Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Pontiac GTO

I came of age in the '60s.  George Lucas' 1973 paean to the rock-and-roll era, American Graffiti, (set in 1962 Modesto, California) was a near-perfect reflection of our 1960's obsession with cars and speed.

I read an article in the New York Times today that proclaimed the end for GM's Pontiac.  It made me sad - but I was not surprised.  Pontiac has been languishing for years in the backwaters of the troubled automaker.  Pontiac died a quiet death at age 84.  But like many obituaries of older folks whose family show a picture of the Dearly Departed from their younger years, I want to remember the Pontiac when it was young and vibrant.

Pontiac introduced their compact car line, dubbed the Tempest, in the Fall of 1960.  The first Tempest was intended to be a fuel sipping family hauler.  That first year, the car had an innovative drivetrain with the transmission from the Corvair mounted in the rear to flatten the hump in the middle of the front passenger compartment normally created by the transmission. By 1963, the car had grown from Compact to Intermediate class and like all cars of that era, higher-performance engines became an option.  The transmission moved back up front to take the beefed-up torque of these larger engines which had a 326 cubic-inch displacement. These small V8s were a hit with consumers and the restyled 1964 Tempest Lemans was offered with a factory option for the larger-bore-in-the-same-block, 389 cubic-inch V8.  This true Muscle Car was the brain-child of Pontiac's Chief Engineer, John DeLorean, and was dubbed the Pontiac GTO.

The 1964-65 GTO's remain at the pinnacle of desirable collector cars.  Restored to pristine condition, these hunks of mid-60s steel can easily bring over $100,000 at auction.  I would guess that most of the buyers are guys my age who always dreamed of owning one of these exotic machines from their long-ago youth.  In my high school years, I thought the GTO was second only to the Corvette as the coolest car on the road.  I never could have bought one, of course.  I could barely afford the tiny Honda CB160 motorcycle that was my only way of getting around.  But I was luckier than most.  I had the right high school friend.

1965 Pontiac GTO Couple

1965 Pontiac LeMans Convertible

The first year after graduating from high school, my best friend had managed to buy a 1965 deep burgundy GTO convertible by working out a loan with his very lenient father.  The '65 GTO had (and maybe still has) the best body style of any car in its class.  The over-under, forward-raked headlights and the clean grill looked as though it could just knife the air.  The bulge on the GTO's hood looked like a pair of flared nostrils.  The four-on-the-floor (with the white billiard-ball shift knob) was the lever to All Power.  The lines were clean and uncluttered - unlike so many cars of the day - and beautifully proportioned.

I got to drive this car... once.  Well, maybe twice.  But the time I remember was when I was driving it in the high school homecoming parade with one of the princesses sitting up on the convertible boot in the back seat.  My friend, the owner, couldn't drive because he was in another float in the same parade and had asked me to take the wheel.  I did my very best to look totally bored with the experience.  (Such a Guy Thing at age 18.) Never once did I let on that I wanted to do handsprings down the middle of the street because I felt SO COOL!  My Fifteen Minutes of Fame had arrived.  My biggest challenge was not inadvertently popping the very stiff clutch and send my homecoming princess flying off the trunk lid or stalling the car in the middle of the parade. I managed without mishap.

I didn't get my own car until a couple of years later.  It was not a Pontiac GTO.  It was a used VW Bug that struggled to get up to highway speed.  The GTO was definitely another kind of automobile and I will always remember it fondly.  It was iconic.  It defined the times.  Pontiac went on to get older, heavier, slower. (Sounds like what happened to us.)  Now, it is gone.  But when I see these classic GTOs at a car show, I still want to grin.   They were fun in a way that cars today can never be.  At least, not to me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Art of Technology

Technology always exists within the culture.  Technology also shapes the culture in ways both subtle and obvious.  But technology would have been one of the last subjects of interest to early 19th century American artists.  The Back Story of America was the opening of a virgin continent, the taming of the wilderness, and the westward expansion that was for some our Manifest Destiny.

The earliest landscape artists painted bucolic scenes of the Hudson River Valley - from which they drew their group identity, becoming known as the Hudson River School.  Technology in the landscape was hard to see even in the 1820s.  There might be a steamboat in the distance on the Hudson but most often painters such as Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848) painted their landscapes without machines.  But even Cole payed tribute to the settling of the land in his 1836 painting, The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northhampton).  Cole's painting is seen as one of the first clear visual statements of the difference between the settled land with well-tended farms (as seen on the right) and the yet unspoiled but ominous wilderness (on the left).

