America’s Long Journey: The Telephone


Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The Telephone

Nothing romantic or exciting about the telephone. What could be more mundane? At least, that’s how it looks at first glance.

But the more you look at it, the more clearly you see how much that was to come depended on it. It turned every home and workplace into the equivalent of a telegraph office. It gave the individual the ability to contact others immediately, at that moment, without having to leave the room or depend upon a third party such as a telegrapher. At first they could reach across town, which was revolutionary in itself. With time, they learned to talk to different cities, then different countries and even – at great expense and for strictly limited times, at first – via undersea cables to other continents. In our time we saw the telephone networks coupled with radio technology, then with communications satellites, and then with computers. So that now we take for granted a global access that would have been unimaginable even to the 19th century which had come to take revolutionary changes in technology in its stride, as we shall see.

We, looking backward, can see how many future developments were built firmly upon that telephone network. Without a telephone network, no fax transmissions, for one thing, and no internet. And if today’s cell phones function without a nervous system of telephone wires, there never would have been such a thing as a cell phone, let alone an iPhone, if that system of landlines had not existed first. So let’s take a look at how the first aspect of everyday life came to function at electric speeds.

Inventions rarely spring from the labors of only one man; usually they build upon the work of others, acknowledged or otherwise, and sometimes the question of who should get the credit (not to mention the profits) is bitterly disputed. The invention of the telephone is one of those cases, but Alexander Graham Bell is commonly credited as the inventor of the first practical telephone, and this is not the place to pursue the claims of others. Regardless what others may have contributed, Bell was the man who obtained the patent, in 1876, and he was the man who made it into a practical business proposition. Developing commercially practical telephones, adapting telephone exchanges and switching plug boards developed for telegraphy, he developed a hugely successful business. It has been argued that, regardless whether it was Bell who invented the telephone, it has he who invented the telephone industry.

He was Professor of Vocal Physiology at Boston University, training teachers in the art of instructing deaf mutes how to speak. Information on how he came to invent the telephone, and how the telephone operates, is easily found. I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that on March 10, 1876, Bell spoke the famous sentence to his assistant, Thomas Watson, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” and Watson answered. This was the first successful bi-directional transmission of clear speech.

In June, Bell exhibited a working telephone at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In August, he made a call between two points 10 miles apart, setting up a telephone using telegraph lines. In 1878, Thomas Edison invented the microphone that made long-distance calls practical. From that point on, it was a matter of continuous improvement, with various inventors and engineers adding additional features. Already in 1876, Hungarian engineer Tivadar Puskás, working for Edison on another project, invented the telephone switchboard, which allowed for the formation of telephone exchanges, which were soon linked via “trunk” lines. Today’s fiber-optic cable and digital technology are only improvements on this basic framework.

Like most commercial innovations, telephones were expensive at first, and therefore were at first relative luxuries for individuals, being mostly limited to commercial use. By the turn of the century, however, forests of telephone poles supporting dozens of telephone wires were common sights in all American cities. You can imagine the effect of American life easily enough by remembering the effect the internet has had on your own. More input, quicker, with more people. At first a novelty, it became a convenience, then a necessity, with unanticipated side-effects (the decline of letter-writing, for one) and logical (but often equally unanticipated) further developments as one technology was married to another (the public opinion poll, eventually). At first sketchy and rudimentary (for decades, many rural areas would be connected via “party lines” sharing service, each household having a distinctive ring pattern to know that a given call was for it rather than its neighbors), services were upgraded gradually but pretty continuously (as party lines, for instances, became private lines).

Perhaps the most drastic effect was to subtly change America’s sensory mix, in the way that the internet today may be changing us. As I said, nothing romantic or exciting about the telephone. What could be more mundane?


