Cover image for Wondrous contrivances : technology at the threshold
Wondrous contrivances : technology at the threshold
Ierley, Merritt.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Clarkson Potter Publishers, [2002]

Physical Description:
ix, 306 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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T14.5 .I36 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
T14.5 .I36 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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The telegraph, typewriter, phonograph, radio, train, plane, fax, and Internet were all at one time or another the latest technological wonder. All of them changed people's lives, but whether that was perceived as a blessing or a burden is a very human story, one that Merritt Ierley tells to marvelous effect in Wondrous Contrivances.

A sharp-eyed researcher, Ierley looks beyond obvious sources like news reports of emerging technologies. He asks, for instance, when was a new invention adopted as a toy? And he uses that as a guide for when Americans became truly comfortable with a new invention. He draws intriguing parallels between the typewriter and the computer (each followed a similar path from marvel to necessity). Equally intriguing are excerpts from original instruction manuals (people did need to be taught how to use a telephone, of course). And 75 vintage photographs and illustrations make Wondrous Contrivances as much fun to look at as it is to read.

Author Notes

He is a social historian, the author of seven books relating to American history and technology, including The Comforts of Home. He lives in northern New Jersey.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Three upbeat new books profile inventors both famous and little known and celebrate once-momentous, now-commonplace innovations. Brown introduces 35 practitioners of American ingenuity in this peppy survey, neatly profiling inventors in the fields of medicine, consumer products, transportation, energy, computing, and telecommunications. Shared traits include a preternatural attention to detail, a gift for following up on "serendipitous flashes," gumption, and the ability to withstand ridicule and ruthless competition, the latter acknowledged in Raymond Damadian's name for the first MRI machine: Indomitable. Another example of the truth Brown reveals--that behind every invention, there's a story of inspiration, hard work, and luck--is found in the profile of Garrett Morgan. The son of former slaves, he confronted racism to bring his inventions to fruition, a prototype for the gas mask and the first traffic signal. Ierley, author of The Comforts of Home (1999), an overview of household technologies, writes with zest about the "original impact" of modern technology as he offers pithy, illuminating discussions of Americans' initial reactions to the railroad, the telephone, the typewriter, and its descendant almost exactly a century later, the personal computer, and the world of images, from photography to television. The most enjoyable aspect of his insightful overview is his impressive fluency in technology coverage in newspapers and popular magazines, advertisements and owner's manuals, and even private letters and journals. Ierley also scrutinizes children's toys and books to assess the assimilation of various machines, and marvels at our "mastering of complexity," the ability to rapidly learn and employ new technology-driven skills. Like Brown, Vare and Ptacek are much enamored of inventors and their amazing stories of perseverance. An informal sequel to Mothers of Invention (1988), Patently Female records some improvement in the recognition of women innovators, a development they're determined to encourage, and their conviction infuses their book with energy and pride. Women have always been inventors by necessity, as evident in the tales of secretary and single mom Bessie Nesmith, who gave the world liquid paper (and a rock star), and Mary Anderson, the inventor of the windshield wiper. And onward they march, the clever and resilient women inventors of Scotchguard, Lactaid, the first computer language, the first library database, chemotherapy, AZT, the Mars rover (named the Sojourner Truth), the bra, Barbie, and many more. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Popular history with a dose of gee-whiz gadgetry worship, this work by technology writer Ierley (The Comforts of Home) covers some fascinating ground without much direction. Beginning with the gentle reminder that "there was once a time when people never talked to each other except in each other's company," Ierley offers a survey of the inventions in transportation, entertainment and communications that have most transformed the American land- and mind-scape over the past century and a half. Ierley focuses on the public response to these inventions, using diaries, advertisements and records of local fairs and carnivals to document ordinary citizens' initial reactions to the contraptions that would inevitably change their world. It's intriguing to note which innovations were immediately embraced by the masses (automobiles, photography), and which met with skepticism (airplanes though one early commercial passenger did gush that the "pretty stewardess" looked "quite trim and dapper" in her uniform). Ierley's chapter on the bicycle reveals an astonishing level of hyperbole from exuberant everyday users ("the most remarkable, ingenious, and inspiring motor yet devised upon this planet"). From record players to personal computers, Ierley gives each overanalyzed subject a fresh look. The book is not much more than a series of sketches, but taken together, they are a powerful testament to the appetite for novelty and convenience so important in American culture. B&w illus. Agent, Faith Hamlin. