George Gallup, the father of modern opinion polling, ran his first political survey because his mother-in-law asked him to.
The year was 1932, and Iowa’s Democratic party bosses had just placed Ola Babcock Miller
on the ticket as candidate for Secretary of State. It was a token gesture. Miller—a former teacher and amateur painter—had only modest political experience, but her deceased husband Alex had edited the only important Democratic newspaper in the traditionally Republican state, and his friends in the party thought nominating his suffragette widow for statewide office would be a worthy tribute. She was flattered, but overwhelmed; early in the race, Miller described her campaign as “a martyrdom to the cause.”
She didn’t take the responsibility lightly, though. Instead, Miller enlisted the help of her son-in-law, George
. Raised by an Iowa dairy farmer and land speculator, Gallup had spent the past decade at the University of Iowa and Drake University studying the reading patterns of American newspaper and magazine consumers. Using Gallup’s survey method, revolutionary at the time, an interviewer would take readers through the pages of a newspaper’s most recent issue, glean how much or how little of it they read, and then break down the items by category so publishers could learn what types of features drew significant eyeballs. His doctoral dissertation was titled, quite frankly, “A New Technique For Measuring Reader Interest in Newspapers,” and a host of Midwestern rags eventually hired him to evaluate their products.  His mother-in-law, looking for any advantage she could secure, wondered whether Gallup’s technique could be used to figure out what issues mattered most to her potential constituents.
It was an insightful idea. Throughout the fall, George knocked on doors, asking voters what they valued in a candidate. (Highway safety, he found, was a top priority.) He passed those details on to Miller, who worked it into her campaign stump speeches. Riding the coattails of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took home 2,225 out of 2,435 precincts in the Hawkeye State that November, the widow upset her opponent by less than 3,000 votes, one of the first Democrats since the Civil War to win statewide office in Iowa. She had Gallup to thank for the extra edge.
Gallup’s own experience on the trail was revelatory. He had come to the conclusion during his academic training that people “arrive at their preferences and opinions in an orderly way” (Journal of Marketing
; October, 1962). It followed that one could get a firm understanding of the public’s political
desires if he or she asked the right amount of Americans the right questions. And if voters’ collective intentions were pure and preferences widely known, politicians would have no choice but to bend to their will. Democracy would flourish. The trick was figuring out an efficient and accurate technique to ascertain what the public actually wanted.
Political junkies had taken straw polls for decades , but they invariably lacked statistical rigor. (“Of the 16 people on this cable car, 12 are Harding men.”) In the early 20th century, the most comprehensive and influential practitioner was Literary Digest
, a weekly general interest magazine. During each presidential election cycle, starting in 1916, its editors mailed out ersatz ballots to its subscribers (and eventually to publicly-listed names of people who owned telephones and cars) and solicited responses. Heaps of data poured back into the magazine’s offices, where hundreds of clerks tallied the results. Saturation was the name of the game; if enough Americans are contacted, the thinking went, the nation’s predilections will inevitably emerge. One or two weeks before Election Day, the magazine would release its final forecast. In the first five races it tracked, Literary Digest’s
data spit out the correct winner five times.
Gallup knew there was a better way. In December of 1933, after moving to New York City to head up the research arm of the advertising agency Young and Rubicam, Gallup and his colleagues began conducting nationwide opinion polls, employing the sampling method, which he likened to government inspectors who test wheat. (“They take a sample here, another there,” he told the Washington Post
on December 8, 1935, “and by choosing the samples properly are able to judge the quality of the whole amount from what the sample shows.”) Along with people who owned cars and phones, Gallup hired hundreds of staffers to interview laborers and persons on public aid in all 50 states, folks who intended to vote but whose names could not be traced back to assets they owned or luxury magazines to which they subscribed. (This was the height of the Depression, so that demographic was significant.) The firm deliberately surveyed a cross-section of Americans they felt was representative of the electorate at large: farmers and city dwellers, rich and poor persons, Republicans and Democrats. The approach seems intuitive, but nobody in politics had ever tried it before.
After gathering data for two years, Gallup created a new organization—the American Institute of Public Opinion (AIPO)—and published its initial findings in a syndicated newspaper column he named “America Speaks.” Within the year, over 60 newspapers had purchased the package, which Gallup updated with new information weekly. Columnist Franklyn Waltman dubbed it “the periodic gauging of the public heartbeat” (Washington Post
; July 13, 1936). The concept of a running poll was so novel that some newspapers had to convince readers that the information Gallup presented did not reflect the political views of their editorial board.
Gallup didn’t hide his modest disdain for Literary Digest’s
survey work, either. A few months before that magazine was set to release its enormous report, the Iowa native predicted in one of his columns that his competitor’s data would skew toward Republican challenger Alf Landon
, despite what he considered strong evidence that the incumbent, President Roosevelt, held a commanding lead. (As early as November 24, 1935, Gallup had identified 30 states in which the Democrat was garnering at least 53 percent support, a bloc that would have given him enough electoral college votes (269) to win without securing even one “borderline state.”) Wilfred Funk, LD’s
editor, clapped back, calling Gallup’s prediction “a gratuitous statement." His staff had “never been able to discover how many ‘rich men, poor men, G-men, racketeers, and candlestick makers’ voted in a given election,” he added sarcastically (New York Times
; July 19, 1936).
They should have tried harder. After sending out 10 million postcards through the mail, and receiving a whopping 2.4 million responses, Literary Digest
projected that Landon would upend Roosevelt with 370 electoral votes. Gallup’s last “America Speaks” column of the cycle argued that Roosevelt could take home anywhere from 315 to 477 electoral votes. He carried 48 states and won with 523.
Funk and company had no explanation for their poor showing. “We were far from correct,” they wrote in their first post-election issue. “Why? We ask that question in all sincerity, because we want to know.” Refusing to admit that they over-sampled wealthier, Republican-leaning voters, Literary Digest
ultimately just threw its hands up in the air: “So we were wrong, although we did everything we knew to assure ourselves of being right.” It was the last poll they’d conduct; after promising to try their luck again four years down the road, the magazine merged with a competitor in 1937, Funk fled for Reader’s Digest
, and the whole enterprise sank the following year. The Washington Post,
was so thrilled with the accuracy of its partner that the paper printed, on two different days, letters from “political and business leaders” praising Gallup’s work; according to the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, AIPO “undoubtedly demonstrated its superiority over other devices for prejudging the results of the election” (November 5, 1936). Gallup used the high-profile victory as a launching pad, eventually building with his son an international network of research offices that ask private citizens, to this day, what they are thinking. Political polling, as is painfully obvious this time of year, took on a life of its own, for better and worse. As Jason Zengerle wrote
in New York
last week, “the polling industry has never been less confident in its ability to reduce a series of interviews to a number that is an accurate reflection of the opinions and future behavior of the populace.” Pollsters, it turns out, are still grasping for that elusive representative sample.