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, 1836
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Railroads came to America in 1829.  The railroad became the embodiment of technology change made visible, or to use Leo Marx's phrase, the railroad was "the machine in the garden."  Artists still didn't make technology a prominent feature in their paintings but it did start to have some presence, perhaps being represented by a distant steam locomotive seen in the far distance.  The landscape itself still dominated.  

As the 19th century progressed, the emerging place of technology became self-evident.  Artists began to be commissioned for paintings featuring technology as the main subject.  This was clearly the case with what has come to be seen today as the best example of 19th century technology art, "The Lackawanna Valley," by George Inness (1825 - 1894).

George Inness, The Lackawanna Valley, ca. 1855
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
This painting has an interesting history.  It was apparently commissioned by the directors of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad either for use in advertising or to decorate the walls of the company's offices. No one knows for sure. Inness was only about 30 years old when he painted it and was newly returned from an extended stay in Europe.  The scene depicted is of the Lackawanna's engine house (the round building in the center distance) in Scranton, PA. The picture is an idealized rendition of (what was in reality) a much flatter and uglier landscape as can seen in contemporary photographs of Scranton. But the picture places the train smack dab in the center and the engine house prominently in the distance.  Despite these placements, the landscape still speaks of tranquillity and the rural life.

Apparently, the railroad directors didn't much like the picture.  There is no mention of it in any surviving records and there are no engravings made from it for advertising.  When Inness had been in France, he had become enthralled with the Barbizon School of painting which was moving away from the older style of the Hudson River School. Inness was paid $75 to paint the work, money he desperately needed at this early stage in his career.  There isn't even agreement on the date of the painting or its original title.  It has become popularly known as The Lackawanna Valley but it was never named that by the artist.  It might have been painted in 1857, rather than 1855, because that was the year that the engine house was completed.  

Many decades latter, in 1891, George Inness was in a junk shop in Mexico City and he found his painting (which was quite large at 34 in by 50 in) piled in a corner.  The shop owner told Inness that he had acquired it in a load of old office furnishings.  Inness bought his old painting back for a few dollars, which is the only reason we have it at all.  The painting now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, DC as one of the great masterpieces of 19th century American art. 

Technology both creates culture and is created by culture. From time-to-time, I hope to put some other artwork on the blog. It helps me, at least, to see the world as a whole.


The Railroad in American Art, Representations of Technological Change, Edited by Susan Danly and Leo Marx, The MIT Press, 1988.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why Not Technology News?

Disclaimer:  After a glass of wine and watching the network news on television, I decided to have an "Andy Rooney Moment" and bitch.  (For those of you who don't know who Andy Rooney is, he's on CBS's 60 Minutes but you can get a sense of his style here.)


If you want to find stories about what's new in science, just open almost any newspaper or magazine.  The New York Times has a whole section on Tuesdays.  Scientific American, Science, Nature, Discover, and a host of other media outlets have a constant parade of what's new in most scientific areas, including stories, blogs, Tweets, and Facebook listings.

But what if you are more interested in technology?  Well, if you are talking "hi-tech" - which is to say the web, cellphones, social networking, e-readers, or a host of other personal technology - you don't have much trouble finding out the latest news.  Everybody runs stories.  David Pogue in the NY Times is a big source for me but so is Gizmodo, Tech Crunch, CNET, and a boat load of other websites.

I find most of the hi-tech stuff interesting but not very inclusive.  If I want to know what's new in other technology areas (which includes virtually any area other than electrical engineering and computer science), I  have to do some digging.  Even Popular Science and Popular Mechanics come up short when it comes to the cutting-edge of new, non-silicon technology.  Why is that?  Why is science and hi-tech news so easy to come by yet other technology news so hard to find?  Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge any of these other areas their news streams.  People should know something about science and certainly most of the younger crowd wants to know what's the New New in wireless and personal tech.

But we seem to have hit the Yawn Threshold when it comes to other technologies.  It doesn't seem to matter whether they launch a Space Shuttle or complete an enormous bridge across the Colorado River (as they just did), you would be hard pressed to know anything like this is happening.  And yet, it is this very same technology that underpins so much of our lives.  You might think that Green Energy news would be everywhere but it gets buried under the deluge of social networking and political noise on the web.  Same goes for the fact that our economy is in shambles because we are losing our older technology base (read: manufacturing economy) that kept this country going for the last century.