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Both of these books discuss the technology that has transformed U.S. life over the past 150 years. Freelance writer Brown approaches the topic by focusing on U.S. inventors of the 20th century, while Ierley concentrates primarily on the late 19th to the mid-20th century, stressing on technology's social aspects. Neither work is intended to be comprehensive. Commissioned by the Lemeson-MIT Program for Invention and Innovation, Brown's work has five major subdivisions "Medicine and Healthcare," "Consumer Products," "Transportation," "Energy and Environment," and "Computing and Telecommunications" each with six to eight chapters devoted to one individual and his or her invention(s). Although men dominate, women and minorities are represented. While some items are to be expected the television, microwave oven, and video game others are delightful surprises, such as the traffic signal, computer mouse, pacemaker, balloon catheter, and naturally colored cotton. Individually and cumulatively, the short chapters on these and other inventions produce an excitement about the process of inventing. Ierley (The Comforts of Home), a well-known author on U.S. history and technology, divides his book into three sections: "Transportation," "Communications," and "Entertainment." Within each section are four to six chapters focusing on separate topics. The six chapters in "Communications," for example, are devoted to the telegraph, telephone, typewriter, copy machine, FAX machine, and home computer. Ierley is concerned not with the nitty-gritty of the invention but with how it was perceived by society as a contribution, how it was used, how people reacted to its introduction, and how there have been parallel reactions to new inventions throughout the decades. Both works are highly recommended, particularly for history of science and public library collections. Public libraries will want to highlight Inventing Modern America for young adults and raise their enthusiasm for the process of inventing. Michael D. Cramer, Cigna Healthcare, Raleigh, NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



TRANSPORTATION FOR SOME, AS FOR THOMAS COLE, whose painting River in the Catskills (1843) is the frontispiece to Part 1, new technology was intrusive. A naturalist and poet as well as a painter, Cole abhorred even the buzz of sawmills and the smell of tanneries in his beloved Catskill Mountains. How much worse the ruination when the Canajoharie and Catskill Rail Road rumbled into his wilderness in the mid-1830s. Cole pressed for a public debate: "Are railroads and canals favorable or unfavorable to the morality and happiness of . . . the United States?" When the debate was put to the tip of his brush, however, Cole subtly allowed the inevitability of progress. His painting, showing the Catskills in all their splendor, admits the railroad as a wisp of smoke (center left) that divulges a train making its way across a trestle. That Cole's hostility was tempered by a sense of inevitability is apparent from a curious sidelight. River in the Catskills was painted in 1843. In March 1840 the Canajoharie and Catskill suffered a devastating accident: A trestle over the Catskill Creek gave way, sending a train hurtling into the river. The line's only passenger cars were destroyed and its one locomotive damaged; the mishap effectively put the railroad out of business. Cole might have painted a scene of mangled cars lying in the Catskill Creek and called that his River in the Catskills. Instead, this first great American landscape painter-in this first representation of the railroad in American art-allowed his hallowed landscape to illustrate a point: What no clock can turn back ought to be accepted with equanimity. We generally find an overwhelmingly positive reaction to new technology. As the British novelist Anthony Trollope wrote in 1862 after visiting America, "The great glory of the Americans is in their wondrous contrivances." But it has never been a one-way street. Transportation, in particular, has often imposed heavy hardship through dislodgment and a disquieting presence. Railroads, in the early days, were notorious for running roughshod in laying out routes. Highways, airport runways, even aircraft approach routes have all dislocated in various ways. The noise factor in modern transportation is vastly beyond the buzz that Cole dreaded. Yet whatever the negatives, Americans have gloried in their wondrous devices from the start. Railroads provided the first real savor of speed: "We flew on the wings of the wind," exulted a passenger on the first