As for Gallup’s mother-in-law? She was re-elected for two additional full terms, in 1934 and 1936, before she succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 57. Her most meaningful contribution to Iowa public life was the establishment of a state highway patrol unit in 1934, one that boasted 15 inspectors and helped reduce the highway accident rate considerably
. More often than not, it helps to know what voters want.
 One of Gallup’s early discoveries was that people loved to look at pictures and comic strips. According to the Journal of Marketing
(October, 1962), “advertisers, and particularly Ralph Starr Butler of General Foods, seized on these findings, and the first comic-strip advertising resulted.”
 Via the Wall Street Journal
, they were "named for the way farmers threw a fistful of straw in the air to see which way the wind was blowing."
One passenger train leaves Chicago’s Union Station at 12:35 p.m. and travels west at 85 miles per hour. Another passenger train leaves Chicago’s Union Station at 12:35 p.m., merges onto the same track, and travels at an identical speed two minutes behind the first. What happens when the lead train abruptly stops and the second doesn’t?
is the fifth largest city in Illinois, a giant and affluent Chicago suburb voted
five years ago as the second best place to live in the entire country. It’s home to well-performing schools, green space, and plenty of jobs. “It’s a suburb that does all the suburban things,” says
UIC urban planning professor Robert Bruegmann, “but slightly better.”
In the mid-1940s, Naperville was vastly different. Not entirely urban or rural, its 5,000 residents worked primarily on farms or at a factory run by the Kroehler Furniture Company
. There was a college on the edge of town, but no hospital. The city still hadn’t razed the Pre-Emption House
—the oldest continuously operating bar in the state and a vestige of Naperville's pioneer roots. And the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad
operated tracks that ran right along 4th Avenue.
On April 26, 1946, around noon, 150 people boarded Burlington’s Advance Flyer, a nine-car “fast train” heading from downtown Chicago to Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska. Another 175 hopped on the Oakland-bound Exposition Flyer, advertised
as “The Scenic Way to California—Thru the Colorado Rockies and the Feather River Canyon by Daylight.” (The trip took two days, with stops in Denver and Salt Lake City.) At the helm of the second train was W.W. Blaine, a 68-year-old engineer who had worked 40 years at the railroad and had operated diesel locomotives since 1933, the first year they were put in service on his line. To be sure, Blaine was old for his job; the railroad’s standard retirement age was 70. But he had passed all of his signal tests and the Illinois Interstate Commerce Commission ranked Burlington first in safety every year between 1930 and 1944. The passengers on board expected a smooth, relaxing ride into the western plains.
Burlington operated three tracks just west of Chicago’s city limit; the two outside tracks were reserved for freight and commuter trains, while intercity liners used the center track. Since the pair of Flyers were scheduled to depart Chicago at the exact same time, the railroad decided to treat them as one train, letting the Advance Flyer speed along in the lead at a marginally faster pace. Everything went just as planned for about 25 minutes. And then everything went terribly awry
would call it a “caprice of fate” (April 26, 1946). Nobody ever figured out what actually happened. But something
—a small rock, perhaps, or a piece of metal—shot out from the Advance Flyer’s undercarriage, spooking the engineer enough to force an unscheduled stop near the Naperville station. Slowing down to check the running gear so quickly after taking off was an unusual move, and the crew employed every available safeguard to protect its clients, setting the emergency control system into operation and sending flagman James Tangey out the rear car to, in his words, “try to stop the train behind us.”
That proved impossible. Blaine and his Exposition Flyer blew through both a yellow caution and red stop signal, rounded a curve, and roared past Tagney. Blaine’s fireman, a frightened man named E.H. Crayton, saw the parked train in the distance and leapt from the speeding locomotive, only to hit the ground and die instantly upon contact. Blaine stayed inside and leaned on the brake for as long as he could. A mere 90 seconds after The Advanced Flyer rolled to a stop, The Exposition Flyer—chugging along at 45 miles per hour—barreled into its caboose, tore through its roof, and “plunge[d] down with terrific force upon the very floor and trucks of the car” (Tribune
). Blaine’s front wheels were sheared off by the impact. “I never heard anything like it before or since to compare it to,” Jim Dudley, then an eighth grader at a nearby school, told the Tribune
in a 1988 retrospective
. “It was like an explosion.”
Dust, smoke, and debris scattered across the nearby countryside. The smell of ashes hung in the air. “The scene of the disaster,” the Tribune
noted later that day, “was one of twisted and gnarled confusion, with huge luxury passenger coaches strewn across torn tracks like abandoned toy trains.” For a few seconds after the collision, the passengers on board made little noise. Then the shock wore off. “A moment of tragic silence was broken,” the AP wrote
, “by screams and cries for help from the dying and injured.” The rear of The Advanced Flyer absorbed the bulk of the damage—most of those sitting in the rear coach and diner car were killed straightaway. Those seated further up the train escaped the worst, but were rocked nonetheless. “Things happened so fast,” one passenger said, “that I don’t remember what happened to me. I was doubled up suddenly and my knees were pushed against my chest.”
Startled by the clamor, all 800 employees at the Kroehler Furniture factory ran out to help. So did 50 students studying at North Central College. A police officer nearby made a series of frantic phone calls, recruiting doctors, nurses, and ambulances from neighboring towns. Within a matter of minutes, a full-blown rescue crew was assembled. They worked feverishly, but the task of pulling out bodies from the wreckage proved difficult. To reach the injured and dead, the police were forced to burn through the train plates using acetylene torches; eight hours after the crash, the authorities still hadn’t cut through every upturned car.
Those that were fished out were carried into the Kroehler warehouse—set up as a temporary hospital—on mattresses, because Naperville didn’t even own stretchers at the time. Miraculously, Blaine survived, crawling out through his cab’s window before making his way to first aid, where he was treated for a skull fracture. Others weren’t so lucky. Delbert Boon, a sailor from Missouri, was rushed to a hospital in adjacent Aurora, where he sent a cryptic telegram to his parents: “Come and see me. Was in train accident.” He died 30 minutes later.
