Sunday, March 26, 2023

Heretic, Rebel, Thing to Flout Endorsements for the April 4 Election in McHenry County

We are fast closing in on April 4, Spring election day for municipal and local government  units in IllinoisEarly voting and vote by mail are both open.   Unfortunately, Democrats and progressives are notorious for sitting out non-presidential elections.  But this year they need to bestir themselves as right-wingers are running both stealth and overt campaigns to take over local school boards, library districts, and other bodies in a coordinated attack on LGBTQ rights, basic scienceimmigrants, and honest U.S. history.  They are rallying their base with an attack on the “lefts woke agenda” in hopes of stirring up a virtual or real civil war.

Chicago Mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson.

The hotly contested dog fight for Chicago Mayor has naturally dominated media coverageBrandon Johnson, a Cook County Commissioner and former Chicago Teachers Union organizer, is the progressive favorite with strong support from public and service worker unions as well as many Black community leaders and police reform groups.  He faces establishment stalwart Paul Vallas who has based his campaign on crime fear, police union support, and deep pocket doners, including many Republican PACs and fat cats.  The two have split critical endorsements with Vallas peeling off some traditional progressives and Black leaders.  Two weeks ago it looked like Vallas might slide into office, but polling shows that Johnson has nearly closed the gap and is now in a statistical dead heat.  For what it’s worth, we recommend Johnson to our Chicago Friends.

But our focus is on critical local McHenry County races.  What follows is as much as possible a comprehensive review of most, if not all, contested races.  These are officially non-partisan races but the Democratic Party of McHenry County has assembled a list of endorsements.  We unapologetically draw on that.  But we also have considered other recommendations from McHenry County Citizens for Choice, public worker unions, and other issue organizations.

We don’t have time or space for detailed information on endorsed candidates, but we will highlight a few we consider particularly qualified or have long associations with.  Hold on to your hats, we’re off!

Yard signs at the Murfin Estate in Crystal Lake.

Municipal Races

Algonquin trustees—(vote for no more than three) Brian Dianis, Denize Namik, George Nwogu. ,

Cary trustee—(vote for no more than three)

Crystal Lake—Note incumbent mayor Haig Haleblian is running as an un-opposed write-in candidate after his nominating petitions were challenged.  He seems to be broadly popular and has offended few since being named to fill the vacancy of long-time former Mayor Aaron Shepley.  We have no endorsement but recommend you take note of the correct spelling of his name if you plan to cast your ballot.  Issues of development and housing are important local issues.  City Council—(vote for no more than three) Bret Hopkins, Donald Kountz, Robert Brechbiel.

Lisa Haderllein for Harvard Ward 4 alderman.

Harvard Ward 4 (four year term)  Elizabeth LisaHaderllein is a particularly outstanding candidate—an environmentalist, former Executive Director of The Land Conservancy of McHenry County, feminist, and candidate for U.S. House of Representatives from the 14th District last Fall.

Holiday Hills Trustee—(vote for no more than three) Lisa Maier, Carol Stingel.

Johnsburg Trusteeunexpired two year term.  Mary E. “BethForeman.

McCullom Lake—(vote for no more than three) Nancy Matthessius, Michael Walker.

McHenry Ward 4—(vote for one)  Both candidates were recommended by County Dems and MCCC.  Christine Bassi, Ryan Harding.

Trout Valley—(vote for no more than three) Denise Johnson, David A. Peterson, Janette Warner.

                        Crystal Squires for Woodstock City Council.

Woodstock—(vote for no more than three) Dems recommend a total of six candidates, but we recommend a trio of strong women, Melissa McMahon, Natalie Ziemba a businesswoman and national leader in the fight against Alzheimer’s, and the tireless and amazing Crystal Squires who founded and organized Woodstock Pride and Woodstock Pride Fest.


Crystal Lake Park District—(vote for no more than three)  Cathy Cagle, Michael P. Jacobson.

Algonquin Public Library District—(vote for no more than one unexpired two year term.  Both candidates were recommended by County Dems and MCCC.  Melissa Iwinski, James D. Johnson.

Barrington Public Library District—(vote for no more than three) Full six year Term Rachel H. Forsyth-Tureck, Lindsay Prigge(vote for one) Two year term Jackie McGath.

