Thursday, September 25, 2008

U.S.Highway System--A Short History

Anyone who has ever traveled the United States by car is familiar with the numbered highway system. Most have given it little thought.

The national highway system was created in 1926 and administered by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (or its cumbersome acronym, AASHTO), which designated the numbers of the various highways. Although the roads are referred to as federal highways, they have always been maintained by state and local governments.

The nationwide highway system was created to fill a need. America's roads had proved inadequate in World War I for transporting military equipment. To highlight the deplorable condition of America's roads, and to determine the feasibility of transporting troops and supplies cross-country, the War Department organized a two-month transcontinental convoy to travel from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. The 1919 expedition included the former Army football star, Lt. Col. Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower (yes, that one!), along with 81 motor vehicles and 282 officers and enlisted men. The long march across America graphically demonstrated the atrocious condition of the nation's highways. The 3200 mile trip took 62 days to complete at an average speed of about 6 mph over mostly unpaved roads. Vehicles got stuck in the mud, the heavy equipment collapsed many road surfaces, and at least 62 bridges had to be rebuilt by Army engineers.

The men on the convoy were not the first to travel cross-country by sutomobile. That honor belongs to Vermont physician Horatio Nelson Jackson and chauffeur/mechanic Sewall K. Crocker, who, in 1903, to win a $50 bet, drove a Winton touring car from San Francisco to New York in 65 days over dirt roads and sometimes no roads at all. Dr. Jackson had accepted the bet although he didn't own a car and, until just before the trip, neither man knew how to drive. The car had no windshield and no top.

The Eisenhower caravan roughly followed the route of the recently created Lincoln Highway (now U.S. 30 and I-80). Along the way, the crew stopped at Harvey Firestone's Ohio farm, where the tire man added two trucks equipped with his company's inflatable pneumatic tires. The men encountered many breakdowns and got a good feel for what worked and what didn't. The end result was that Ike became convinced that Firestone's pneumatic tires worked best. Afterwards the two men lobbied Congress and authorities for better highways to unite the country's transportation and communications systems.

Ike never forgot the lessons of that long trip, and after he wsa elected President, he created the American interstate highway system which formulated minimum design standards for higways. The popularity of those highways transformed the American culture and experience. Every family needed a car or two. As more and more Americans obtained automobiles, they had the urge to travel from city to city. That was very difficult until the federal government was able to coordinate the construction of new roads. National chains like Holiday Inn and McDonald's built outlets along the 41,000 miles of interstate highways to serve the newly mobile public.

In the early years, prior to World War I, the nation's highway grid system started small, with the Lincoln Highway, built with no federal assistance. The Lincoln Highway Association was formed in 1913, and the coast to coast highway was completed in 1915 from San Francisco to New York. Except in the cities, most of the Lincoln Highway was unpaved. Early auto trails, as they were called, were created by organizations like the Lincoln Highway Assn., to mark and promote roads for long distance auto travel. Some such organizations made major efforts to improve the roads, while others just built the roads through towns willing to pay for sponsorships and post signs along the roads.

In general, the two-digit U.S. Routes do not have minimal design standards, although today all are paved. But most are not built to Interstate Highway standards which require at least 4 lanes, divided, and limited access.

The numbering system works as follows: Odd-numbered highways run generally North and South, and even-numbered highways run East and West, although as with every rule, there are exceptions. The lowest odd-numbered routes are in the East and the highest are in the West. For example, U.S. 1 runs along the East Coast from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida, and is known as the Atlantic Coast Highway. U.S. 101 (considered a 2-digit highway, the first digit being "10") runs along the West Coast from Port Angeles, Washington to San Diego, California, and is known as the Pacific Coast Highway.

The lowest even-numbered routes are in the North and the highest are in the South. Thus, U.S. 2 runs along the Canadian border from Houghton, Maine (also the beginning of I-95) to originally, Bonners Ferry, Idaho, but now to Everett, Washington. However it is interrupted between the Vermont-New York border and St. Ignace, Michigan. U.S. 90 runs from Jacksonville, Florida to Van Horn, Texas and was known as the Old Spanish Trail.

The longest U.S. Highway is U.S. 20, which spans 3365 miles from Boston to Newport, Oregon. U.S. 50 traverses the Pony Express route across the far Western states.

The most famous is U.S. 66 which doesn't even exist anymore. It was decommissioned in 1985. However, the merchants along that road formed an association to stimulate their small businesses by appealing to Americans' nostalgic memories. Route 66, the Mother Road, was the first national highway to be completely paved (in 1938). It was the preferred route of Dust Bowl migrants traveling to California, memorialized in John Steinbeck's great novel, Grapes of Wrath. It was originally designated as Route 60, but Kentucky objected because it had been left off major East-West routes, and its Route 62 didn't have the same pizazz as Route 60. But other states objected to losing Route 60--Missouri had already printed maps and Oklahoma had prepared signs. Eventually a compromise was reached and Route 66 was considered a nice round number. Kentucky to this day has Route 60 spanning the state.