It took 27 hours to clear one of Burlington’s three tracks, and three days to remove the entirety of the rubble. Thousands of curious locals jammed Naperville’s highways and streets while crews worked to catch a glimpse of the disaster. In total, 47 people eventually lost their lives in the accident, while another 125 were injured. It was, and still is, one of the worst crashes in state history.
So what the hell happened? Burlington surveyed its automatic signal systems right away and found that their lights had indeed functioned properly. From his hospital bed, Blaine—charged with manslaughter by state’s attorney Lee Daniels* to ensure he appeared at an inquest—insisted he saw the yellow caution and applied his brakes at once, but couldn’t slow the train down in time because he was moving too fast and his train was too light. (The Exposition was pulling nine cars that day, instead of its usual haul of 12.)
His crew mates weren’t convinced. At a public hearing set up by Burlington officials (and assailed by Blaine’s lawyer) on April 28, a road foreman testified that he inspected the locomotive shortly after the wreck and found the brake valve in the “service” position, not the “emergency” position. The Exposition’s conductor went so far as to say he noticed “no application of brakes whatsoever.” Brakeman C.W. Norris agreed with the foreman, telling his bosses that “there was never any emergency application the day of the accident.”
To test this hypothesis, the ICC and Burlington ran a series of simulations on the Naperville track a week after the crash, using a diesel train that paralleled The Exposition in length and weight. Speeding along at 85 miles per hour, a different (and younger) engineer applied the brakes immediately when he saw the yellow light and was able to slow his train to a stop 934 feet
from the rear of the standing Advance Flyer. During the final test, in which he applied both service and emergency brakes when he saw the red light, he still nearly avoided contact, stopping with the engine and just one car past the collision point. The evidence did not reflect well on Blaine.
In the end, though, the embattled engineer was absolved of major blame by both the ICC and a DuPage County grand jury. In an October verdict, the latter declined to take action against the Burlington railroad or the crews of either train, instead charging everyone involved with nine “negligent acts,” ranging from improper scheduling to poor intercommunication between conductors. Rule changes followed: the ICC mandated in 1951 that trains were only permitted to exceed 79 miles per hour if automatic train stop equipment
was in place, and most rail agencies still don’t mix cars of different weights on the same train. Blaine retired shortly thereafter.
Cult street photographer Charles Cushman
was on hand to document the grisly scene. His photos, along with the rest of his work, are hosted online
by Indiana University. Also keep an eye out for Naperville resident Chuck Spinner’s upcoming book
, which will detail the stories of the victims.
would later serve as the Speaker of the House in Illinois.
Derrick Rose needs to get healthy, quickly. Chicago’s star guard has missed over 40 percent of his team’s games this season because of nagging injuries, the latest of which is causing a wave of panic to wash over otherwise-optimistic Bulls fans who fear that bumps and bruises could spoil what’s been a dominant season thus far. Sure, the Bulls carry the deepest bench
in the league, yet a poor run of form
(and common sense) suggests their GQ cover boy
must play at a high level if they have any shot at winning the NBA title. “I’m just trying to survive,” Rose joked
earlier this week. So are we, Derrick. So are we.
Thankfully, Rose and other modern athletes now have at their disposal a ton of sophisticated medical procedures and medications to help the body heal, from physical therapy and acupuncture to cortisone injections and advanced surgeries. Professionals—whose livelihood depends on proper functioning arms and legs—will even spend thousands and thousands of dollars on remedies that have not yet passed clinical trials, like the injectable anti-inflammatory drug Toradol
, in which the “patient's own tissues are extracted, carefully manipulated, and then reintroduced to the body.” There are obvious risks in stepping back onto the field or court after undergoing experimental treatments—just ask the owners of drugged thoroughbreds.
But with the biological clock ticking, the more options available, the better.
Dr. George Bennett, a sports medicine pioneer, would be thrilled to see these innovations. Born in the Catskill Mountains in 1885, Bennett was himself a solid baseball player, landing a roster spot on a local semi-pro team by the age of 16. (Friends later described him as a “rather undisciplined little tough guy.”) But medicine was Bennett’s true passion. After high school, he worked a series of odd jobs throughout the Midwest, stashing away his earnings to pay for medical school tuition. Bennett eventually matriculated at the University of Maryland, graduated in 1908, and landed a job at the Johns Hopkins Hospital two years later. He was 25.
It was an interesting time for a sports fan to enter the field, such as it was. “Sports medicine,” as we understand it today, was in no way a recognized discipline. In the locker room, “it was considered effete and unnecessary to have a doctor in attendance” (Washington Post
; March 10, 1962), and trainers—most of whom had no science background—applied the lion’s share of treatments, which often meant rubbing sore muscles with balms. At the same time, doctors were starting to use x-rays with more regularity, producing detailed images of the body without having to penetrate the skin physically. If an entrepreneurial physician studied how the athlete’s body works and used that knowledge to create procedures that sped up recovery times, he could give daring ballplayers a competitive advantage while making a tidy profit for himself.
So Bennett poured over x-rays, starting with baseball pitchers. And what he found was troubling. While baseball players were subject to the same disabilities of the average laborer, repeating the overhand throwing motion over and over did increase by a wide margin the frequency of degenerative joint injuries. The ligaments, tendons, and muscles in the human arm are just not designed to exert the pressure necessary to propel a baseball 60 feet at rapid speeds, much less make it curve in flight. "Pitching,” Bennett would famously say
, “is a most unnatural motion.”
Bennett penned an article in the American Physical Education Review
in 1925 laying out the case in plan details that pitching can create long-term structural damage. He followed that piece up with another influential article in 1941, titled “Shoulder and Elbow Lesions of the Professional Baseball Pitcher
,” that included x-ray photos and a controversial suggestion that pitchers should use the side-arm delivery (like Walter Johnson
) to lengthen their careers. It seems obvious now, but the conclusion was revelatory at the time; pitcher workloads didn’t begin to drop dramatically
until the mid-1920s, after Bennett’s first paper was published.
While he studied joints in the lab, Bennett simultaneously built a successful practice, which he would leave Johns Hopkins to run full-time in 1947. Over time, the doctor garnered what sports columnist Red Smith called “the enviable and deserved reputation for remantling athletes” (Baltimore Sun
; May 28, 1950). Famous ballplayers liked him for a number of reasons: he was clearly bright, he took sports seriously, and he was not afraid to take orthopedic chances if his client requested it of him. Most importantly, he kept his mouth shut; an AP reporter once joked that the only two words the humble Bennett ever said in public were “operation successful.”
