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The Indomitable Spirit of American POWs Lives On in These Vietnam Prison Keepsakes

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H/T The Smithsonian.

I had a friend that was in the Hanoi Hilton he told me he had nightmares about it.

For seven years an internee at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” Congressman Sam Johnson entrusts his story to the Smithsonian

 

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Johnson pressed his ear to this humble cup to hear the tap code messages of his friend Bob Shumaker in the next cell over. (NMAH)

If the cold metallic frame and sharp rotor blades of the Smithsonian’s 1966 Bell Huey helicopter evoke the impersonality and mechanization of the Vietnam War, the humble cup and tube of toothpaste donated to the National Museum of American History earlier this week bring into stark focus the conflict’s human cost.

The donor of these unassuming but poignant items is Texas representative Sam Johnson, a decorated Air Force Colonel who spent seven of his 29 years of service detained as a prisoner of war in the brutal northern Vietnamese detention complex called Hỏa Lò. The facility is now best remembered as the “Hanoi Hilton,” but Johnson says he and his fellow captives had a less facetious nickname for it: Hell on Earth.

For the duration of Col. Johnson’s time in Hỏa Lò, the cup and tube were the only worldly possessions he could claim. As he told a group of friends, family and journalists assembled in the museum’s exhibition “Price of Freedom: Americans at War,” where the Bell Huey chopper is prominently displayed, the cup in particular became a cherished symbol of hope in his sustained struggle against creeping despair.

“The tin cup served many purposes,” the 88-year-old congressman (slated to retire this year) told his audience, “but most importantly, it was a way for me and my fellow captives—in particular, Bob Shumaker—to communicate.” Shumaker, a rear admiral in the Navy who had been locked in a cell adjacent to Johnson’s, nodded knowingly from his place among the distinguished guests.

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From left to right: National Museum of American History director John Gray (holding Johnson’s toothpaste), Armed Forces History curator Jennifer Jones (holding Johnson’s cup), Congressman Sam Johnson, Smithsonian Institution Secretary David Skorton. (NMAH)

“We would hold our cups against the wall,” Johnson said, “and they served as amplifiers to hear the tap code.” The tap code was a system of Morse-like finger taps that allowed the prisoners to communicate whole sentences to each other, one painstakingly transmitted letter at a time. Thanks to the cups, Johnson said, “the North Vietnamese couldn’t hear us tapping.”

Johnson’s dingy cup, which he smuggled out of the prison against direct orders (along with the toothpaste tube) upon his release, is clearly an object he holds near and dear to his heart. “That tin cup was a lifeline for so many years,” he said, “and it reminds me of God’s faithfulness to provide friendships that give you the strength to survive through even the darkest times.”

The hardship of those dark times lives on for Johnson in the other object he donated. “The toothpaste,” he said, “if you can call it that, is a reminder of the bleak conditions we were in, and our determination to survive despite the North Vietnamese efforts to treat us as less than human.” Tubes like this were standard-issue for Hỏa Lò detainees; their contents were revolting in taste as well as texture.

Members both of the sequestered 11 Americans known as the “Alcatraz Gang,” Johnson and Shumaker were subjected to especially relentless abuse by their guards. When the Vietnamese finally told Johnson he was free to go, his first thought was that it was just one more sadistic mind game in a long series.POW2.jpg

Unsavory toothpaste like Johnson’s was one of the few “amenities” provided by the North Vietnamese prison staff. Curator Jennifer Jones says that one prisoner fashioned a cross out of his toothpaste box and the foil lining of a cigarette pack. (NMAH)

 

“They lied to us many times and for many years,” he said. “They lined me up for a mock firing squad, and they tried to convince us that we were forgotten and alone.” Incredibly, though, Operation Homecoming was reality: Johnson, Shumaker and the other Hỏa Lò inmates were liberated in early 1973. Johnson had been a captive for 2,494 days.

Johnson finally retired from the Air Force in 1979, but he did not by any means vanish from the public eye, or abandon his commitment to bettering his country. Rather, he started in on a decades-long congressional career as a Texan representative, and in 1995 joined the Smithsonian Board of Regents. Chief Justice John Roberts, the current chancellor of the Board, was present for Johnson’s donation ceremony.

“When my wife and I look at your memoir,” Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton said to the congressman, “we commonly say to each other that if there’s one person who embodies not only the definition but the spirit of service, it’s you.”

Armed forces history curator Jennifer Jones explains that the claustrophobic design of the museum’s POW exhibit was entirely intentional. “When you walk into the space,” she says, “it has a very low ceiling, it’s very dark, and it’s very bleak-looking. We did that on purpose, because it gives you a sense of confined space. We created an atmosphere around those objects that I hope gives you a sense of some of the things the POWs were dealing with.”

Following on 29 years with the United States Air Force, Sam Johnson has continued to serve his country in Congress and as a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents.
Following on 29 years with the United States Air Force, Sam Johnson has continued to serve his country in Congress and as a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents. (NMAH)

While Col. Johnson’s cup and toothpaste tube are not the first Hỏa Lò artifacts to enter the Smithsonian’s collection, Jones says the fact Johnson himself made the donation and related his own story, combined with his status as a member of the Alcatraz Gang and an enduring paragon of public service, make these mementos especially powerful testaments to the reality of life as a POW.

Jones is hopeful Johnson’s contributions will enable museumgoers “to look at one person’s experience and one person’s objects and broaden that out to a larger discussion.” She sees the cup and tube as symbols of the tremendous sacrifice all U.S. military personnel—and their families—are prepared to make on behalf of their nation.

“What appears to be an insignificant item, like a cup,” says Jones, “really embodies a massive story of perseverance and personal sacrifice. Our soldiers, every one of them, are ready to do exactly what Col. Johnson did at any time. Their service is much larger than putting on a uniform.”

For Johnson, the title of the “Price of Freedom” exhibition couldn’t ring truer. Emotion welling in his voice as he concluded his remarks, the congressman recalled words a fellow prisoner had etched into one of Hỏa Lò’s walls: “Freedom has a taste to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know.”

Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/indomitable-spirit-american-pows-lives-these-vietnam-prison-keepsakes-180968193/#tqWclEvfGUHG2GeH.99
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Some Stories About George Washington Are Just Too Good to Be True

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H/T The Smithsonian.

To paraphrase a line from the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

That is what happened with George Washington the legend became facts and were told and retold. 

But there’s a kernel of truth to many of them because Washington was a legend in his own time

Parson Weems’ Fable
Parson Weems’ Fable by Grant Wood, depicting Parson Weems and his famous story of George Washington and the cherry tree. (Wikimedia Commons) 

Did young George Washington use a hatchet to chop down one of his father’s cherry trees, and then confess to the act because he could never tell a lie, even at the age of six? Did he throw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, perhaps half a mile wide? Folklorists refer to these stories as legends because many people believe them to be true, even though the stories cannot be authenticated.

Much about the life of America’s first president seems prone to legend. After all, George Washington is the first of 45 U.S. presidents, the face on our most commonly circulated dollar bill, and the name of our nation’s capital city. In many ways, he has become larger than life, especially when depicted bare-chested and extremely buff in a 12-ton marble statue inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Even the date of Washington’s birth is subject to debate. He was born February 11, 1731, according to the Julian calendar that was in use at the time. When Great Britain and its colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, they removed 11 days from the calendar to bring it into synch with the solar year. Accordingly, Washington’s birthday became February 22, 1732—and a national holiday in the United States from 1879 until 1971, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act fixed it as the third Monday in February. Federal law still calls it Washington’s Birthday, although it is commonly known as Presidents’ Day.

My own favorite story about Washington dates back to March 1783 in Newburgh, New York. Fighting in the Revolutionary War had ceased more than one year earlier, but the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the war, was not signed until September 1783. Drafting of the U.S. Constitution did not begin until May 1787, and Washington was not elected president until early 1789. So the state of affairs in the United States was very uncertain in March 1783. Officers and soldiers in the Continental Army were extremely discontent because they had not been paid in many months and wanted to return home. Animosity was growing toward General Washington, the Army’s commander-in-chief.

George Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, New York, 1780
Washington’s Headquarters 1780 at Newburgh, on the Hudson by an unidentified artist, after 1876 (SAAM)

On Saturday, March 15, 1783, Washington surprised a group of officers by appearing at a meeting in which they were considering whether to mutiny, or even stage a military coup against the Congress of the United States. Washington had prepared a speech—now known as the Newburgh Address—which he read to the assembled officers. It did not go over well, but what happened next has become the stuff of legend.

