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Benjamin Harrison and National Radio Day

August is nearly done, and so is summer in the Great Lakes. Still hot, still sticky, air conditioner still grinding away–thankfully. But I replaced the furnace this year, so at least I know that blower will run all summer–and is on warranty.

On 20 August in the year 2 (we think), there was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter visible in the morning sky on Earth. This happens every three years and change, but this one was so close that it may have been visible in daylight and is one scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. On 20 August 1794, near what is now known as Maumee, Ohio, the Battle of Fallen Timbers ended the Northwest War between the United States and the loosely-joined Native American tribes in the Western Confederacy and helped to open up the Ohio River country for American settlement.  The battle was fought by a purpose-built 2,000-man American force led by “Mad” Anthony Wayne, a famous Revolutionary War commander, and a similarly-sized Native American force that included a company of British regulars. Also on this day in 1914, Britain, France and Germany started the bloodletting in France in what would come to be called the Battle of the Frontiers. Simultaneously, the Russians and Germans had at each other at Gumbinnen, over in Prussia. The supreme irony here is that, on 20 August 1940, France would surrender to Germany. Today, for reasons surpassing understanding, is also National Chocolate Pecan Pie Day. But today we’re going to talk about an obscure but essential president, and about radios.

These assessments of blandness may be correct, but they obscure Benjamin Harrison’s many achievements.

Benjamin Harrison, born 20 August 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, is frequently said to have been something of a cipher. He was the grandson of the president with the shortest tenure, William Henry Harrison (31 days); a Civil War general of not great repute but enormous competence; and the president best known as the one between Grover Cleveland’s two administrations. These assessments of blandness may be correct, but they obscure Benjamin Harrison’s many achievements.

Harrison’s tenure as senator was lackluster, but as president, he was, for a 19th-century chief executive, remarkable.

Ben Harrison only held two elected offices in his life: a one-term senator from Indiana (1881-1887) and a one-term president (1889-1893). A more-than-competent attorney, Harrison always managed to be in the right place at the right time, and even though his friends in high office were few, US Grant was among them. He was a gifted orator, a better-than-average legal writer, a savvy investor who didn’t lose money in any of the various postwar panics, and a reliable campaign friend to have in Indiana. Harrison’s tenure as senator was lackluster, but as president, he was, for a 19th-century chief executive, remarkable.

The prevailing spoils system, where federal jobs changed with every new administration, was becoming not only awkward but obsolete because many jobs like postmaster and customs collector were becoming more technically involved.

Harrison wasn’t the first to be elected without winning the popular vote, but his election in 1888 may have been regarded as the most suspicious until 2016. The Electoral College vote wasn’t even close–233 to 168 in his favor. Then, as now, the losing Democrats wrote editorial after editorial arguing that the Electoral College should be disposed of. But Harrison ignored his party when selecting his cabinet, frustrating Republican bosses across the country by avoiding patronage. And patronage was at the heart of the civil service reform that was popular among politicians at that time, with a merit system being described and argued. The prevailing spoils system, where federal jobs changed with every new administration, was becoming not only awkward but obsolete because many positions like postmaster and customs collector were becoming more technically involved.

Harrison was the first president to have electric lights in the White House, was the first to have his voice recorded, and was the last for whom we have no moving pictures.

Harrison was in the White House when the last battle of the Long War between the Europeans and their African and Asian allies and the Native Americans broke the revivalist Ghost Dance movement among the Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota on 29 December 1890. He didn’t have anything directly to do with it, but, like George HW Bush was in the scene when the Cold War ended, Harrison saw the end of the most protracted American war. But Harrison saw more states enter the Union than any other president–six–and his face appears on more stamps than any other Chief Executive–five. Harrison was the first president to have electric lights in the White House (though he was too frightened of electrocution to turn them off), was the first to have his voice recorded, and was the last for whom we have no moving pictures.

Harrison attended the first peace conference at The Hague in 1899, argued a boundary dispute case in Paris that won him international renown, and died of pneumonia on 13 March 1901 at age 67–not bad for a footnote in history.

The election of 1892 was a low-key affair in no little measure because Harrison’s wife Caroline was dying of tuberculosis (she passed two weeks before the election). Grover Cleveland won both the popular and the electoral vote handily, reentering the White House in March 1893. Ben Harrison went home to Indiana, remarried in 1896 (at 62, to a 37-year-old widow), and fathered another child in 1897. Harrison attended the first peace conference at The Hague in 1899, argued a boundary dispute case in Paris that won him international renown, and died of pneumonia on 13 March 1901 at age 67–not bad for a footnote in history.


NRD_Hashtag-2x1
Something we can all identify with

Now, National Radio Day is today, 20 August. Once again, who first decided this is a mystery for the ages, though one theory is that 8MK, now WWJ in Detroit, first broadcast in the clear on 20 August 1920, and someone, some time decided to commemorate that day. The day has been observed regularly since the early 1990s, mostly as a promotional gimmick I would imagine.

The pretty young ladies on the beach in the lead picture, struggling to hold that (probably empty) boom box over their head, are posing for the camera. I do not know of anyone who gets that excited over commercial radio in the 21st century except maybe the broadcasters. Perhaps that’s the reason why there’s a website supporting National Radio Day that lists stations across the US that support National Radio Day in some way or another.

It’s been a long time since I listened to broadcast radio in any form, though I do get satellite radio in my car from time to time. Like most music-only consumers, I prefer commercial-free satellite radio or streaming these days. The babbling DJs, the shouting pundits I can do without.