Over the course of his career, Bennett opened up stars like Joe DiMaggio, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez, Pee Wee Reese, and Johnny Unitas.* (Clark Cable and Lord Halifax sought out his counsel, too.) With the help of a colleague at Hopkins, he also invented
the first batting helmet, a hat designed with a specialty zipper pocket that held two hard plastic slabs
. And once in a while, he worked miracles.
The career of Roy Sievers
(pictured above) is an instructive example. A hulking left fielder, Sievers won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1949, hitting .306 and slugging 16 home runs for the St. Louis Browns. But in 1951, after struggling during his sophomore season, he broke his right collarbone diving for a ball in the outfield. The next spring, he dislocated the same shoulder making a throw across the diamond. His career appeared finished. Then Sievers visited Bennett. In what the doctor described as “an experiment,” he drilled a hole in Sievers’ bone, cut his tendons, slipped them through the opening, and knotted them together on the other side to keep the bone from rolling out of the shoulder socket. The procedure drastically limited Sievers’ throwing power, forcing a positional move to first base. While supportive of the initial operation, Browns president Bill Veeck and his colleagues in the front office weren’t convinced he would return to form, so they shuffled him off to Washington in a trade for the unremarkable Gil Coan.
This turned out to be a mammoth mistake; Sievers gradually redeveloped strength in his arm and subsequently took the majors by storm, blasting over 20 home runs in nine straight seasons. His best year came in 1957, when Sievers finished third in the AL MVP race, logging 42 home runs and an on-base plus slugging percentage of .967. According to Bennett, Sievers’ recovery was a “miracle of modern medicine” (Washington Post
; September 20, 1957). The Senator agreed; during an awards dinner for Bennett the following year, Sievers came up to the doctor with a tear in his eye and thanked him for saving his career. Red Smith aptly described Bennett’s enduring reputation: “This sort of thing has become such a familiar story—the halt and lame of sports have been shuffling off to Baltimore for so long now and in such numbers—that a newspaper reader might be excused if he got the notion that Dr. Bennett had invented the practice of medicine.”
Bennett died in 1962,
so he didn’t get to see the creative surgical work of the doctors who followed in his wake. That includes Frank Jobe, who successfully repaired Tommy Johns’ shoulder and launched
a medical revolution. But his impact on sports, and the medical profession more broadly, was undeniable. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might even want to revisit the doctor’s thoughts on football, broadcast in an AP interview on December 18, 1947. “The present helmet is simply equipping a player with armor and the steel mask in front is an open invitation to crush someone’s jaw or knock his teeth out,” he said. “The toll of injuries will continue to mount unless the face mask is legislated out of the game immediately.”
Prescient words from a thoughtful man.
*“After listening to that all-star team of players Dr. Bennett has mended,” Joe Garagiola said at an awards dinner in 1958, “I’m sort of sorry I didn't break my leg."
If you’re into history or genealogy, or just get a kick out of rummaging through government documents, Monday was an exciting day. That’s because the U.S. National Archives released complete records
from the 1940 U.S. Census and made the entire set, for the first time in history, accessible online and free of charge.
The data dump is a blessing for the caretakers of family trees, who can now mine that census for personal information about family members who passed on before their progeny could jot down key biographical facts. It’s also a long time coming; while aggregate statistics for cities or counties are published without restrictions as soon as they are available, specific records pertaining to individual citizens are sealed from the public, by law, for 72 years.
If that seems like a random amount of time to keep the decennial findings hidden, it kind of is. Sixty years ago, in an attempt to mollify both civil libertarians and statisticians who thought the value of the census was dependent upon confidentiality, Census Bureau Director Roy Peel and U.S. Archivist Wayne Grover wrote an informal rule
(later codified by Congress) that forced the government to keep particulars under lock and key for seven decades. In 1952, female life expectancy in the States was 71.6 years
. According to their logic, very few people would still be living who had participated in the census 72 years earlier, so any harm caused by the disclosure would be minimal. As it turns out, female life expectancy is now 79.5 years, and 21 million Americans alive in 1940 are still kicking today, a full 16 percent of those counted that year. Luckily, few have complained about a breach of privacy. Most, like 100-year-old Verla Morris
, seem to enjoy the novelty of reading their name in America’s history book.
Back in the late-1800s, it took years to tabulate the census results at all. Bureaucrats didn’t put to bed the 1880 census until 1887, and they knew finishing the 1890 census by 1900, when Congress was constitutionally required to reapportion district boundaries, would be even tougher. Not only was the nation’s population expanding by about 25 percent each decade, but the Census Office added a series of new questions to the document, including queries about home ownership, war service, and race. Counting the data by hand, as they had done for a full century, wasn’t going to cut it.Herman Hollerith
knew just how inefficient the process was. Born to German immigrants in Buffalo, the eccentric Hollerith graduated in 1879 with an engineering degree from the Columbia University School of Mines and followed one of his professors into the Census Office, where he watched in horror as his new colleagues slogged through an endless pile of paper forms, one by one. Hollerith wanted desperately for the government to organize its records mechanically, thereby saving time and reducing errors. He just needed to figure out how best to do it.
Inspiration struck, as it so often does, on the train. As Hollerith recalls
, he was taking a ride out from Washington when he watched a conductor use a punch card to certify a passenger’s ticket. That got him thinking: what if the government could transfer census questionnaires onto a punch card, with each hole representing a different data point (location, gender, occupation), and then feed the cards into an electrical machine that tallied the results? After five years of trial and error, the engineer finally figured out a design
that worked. Using the same principles as a Jacquard loom
, his prototype featured a series of tiny cups, all filled with mercury and connected to a wire nail. Each cup corresponded with a different hole on the punch card. When the card was inserted and the machine was set into motion, any punched hole would provide empty space in which the nail and mercury could interact like a circuit, thereby setting of an electrical charge. Those charges were sent to the machine’s dashboard, which contained a series of clock-like dials. All the census worker had to do was plug in a card, mark down which dials moved, take it out, and grab the next one.
Hollerith filed his first patent in 1884 and tested the gadget
in Baltimore three years later. His old colleagues were impressed with the results and offered him a contract when they reopened for business in 1890. It was a profitable decision. Using the electrical invention, the Census Office was able to analyze more information in a shorter amount of time (five years) and at a discount to taxpayers (an estimated $5 million). “This apparatus works unerringly as the mills of the gods,” The Electrical Engineer
wrote in November 1891, “but beats them hollow as to speed.”