I realize that this sounds a bit jaded, especially from a blogger who writes about the history of technology.  While I admit to being biased, I think that most people can find something of interest in the technology that makes the world they live in possible - even if it is only from the human interest side of the story.  Maybe you even want to protest against a technology but at least you might be better informed about it. And some positive news might just get some kid interested in a great career path.  I would love to see a front page headline in the major newspapers of this country with something like, "Largest Solar Installation in the World Goes Online."  But I'm not holding my breath.


Post-Disclaimer:  When the wine imbibed is metabolized, a sense of calm returns... for better and for worse.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Panorama: IMAX of the 19th Century

No matter what direction they looked, the battle raged around them.  The agony of the dead and dying, the chaos of Pickett's Charge, the noise, smoke and confusion was everywhere visible.  The sense of being there was overwhelming, yet the scene they observed had happened 20 years earlier.  The time machine that transported them there was a cyclorama.

A couple of days ago, I came across a reference to Louis Le Prince who was the inventor who had been credited as being first to create a motion picture.  I put a link up on my Facebook TechAlmanac to his two-second, 1883 film entitled "Roundhay Garden Scene." I started reading a little more about Le Prince and learned that he had emigrated from France - first to England and then to New York - in the mid-1880s. One of his jobs was to manage the Monitor and Merrimac Panorama exhibition.  I had never heard of a cyclorama so I started doing a little investigating.  What I found was a fascinating history of a form of entertainment that mesmerized those in the late 19th century who saw such a display.

Panoramas (also interchangeably called Cycloramas) were gigantic paintings that were displayed inside specially-constructed round buildings so that the painting completely surrounded the viewer.  The painting could be 350 to 400 feet in circumference and 25 to 40 feet high.  The viewers would typically climb stairs to a high platform in the center of the building so that their viewpoint was that of being on a high hill.  Often, the panorama was also combined with real foreground elements such as trees, fences, or (if it was a military scene) cannons and other armaments.  The illusion of being in the painting was said to be overpowering.

The cyclorama was patented by and Englishman named Robert Barker in 1787.  Barker was the first to coin the term panorama from which the adjective "panoramic" entered the lexicon in 1813.  Barker's first panorama was a view of Edinburgh. He later displayed a second panorama of London as seen from the roof of Albion Mills and it was wildly successful.  Hundreds more such scenes followed by other artists and were displayed across England and Europe.

In the United States, the first panorama was painted by John Vanderlyn in 1818 and was entitled, "A View of the Palace and Garden of Versailles".  The painting was originally displayed in a special building in New York City called the Rotunda. The panorma has survived and is now housed in a round hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It is one of only three historical panoramas that can still be seen in this country.

Paul Phillippoteaux
The second and perhaps the most famous is "The Battle of Gettysburg" which was painted in 1883. The panorama captured the scene on July 3, 1863, the third and final day of the epic battle, at the time that Confederate General George Pickett commanded a charge of 12,500 troops against an entrenched Union positions.  The result was a bloodbath for the Confederates with over fifty percent rate casualties. The cyclorama painted was painted on commission from Chicago investors by French artist, Paul Dominique Phillippoteaux and a team of other artists. It was first displayed in Chicago on Oct. 22, 1883 to critical acclaim.  As painted, the original was 365 feet in circumference and 42 feet high. Three copies of the Gettysburg Battle were subsequently created by the artist and his team for display in other cities. The first copy, which opened a year later in Boston, found its way years later to the Gettyburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. It has been displayed there since 1912. It was recently renovated and moved to a brand new exhibition building in the Park.

A Portion of the Gettysburg Cyclorama

The third existing historical cyclorama is titled "The Battle of Atlanta" and is on display in Atlanta, GA.  While this battle depicts the North's victory in Atlanta, it is still cherished as a reminder of the Confederacy's resistance to the decimation of Atlanta by General William Tecumseh Sherman.

There were many more of these huge paintings that were shown in traveling displays to hundreds of thousands of people.  Some titles included "The Battle of Shiloh", "The Battle of Second Manassas", and (the one that got me going in the first place) "The Battle of the Monitor and Merrimac". You might think that it would be hard to lose paintings this large.  After all, the combined paintings making up the cyclorama usually weighed about 10,000 pounds and, even rolled up, would have been 30 to 40 feet long.  Some were lost to fire, others were undoubtedly thrown out when the fashion for these paintings passed. Still others were cut up to make smaller paintings for framing.