According to James Thomas Flexner’s 1969 biography, Washington: The Indispensable Man, Washington thought that reading a letter he had received from a member of Congress might help his case. But when he tried to read the letter, something seemed to go wrong. The general seemed confused; he stared at the paper helplessly. The officers leaned forward, their hearts contracting with anxiety. Washington pulled from his pocket something only his intimates had seen him wear: a pair of eyeglasses. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” This homely act and simple statement did what all Washington”s arguments had failed to do. The hardened soldiers wept. Washington had saved the United States from tyranny and civil discord.

It’s a beautiful story, one that memorably captures Washington’s ability to connect on a very human level with the troops he commanded, as well as his willingness to reveal his personal vulnerability—an admirable trait that today is perhaps too infrequently displayed by our military and political leaders. But it’s also a story that raises suspicions among folklorists, who know the proverb, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” and who also know that multiple variants often indicate a story’s folkloric quality.

For instance, the well-known urban legend about an excessively long government memo regulating cabbage sales has slight variants affecting the number of words, the subject of the memo, or the issuing agency. Similarly, there are slight variants to what Washington is supposed to have told the assembled officers. Sometimes he is growing gray, sometimes growing old, sometimes growing blind, and sometimes almost blind. The kernel of the story remains consistent, which is also key to the process of legend making. After all, on the third Monday in February, we can never tell a lie. Or something like that.

A version of this article previously appeared on the online magazine of the Smithsonian Center for for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

 

The First Black Airmen to Fly Across America

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H/T The Smithsonian.

A bit of aviation history I was not aware of.

They took off with $25 and a dream.

James Banning and Thomas Allen planned the route for their coast-to-coast flight to include towns where they knew someone, or which they knew had African-American communities. (NASM (99-15420))

On an early June night at Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, New York, the cafeteria is jammed. A noisy crowd of at least 200 has shown up. They’re here to see a play called Fly With Banning.

A Louis Armstrong melody fills the big room, and the crowd falls quiet. Over the music a voice sings sweetly, “Taking to the sky. Taking to the sky,” over and over. An actor in a black leather coat with sheepskin trim, a fabric helmet, and aviation goggles steps in front of the crowd.

His name, he tells the audience, is James Herman Banning. It is 1932. He discovered his love for flying as a child and never let go of his dream. When no flight school in the country would admit a “colored” man, he found a white pilot willing to teach him, and in 1926, he became one of the first black pilots in America. Now, he tells the audience, he is about to do something no Negro has ever done before. He will fly an airplane “clear across the United States of America,” from Los Angeles to New York City.

When the real Banning took off from Los Angeles’ Dycer Airport on September 19, 1932, just four people came out to watch, a small turnout for the start of an epic flight. As the orange and black Alexander Eaglerock biplane circled wide over the city and then nosed eastward, people on the ground very likely questioned whether the two aviators—James Banning and Thomas Allen—would make it over the looming mountains, let alone reach their destination, 3,000 miles away. Their chances appeared slim.

Planned route for coast-to-coast flight
Planned route for coast-to-coast flight (© Cheryl Graham/iStockphoto LP)

In an unpublished manuscript written by Thomas Allen and held in the Oklahoma Historical Society’s collection, Allen would later write that “this crate acted like it did not care whether it flew or not.” The two aviators had plenty of other reasons to worry. The Eaglerock featured a sputtering, 14-year-old Curtiss OXX-6 engine, and was badly underpowered; according to Banning (who later wrote a series of newspaper articles about the flight), the Eaglerock was “put together [with] various cracked-up airplane parts.” The instruments were also unreliable, including a compass that was off by 30 degrees. Their biggest worry, though, wasn’t the airworthiness of their crate. Although their final destination was a continent away, they’d taken off with just $25 between them. When they landed in Yuma, Arizona, their first major stop, they would be out of money. Allen, however, had a plan to keep them going: Everyone who contributed money, meals, or the like would be invited to sign the lower left wingtip of the aircraft. Allen called the wing “The Gold Book.”

The play performed in Hartsdale was written by white educator and author Louisa Jaggar, inspired by her multiracial grandson to create works about African-American role models. Hers is not the first effort to bring the story of Banning and Allen to a larger audience. In 1987, Philip Hart, a great-nephew of Banning, together with his wife Tanya, a television and radio personality, produced and directed a documentary titled Flyers in Search of a Dream, on the history of black aviation. Now 73 and living in Los Angeles, Hart recalls growing up in Denver in the 1940s and seeing family photo albums with pictures of Banning and Allen. His grandmother was Banning’s older sister. She, his aunt, and his mother told him about the flight. He recalls, “My grandmother was a couple of years older than her brother. She worried about his safety, she told me, but trusted his instincts.” Hart recalls “showing family photos of Banning and his airplane to teachers, and they didn’t necessarily believe it [had happened].” As a junior high school student, he went to the library to learn more about his great-uncle. He found, he says, “a tremendous amount about Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, and nothing about Banning. Why couldn’t I read about him?” While working as a real estate developer and University of Massachusetts professor of sociology, he gathered historic documents, photographs, film, and other materials about early black aviators. He has since written a number of books for young readers and reading-challenged students about black aviation pioneers. He and his wife are also developing a feature film about Banning and Allen’s flight, which they hope to have in theaters in 2019.

Aviation pioneering apparently circulates in the Hart family blood. “My love of airplanes started from early childhood,” says Christopher, Philip’s younger brother by three years. “My mother once told me that the first picture she ever saw me draw was an airplane. But I didn’t learn of Banning’s achievement until I was in high school, when I became aware that Phil was exploring it.” Christopher is a licensed pilot with commercial, multi-engine, and instrument ratings and a noted transportation safety expert who has served two terms on the five-member National Transportation Safety Board. In 2015, he became the first African-American appointed chairman of the NTSB, completing his two-year term in March 2017. He remains an NTSB member. “James Herman Banning’s achievements led to my being where I am today,” he says. “He played a major role in starting the process of getting African-Americans more involved in aviation.”

 Banning and Allen had separately made their ways to Los Angeles at the invitation of William Powell. In 1929, Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, named for the late pioneering African-American stunt pilot. He developed a variety of programs to train blacks for employment in the region’s burgeoning aviation industry, and asked Banning to serve as the school’s chief pilot. In 1931, Powell staged the country’s first All-Negro Air Show. Fifteen thousand paying spectators turned out to watch the festive Colored Air Circus put on by the Five Blackbirds, African-American stunt fliers. That event’s success convinced Powell that aviation spectacle could help drum up interest in flying among African-Americans.

In 1932, when a rumor spread of a $1,000 prize for the first black fliers to complete a transcontinental flight, Powell and copilot Irvin Wells set out, but crashed in the mountains of New Mexico. Shortly after, Banning and Allen decided to make an attempt, with no fanfare, hoping to become the first African-Americans to make the flight. Flying across the country was first accomplished some 20 years earlier by Calbraith Perry Rodgers and had been repeated four times since.

Allen had originally considered making the flight solo; as he would later write, he was skeptical of some black pilots’ claims: “I was fed up [with] Negro aviators,” he wrote. “Most of their flying was done in the newspapers and very little on wings.” Instead, he headed for Los Angeles, apparently meeting Banning for the first time just four days before the two left on their transcontinental adventure.

 

Alexander Eaglerock

Put together from several airplanes, Banning and Allen’s Alexander Eaglerock looked like but wasn’t as spiffy as this one, flying at a 2007 Midwest antique fly-in. (Gilles Auliard)

As the Eaglerock took off, Allen plotted their route: They would zigzag from Los Angeles southwest through Arizona and across to Texas, then veer northeast into Oklahoma and through the Midwest, and finally turn due east toward their final destination, outside New York City. The flight plan took them through towns where the pilots knew someone. Allen would write in his manuscript, “I planned not to get any person or group of people in one town to give more money than just enough to put us into another town where we were known. I also told Banning we did not intend to pay for a night’s lodging on the way, but might have to pay for some of our meals.” In the depths of the Great Depression, that was asking a great deal of people who were often too poor to feed their own families. But the two men had no alternative; they would have to rely on the support of segregated black communities that lay along the course Allen had mapped. Allen said, according to William Powell’s 1934 book Black Wings, “Gee, we’ll be just like hobos, begging our way.”

Banning was inspired by the thought: “We’ll capitalize on our plight. We’ll call ourselves the ‘Flying Hobos.’ ” They decided not to christen their airplane with some catchy name or even alert the press, recalled Banning, fearing they might “make announcements and then fall down.” If they succeeded, he later told the Chicago Defender, they would “then let others herald it.”

As the Eaglerock headed toward Yuma, Arizona, Allen recalled, “It got so hot that I took off my overalls and unbuttoned my shirt. The water was boiling in the radiator and the slip stream from the propeller was blowing it through a hole in the cowling.” When the fliers reached Yuma, the airport attendant recognized Banning: “Aren’t you the same fellow who landed here two years ago and blew a tire?” Banning said he was. The man remembered that Banning made a three-point landing before he hit a pothole in the runway, damaging the airplane. The airport replaced the runway with a modern asphalt strip. “Your accident is the cause of us having a real airport now,” the man said.