America’s Long Journey: The Spanish American War

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The Spanish American War

The 19th wasn’t Spain’s century, as we shall see, and the disaster of the Spanish–American War capped it. The war cost Spain Cuba, Puerto Rico and all of its remaining Pacific possessions. So traumatic was the loss, in three and a half disheartening and even humiliating months, that it gave rise to what is called “the generation of ’98,” a movement of intellectuals and politicians forced by events to give serious thought, finally, to Spain’s place in the modern world.

The results for the United States were happier, but equally profound. Arguably that war, and the Roosevelt Presidency which indirectly resulted from it, set the United States firmly on the path that many patriots had hoped it would never tread. No telling, of course. If it hadn’t been this, it might have been something else. But certainly it is true enough that U.S. possession of the Philippine Islands put this country squarely in the way of Japanese expansion and led to Pearl Harbor and all that followed, including, not least, the atomic bomb.

Not everybody who remembers the slogan “Remember the Maine” remembers what it references. The USS Maine was an American warship which blew up and sank while anchored in Havana Harbor. (It had been sent there to ensure the safety of American citizens and interests.) Jingoes in the States immediately insisted that the Spanish government had sunk it, though our modern experience of false-flag operations suggests that it is more likely the work of Cuban insurgents hoping to bring the U.S. to declare on war with Spain, hopefully leading – finally – to Cuban independence. Or perhaps it was an accident. Doesn’t matter. The direct cause of the war was American intervention in the Cuban War of Independence, following years of horrific reports of Spanish atrocities against the rebellious Cuban people. Spanish-American relations were so raw after years of American criticism of Spanish barbarity in fighting the insurgency that only a spark was needed. It doesn’t much matter who struck the spark, even if responsibility could be determined at this late date.

President McKinley, a better man than he is remembered, didn’t want war. (He had been a young officer in the Civil War, and he knew that war isn’t glorious.) Between the yellow journalism of the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers and the general pugnaciousness and disgust of the American people, the pressure became overwhelming. The U.S. government sent an ultimatum to Spain demanding it surrender control of Cuba. And then, in an example of the old saying that “whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad,” the Spanish government declared war on the United States, despite the unanimous advice of the other European powers that it back down.

At this distance, knowing that the Spanish were suffering from delusions of competence, we find it hard to believe that the Dons thought they had a chance. However, many Europeans thought, and some hoped, that the upstart American republic would meet a fast come-uppance in a war with a European power. Irish poet William Butler Yeats, then in his early thirties, avidly followed news of the war, apparently thinking it was going to be a contest.

Some details are interesting at this distance. On April 19, while Congress was considering joint resolutions supporting Cuban independence, Republican Senator Henry M. Teller of Colorado proposed the Teller Amendment to ensure that the U.S. would not establish permanent control over Cuba after the war. The amendment, disclaiming any intention to annex Cuba, passed the Senate 42 to 35; the House concurred the same day, 311 to 6. The amended resolution demanded Spanish withdrawal and authorized the President to use as much military force as he thought necessary to help Cuba gain independence from Spain. President McKinley signed the joint resolution on April 20, 1898, and the ultimatum was sent to Spain. In response, Spain severed diplomatic relations with the United States on April 21. On the same day, the U.S. Navy began a blockade of Cuba. Spain declared war on April 23. On April 25, Congress declared that a state of war between the U.S. and Spain had existed since April 21, the day the blockade of Cuba had begun.

(The Regular U.S. Army in the spring of 1898 numbered just 28,000 men. The Army wanted 50,000 new men but received over 220,000, through volunteers and the mobilization of state National Guard units.)

The result of the war was fundamental and astounding. In January, 1898, America was a regional power, supreme in its hemisphere mainly because of the width of the Atlantic separating it from the real world powers. By December, no one could doubt that the United States was a world power in its own right, a new factor in international relations. The full impact would not sink in for another few years – President Roosevelt would make it plain enough – but even that year, anyone with brains could see that America had come of age.