One interesting footnote came to light almost in my backyard.  An artist named Joseph Wallace King of Winston-Salem, NC became obsessed with finding one of the missing Battle of Gettysburg cycloramas and stayed on the hunt for decades.  In the 1960s, he got word that one of them might be in a warehouse in Chicago.  When he went to the location, he was told that the old warehouse had burned down a few years before but he went in to the new one and found a fire-blackened back wall.  For whatever reason he thought there might be something behind the wall and talked the owner into letting him punch a hole through to check.  Behind the wall lay one of the stored copies of the Gettysburg cyclorama.  He bought the painting and brought it back to Winston-Salem and unrolled the paintings end to end in the Bowman Gray football stadium.  They even had to take the goal posts down to put all the pieces end to end. King died in 1996 while trying to get the paintings restored and redisplayed.  He bequeathed the cyclorama to Wake Forest University.  In 2007, three unidentified investors from Raleigh bought the painting from the University for a reported $10 million and are seeking other investors to restore and display it.

Cycloramas were the IMAX of their day.  They provided a spectacle and an immersive experience that took viewers to other places and other times.  In the days before motion pictures, they must have been truly extraordinary.  But like every technology, these massive paintings became a dated form of entertainment.  The painting that was found in the old Chicago warehouse was last displayed at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933 and was a Midway attraction, not even one of the major exhibits.

I wonder what the next century will bring in immersive experience.  With the rate of acceleration of virtual reality software it is likely that we will get to the point where we will be able to inhabit places indistinguishable from the real world.  We are almost there now. I can imagine a future virtual theater recreating an even more powerful rendition of the Battle of Gettysburg.  On the other hand, there have been so many battles since that epic conflict that it might be hard to chose which battle to recreate.

Further reading:

Saving the IMAX of its Day - American Heritage Magazine
The Velaslavasay Panorama
Official Website of the International Panorama Conference with lists of other panoramas by country.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Grand Challenges: Keys to Future Training

How do you know when a new technology is becoming mainstream?  Conversely, what trends can you afford to ignore?  Where are the signals that suggest permanence - or at least a long run?  I wouldn't put my money on media hype.  The New-New can very quickly be about as appetizing as yesterday's oatmeal.

One sure indicator of a technology that is here to say is the emergence of training programs.    When employers are looking for skilled people, it is safe bet that the early risks of new technologies have passed.

If you look back at technology history, you can see the pattern.  In the late 1400s, the craft of printing exploded.  Printing was taught as a legitimate craft complete with guilds and master craftsmen.  In the 19th century, engineering emerged as a recognized discipline that was capable of far more than what had been the domain of the earlier military engineers.  Huge public works like the Erie Canal were built in the early 1800s by self-taught surveyors.  By the latter half of the century engineering, lead by civil engineering, was a mainstay at many larger colleges.  Specialty schools were founded which focused solely on science and engineering (e.g., MIT, CalTech, RPI, etc.).  In the last thirty years the emergence of the discipline of computer science has attracted students who wanted to work on the cutting edge of technology.

So what are the new training programs that are emerging that foretell the next wave of mainstream technology?  A quick scan of leading technology universities hints at some directions but one organization that cuts across many of the leading institutions is the National Academy of Engineering.  The leadership of the NAE has pulled together a list of what it calls Grand Challenges that represent some of the major issues facing our global society.  Here's the list:

  1. Make solar energy economical
  2. Provide energy from fusion
  3. develop carbon sequestration methods
  4. Manage the nitrogen cycle
  5. Provide access to clean water
  6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  7. Advance health informatics
  8. Engineer better medicines
  9. Reverse-engineer the brain
  10. Prevent nuclear terror
  11. Secure cyberspace
  12. Enhance virtual reality
  13. Advance personalized learning
  14. Engineer the tools for scientific discovery

When I looked over the list, it didn't seem to me that all these challenges were defined from the same altitude.  Some are very broad (e.g., prevent nuclear terror), while others are down in the trenches (enhance virtual reality).  But some broad themes emerge and these would be good bets for training for the future.  I would categorize the themes as energy, the environment, better health care, security, and retooling learning.

Energy and the environment are no brainers.  If we don't start to take these seriously, we will be in a world of hurt. The trick is to move mega-issues like these down into actionable projects which demand trained people.  There is, however, the little matter of who will write the paychecks?  The most sustainable solution is for private enterprise to emerge as a leader but at this stage it will take a public-private partnership to prime the pump.

