Tag: Henry Ford

Day 992: The John Wilkes Booth World Tour

Header

When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.

Or was he?

Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?

As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:

Body-1

One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.

Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered. Read more…

Day 814: Little Boxes Made Of Ticky-Tacky

Header

I was perusing through the November 1952 issue of Popular Science magazine yesterday (yes, I’m a little behind in my reading), when I came across an interesting article. It boasted the proud promise of a fresh residential concept: cozy in its cohesive uniformity, a respite from the urban blues, and built for the future. This cookie-cutter community would come to be known as Levittown, Pennsylvania, the inevitable sequel to Levittown, New York, which had opened up five years earlier.

This was the dawn of the modern suburb, the great-grandpappy of today’s seemingly endless sprawl. Originally proposed as a fully inclusive solution to the post-war housing shortage, complete with parks, schools, pools and shopping districts, Levittown came to be a civic archetype. Its bones have since been copied onto the fringes of pretty much every major city on the continent. It boasts consistency, predictability… and no black people.

But we’ll get to that later. I’m going to do my best not to be too hard on William J. Levitt and his vision, in spite its initial dollop of explicit racism, and in spite of how I feel the overused splatter of pre-planned communities has ravaged the heart of my own city. He did solve a significant societal problem, even if that solution may have been somewhat crusty around the edges.

LevittownNewYork

Abraham Levitt founded Levitt & Sons in 1929. Their specialty was in building upper-middle-class homes on Long Island, but while serving overseas in WWII, William Levitt (one of the sons) learned all about how to slap together some quickie military structures. He also saw the impending need for new properties once all the GIs returned home. William persuaded his architect brother and his father to put together a plan to mass-produce a swath of utilitarian one-floor homes on the cheap so that troops could move in with their families right away. Read more…

Day 743: Make Way For Madman Muntz!

Header

 

While the world heaps its historical praise upon the Thomas Edisons, the Henry Fords, and the Giordi Lobzhanidzes (he invented the modern garlic press), we forget that for each titan of invention who helped to shape our twisted, wicked world, there are many who remain practically anonymous. I’m not talking about the utterly unsung individuals whose names are forever scrubbed from their legacy and lost to the ages. No, these are names that get heralded on some small scale in their time, but are likely to vanish into the fog of obscurity only one generation later.

I’d wager a flask of Ovaltine and my old Donald Fagen 8-track that no one from my generation is going to pipe up and claim that they remember Earl William “Madman” Muntz.

Blank and unimpressed as your face may presently be upon reading this, the topic of today’s probing kilograph, I would argue that, strange as it may seem, Muntz’s life’s work did have some sort of effect on the world around you. Perhaps it’s a tiny ripple, but isn’t that enough? Wouldn’t we all be tickled to know that the fabric of time continues to quiver from our impact some 24 years after we’ve scooted into oblivion?

MadmanMuntz

Earl Muntz spent most of his life one or two steps ahead of his time. He spent his youth disassembling electronics and learning how they work. He might have followed this passion down an academic freeway, but the Great Depression booted him to the curb and forced him to quit school to work in his parents’ hardware store in Elgin, Illinois. A few short years later, a 20-year-old Muntz was ready to open his first business: a car dealership. He relocated to California once observing that used cars sold there for much more than they’d fetch in Elgin. Then Muntz single-handedly changed the industry. Read more…

Day 618: Immaculate Conceptions, Part 2 – The Independents

Header

In an effort to make this weekend’s topic of automobiles more relatable to a lifelong non-car-guy like myself, I’m going to draw a simplistic parallel to the world of movies. The majority of what the big auto-makers put out are akin to the majority of big-studio movies that populate our theatres. The boring sedan is the formula rom-com, the minivan is a cliché-ridden kids’ movie, the SUV is your typical political thriller, and the jacked-up pickup truck is the brawn-heavy, brains-light action flick. Oh and your Hummer? That’s a soulless Michael Bay CGI piece of crap.

But concept cars are the one-off studio epiphanies – the brilliant films unlike anything that had come before. These are the Inceptions, the Dr. Strangeloves of the auto world. The difference being that we can all experience those movies, while concept cars are out of reach to everyone, apart from inviting puddles of drool at auto shows. Hey, even a half-decent metaphor can only be stretched so far.

But I’m not interested in the big-studio one-offs; I wrote about those yesterday. A movie fan has to keep one eye on the independents, just as a car-lover should keep track of what folks outside the corporate sphere are cooking up. Today I’m throwing the spotlight on those innovative forward-thinkers who don’t have corporate backing fuelling their fingers.

RinspeedPresto

The Rinspeed Presto, which is really fun to say, emerged from Switzerland in 2002. With the push of a button, this two-seater stretches its innards (and its outards) and becomes a four-seater. It boots around like a roadster, but as with most concept vehicles from this century, the focus is on fuel efficiency. The Presto makes the most of this with an unusual 60/40 diesel / natural gas power system. Read more…

Day 440: Strange Tales From the Hall of Inventors

Header

If you’re wandering through the halls of the National Inventors Hall of Fame museum in Alexandira, Virginia, then congratulations, you have more free time than most of us. This is a shame, because something is lost when we forget the paths these visionaries blazed for us. We might remember some of the most pertinent events – Thomas Edison inventing the steam-powered lemonade dispenser, Henry Ford coming up with the idea for pizza-flavored Pringles, Andy Williams constructing the first ceiling fan out of cabbage leaves and a tensor bandage – but the inspirational stories behind the stories will be lost to the ages unless this museum preserves them.

For example, did you know that Theophilus Van Kannel, the inventor of the revolving door, also invented the Witching Waves amusement park ride at Coney Island pictured above? Of course you didn’t! That’s what you pay me for.

ConradHubert

In 1890, Russan Jew Conrad Hubert decided to come to America. He’d made a good living (and earned a formal education) making and selling booze back home, but there were few opportunities in that field when he landed. He tried opening a few businesses: a cigar store, a restaurant, a jewelry store, a milk wagon route, a farm, and a boarding house – hey, it was New York in a time when Ellis Island was still shuffling the huddled masses inward from distant lands. A guy had to find the right fit. Read more…