Friday, June 05, 2009


I do not find it hard to believe that American auto makers have been so stupid as to get themselves into their current financial fix. They’ve made mistakes before. You never hear about people collecting a model “S”, or a Model “P” Ford. And that is not just because old man Henry Ford sold fifteen million of Model “T”s. It was the Model “T” that made Time magazine’s list of the fifty worst cars of all times; “…a piece of junk, the Yugo of its day.” And that wasn’t even the worst disaster that Ford ever made. That destinction had to go to the Edsel.
It wasn’t just a car. It was an entire new line of cars, the Saturn of their day. The Edsel was originally conceived in 1954, to compete with General Motor’s Cadillac division. The chief designer on the project was a young man from Canada named Roy Brown. Years later Brown told "The New Yorker" magazine, “Our goal was to create a vehicle which would be unique…and yet somehow familiar.”
The design team took ‘front on’ photos of the 19 other cars on the road at the time and realized that from a few hundred feet away they were indistinguishable from one another. But clay models of Brown’s original grillwork were so graceful and delicate the engineers questioned how much fresh air would reach the engine.
So Brown created what he called the “Horsecollar” (officially known as “the impact ring”), front and center. It reminded one critic of “a vagina with teeth”. In fact, while the design still existed only in clay, a prankster taped fur in-between the front grillwork which left it, according to Robin Jones, then a young Ford designer, looking like “…a hormonally disturbed cow after giving birth”. Kinder critics said it resembled “an Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon”, or just “a toilet seat”.
Looking for the perfect name Ford hired one of the largest advertising companies in the world, Foote, Cone and Belding, (“Successful Advertising is Only a Foote Away”) who offered up 6,000 possible names (including the “Mongoose Civique” and the “Utopian Turtletop”). Growled one Ford executive, “We hired them to come up with a name. They came up with six thousand.” Finally, after months of searching in vain, they settled on “The Ford Edsel”.
Edsel Ford was a civilized, cultured, talented and intelligent man who was also a skilled car maker and favorite son of old man Henry Ford. And suffice it to say that if Edsel hadn’t died of a heart attack from overwork in 1943 there would never have been a Ford carrying his name because Edsel Ford knew too much about marketing to have ever allowed it. When Ford’s Public Relations chief, C. Gayle Warnock, was presented with the name "Edsel" he claims to have said, “We have just lost 200,000 in sales”.
They financed the Edsel with the infusion of cash they got by going public in 1957, and from the success of the new Thunderbird. But at the last minute they decided to start pinching pennies. Rather than establish a brand new production line, management chose to assemble Edsels on the same production lines used to make Lincolns and Mercurys, and at the same time. The assembly line workers and plant management both saw the Edsel as an intrustion into their regular work scheduals and the results were perfectly perdictable. And the "mistakes" which slipped through the quality control were not helped by the advertising campaign.
Ford chose a mystery introduction for the Edsel. Cars were shipped wrapped in fabric, and the 1,160 brand new Edsel dealers were strictly instructed to keep the cars under wraps on their lots until “E” day, which was supposed to be September 4, 1957.
However, a used car dealer in Cleveland, Ohio had an unwrapped white Edsel on display two days early. So much for the surprise
Meanwhile a $2 million advertising campaign ($14.5 million in 2007 dollars) began by showing only the hood ornament, and then blurry shots of speeding Edsels, and drawings of draped cars on transporters, always with the taunting tag line, “The new Edsel is coming!”
Finally, on Friday night, September 13, during the premier on CBS of the “Edsel Show” - staring Bing Crosby, with guest stars Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope and the Four Preps - an announcer, spoke in warm golden tones; “And now for the moment I'm sure you've all been looking forward to, a look at the newest member of the Ford family of fine cars ... the Edsel!" It may have been the greatest advertising buildup since Moses came down off the mountain. And like Moses, it was all downhill from there - one stumble downhill after another.
The dealers' showrooms were full of people, but few customers. Ford had expected to sell 2 million Edsel the first year. They only sold half a million. What went wrong?
Stumble Number One was that between August 1957 and February 1958 American industrial output declined by 10%. During the same six months unemployement jumped by two million. Retail sales dropped 2% and so did take home pay. The recession was bad enough that it gave Democrats a majority in the House in 1958, and set up Kennedy’s win of the White House in 1960. In short, this was not the time to introduce a new line of expensive automobiles.
Stumble Number Two; there were a few small problems with the cars. The much ballyhooed "Vac-U Start" feature displayed a dangerous tendency to restart the car after you had turned the engine off and walked away. And the “Teletouch” push button transmission shifter, located in the center of the steering wheel, was so new and so secret that none of the dealers knew how to service it.