American naval power sunk Spanish squadrons in Santiago de Cuba and in Manila Bay, in the Philippines. A combinations of Cuban and American forces defeated the Spanish infantry in Cuba, and Philippine and American forces captured Manila. At San Juan Hill, the (dismounted) charge of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders carried the position and in a few months made him governor.

Madrid sued for peace, and got it in the Treaty of Paris. Spain was forced to abandon Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. The United States gained the beginnings of an empire – and a fierce domestic political argument over the morality and wisdom of expansionism.

Distance in time obscures situations. We may be tempted to say that once we defeated the Spanish, we should have left the Philippines independent. Quite likely, but it might not have worked out that way, as this paraphrased excerpt from Wikipedia makes clear.

Following Dewey’s victory, Manila Bay was filled with the warships of Britain, Germany, France and Japan. The German fleet of eight ships, ostensibly in Philippine waters to protect German interests, acted provocatively – cutting in front of American ships, refusing to salute the United States flag (according to customs of naval courtesy), taking soundings of the harbor, and landing supplies for the besieged Spanish. The Germans, with interests of their own, were eager to take advantage of whatever opportunities the conflict in the islands might afford. The Germans expected the confrontation in the Philippines to end in an American defeat, with the revolutionaries capturing Manila and leaving the Philippines ripe for German picking. However, Commodore Dewey transported Emilio Aguinaldo, a Filipino leader who had led rebellion against Spanish rule in the Philippines in 1896, to the Philippines from exile in Hong Kong to rally more Filipinos against the Spanish colonial government. By June, U.S. and Filipino forces had taken control of most of the islands, except for the walled city of Intramuros. On June 12, Aguinaldo proclaimed the independence of the Philippines.

On August 13, with American commanders unaware that a cease-fire had been signed between Spain and the U.S. on the previous day, American forces captured the city of Manila from the Spanish in the Battle of Manila. This battle marked the end of Filipino-American collaboration, as the American action of preventing Filipino forces from entering the captured city of Manila was deeply resented by the Filipinos. This later led to the Philippine–American War, which would prove to be more deadly and costly than the Spanish–American War.

The U.S. had sent a force of some 11,000 ground troops to the Philippines. Armed conflict broke out between U.S. forces and the Filipinos when U.S. troops began to take the place of the Spanish in control of the country after the end of the war, resulting in the Philippine–American War. On August 14, 1899, the Schurman Commission recommended that the U.S. retain control of the Philippines, possibly granting independence in the future.

Lots of consequences, most of them unforeseen. Lots of chickens waiting to come home to roost.

The Wright Brothers

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

At first, Wilbur and Orville Wright, and their sister Katharine, fascinated the Europeans. They were so modest and unassuming, so businesslike, so down-to-earth, so willing and able to deal with workmen and with kings (literally) in an equally friendly but dignified manner. They seemed the very personification of the best of America’s supposedly classless society. Later, when patent infringement suits seemed to threaten the development of the airplane industry, they came to personify another aspect of America, a less attractive side. Yet the Wrights hadn’t changed. Circumstances had brought out a different aspect of their collective character.

It was an attractive partnership. Wilbur and his five-year-younger brother Orville played together as boys, tinkered together as teens, went into the bicycle assembly and repair business together as young men, and together solved the problem of flight by heavier-than-air machine. Together they wrestled with the intellectual and practical problems that had to be overcome – problems that had defeated everyone else from the beginning of time – and together they conquered them, one by one. After Wilbur died in 1912, age 45, Orville lived another three dozen years, but never made another significant contribution to aviation theory or practice. Their life’s work was done together, first to last.

Everybody knows the elements of the story, and those who don’t can Google The Wright Brothers. (Those who live in southwestern Ohio can go visit the Wright Museum in Dayton! In North Carolina, the museum is of course at Kitty Hawk.)