Cary Public Library District—(vote for one)  Unexpired two year term  Scott Migalidi, (vote for one)  unexpired 4 year term  Theresa Hart.

Cary Fire Protection District—(vote for no more than two)  Lance Neuses.

Richmond Township Fire Protection District—(vote for one)  Larry Jones.

Community College

                    Suzzane Hoban for McHenry County College Board.

McHenry County Community College #528—(vote for no more than two)  Full six year term.  We heartily endorse incumbent Suzanne Hoban, a longtime community leader and founder and Executive Director of the McHenry County Family Health Partnership ClinicTwo year unexpired turn Tess Reinhard.

McHenry County Regional Office of Education

McHenry County Regional Board of Education(No more than one can serve from the same Congressional Township.)  Full six year term.  Township 43N Range 8E Algonquin.  Write in Adria TyndallFour year unexpired term.  Township 44N Range 7E Greenwood.  Long-time public school educator, former Secretary of the McHenry County Democratic Party, and candidate for the Illinois State Representative from the 63rd District Brian D. Meyers.

Schools by District Alphabetically

Barrington Community Unit School District 220—(vote for no more than three)  Full four year term.  McHenry Democrats recommend four candidates Diana I. Clapton, Nelda Munoz, and incumbents Barry Altshuler and Leah Collister-Lazzari.

Community Unit District 300 (Elgin)—(vote for no more than four)  Full four year Term.   This is the second largest district in Illinois after Chicago and includes parts of McHenry County.  Township 42N Range 8E Dundee incumbent Nancy Zettler, Township 42N Range 7E Rutland Olutola Tola Makine and Randi Gauthier.

Teachers indorse Cary School District 26 candidates.

Cary Community Consolidated School District 26—(vote for no more than three)  Full four year term.  This is a race targeted by conservative activists.  Deanna Dee Darling is the incumbent board president and an active leader in gun violence campaigns, McHenry County NOW, and McHenry County Democratic Women.  Also recommended are incumbents Jason Janczak and Kathyrn Potter, McHenry County Democrats District 1 chair.  All three are endorsed by the Cary Education Association (CEA).

Crystal Lake Community Consolidated School District 47  Another race targeted by conservative activists.  Lisa Messinger, a pediatrician, mom, and community activist, is a long-time associate and leading member of the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation Social Justice Team.  Also recommended are Patrice ReeseDewey and Laura LW StantonUn-expired two year term Jonathan Johny Norquist. All are endorsed by the teacher’s union.

Community High School District 155 (Crystal Lake-Cary)—(vote for no more than three)  Full four year termStephanie ONeil Macro, incumbent Amy Blazer, and Steve Kiefer. All are endorsed by the teacher’s union.

Fox River Grove School District 3)—(vote for no more than three)  Full four year term.    McHenry County Democrats recommends five candidates.  Incumbent Thomas Mollet, Lisa Spiek, incumbents Katie Koll and Alex Johnson, and challenger Melissa Brennan.

Paula Yensen for Huntley School District.

Huntley Community Consolidated School District 158—(vote for no more than three)  Full four year term.  McHenry County Democrats recommend four candidates, incumbents Jonathan Dailey, Melissa M. Maiorino, and William Gehren plus challenger Paula Yensen who we heartily endorse.  She was a career non-profit administrator, former Lake in the Hills trustee, former dean of Democrats on the McHenry County Board, President of McHenry County NOW, and a long-time active member of the Tree of Life UU Congregation.  Unexpired two year term.  McHenry Democrats recommend two.  Andrew Fekete and incumbent Kevin Gentry.

Marengo-Union Elementary District 165—(vote for no more than three) Full four year term.  Incumbent Mathew Erbstoesser and challenger Amanda Weiss and Lesley Pace.

McHenry Community Consolidated School District 15—(vote for no more than three) Full four year term.  Matthew Stauner, incumbent Arne Waltmire, and Patrick J. DeGeorge.

McHenry High School District 156—(vote for no more than three) Full four year term.  Nicole Morrow, incumbent Dawn L. Bremer, and Timothy R. Hyers.

Nippersink School District 2—(vote for no more than three) Full four year term.  Alie Stansbury and incumbent Joe Quinn.