Still, commercial broadcast radio has had an outstanding, salutary role in American society and the world. Most Americans first heard of the Pearl Harbor attacks and the death of Franklin Roosevelt on the radio. Many adults–especially those over 40–courted their current significant others to the sound of the radio in the car or the park or the basement. So you don’t have to listen to appreciate radio anymore, just know and recognize what a role it has played in our lives for nearly a century.

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Beer Floods and Cast Steel; Trans-Atlantic Radio and RCA

It happens sometimes that coincidental events, years apart, have a great effect on each other.  A flood of beer in London led to the invention of cast steel that was a boon to generations of beer workers who would supply the steel mill dives with brew: Trans-Atlantic radio service would increase the demand for radio receivers that would lead to the creation of the first global electronic firm.  And all on 17 October.  Oh sure, Ivan VI was crowned in 1740, and the Nine Regicides were executed in 1660 (hanged, beheaded, disemboweled, drawn and quartered and all that stuff), and the sieges at Saratoga ended in 1777, and the one at Yorktown ended in 1781, but we’re talking about important stuff here today: beer and steel and entertainment.

The facts of the case in London’s St Giles rookery seem to be simple.  On 17 October 1814, an iron band on a 135,000 Imperial gallon vat at a Meaux Company Brewery broke, which caused other vats to burst, which spilled about 4.14 million bottles of beer into the streets in a fifteen foot wave.  The tidal wave of suds destroyed a tavern and two houses, and flooded innumerable basements around Tottenham Court Road. At least eight people were either crushed by debris or drowned, including mourners at a wake for a two year old who died the day before. In the midst of this tragedy, “lucky” citizens who survived scooped up as much “free beer” as they could.

The tidal wave of suds destroyed a tavern and two houses, and flooded innumerable basements around Tottenham Court Road.

On a brighter note, the elusive process of casting steel from iron (steel is an alloy of elemental iron) took a great leap forward on 17 October 1855, when Henry Bessemer patented his refractory-lined iron converter.  The Bessemer converter was essentially a great, closed pot that allowed air to be blown through molten pig iron.  This removes impurities like silicon and manganese out and introduces carbon, strengthening the ionic bonds in the iron and forming the steel alloy. The ability to cast steel, as opposed to cruder processes of making blister steel by cementation or by pounding out impurities on a forge.  The ability to cast steel shapes like beams, rods, sheets, and blocks made large steel structures like bridges across the Mississippi and the Ganges possible, in addition to skyscrapers and Diesel engines and cooking pots and almost everything else that makes the technological conveniences of modern life possible.  Cast steel manufacturing was later improved by the open-hearth furnace.  And, yes, it did improve the manufacturing of beer because, after all, there’s nothing better than sucking down a cool one with the boys after a 14 hour shift at the mill in July that hasn’t flooded a few streets and basements.

The ability to cast steel shapes like beams, rods, sheets, and blocks made large steel structures like bridges across the Mississippi and the Ganges possible, in addition to skyscrapers and Diesel engines and cooking pots and almost everything else that makes the technological conveniences of modern life possible.

Just as important as steel (arguably) was when Marconi’s wireless telegraph began transAtlantic service between Glace Bay, Nova Scotia and Clifden, Ireland on 17 October, 1907.  Guglielmo Marconi was an inventive genius who was fascinated with wireless telegraphy, following the work of Heinrich Hertz on radio waves, (called Hertz waves at the time).  In the 1890s, when he was twenty, Marconi developed an entire panoply of devices that made a moveable transmitter and receiver work over a distance of two miles.  As power and range increased Marconi’s reputation rose, and eventually commercial interest developed in his inventions.  By the time Marconi’s stations started commercial  network began (with mostly personal messages at first, weather reports and warnings to and from mariners soon followed), transmissions across the Atlantic were still sporadic.  Nonetheless,  his first stations showed that it was not only possible, but at intervals practical. But there was still no real good reason to sit by the radio and suck beer on a Saturday night.

In the 1890s, when he was twenty, Marconi developed an entire panoply of devices that made a moveable transmitter and receiver work over a distance of two miles.

But radio grew.  In 1912, the Marconi stations were instrumental in sending rescuers to the stricken Titanic, and during the 1914-1918 war it became a vital means of communications when the trans-Atlantic cables were cut.  In 1919, the US government, then controlling many of the American Marconi company’s patents, struck a deal with General Electric, which then formed the Radio Company of America on 17 October 1919. As it grew in wealth and influence, including patents on the superheterodyne receiver among thousands of others, RCA bought independent radio stations and formed them into the National Broadcast System (NBC)  Gradually, through the efforts of David Sarnoff among many others, RCA came to dominate everything on the airwaves, in phonographs, and in electrical and electronics technology.  By the time of its demise in 1986, RCA put its imprint on everything from pocket radios to satellites, from televisions to electron microscopes.  Probably even on some beer-making stuff, too.

Gradually, through the efforts of David Sarnoff among many others, RCA came to dominate everything on the airwaves, in phonographs, and in electrical and electronics technology.

Though this entry has a lot of blather about beer, the Great London Beer Flood was no laughing matter.  Industrial safety was becoming a serious problem at the industrialization of urban areas accelerated in the 19th century. There was a molasses flood in Boston in January 1919 that killed 21 people.  Other industrial spills and accidents, increasingly in the developing world, have killed thousands.

Note to my LinkedIn Readers (all five of you), sorry about last week, but something in WordPress (where this column is created) got discombobulated.  My apologies.