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Transportation Modes and Makers in American History

Transportation is a subject that seems to be always in the news these days and usually for the wrong reasons: train derailments, bridge collapses, overturned tractor trailers, cruise ships running aground, recalls, near-miss collisions among aircraft, bad passenger behavior…And no one form of transportation seems immune from catastrophe and the ensuing media coverage and scrutiny.

This, however, is not the story we are looking to tell in this month’s Transportation issue. Instead, we focus on the visionaries, inventors, engineers and industrialists of the 19th- to mid-20th century whose practical knowledge, engineering mindset and vision contributed to the advancement, safety, speed and efficiency of modern-day travel as we know it, everything from steam powered transatlantic ocean liners to planes, trains, and automobiles.

Then, as now, all great ideas with marketable value start with a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, established by the Patent Act of 1790; however, the ability to receive a patent was initially not a right available to all living in the Country until the second half of the 19th century.

Wrote US Attorney Gen. Jeremiah Black on June 10, 1858, in response to Benjamin Montgomery’s application for a patent for his steamship propeller designed for shallow waters, “…a machine invented by a slave, though it be new and useful, cannot, in the present state of the law, be patented. I may add that if such patent were issued to the master, it would not protect him in the courts against persons who might infringe it.”

Montgomery was a slave and therefore, at this time, not a recognized U.S. citizen, a requirement for obtaining a patent in the U.S. The same held true for emancipated slaves and free men of color. That did not change for African Americans until the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, which abolished slavery and recognized all persons born in the United States as U.S. citizens.

A 2019 study found that African Americans obtained about 50,000 patents in the period from 1870 to 1940. In this issue, we look at seven African American transportation pioneers who took their shot, now open to them, to have their inventions recognized and protected, and their names forever associated with their historical contributions.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the transportation industry in the first half of the 19th century, especially when it came to transatlantic ocean travel and receiving news and goods from Europe in a timely manner. However, all that changed on July 4, 1840, when Samuel Cunard traveled from Liverpool to Boston aboard his steamship ocean liner, Britannia. Not only did his steamship liner cut the crossing down to about two weeks with its ability to power through weather and rough seas, Cunard also established a regular, weekly schedule with his fleet of ocean liners for both the mail and passenger service, and set the standard for luxury transatlantic travel. A more complete backstory on Cunard can be found in our June issue.

On Terra Ferma, it was now the railroad that was capturing the public’s attention in the first half of the 19th century. The ability to link big cities with rural towns and emerging settlements in the west for both passenger travel and cargo transport was revolutionary. Trains were a symbol of modern industrialization. They also changed the way the public traveled, replacing horses and stagecoaches for a more comfortable, carefree form of transportation.

As the United States rode the rails into the modern era, painters captured the changes wrought by the new technology. A new exhibition at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, All Aboard: The Railroad in American Art, 1840-1955, features forty masterworks of American painting, borrowed from museums across the country, to illustrate this transformative period of industrialization and urbanization in American art. In this issue, Thomas Denenberg, PhD, John Wilmerding Director and CEO at the Shelburne, gives us an insider tour of the exhibit, which runs from June 22-October 20.

Our fascination with what today is known in the collecting world as Railroadiana, is proof of our enduring love of trains and rail travel. One way of remembering this bygone era is through collecting artifacts that have survived the years. While much of this material and equipment like locomotives, cars, buildings, etc. are “collectible” for only a small number of people and organizations with the resources to maintain them, smaller items such as lanterns, china, paper, menus, schedules, and locks are well within the reach of individual collectors. You can learn more about the hobby of collecting Railroadiana in this issue, as well.

For many collectors, their fascination with trains dates to their childhood; the experience of their first train trip, watching the trains pass through town, or their first gift of a train set. As hobbyists and collectors, it’s a connection that never gets old as evidenced by the over 22,000 people who attended this year’s Railroad Hobby Show, the largest railroad-themed trade show in America. This annual event, held in January, occupies 350,000 square feet in four buildings on the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds in MA and covers all facets of the railroad hobbies – model railroads, railroad art and photography, railroad history and preservation, tourist railroads, railroad artifacts, and railroad books and videos. The continued popularity of this long-running hobby show is proof you are never too old to play with trains.

The second half of the 20th century saw a second transportation boon with the automobile and air travel and improvements in luxury travel for planes, trains, and ships. Judy Gonyeau looks back on the year 1964 to share some of the events and new inventions of the year that continue to contribute to Transportation in America.