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    1908 | History| Smithsonian Magazine

    Henry Ford (with a Model T in Buffalo, New York, in 1921)

    Not long after production of the Model T began in the fall of 1908, it would fulfill the dream of Henry Ford (with a Model T in Buffalo, New York, in 1921) to empower the masses. AP Images

    “Anything, everything, is possible.” —Thomas Edison, 1908

    The year 1908 began at midnight when a 700-pound “electrical ball” fell from the flagstaff atop the new york times building, the first ever ball drop in times square. It ended 366 days later (1908 was a leap year) with Wilbur Wright’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour flight, the longest ever in an airplane. in the intervening days, the us the navy’s great white fleet sailed around the world, adm. robert peary began his conquest of the north pole, dr. frederick cook reached the north pole (or claimed to have), six cars undertook a 20,000-mile race from new york city to paris, and the model t went into production at the henry ford plant in detroit, michigan. /p>

    The events and innovations that occurred within that 12-month window a century ago marked, in many ways, America’s entry into the modern world. In some cases, they literally set modern America in motion. whether practically significant or, like the round-the-world automobile race, essentially frivolous (a “splendid folly,” one contestant called it), it all reflected and amplified Americans’ sense of what was possible. Buoyed by achievement, the country was more confident in its genius and ingenuity, not to mention its military might, and more comfortable playing a commanding role in global affairs.

    Reading: What happened in 1908

    1908 was an election year, and the parallels between this year and 2008 are interesting. Americans in 1908 were coming off two terms of a Republican president who had abruptly set their country on a new course. he was an ivy league educated rich easterner who had gone west as a young man and became a cowboy. Like George Walker Bush, Theodore Roosevelt had entered the White House without winning the popular vote (an assassination that put TR in office), then behaved with unapologetic force. and it was clear then, as it is now, that the country was heading into a new world defined by rules not yet written, and that the man who was about to leave office bore no small responsibility for this.

    Americans in 1908 knew they lived in unusual times. and lest they forget, the newspapers reminded them of it almost daily. According to the press, everything that happened that year was bigger, better, faster, and stranger than anything that had gone before. In part, it was typical newspaper hyperbole; in part, it was simply true.

    an essay in the new york world on new year’s day 1908 articulated the wonder shared by many. the article, titled “1808-1908-2008,” pointed out how much progress the country had made over the previous century. In 1808, five years after the Louisiana Purchase and two years after Lewis and Clark returned from their transcontinental voyage, the population was just seven million souls. the federal government had been underfunded and ineffective. Technology (transportation, communication, medicine, agriculture, manufacturing) had been only slightly more advanced than during Europe’s Middle Ages. now, in 1908, with the us With a population of nearly 90 million, federal revenues were 40 times what they had been a century earlier, and the United States was on par with Britain and Germany as a world power. U.S. citizens enjoyed the highest per capita income in the world and were blessed with railways and automobiles, telegraph and telephone, electricity and gas. men shaved their beards with disposable razor blades, and women tidied their homes with remarkable new devices called vacuum cleaners. couples danced to the victrola in their living rooms and huddled in the darkened theaters to gaze at the flickering images of the vitagraph. Invisible words flew across the oceans between the giant antennas of Marconi’s wireless telegraph, as American engineers cut a 50-mile canal across 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 wonders of development await the youth of tomorrow?” the United States. the population of 2008, the newspaper predicted, would be 472 million (there are 300 million). “We can have gyroscopic trains as wide as houses swaying at 200 miles per hour down steep inclines and around dizzying curves. We can have planes flying in air that was once invincible. Tides that ebb and flow to waste can occupy the place of our spent coal. and flash their force by cable to every point of need. who can tell?”

    Not a day went by without new discoveries being made or promised. that same new year’s day, dr. Simon Flexner of the Rockefeller Institute stated in a medical article that human organ transplants would soon be commonplace. meanwhile, the very air seemed charged with the possibilities of emerging wireless technology. “When the expectations of wireless experts are met, everyone will have his own pocket telephone and can be called wherever he may be,” Hampton’s Magazine boldly predicted in 1908. “The Citizen of the Age wireless will walk abroad with a receiving apparatus nestled compactly in his hat and tuned to that of the myriad vibrations by which he has chosen to be called… when that invention is perfected, we will have a new set of daily miracles.”