Prairie Grove Community Consolidated School District 46—(vote for no more than three) Full four year term.  Incumbents Josie Shattuck and Stphanie Housh.

Woodstock Community Unit School District 200—(vote for no more than three) Full four year term.  Township 45N Range 7E Greenwood Jerry Miceli and incumbent John HeadleyTownship 44N Range 6E Seneca Michelle Bidwell.

We recommend that to maximize the power of your vote in races where not every position is endorsed that you only cast your ballot for the recommended candidates.

For early voting sites and hours click here.  For your election day polling places click here.  Note that in recent elections McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio has sent some voters to incorrect polling sites.  Republican trained judges are also challenging voters for minor discrepancies like omitting a middle name or matching decades-old on file voter registration signatures.  Make sure to bring current picture IDs.

Feel free to copy, paste, and print this blog post to use as a reference when voting.


Saturday, March 25, 2023

There Were Piles of Dead Women on a New York Street

Police and bystanders watch helplessly as more victims jump to their deaths to escape the flames of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the upper floors of the Asch Building.

It was a sunny but raw day in New York City, a late Saturday afternoon and the streets near Washington Square in the immigrant Greenwich Village neighborhood were teaming with traffic.  Around 4:45, as the many garment industry sweatshops were preparing for their “early” Saturday closing, pedestrians began to notice smoke billowing from the upper floors of the Asch Building, at 29 Washington Place.

Crowds gathered to watch as horse drawn fire engines and ladder trucks pounded to the scene.  Soon witnesses watched in horror as one after another young women leapt from the burning building to sure death on the pavement below—the Fire Departments ladders were too short to reach the windows from which they jumped.  It was March 25, 1911.  The top three floors of the building, housing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had turned into a roaring inferno

The Fire Department responded quickly but did not have ladders tall enough to reach the top three floors which were on fire and fire fighters could not get up stairways choked with the bodies of those trying to escape.  They could only use their most powerful pumpers to spay water from the outside.

About 500 workers were getting ready to leave when the fire started smoldering in the scrap bin under a cutting table, probably ignited by a carelessly discarded cigarette or cigar.  Before it was over 146 of them, mostly young Italian and Jewish women, would perish.  Many would be piled against locked exit doors to die of asphyxiation. Sixty-two victims leaped to their death on the sidewalk or were killed when the sole fire escape collapsed.  Others jumped down elevator shafts after the elevators, which managed to rescue several, stopped working when the fire’s heat twisted the rails on which they ran.  At least 71 others were reported injured, although many more were probably tended at home, unable to afford medical care.

It was not the first fire in such a factory.  In fact, authorities had reported an epidemic of fires at shirtwaist factories.  This was one, however, was made worse because of overcrowding on the shop floors, failure to clear flammable material—scrap bins had not been emptied in two months—and because stairways and exits were either blocked by bales of material or padlocked to prevent employee pilferage.

The factory occupied the 8, 9, and 10 floors of the building, all beyond the reach of ladders which could only reach the sixth floor at full extension.  There was no alarm system and on the most crowded production floor, the 9th, the first warning was literally when flames erupted.  By that time most office personnel, including the owners and their visiting children had already been able to evacuate from the higher floor to the safety of the roof.

There had, of course, been awful industrial accidents and fires before.  Mine collapses were commonplace.  Many were killed in boiler explosions on steamships and riverboats, others died in railroad accidents.  Fires had devastated lint-filled textile plants.  But never had such a calamity played out so publicly on the streets of the nation’s premier city with the press—including photographers—on hand to record the horror.  The fact that most of the victims were young women, girls in their teens mostly, added to the impact.  Grimy men were expected to be expendable, girls were not.

The sewing floor of a typical shirtwaist factory and the young women who worked there.

Lurid headlines and gruesome photos spread across the country.  Both the city and state governments launched investigations, which would lead eventually to the establishment of the nation’s strongest industrial workplace safety and labor laws in New York state.  It spurred the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and other needle trade unions which made safety a key issue.  Many years later the Federal government added its weight to worker safety with the establishment of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) under the Department of Labor.

