On This Day…

On August 15, 1914 the Panama Canal officially opened to the public with the passing of the SS Ancon, marking a milestone in transportation history.   The canal stood as a true sign of innovation and progress, as it significantly sped up the transportation of both goods and passengers between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

The United States, under President Teddy Roosevelt, took over the construction of the Panama Canal from the French in 1904 and completed the project in 1914 under President Woodrow Wilson.

The Panama Canal was one of the largest construction projects the United States had ever undertaken, costing approximately $375,000,000, a sum that would equal roughly $8,600,000,000 today.  Unfortunately, the construction of the canal cost more than money, as it also claimed the lives of approximately 25,000 workers over the full 34 years of it’s construction.

While the completion of the canal opened up numerous opportunities in 1914, it continues to be essential today as it provides transit for over 14,000 ships a year carrying over 200 million tons of cargo!

Check out the video of the Panama Canal on our Multimedia Timeline or stop by the Woodrow Wilson House to see our President Electric exhibit filled with fun information on the Progressive Era!

“Down to the Sea in Ships” starring Clara Bow!

Do you consider yourself a movie buff? Seen any of the latest big hits at the movie theater? Well President Wilson sure enjoyed watching all kinds of films both at home and in theaters!  On April 4 in 1923, Wilson, his wife Edith, and his brother-in-law John Randolph Bolling, all went to the Rialto Theatre to see the new silent film, “Down to the Sea in Ships.”

This unique film was shot in New Bedford, Massachusetts and was produced by an independent film company named “The Whaling Film Corporation.”  The film not only documented the life and work of the whale-hunter community, but also revealed an intricate plot filled with love interests and plenty of drama. The intricate story starts with Captain William Morgan (William Walcott) the owner of a fleet of whaling ships and the father of Patience (Marguerite Courtot).  Being a devout Quaker and proud whalesman, he demands that she marry a man who is also a Quaker and whaler, effectively separating her from her childhood friend and lover, Allan Dexter (Raymond McKee).  Morgan is also raising his granddaughter, Dot (Clara Bow) whose parents were lost at sea on a whaling expedition.  While Patience is both shy and obedient, Dot is a rebellious tom boy who wants to be a whaler when she grows up.

The plot thickens as con artists Samuel Siggs (J. Thornton Baston) and Jake Finner (Patrick Hartigan) plot to steal not only Morgan’s whaling ships, but his daughter’s hand in marriage! Wary of Dexter’s love for Patience, the con artists kidnap him and place him on the next outgoing whaler.  The plot twists and turns as Dot hides herself on the whaler dressed as a cabin boy and Dexter (unaware of the plot of the con artists) goes to work to prove himself capable of being a whalesman and worthy of Patience’s hand. Finner, also aboard the ship, kills the captain of the ship and takes over, discovering the true identity of Dot along the way, endangering her safety and her virtue.  As Finner treats the crew like slaves, one of his accomplices reveals his plot and mutiny ensues. Dexter emerges as a hero and saves Dot and the ship.  After successfully harpooning a whale and learning the true reason for his abduction, Dexter steers the ship back home to try and save Patience from her fate of marrying the other con artist, Siggs.

This film was unique in that it featured original footage of whaling scenes and documentary footage of whalers at work near the end of the industry. Just four years after this film was released, New Bedford sent out its last whaler, the John R. Mantra.  This film was also one of the earliest films featuring Clara Bow (“Dot”).  Bow later became the original “It Girl,” and has since been described as the personification of the roaring twenties.

Watch the move below and find out if Dexter made it back in time to save his true love, Patience, from marrying the awful con man!

Exhibition Outtakes: More ideas to win World War I

As the Naval Consulting Board sifted through thousands of war time inventions submitted by average American citizens, they came across all manner of ideas, from serious and technologically advanced to completely outlandish!  We have already seen a few of the ideas that were submitted, including the winning Ruggles Orientator, but here are a few more innovative ideas that citizens like yourself proposed in 1918 to help win World War I.

In August of 1918, one gentleman proposed an idea to help stabilize airplanes using hollow graduated tubing filled with gasoline or some other liquid.  He theorized that the flow of liquid would help maintain an equilibrium, and if gasoline was used, it could also serve as an emergency source of fuel.  He provided the following description and set of sketches:






While many of the submissions received by the Naval Consulting Board contained elaborate diagrams and plans for better airplanes, propellers, etc., not everyone who wanted to help with the war effort had such advanced knowledge of science and technology.  This did not deter the more determined folks, however, and many people turned to their use of common sense and submitted some logical yet outlandish plans.

The following plan submitted was one in which seagulls were trained using their favorite food to swarm around the location of submarines, effectively making enemy submarines easier to locate. Here is the original proposal:

What do you think of this idea? Is it foolish and childish as the author writes in their disclaimer, or worth a shot because, as they said, it would cost virtually nothing and could reap enormous benefits?  What about the plan to stabilize airplanes with tubing and liquid?