Banning wasn’t shy: “That should be worth at least a tank of gasoline.” Soon, they were flying on to Tucson. They flew through the dusk, “from one beacon light to the next,” wrote Allen, landing just after dark.

Early the next day, as they prepared to take off, Allen noticed gas dripping from the carburetor. After fixing a leaky float, they flew into the already fierce desert heat. On a northerly heading, they flew low through the Apache Pass, then descended toward El Paso. Their fuel nearly gone, they set down in southwest New Mexico. They were broke and stuck in Lordsburg, a town where they knew nobody.

The population was mostly “Mexicans and Indians,” said Allen in a 1982 oral history conducted by Phil Hart, “and when we told them that we were trying to make a transcontinental flight, they said ‘We don’t care what Negroes are doing, we are having a hard enough time eating.’ ”

 

Banning (right) penned a series of popular articles

Banning (right) penned a series of popular articles: “Put on your flying togs, kind friend, because you are going to be our imaginary passenger on a very real flight.” (NASM (83-98))

Desperate for a few gallons of gas to get them along to better pickings, Allen pawned a flying suit and his watch for $10 to a member of the community named Mr. R.C. Hightower. He then invited Mrs. Hightower to sign the Gold Book; she “was thrilled to have her name fly all the way to New York,” wrote Allen.

They flew by dead reckoning; in the high desert, thin air kept them close to the ground (“never more than two hundred feet from the top of the sagebrush,” wrote Allen) in their underpowered airplane. The engine was rated at 100 horsepower but, Banning joked, “Some of the horses are dead.” West of El Paso the Eaglerock faced its first major test: crossing over the 8,000-foot El Capitan, which rose up like a watch tower at the southern terminus of an enormous limestone castle wall. There was no way to fly around the range and still have enough gas to reach El Paso. Suddenly a squall brewed up in front of them. They had no choice but to head straight into the dark clouds. Driving rain battered them. Banning strained for a view of El Capitan’s rocky top. “Engulfed, flying blind,” Banning wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier. “We can’t see our own wing tips,” let alone the ground. Terrified, he realized too late, “We are fools to fly through this without proper equipment.”

His heart pounding, he thought, “A stall or spin here would be fatal!” They gradually descended until they finally found better visibility and, to their relief, not a rocky face to crash into.

Once on the ground in El Paso, they had to face their next hurdle. They were almost 1,000 miles into their journey and broke again. They sent a telegram to a friend in California, asking for $25.

Plotting a course toward Dallas, they flew along the railroad tracks between towns, sometimes landing in farm fields where farmers went slack-jawed at the sight of two black men descending from the sky. After the farmers got over their shock, they sometimes invited the men home for a meal. Banning and Allen managed to charm a few into siphoning gas from their tractors to speed them on their way.

After overnighting in the tiny west Texas oil patch town of Wink, they hopscotched to Wichita Falls, Texas, a town where Banning’s wife had relatives. When they landed at the airfield there shortly before dark, a local newspaper reporter happened to be on hand. The pair spent the night with Banning’s in-laws. When they returned to the airport the next morning, Allen said in his oral history, they were stunned to find that close to 1,000 people had gathered on the field. The local newspaper had run a story about their transcontinental project. Making their way through the crowd, they confessed to being broke. “Let’s give them a little help!” somebody called out. In a few minutes Banning and Allen were climbing back into their cockpits $125 richer.

They flew into Oklahoma, where both men had family. They stopped in El Reno, where Banning visited his brother; Allen reunited with his mother in Oklahoma City. The next day, the two began knocking on doors, asking people to help them achieve their personal goal and advance the race and an entire nation. Amazingly, people with barely enough to feed themselves took up collections. Families offered beds and meals. Signatures began to cover the doped canvas.

Heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis(second from the left)visited William Powell’s aviation workshop in the 1930s and donated money to the flying school.(NSAM(99-154180)

Although enrolled at Iowa State,Banning decided electrical engineering couldn’t compete with barnstorming in his Hummingbird(NSAM(8397)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Word of their attempt to fly across the country made it to the black press, and radio stations and newspapers issued reports on their progress. Learning of Banning and Allen’s approach, people began to watch for their arrival.

When they landed in Tulsa, William Skelly, a wealthy white oilman, was waiting at the city airport. Though not a pilot, he owned a small airplane factory and flight school and had put together the syndicate that built the city airport. He offered to fund the two all the way to St. Louis. They stopped in Carthage, Missouri, then pushed on.

Learning more about the flight and the struggles the aviators encountered, Jaggar and her research partner, Pat Smith, decided to pursue a multimedia project about the aviators’ lives, including an exhibit, a website, videos, and the play. They found actors for the roles of Banning and Allen, and raised funds to bring the play to schools and libraries in underserved communities. They reached out to aviation historians, including Von Hardesty, who co-curated the National Air and Space Museum’s seminal 1982 exhibit, “Black Wings: The American Black in Aviation,” and co-wrote an accompanying book with the same title.

Racial segregation “created a parallel world of flying,” notes Hardesty, “[resulting in] all-black flying clubs, airshows, and training programs. The main task for early black aviation pioneers was to break out of this pattern of segregation. One highly visible [way] was to establish new air records.”

Thousands of people were on hand in St. Louis to greet the Flying Hobos. One newspaper reported on their attempt at the transcontinental journey in the depths of the Great Depression: “What will come of this flight and this record remains to be seen. But it is certainly stimulating that we have heroes who come to light in this very worst of times.”

In St. Louis, though, the men realized their airplane’s overtaxed engine needed to be rebuilt. They did not have the money to buy the parts for it. Both men knew people in town, though, including a teacher at a trade school, who said that the school could completely rebuild the engine. The students soon had the OXX-6 running.

The two flew to Springfield, Illinois, on to Terre Haute, Indiana, and then, after a few days’ rest in Columbus, Ohio, they took off confident they could reach their goal. Within a few minutes, though, the engine began shaking so hard they thought the whole aircraft might fall apart. They had to set down. They were flying over rolling farmland and patchy forest. All Banning could see were “Trees, bushes, stumps!” He glided down, managing to pull the nose up enough to get over a fence before side-slipping into a rough landing on a plowed field.

Banning and Allen inspected their aircraft. “Not a scratch on the ship,” remarked a proud Banning. “You don’t die every time your motor does,” he noted later on. 
They were somewhere outside the town of Cambridge, Ohio. Allen spent the night beneath the wing while Banning made his way back to Columbus. Once there, he found an airplane parts supplier who told him to take whatever he needed, on the house.

Banning would die
Banning would die just four months after his epic flight, in an airshow crash. (NASM (83-99))

“We [are] still flying,” the delighted Allen remarked. But the closer they got to their endpoint, New York, the more anxious they grew. They flew with the gnawing fear, said Allen, of “getting within a few miles of our destination and absolutely run[ning] out of the last drop of gasoline.”

Then came what he called “one of the greatest stops…of the whole flight.”

When Banning and Allen landed in Pittsburgh, they telephoned the offices of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s leading black newspapers. Courier publisher Robert L. Vann drove out to the airport and brought the pair downtown, where they were heralded like conquering heroes. Election Day was approaching, so Vann took them to meet state Democratic Party officials in town. Seeing a chance to exploit the young men’s fame and airplane, party officials enlisted them to publicize Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential campaign during their flight east over Pennsylvania. In return for dropping handbills supporting the Democratic ticket and writing first-person stories about their cross-country adventures, Vann and the Democratic Party promised to cover the men’s remaining expenses, handle publicity for them, and pay to put the Eaglerock back in shape for a return flight to California.

They took off with gunny sacks filled with some 15,000 leaflets. “We were more than happy to throw them out of the plane to save weight,” Allen recalled in his oral history. They watched as the papers fluttered down and “just about completely littered Pennsylvania.”

They flew to Bala Cynwyd, outside Philadelphia, then to West Trenton for their last night on the road. Around eight in the crisp and sunny fall morning of October 9, they cranked the OXX-6 engine one final time. “Old Sol seems to be smiling on our success,” Banning thought. A little over an hour later, the two aviators circled the towers of Manhattan. Not long after, they looked down upon what Banning called “the biggest thrill of our trip—our goal…. I feel like looping the loop!” he exclaimed.

Banning’s great-nephews
Banning’s great-nephews trace their love of aviation to their illustrious relative. From left to right: Philip, Christopher, and Judson Hart in Denver, 2016. (David Bruce Stevens)

Christopher Hart hopes that Banning’s accomplishments “will continue inspiring people to be more accepting of the concept of African-Americans in significant positions in the aviation industry. My hope is that informing people about Banning’s will and determination will inspire people to have a similar will and determination no matter how daunting the challenge.”