run of the first scheduled railroad train in America, in 1830. The automobile combined speed with another American trait-a zest for personal mobility. When it came to taking to the air, Americans were more cautious. Even in 1927, according to a major magazine of the day, it was thought to be a case of "Air-Shy America . . . The United States, except for its flyers, is air-shy. It quickly made an industry of the movies and the automobile; but of the airplane it made only a stunt performer, never considering it seriously as a vehicle for the civilian." That would change with the coming of scheduled airline travel. As in that valley in the Catskills, the clock turns only clockwise. ANNIHILATING TIME AND SPACE THE RAILROADS We flew on the wings of the wind at the varied speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles an hour, annihilating time and space. --Charleston Courier, December 29, 1830 IN ALL THE AGES OF HUMAN HISTORY, from the confines of the cave dweller to the post-Napoleonic world of steam power, the general pace of travel had never progressed much beyond what could be done with one's own two feet. Most people had to settle for walking, usually never far from home. At more than 15 miles an hour, the first run of the first scheduled railroad train in America, on Christmas Day, 1830, seemed as fast as the wind to a passenger who told all about it in the Charleston Courier. That kind of travel, at a speed the equivalent of a brisk breeze, was faster than humankind was used to moving. For most people in 1830, a walking pace of 2 to 3 miles an hour was as fast as the scenery ever went by. Steamboats plying the Hudson River between New York and Albany could traverse the 150 or so miles in roughly ten hours in the early 1830s. That was 15 miles an hour, but only a relative few could afford that kind of travel or even lived in proximity to steamboats. Otherwise travel on water was considerably slower: by canal boat, anywhere from 11*2 to 5 miles per hour; and interruptions in service-ice in winter, floods or drought in summer-were a constant problem. Sailing packets depended on the wind. At the turn of the nineteenth century, those on the Hudson River took anywhere from two days to two weeks, depending on the wind and the direction of travel, to get from New York to Albany. The fastest land travel, before the age of railroads, was the stagecoach, which on a good road averaged perhaps 6 to 8 miles an hour. On that critical route between New York and Philadelphia, sharp competition forced maximum effort by drivers and horses, upping average speed to roughly 11 miles an hour, but that was exceptionally fast travel over land. No wonder travelers were so awed by what the railroad accomplished. The redoubtable Davy Crockett, a few years later, had his own way of reckoning it: "I can only judge of the speed by putting my head out to spit, which I did, and overtook it so quick, that it hit me smack in the face." So great became an obsession with speed that it tended to distort reality. When a Baltimore and Ohio train was late leaving Cumberland, Maryland, in 1855, it tried to make up the time, its engine darting with "rocket-like impetuosity." "In vain," said passenger Charles Richard Weld, "was the conductor urged to slacken the excessive speed." There was a "terrific crash . . . heavings and collisions, terminating in deathlike silence." Whereupon, said Weld, survivors, instead of rebuking the conductor, praised him for his noble attempt to arrive on time. But speed was more than physical sensation. It was also a redefinition of time and space. "To see more clearly the curtailing influence of these [rail]roads on space and time," said Niles' Register in 1831, projecting rail travel a few years hence, "let us suppose that at less speed by a third than in this early stage of locomotive experiment, has already been safely accomplished, a passenger [in Philadelphia] was to set out on a rail road toward the west. [He would] reach Lancaster in 2 hours, Pittsburg in 10 hours, New Orleans in less than 2 days, and return to Philadelphia within a week." In the context of travel times in 1831, that was redefining time and space. A few years later, Niles' declared that "Science has conquered space. . . . The people of places 1,000 miles apart, are nearer neighbors. . . . As we have said before, distance will not be measured by miles, but by hours and minutes. 'It is ten hours to such a place, or 49 minutes to another.' " "Neighbors," though a thousand miles apart? Distance measured not in miles but in minutes? These were expectations of a new order-one that seemed to some even to challenge the proportions of the technological revolution that was the coming of steam power in the eighteenth century. As the telegraph would do a decade later in eliminating time, so also were the railroads seen to be annihilating space. In this redefining of time and space, predicted Niles' Register in 1831, "rail roads, we think, associated with steam power, are about to accomplish a much greater revolution in the future affairs of men and nations, than steam, itself, has yet about in the present condition of things." Such far-reaching effect was only barely sensed in the original "rail" roads that began operating in the early 1800s using horse-drawn conveyances for moving coal or quarry stone on primitive forms of track. