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Vacation: Greenfield Village

Greenfield Village is a place Henry Ford put together as a sort of outdoor museum — he shipped historic buildings from all over the country, had them dismantled and reassembled brick by brick, or built replicas of them, and put them all together in the same place so that people could take, essentially, a walking tour through American history, particularly the history of technology and innovation.  For reading about the whole thing, you can go here:


I’m just going to talk about the parts that interested me and that I got photos of.  Which is basically two things, the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop and Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park complex.

Here’s the outside of the bicycle shop (click any photo to enlarge):

Complete with me reflected in the window, but okay.  This was originally in Dayton, Ohio, and as an Ohioan I’m a bit miffed that it ended up in Detroit.  But it was done with permission, not swiped like the Elgin Marbles and whatnot.  There’s a vintage bike and some paraphernalia in the window, plus a sign saying “FREE AIR” for bike tires, a service my local bike shop also provides (courtesy of a hose sticking out from a hole in the wall, so you don’t even have to go inside).

Here’s the inside:

Sorry for the blurry picture.  I imagine that originally those protective glass cases on the counter weren’t there.   That enclosure to the right is the office, I suppose:

This shop is where Orville and Wilbur Wright paid the bills for their aviation research, but it’s also where they actually developed and built their first flying machine.  Here’s the bike repair shop in the back:

Uncle Harry was  rather amused by the heavy cast-iron bike stand down there, around the back wheel of the bike in the foreground.  Here’s another angle:

This section is behind a glass divider separating it from the place where the tourists stand and the docents deliver their speeches.  The main room has several photos of the historic flight at Kitty Hawk, and a display case containing a miniature of the original flyer.  The case also contains samples of the actual materials used in the flyer, donated to Ford.

The back room is the machine shop where the Wrights built the aircraft, and there’s a replica of its middle section (the original’s in the Smithsonian):

I was actually more interested in the machinery they built it with, though I didn’t get a good shot of it.  There was one steam generator that drove all the equipment via a series of drive belts.  You can see the main drive belt in the foreground right.  It went up to a ceiling shaft that was connected to the machines in the room by other belts; you can see a drill press here, but there were a couple of other gizmos that were also belt-driven off the same central power source.  It was really very ingenious.

(I didn’t have the heart to mention it there, but I’ve read that the first aircraft at Kitty Hawk didn’t actually get high enough off the ground that day to qualify as an actual airplane flight; aerodynamically speaking, it was functioning as a ground-effect vehicle.  It was only on later flights that the Wrights’ subsequent craft rose high enough to decouple from the ground and actually fly.  But that day at Kitty Hawk in 1903 was the one where the human eye could see a manned machine moving a considerable distance without any physical contact with the ground, so that’s what gets remembered.)

Moving on to  Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park complex, the drive belt principle was applied on a far larger scale in his machine shop:

There’s Uncle Harry and the seated Aunt Shirley on the left.  Harry was intrigued by those vertical coils on the generators, wondering what they were for.  Presumably they’re magnets of some kind, but Harry’s more a theoretical physicist (emeritus) than an engineer.  Maybe Uncle Clarence would’ve known had he come along.

Look at the conical drive wheel on the floor on the right, like a Devo hat.  Several more are visible here:

That’s a differential drive wheel of some sort, letting you shift speeds not unlike a set of bicycle gears.  It’s a bit hard to see how they would’ve worked; it would’ve been necessary to loosen and re-tighten the belts, and to make sure the increased radius on one drum was compensated for by a decreased radius on the other, or else you’d have to switch to a different length of belt, I guess.  The belts appeared to be rubberized canvas held together at the seam with staples.  They didn’t seem to be easily adjustable.

Let’s see, what else?  Well, I couldn’t resist taking a photo of Edison’s telephone lab with my telephone:

Here’s another of those generators, in Edison’s lab building:

This is a highly sensitive galvanometer (I think) that had to be put atop heavy brick pillars to keep it free of vibrations:

An Edison phonograph, the early tinfoil model:

Here’s a lousy, overly backlit photo of something really awesome:

What is it?  It’s a recording telegraph.  On the left is a rotating paper disk; as a telegraph message is received, a needle punches holes in the disk, recording the Morse-code message of dots and dashes.  This disk can then be moved to the other thingy on the right and played back, driving the telegraph to send out the recorded message at a later time or relay it to the next station.

Think about that.  Not only did Edison invent the answering machine, he invented the compact disc.  A circular medium that stores binary data encoded in pits in its surface.  (I’d also give him credit for inventing the computer punch card, but those had been around since 1725 for operating automatic textile looms).

Finally, here’s an overview of Edison’s workshop:

That chair in the foreground left is the one Edison himself sat in for a publicity photo with Henry Ford and President Hoover at the 1929 opening of Greenfield Village, two years before Edison’s death.  Immediately afterward, so the docent told us, Ford had the chair nailed to the floor in that exact spot, where it’s been ever since.  As you can see, when they had to replace the deteriorating floorboards decades later, they just worked around the chair.

I wish I had a better shot of the thing you can barely glimpse at the bottom center.  It’s a wooden box with a toothed gear and a narrow plank extending to contact the teeth.  I could tell by looking at it that it would make a heck of a noise, but I couldn’t figure what it was for.  So I asked the docent.  It’s a “corpse wakener” or “corpse rouser,” something like that.  Edison worked his employees to the bone and they often dropped off to sleep on the job.  But Edison was the only one who was allowed to take a nap (and he reputedly had a hidey-hole under the stairs for that, though the only thing we found there was a small cupboard).  So when an employee was sleeping on the job, the box would be moved behind them and the handle turned, giving them a rude awakening.  I hope it didn’t cause any heart attacks.

So that’s about it for my tourist photos.  We saw other stuff while we were there, like a pioneer-era house with women in period costume and character (sort of) showing us how they did their domestic work.  The demonstration of how wool is spun was rather interesting; they had a classic spinning wheel as well as a simpler drop spindle, which is a rather ingenious device — you just wrap some strands of wool around it, start it spinning in midair, and let it draw out and spin the wool fibers into thread as it descends to the floor, then repeat.  It looked kind of fun, though I imagine it would get tiring after a while.  The docent dropped character enough to explain how the microscopic scaliness of wool fibers allows them to bind together like that.

I also discovered they must’ve been shorter back then, since I bumped my head going through the door into the back room, where food from the garden was stored and hung to dry.  They could’ve posted a sign or something, like those signs on bridges and tunnels that list their clearance.  Shirley was more interested in the garden than I was, being an inveterate gardener herself.  I had a time-warpy moment when the Village’s 19th-century railroad train went by right behind this colonial-era garden and filled the air with smoke.

We also saw a bunch of Model Ts go by; Model T rides are one of the major tourist attractions, naturally, and there’s a section devoted to Ford himself and his work.  But that wasn’t something we were interested in.  What struck me was that the Model Ts (Models T?) were larger than I would’ve thought.  I wondered if they were that way for real or if they were oversized to accommodate passengers.  Probably the former, since they were 4-seaters.  I guess it’s easy to misjudge the size of something you’ve never seen in person before.

So anyway, that was my visit to Greenfield Village.  As cool as the Wright workshop and Menlo Park were overall, I think that just about the most interesting thing there for me was the drive belt systems, a really ingenious steampunk technology I didn’t know about before.  I’ve got to write something incorporating such a system, maybe in the steampunkish fantasy universe I’ve been dabbling in this past year.

  1. Cassandra
    September 29, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    Actually, the Elgin marbles were taken with permission, not “swiped”.

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