As one can see, there's more to the highway system than meets the eye, and there's a rich history behind it.



Monday, September 15, 2008


The oldest known professional football team is the Arizona Cardinals, or at least its predecessor. The team originated on the South Side of Chicago, back in 1898.  At that time, a local group of young Irishmen played football as the Morgan Athletic Club and challenged young men in other Chicago neighborhoods to games.  Morgan was a street in the Englewood neighborhood.  When the team moved to nearby Normal Field (on Normal Avenue), the team became known as the Normals.  Whether they played normal or barely normal is open to question, but to gain respect, a name change was definitely needed.

Shortly thereafter, the team was acquired by Chris O'Brien, a painting contractor who, in 1901, got a good deal on some used maroon jerseys from the nearby University of Chicago.

The faded maroon uniforms, reddish in color, prompted O'Brien to declare, "that's not maroon, it's Cardinal red," and the team became known as the Cardinals.  The name had nothing to do with the Illinois state bird but rather reflected the Irish Catholic heritage of the players.  All the teams they played were from different neighborhoods in Chicago, so they could not be so presumptuous as to call themselves the "Chicago Cardinals."  Instead, they were the Racine Cardinals, not for any connection with the Wisconsin city, but named after Racine Avenue on the South Side of Chicago.  In any event, by 1917, The Cardinals were a powerhouse team and won the championship of the Chicago Football League.  They were on the way to bigger things.

In 1920, the Racine Cardinals were one of the 11 franchises to ante up $100 to join a new professional league which eventually became the National Football League (NFL). According to the NFL website, "pro football was in a state of confusion due to three major problems:  dramatically rising salaries, players continually jumping from one team to another following the highest offer, and the use of college players still enrolled in school.  A league in which all the members would follow the same rules seemed the answer.  An organizational meeting, at which the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians and Dayton Triangles were represented, was held at the Jordan and Hupmobile auto showroom in Canton, Ohio on August 20th.  This meeting resulted in the formation of the American Professional Football Conference."  The Pro Football Hall of Fame is now located there.  Of course, at the time, the Hupmobile looked like a better long term bet than did the fledgling football conference.

A second meeting occurred on September 17th, at which the 4 Ohio teams were joined by the Hammond Pros and Muncie Flyers from Indiana, the Rochester Jeffersons from New York and the Rock Island Independents, Decatur Staleys and Racine Cardinals from Illinois.  To raise the visibility of the league, they selected former All-American football star and Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe as the President.  The aforementioned $100 was levied on each team to "give an appearance of respectability" but in reality, no team actually paid it.  Moreover, the league was so loosely organized that teams did their own scheduling, and some teams played more games than others, often against non conference teams.  Four additional teams joined the league during the first season--Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandles and Detroit Heralds.

The Cardinals' first game was against the Chicago Tigers and it ended in a scoreless tie.  A later opponent was the Decatur Staleys, led by Papa Bear George Halas who had finished the 1919 season playing right field for the New York Yankees.  After the season, the Yankees acquired a new right fielder named Babe Ruth to replace Halas.  Rather than compete for playing time with Mr. Ruth, Halas could read the writing on the wall, and it suggested that he take up a new line of work--football.  Halas had previously lived a charmed life.  He survived the 1915 Eastland disaster in which a cruise ship capsized in the Chicago River, killing 900 people.  Halas, who had purchased a ticket, missed the cruise when he overslept.

The following season, 1921, Halas bought the team from the Staleys and moved the team to Cubs Park (as it was known then) on the North Side of Chicago.  Staley paid Halas $5,000 to keep the name "Staleys" for one additional season, and in 1922, they became the Bears.   

In 1922, The Cardinals moved their home games to Comiskey Park on the South Side and changed their name to the Chicago Cardinals.  Racine, Wisconsin really did form a team and joined the NFL, and the Cardinals had to change their name to avoid confusion.

Many of the early NFL teams were from small cities like Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Curly Lambeau worked for the Indian Packing Company.  His employer kicked in $500 to buy footballs and equipment and allowed the team to practice on its field.  We can all locate Green Bay on a map, but how about the Frankford Yellowjackets, the Pottsville Maroons, or the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans.  Pottsville (Pennsylvania) had been a highly successful independent pro team.  In Canton, the Bulldogs, led by Jim Thorpe, won the Ohio League Championship from 1916 through 1919.  Thorpe, a big star, was making $250 per game.

Frankford, in case you never heard of it, was not the capital of Kentucky, but was a largely industrial neighborhood in Philadelphia.  The Frankford Athletic Club founded a team in 1899.  Their NFL team, which won the championship in 1926, featured players with names like Two-Bits Homan, Bull Behman, Punk Berryman and Jug Earp.  With those monikers, they could have auditioned for the Sopranos.  The team folded in 1931, one day after defeating the Bears 13-12 in Chicago's Wrigley Field.  A Philadelphia team didn't beat the Bears again in an away game until 1999.  For that matter they didn't beat the Green Bay Packers on the road until 1972. 