Today the labor movement commemorates the anniversary, but the hard fought gains paid for by those dead shop girls are under attack from coast-to-coast.  Whether under the guise of cost cutting, deregulation, or a frank assault on the working class, attempts are ongoing to defund, strip authority from, or abolish altogether OSHA and its state counterparts while blocking in every possible way the rights of workers to defend themselves through unions or by suing for damages in the courts. Under the former Trump mal-administration and with Federal Courts increasingly in the hands of right-wing judges that trend accelerated.

Protests like this large parade featuring a contingent of Jewish women workers from the United Hebrew Trades demanded enactment of factory safety laws and organized shops into powerful unions.

The old battles have to be refought.  Hopefully it will not take another tragedy of epic proportion to re-prick the public conscience. 

Today the Asch Building, now known as the Brown Building, still stands.  It is a designated landmark, as much, we are told, for its architectural significance as the site of a tragedy.  And in 2012, after years of painstaking research, the last 10 victims of the fire were finally identified


Friday, March 24, 2023

Did Patrick Henry Really Say That?

A particularly heroic rendition of Patrick Henry's Liberty or Death speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1775.

On March 23, 1775 Patrick Henry rose before the Virginia House of Burgesses meeting in Richmond to speak in support of mobilizing the Militia to oppose British military moves.  The speaker had a reputation as a firebrand.  He was reported to have said:  

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death! 

The cheering House, already ousted from meeting in Williamsburg by edict of the Royal Governor and sitting illegally, was moved to opt for mobilization. 

Or so the story goes, as it was reconstructed by Henry’s biographer William Wirt in 1817.  No official record of the meeting reported the contents of the speech.  Only one contemporaneous written description survives.  In it Henry was quoted as alluding to the failure of the Crown to protect the colony from Indians and slave uprisings and was quoted as using some very intemperate and probably profane descriptions of the Governor, but no mention of famous phrase.

Wirt claimed to have reconstructed the speech from the fading memories of the few surviving members.  Whatever Henry said, however, it must have been a hell of a speech, for he was credited for calling Virginia to arms. 


                    Patrick Henry by Daniel Lynch

It was not Henry’s first famous speech, nor the first one whose exact wording is in doubt.  Ten years earlier as a freshman in House, He had introduced a resolution in opposition to the Stamp Act in terms so incendiary it brought charges of treason.  He was quoted as saying:


Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it!

In fact, the only eyewitness account claims that Henry apologized to the body if they mistook his words for treason and asserted that he was a loyal subject of the King. 

Whatever he said worked, largely because he chose to introduce his resolution when a bare quorum of the House was present and the most ardent Crown loyalists were absent.

Henry rose to fame for arguing the Parson's case.

Henry was born to the middling level of Virginia planter society in 1736, the son of an educated Scottish emigrant.  His early career was rocky.  He twice failed as a planter before taking up the law.  He made a name for himself by defending Louisa County, in a case about limiting the price of the tobacco paid in support of the Anglican Clergy. The British Parliament had overturned Virginia’s Two Penny Act and a local clergyman sued the county for back wages.  Henry simply ignored the law in the case and attacked clergy as “enemies of the community,” accused the King of tyranny for annulling the law, and said such a tyrant, “forfeits all right of obedience from his subject.”  The humiliated Padre was awarded 1 penny and Henry’s political career launched. 

Although an early ally of Thomas Jefferson, their temperaments and ambitions were quite different and they soon found themselves often bitter rivals.  In 1776 Henry was elected the first post-colonial Governor of Virginia

The main theaters of the Revolution were far away in his term and he spent a lot of effort planning and executing an invasion of Cherokee lands, where he had land speculations. In 1789 he was succeeded by Jefferson just as the war began to heat up. 

After the Revolution, Henry was again served as Governor in 1784-86.  He refused to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787 because he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.”  Parting bitterly from his previous political ally and personal friend James Madison, Henry became one of the most vocal and extreme Anti-Federalists.  He voted against ratification in the Virginia convention of 1788, but Madison carried the day. 

Despite his views, George Washington, on the advice of Alexander Hamilton, first offered him the post of Secretary of State before turning to Jefferson. 


                    A 1955 U.S. Post office commemorative stamp in the Patriots series.