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad first used horse-drawn cars on its opening 13-mile stretch between Baltimore and Ellicott's Mills, Maryland. But the locomotive Tom Thumb, first used in the summer of 1830, pointed the way to the future (see illustration). The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company used the steam locomotive Best Friend of Charleston to inaugurate the first scheduled railroad service in America on Christmas Day, 1830. Steam power quickly became synonymous with railroads and remained so until superseded by diesel power in the mid-twentieth century. One of the earliest records of a railroad journey was kept by Annapolis lawyer Alexander Randall of a trip on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in May 1831. Said Randall: "I again travelled on the Rail Road & was delighted with the ride. We went at about the rate of 12 miles an hour." John M. Gordon, a young Baltimore lawyer and banker traveling to Michigan to invest in land, used the railroad where possible instead of the Erie Canal while traveling through New York. Between Schenectady and Utica, he took the just-opened Utica and Schenectady Railroad: "[Thursday, September 23, 1836]. We left Albany in the cars for Utica at 71*2 a.m. . . . At Schenectady, we got into another train of cars by which we were whirled to Utica at the rate of 20 miles per hour, (i.e. 1*3 of a mile per minute) as observed by the watch. . . . There are two [trains] running in each direction daily, making 4 trips." Others had less favorable reactions-for example, John W. Baker of Philadelphia one morning in June 1838: "6 a.m. left home in the Cars for Pittsburgh. . . . We had a good number of passengers but was not crowded . . . passed through several small towns & at 11 a.m. arrived at the City of Lancaster stopped about 15 min. & then proceeded on . . . & arrived in Harrisburg at 3 p.m. . . . we now took the Packet [boat] on Pens Canal. . . . The change from the noisey jarring Rail Road to the smooth & easy canal was very gratefull to me for I had by this time a considerable head ache." Headaches, however, were hardly new to traveling. Stagecoach travelers got them as well. There was Matilda Houstoun, for example, in western Maryland, 1847: "It was impossible, for one moment, to lose sight of the absolute necessity for holding on, without being punished for our temporary negligence in a most signal manner. The great object was to prevent our heads coming in contact with the roof of the carriage. . . . I find no difficulty in believing all the stories of concussion of the brain and other frightful misadventures connected with stage travelling across the mountains." Early railroad travel, if generally less prone to producing headaches, had its other woes. Dirt, sparks, and blowing cinders were a common concern, as related by Frederica Sophia Broke, wife of a British army officer stationed in Nova Scotia, touring America with her family in 1834: "Wednesday-Augst. 20th-Being the first time I ever travelled on a railroad, it was amusing for a few minutes; but after that, the noise, the smoke, & the particles of dirt became very annoying. The [railroad] was in its infancy, so there were many stoppages, and though we did at times make a mile in 3 minutes, & once went 5 miles in 1*4 of an hour, yet owing to these, which occupied altogether nearly an hour & 3*4, we did not accomplish our journey-37 miles-till almost seven o'clock!" There were other perils. The first rails (before the T-shaped rail that is still standard today) were straps of iron that were not always securely strapped to wooden stringers. A bumpy ride was the lesser of consequences; more to be feared was a strap, popularly known as a "snakehead," uncoiling and slashing through the floor of a coach. Derailments were common, owing both to the weather (snow and ice dislocating a rail, mud in the spring covering the tracks) as well as to improperly laid and/or unballasted track. The first coaches were inherently uncomfortable and provided little protection from the elements, and their primitive chain-or-bar couplings meant frequent banging. Excerpted from Wondrous Contrivances: Technology at the Threshold by Merritt Ierley All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. viii
Prologuep. 1
Part 1 Transportation
Annihilating Time and Space: The Railroadsp. 17
Traveling, Not Being Traveled: The Bicyclep. 33
Love at First Sight: The Automobilep. 44
Looking Heavenward: Air Travelp. 66
Part 2 Communications
The Truly Astonishing Contrivance: The Telegraphp. 94
The First Communications Highway: The Telephonep. 110
A New Necessity of Civilization: The Typewriterp. 131
"You Should Get One": The Copying Machinep. 143
Dropping on Target: The Fax Machinep. 153
Doing What Came Naturally: The Home Computerp. 157
Part 3 Entertainment
A Succession of Wonders: Home Entertainmentp. 191
Where's The Band?: The Phonographp. 202
The Craze That Stayed: Photographyp. 214
The Wildfire Wonder: Radiop. 226
Adding Sight to Sound: Televisionp. 246
Epiloguep. 262
Source Notesp. 264
Bibliographyp. 283
Indexp. 295