Lambeau bought back the Green Bay franchise for $50, but went broke anyway in 1922, because of bad weather and poor attendance.  Bad weather in Green Bay?  Well, duh!  In any event, the hardy local merchants arranged a $2,500 loan and set up a local non-profit corporation to own and operate the team.  Lambeau was the head coach and general manager.  Since the fans owned the team, they were understandably reluctant to move it to a larger city.

Another interesting franchise joined the league that year--the Oorang Indians of Marion, Ohio, which was an all-Indian team sponsored by the Oorang Dog Kennels.  That ubiquitous Native American, Jim Thorpe, playing his final season, fumbled against the Chicago Bears; George Halas scooped up the ball and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown, a record which stood until 1972. 

Pottsville lost its franchise in 1925 when it played against the Notre Dame All-Stars led by the legendary Four Horsemen. Pottsville won 9-7.  The game was played in Philadelphia over the heated objections of the Frankford Yellowjackets who were playing a home game at the same time.  In those days the lines between amateur and professional football were fuzzy.

The early NFL was remarkably tolerant of minorities for that era.  The first Black head coach was Fritz Pollard for the 1921 Akron Pros.  Pollard, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, also played running back for the team.  He was described by famed sportswriter Walter Camp as "one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen."  Playing for Brown University, he was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl (in 1916).

From a modest beginning, the NFL became arguably (in terms of TV money) the most popular sports league in American.  Chasing the big bucks, the small town franchises with the exception of Green Bay, eventually moved to the big cities as the league prospered and new stadiums were built.  Hopefully I've explained why the NFL fields a team in Green Bay, but why not in Los Angeles?


Tuesday, September 9, 2008


February 14, 1876, Valentine's Day. It was an eventful day at the U.S. Patent Office. As the story goes, Alexander Graham Bell showed up at the patent office with his application for the telephone while Elisha Gray's lawyer got stuck in rush hour traffic--or maybe stopped for a beer or two on the way over. In any case, his patent application came in an hour later. So now we have Bell Telephone rather than Gray Telephone, which would sound like a pretty boring name anyway.

But, as usual, there are conflicting stories behine all this. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually got to the bottom of it and decided in favor of Mr. Bell. That patent became the most valuable patent in history. While Bell became one of the most famous people in history, Gray remained virtually unknown.

Despite his anonymity, Gray did invent some other useful things at his laboratory in Highland Park, IL. a suburb of Chicago. For example he invented the "telautograph" which would transmit handwriting through telegraph systems. In effect, it was an early fax machine which was used by banks for signing documents at a distance. The Telautograph Corp. continued in operation for many years until it was absorbed by Xerox Corp. in the 1990's.

Mr. Gray's invention was massacred on that fateful Valentine's Day because, according to Gray, his patent caveat was delivered to the patent office early in the morning when it opened, but it found its way to the borrom of the in-basket until that afternoon. Meanwhile Bell's application was filed around noon, by Bell's lawyer who requested that the filing fee be entered and taken to the examiner immediately and that he be given a receipt. Gray's filing fee was not recorded until later that afternoon, and his application did not reach the examiner until the next morning. Bell wasn't even in town that day, but, in effect, his lawyer won the race to the courthouse.

For the record, the Supreme Court's decision turned partly on the subtle difference between a caveat and a patent application. A caveat, which is not used anymore, was a confidential, formal declaration made by an inventor stating his intention to file a patent on an idea yet to be perfected. The purpose was to protect an idea from being usurped by fellow inventors. Gray would have had to file his actual patent application within 3 months after the caveat. Bell, of course, filed his application and was awarded the patent.

Historians still debate whether Bell stole key aspects of the invention from Gray, as there was some correspondence between the two inventors. Bell kept an extensive paper trail of several drafts of his patent application. When the dust had settled, it appears that Bell had smarter lawyers than Gray did.

According to Burton H. Baker in his 2000 book The Gray Matter, The Forgotten Story of the Telephone, the patent office determined, "while Gray was undoubtedly the first to conceive of and disclose the invention as in his caveat of February 14, 1876, his failure to take any action amounting to completion until others had demonstrated the utility of the invention deprives him of the right to have it considered."

Despite his relative obscurity, Gray was a fairly successful businessman and professor. His company, Gray & Barton Co. of Cleveland, OH. supplied telegraph equipment to Western Union Telegraph Co. In 1872, his firm sold 33% of the company to Western Union and changed the name of his company to Western Electric Manufacturing Co. of Chicago, which eventually became a major subsidiary of AT&T. Although several inventions came out of Gray's Highland Park, IL. laboratory, and I am very familiar with that town, I know of no memorial or any other indication that history was almost made there.

The controversy made its way into that great interpreter of American popular culture, The Simpsons, in a 2005 episode. THe Springfield Stamp Museum had an exhibit of oversized, interactive stamps showing Elisha Gray on a 1-cent stamp, and Alexander Graham Bell on a 10-cent stamp. When Gray accuses Bell of stealing the idea of the telephone from him, Bell holds up a medallion around his neck and says, "Read the patent number, bitch!"