Wilbur was fascinated by the problem of flight; he set out to learn what was being done, hoping to make a contribution to the field. Concentrating not on powerful engines to force a machine into the air but on a reliable method of controlling the machine once it was there, he and Orville developed a method of three-axis control that made fixed-wing flight possible. They tested and developed different wing structures and propeller shapes, and in three years came up with an efficient glider that would carry a man and let him control it. Then they (and their friend and bicycle shop employee Charlie Taylor) built their own gasoline engine to power it! The first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flights took place, as all the world knows, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

But, to paraphrase Churchill, that was not the end, nor the beginning of the end, but more like the end of the beginning. They had a machine that flew. Now they had to patent their control system, and had to develop the airplane, and had to teach themselves how to fly, and had to keep it secret (to avoid patent infringers) while doing all that. And then, if they were going to make a success of all their years of work, they were going to have to sell it.

You wouldn’t think that would be difficult, but it was, because all the government agencies they approached – first the American, then the British and French – were wary of looking ridiculous. The United States government had helped finance Samuel Langley, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, and his machine had been an expensive and very public failure. But finally the brothers won contracts from both the U.S. Army and a French syndicate representing the French government. The contracts depended on successful public flights meeting certain conditions, which meant that one brother had to be demonstrating in Europe while the other was demonstrating in America. Wilbur went to France.

On August 8, 1908 at a race track near the town of Le Mans, Wilbur made his first flight. It was only one minute 45 seconds long, but he made banking turns and flew a circle, and, on later flights, flew figure-eights, all of which was well beyond the capability of any other machine in the world. The other machines being developed were not really capable of controlled flight. At best, they could hop.

Wilbur’s triumph was complete, and was rendered particularly dramatic because, during the weeks he had been assembling his airplane, newspapers were calling him a “bluffeur,” adapting the American word. But his skillful piloting and his ingenious and effective flying machine silenced all criticism. Indeed, the very people who had been loudest in their derision fell all over themselves apologizing. The impossible had been accomplished, and they had seen it. And the field where Wilbur was flying became a Mecca for thousands of spectators.

In one flight, Wilbur had made “the Wright Brothers” world famous. Then, the following month, Orville demonstrated another Wright Flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia. His first flight was on September 3, 1908. Six days later, he made a flight of 62 minutes and 15 seconds, demonstrating that the new machine was not a toy but a useful piece of equipment that could be used – it was thought at the time — for scouting. It would be only half a dozen years before the new machines were being fitted with bombs and machine guns, but, in these final years of Europe’s sanity, that tragedy was yet undreamed of.

And, speaking of tragedy, on September 17, in Virginia, aviation suffered its first casualty, as Army lieutenant Thomas Selfridge riding with Orville as passenger (in his role as official observer) was killed in a crash that put Orville in the hospital with a broken leg and four broken ribs and (unsuspected and thus untreated for years) with three hip bone fractures and a dislocated hip. He was hospitalized for seven weeks. Katharine rushed from Dayton to be with him, probably not dreaming that this was the end of her career as school teacher and the beginning of another, quite unprecedented career as hostess/secretary for her brothers.

Wilbur spent the next few weeks setting new records for altitude and duration, observed by – among so many others — the kings of England, Spain and Italy. When, in January 1909, Orville and Katharine joined him in France, they charmed all Europe. From Pau, in the south of France, Wilbur continued his demonstration flights, trained two French pilots, and transferred the airplane to the French company. In April he did the same in Italy, giving demonstrations and training more pilots. By the time they headed back to the States, they were as beloved as they were famous.

But then the patent wars began. It’s a dismal story that arguably cut Wilbur’s life short. The brothers, having made flight possible for the world, logically enough thought that others should not profit from their pioneering work without paying them royalties. But Glenn Curtiss, for one, refused to pay license fees to the Wrights and sold an aircraft equipped with ailerons to the Aeronautic Society of New York in 1909. The Wrights filed a lawsuit, beginning a years-long legal conflict. They also sued foreign aviators who flew at U.S. exhibitions, including the leading French aviator Louis Paulhan. European companies which bought foreign patents the Wrights had received sued other manufacturers in their countries, and the lawsuits dragged on until the patent expired in 1917.