    A few weeks before the year began, on the bright and windless morning of December 16, 1907, thousands of spectators flocked to Hampton Road, Virginia, to greet the departure of the Great White Fleet on its journey from 43,000 miles around the world. Roosevelt arrived from the Chesapeake Bay aboard the presidential yacht, the Mayflower, to give some last-minute instructions to fleet commanders and add his considerable weight to the pomp and circumstance. as sailors in full dress uniform stood on the rails and brass bands played on the ships, the president watched. Have you ever seen such a fleet and such a day? he yelled at his guests aboard the mayflower. isn’t it magnificent? Shouldn’t we all be proud? It was, he concluded, “perfectly intimidating.”

    For sheer majesty, the navy was impressive. “The largest fleet of warships ever assembled under one flag,” reported the new york times. the 16 battleships were worth $100 million and comprised almost 250,000 tons of armament. The Mayflower brought the ships to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and as the ships’ bands played “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” Roosevelt waved his top hat one last time.

    Loaded to the rail and painted brilliant white, the ships moved away, stretching out in a three-mile column. Not everyone understood exactly why Roosevelt sent those battleships around the world. even now, it is difficult to give a simple answer. At the time, some Americans worried that the trip was extravagant, rushed, and might spark a war, most likely with Japan. Indeed, Roosevelt harbored real concerns that Japan, recently emboldened by a recent naval victory over Russia and angered by the mistreatment of Japanese immigrants in America, might pose a threat to the Philippines and other United States. interests. “I had been doing my best to be courteous to the Japanese and had finally become uncomfortably aware of a very, very slight undercurrent of veiled truculence,” he would write a few years later of his decision to send the fleet. “[i]t was time for a showdown.”

    but roosevelt also filled those 16 ships with friendly greetings and u.s. dollars among his instructions to the commanders were strong words about preserving decorum among the ships’ 13,000 sailors. Throughout 1908, as battleships sailed from port to port, from Rio de Janeiro to Sydney, they were greeted with adulation and American flags. When the fleet finally reached Japan in October 1908, tens of thousands of schoolchildren greeted it by singing “The Starry Banner.” tensions between the two countries evaporated, and the trip, once disparaged by many as a dangerous stunt, was now hailed as a stunning success. Rarely has a president so skillfully combined a message of power with offerings of peace.

    For Americans, who were treated to endless stories about the 14-month voyage in newspapers and magazines, the Great White Fleet was a show of force. the United States. The navy was now on par with Germany’s navy and second only to Britain’s. And America, with its ability to produce more steel than Britain and Germany combined, could build ships faster than any other country in the world.

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    the sky was full of miracles. In New York City, stupendous new buildings pointed to where the future seemed to call. The Singer Building, headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, was completed in the spring of 1908. At 612 feet, the “Singing Horn” (as mills soon began calling it, after the Matterhorn) was the tallest inhabited building of the world. a few months later, the steel structure of the metropolitan life building jumped on the singer from 700 feet.

    Illustrators envisioned a future city of golden towers connected by slender suspension bridges and grand masonry arches. Moses King, in a 1908 illustration, envisioned blimps and other flying craft hovering over vaulted towers and bridges in New York City, bound for destinations like the Panama Canal and the North Pole. one caption referred to “possibilities of aerial and interterrestrial construction, when the wonders of 1908…will be far surpassed.”

    no aerial wonder surpassed the wright brothers’ exploits that year. Absent from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, since their first brief flights there in 1903, and having flown nothing since 1905, they returned to nearby Kill Devil Hills in April to dig up their old shed and dust off their flying skills. The Wrights’ flying ability had advanced beyond their first thrilling seconds in the air, but their competitors had also advanced, and the Wrights felt the pressure. A group of bright and ambitious young men had teamed up with Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, to form the Aerial Experiments Association (AEA). On March 12, 1908, in Hammondsport, New York, AEA member Casey Baldwin had flown nearly 320 feet over a frozen lake. Four months later, on the Fourth of July, Glenn Hammond Curtiss flew an AEA aircraft almost a mile over Hammondsport.