After the play ended that June night at Woodlands High School, I approached A.J. Shikapwashya, a bright-eyed 11-year-old sixth grader from a nearby middle school, whose parents are immigrants from Zambia. He tells me that he hopes to become a veterinarian. “It was very inspiring how they achieved their dream,” he says. “They didn’t have the money to do it, but they did it anyway. I’d like to learn more about them.”

The 3,300-mile flight lasted just 41 hours and 37 minutes but had taken 21 days to complete—not much of an improvement on the first cross-country flight, two decades earlier. But little matter. African-American pilots had crossed the continent in the air, beyond the reach of race, outside the bounds of discrimination, over the barriers of segregation.

Read more at https://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/banning-allen-transcontinental-flt-180967706/#XMKgkyp5bXewhYsP.99

 

How Douglas Engelbart Invented the Future

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H/T The Smithsonian.

Two decades before the personal computer, a shy engineer unveiled the tools that would drive the tech revolution.

Engelbart designed the mouse to replace the light pen as a pointing device. (Computer History Museum / Mark Richards)

On December 8, 1968, Douglas Engelbart sat in front of a crowd of 1,000 in San Francisco, ready to introduce networked computing to the world. Engelbart was no Steve Jobs. He was a shy engineer with no marketing background. His goal was to speak directly to other engineers, showing them that they could use computers in new ways to solve complex human problems.

That message was radical enough in 1968. Most programmers of the day used punch cards to carry out quantitative tasks like tabulating census data, writing banking code or calculating a missile’s trajectory. Even in the futuristic 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out in April 1968, the HAL 9000 was an enhanced version of the same thing. It could play chess and make small talk with crew members (and ultimately sabotage the whole mission), but its job was still to compute numbers and run systems. HAL didn’t give its users a way to write, design or collaborate on documents.

Engelbart didn’t just come up with the notion of using computers to solve the urgent and multifaceted problems facing humanity. He also gave the first-ever live demonstration of networked personal computing. Today, it’s known as “the mother of all demos,” a precursor to every technology presentation that’s happened since—and arguably more ambitious than any of them.

(Yann Kebbi)

When Engelbart walked onstage, he was wearing a headset with a microphone so he could talk to other members of his team at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park. Engelbart’s team ran 30 miles of cables over the highways and to San Francisco. In order to project the demo onto a 22-foot by 18-foot screen, they’d borrowed a projector from NASA.

Engelbart started with a provocative question: “If in your office, you, as an intellectual worker, were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day, and was instantly responsive to every action you have—how much value could you derive from that?”

Then he began to type, using a keyboard with numbers and letters instead of inputting information with a punch card. Text appeared on the screen: Word word word word. “If I make some mistakes, I can back up a little bit,” he noted, proudly showing off his new delete function. He announced that he was going to save the document. “Oh, I need a name,” he explained, and titled it “Sample File.” He showed that he could copy the text—and paste it again and again.

Next, Engelbart pulled up a shopping list onto the screen: apples, bananas, soup, beans. He moved the items up and down the list with simple clicks, organizing produce with produce, canned goods with canned goods, dairy with dairy.

“But there’s another thing I can do,” he declared. He pulled up a map of his route home, with stops along the way. “Library. What am I supposed to do there?” he asked. A click on the word Library pulled up another list. “Oh, I see. Overdue books.” He went back to the map and clicked on the word Drugstore. Another list popped up, showing items like aspirin and Chapstick.

It wasn’t just the software that was revolutionary. Engelbart had also invented a new tracking device with the help of Bill English, an engineer on his team. As the small device rolled, a dot on the screen rolled along with it. “I don’t know why we call it a mouse,” Engelbart remarked. “Sometimes I apologize. It started that way and we never did change it.”

Engelbart called his program the ­oN-Line System, or NLS. His larger goal, beyond any of the specific functions he’d introduced, was for people to collaborate. Toward the end of his presentation, he alluded to an “experimental network” that would allow different users to collaborate from as far away as Harvard and Stanford. He was describing the ARPANET, a program that was just starting to burgeon at the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPA) under the U.S. Department of Defense.

Engelbart expected his presentation to attract hundreds of engineers eager to join him in this new wave of computing. He had, after all, introduced word processing, document sharing, version control and hyperlinks, and he’d integrated text, graphics and video conferencing. He’d even foreshadowed the internet. He thought the audience members would line up afterwards to ask how they could join his network and help develop his ideas.

Instead, they gave him a standing ovation and then filed out of the auditorium.

 

I found out about Engelbart almost by accident, in 1986, when I was working on a TV show about Silicon Valley for the PBS station in San Jose. I was looking for B-roll footage in the Stanford library when Henry Lowood, a librarian, mentioned a film reel he had from a computer demonstration in 1968. I was riveted.

After our program aired, Engelbart asked us to produce a video about his ideas. We never did make the video, but as I sat down to talk to him, I realized that what he was describing could actually change the world. It certainly changed me. I went to graduate school at Harvard and studied educational technology, and we worked closely together until his death in 2013.

Engelbart’s entire career was based on an epiphany he had in the spring of 1951. He had just gotten engaged and was working at NACA, the precursor to NASA, in Mountain View, California. He’d come a long way from his Depression-era childhood in rural Oregon, where he’d spend his days roaming the woods and tinkering in the barn. He realized he had achieved both of his major life goals: a good job and a good wife. He pondered what he should aim for next.

Then it hit him. “It just went ‘click,’” he told me later. “If in some way, you could contribute significantly to the way humans could handle complexity and urgency, that would be universally helpful.” He had a vision of people sitting in front of computer monitors, using words and symbols to develop their ideas, and then collaborate. “If a computer could punch cards or print on paper,” he said, “I just knew it could draw or write on a screen, so we could be interacting with the computer and actually do interactive work.”

At that time, there were relatively few computers in the world. The University of California at Berkeley was building one, so he went there for his PhD. He earned several patents and in 1962, while working at the Stanford Research Institute, he published a paper titled “Augmenting the Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” At its core was the idea that computers could augment human intelligence. He outlined innovative ways of manipulating and viewing information, and then sharing it over a network so people could work together.

When he demonstrated this revolutionary idea in 1968, why didn’t he get the response he’d been hoping for? I got some insight into this when I interviewed some of the engineers who’d attended his demo. They told me they’d been awestruck, but that nothing he’d described had any relation to their jobs. He was asking them to take too big a leap, from doing calculations on punch cards to creating a new information superhighway.

In the mid-1970s, Engelbart’s lab, which he called the Augmentation Research Center, used government funding to support the quickly growing ARPANET. In a highly unorthodox move, he hired young women who’d graduated from Stanford with degrees in fields like anthropology and sociology. Engelbart, who had three daughters himself, believed that women were ideally suited to building new cultures. He sent his new hires out to other institutions to build “networked improvement communities.”

This got him in a lot of trouble. The ARPANET’s funders couldn’t see why real people needed to support users. They saw his hires as a sign of failure—his systems weren’t easy enough to use on their own. What Engelbart failed to communicate was that these women weren’t just teaching people which keys to press. He wanted them to bring together thinkers who could, collectively, change the way the networks collected and analyzed information. Before long, the government reduced his funding, foreshadowing the end of his Augmentation Research Center.

His “corded keyset”which used cord- like combinations to send commands.Christie Hemm Klo

The author Valeria Landau(Christie Hemm Klok}                      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later in the 1970s, Engelbart lost his key engineers to Xerox PARC lab, a lavish and well-funded research center a few miles away. At the head was Alan Kay, 15 years Engelbart’s junior—an upbeat, brilliant guy who knew how to inspire people. The laboratory chief was Engelbart’s former funder from ARPA, Robert Taylor. For Engelbart, networks had always been an inextricable part of his vision. But under Kay’s direction, the engineers created a personal computer, geared toward individual productivity rather than collaboration. Their software included more user-friendly versions of a few of Engelbart’s original ideas, including multiple windows, text with integrated graphics, and the mouse. A cruel joke of the time was that Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center had been a training program for PARC.

In 1979, Xerox allowed Steve Jobs and other Apple executives to tour its labs twice, in exchange for the right to buy 100,000 shares of Apple stock. Once Jobs began working on these ideas, they became even more streamlined. Engelbart’s mouse had three buttons, which he used in different combinations to perform a range of tasks. After licensing this invention from the Stanford Research Institute, Apple decided it would be simpler to give it just one button. Engelbart lamented that the mouse’s capability had been dumbed down to make it “easy to use.”