Better health care is not new but two forces are coming into play to change the game.  The first is the diminishing viability of the old health care model.  This encompasses everything from HMOs to the pharmaceutical drug discovery model (which, as they say, is busted).  The cost increases in the current model are just not sustainable.  But help may be on the way in the form of sophisticated heath informatics to outline better and more cost-effective treatment protocols.  Bioinformatics is at the core of genomic medicine.  Computational power will have even higher leverage in health care in the future.

Another theme in the Grand Challenges is retooling learning.  Again, forces are in direct collision.  The current public education system in this country is failing miserably.  Government initiatives that demand uniform testing may be of some help but the bigger problem is that society, and particularly the family, are being redefined in the Age of Globalization.  On the positive side, virtually every college in the country now has so-called distance learning.  If you don't care about college credit, they even give away courses for free on the web.  The Gates Foundation is focusing billions on improving public education as they research new tools and techniques.  In the end, however, education takes individual concentration and effort.  No amount of technology replaces the desire to learn.

If I were going to college today, choosing a path from the Grand Challenges list would be a good place to start.  In the end, however, it is good to remember that every training and college program is willed into being by a demand for people with particular skills - skills where the demand outstrips the supply. We need to do all we can to make sure the demand is there.  The supply will follow naturally.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Technology's Impact on the Land

We just returned from a week's trip to the Maine coast. This morning, we drove down the Hudson River Valley from Fishkill, New York, past the Manhattan skyline, and down the New Jersey Turnpike (it's always best to do this on a Sunday morning).

Coincidentally, I have been reading T.J. Stiles' recent biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, "The First Tycoon."  Vanderbilt made his first fortune in steamboats and his second in railroads.  Vanderbilt first operated ferries that plied the waters between his home on Staten Island and the docks of Manhattan.  To say he led a colorful life would be an understatement.

When young Vanderbilt lived in the same environs that we drove through today, New York City had a rapidly-growing population of 40,000 people.  Staten Island was a farming community that sent produce to market across the river to New York City.  Getting from Manhattan to Philadelphia was an arduous journey that required a steam ferry, a long stagecoach ride across New Jersey, and a second steamboat trip down the Delaware. It took 12 hours... on a good day.

As I looked at the acres of freeways, the towering skeletons of ship gantries on the shores of Staten Island, the smokestacks of chemical plants and oil refineries, and the miles of dilapidated housing, I couldn't help wondering if the rise of technology has been worth it?  Have we lost our way somewhere and raced right past the Point of No Return as we built our cities and industries?

What would Vanderbilt have thought if he could see his old haunts today?  I'm not sure. Maybe he would have been fine with it.  He was first and foremost a ruthless businessman.  Vanderbilt had no problem spoiling the natural beauty and resources of his own day to make a buck.   But I wonder if the sheer scale of the change would set even Commodore Vanderbilt back a bit?  Would he see this as some scene out of a future run amok, even for someone as rapacious as he was himself?

Cornelius Vanderbilt
T.J. Stiles relates a very interesting moment in Vanderbilt's life. When Vanderbilt was middle-aged, he became desperately ill with what was thought was either pneumonia or pleurisy.  His doctor told him point blank that he should get his affairs in order because he wouldn't survive.  Vanderbilt called his family together and spoke to them from what he thought was his death bed.  One of his family later recalled his words:  "Don't be too anxious to make money, there is enough for all of you."  When the chips were down, Vanderbilt could see that the pursuit of wealth was not the most important thing even in his life.

Miraculously, Vanderbilt recovered from his pneumonia. Deathbed insights don't always stick.  He went on to become an even more hardened and calloused tycoon who took the greatest pleasure in crushing all who stood in his path.    Vanderbilt's world, the world centered on New York City, was changing forever.  It keeps on changing, of course.  Maybe the changes that come in the future will actually be more positive because there is nothing left to build on unless the old and the ugly is torn down first.  I hope that the result is not only functional and profitable, but also something that doesn't deaden the soul to look upon.

Vanderbilt lived in the days when most Americans believed in unlimited natural resources.  Thomas Jefferson thought it would take centuries to exploit all the riches of the continent. Instead, it took just over one.  We seem to learn most lessons, even the lesson of blighting the land, the hard way.  I would like to think we are at least gaining a little wisdom as we continue to mature as a nation.