    Over the previous three years, as the Wrights flirted with potential buyers of their plane, critics and competitors increasingly interpreted their reluctance to fly as evidence of failure or, worse, fraud. Now, in the spring of 1908, they had two purchase offers: from the us. uu. army and a private French syndicate. both offers were contingent on public demonstrations of the aircraft. After a few weeks of practice on Kitty Hawk, Wilbur sailed to France to demonstrate the Wright Flyer. Orville conducted his own test flight at Fort Myer, near Washington, D.C. the time had come to hold on or shut up.

    It was 6:30 p.m. on August 8 when Wilbur climbed into the seat of his Wright Flyer at a racecourse near Le Mans. he was dressed in his usual gray suit, starched white collar, and green cap, turned back so it wouldn’t blow away in flight. the night was quiet, and he was outwardly quiet too. This would be Wright’s first public demonstration of an aircraft. much, possibly everything, depended on it. The last time he had flown, a private practice flight in the Kitty Hawk in May, he crashed and destroyed the plane. if he did it now, the French trials would be over before they began, and the name veelbur reet, as pronounced at le mans, would be the joke of a French joke.

    Spectators watched from the stands as the twin propellers behind Wilbur began to spin. Suddenly, the plane shot over its runway. Four seconds later, he was airborne, rising rapidly to 30 feet, higher than most French aviators had flown, but low enough that the audience could see Wilbur as he made a slight adjustment on the sticks. of control. the plane responded instantly, one wing dipping, the other lifting and dipping to the left in a smooth, tight semicircle. exiting the turn, the plane made a straight run along the runway, approximately 875 yards, then banked and turned in another semicircle. Wilbur Wright circled the field one more time and then brought the plane down almost exactly where he had taken off less than two minutes earlier.

    The flight had been brief, but those 100 or so seconds were possibly the most important Wilbur had spent in the air since 1903. Spectators ran across the field to shake his hand, including the same French aviators who had recently fired him. . like a charlatan. IŽon Delagrange was beside himself. “magnificent! magnificent!” he yelled he. “We are defeated! We do not exist!” Overnight, Wilbur was transformed from le bluffeur, as the French press had labeled him, into the “Birdman,” the most famous American in France since Benjamin Franklin. “He never saw anything like the complete reversal of position that took place,” he wrote to Orville. “The French have just gone wild.”

    However, a few weeks later, Delagrange momentarily eclipsed Wilbur’s achievement by flying for 31 minutes, thereby setting a new air record. Now it was Orville’s turn. On September 9, she took off from Fort Myer, Virginia. she had already done some short disjointed jumps, but now she was flying out of family honor and national pride. the plane shot up and began to fly around the parade ground. After 11 minutes, it was clear that Orville intended to beat Delagrange’s record. Spectators watched him circle the field, taking about a minute each circuit, the plane’s engine crescendo, fading, and then crescendo again. He had flown about 30 circuits when someone yelled, “My god, he broke Delagrange’s record!” according to the new york herald reporter c. h. Claudy, they all clasped hands, each man aware, according to Claudy, that “he had actually been present as the aerial story came off the spinning wheel that spun that strange, delicate, sturdy, perfect wonder above their heads.” and around the field.”

    orville had no idea he had broken delagrange’s record. he was lost in flight. He banked at sharp corners and dove, skimming the parade ground, then suddenly soaring 150 feet, higher than anything visible except the spire of the Washington Monument and the US Dome. uu. capitol rising to the east, illuminated by the morning sun. “Today I wanted to fly several times across the fields and over the river to Washington,” Orville later confessed, “but my better judgment stopped me.” after 58 laps of the parade ground, he landed. He had flown 57 minutes and 31 seconds, nearly double Delagrange’s record.

    The Wrights captured the world’s attention, and over the next week, as Wilbur soared above adoring crowds in France, Orville broke ever-longer endurance records at Fort Myer. on September 10 he flew more than 65 minutes; on the 11th, more than 70; on the 12th, almost 75. that same day he set a new endurance record with a passenger —9 minutes— and an altitude record, 250 feet.

    then, tragedy: on september 17, while flying over fort myer with an army lieutenant named thomas selfridge, orville crashed. he was seriously injured. selfridge was killed.

