fame and Museum, as a prime example. While bat-and-ball type games were popping up throughout the country, in New York, an actual team emerged in the 1840’s calling themselves the Knickerbockers. While they’re not trailblazers in creating the game, they can be considered pioneers when it comes to the sport. The Knickerbockers actually made and followed some rules.
The play itself was raw, almost comical, but enjoyable for spectators. “Ball Days” became popular, and the Knickerbockers were fun to watch. Soon other teams would join in, some more determined than others. The Pastimes had their reasons too.
At some point, as more teams participated, the game started changing. It became more challenging and competitive and the Pastimes who had been enjoying a day of friendly raillery – and not much more – had to adjust. “Until the club became ambitious of winning matches and began to sacrifice the original objects of the organization to the desire to strengthen their nine-match playing,” Chadwick wrote, “everything went on swimmingly.” But losing takes its toll. And for the lowly playing Pastimes, the fun went out of the day. “Finally the spirit of the club, having been dampened by repeated defeats at the hands of stronger nines, gave out,” Chadwick grumbled on. “The Pastimes went out of existence.”
Well that and the start of the war too.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Civil War slowed the progress of the game. And that was true, to a point. Inevitably as men marched off to war, there just weren’t enough players to take the field. Many top players did heed the call to serve, but others chose to delay their service and keep playing. Plus there were always reserves, especially in a well populated state like New York. The game carried on, despite the conflict. In fact, it was just as popular for the soldiers who shared a good game of nines to help pass the time. “Each regiment had its share of disease and desertion; each had it’s ball-players turned soldiers,” remembered George T Stevens, of the 77th Regiment, New York Volunteers. Baseball was a game that required an open space, a stick, something to hit, and not much else. Reports of ball games in prison camps were widespread.
Once the conflict was over, the game itself was in for an overhaul. Many of the older players were either injured, weary from the war, or worse. That’s when younger players joined in, skills improved, and rules were implemented.
Base ball became Baseball – a legitimate competitive sport.
The Pastimes would have never fit in.
Perhaps the most appealing part of the early game would have also pleased the more ardent followers of baseball today, especially those who crave the action on the offensive side of the ball. On October 28, 1858, the Pastimes played the Newark Adriatics. According to the rules back then, a game played out every half inning, even in the ninth, and even if the home team was winning.
That day, the Adriatics came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. They were leading 45-13.
The crowd likely cheered them on for more runs.
By Ken Zurski
His face was round, his body rubbery. He laughed. He cried. For kicks, he could take off his long supple ears and put them back on again. His name was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and he was the first major animated character created by a man who would later become – and still is – one of the most enduring public figures of our time: Walt Disney.
Walter Elias Disney was just in his twenties when the idea for Oswald came along. A gifted graphic artist from the Midwest, Disney had spent some time overseas during World War I as an ambulance driver and returned to the U.S. to work for a commercial arts company in Kansas City, Missouri. Disney had a knack for business. He partnered with a local artist named Ub Iwerks and together they formed their own company, Iwerks –Disney (switching the name from their first choice of Disney- Iwerks because it sounded too much like a doctor’s office: “eye works”).
They dabbled in animation and soon were making shorts, basically live action films mixed with animated characters. They made a slew of little comedies called Lafflets under the name Laugh-O-Grams. It was a tough sell. Studios backed out of contracts and various offers fell flat.
Disney never gave up and soon they had a series called Alice the Peacemaker based loosely on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Alice was different and seemingly better. They used a new technique of animation, more fluid with fewer cuts and longer stretches of action. Alice, the heroine of the series, was a live person, but the star of the comedies was an animated cat named Julius. The distributor of the Alice shorts, an influential woman named Margret Winkler, had suggested the idea. “Use a cat wherever possible,” she told Disney, “and don’t be afraid to let him do ridiculous things.” Disney and Iwerks let the antics fly, mostly through their feline co-star.
When Alice ran its course and Disney was thinking of another series and character, he wanted it to be an animal. But not a cat, he thought, there were already too many. That’s when a rabbit came to mind. A rabbit he named Oswald.
It was a shaky start. The first Oswald short, Poor Papa, was controversial even by today’s standards. In it, Oswald is overwhelmed by an army – or air force, if you will – of storks each carrying a baby bunny and dropping the poor infants one right after the other upon Oswald’s home. Oswald was after all a rabbit and, well, rabbits have a reputation for being prodigious procreators. But this onslaught of newborns, hundreds it seemed, was just too much for the budding new father. Oswald’s frustration turns to anger and soon he brandishes a shotgun and starts shooting the babies, one by one, out of the sky like an arcade game. The storks in turn fire back using the babies as weapons.
Pretty heady stuff even for the 1920’s, but it wasn’t the subject matter that bothered the head of Winkler productions, a man named Charles Mintz. It was the clunky animation, repetition of action, no storyline, and a lack of character development that drew his ire.
Disney and Iwerks went back to work and undertook changes that made Oswald more likable – and funnier. They made more shorts and audiences began to respond. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit caught on. Soon, Oswald’s likeness was appearing on candy bars and other novelties.
Disney finally had a hit. But the reality of success was met with sudden disappointment. Walt had signed only a one-year contract, now under the Universal banner, and run by Winkler’s former head Mintz. The contract was up and Mintz played hardball. He wanted to change or move animators to Universal and put the artistic side completely in the hands of the studio. Walt was asked to join up, but refused. He still wanted full control. Seeing an inevitable shift, many of Disney’s loyal animators jumped ship, but Walt’s close friend and partner Ub Iwerks stayed on. Oswald was gone, but the prospects of a new company run exclusively by Walt were at hand.
Under Universal’s rule, Oswald’s popularity waned. Mintz eventually gave the series to cartoonist Walter Lantz who later found success in another popular character, a bird, named Woody Woodpecker. Oswald dragged on for years, as cartoons often do, and was eventually dropped.
Disney, meanwhile, needed a new star.
Here’s where it gets better for Walt. In early 1928, Disney was attending meetings in New York when he got word that his contract with Universal would not be renewed. Although he later said it didn’t bother him, a friend described his mood as that of “a raging lion.” Disney soon boarded a train and steamed back west. As the story goes, during the long trip, Disney got out a sketch pad and pencil. He started thinking about a tiny mouse he had once befriended at his old office in Kansas City. He had an idea. He began to draw a character that looked a lot like Oswald only with shorter rounded ears and a long thin tail.
Steamboat Willie starring Mickey Mouse debuted later that year.