Ironically, the mouse was the one invention that earned Engelbart widespread recognition, though it never earned him more than an initial lump sum of $10,000 from the Stanford Research Institute. He was bewildered that the simplest artifact from his grand vision had been the most widely embraced. After all, he’d foreshadowed just about everything Apple and Microsoft went on to create—at a time when Jobs and Bill Gates were just 13 years old. Alan Kay himself once remarked, “I don’t know what Silicon Valley will do when it runs out of Doug’s ideas.”

Engelbart’s refusal to compromise was one of the main reasons he had a hard time gathering momentum. He often ended discussions by declaring, “You just don’t get it.” That catchphrase cost Engelbart dearly. His detractors snidely remarked that the great proponent of collaboration was, ironically, unable to collaborate.

I myself was at the receiving end of Engelbart’s insults on several occasions. But no matter how irritably he behaved as a colleague, I knew he had great love for me as a person. And I understood why he so often felt frustrated. As I saw it, his ideas were so ahead of their time that there was often no language to describe them. When I asked him in 2006 how much of his vision had been achieved, Engelbart answered, “About 2.8 percent.”

Because his system was designed to present the same information from different angles, it was more than a rudimentary version of the software we use today. I believe it was better equipped than Apple’s or Microsoft’s programs to solving problems like peace, income inequality, sustainable development and climate change. He designed it for sophisticated knowledge workers—writers, designers, data analysts, economists. Even Google’s collaborative apps are less ideally suited to do serious work that integrates libraries of data, documents, graphics, text and information maps. Engelbart’s system came with a learning curve, but he believed the result was worth it. When people praised other software for being more intuitive, he asked them whether they’d rather ride a tricycle or a bicycle.

Although he earned over 40 awards—including the National Medal of Technology & Innovation, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize and several honorary doctorates—Engelbart often felt demoralized. He died in 2013, after suffering from kidney failure. But many of us are still inspired by his dream. As a professor, I’ve brought his ideas to the classroom and seen them change the way my students think. As one of them wrote in a letter to our university president, “Team members are thinking together and tapping into the collective IQ to augment individual performance, and the whole of our group is much greater than the sum of its parts. It is an exhilarating and rewarding experience.” Even in this interconnected age, the world could use more of that.

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Thomas Edison’s Forgotten Sci-Fi Novel

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H/T The Smithsonian.

I did not know Edison had written a Sci-Fi novel.

I think it would be an interesting book to read.

Thomas Edison’s ideas fed the story that would become In the Deep of Time. (RTRO / Alamy Stock Photo)

When Thomas Edison died in 1931, he held more than 1,000 patents in the United States alone. He was credited with inventing, or significantly advancing, electric lighting, storage batteries, the motion picture camera, the phonograph and even cement making—among many other things.

Edison nearly added another item to his résumé that’s all but forgotten today: Progress, a science-fiction novel he began working on around 1890. Although the inventor abandoned the project before it could be finished, he wrote pages and pages of notes that a collaborator, George Parsons Lathrop, would eventually turn into a work of futuristic fiction, In the Deep of Time, published in 1896.

A well-regarded author, editor, playwright, and poet of his day, Lathrop (also the son-in-law of Nathaniel Hawthorne) approached Edison in late 1888 with a proposal to collaborate on the inventor’s memoirs according to the 1995 biography Edison: Inventing the Century, by Neil Baldwin. Lathrop had already written about him for magazines, including “Talks With Edison,” a widely publicized 1890 Harper’s piece that purported to “afford for the first time a vivid perception of ‘how an inventor invents.’” By then Edison wasn’t just an inventor to many Americans, but the inventor, famous, in particular, for his incandescent light bulb introduced a decade earlier.

In his Harper’s article, Lathrop observed that, “Mr. Edison resolutely objects to even the appearance of talking about himself in public.” So Lathrop might not have been totally surprised when the great man turned him down. Instead, they came up with another idea: a science fiction novel for which Edison would supply the ideas and Lathrop would do the writing. Edison had little formal education, and while he owned a huge library and was an avid reader, he may not have felt he had either the novelistic talent or the time to write the book himself.

When the two men embarked on the project, readers had been snatching up books that speculated about the future while drawing on the latest scientific advances. The French science fiction pioneer Jules Verne, who published From the Earth to the Moon in 1865 and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870, was continuing to crank them out; his 1889 novel, The Purchase of the North Pole, involved a scheme to change the tilt of the Earth’s axis with a huge explosion and mine the Arctic for coal.

American Edward Bellamy’s bestselling time-travel novel, Looking Backward, had appeared in 1888, and a newcomer to the genre, British author H.G. Wells, would publish his breakthrough book, The Time Machine, in 1895, followed three years later by The War of the Worlds.

Edison, probably the most celebrated American scientist of the day, and Lathrop, considered an author of the first rank by contemporary critics, must have seemed like an unbeatable combination; press from around the world published news reports of their project.

By late 1892, though, the project seemed to be in trouble. “The electric novel which Mr. Edison was said to be writing is ‘off,’” The Australian Star, a Sydney newspaper, announced.

“Edison was all enthusiasm at first, and Lathrop had five or six interviews with him, in which Edison poured out suggestions faster than Lathrop could assimilate them.” the account went on to explain. “Then Edison’s enthusiasm cooled. He tired of the whole thing and would have nothing more to do with it, leaving Lathrop in the lurch with a novel about half done.”

According to the 1908 biography Thomas Alva Edison: Sixty Years of an Inventor’s Life by Francis Arthur Jones, Edison told Lathrop that he “would rather invent a dozen useful things, including a mechanical novelist who would turn out works of fiction when the machinery was set in motion, than go any further with the electrical novel.”

Lathrop proceeded all the same, and In the Deep of Time, now more novella than full-length novel, appeared as a serial in several U.S. newspapers in December 1896. The English Illustrated Magazine ran it in two installments the following spring. It was bylined “by George Parsons Lathrop in Collaboration with Thomas A. Edison.”

Introducing the first installment, Lathrop noted that, “This story is the result of conversations with Thomas A. Edison, the substance of which he afterwards put into the form of notes written for my use…. For the story itself I alone am responsible.”

Readers of the day may have rightly wondered what was Edison’s and what was Lathrop’s in the resulting work. Fortunately, 33 pages of feverishly scrawled notes were preserved and are now available online as part of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University. The notes, many written on “From the Laboratory of Thomas A. Edison. Orange, N.J.” stationery in what is presumably Edison’s hand, also carry some questions in red pencil and a different handwriting that is very likely Lathrop’s.

The collection also holds correspondence between the two men, providing insights into their sometimes fraught working relationship. In one August 1891 letter, for example, Lathrop complains that after spending a month near Edison’s home in New Jersey, waiting for an interview, he had only gotten 15 minutes of the inventor’s time. He likened the experience to being “forced to hang around like a dog waiting for a bone — and not even getting the bone.”

In an October 1891 note, the frustrated author complains that Edison has been sharing his futuristic imaginings with newspaper interviewers: “Please don’t, I beg of you, give away any more of these matters to the reporters, if you care anything for the success of the novel….  In the time that you give to talking to reporters, you could — I think — give me material enough to finish the book.”

The Seattle post-intelligencer., December 27, 1896, Page 13, Image 9

In the Deep of Time as published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on December 27, 1896. (Library of Congress)

The following month Lathrop pleads, “I have been waiting patiently, a number of weeks, for some notification from you that you are ready to proceed…. Do you think you will be able to take the matter up by Dec. 1st?”

Finally, in late January 1892, Edison replied that he had completed a batch of notes that were ready for Lathrop to come fetch. Comparing Edison’s notes to the published text shows that much of the novel was indeed based on his ideas, with Lathrop providing a sort of connective tissue in the form of a rather goofy—but entertaining—adventure story.

In brief: A young man named Gerald Bemis agrees to participate in a bold experiment. Scientists inject him with mysterious substances and then seal him in an airtight glass cylinder—a process Lathrop calls “vivification.” Three centuries later, around the year 2200, he’s brought back to consciousness, no worse for the wear and, in fact, “amazingly refreshed.” (In some respects the process prefigures the cryogenics or cryonics experiments that began in the mid-20th century, although rather than being frozen stiff, Bemis’s body is kept at a cozy 98 degrees Fahrenheit.)  Once up and about, our hero gets a glimpse of the future, a lot of it drawn directly from Edison’s notes.

So, what did the Wizard of Menlo Park foresee for the 23rd century?

Perhaps most dramatically, spaceships could travel 100,000 miles a second once they’d left the Earth’s atmosphere, making a trip from Earth to Mars possible in just over eight hours. The civilizations of Mars and the Earth had established contact decades earlier, Lathrop explained, and communicated by means of “planetary telegraphing.”