Government officials may have been impressed with their new machine, but they were awfully cavalier with the documents it eventually tabulated. At the turn of the century, it was the job of individual agencies to maintain their own records, and some were more careful than others. Short on space in their vaults, archivists in the Commerce Department opted to stack the voluminous 1890 census neatly on pine shelves in their building’s basement. Few questioned the decision until January 10, 1921, when building fireman James Foster noticed smoke spewing through openings around some pipes that ran from the boiler room into the file room. Minutes later, another watchman upstairs smelled something burning in the men’s bathroom. Both made their way downstairs, where they ran right into an inferno. The pair pulled the house alarm, evacuated the office, and then watched as “five alarms quickly brought every piece of apparatus in downtown Washington to the scene” (New York Times
, January 11, 1921). It took 20 hoses and two-and-a-half hours to extinguish the unfortunate blaze.
It was impossible to determine how long the fire had burned before anyone noticed, nor was it clear what set it off in the first place. (An errant cigarette is one potential culprit.) But the damage it caused was obvious. Kellee Blake, who wrote a big piece
on the incident for Prologue
, called it ”an archivist's nightmare.” One-quarter of the 1890 census burned instantly. Another 50 percent suffered heavy smoke and water damage. Census Bureau Clerk T. J. Fitzgerald told reporters the morning after that Hollerith’s data was "certain to be absolutely ruined” (Washington Post
, January 11, 1921). And without modern preservation technology, the salvageable remains further deteriorated in the temporary storage space to which they were relocated. Today, only about 6,000 names
from the almost 63 million census returns exist, a fact that frustrates genealogists to this day.
If there’s a silver lining to the story, it’s that the fire helped convince enough people in the capital that it would be useful to store important documents in a centralized and safe location. In 1926, Congress appropriated $1 million for an archival building, and eight years later, President Roosevelt signed a law
establishing the National Archives as an independent agency. Hollerith, meanwhile, took the proceeds from his government contract and formed the Tabulating Machine Company, which would eventually change its name to the International Business Machines Corporation. He never became a rich man—the engineer did not get along with the company’s top salesman, Thomas Watson
, and stepped aside from day-to-day operations in 1921—but his work revolutionized the field of information processing.
For more on that original contraption, be sure to read this article
Hollerith wrote in 1890 describing its mechanics. The illustrations are particularly charming.
The original pinball wizard wasn’t deaf, dumb, or blind, but he was lucky.
On a gloomy Chicago day in 1937, Steven Kordek
—who passed away last month at the age of 100—was wandering down Ashland Avenue without an umbrella when the skies opened up. To stay dry, he jumped into the lobby of the nearest building, then occupied by the Genco Pinball Company. The snap decision was serendipitous; Kordek needed work after stints with Idaho’s Forestry Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the gaming firm was in the market for a solderer. Within minutes, a woman on site offered him a job in the factory for 45 cents-an-hour, which he promptly accepted.
Genco made a wise investment. Over the next decade, Kordek was promoted from the production line into the engineering department. In 1947, his bosses assigned him an important solo project: build a game that improves upon the standard design of the day, in which a player would release a ball and then shake the table manually until it landed in a hole. Borrowing an idea from a rival company, Kordek placed two electrified flippers near the drain at the bottom of the board, giving the pinballer more control and the power to shoot the ball up the playing surface rapidly. “Triple Action” was an instant hit, debuting to wide praise at a 1948 trade show. Once manufactured in mass, teens fell in love with Kordek’s innovation, flocking to pizza parlors and arcades with quarters in tow. “It really was revolutionary,” says David Silverman
, executive director of the National Pinball Museum in Baltimore, “and pretty much everyone else followed suit.”
I’d like to say I shot my first pinball game at the Lincoln Mall
arcade, flanked by my Dad and brother on one of our periodic (and beloved) “Men’s Club” nights. Like many Americans born after 1976, it’s more likely I pulled back my first plunger at the adjacent Chuck E. Cheese’s
, a peculiar American institution with a fascinating corporate history.
Chuck E. Cheese’s (originally called Pizza Time Theater) was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell,
well known in tech circles for inventing Pong and founding Atari. The concept, developed over a two-and-a-half-year period in the mid-1970s, was strongly informed by Bushnell’s job experience and personal taste. While in high school and college, Bushnell—an admirer of Walt Disney—worked at an amusement park in Utah, where he took a particular interest in the skill-based midway games set up in between rides. Later in his career, the video game entrepreneur realized that few establishments catered to children who craved the lights and competition of an arcade but were too young to visit one on their own. If designed properly, he figured that a family pizza joint stacked with games could square this circle, allowing young kids to play in a controlled environment while their dinner baked in the oven. In 1976, at the tender age of 33, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications for $28 million. The next year, his new company opened
its first Pizza Time Theater in San Jose.
The Californians who walked into Bushnell’s restaurant encountered a bewildering sight. Mounted on the wall of the dining room, at “center stage,” sat Chuck, a robot rat with a patterned vest and a thick 'New Joisey'' accent. (The character, voiced by John Widelock, was randomly based
on “Muggs McGinnis,” a pugnacious yet lovable thug who turned up in the 1940s movie series The East Side Kids
.) Chuck, who acted as master of ceremonies, was joined by 15 other pneumatically operated characters, a diverse assortment of personalities who wisecracked and sang two-minute “original” songs from various stages around the perimeter.* There was Pasqually, an Italian chef; Sally Sachet, a disco skunk; Dolli Dimples, a piano-playing hippopotamus; The Beagles, a rock-and-roll quartet; and Helen Henny, a folk-singing chicken. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal
hilariously described the spectacle as “dinner theater for the preteen set.” (March 31, 1994)
Games occupied the rest of the room. Kindergartners jumped onto kiddie rides or into a ball pit. Those with more gaming experience tried their luck at pinball, skeeball, or Atari games like Asteroids. Teens weren’t welcome at all
; as the marketing director told the New York Times
in September 1981, ''if another teenager never sets foot in our stores, that'll be just fine with us.” The only troublemaker these “neighborhood Disneylands” accommodated was the giant rat with the toothy grin on the sign outside.