Wilbur took the leading role in the exhausting patent struggle, traveling incessantly to consult with lawyers and testify in what he felt was a moral cause, particularly against Curtiss. The Wrights wound up spending their time and energy on legal battles rather than on further work on airplane design. By 1911 European manufacturers had surpassed Wright designs. Orville and Katharine Wright believed Curtiss was partly responsible for Wilbur’s premature death, which occurred in the wake of his travels and the stress of the legal battle. The lawsuits damaged the public image of the Wright brothers, who began to be described as greedy. Europeans who were always ready to believe the worst about anything and anyone American seized on the stories of the patent disputes as evidence of a materialist, grasping society. Still, those thousands who saw Wilbur’s European flights never forgot the sight.

Many years later, in his old age, having seen the destruction rained from the air during two world wars, Orville Wright said of flight, “What a dream it was. What a nightmare it has become.” Perhaps Wilbur was the more fortunate, to die before the end of the long era of peace.

The movies

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

Like television later, and like radio at the same time, but to a greater degree, movies were America’s greatest ambassadors and propagandists. Foreigners often mistook American films for reality, and if this sometimes led them to think it was still a land of cowboys and Indians, it also led them to think that this was the land where working people lived in mansions, and rich girls married poor boys, and the streets were paved with gold.

America had long been the land of opportunity for the poor, the dispossessed, the politically oppressed, the persecuted minorities all over the world. Until immigration was severely restricted in the 1920s, in the face of the massive postwar dislocations in Europe that threatened to overwhelm the country with penniless émigrés, it had been the safe haven, the escape from societies where it seemed nothing would ever change. American films seemed to demonstrate that those stories were true: After all, you saw it with your own eyes!

The French created the cinema, but the industry was soon dominated by American films. Hollywood filmmakers developed sound films (The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, and that was the beginning of the end for silent pictures), Hollywood directors (such as D.W. Griffith) developed what is called film grammar, creative and financial geniuses such as Walt Disney showed how to merchandise animated films, studios produced films by the hundreds, and American movie stars and starlets became famous all around the world.

Hollywood became Hollywood because it was initially a friendly place, and because it was located in a moderate climate, with reliable sunlight and varied scenery, and because once D. W. Griffith’s acting troupe, working for Biograph, successfully filmed a few movies there, other movie-makers relocated there to get away from the East Coast (well, actually to get farther away from Thomas Edison, who owned certain movie-making patents).

It began, in a way, with the storefront theaters called nickelodeons. (An Odeon was a small indoor theater in ancient Greece and, in modern usage, the name of a hall for musical or dramatic performances. And, since admission price was a nickel….) Many of the men who came to head movie studio began as the owners of nickelodeons. Among them: Samuel Goldwyn, William Fox, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer and the four Warner Brothers (Harry, Albert, Samuel, and Jack).

Major studios kept thousands of people on salary — actors, producers, directors, writers, stunt men, craftsmen and -women, and technicians. They owned or leased Movie Ranches in rural Southern California for location shooting of westerns and other large scale genre films. And they owned hundreds of theaters in cities and towns across the nation. By the mid-1940s, the studios were producing more than a film a day, all year long, for a weekly audience of 90 million Americans — Westerns, slapstick comedies, musicals, animated cartoons, biographical films. Once it found its feet in the 1920s, the American film industry grossed more money every year than that of any other country.

The Golden Age of Hollywood was ended by federal antitrust action that destroyed the studio system, and television, which brought the screen inside people’s homes. But by that time, American films had conquered the world.