Back on Earth, people buzzed around in “air-ships” propelled by wings that fluttered like a bumblebee’s, while small, unmanned flying machines delivered the mail.

On the ground, people drove electric tricycles and carriages, with batteries that they could recharge at any hotel. Another popular conveyance was the “walking balloon”—essentially a hot-air balloon basket with sails overhead and long aluminum legs below.

Edison’s other ideas touched on manufacturing, medicine, and even something close to genetic engineering. Many would prove remarkably prescient, others way off the mark.

Among his more successful predictions, Edison foresaw the practical use of solar power, with “sun-engines” that could convert sunlight into electricity. He imagined taking photographs in the dark by capturing radiant heat on film—much like what we now know as infrared photography. He saw a time when people would no longer eat “animal matter” but instead enjoy man-made substitutes like “vegetable steaks”— a familiar concept to today’s supermarket shopper.

Less prescient — at least so far — was his belief that common diseases would be all but eradicated by the compulsory vaccination of children, ditto for his “calcareous, antisepticised bandages” that could grow new teeth when applied to people’s gums. And his prediction that an “International Darwin Society” would eventually breed apes capable of conversing in English remains sadly unfulfilled.

Though enthusiastically hyped by the newspapers that serialized it (“a thrilling novel of a future controlled by Electricity,” the Washington, D.C., Morning Times proclaimed; “one of the most remarkable stories ever written,” insisted The New York Press), In the Deep of Time, seems to have made little impression on the public. It would never appear in conventional book form and, until the advent of the Internet, was almost impossible to find. In the numerous Edison biographies that have appeared in the decades since, it rarely rates more than a footnote, and seldom even that.

Unfortunately for author George Parsons Lathrop, he wouldn’t live to see much of the future. He died less than two years after the publication of In the Deep of Time, at age 46. Edison, however, would go on for another three decades and well into the 20th century—long enough to witness scientific advances that even he hadn’t imagined.

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This Time-Saving Patent Paved the Way for the Modern Dishwasher

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H/T The Smithsonian.

Some history of the dishwasher.

Josephine Cochran just wanted to stop having broken dishes.

A 2013 Romanian stamp features Cochran and her dishwasher. (Wikimedia Commons)

While hand washing the dishes has its upsides–it’s a meditative pastime that sometimes saves water–anyone who does it regularly can tell you it has its downsides too. For one thing, slippery plates sometimes get dropped and broken, ruining the symmetry of your four-serving set. For another, it can be time-consuming.

 

These discomforts are as old as dishes themselves. But on this day in 1886, an Illinois woman named Josephine Garis Cochran received a patent that went some way to addressing her specific problems. “Cochran, a wealthy woman who entertained often, wanted a machine that could wash dishes faster than her servants, and without breaking them,” writes the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Although some dishwashers had already been invented, none of them were commercially viable, so none were available to her. Undaunted, “she measured the dishes first, then she made wire compartments, each designed to fit plates, cups, or saucers,” writes the USPTO. According to her patent, the racks fit into a flat wheel sitting inside a boiler. “A motor turned the wheel while hot soapy water squirted from the bottom of the boiler and rained down on the dishes,” the patent office writes.

This invention worked. And the dishwasher was Cochran’s ticket out of poverty. While she had lived well when Mr. Cochran was alive, he died shortly after she began to work on her invention, leaving her with his significant debts and only about $1500 in cash, according to historian John H. Lienhard. She got to work in the same shed beside her house where she’d done the original inventing, this time to produce the machine for others.

Her crude-but-effective original design got some buy-in from friends and acquaintances, writes author Charles Panati, but her real market was hotels and restaurants, “where volume dishwashing–and breakage–was a continuous and costly problem.”

“Realizing that she had hit upon a timely invention, Mrs. Cochran patented her invention in December 1886; her washer went on to win the highest award at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair for, as the citation read, ‘the best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to its line of work,’” he writes. At that history-making exhibition, her device was one of a number of food inventions heralding a new American relationship with cookery that would continue into the twentieth century–such as premade candy Cracker Jacks and Aunt Jemima pancake mix.

It also stood among a number of other electric inventions such as neon lights, an electric railway and an early fax machine, writes Matt Novak for Gizmodo. “The twentieth century was just on the horizon, and people swarmed to Chicago to see what was in store,” he writes.

This publicity helped the dishwasher. But while hotels and large restaurants offered a market for the newly-formed Garis-Cochran Manufacturing Company, “the machine’s large size limited the company’s sales,” writes the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which inducted Cochran in 2006. “It was not until the 1950s that increased availability of hot water in the home, effective dishwashing detergent and a change in attitudes toward housework made dishwashers popular with the general public.”

However, Cochran’s company survived, and her design for the dishwasher remains the basis of dishwasher designs today. “The Garis-Cochran Manufacturing Company became part of KitchenAid, and in 1949,” the inventor’s hall of fame writes, “the first KitchenAid dishwasher based on Cochran’s design was introduced to the public.”


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Remembering Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson, the First Woman to Take the Mound as a Major-League Pitcher

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H/T The Smithsonian.

R.I.P. Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson September 27 1935-December 19, 2017.

The Negro Leagues trailblazer has died at 82. Barred from trying out for a segregated female league, she made her mark playing alongside men.

mami johnson
Mami Johnson photographed on February 14, 1998, at the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Khue Bui)

Mamie Johnson, one of three women to play in the Negro League, and the only woman to take the mound as pitcher, has died at the age of 82. The history-making ballplayer died on December 18 at a hospital in Washington. D.C. The cause of death was a “heart ailment,” Johnson’s stepdaughter, Yvonne Livingston, told Matt Schudel of the Washington Post.

Johnson, nicknamed “Peanut” for her tiny stature, was born in Ridgeway, South Carolina, in 1935. She started playing ball at an early age, improvising with makeshift baseballs fashioned from rocks, masking tape and twine. “I played with the fellows most of the time because the girls did what the boys did, because there was nothing else to do,” Johnson told the Associated Press in a 1998 interview. “You got a chance to do just about anything you wanted to do, and pitching was my thing.”

Johnson continued playing with the “fellows” when she settled in Washington, D.C., at the end of the 1940s, participating in church and semi-professional teams for men. When she turned 17, she decided to go to Alexandria, Virginia, in the hopes of securing a spot for herself on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. But though Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Johnson was turned away from the women’s professional league, not allowed to even try out because of her skin color.

That didn’t stop her from playing, and in 1953, she got her big break when a scout for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team, heard about Johnson and offered her a tryout. She made an impression and was offered a spot on the team, joining infielder Toni Stone, the first woman to play baseball on a professional men’s team. A third woman, Constance “Connie” Morgan was recruited to the Clowns in 1954.

Johnson was dubbed “Peanut” because, as her Clowns teammate Gordon Hopkins once put it, “She maybe weighed 98 pounds wet.” But as Hopkins told the Washington Post in 1999 interview, small stature aside, Johnson could play some serious ball. “It was no joke. It was no show … Mamie, she was good,” Hopkins said.

Johnson only played with the Clowns for three seasons, between 1953 and 1955, according to Ashley Young of WUSA. During this time, she went 33-8 as a pitcher; she also held a .270 average as a batter, ESPN reports.

After she left baseball to care for her young son, Johnson began a three-decade career as a nurse, and then went on to run a Negro League memorabilia shop in Maryland. She received many accolades during her lifetime, including one from former President Bill Clinton and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, who honoured Johnson as a female baseball legend in 1996. In 2008, Major League Baseball recognized former African American players who had been excluded from major leagues by ceremoniously drafting them to existing teams. Johnson was drafted by her local team: the Washington Nationals.

In an interview with Lisa Wade McCormick of the Kansas City Star in 2010, Johnson said she was proud of her legacy as one of the only women to play on the Indianapolis Clowns.

Reflecting back on her rejection from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League all those years ago, she told McCormick that the moment shaped her in an important way. “I’m glad they didn’t let me play because I wouldn’t be who I am today if they did,” she said. “If I would have played with the women, I would have missed out on the opportunity that I received, and I would have just been another player. But now, I’ve done something that makes me stand out a little bit.”

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The Secret Mosquito Stash

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H/T The Smithsonian.

This is a great find to help preserve the history of the Mosquito.

A Mosquito in flight; of the more than 7,000 built, only three known airworthy examples survive. (NASM (72-8523))

When Airbus Industries prepared to bulldoze a small World War II-era building at its Broughton, England facility last August, the crew found something astonishing: thousands of forgotten 80-year-old technical drawings for the de Havilland Mosquito, at one time the fastest aircraft in the world. Demolition was halted while Airbus contacted The People’s Mosquito, a U.K. charity hoping to restore and fly a version of the Royal Air Force’s versatile twin-engine bomber, and asked if they’d be interested in the documents.