Shortly after cutting the ribbon at his first restaurant, Bushnell had a falling out with Atari’s new parent company, so he repurchased his San Jose outlet along with the rights to his idea for $500,000. This proved to be a profitable decision. Over the next half-decade, Chuck E. Cheese’s became the hottest restaurant chain in the country, one that Fortune
felt comfortable anointing
(PDF) the “future for the family restaurant business” in its July 1982 issue. Targeting “middle-class suburban areas where there are enough young couples with children willing to spend as much as $20 at each visit for pizza, ice cream, or sandwiches,” (NYT
, September 1981), Bushnell opened up an average of one shop every five days. Visiting Chuck E. Cheese's was less expensive than a trip to an amusement park and more exciting than a comparably priced trip to the cineplex. And by instituting
a token system for his games, kids spent their distracted parents’ money quickly. In 1980, a hotel mogul from Kansas City launched Showbiz Pizza Place,
an enterprise patently modeled after Chuck’s brand. Two years later, amid a national recession, Bushnell’s company registered a 453 percent increase in profit from the same quarter in 1981. Its stock price eclipsed $30 per share. “It's a very high revenue business," one analyst told the Baltimore Sun
in August 1982, "much higher than the average fast food chain.”
Building a sustainable business, however, required Chuck and his friends to convince families to make repeat visits. And Bushnell’s champions on Wall Street failed to make two simple observations about the early Chuck E. Cheese’s: the pizza wasn’t tasty, described by various reporters at the time as “less-than-superior” or “unexceptional,” and a trip to the noisy, rat infested parlor was a horrible nightmare for parents. Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly
(December 20, 1982) describes a typical scene, which is both manic and depressing:"Enter to bedlam: On the right, the "cabaret." A wildlife movie in progress, a half-dozen families consuming pizza in a darkened, cafeteria atmosphere. A tot of two weeps hopelessly on his father's shoulder as Chuck E. Cheese himself, larger than life and possibly twice as threatening to some youngsters, vainly tries to comfort the child. To the left, the "lounge." Again the cafeteria motif but the far corner features canned Beatles music piped through a quartet of dog robots—The Beagles—jerking to some nameless rhythm dictated by their gear and sprocket innards. Childish cries of joy and sorry grow louder at the video game arcade."
To make matters worse, the company built so many restaurants so quickly that the individual franchises were forced to compete with each other directly, making it difficult to recoup the hefty fixed costs—$1 million per store—it took to open up in the first place. In the end, a stressed family might outsource birthday party planning duties to Chuck once every 12 months, but few made the pizza joint a regular dinning destination. It was just too insufferable. “Within two years,” the Wall Street Journal
reported in March 1983, “the entire concept was in trouble.” After patronage dipped** and Wall Street investors dumped 500,000 stock shares in one day, Pizza Time Theater was forced into bankruptcy in 1984. Many of its franchises followed.
But the big rat didn’t go down without a fight. Brock Hotel Group, which owned the derivative Showbiz Pizza chain, bought out Pizza Time Theater shortly after it went under and immediately started rehabbing its image. Right off the bat, McBiz brought in new prizes, expanded its menu, reworked its pizza recipe, and beefed up its beer and wine list. A few years later, the chain ploughed $120 million into a massive remodeling project, giving face-lifts to almost 250 outlets. Most importantly, the firm realized that a sarcastic, creepy rat was probably not the most appealing spokesperson for a themed restaurant. With the help of the Zambrelli LLC advertising agency, the owners traded in Chuck’s trademark tuxedo for “skater-chic baggy shorts” and knee pads. "We need to ratchet up the coolness factor," an executive who worked on the project told Nation's Restaurant News
in 1997. As corny as that strategy sounds, it worked; by 1998, Chuck E.'s parent company was operating more than 300 stores in 44 states and routinely posted record quarterly earnings. There are over 500
today, with more on the way
Bushnell, who spends his time hawking memory games
, is probably happy to see his brand still kicking after 35 years in the game. Sure, it's a stressful place to visit. But parents now have fewer legitimate reasons to deny their kids the pleasure of eating in front of Chuck from Jersey.
*The software program synchronizes voices, body, and facial movements to songs and dialogue offered in original presentations.
**Deep in denial, executives at Pizza Time Theater first blamed their poor performance on the popularity of “E.T.” and then “unusually rainy weather."
American Airlines filed for bankruptcy
protection yesterday, and it’s rather amazing they hadn't done it already. The Texas-based carrier, once the largest airline in the nation, has lost more than $11 billion since 2001. The company’s fleet of old McDonnell Douglas MD-80s guzzles fuel at a rapid clip, its regional carrier American Eagle flies inefficient 50-seat jets, and it's saddled with higher labor costs and more restrictive work regulations than bare-bones alternatives like Southwest, which boosted their market share
when the demand for air travel plummeted 10 years ago and the legacy airlines couldn’t afford to lower prices substantially. In court, American's executives hope to “shed debt, cut labor costs, and find a way back to profitability,” a path that could lead to a smaller firm with fewer planes and employees. Competitors will largely pick up the slack
in the near future, but the industry is clearly facing a bleak future
, one that might might make most flights economically unreasonable for everyone but the 1 percent
When the world’s first commercial airline with scheduled service opened for business 98 years ago in the tiny town of St. Petersburg, Florida, the project’s champions hoped air travel would appeal to the masses, not just the business class. The idea for an airline came to salesmen Percival Fansler after he read about the exploits of Tony Jannus
, a Washington DC-bred pilot nicknamed “the bird-man” who set a 1,900-mile overwater flight record in 1912 traveling along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers from Omaha to New Orleans. If Fansler could pin down the talented and charismatic Jannus, he figured he could convince regular citizens that riffling through the air was a reliable and enjoyable form of transportation.
His hometown was an ideal spot from which to launch an air transport business, too; located on an isolated peninsula, the only way to reach the booming city of Tampa -- fewer than 30 miles away as the crow flies -- was to take a plodding steamship across Tampa Bay or a three-hour rail or car ride around the body of water, the latter on unpaved and bumpy roads. Fansler envisioned his firm would make two round trip flights daily on a Benoist XIV
two-seat plane, charging a one-way fee of $5, plus an additional $5 for every 100 pounds of baggage and $.05 for every pound over 200 that the passenger weighed. Fourteen local businessmen were so intrigued with the pitch that they each chipped in $100. The local board of trade matched their combined contribution and the city of St. Petersburg provided a $2,400 public subsidy. On December 17, 1913, Fansler signed
(PDF) a 90-day contract with Benoist. Two weeks later, on New Year’s Day 1914, Jannus readied himself for the inaugural flight of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line.
