Bridge and Skyscraper, Kitty Hawk and Detroit
The end of the Civil War brought many monuments—statues, arches, and tombs—but more significant than these were the monuments to American civilization itself. In 1857, a German immigrant named John Augustus Roebling (1806-69), a master bridge builder who had constructed suspension bridges over the Monongahela River and at Niagara Falls, proposed a spectacular span over the East River to unite Manhattan and Brooklyn. Roebling completed his plans in 1869 but suffered a severe leg injury at the construction site and died of tetanus. His son, Washington Augustus Roebling (1837-1926), took over the epic task—which very nearly killed him as well; he spent too much time in an underwater caisson, supervising construction of the bridge towers. As a result, Roebling developed a permanently crippling, excruciatingly painful case of the bends caused by nitrogen bubbles in the blood. The bridge, finally completed in 1883, was and remains a magnificent combination of timeless architecture and cutting-edge 19th-century technology.
If the Roeblings’ masterpiece brought to its grandest expression the union of 19th-century art and science, the American skyscraper looked forward to the next century. William LeBaron Jenny’s Home Insurance Company Building in Chicago (1883-85) is generally considered the first skyscraper, but it was Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), one of the nation’s greatest architects, who became the most important master of the new building form. With his partner Dankmar Adler, Sullivan based his practice in Chicago, a city he helped to raise, phoenix-like, from the disastrous fire of 1871. Thanks to Sullivan and those who followed him, American cities became vertical, aspiring dramatically heavenward, bristling with the spires of new cathedrals founded not on religious faith, but on the wealth and raw energy of the age.
The very name skyscraper seemed to proclaim that nothing could contain the spirit of a nation that, like Chicago, had been reborn from the ashes. In 1903, the sons of Milton Wright, bishop of the United Brethren in Christ Church in Dayton, Ohio, transported to a beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a spindly, gossamer machine that resembled an oversized box kite. While his brother Wilbur (1867-1912) observed, Orville Wright (1871-1948) made history’s first piloted, powered, sustained, and controlled flight in a heavier-than-air craft on December 17. Orville flew a distance of 120 feet over a span of 12 seconds. Within two years, the Wright brothers achieved a flight of 38 minutes over 24 miles and, by 1909, were manufacturing and selling their airplanes.
Of course, in 1909, flight was still out of the reach of most “ordinary” people. But the year before, a farm boy from Dearborn, Michigan, gave the masses wings of a different sort. True, Henry Ford (1863-1947) did not actually lift purchasers of his Model T off the ground, but he did give them unprecedented physical freedom.
Ford did not invent the automobile—a gasoline-fueled automobile first appeared in Germany, and commercial production began in France about 1890—but he did make it practical and affordable. In 1908, he designed the simple, sturdy Model T and began to develop assembly line techniques to build it. The price of the car plummeted, and demand increased; with increased demand, Ford further perfected his assembly line, turning out more and more cars at lower and lower prices.
The Model T, a landmark achievement in mass production, transformed the way Americans lived. The car created a mobile society and it created a skyrocketing demand for mass-produced consumer goods of all kinds. The Model T also changed the American landscape, veining it with a network of roads. Where the nation had been sharply divided into city and farm, suburbs now sprouted. Even more than the transcontinental railroad had done in 1869, the automobile unified the United States, connecting city to city, village to village. Yet, for all this, there was a cost well beyond the $360 price tag of a 1916 Model T. It often seemed as if the automobile was an invader rather than a liberator. Worse, American labor lost a certain degree of humanity, compelled now to take its pace from the relentless rhythms of the assembly line. The gulf between management and labor, always wide, broadened into a bitter chasm, and if the moneyed classes welcomed the technological revolution, they now had reason to fear a political one.