John Lilley, chairman of The People’s Mosquito, immediately drove to the site. “When he got there,” says Ross Sharp, the charity’s director of engineering and airframe compliance, “he found himself staring at a filing cabinet full of more than 22,000 aperture cards.” (An aperture card is a microfilm image mounted on stiff card stock.) “It was an emergency situation,” Sharp continues, “so they put the cards—all 148 pounds of them—into refuse bags and loaded them into his car.”

SM SCRAP VIEW FB.XVIII FUSELAGE, 57MM GUN.jpg
“The Mosquito FB.XVIII—sometimes known as the Tsetse—was highly unusual,” says Ross Sharp. “An FB.VI was modified to carry a 57mm field gun; obviously such a huge weapon was difficult to fit into the Mosquito, and the nose had to be strengthened. (The first time it was fired—on the ground—the nose cap was buckled by the blast.)” A total of just 18 of these attack aircraft were produced. (Click on the image to see a larger version.) (Courtesy The People’s Mosquito)

The cards, some in need of restoration themselves, were immediately scanned, at a cost of about $6,000. Sharp’s job is to assess their relevance; he is almost halfway through the collection. “Some of these drawings have an ethereal beauty,” he says, “although they contain much more than drawings, in that some include scribbled notes and rough sketches. Some of the cards contain annotations, things like ‘first two prototypes only.’ You are actually looking at a complete history of an aircraft, its evolution and its variants, including unbuilt versions.”

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“The Mosquito was always intended to be used in defence of Britain’s far-flung Empire,” says Sharp. “Consequently, a drawing assigned to ‘Mosquito Mk I, Tropics’ shows a full-set of desert equipment. As well as a large water tank and individual water bottles and emergency rations, the rear fuselage contains communications aids (hand mirror, signal strips), aircraft picking gear and a tool kit. Also provided was a hand starting handle for the Merlin engines!” (Click on the image to see more detail.) (Courtesy The People’s Mosquito)

It makes sense that the documents were found at the Airbus facility; it was a de Havilland factory during the war, but much more recently serviced British Aerospace’s DH.98 Mosquito—the last airworthy Mosquito in all of Europe—until its crash at the Barton airshow in 1996. The documents are a mix of British Aerospace, Hawker Siddeley (the predecessor to British Aerospace) and de Havilland drawings, making classification a challenge. “I opened up one the other day,” says Sharp, “and I thought Wait a minute! That’s not a Mosquito—unless we suddenly started building a biplane version. It was actually specifications on how to completely re-cover, with Irish linen, a de Havilland Tiger Moth. The drawing just snuck in there.”

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“Initially specified to carry just 4 x 250-lb bombs,” says Sharp, “the bomber version of the Mosquito had its warload doubled by some thoughtful engineering on the part of the de Havilland team. The company developed a specially-shortened tail fin for the standard RAF 500lb MC (Medium Case) bomb, thereby allowing four of these to be fitted into the Mosquito’s bomb bay. Observe the slight nose-down angle of the rear pair of bombs when secured on their bomb beam. Other ordnance, including 250-lb SAP (Semi-Armour Piercing), 500-lb GP (General Purpose) or SBC (Small Bomb Containers) could be carried. Later in the war, bomber versions of the Mosquito were built which could carry the monstrous 4,000 HC (High Capacity) blast bomb. This infamous ‘cookie’ was a much feared weapon, even by RAF crews, as it could not be dropped ‘safe.’ ” (Click on the image to see more detail.) (Courtesy The People’s Mosquito)

 

The drawings will help the organization in its restoration of a Mosquito NF.36 that crashed near RAF Coltishall airfield in February 1949. Instead of having to reverse-engineer parts of the bomber—a time-consuming and costly process—they can simply get the specs for the parts from the drawings.

 Things like the main hydraulic reservoir, that stands out,” says Sharp. “And we now have drawings for the internal baffles for the main fuel tanks. And there are minor things, like how to construct the navigator’s folding seat, its precise layout and the actual cotton and wadding that you use. It’s rather elegant.” The cost of the restoration is estimated at $9 million; if the entire funding were in place, says Sharp, the aircraft could be completed in about three and a half years.
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“In the Mosquito,” says Sharp, “the navigator (who also doubled as the bomb aimer or radar operator) was seated slightly behind and to the right of the pilot on a folding seat. Before material shortages really took hold, this was constructed of pieces of sorbo rubber on a plywood frame covered with green upholstery leather. You can see the result of wartime austerity on the right side of the drawing. Quilted pads of cotton waste and open-weave cotton fabric are dividing layers of kapok, which has replaced the sorbo rubber. The leather is also gone, with ‘green, fire-proofed upholstery cloth’ used as a substitute. The back of the seat is now covered in ‘strong canvas.’ ” (Click on the image to see more detail.) (Courtesy The People’s Mosquito)

 

Restoration has already begun; Aerowood Ltd., an aviation wood specialist in New Zealand, has started production on the aircraft’s wing ribs, using Canadian spruce cut from the same area—Queen Charlotte Islands—that generated lumber for wartime Mosquitoes produced by de Havilland Canada. During the war, 900 men—“former wrestlers, boxers, and local tough guys,” reported the Hartford Courant in 1943—worked 10-hour days cutting spruce trees for airplane production. “There are six main woods used in the Mosquito,” says Sharp, “all engineered, brilliantly, for what they do. Only one in 10 spruce trees were actually capable of meeting the exacting specifications for the aircraft.”

The airplane, known as the “Wooden Wonder” was originally built to be an unarmed fast bomber, but proved so versatile it was used as a night fighter, for photo-reconnaissance, as a light bomber, and as a maritime strike aircraft. Of the more than 7,000 Mosquitoes built, only a handful remain, and only three known airworthy examples survive, two in the United States, and one in Canada. The discovery of these priceless drawings has galvanized the members of The People’s Mosquito, who hope to see the aircraft once again flying over Britain. “We must fly and we must educate and we must remember,” says Sharp, “and honor all of those who have served in the Mosquito, including those that built her. And that’s just what we’re doing.”

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“The Mosquito was constantly being developed throughout its service life,” says Sharp. “The B. Mk V was a direct modification of the early bomber version, the B.Mk IV. but with a new, standard wing. This was capable, as seen here, of carrying either 50-gallon drop tanks or, initially, 250-lb bombs. Only one B. Mk V was built, but a small series of B. Mk VII bombers were built by de Havilland Canada. This aircraft was intended for long missions, as it could carry overload fuel tanks in the bomb bay, and was equipped with a long range oil tank, to handle the increased oil consumption of the twin Merlins.” (Click on the image to see a larger version.) (Courtesy The People’s Mosquito)

Read more at http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/secret-mosquito-180967119/#xiWAarfr3ajdds55.99

What Happens to All Those Letters Sent to Santa?

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H/T The Smithsonian.

Santa Claus Indiana is about two hours south of where I live. 

Believe it or not, most get answered.

The 200 or so volunteer “elves” at the Santa Claus museum in Indiana respond to about 20,000 letters each year. (Courtesy of the Santa Claus Museum and Village)

Writing a letter to Santa Claus has been a tradition in America, well, since, at least it was possible to mail a letter, and likely long before.

Prior to the establishment of the United States Post Office in 1775, American children would burn their missives to Santa, believing that the ashes would rise up and reach him, says Nancy Pope, curator of postal history at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.

Today, despite the advent of more modern communications like email and texting, hundreds of thousands of children, from all over the globe, continue to send their Christmas wish lists to Santa using old-fashioned snail mail. And incredibly, many of those letters are actually answered.

To deal with the annual deluge, the United States Postal Service (USPS)—Santa’s primary ghostwriter (aside from parents)—created Operation Santa in the early 20th century, which allowed postmasters to answer the letters. This year, the USPS joined the 21st century, making it possible for kids to email Santa—at least in New York City.

New York is where Operation Santa got its start around 1907, but it was not in full swing until 1913. The following year, the postmaster in Santa Claus, Indiana, also began answering letters from children, says Emily Thompson, director of the town’s nonprofit Santa Claus Museum and Village. The Museum answers letters sent to the town, and also those from the area that are addressed to Santa or the North Pole.

image: https://public-media.smithsonianmag.com/filer/28/6d/286d40e4-8f7f-4404-b64c-c40df06cd524/remote-car-parents-cant-afford-680×999.jpg

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“Our letter volume has increased over the years,” says Emily Thompson, director of the Santa Claus Museum and Village. (Courtesy of the Santa Claus Museum and Village)

Surprisingly, the Internet Age has not put a damper on first class mail received by the museum. “Our letter volume has increased over the years,” says Thompson.

