In 1908, publisher Moses King’s illustration of a futuristic New York City showed a world of skyscrapers connected by aerial walkways, tiers of sidewalks, and giant airships flying between buildings, with exotic destinations such as “Panama Canal” and “North Pole” painted on the sides.
King's Dream of New York, illustration, 1908
Dirigibles never caught on, nor did the bridges between buildings. Otherwise, though, the cityscape of tall buildings packed tightly together doesn’t look too far off from the current Manhattan. In 1908, people envisioned a future that was in some ways much more daring than the reality one hundred years later, but in others, not even close to what has happened.
In America 1908: The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the Pole, the Invention of the Model T and the Making of a Modern Nation, Jim Rasenberger, as stated in the subtitle, tries to make the case that 1908 was a year that marked a turning point in time, in which life shifted from something unfamiliar and distant to what resembles much more closely the world we know now. Pinning this turn to one year (and conveniently, one which is neatly celebrating a hundred year anniversary—if Rasenberger had missed his deadline, would the project have been scrapped?) is probably too much; fifty years is an incomprehensibly tiny grain of time in the history of everything, let alone one. However, he does make a good case for 1908 being at least an entertaining year.
Rasenberger chooses to tell his story, chronologically, beginning with Harry Thaw’s second trial for the murder of Stanford White and ending the year in a flurry with Henry Ford’s introduction of the Model T and a brief mention of boxer Jack Johnson’s defeat of Tommy Burns. In between there are accounts of a New York to Paris road race, Frederick Cook’s disputed trip to the North Pole, important moments for the Wright Brothers and the chaotic end to the season of the New York Giants baseball team (a team that either oddly or sadly, I now seem to know too much about). Theodore Roosevelt, in the last year of his presidency, makes periodic blustery appearances.
Some of these are more interesting than others. One of the main reasons I had picked up this book was the New York-Paris race, something I don't know much about and thought sounded interesting. The race, sponsored by the New York Times and the Paris paper, Le Matin, was supposed to go west across the continental US from New York, through Alaska and Siberia, then cross Europe into Paris. Initially, no American cars were entered, but at the last minute a Thomas “Speedway Flyer,” made by the E.R. Thomas Motor Company of Buffalo, New York was entered. Booking Montague Roberts, a pro race car driver, provided publicity for the quickly thrown together race. On February 12th, Roberts and his crew, along with an Italian, German, and three French entries set off from Times Square.
The New York-Paris race begins in Times Square, February 12, 1908.
The Flyer got off to a quick start, taking the lead early. The race turned into a messy, sloggy affair, though, with the automobiles encountering bad weather in the Midwest. When the American car reached Seattle, it was packed onto a steamer headed for Valdez Alaska. The Flyer was strapped onto the deck and suffered the full force of snow and salt water as the ship immediately ran into a storm that blew it off course. They finally arrived in Valdez, greeted by an excited crowd that included many who had not seen an automobile before. The excitement was short-lived, though; the racers had missed the season for traveling across the snow. The hard icy crust that would have been able to support the auto had melted, and the Flyer had no chance at making it across the wet, soft snow. The car was packed up and shipped back to Seattle.
Eventually the Americans went by steamship to Japan, and then shipped out again to Vladivostok. The French cars had dropped out. The Italians sponsors were on the verge of withdrawing support. The Germans and Americans were really the only ones left, and the American had been awarded a fifteen day credit to make up for the failed Alaska trip; meanwhile, the Germans had been penalized for shipping their car by train across most of the northwest US. The Germans passed the Americans in Russia while they tried to repair the Flyer, but with the penalty and credit for each team, the Americans would have had to stop racing to lose. This killed a lot of the excitement of the race, but they still were greeted by an enthusiastic crowd in Paris.
The account of the race is scattered throughout the book and that makes it lose a great deal of excitement, if there was any, as does the lack of any great quotes or interesting personalities (apparently these drivers weren’t the literary quotable kind). It seemed like a big idea that fizzled. It did, however, open up people’s eyes to the possibility of the automobile.
Frederick Cook struggled through his own race to the North Pole, trying desperately to be the first one there. His plan was to start with a large crew, than drop off energy and food consuming members along the way, until the final push would include just him and two Eskimos, along with their team of dogs (the dogs were also disposable; weak members of the team would be killed as they went to provide food for the others. It is an unpleasant plan).
Cook believed that he found the pole on April 21st, but even as he thought he should triumph, he began to wonder about the purpose of his feat—it hadn’t really served any purpose, he thought, had not helped anyone like those who ministered to the sick and poor did. On his return, he and his two accompanying Eskimos got lost and eventually had to winter in a cave (by the way, they abandoned their surviving dogs on the way). They made it back to Greenland half dead. Cook wired word of his find on September 1st, 1909, but on September 5th, Robert Peary wired that HE had marked the North Pole, on April 6th of that year.