Henry’s politics took a sharp turn in the 1790’s after the outbreak of the French Revolution.  Over the years his personal fortune had grown, thanks to a couple of fortuitous and strategic marriages, and he had become a wealthy large scale planter with hundreds of slaves.  With significant property to protect, he developed a fear and loathing of the same “rabble” to which he had been a popular hero.  With John Marshall he rallied Virginia Federalists and was elected to the House of Delegates. 

Three months before he could take his seat he died of stomach cancer at his plantation Red Hill on June 6, 1799.  Some biographers believe that the pain was so great that he poisoned himself.


Thursday, March 23, 2023

Making Skyscrapers Possible—The Otis Lift

The passenger car installed by Elijah Otis on Broadway in 1857 was not as elaborate as this post-Civil War model, but it did the job.

On March 23, 1857 Elijah Graves Otis, a former itinerant Yankee jack-of-all-trades and tinkerer turned entrepreneur installed his first successful commercial passenger elevator in a four story building at 488 Broadway in New York City.  After that, you should pardon the expression, Otis’s fortunes were on the way up as sales for his invention took off. The lift made large scale multi-story industrial and commercial buildings practical.  In a few more decades it would be critical to the development of the skyscraper. 

Otis’s invention was not so much the lift itself—various kinds had been in limited use for decades, mostly operating like over-sized dumb waiters on a block and tackle hoist.  But these lifts were limited by the weight they could handle and wear and tear on the ropes meant that they often crashed when the cord snapped.  His breakthrough was an effective locking mechanism on a traction lift that prevented the platform or car from falling.  His safety elevator soon made all other lift systems obsolete.

Otis was born on August 3, 1811 in the small town of Halifax, Vermont just over the border from western Massachusetts, even at that late date a fairly rustic almost frontier community. His father was a farmer but as a boy he was drawn to the village blacksmith shop where he was fascinated with tools, making things, and tinkering.  He may have served a kind of informal apprenticeship to the local smith who appreciated the hero worshiping attention

Restless and determined to escape the fate of a stone field farmer he left home at age 19 determined to find something better.  Thus began his wandering years marked by a series of jobs and business ventures each requiring the mastery of some new set of skills

He eventually settled in Troy, New York where he worked as a teamster, carefully saved his money, and kept an eye out for opportunities.  He married Susan A. Houghton in 1834 but later the same year contracted a nearly fatal case of pneumonia.  He recovered and the couple had a son, Charles.  By 1838 Otis had saved enough money to buy property on the Green River in the Vermont hills.  He designed and built by his own hands a gristmill on the river.  When that failed to prosper he converted it to a sawmill.  When that didn’t work out, he turned to building wagons, for which he turned out to be highly skilled.  Just as he seemed well established with a prosperous future, Susan died shortly after giving birth to a second son Norbert.

Eight year old Charles was already working alongside his father, but Otis needed a mother for his second son who was still in diapers.  Finding no local prospects, he sold his business and moved to Albany, New York where he found a second wife and a job as a doll maker.  Once again he quickly mastered his new craft but was dissatisfied that in a 12 hour shift he could make only a dozen dolls.  Since he was on piece work he began tinkering with ways to mechanize at least part of the production.  He invented a robot tuner—a lathe that could turn out multiple items following a master pattern.  Although useful in turning out rough parts of doll bodies, both Otis and his employer recognized it was much more valuable for turning spindles used in the production of bedsteads.  From the production of no more than 50 pieces a day on a single lathe, his new process could make 200.  His delighted boss bought his patent for $500, a respectable small fortune

                      Elijah Otis, the classic example of an American tinkerer.

With that cash and his savings Otis boldly opened his own business.  He invented and tried to market a safety brake that could stop trains instantly and an automatic bread baking oven.  Just as the business was beginning to get established the city of Albany diverted the stream he was using to power his mill for its fresh water supply.  He was ruined when he was left with no way to run his machinery. 

Embittered he left Albany for good in 1851 and relocated with his family to Bergen City, New Jersey where he worked as a mechanic, then to Yonkers, New York.

He found an ideal opportunity in Yonkers when he was hired to convert a deserted sawmill into a bedstead factory of which he would become the general manager.  But first there was the problem of gutting the multi-story mill including removing its heavy machinery and tons of debris, which he decided to move to the top floor which he did not plan to use.  Working with his now teenage sons, he devised his safety elevator because the rope-and-pulley hoisting platforms used for such work often failed dramatically.  The system worked perfectly and Otis was able to get his new factory up and running.