Woodrow Wilson

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

Perhaps at some point I will fill in Woodrow Wilson’s place in America’s rise to world power. Suffice it to say here that he kept us out of the war as long as could – certainly longer than nearly anyone else likely would have done – and proposed relatively equitable peace terms. The punitive terms that were finally imposed on Germany in June, 1919, were punitive at the insistence of the French and British, who had, after all, suffered most. (The French lost an estimated 11 per cent of their population, a staggering injury.) Psychic Edgar Cayce said much later that the Christ spirit had sat at the peace table, but had not been listened to. Wilson’s League of Nations proposal was adopted by the allies, but ironically not by his own country, for reasons good, bad, and arguable.

For a while, the people of Europe regarded Wilson as a savior; disillusion came with the hard wrangling over the peace treaty. (He attended the peace conference in Paris, the first president to leave the country while in office.) To put it in short words, he was outmaneuvered, and the peace that was made was about as bad as the war it ended – and it assured that the war would be resumed as soon as another generation of boys grew old enough to be sent to the slaughter.

Still, Wilson did his best, and if his best was not good enough to spare the world the further misery of World War II, perhaps no one’s could have been. In keeping us out of war an additional two years, he saved American lives that might have died uselessly in the trenches, in the way that a generation of French and English troops, along with subjects from their respective empires, were dying. And in bringing us into the war in response to Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, he brought the American republic that much closer to the center of world power.

But in promising more than he – or anyone – could deliver, he disillusioned Europeans who were hoping for a deus ex machina, and in his lack of success in wrangling with British and French vindictiveness and greed, he disillusioned the American idealists who had believed, with him, that this could be made into a war to make the world safe for democracy, or (even more high-flying) a war to end war.

Thus arose the myth among the Europeans that America couldn’t be counted on, that it came to the war “late” – as if it was America’s business to save them from the results of their own ancestral hatreds and rivalries – and that Uncle Shylock was grasping in demanding that the Allies repay the war debts they had incurred to America while neutral America was providing them with the armaments and foodstuffs that were keeping them in the war.

Correspondingly, there arose American determination to never get caught intervening in European affairs again, regardless how effective the propaganda that would pull us into another of their quarrels. Thus, the isolationist movement of the 1930s; the refusal to sell arms to the legitimate government of Spain to help it defend itself against the Franco insurgency, even in the teeth of obvious intervention by Italian troops and German pilots; the political impossibility of making common cause with the western democracies against Hitler’s clever and audacious diplomacy. World War II was a tragedy for the west, to be sure. But in a sense, the chickens that were Woodrow Wilson’s broken dreams were coming home to roost.



[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

Radio wasn’t invented in the United States. It rested on the work of many man, mostly Europeans, throughout the 19th century, culminating in Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi. He was awarded the first (British) patent for a radio wave wireless telegraphic system, and he is credited with turning radio into a global business. Brazilian priest Roberto Landell de Moura transmitted the human voice wirelessly in a public experiment in the year 1900, and was awarded fundamental patents by the Brazilian and American governments.

Nor, at first, were Americans particularly in the forefront. The Japanese Navy used it while scouting the Russian fleet in 1905. Passenger liners began carrying “wireless” transmitters; when the British liner Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic, in April, 1912, radio transmissions made its condition known to other ships, and to stations on shore, which was a first. In World War I, both sides used radio to communicate with their armies and navies, and Germany, when it realized that the British were tapping into its submarine (telegraph) cables, began using radio to communicate with its overseas diplomats. However, Americans learned fast, and toward the end of the year, the contents of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points were transmitted to the German government not by the circuitous route that would have been demanded by the fact that so many other sources had been cut, but by radio.

And then after the war, radio experienced a boom the way personal computers did at the end of the century.