Cook's photo of his claiming of the North Pole didn't convince enough people (and this is the best version I could find).
Peary worked on discrediting Cook—he interviewed his Eskimo assistants and claimed they told him that they and Cook never were more than two days from land. Cook’s descriptions of land masses he had seen didn’t match up with others’ accounts; neither did Peary’s, but he was a better publicist and won over the public’s belief in his story. There still are people who believe that Cook had made it (the Frederick A. Cook Society http://www.cookpolar.org/ is alive and well and living in Brooklyn http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9806E0D81030F933A05750C0A96E9C8B63&scp=1&sq=Frederick+Cook&st=nyt). Whoever was there first, though, if you’re an animal lover, Cook’s story is difficult to live with (and Peary wasn’t any better, I’m sure). I know, exploration is important, but it’s a hard thing to think of how many dogs, after working so hard for people, were killed or left to die in pursuit of a place that doesn’t exist; the Pole is a group of coordinates, not a piece of land that can be marked.
The most interesting idea in Rasenberger’s book is that this was a time period when people’s eyes turned from achievement on land to achievement in the sky—the flight of the home run ball, the ever-reaching skyscrapers, the rooftop gardens, restaurants and theaters, all going higher and higher. And of course, the ultimate goal, flight, solidified itself as something possible and practical in 1908.
Wilbur and Orville Wright had made their historic flight in 1903, but hadn’t been able to sell their idea or convince people that it was more than a novelty. In 1908 they finally attracted attention. The US Signal Corps and a French syndicate each offered to buy the Wright’s planes, based on a series of demonstrations meant to prove that the planes could do more than just hop up and fly a few feet. They had to show that they could fly for an extended period of time, carry passengers, and be easy enough to fly so that people could be taught to use them.
Wilbur went to France and Orville to Washington. In both places, they were regarded as men of mystery, ever tinkering and never quite ready to fly. Both were doubted, but when Wilbur finally emerged and began to fly, he was hailed as a genius and France fell in love with him (Rasenberger describes him as the French’s favorite American since Ben Franklin). Crowds and constant onlookers were overwhelming, but there was no doubt that Wilbur had made a huge success.
Orville enjoyed Washington society, but struggled to get himself up into the air—the possibility of failing and losing the chance to win the Army contract was almost too much. When he did finally prepare to take off, viewers noted that he was visibly nervous, constantly checking and fixing things. His flight was a success, though, and as in France, subsequent flights were viewed by increasing crowds.
Then on September 17, Orville took off with a passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge. Orville disliked Selfridge, but he was a member of the Signal Corps, and when he requested a ride, Orville couldn’t really refuse. The plane crashed on its fourth turn around the parade grounds at Fort Myer. Orville was injured and Selfridge was killed.
In France, Wilbur received word of his brother’s accident. As devastated as he was by the news, he knew that he had to get up in the air as soon as possible, or their airplanes would be discredited. On September 21st, Wilbur went up and flew for 91 minutes, thirty one seconds, setting a new world record. The belief in flight was restored—in both their ventures, there had been much more good than bad.
I always love reading about the Wright Brothers (when I was in third grade, my favorite books were Johnny Tremain and a biography of the Wrights...yes, my geekdom was apparent at an early age). The sections about them in the book are probably the best, with a real feel for how the Wrights thought about their work and the necessity for making an impact at that moment, and how the public finally began to be aware of and accept the possibilities of flight.
And by naming that the best section, I think that indicates how you have to regard this book. It’s a series of episodes or sections, with some more in-depth than others. The book glances at the Roosevelt presidency, touches on Progressives, anarchists, the lives of the working poor and the very rich. The Great White Fleet’s tour of the Pacific is also covered, but didn’t make much of an impact on me. It’s a good starting point for anyone who wants to learn a little bit about the time period, and the bibliography gave me some tips on other books I’d like to look at. I’d like to see it with each of the main topic in its own section, rather than having Rasenberger cut back and forth while trying to stick to a calendar year; maybe that would be better, maybe not, but I wonder if it would make each topic seem a little richer and less scattered. Overall, it’s a fun, quick read; but can’t be regarded as more than an introduction.
I guess the real question is what would be in a book a hundred years from now called America 2008? It’s impossible to predict; what seems important now may mean nothing in time. That’s what I always find fascinating about history, that it’s happening all around you, but you just don’t know it or understand it, and those unknowable moments are what we read about years and years later. When you look at a photograph from one hundred years ago, you see the faces of people and they have no idea what’s to come. They just know that moment and it is a wonder to see them not knowing for certain what lies ahead, but to see the faces only dreaming of what is possible.
Wilbur Wright flying in France.