Friday, August 31, 2012

Beautiful Machines

by Sheila Connolly

Recently I opened to the Metro section of the Boston Globe to find a large image of an 1891 double-decker streetcar with once ran in Cambridge, MA.  I can't show you the image because it's the property of the Boston Globe Archives (the discussion of using images that do not belong to you is an active and contentious one these days, and I'm not planning to violate any restrictions).  Suffice it to say, it is not only a functional vehicle, capable of transporting a few dozen derby-hatted commuters, under the watchful eye of two conductors and several other employees of the West End Railway Company (which in 1897 was integrated into the Boston Elevated Railway); it is also lavishly decorated.  Its upper roof sports a cheerful broad-striped frill that flutters in the breeze.  Its sides are embellished with painted swags and garlands.  Its front bears an ornately framed panel proclaiming the name of the company.  In short, the planners and owners dressed it up.

I know, it's boring to hear me talk about an image you can't see, so I'll swap this for an example of my own:  an 1854 hand-pumped fire engine, built in Philadelphia by John Agnew & Co. (est. 1820) and named "Young Mechanic No. 6," now in the possession of the Middleboro Historical Museum, of which I have taken my own pictures, with the permission of the institution.  And while smaller, it proves the same point.

This fire engine was the direct inspiration for my most recent Museum Mystery, Fire Engine Dead.  I enjoy visiting historical societies and small museums, so I made a point of seeking out my local one (not easy, since it's open Wednesday 12-3 and Saturday 10-1, only in good weather because there's no heat).  I was unprepared to walk in upon this impressive piece of equipment, and I immediately fell in love with it.  It has retained all its parts, including the separate trailer that carried the hoses.  It was built for the New Bedford Fire Department, remodeled in 1860, and remained in active service until 1864.  Since then it has participated in many parades and ceremonies.


What's more, much of its original decoration remains intact.  It is constructed of solid mahogany, and heavily embellished and gilded.  Many of the decorations serve no function other than to celebrate the wondrous piece.  Even the functional bits are decorated.

For us today, surrounded by marvels of technology all of our waking minutes, it is hard for us to imagine celebrating a simple machine.  It is also hard to imagine a relatively small group of craftsmen putting together something like this fire engine (the history of fire-fighting equipment makes very interesting reading; remember, this was long before the development of the assembly line, so many small companies or groups of individuals more or less reinvented the wheel each time they constructed a fire engine, and a lot of them failed quickly).

It was not strictly a functional, utilitarian item.  Rather, it was a marvel of modern engineering, worthy of veneration.  Picture how the humble citizenry strolling the sidewalks of a city must have marveled as the hose and ladder trucks raced by, drawn by a team of horses, boiler steaming, gilt decorations glinting in the sun.  It would be an event in itself just to see one pass. 


Today we venerate stark simplicity.  Look at our phones—we've even done away with the buttons, and now we use a smooth rectangular box.  Same with our televisions.  I remember (back in some other century) when the television was a proud piece of furniture encased in polished wood and occupying the place of honor in the living room or family room.  Now it's a flat hunk of black plastic plopped on whatever surface affords the best viewing for the largest number of people.  Not the same thing, is it?

So, just for a moment, consider when new machines were rare, and innovations were dressed up with ribbons and (I hope) brought a smile from passersby. 


Do you think things are better or worse today?



Sandra Parshall said...

A little device like a smartphone might look simple, but turn it on and you're immersed in a cyber world that our forebears could never have imagined.

Sheila Connolly said...

It was a simpler time, Sandy. And I'm sure we both remember when computers occupied an entire room that had to be kept cool. Now we carry the same power and more in a pocket. What a world we live in! (And why do I keep thinking of Dick Tracy's wrist radio?)

lil Gluckstern said...

The power of technology is almost hard to believe, but we have also paid a price in what we think of as beautiful. The beauty of the old machines is partly evocative of a simpler time, but not as convenient for sure. The price is hard to measure, in my opinion

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