But he considered it little more than tinkering on the fly to solve an immediate problem.  Otis did not immediately bother to patent his invention or pursue marketing it.  But when sales at the bedstead factory began to decline, Otis decided to turn back to that safety elevator design.  In 1853 in partnership with his sons he founded the Union Elevator Works which quickly became the Otis Brothers Inc.

The dazzling Crystal Palace, home of the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York City in 1853.

Now all he had to do was convince potential customers to buy his innovation.  It is always hard to sell people what they don’t know they need.  Otis was frustrated with his initial efforts but in 1853 a grand opportunity presented itself—the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, Americas first stab at what became known as a Worlds Fair which was held that year in New York City’s Bryant Park in a Crystal Palace inspired by the London structure of the same name built in 1851 for the original Great International Exposition.

The New York exhibition may have been a pale copy of its British inspiration but it dazzled Americans with displays of the latest industrial and technological innovation.  Walt Whitman in his poem The Song of the Exposition enthused:

... a Palace,
Lofter, fairer, ampler than any yet,
Earth’s modern wonder, History’s Seven out stripping,
High rising tier on tier, with glass and iron facades,
Gladdening the sun and sky-enhued in the cheerfulest hues,
Bronze, lilac, robin’s-egg, marine and crimson
Over whose golden roof shall flaunt, beneath thy banner, Freedom.

Newly inaugurated President Franklin Pierce still reeling from the death of his son in a freak railroad accident on the way to Washington to assume office, managed to bestir himself from the alcoholic stupor he kept himself to come up to New York to bless the opening of the Exposition with Presidential dignity in July of 1853.  A then astonishing 1.1 million visitors attended the fair in the 18 months it was open.

With an audience like that and breathless accounts of the exhibits and doings filling newspaper columns across the nation, Otis got in on the action.  He and his sons constructed a working three story high open platform lift in the Crystal Palace.  To inaugurate his exhibit before record breaking crowds, he enlisted the aid of the nation’s leading promoter and entertainment impresarioPhineas T. Barnum himself.

That's supposed to be P.T. Barnum himself on the upper platform with the sword he just used to cut the rope on Otis's lift platform.

One afternoon at the Fair in 1854 Otis stood on the open platform of his contraption along with several barrels and crates weighing several hundred pounds.  He demonstrated that the platform would lift him and the freight and that it could lower it again.  That in itself did not astonish the audience—they had seen or heard of other lift devices.  But then he brought out Barnum who with much fanfare swung a broadsword severing the hoist rope with the platform still high above the heads of the crowd which gasped in horror.  The platform dropped, but only a few inches—its fall was jarringly but effectively arrested by Otis’s safety break gizmo.  The crowd went wild.  The demonstration was repeated daily—minus Barnum—always with the same satisfying results.

Orders for his commercial lifts began pouring in sales doubled every two years.  But it took three years to persuade a developer to install one for passenger use in a commercial building.  The success of his Broadway installation in 1857 finally led to that market opening up as well.

Otis continued to tinker on improvements, including a three-way steam valve engine, which could transition the elevator between up to down smoothly and stop it rapidly. He wrapped up several other clever improvements in a new 1861 patent, which became the basis for all modern elevators.  Meanwhile the restless inventor returned to his old projects and patented versions of his engineer-controlled railway breaking systemstate of the art until George Westinghouses air breaks decades later and his industrial scale bread baking ovens. 

Then at the age of only 49 and a seemingly limitless future ahead of him, Otis contracted diphtheria and died on April 8, 1861 just as the nation was headed into Civil War. 

His company came into the capable hands of his sons.  Charles, who had tinkered alongside his father for years, became a respected engineer who continued to develop new patents for the company and supervise sometimes complex installation projects.  Younger son Norbert turned out to be a gifted executive who shrewdly guided the growth of the company. 

Although the turmoil of the Civil War somewhat impeded the growth of the company, it took off in the post-war industrial boom and especially with the explosive growth of cities whose crowded central cores demand taller and taller buildings.  The introduction of steel girder frame construction was the breakthrough that led to true modern skyscrapers.  The Otis Elevator company kept up with innovations that made reaching for the stars possible.

The company also developed the escalator.