Santa was first depicted in print in the U.S. in 1810 in an image commissioned by the New York Historical Society, writes Alex Palmer, author of The Santa Claus Man. During that early 19th-century period, Santa was more of a words-to-live-by-dispensing moralist than a present-bringing capitalist, he says.

In 1871, Santa went viral when Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast created an iconic image depicting Santa Claus at his desk piled high with letters from the parents of naughty and nice children. Palmer says Nast also popularized the notion that Santa Claus lived in the North Pole. In 1879, Nast drew an illustration of a child posting a letter to Santa.

<em>Harper's Weekly</em> cartoonist Thomas Nast created the iconic image of Santa and in 1879, drew this illustration (colorized detail) of a child posting a letter to Santa.
Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast created the iconic image of Santa and in 1879, drew this illustration (colorized detail) of a child posting a letter to Santa. (Alamy)

The Nast cartoons fueled the nation’s imagination, and the Postal Service soon became the vehicle for children’s most fervent Christmas wishes. The Postal Service wasn’t exactly equipped for the job, says Pope. At first, letters addressed to “Santa” or “The North Pole” would mostly go to the Dead Letter Office (DLO), as “they were written to someone who, ‘spoiler alert,’ does not exist,” Pope says.

The concept of a Dead Letter Office—to deal with letters and packages with illegible or non-existent addresses, no return addresses, or improper postage—has existed at least since the first Postmaster General, Benjamin Franklin, Pope says. A handful of such offices were established in the 19th century and early 20th century, with the main DLO being in Washington, DC. A few clerks—almost entirely women at the turn of the 20th century—would sort through the dead letters and burn the ones that could not be returned.

It was harder to burn packages, especially as they were often filled with interesting items—like skulls, reptiles, even a big box of brass knuckles, says Pope. Washington’s DLO took to displaying the oddities in glass cases. Eventually the USPS transferred those curiosities to the Smithsonian Institution, which added them to its collection. Among those, and now in the collections of the National Postal Museum, was a soft silk pouch outlined with brocade and emblazoned with “A Christmas Greeting” in the address portion. When flipped open, the pouch revealed a similarly printed “Christmas Wish.”

“We have no clue who sent it, when, how, why, to whom—all we know is it didn’t make it,” because it was at the DLO, says Pope.

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Unclaimed artifacts, including this silk pouch Christmas greeting, from the U.S. Postal Service’s Dead Letter Office eventually found their way to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. (National Postal Museum)

Meanwhile, the pile-up of Santa letters at the DLO each year—and subsequent burning— became a source of angst. They couldn’t be delivered because they were addressed to the North Pole or to some other non-existent address. In some towns, postmasters answered the letters—which they had intercepted locally. “It was illegal for them to open the letters, but nobody was prosecuted that I know of for this,” says Pope.

In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt’s Postmaster General, George Von L. Meyer gave the nation’s postmasters the option to release the letters to individuals or charitable institutions to answer. But, by 1908, the Postal Service was hit by accusations that letter writers weren’t being properly vetted, leading to some perhaps ill-gotten gains. The policy was reversed and Santa letters were again sent off to the DLO. In 1911, a new Postmaster General granted unofficial permission for local post offices to again try their hand at answering Santa letters.

By 1912, Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock made it official with Operation Santa—if the postage had been paid, individuals and charitable groups could answer letters to Santa. Operation Santa gave rise to the Santa Claus Association in New York. That group found volunteers to answer letters and deliver gifts to children. The program was a huge success, but by 1928, the founder of the association, John Gluck, was found to have scammed hundreds of thousands of dollars from its coffers, says Palmer.

A group of people review letters sent to Santa for the Santa Claus Association at the Hotel Astor in New York City in 1914.
A group of people review letters sent to Santa for the Santa Claus Association at the Hotel Astor in New York City in 1914. (Bain News Service, Library of Congress)

Over the decades, the Postal Service has taken steps to ensure that both letter writers and the volunteers who purchase gifts for children are not engaged in criminal or other nefarious activity. Children can reach out to Santa in multiple ways. Parents can take their kids’ letters and mail them to an address in Anchorage—which houses a gargantuan postal processing facility designed to deal with Santa mail. That guarantees a postmark on the return letter from the North Pole.

Letters with postage and an address of the North Pole or Santa Claus are usually routed to one of 15 regional post offices that participate in Operation Santa. Volunteers who live in the vicinity of those 15 locations pick out a letter to answer (all personal identifying information is removed) and buy a gift for the child, which they bring to the post office. It is then delivered by the USPS. Thousands of other post offices participate, but postal employees only respond to letters; they don’t send gifts, says USPS spokeswoman Darleen Reid-DeMeo.

The New York post office receives some 500,000 letters each year. This year, some of the letters were digitized and posted on delivercheer.com, which lets volunteers select letters online. Packages still have to be brought in person to the main James A. Farley post office on 8th Avenue at Penn Station in Manhattan, says Reid-DeMeo.

“We try our very best to get all the letters answered,” she says. “Unfortunately, because we receive so many, it’s just not possible.”

The 200 or so volunteer “elves” at the Santa Claus museum in Indiana respond to about 20,000 letters each year, some of them mailed, and some of them written onsite at the nonprofit museum. Parents or other adults can also print out templates of letters from Santa at home.

Thompson says that even though the mail volume has increased over the last few years, the letter writing tradition may be on its way out. In 2016, in a sign of the times, the museum began instructing volunteers to only use block letters when writing, as most children can no longer read cursive, she says.

Letters allow an opportunity to tell a story, she says, noting that many children take the time to write about their days or their siblings or parents. Handwritten responses are valued by those children, too, she says, noting that today’s kids don’t exactly receive a ton of mail.

Some commercial websites promise emails from the North Pole or video calls with Santa—perhaps hastening the demise of the old-fashioned paper response. Hand-written letters from Santa or anyone else “may become an increasingly important and rare thing,” says Thompson.

Pope agrees, noting that letter writing declined in the 1970s and 1980s, and then post cards went out of vogue. “Now we have a generation that finds email bulky,” says Pope, although she notes that there’s minor interest among millennial women in a “romantic rebirth of letter writing.”

Even so, Pope wonders, “what’s the next step? Is it totally emojis?” 🎅🏼

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/what-happens-all-those-letters-sent-santa-180967542/#OUbFKYXtgMxxi4Op.99
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The Un-Christmassy Origin of Gingerbread Houses

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H/T The Smithsonian.

A look at the history of the gingerbread house.

This tradition dates back to the story of Hansel and Gretel.

 

The tradition of decorative gingerbread dates back to the Middle Ages. (Flickr)

Like most Christmas traditions, gingerbread houses are big business: Wilton, a popular confectionery-making company, reports that it created over two million gingerbread house kits in 2011. For those who are more DIY-inclined, domestic gurus from Martha Stewart on down offer recipes and plans for making your own sugary domicile. But in spite of gingerbread house-decorating’s cozy holiday connotations, the roots of this tradition may lie in the folktale Hansel and Gretel.

Now, gingerbread houses didn’t start with the Brothers Grimm. They date back to the 1600s, a few centuries after the emergence of gingerbread itself, writes food historian Tori Avey. The tale of Hansel and Gretel may be even older than that, some historians say, perhaps dating to a 14th century famine in which parents turned children out to fend for themselves.

By the time folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm composed and published a version of the tale in the early 19th century, gingerbread houses were a long-standing tradition. Somewhere along the way, possibly because of historical connections between gingerbread and religious ceremonies or guilds, gingerbread—and gingerbread houses—had become associated with Christmas. The Grimms’s widely read stories helped to popularize gingerbread houses, leaving many with the belief that gingerbread houses started with the Grimms’s version of the tale.

Given its link with the gruesome fairytale, which involves two children almost getting cooked and eaten by a witch who lives in a gingerbread house before they turn the tables and cook her, it might seem surprising that the gingerbread house is still connected to Christmas. But today’s family-friendly holiday has numerous roots in the grimmer festivities of earlier times.

“Early German settlers brought this lebkuchenhaeusle–gingerbread house–tradition to the Americas,” writes Barbara Rolek for The Spruce. Today, gingerbread house-building competitions are an annual holiday tradition both nationally and in different parts of the country, and landmarks like the Washington Monument have been recreated using the spicy dough.

The gingerbread house-building contests in the United States today do bear some resemblance to the “gingerbread fairs” that were hosted by some cities in England and France during the Middle Ages and later, writes Amanda Fiegl for Smithsonian.com. Although the origin of these fairs was simply that gingerbread was a tasty and ubiquitous medieval treat, it did offer an opportunity to get together and enjoy a delicious treat–and what could be more Christmassy than that?

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/un-christmassy-origin-gingerbread-houses-180967461/#gTmImzPbfdrbhapi.99
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