Leave us a comment and let us know what you think, or even send us some of your ideas!


Harriet Russell Strong, “The Walnut Queen”

At the beginning of the 20th century, men largely dominated the worlds of science, technology, and innovation; however, some strong willed women also managed to work their way into these worlds and get their own patents for their innovative work. Great women pioneers like Harriet Russell Strong worked to make a name for themselves – in Strong’s case, hers became “The Walnut Queen.”

While issues surrounding water conservation and irrigation techniques are very important matters to many of us today, these topics were matters of life or death for Harriet Strong and her children.   Widowed at a young age in 1883, Strong was left to raise her four children and save her family ranch.  Even though she had no background or training in engineering or business, Strong managed to pioneer new methods of conserving flood waters and irrigating in order to supply her walnut, olive and pomegranate plantings.  This was only the beginning for Harriet Strong, however, as she cultivated her new found talent for inventions and began filing for a variety of patents.  In less than five years, Strong not only rescued her family and land from debt, but also became the leading commercial grower of walnuts in the country, thus giving her the title “The Walnut Queen.”

Even as Strong succeeded in making a comfortable life for herself and her children, she set her sights higher than just growing walnuts.  She tirelessly advocated for water conservation and worked to become a specialist in irrigation techniques.  Over the years, Strong won several patents for dams and water storage systems, and she sought to put those all to work during World War I.  Strong proposed a bold plan to control flood waters and conserve water for irrigation purposes by temporarily diverting the Colorado River and using the Grand Canyon as a reservoir.  This plan would make thousands of acres of land available for growing food, which was critical during World War I as America was exporting so much food abroad to help their troops and Allied friends that the foreign purchases had depleted American food stocks and driven up prices at home.  This plan was rejected by a Congressional Committee, but Strong, believing this was the direct result of chauvinism, used this rejection to fuel her fight for both water conservation and women’s rights.

Strong became the first woman member of the Board of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the first woman Trustee of the University of Southern California Law School and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001.  She has since been described as the primary innovator of dry land irrigation and water conservation techniques in late 19th century southern California and bears the legacy of being a renowned inventor, agricultural entrepreneur, civic leader, philanthropist, and advocate of women’s rights and women’s higher education.

Do you think Strong’s World War I proposal would have worked?  Do you think it would have been considered more seriously if it had been proposed by a man at that time? Stop by and see our President Electric exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson House to learn about more great inventors and inventions from the Progressive Era!

Guess the Patent 9 Reveal!

Thank you for all of you who sent in your guesses! While some great guesses included a safe or an ice cream maker, the winning guess was a washing machine!  Here is the original image:

Check out our video clip of a 1920s Modern Electric Home on our Multimedia Timeline and see washing machines like this one and other household appliances in action!

Tried and True: An invention that is an oldie, but a goodie!

In modern society, we have grown accustomed to constantly looking for the latest upgrades for all of our newest technology.  While we are so busy searching for items that are bigger, better, faster, more efficient, etc., it is easy to take some not-so-modern technology for granted. For example, think about putting on some pants and a coat in the morning, then grabbing your purse, laptop bag, or backpack.  What do any of those things have to do with technology you may ask? Well, there is a good chance that most if not all of those items use a zipper.  Today when we hear the word “technology,” recent things like cell phones and laptop computers immediately come to mind. It is easy to forget that some of the technology that we rely on day to day, like the zipper, was invented long ago.

The zipper was invented by the work of two different men, but was originally the brainchild of American inventor Whitcomb Judson.  At the end of the 19th century, Judson sought to invent a replacement for the lengthy laces that were required to hold together men’s and women’s boots.  Judson successfully designed and patented his “clasp-locker.”  The clasp-locker closely resembled the zipper that we use today, however, the prototype of this creation was clumsy and jammed frequently.  While Judson and his coworkers sewed the device into their own boots and displayed the invention at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, it did not catch on with the public.

The clasp-locker was not forgotten, however, for in 1913, the engineer Gideon Sundbach revamped the invention until it was more reliable. Despite the remodeling, the clasp-locker, renamed the “zipper” as an onomatopoeia (a word that sounds like the object it describes), still struggled to become popular in the fashion industry. However, it was immediately picked up by the US Army as zippers were applied to clothing and gear for the troops entering World War I.  By the 1930′s, zippers had finally found their way into the fashion industry and were put on all kinds of clothing, footwear, cases etc., as they still are today.  Unfortunately, Whitcomb Judson never saw the success of his original invention or even heard the term “zipper,” for he died in 1909.