And then there was the famous hood ornament. When the big V8 engine was pulling the Edsel at over seventy miles an hour (which it easily could do) the hood ornament had a nasty tendency to come flying off and turn into shrapnel.
Stumble Number Three was that many Edsels left the factories with wrong or missing parts: wires had been incorrectly connected and an occasional transmission had been installed backwards. And many of those Edsels which did start prompted dissatisfied owners to claim that Edsel stood for “Every Day Something Else Leaks”. (Decades later, when Ford failed to respond well to the invasion of well made inexpensive Japanese cars, the name Ford was said to stand for “Found On Road, Dead”).
Stumble Number Four was that Ford had introduced the 1958 Edsel in September of 1957 instead of October, the standard practice at the time, so the Edsells were competing with other Ford products being sold at 1957 inventory closeout prices.
And then there was the advertising blitz; Stumble Number Five. As one observer noted, although customers had been primed to expect a
“…plutonium-powered, pancake-making wonder car…” what they were being offered was a “…kind of homely, fuel thirsty and too expensive…” car." The American public simply didn't want this car.
Overnight the Edsel went from wonder kid to village idiot. In 1958, when a crowd in Peru pelted Vice President Richard Nixon with eggs while he was riding in a brand new Edsel, he would quip, “They were not attacking me. They were attacking the car.”
And in 1961 on the Andy Griffith Show when Deputy Barney Fife bought a used car, it simply had to be an Edsel convertible. The audience was laughing even before the steering wheel slowly projected itself into Barney’s face. The Edsel had become “…an aggalmoration (sic) of everything the public had grown tired of…vulgar ostentation and superferlous (sic) size…”.
By November of 1959, after building 110,847 Edsels and losing $350 million ($2 and 1/2 billion in 2007 dollars) Ford surrendered, and stopped production of the Edsel. A legend was born.
Three years later Ford would introduce the Mustang, a car designed to fit what the customer wanted, rather a car design looking for a customer, which the Edsel was.
Today just six thousand Edsels survive. And Roy Brown, the now elderly designer of the “vagina with teeth”, still insists with a straight face, “The car is a complete success as far as I'm concerned." And that kind of thinking is what is wrong with Detroit, today.
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Thursday, June 04, 2009


I like to think the rafts washed up on the beach at Playa del Silencio. It seems a fitting place for a mystery to end, swept by the stormy Basque Sea, along the lonely Astrurian northern coast of Spain. According to a report in a Liverpool newspaper there were two makeshift rafts found by fishermen, one was flying the American flag. Lashed to that raft were the decomposed remains of a human being. Lashed to the second raft, were five more badly decaying bodies. It was the spring of 1873, and this may have been where the mystery of the Mary Celeste washed ashore.She was big; a 282 ton sailing brig built for the prosaic business of the North Atlantic shipping, and launched in Nova Scotia in 1861. But she was always a sad ship. Her first captain died of pneumonia on her maiden voyage. Her second captain struck a fishing boat and was dismissed. In 1867 a storm ran her ashore and her owners sold her for salvage. She was bought for $11,000. Repaired and refitted, she went back to work. And at anchor at Staten Island, New York City, on November 3rd, 1872, her new Captain, Benjamin Biggs, wrote a letter to his mother in Marion, Massachusetts.“My Dear Mother:…It seems to me to have been a great while since I left home, but it is only over two weeks…For a few days it was tedious, perplexing, and very tiresome but… It seems real homelike since Sarah and Sophia (his wife and 2 yr. old daughter) got here, and we enjoy our little quarters…We seem to have a very good mate and steward and I hope I shall have a pleasant voyage…We finished loading last night and shall leave on Tuesday morning if we don't get off tomorrow night, the Lord willing. Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage, but I have never been in her before and can’t say how she'll sail. (You) shall want to write us in about 20 days to Genoa, care of American. Consul… Hoping to be with you in the spring with much love, I am yours, affectionately, Benjamin.”
Captain Biggs sailed on November 5th with a crew of eight, (three Americans, four Germans and one Dane), and passengers his wife Sarah and little Sophia. His cargo was 1,701 barrels of commercial alcohol bound for customers in Italy. The ship docked next to the Mary Celeste at Staten Island was the British merchant brig Dei Gratia, captained by a friend of Briggs, David Morehouse. The Dei Gracia left New York Harbor on November 15, bound, like the Mary Celeste before her, for the straits of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean beyond.
The Dei Gratia had a smooth voyage and three weeks later was approaching the coast of Portugal on December 4th, when a lookout reported a ship at five miles distance which was sailing oddly. The sails, two of which were fully rigged, appeared to be slightly torn. As Captain Morehouse moved closer he realized she was the Mary Celeste. There were no distress flags flying and everything otherwise appeared normal except in two hours of observation not a soul appeared on deck. Three men were sent to board the Mary Celeste.
