Interesting Histories

It’s been an interesting week. Although I was collecting a bunch of news chum, they never coalesced in my head into a coherent post. Now it’s the weekend, so let’s start clearing them off. This first collection provides a bunch of histories that I found of interest:

  • Street Light Banners. 1984. For some, a chilling book. For others, a foretelling of our current political climate. For me, it is the memory of when Los Angeles hosted the Olympics, with pastel banners and wayfaring signs all over the city. It turns out that the 1984 Olympics was the first major use of the light pole banner. As the article notes: “With only $10 million to outfit the entire city (five percent of the budget of the 1976 Games in Montreal) the designers of LA’s Olympic look, overseen by legendary designer Deborah Sussman, had to be scrappy. Instead of stadiums, they built towering scaffolds. Instead of brand-new Olympic villages, they outfitted parks and freeway entrances with colorful pylons, sonotubes, and giant inflatable stars. Little of it would have stood a chance if it had rained (luckily it didn’t) but the designs looked great on television. It was a classic LA story. The street banners were intended only to line the Olympic marathon route, which ran down Exposition Boulevard from Santa Monica to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum downtown. At the last minute, however, the organizing committee dramatically expanded the program, promising banners to dozens of additional neighborhoods and even cities in neighboring counties.”
  • 31 Flavors. Here’s another Los Angeles creation. No, not ice cream, but Baskin-Robbins.  Starting with two shops, one in Glendale, the other in Pasadena, BR franchised and grew, until by the time of the 31st anniversary, Baskin-Robbins had already accumulated more than 500 flavors. The previous year, they had come out with several flavors made for the U.S. bicentennial celebration, including Yankee Doodle Strudel, Valley Forge Fudge, Concorde Grape and Minuteman Mint. Over the years, their commemorative flavors have ranged from Beatle Nut in 1964 to Lunar Cheesecake in 1969 to Saxy Candidate in 1996. Today, Baskin-Robbins has 1300 flavors.
  • Use of the American Indian Image on Advertising. It’s a staple of advertising, from Land O’Lakes butter to Native American Cigarettes. They were at cigar stores and on motorcycles. How did the image of the American Indian — either the full headdress or the beautiful princess — come to be everywhere. Here’s an article that explores a new exhibition of how the image of a people that we systematically oppressed and pushed out because an advertising image that is everywhere. As the article notes: “American culture has used imagery of American Indians to symbolize authenticity in branding, or combativeness in sports and the military, even as it has subjugated real-life Indians throughout history. At its core, the artifacts in the exhibition reveal how Indians have become an integral part of the American brand itself–something that companies have been capitalizing on for decades.”
  • Food Colors. Brightly colored food. Red maraschino cherries. Blue jelly beans. Yellow banana pudding. Do we ever stop to think where those colors came from? When food dyes came in, they were made from products such as coal tar, a by-product of coal manufacturing.  Yet we believed them safe. As the article notes: “Food companies soon used the coal tar colors as well, especially in butter, candy, and alcohol. Though gross-sounding, they might have been healthier than the alternative. In both Britain and the United States, the 19th century was plagued with food adulteration, often in the form of food coloring. In order to make pickles, jellies, and candy more vivid, manufacturers added dangerous metal salts such as copper sulfate and lead chromate. In contrast, coal tar dyes were so vivid that only a little was needed. Plus, the tiny amount meant that the flavor wasn’t affected.” But were they safe? And what are we using today?
  • Elevators. We probably don’t think twice about using an elevator. They are everywhere. They are what made the high-rise revolution possible. But there is risk, such as the time the President got caught trapped in an elevator.  This was at the Pentagon, a concrete building/bunker with only one elevator. What did the President’s party think? Levinson’s first thought was that he was experiencing, first-hand, an attempted coup by the U.S. military on McNamara’s last day in office. “Was someone about the inject some type of gas into the lift or drop some form of explosive? We had the head of state and the Secretary of Defense in one small place that was undefended and vulnerable. A natural site for an extraordinary disaster.”
  • Interstate 95. For a highway system that started in 1955, one would think the Interstate Highway System, after 60 years, would be complete. But it isn’t, and one glaring whole was New Jersey… was in New Jersey on I-95. Finally, through a kludge, I-95 has (almost) been completed. Construction to fix the I-95 gap began more than eight years ago in Pennsylvania, but it has now reached its final stage. This week, the New Jersey Department of Transportation began switching out road signs in preparation for the change. But until it opens, if you are driving northbound on I-95, just outside of Princeton, a road sign will warn you that I-95 North—the road you are on—is ending. But the physical road itself doesn’t end—instead, the highway veers south, now under the name Interstate 295. If you don’t get off at an exit, you will find yourself suddenly driving south, and have to do a complicated series of maneuvers to get back on a northbound road. On the other side of this gap, Interstate 95 continues northward, starting from eight miles away.
  • Mapping Applications. Some of us love road maps. Some of us love our navigation applications. But did you ever think about where the maps come from, and how they were created in the era before satellite mapping. It was a hard process, and this article explores how cartographers made maps before modern technology. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.
  • Printers. Although this article isn’t as long as I would like, and omits a number of classic printer types (such as the IBM 1403 Line Printer, or the workhorse ASR33s and the DEC LA36  Dot Matrix Printer), here’s a short exploration of the start of computer printing technology. The articles notes that in 1953, the first high-speed printer was developed by Remington-Rand for use on the Univac computer, and the original laser printer called EARS was developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center beginning in 1969 and completed in November  1971.
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