    It seemed that the accident could end the wrights’ career and set American aeronautics back years. Wilbur stopped flying in France, while Orville lay recovering in hospital, cared for by his sister. But on September 21, Wilbur took off from Le Mans and began circling the artillery field at Camp d’Auvours above the largest crowd in his history, 10,000 spectators. “according to the herald. still, it flew. the whine of the engine came and went, and the sky darkened and the air cooled. at last, the plane descended and settled on the ground. wilbur He had flown for 91 minutes and 31 seconds, covering 61 miles, a new record. He had banished any speculation that the Wrights were done for. “I thought of Orville all the time,” he told reporters.

    wilbur saved his biggest win for the last day of the year. On December 31, 1908, he flew 2 hours and 20 minutes over Le Mans, winning the Michelin Cup and affirming the Wrights’ place in history. “In tracing the development of aeronautics, the historian of the future will point to the year 1908 as the year in which the problem of mechanical flight was first mastered,” said American scientist, “and it must always be a source of patriotic pride to know that it was two typical American inventors who gave the world its first practical flying machine.”

    in october, during the climax of one of the most exciting seasons in baseball history (the chicago cubs would wrest the national league pennant from the new york giants and then defeat the detroit tigers in the world series, which they haven’t won since.), Henry Ford introduced his strangely shaped new car, the Model T. At age 45, Henry Ford had been in the automobile business for a dozen years, ever since he built his first horseless carriage in a brick shed behind his home in Detroit in 1896. Still, all he had done was a warm-up for what he hoped to achieve: “a car for the great crowd,” he said.

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    Since most cars of the time cost between $2,000 and $4,000, only the wealthy could afford them, and the machines were still largely sporty. An advertisement of the time, printed in harper’s weekly, shows a car flying over a hill while a merry mŽnage frolics inside. a passenger reaches for a basket. “There is no more exhilarating sport or recreation than riding a car,” the ad says. “The pleasure of strolling down country lanes or city parks is greatly enhanced if the basket is well stocked with Dewar’s ‘White Label’ Scotch whisky.”

    The fact that automobiles brought out the worst excesses of the rich, confirming what many Americans already believed about them (they were insensitive, selfish, and ridiculous), increased the resentment of those who could not afford the machines. “Nothing has spread socialist sentiment in this country more than the use of the automobile, an image of the arrogance of wealth,” Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson said in 1906. However, when he became president from the United States six years later. , even the socialists would be promoting the model t.

    The car that rolled out of Ford’s Piquette Avenue plant that fall didn’t look like a machine of fate. it was square and heavy at the top. Automobile writer Floyd Clymer would later call it “unquestionably ugly, mournfully drab.” the hard sprung church pew seats made no concessions to elegance or comfort. rather, every aspect of the car was considered with lightness, economy, strength, and simplicity in mind. The simpler a piece of machinery, Ford realized, the lower it would cost and the easier it would be to maintain. Equipped with a manual and some basic tools, a Model T owner could do most repairs himself. the new car’s transmission would be smoother and more durable than anything yet designed. the small magnetized generator that provided a constant flash of voltage to ignite the car’s fuel would be more reliable. The Model T was designed to ride high off the ground and have plenty of clearance over America’s infamous pothole roads, while the car’s suspension system allowed it to handle the roads without knocking over occupants. Ford had also envisioned a day when the ditch on the side of the road would be less of a concern to motorists than oncoming traffic: He moved the steering wheel to the left side to improve the driver’s perspective of oncoming vehicles.

    ford motor company launched a national advertising campaign, with ads appearing in the saturday evening post, harper’s weekly and other magazines. for an “unheard-of” price of $850, the ads promised “a powerful, fast, durable, 20-hp, five-passenger, 4-cylinder family car.” an additional $100 would buy services like a windshield, speedometer, and headlights.

    Ford made just 309 Model Ts in 1908, but his new car was destined to be one of the most successful ever made. In 1913, Ford would institute the assembly line at its plant in Highland Park, Michigan. In its first year, the company more than doubled its production of Model Ts, to 189,000, or about half of the cars made in the United States that year. By 1916, Ford would be making almost 600,000 cars a year and could lower the price of the Model T to $360, which created more demand, to which Ford responded with more supply.

    henry ford was excellent at anticipating the future, but not even he could have predicted the popularity of the model t and the effects it would have in years to come on the way americans lived and worked, on the landscape around them and in the air they breathed—in almost every aspect of American life. America would become, largely thanks to the Model T, an automobile nation.