Take a look around you, can you see or think of other pieces of technology we use in every day life that are not our modern electronics? Leave us a comment and let us know what you come up with! Come visit our President Electric exhibit to learn about many more inventions from the Progressive Era!

The President’s Playlist: The Charming Irish Tenor

It has been said that you can tell a lot about a person by the kind of car they drive or what kind of pets they have, but you can also tell a lot about a person by what kind of music they listen to.  While Woodrow Wilson had a relatively diverse interest in music, ranging from classical music to popular songs, he certainly had his favorite artists.  Among these artists was the “Charming Irish Tenor,” John McCormack.

McCormack’s talent was well suited to Wilson’s broad musical taste, as he was world famous for both his operatic singing and his popular music repertoire.  McCormack became well known for many things including his musicality, expert diction, and breath control, as well as his charm, extravagance, and charity.  While McCormack loved to spend his money, evidenced by the fact that he owned 13 Rolls Royces, some racehorses, and a large art collection, he also received three papal knighthoods and was honored with the title of Papal Count from Pope Pius XI in recognition of his work for Catholic charities.

McCormack’s talent and personality captured the hearts of many in the early to mid-1900s and he has even been described as “the greatest musician among singers.” McCormack is said to have sung from the heart and the head and could sing anything from opera to German lieder to Irish folk songs.  Wilson was such a fan of McCormack that he was even gifted a number of records that McCormack recorded specially for him.  Fortunately, those songs were later made public for everyone to enjoy!  Some of these included the beautiful “Macushla,” a recording in which McCormack’s sadness and longing drew in many listeners.

Another beautiful recording by McCormack was “Your Eyes Have Told Me So”

Even though McCormack peaked in the 1910s and 1920s, his popularity did not completely disappear with time.  A 2010 NPR survey even listed McCormack as one of their 50 Great Voices! Do you think McCormack belongs on this list?  Has he captivated you as he did Wilson and the rest of the world in his time?

Come visit our interactive President Electric exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson House to hear more famous 1920s musicians on our Victrola player!

Old is New: Competitions to spur innovation

Before America entered World War I in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson and the Naval Consulting Board appealed to the creative minds of the American people, asking them to submit their inventions to help improve the nation’s naval defense system.  This appeal allowed not only for the improvement of the nation, but it also gave ordinary citizens a chance to make a contribution to their country.  Wilson worked to harness the untapped power of innovation in the American people.

This appeal to the creativity of the people, however, is not just a thing of the past. The Obama administration has similarly worked to capture the creativity of the American people, starting in September 2009 with the Strategy for American Innovation.  This plan called on all agencies to increase their use of competitions with prize incentives to address some of the nation’s most pressing challenges, thereby encouraging innovation-based economic growth.  On April 10, 2012, the Office of Science and Technology Policy released a report detailing the use of prizes and competitions by agencies ”to spur innovation and solve grand challenges.” In the past few months, efforts have expanded under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which “granted all Federal agencies authority to conduct prize competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance their core missions.”

Just as Wilson and the Naval Consulting Board benefited from their appeal to the American people, the Federal government today has already reaped the benefits from over 150 prize competitions implemented by 40 agencies since 2010.

Interested in becoming part of this process and possibly being a big prize winner? Visit challenge.gov for the latest appeals or leave us a comment and let us know what you think of this process.  Come visit our President Electric exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson House to learn about the role of science and innovation during the Progressive Era!

Comedic Relief: Buster Keaton stars in “The Boat”

As we reach the middle of summer, many evenings are too hot to spend outside, so why not relax and stay cool by watching a short, lighthearted film in the comfort of your own home!  President Wilson filled up much of his time in his home on S Street doing exactly this.  Wilson had the luxury of screening hundreds of films in his own home (some even before they were officially released!) thanks to the graphoscope given to him by actor Douglas Fairbanks while he was still in the White House.

While Wilson was a fan of many different genres of films, he screened many comedies, a good number of which starred the popular actor Buster Keaton.  Keaton appeared in over 140 pieces during his long career (1917-1966) including numerous short films, TV series, and full-length films.  One of Keaton’s films that Wilson viewed was the 1921 comedic short “The Boat,” which Keaton wrote, directed, and starred in.

In this 25 minute long silent film, Keaton engages the audience with a continuous stream of comedic misfortunes.  The film begins with Keaton putting the finishing touches on his handmade boat, the “Damfino.”  Of course, the boat is too large to get out of his home and the film unfolds with one misfortune after the other beginning with his house collapsing upon trying to extract the boat from the garage.  Keaton then takes his boat and his family to live on the sea and fend for themselves.  The already precarious situation is not helped, however, when Keaton nails a picture to the wall causing a leak, or when he drills a hole in the bottom of the boat as an outlet for the water…

If you are in the mood for a good laugh, check out “The Boat” at the link below!