The familiar Otis name plate is on the floor door sill of almost every elevator you will step on.

Otis Elevator remained in private hands for many years but is now a division of the conglomerate UTC Climate, Controls & Security.  The Otis brand, however, remains the gold standard in elevator construction, installation, and maintenance.


Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Inventing Bobbing in Bed And a Murfin Memoir

Regular readers of this little blog know that we like to highlight the innovations and inventions that have improved the world and made America great.   Take, for instance, the example of the late 20th Century waterbed which was introduced as a class project by design student Charles Prior Hall at San Francisco State University in March of 1968.  At the height of its popularity 19 years later in 1987 nearly one quarter of all mattresses sold in the U.S. were waterbeds.

In the late spring of 1971, I took off on one of the great adventures of my young lifehitch hiking from Chicago to the Bay Area of California.  From there, I was to work my way up the Pacific Coast hopping freight trains on an old fashion soap box speaking tour for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  I was lucky.  I got most of the way to the coast in three long rides. 

I picked up the last one as I was leaving Salt Lake from a young dude in a 1950’s sedan who had spent the winter in a high country cabin tending sheep all alone and dropping acid.  He was more than slightly crazed, but he got me across the dreaded salt flats.  Just as we crossed into Nevada he stopped to pick up two more long haired kids who were headed west looking for work in the fruit harvests.  The car broke down outside of Elko, but I got a short lift to a junk yard and took a fan belt off a junker.  By the time we got to his hometown just east of the Bay area, the driver was in full hallucination mode.  The kids took him into his parents’ home and I continued on my way.

The destination is wrong, but the gear was about the same except I wore cowboy boots and jeans on my Western trip.

My next ride from a Middle age guy in a late model Oldsmobile turned out badly.  The guy seemed friendly enough at first and told me that he had hitch hiked as a young man.  Then he started questioning me about my trip.  I told him about my plans for the speaking tour and explained the IWW.  He asked me if I was a demonstrator and I told him that I had been in the streets during the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago.  We were on an Interstate overpass in the late afternoon nearing Palo Alto where I was planning to crash with an old friend when the driver suddenly pulled over and told me to “get the fuck out of my car.”  It was a very dangerous spot and told his I was afraid I would be hit by traffic and asked if he could at least take me to the next exit.  He told me “That’s too damn bad.”

The Freeway was so busy, that I was surprised he hadn’t been hit letting me off.  Standing in a strip less than two feet wide while cars zipped by at 70 mph, I stood there with my bedroll and the gasmask bag stuffed with a change of clothes and had to make a quick choice.  I looked over the railing and saw that a busy surface street ran under the overpass.  Some sort of vines covered a steep embankment to the road.  I had to jump for it dropping maybe ten feet and hoping I didn’t break anything tumbling down the rest of the way.  I tossed the bindle and the bag over and followed.  I landed in one piece and slid to the sidewalk by the road—right in front of a local cop.  Naturally, he was curious about why I had just leapt from the freeway.  But despite my scruffy appearance in my beat up old Stetson and jean jacket with Wobbly colors sewed on back, he accepted my story.  He patted me down and checked my bag and bedroll for drugs and weapons.  I had neither except for an old Boy Scout pocketknife, but lots of people carried that kind of thing and it wasn’t considered a real weapon.  He let me off with a warning to be more careful and even gave me vague directions to my friend’s place two or three miles away.

After my heart stopped pounding, I noticed what a pleasant, warm, and sunny afternoon it was.  I was surprised that the air seemed perfumed.   Bougainvillea and other flowers grew in perfusion in yards along fences.  Evidently spring came earlier and more seriously to California than still frosty Chicago.  I ambled my way through the streets getting lost once or twice.  Finally, I found a pay phone and got directions.  Soon I was at the small cottage my friend shared with a male roommate who was apparently off doing something else.

My friend was, in fact, an old girl friend from Shimer College and the great unrequited love of my life.  I had wasted years mooning over her with suitable romantic angst and in the process missed most of the sexual revolution everyone else seemed to be enjoying.  We will call her Sarah E.  She was a pretty ash blonde, keenly intelligent, with her own streak of restless melancholy.  We were still close, but I was definitely on the best friend desert island like the wisecracking third wheel of a romantic comedy.