They reported “…the whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess”, but fully seaworthy. She still carried a six month supply of food and fresh water. The crew’s personal possessions appeared untouched, including their valuables, and their foul weather gear. There were no signs of a struggle, although the Captain’s cabin was in considerable disarray. No flag was found.
The log book, the sextant and chronometer were all missing, as was the 20 foot life boat with sail. A thick line had been tied to the Mary Celeste’s railing. The other end was frayed and dragging in the current. And there was not a singl soul on board, not even a cat.The 3 man crew sailed the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar, where an Admiralty’s court was convened and a commission was appointed to investigate the mystery.
The investigation found that nine of the barrels of alcohol aboard the Mary Celeste were empty. But the boarding party had reported smelling no fumes.
The last entry in the captain’s log was dated November 24th, when the Mary Celeste was 100 miles off Santa Maria, the southern most of the Azores islands, which seemed to imply that the ship had sailed another 370 miles in nine days with no one at the helm.
Frederick Solly-Flood, the Attorney General for Gibraltar, seems to have suspected the captain and crew of the Dei Gratia (above) of some involvement, but all suggestion of evil proved baseless (a blood stain on a knife was proven to be rust). A diver found the hull did not “…exhibit any trace of damage or injury or…had any collision or had struck upon any rock or shoal or had met with any accident or casualty.” The commission’s final judgment was that there was no evidence of foul play, piracy, mutiny or violence. But if that were so why would a healthy crew abandon a seaworthy ship in the middle of the ocean?That question undoubtedly influenced what the Admiralty’s court did next. The crew of the Dei Gratia was awarded $46,000 in salvage rights for the Mary Celeste (the equivalent of $770,000 in 2007). But this was barelyone-sixth of what the ship and cargo was insured for. Over the next year the owners and American authorities offered a reward and conducted a search in ports large and small around the Atlantic rim, for anyone matching the description of Captain Briggs, his wife and child, or any of the crew members from the Mary Celeste. Not a trace was found. It was as if they had simply vanished from the face if the earth.
The Mary Celeste was returned to her owners in New York and sold 17 times over the next 13 years. Finally, in 1885, she was driven onto a reef off Haiti and then set afire in an insurance scam. But she refused to sink and the owner was jailed. The sad Mary Celeste slowly decomposed on the reef until a storm finally freed her last timbers to slide into the sea.So this leaves me to relate the fate of the human cargo of the Mary Celeste; a woman and child and eight men, ten souls in a twenty foot single mast-ed yawl. Whatever their reason for abandoning the Mary Celeste, they were now fully exposed to fate.
The weather service on the Azores records that on the morning of November 24th , the date of the Captain's last log entry, a gale blew up with torrential rains, a gale which finally blew itself out only on the morning of December 4th, the morning the lookout on the Dei Gratia spotted the abandoned Mary Celeste.The Azores current travels eastward at 2 knots an hour from the islands. Suppose, for some reason, perhaps because of a leak of explosive alcohol fumes, the crew had abandoned the Mary Celest in good weather. And supposed that a gale had suddenly blown up, seperated the life boat from the ship and had driven the desperate little yawl northeastward for three or four days while breaking the boat to bits, and suppose the survivors had gathered the flotsam into a pair of rafts without food or water, and suppose those rafts, tied together, had drifted for five months into Biscayne Bay and suppose the rope joining them had finally seperated just before they were driven in toward The Beach of Silence, on the northern coast of Spain...suppose all of that. That may have been what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste.I think it was. And I think little Sophia would have been a very lovely young lady.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009


It all started with a Parisian named Barthelmy Thimonnier, who invented the sewing machine in 1830. I know, you think it was invented by Elias Howe, but that is because Elias Howe was a “patent troll” and a liar.And because, in 1840, a mob of French "Luddiet" tailors broke into Thimonnier’s factory, smashed his machines, burned the factory down and almost lynched Barthelmy. He died flat broke and forgotten in 1857. But first he invented the sewing machine. The vacuum he left behind was filled by the American Walter Hunt, who was a mechanical genius and a business boob from upstate New York. Walter invented the safety pin, U.S, patient #6281, and a repeating rifle, and a bicycle and a road sweeper. And then, in 1834, he improved on Thimonnier’s sewing machine.What Walter Hunt actually invented was a sewing needle with the hole - aka, the eye - at the pointy end. As the needle pushed through the cloth the eye carried the thread with it. When the needle stopped it formed a loop in the thread behind it, and a second thread (from the bobbin) was pushed through the loop. The needle was then withdrawn, pulling the loop tight or “locking” it, around the bobbin thread. This “Lockstitch” was sheer genius, a brilliant insight, but Hunt never did anything with it because he didn’t want to be lynched by American tailors and he was safely making plenty of money from his safety pin. And that opened the door for Elias Howe.Elias Howe told at least two versions of how he invented the sewing machine. In the sympathetic version he spent hours watching his poor wife (since dead, and unavilable to testify) earn extra money doing piecemeal sewing work to support his family. In the Freudian version, Howe dreamed about Indians shooting arrows through a blanket.