In August, 1920, station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan, broadcast the first news program. Two months later, station 2ADD introduced public entertainment broadcasts, with the first of a series of Thursday night concerts. Initially, these were heard within a 100-mile radius, but that soon expanded tenfold. Throughout the 1920s – not just in the United States but in much of Europe, and to a lesser extent elsewhere — new stations were starting up, and people were buying radio receivers, and advertisers were beginning to see just how profitable the new medium could be. The late 1920s saw the beginning of what is called the Golden Age of radio, which lasted until it was supplanted by television in the mid-1950s. For nearly three decades, commercial radio broadcasts brought news, music, and entertainment to people’s homes– for free. (Well, free once the radio was paid for, but as greater numbers were manufactured, the price fell steeply, and anyway it could be bought “on time.”)

Radio transformed politics, allowing charismatic personalities to reach people literally by the million, rather than one group at a time. Franklin Roosevelt used it to bypass the largely hostile newspaper chains, and speak directly to the American people. His occasional “fireside chats” communicated emotionally as well as factually, and helped him build a solid constituency that trusted him through thick and thin throughout the hungry thirties.

Others learned how to use it, too. One was Canadian-born Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest.” As his peak, his weekly broadcasts had a listenership estimated at thirty million – in a country of maybe 120 million. At first a supporter of FDR and the New Deal, his National Union for Social Justice called for monetary reforms, the nationalization of major industries and railroads, and protection of the rights of labor. Gradually his hatred of bankers led him first to anti-Semitism, and then to tacit support of fascism. (His career is very interesting: He was perhaps the prototype of the televangelists, before the advent of television.

The effect that the radio had in opening up the world to people is hard to over-estimate. Before radio, people’s day-to-day contact with the outside world consisted of newspapers and magazines; their entertainment was local. With the coming of radio – particularly with the coming of radio networks that could pipe the same programming all over the country at the same time – suddenly your isolation was ameliorated. It didn’t matter how far out on the plains or how far back in the woods you lived, you could hear the same shows they were listening to in New York City. In a sense, the world was shrinking; in a sense, your personal world was expanding. We’ve seen it happen again with the World Wide Web: Suddenly people have access to information and interaction that previously was inaccessible to any but those who could afford to travel to get it.

Radio accelerated an on-going process of turning a collection of subcultures into one American culture. It would take a good while yet for the transformation to take place, but it was a big, big step when those flat Midwestern voices began coming into the living rooms of homes in New England and the east, and throughout the south, and the far west, and the mountain states, no less than in their native Midwestern flatlands. It began, or accelerated, the process of the various parts of America learning to talk more like each other on a nationwide, rather than a regional, basis.

FDR, and Lindbergh

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]


Like John F. Kennedy later, Franklin Roosevelt was more than an American politician and statesman. Something in his demeanor and what he was thought to stand for caught people’s imagination. They invested hope in him. When he died, the crowds in England stood stunned, or wept, and felt as bereaved as if they had lost a member of their own family – and this was before television brought moving, talking images into the home. If they felt they knew Roosevelt, it was from the movie newsreels, and from the newspapers and radios, and from the feeling that they had that he had been the friend of the things they believed in, and had, therefore, been a friend to them. Wilson, as we shall see, was popular for a while, and the common people put their trust in him. But Roosevelt caught their imagination and their affection and their trust as no American had done since Lincoln, and none would do again until Kennedy, and perhaps Eisenhower.

For one thing, there was the spectacle of his fighting the good fight against the forces of reaction, as he set Congress to restructuring the American political landscape. Regulation of the stock market, of the banking industry, of monopolies, of so many aspects of what had been until then a comfortable club making its own rules to suit itself. And there was his personal struggle to overcome the polio that had struck him down before he was 40, turning a tall, athletic, vigorous young patrician into a wheelchair-bound cripple. He had fought his way back from paralysis, finding and developing Warm Springs, Georgia, as a hospital for the similarly afflicted. (Remember the March of Dimes? That was a Roosevelt conception, organized not only for research into the cure of polio but specifically to support Warm Springs.)

