Today’s prompt: discuss three well-known innovators. You might immediately think of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs. The high-tech pantheon goes on; there’s Sergei Brin of Google, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, or Bill Gates of Microsoft. Along with changing how the world functions, they all have another thing in common: misjudgment and hubris. Microsoft is as synonymous with “doesn’t work” as it is with “everyone’s software.” Google is how we gather most of our information, including how Google misleads us in biased search rankings, which we can learn about, by googling. Facebook was vulnerable to foreign agent interference into our political process.
However, American arrogance from American inventors isn’t something high-tech leaders invented. In my trip through the Midwest, I had a chance to dive deep into the stories of three well-known American pioneers: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Each in their own way let the genie out of the bottle, changing how we live. Each in their own way also left behind a spotted legacy as well.
Assembly Line Cars, Assembly Line People
Take Henry Ford for starters. He didn’t invent the automobile or the assembly line, but by putting them together, he created the ability to mass produce autos at a cost that made them affordable. He didn’t personally design the Model T, but with the right team of creative engineers, he spearheaded creation of a car that was easy to build, operate, and maintain on the rough roads of the early 20th century.
Ford used the ideas of the assembly line from other industries–the watch makers and meat packers. At Greenfield Village, the 240-acre museum complex that showcases American history, you can help build and service a Model T. But at the Assembly Line exhibit, the underlying problem became apparent. When I asked how it worked, the docent explained that I needed six other friends to illustrate. Breaking down production into component parts can be more efficient but disconnects the individual from the product. We all become only component parts, unable to see the big picture, unable to create a thing from start to finish.
Ford was one of the first employers to significantly increase wages to his workers. He doubled pay to $5 a day in order to attract workers and so that they could afford to buy the cars they were making. Before the increase, turnover was high because the work was so demanding.
However, the wage hike came with “character requirements” enforced by Ford’s Socialization Organization. As I’ve written about before with my grandfather’s story, Ford’s HR department would tell workers not just how to conduct themselves at work but also how to dress, what to eat, how to speak English properly, and what they could or could not do with their free time. In one “graduation” ceremony, his mostly immigrant workers would be bathed in the Melting Pot, a ceremonial baptism to wash away their non-American culture.
One of the crown jewels of the Ford Museum exhibit is the Rosa Parks bus, displayed as part of an impressive civil rights exhibit called “With Liberty and Justice for All.” It’s an ironic testament to Ford’s legacy, since he was notorious for his anti-immigrant, racist, and anti-Semitic views. His four-volume treatise onThe International Jew, reportedly influenced the Nazis. As just one example of its nuttiness, Ford wrote that jazz music and dance was invented by Jews as part of their evil plot to corrupt the world. He proposed for healthier “old-fashioned dancing” to be taught broadly in the public schools, so if you learned how to dosie-do in P. E. class way back when, this might have been why.
The Wizard (and Bully) of Menlo Park
Thomas Edison, another legendary American inventor and close friend of Ford’s, also carries a mixed legacy. Edison is often credited with “inventing the light bulb,” although most descriptions today point out that he perfected rather than invented the bulb. He performed large-scale experimentation to determine what kind of materials and structure would make the bulb last the longest. Early attempts lasted only half a day, but ultimately the Edison lab created a bulb that could burn for nearly 1200 hours. By bringing a safe source of light into homes and businesses, that light bulb changed how we live and work at a fundamental level.
Edison also built one of the first large-scale research laboratories which eventually expanded to over two city blocks in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The younger Ford was such an admirer that, after Edison’s death, he acquired enough parts of the lab to recreate it as a primary focus in Greenfield Village. You can walk through and see the materials and machines used for the experiments that led to Edison’s nearly 1100 patents. The Apple and Google campuses in Silicon Valley today owe much to the notion of building an infrastructure that allows for testing and refinement.
But Edison held strong opinions as well and liked to exert control over the use of his inventions. For example, he is credited for broadly refining and marketing the Kinascope, the precursor to today’s film projector. He held most of the patents for movie technology and, as Mental Floss, put it:
Edison apparently used these patents as a cudgel. Because Edison held so many patents, and because these patents applied to both the creation of movies and the technology used to run movie theaters, he was able to [form] the Motion Picture Patent Company, and exhibited a near monopoly on the production, distribution, and exhibition of all things film… The Company took to the courts to prevent the unauthorized use of everything from cameras to projectors — and in many cases, the films themselves… even went to the extreme “solution” of hiring mob-affiliated thugs to enforce the patents extra-judiciously. Pay up — or else. Many in the film industry, known as “independents,” chose a third option: flee.