    It would be a mistake to leave the impression that life is a party for most Americans. a large number lived in or near poverty. the working class, including some two million children who joined adults in steel mills and coal mines, worked long hours in occupations that were backbreaking and often dangerous. Tens of thousands of Americans died on the job in 1908.

    In the fall of that year, the term “melting pot” entered the American lexicon, coined by playwright Israel Zangwill to denote the nation’s ability to absorb and assimilate different ethnicities and cultures. To our ears the words may sound warm and delicious, like a pot of stew, but to Zangwill the crucible was a cauldron, “roaring and bubbling,” as he wrote, “churning and boiling.” so it was. violence frequently erupted. the anarchists lit bombs. Loosely organized extortion gangs known as the Black Hand dynamited homes in New York’s Little Italy. Armies of disaffected tobacco farmers, called Night Riders, galloped through Kentucky and Tennessee, spreading terror. Violence against African Americans persisted, with dozens of lynchings in 1908. That August, whites in Springfield, Illinois—ironically, the hometown and resting place of Abraham Lincoln—attempted to drive black citizens out of the city, burning down businesses. and black homes and lynching two black men. (Like many events of 1908, even Springfield had a far-reaching impact: the riot led to the founding of the NAACP the following year.)

    On the other side of the world, there was a breakthrough of sorts: On December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia, a 30-year-old African-American boxer from Galveston, Texas named Jack Johnson entered the ring to fight Tommy Burns, the heavyweight champion of the world. Like all champions before him, Burns had refused to compete against a black man. But Johnson chased Burns, harassing him until even whites began to suspect that the Canadian was hiding under his white skin. burns eventually agreed to a match, but only with a deal that guaranteed him $30,000 out of a $35,000 purse.

    johnson destroyed burns before 25,000 spectators. blood was pouring from the burns when the police stopped the fight in the fourteenth round. The referee declared Johnson the winner. “Even though he beat me, and he hit me a lot, I still think I’m the master of him,” Burns said after the fight, already calling for a rematch.

    johnson laughed. “Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I just want to hear that white man whining about another chance.” Eventually, Burns decided that he didn’t want another chance after all.

    johnson would go on to be the heavyweight champion for seven years, fending off a series of “great white hopes”. he would be sent to jail in 1920 after federal prosecutors, misapplying a statute intended to discourage prostitution, charged him with illegally transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes after having mailed a train ticket to one of his white girlfriends. though that was later. Now it was Christmas, and Jack Johnson’s victory was a gift for African Americans to savor in the final moments of 1908.

    Despite all the problems, perhaps the most impressive trait Americans shared in 1908 was hope. they believed fiercely, not always rightly, that the future would be better than the present. this faith was represented in the aspirations of immigrant workers, in the dreams of architects and inventors, and in the securities of the rich. “any man who is a bear in the future of this country”, j. p. Morgan declared in December 1908, “it will be ruined.”

    It’s surprising, in fact, how much more hopeful Americans were then than they are today. We live in a nation that is safer, healthier, wealthier, easier, and more equal than it was in 1908, but a recent Pew Research Center survey found that barely a third of us are optimistic about the future. /p>

    of course, we are now more aware of the downsides of technologies that only emerged in 1908. we cannot look at an airplane without knowing the death and destruction, from the first world war to 9/11, that airplanes have caused . . automobiles may once have promised exciting freedoms, but they also cause thousands of deaths each year and horrendous traffic jams, and make us addicted to foreign oil (1908 was the year, coincidentally, that oil was discovered in iran) and pollute the atmosphere with, among other things, carbon dioxide, which will alter the earth in ways few of us dare to imagine. American military pride that sailed with the great white fleet on its round-the-world voyage in 1908 and was greeted with adoration in every port is now tempered by the knowledge that much of the world despises us. we are left with the unsettling idea that the next 100 years may come at a price for the comforts and conquests of the last 100.

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