And, more than anything else, perhaps, Roosevelt was revered as the linchpin of American assistance to those fighting the Axis powers. Though he dared not intervene in Spain, he was soon intervening to the edge of the law and beyond it, to weaken Hitler and strengthen the Allies. Lend-Lease, American patrols of the Western Atlantic, the Atlantic Charter, and always his encouragement of coalitions of powers against the Nazis. No less than Churchill – and even more important, because leading the only country that could defeat Germany – he was the father figure many a European leaned on.

Another American icon appeared in the years before the war, before Roosevelt, before the Great Depression, while the twenties were still roaring. He was a shy, modest 25-year-old boy, and he electrified the world with one 33-hour-long feat of skill, luck and endurance.



A few months after the end of World War I, a man named Orteig had offered $25,000 to the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. Eight years later, the Orteig prize remained unclaimed, but several people were racing to be the first. They were all well known except the boy.

In September, 1926, a three-engine biplane carrying a three-men team led by French World War I ace Rene Fonck crashed and burned on takeoff, killing the two crewmen. The following April, two famed U.S. Naval aviators, testing another three-engine biplane, died when their plane, too, crashed on takeoff. In early May, French war heroes Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli disappeared at sea on a westward flight from Paris in a seaplane.

Two weeks later, three more airplanes were preparing to fly east from Long Island. One was a two-man team led by American air racer Clarence Chamberlin, and the other was a four-man team led by Commander (later Rear Admiral) Richard Byrd. The third was not a team but a lone 25-year-old pilot who, the year before, had been flying the air mail route between St. Louis and Chicago, and his airplane was a single-engine overhead-wing monoplane whose design and construction he had overseen during the winter.

He had much less flying experience than any of the others, none of it over water. He was financing the flight on a $15,000 bank loan, a $1,000 donation from his employer at Lambert Field, St. Louis, and his own small savings. He had had to teach himself great-circle navigation, because he was afraid that if he asked the military to teach him, he would be forbidden to make the attempt. In order to keep down inessential weight, he was flying without a radio. That meant that from eight a.m. May 20, 1927, all through the day and the long night and a good part of the next day, there was no way for the world to know if he was still alive and in the air, or had joined the six who had been killed in the weeks just past.

After that long night, he was spotted over the coast of Ireland, then over England, and then, at nearly 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, he landed at Le Bourget field in Paris, and he and his frail craft were overrun by a hysterically welcoming mob estimated at 150,000 people. The effect his successful flight produced was perhaps proportional to the anxiety caused by the long night – and the dead airmen who had preceded him.

The French Foreign Office flew the American flag for him, President Coolidge sent a Navy cruiser to bring him and his airplane home. The Post Office issued an Air Mail stamp in his honor. He was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City. He was Time magazine’s first “Man of the Year.” His book We, published within months, sold 650,000 copies within a year, earning him a quarter of a million dollars. The boy his friends had always called Slim was being called Lucky Lindy, and The Lone Eagle.

His influence on aviation was phenomenal. Applications for pilot’s licenses in the U.S. tripled. The number of licensed aircraft quadrupled. The number of airline passengers grew 3,000%, to 173,405 in 1929, from 5,782 in 1926. Aviatrix Elinor Smith Sullivan later said that Lindbergh’s flight changed aviation forever because “after Lindbergh, suddenly everyone wanted to fly, and there weren’t enough planes to carry them.”

For more – much more —

Oh, and those other two teams that we left on Long Island waiting to fly? Chamberlain made it from New York to Germany in a 43 hour flight two weeks later. Byrd and his team left on June 29, reached Paris on July 1, and, being unable to land there due to weather conditions, wound up ditching in the ocean off Normandy. They both succeeded in making the crossing, and they did it within weeks of Lindbergh’s solo flight. But it didn’t matter. That flight – and something in his winning personality — made Charles A. Lindbergh into an icon, not only in his own country but all through Europe and around the world. And that fame lasted. More than 25 years later, he won a Pulitzer Price with The Spirit of St. Louis, which, among other things, told of his out-of-body experience and spiritual contacts during that long night over the North Atlantic.