–from “Thomas Edison Drove the Film Industry to California”
Which is how Hollywood was born, in California, as a way to escape the New Jersey patent enforcement under Edison’s consortium.
Edison also became notorious for his rivalry with George Westinghouse and Nikolai Tesla over how electricity would be distributed into homes. Westinghouse and Tesla were proponents of AC current while Edison believed in DC current. This led to the launch of a publicity campaign where Edison and New York “anti-AC crusader” Harold Brown would appear in public electrocuting animals as a way of demonstrating the dangers of AC current.
What Edison left behind, along with his successful patents, was a mixed legacy built as much on propaganda and marketing as on innovation.
Beautiful Roof Lines, Dubious Ceilings
Our tour guide at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wisconsin architectural school and home, told us a story of Wright in the courtroom. When he was being sworn in to give evidence, he was asked under penalty of perjury to state his name and occupation. He replied that he was the world’s greatest architect. The judge gasped,”How can you make such a claim?” “Your Honor,” replied Wright, “You told me not to lie.”
Taliesin was indeed a wonderment. I’d heard about it all my life but still found my heart beating faster walking around these buildings nestled in the hills of Wisconsin where Wright grew up. I’d also seen other sites–Taliesin West in Scottsdale, the Marin Civic Center, and the Robie house in Chicago, where I was privileged to work for a brief time when I was in college. These buildings are all beautiful to behold and to walk through, forward-thinking designs that merge the house into the surroundings through the use of open space, tall windows, and geometric shapes.
The complex in Wisconsin included not just Wright’s main home, but his school of architecture, farm complex, hillside school with its innovative windmill, and houses for relatives. The main building is massive, with multiple levels, and yet designed so that when you stand in the center, you can see out the windows in nearly every room on the floor. The fireplace, believed by Wright to be the heart of the home, is center stage, but both see-throughand visible from every other spot.
The farm has the distinctive red barn top that every other nearby Wisconsin building had, but the animal pens and storage stretch out in uniquely sleek lines that form an unusual T rather than rectangle. Around the side, built into the hill, is what the docent accurately describe as the “most beautiful pig pen you’ve ever seen.” Indeed it was.
Yet two other things were obvious in touring the grounds. In the first place, the ceilings are very low in nearly all the spaces. Wright wanted to use thin hallways and open ceilings to compress people to move them into the parts of the house that were more interesting. Front entrances are claustrophobic, which impels viewers to go up quickly to where the windows are. The hall to the bathroom was barely a foot wider than my shoulders, which suggested I move quickly into the more interesting space with the couch and the sinks. But what if there’s a line?
It’s all very fine and good to talk about the theory behind the design. However, Wright himself was somewhere between five feet and five feet eight depending on who you asked and whether he was wearing shoe lifts. Our guide, an expert on Wright for decades, noted that he decreed anyone over six feet tall was a “waste of space” or “a weed.” Innovative ways to move people through a building is one thing; creating designs that fit you rather than others, then providing philosophical justifications after-the-fact is something else.
Wright was also economical, or cheap, depending on what word you prefer. He was, apparently, often in debt and fond of using less expensive materials like plywood for building. His ideas of reusing materials like plumbing tubes to build gates and local stone to blend designs into the natural landscape were revolutionary. Arguably, many common notions of sustainability and recycling emerge from these early 20th century views.
However, parts of his buildings now have leaks or crumbling roofs. I was extolling the virtues of Taliesin West once to a colleague of mine who lives in Phoenix, and when I asked why he sounded like he was grinding his teeth, he told me that as a teenager he worked with his dad to clean the carpets. Apparently, the design of the building made it hard to move in the equipment and that everything was always excessively dirty because Wright insisted on using cheap materials that the Preservation Foundation was reluctant to replace.
When you approach Taliesin, you can’t help but marvel at how the color of the stone matches the hillside and yellowing leaves in nearby trees. Up close, you see the landscape and the building intertwine. Inside, well, you better duck your head. Also, don’t read too much about how Wright treated anyone who disagreed with him.
In similar fashion, I can admire the innovations of the Tesla automobile, but I have to ignore the complaints I’ve heard from workers who quit the plant over safety concerns.
And, if I hear suggestions about what to eat come from Mark Zuckerberg (“I only eat what I kill”) or Warren Buffet (five cans of Coke a day), I’ll just put my hands over my ears.