Almost 3,000 people gathered at the airfield at 9:15 a.m. on January 1 to watch Jannus -- donning white duck pants, a dark jacket, a bow tie, black leather gloves “nearly to the elbow,” and a visored cap -- make history. Since so many adventurous locals were eager to glide over Tampa Bay with the bird man, Fansler decided to auction his first ticket. The eventual winner was Abram Pheil, St. Petersburg’s former mayor, who paid $400 (nearly $9,000 in 2010) for the unique privilege. “What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment of today,” Fansler boomed
from the lectern before takeoff, “while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable.”
The trip may have been exciting, but it was surely unpleasant. Jannus’ plane maintained an altitude of just 15 feet
across the open waters of the bay, never accelerating past 75 miles per hour. And since early aircrafts flew slow and low
, they were often harrassed by winds, “causing a bumpy -- and often sickening -- ride.” Still, Pheil made it to Tampa in a brisk 22 minutes, a vast improvement over the existing transit options. The endeavor was an unqualified success.
In the weeks that followed, Jannus lived the dream. Fansler paid him a salary to make four flights daily. Demand was strong enough that the company purchased a second boat and hired Jannus’ brother to fly it. In three months, the two pilots transported 1,204 people a total of 11,000 miles across the bay. The ladies of the Gulf Coast loved their attractive new hero, as well. “He was so thoughtful of others, and had such a winning personality, that he was constantly being sought after by the girls,” said
Eleanor C. Reed, proprietor of the hotel where Jannus lived while in the area. “He did not know sometimes which way to turn."
But like its modern corporate descendants, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line faced economic challenges almost immediately. The problem was one of capacity; since each flight could only accommodate a single passenger, the cost of each trip always exceeded the fee travelers were willing to cough up. “Experiments cost money,” Fansler eventually said, “and there was just about enough of that to keep the gang from being hungry.” When the initial contract concluded, St. Petersburg did not offer up a second subsidy. The entrepreneurial airline may have persuaded a wary public that scheduled air travel was viable, but it was forced to shut down
just three months into its trial.
After the airboat line bottomed out, Jannus took a job as a test pilot for Curtiss Aeroplane Company, which in the 1920s became the largest aircraft manufacturer in the United States. Jannus himself didn’t survive to see his new employer’s massive growth. On October 12, 1916, during a training mission with two Russian pilots, his K boat experienced engine trouble and crashed
over the Black Sea, killing him and both of his colleagues. Florida aviation enthusiasts have worked hard to preserve his legacy, establishing in 1964 the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society. And on the 75th anniversary of Jannus' maiden scheduled voyage, one local pilot recreated the trip on an amphibious biplane he built at home. The St. Petersburg Times
(January 2,1989) characterized the flight as “uneventful.” "I was kind of embarrassed though that I did it in 28 minutes, and Jannus did it in 22," he sheepishly admitted.
For some additional background on and photos of the cartoonishly charming Jannus, click here
Somewhere in the Greater Boston Area, Cliff Clavin
is shaking in his shorts. Thanks to problems technological
, and political
, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has lost almost $20 billion
over the last four years and is in desperate need of a bureaucratic overhaul. The postmaster general has already proposed eliminating Saturday delivery, 120,000 jobs, and thousands of post offices across the country, changes that require Congressional approval. A few weeks ago, USPS even raised
the cost of mailing a letter by another cent, the first increase in over two years. Every little bit helps, I guess, though the price bump -- expected to bring in $888 million
-- won’t stave off insolvency very long. And I do wonder whether or not the D.C. bureaucrats considered one potential repercussion of a rate hike: would-be philatelists may decide to pursue a different, marginally cheaper pastime.Stamp collecting
is one of the world’s most iconic and enduring hobbies. The earliest collectors emerged almost immediately after stamps were initially issued, in 1840s Britain. (It’s rumored
that the first stamp gatherer, looking to spruce up her London flat, slapped her collection on the wall.) By the turn of the century, the American Philatelic Association was holding regular national conferences and claimed that 100,000 fellow citizens shared its love of “this interesting pursuit.” (Chicago Tribune
, August 12, 1895) During the Great Depression, with some encouragement from fervid philatelist
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, interest in the hobby soared. Although estimates vary widely, it’s save to assume that roughly 50 million collectors now participate worldwide, many of them in China
It’s easy to parody modern stamp collectors, in the same way one would bird watchers or Star Wars fans. I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead’s “John Henry Days,” a novel loosely centered around the unveiling of a new stamp, and one jaded USPS employee claims that “they’re always licking their lips because they got all those stamps but they can’t lick ‘em.” That’s pretty funny, but almost certainly untrue; these days, all sorts of people stockpile stamps, and their motivations for doing so differ greatly. Those who enjoy the thrill of the chase seek out rare or quirky prints, like the famous and expensive Inverted Jenny
, a 1918 24-cent stamp featuring an upside-down airplane. Some are interested in preservation for its own sake. “Conserving something easily discarded,” writes
sociologist Michael Kearl, “is a victory against time.” Others just like to own pretty things
Most compellingly, all humans have a neurological drive to collect stuff, even things like stamps that aren’t needed for survival. Scientists are just beginning to figure out why structures deep in the brain crave the acquisition of objects, and what they do know comes mainly from studies of people who exhibit abnormal
collecting behavior, popularly known as hoarders. In 2004, researchers at the University of Iowa
looked at dozens of patients who had focal brain lesions, tiny injuries to small portions of the noodle. The Hawkeyes divided their sample between those who started hoarding after sustaining his or her injury and those who didn’t. They found that individuals who exhibited pathological tendencies all showed damage to the right mesial prefrontal cortex, the sophisticated portion of the brain in charge of impulse control. And by demonstrating
how these abrasions “release the primitive hoarding urge from its normal restraints,” the lab staff actually proved that we all experience, to various degrees, that primitive urge to squirrel things away.*
Ironically, while the Internet is destroying the postal service itself, it’s reviving
the stamp trading game, once dominated by now-shuttered local shops and collecting clubs. Websites like eBay have made stamp buying and selling “more customized than traditional stamp shows ever were,” and values are rising as a result. The Royal Philatelic Society in the U.K. goes so far as to claim
the recession is making this low-cost hobby “fashionable amongst young people for the first time in decades.” I’m not sure I buy that conjecture, but I really have no reason to doubt it. The brain works in mysterious ways.