In fact Howe had been a mechanic repairing looms in a textile mill, before he started living off his wife's sewing abilities, and that is where he learned all about shuttles and bobbins, and probably saw a version of Hunts sewing machine. Like a loom, Howe’s sewing machine, patient #4750 granted in 1846, fed the cloth in vertically and the needle and bobbin worked horizontally. Howe’s sewing machine worked , sort of, but it was so clumsy that Howe couldn’t find anybody to buy it. He never made a dime from the actual invention.Then in 1850 Howe saw a demonstration of a machine which did work, built by a mechanic and an actor and one of the most foul-tempered bigamists in antebellum America, Mr. Isaac Singer. Singer’s sewing machine put the needle vertical and fed the cloth in horizontally, which made the whole thing functional. But Howe noticed that Singer had 'borrowed' his lockstitch. When Howe demanded $25,000 in “royalties” (i.e. blackmail), one of Singer’s long suffering business partners observed that, “Howe is a perfect humbug. He knows quite well he never invented anything of value.” Singer was typically more direct, offering to “kick (Howe) down the steps of the machine shop.” What eventually made Howe a wealthy humbug was the patent for his lockstitch. As a magazine at the time noted, Howe had “litigated himself into fortune and fame.” But then this story is not about the sewing machine.This story is about another patent Elias Howe trolled for, this one granted him in 1851. And just like his sewing machine, Howe’s patent for an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure” did not work. He just filed it away and waited to see if anybody else ever fixed it. But, since nobody else made his ugly and clumsy device work during his lifetime, Howe had nobody to sue and the device remained an obscure little footnote. And people continued to live with the original “Clothing Closure” device, the button.Originally Whitcomb Judson was not interested in replacing the button. This rather odd man liked to eat bananas and mushrooms because he thought the mushrooms gave him psychic powers. Judson’s “mushroom visions” told him was going to rich designing pneumatic street cars, (he was granted 14 patents for them), a mode of transport described rather unhelpfully in his advertising as “…a screw, but without a thread; and this screw though always revolving in one direction, will send the (trolley) cars in either direction, and do this by a pure and simple rolling and not a sliding friction..” It sounded mysterious and magical, and was actually used briefly in England in 1864 to transport tourists 600 yards between Waterloo and Whitehall stations. But Judson’s railway went nowhere in America. So, in 1893, as a back up invention, he marketed his patent #’s 504038 & 504037 as a “claps lock” for ladies high button shoes, and “…wherever it is desired to detachable connect a pair adjacent flexible parts.”Mr. Judson explained that “...each link of each chain (4 links per inch) is provided both with a male and a female coupling part…”. But sadly this coupling had a tendency to pop open, leaving the lady in question barefoot on the public way. So, in 1896, Judson added “….a cam-action slider…” to his invention, now calling it his “C-curity Fastener”. The company he formed to exploit the C-curity (The Universal Fastener Company) did well, and the gilled fungi lover was making money, but he never got as rich as he had expected. It was a shame the mushrooms never warned Judson about the dangers of eating too many mushrooms becaue Judson died of liver disease in 1909. And that brings us to the dull Mr. Otto Frederick Gideon Sundback, a Swiss emigrant to Canada, working as an electrical engineer for Universal Fastener and married to the plant manager’s daughter, Elvira. In 1911 Elvira died, and to distract himself from his grief Gideon started fiddling with Judson's “C-curity Fastener”. He added more teeth (the male coupler), ten to an inch, and widened the slider, and then he realized he could do away with the couplers entirely. All he needed was the teeth. Gideon called his invention the “'Separable Fastener”, Patent # 1219881, granted in 1917. Gideon even designed a machine to mass produce his fastener.In 1923, when Mr. B.F. Goodrich saw the new fasteners used on a pair of rubber galoshes his company was trying to sell the U.S. Army, he was delighted, telling an employee to “Zip ‘er up.” And thus was born the onomatopoeia of the new invention, the name that sounds like the sound the Separable Fastener makes when it is used; the zipper. And the world has been a better place ever since.
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