*As a kid who collected baseball cards and an adult who collects books (when he can afford them), I can relate.
While in Minneapolis for a quick weekend getaway, we drove past the Twin Cities’ brand new Remembrance Garden
, a series of 13 blue-lit pillars overlooking the Mississippi River. The structure commemorates the victims of the 2007 Interstate 35W Bridge collapse
, a tragedy that rarely factors into the national discourse now, eclipsed by the Great Recession, revolutions
abroad, and deadlier
disasters around the globe. Four years ago, though, domestic media outlets covered the accident intensely, and with good reason: the death toll was high, there was dramatic video footage, it occurred during a month when the news cycle typically grinds to a halt, and major bridge wrecks are exceedingly rare. From 1968 through 2008, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated
24 collapses, and just five resulted from structural flaws. Considering how many cars traverse the roads each day, that’s pretty damn infrequent.
We owe civil engineers a debt of gratitude for perfecting the design of strong and secure overpasses, as well as regulators and inspectors who bird-dog contractors and governments that don’t follow safety standards
established to protect travelers. Americans weren’t always so lucky. Four decades ago, along the banks of the Ohio River, a tiny and preventable maintenance problem led to one of the most gruesome transportation calamities of the automobile era.
The Silver Bridge
, named for its aluminum paint job, was a 2,235-foot structure built in 1928 to link Columbus, Ohio with Charleston, West Virginia. The so-called “Gateway to the South” stood, without incident, for 40 years. But time and neglect took its toll on the suspension apparatus. On December 15, 1967 at about 5:00 p.m., local residents within earshot of the river heard a massive bang, like someone had fired a shotgun. (“I thought some nuts were dusting ducks under the bridge,” an 18-year-old gas attendant told Time
.) The noise was the fracturing
of one of the Silver’s eyebars, the load-bearing bars that run perpendicular to the ground. When the eyebar cracked, the entire bridge went down with it. In just 60 seconds, all 31 vehicles stuck on top tumbled into the freezing water, killing 46 and injuring nine more. On the 40th anniversary of the accident, one of the survivors -- a woman pregnant with twins at the time -- recounted
the cinematic horror she endured:"As I was approaching the bridge, the light changed. When it went to green, I started over the bridge and there was a terrible shaking of the bridge. My father was a riverboat captain and had talked about barges hitting the bridge and the pier, so when I heard that, I automatically put my car in reverse." Her car stalled, and "by the time I got my car stopped, mine was on the very edge where it broke off," she said. Because she was pregnant, she tried to keep her cool. She remembered looking around and seeing wires dangling. And she remembered a state patrolman and Rimmey coming to the door of her car and walking her out. "You could hear (people) screaming. It was terrible," she said. "By the time I went to the end of the bridge, I had gone into shock."
that “the modern history of bridge inspection" began with the Silver Bridge Collapse. Immediately after the travesty, President Johnson convened three separate task forces to evaluate the effectiveness of existing regulatory practices. From these deliberations, the U.S. Congress established National Bridge Inspection Standards, which mandated an increase in both the frequency of inspections and the number of personnel trained to carry out those probes. And the country’s safety record, save I-35W and a few other altercations, has been pretty solid ever since.
These days, the work of those important bureaucrats is getting more and more difficult. Almost one-quarter
of all American bridges are considered either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete,” and the majority party in the U.S. House is not so keen on making infrastructure investments to fix them up. It might be a matter of time before another skyway accident supplants Silver as the most infamous in U.S. history.
This year, we’re supposed to pity the youngsters in Illinois with the most gorgeous livestock. Because our state’s finances are such a mess, the kids who win Best in Show at the Illinois State Fair are slated
to receive smaller-than-normal cash prizes when they auction off the family bovine in the “Sale of Champions.” That’s money that can go a long way for the small-town middle- and high-schoolers who drag their beloved animals to Springfield each August.
It’d be nice if Illinois could make good on its financial obligations, but let’s not discount the additional perks that an attractive heifer can deliver. For starters, those teens will certainly be the coolest cats at the MC Hammer and Boyz II Men show
tomorrow night. They’ll also take home a shiny blue ribbon, one of the most respected, if not random, awards one can receive.
Blue ribbons have come to symbolize things of the highest quality. It's what one earns when he or she has the healthiest hog, the most innovative science project, or the best tasting beer. The U.S. Department of Education bestows a blue ribbon award on high-achieving schools and lawmakers establish blue ribbon commissions when they are forced to deal with problems that lack a simple solution. A simple piece of azure cloth, in other words, is the principal trophy of modern life, which is pretty odd when you stop to think about it.
We can trace the lineage of this strange tradition back to the French Monarchy
, but it wasn’t really popularized until 19th century transatlantic shipping companies created an unofficial prize -- the Blue Riband
-- for the fastest passenger liner to cross the Atlantic Ocean. From the onset, it was clear the entire enterprise was a blatant publicity stunt; the businessmen who developed the idea didn’t establish a sanctioning body for the Riband, leading to early discrepancies about which firms actually clocked the best time. Still, ship owners and politicians figured that the prestige of the cobalt pennant would attract status-seeking passengers, so they invested considerable resources into building the quickest and largest vessels they could. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, winner in 1898, burned
roughly 22 tons of coal
per hour of service on its six-day journey.
Hoping to lend more credibility to the contest, a British MP (and shipping magnate) named Sir Harold Keates Hales commissioned the design of a trophy in 1935 that the record-holder could display back home. The end product is ghastly
, a four-foot mess of silver and gilt (see above). That hasn’t stopped a few ambitious yachting enthusiasts from trying to best the time set by the USS United States in 1952, the fastest ocean liner to set sail before commercial airlines made the technology obsolete. In 1990, Hoverspeed Great Britain clipped two hours off the existing record using a 242-foot engine-driven catamaran
, but attorneys for United States Lines (which owned the USS United States) dismissed
the powerboat’s achievement because it did not meet “restrictions outlined by Hales in the trophy's deed of trust.” Two years prior to that, Richard Branson crossed the Atlantic at roughly the same speed in a 72-foot racing craft, and he met equal resistance from the Americans. “To say (the award) has only to do with passenger liners, the billionaire told Time
, “is a lot of codswallop."
If you want to see the Hales Trophy in the flesh, head to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's museum
in Kings Point, New York. Though if you're that close to New York City, it'd be easy to find other activities that would be more fulfilling.