A few months after my Western trip at an IWW picnic in Chicago's Oz Park.

Sara greeted me warmly, poured a generous glass of wine and fed me a dinner with tofu and veggies, a sure sign I was on the left coast.  After dinner we sat on her porch in the gloaming smoking excellent dope out of a carved stone pipe.  We talked long into the seemingly tropical night recalling old times and catching up with each others lives.  I harbored dim hopes that we would fall into each other’s arms and weep over time lost.  We did not.  Instead of leading me to her alluring bed with the Indian print spread, she took me to her roommate’s room.  And that is where for the first time in my life, I beheld a waterbed—something I had only heard rumors about and read jokes about in Playboy. 

I bet you never thought we would get back to the blog topic at hand, but here we are.

The bed was little more than a giant flat plastic bag lying on the floor, filled, naturally, with water.  I don’t think it even had a frame.  Several light blankets were thrown on it.  I was advised to use most of them under me.  The heater did not work very well if at all.  The water in the bag was, at best, room temperature.  When I lay down—alas, alone—I could feel the cool through the layers.  The bed never warmed up like I was used to from the heat of my own body.  I was surprised and a little alarmed by the rolling motion of the bed every time I moved.  In point of fact, after the tofu, wine, and dope, it made me a little queasy.  But I was exhausted and slept the sleep of the dead waking up refreshed.

Sarah made strong coffee in a French press and made paper thin crepes for breakfast.  She had a day off and the use of her roommate’s VW Bus.  She drove me around the Bay, up the East side giving me a short tour of Oakland and Berkley where I had stops in a couple of days, then over the wide bridge to San Francisco itself.  We cruised the Haight and the Castro district and had dinner in Chinatown before she deposited me at the apartment of Phil Mellman, an 80-something Wobbly and former seaman who was my host for my Frisco appearance at Golden Gate Park the next day.  There I was given a seamans bunk and it was up at six bells to swab the bare wooden floors as if they were the decks of a tramp steamer, where the Joe was boiled mud and breakfast a glop of oatmeal.

We will leave the story of the tour for another day and return now, at long last, to the saga of the waterbed.

What was notable is that in just three years the waterbed had gone from college project to a consumer product that could be found in some homes and that could be the butt of jokes in a mens magazine.  And bigger things yet were ahead.

Now for a quick look back to the origins of the idea.

Noted Scottish physician Dr. Neil Arnott invented what is likely the first waterbed to prevent bed sores in invalids.

The use of some sort of water mattress for therapeutic purposes dates back to the 19th Century and perhaps even earlier.  In 1832 noted Scottish physician Dr. Neil Arnott invented and put into use what he called the Hydrostatic Bed to prevent bedsores in invalids.  It was also later used for burn victims and others for whom pressure from lying on relatively unyielding mattresses produced excruciating pain.  The bed enclosed what he called a “bath of water” in a casing of rubberized canvas.  Arnott declined to patent his invention hoping that other physicians would copy and use it.  By the mid-century his bed or similar ones developed by others were in use in the most progressive clinics and hospitals on both sides of the Atlantic but were still generally considered novelties.

North and South, an important novel by English author and social reformer Elizabeth Gaskell in 1855 described a waterbed used by an invalid character.  In America, Mark Twain described and praised their use at an infirmary for invalids in his hometown of Elmira, New York in an article for the New York Times in 1871.

Science Fiction pioneer Robert A. Heinlein invented but did not build a surprisingly modern water bed in the 1930's when he was enduring a long bed rest convalescence. 

While bedridden for an extended time with chronic tuberculosis which he contracted as a young Navy officer, pioneering science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein designed a waterbed to ease his discomfort from bed sores.  While he never constructed it, similar water beds were described in his classics Beyond This Horizon (1942), Double Star (1956), and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).  Years later in 1980 in his anthology of short stories and non-fiction Expanded Universe, Heinlein described in detail his never-built water bed.

I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle thirties; a pump to control water level, side supports to permit one to float rather than simply lying on a not very soft water filled mattress. Thermostatic control of temperature, safety interfaces to avoid all possibility of electric shock, waterproof box to make a leak no more important than a leaky hot water bottle rather than a domestic disaster, calculation of floor loads (important!), internal rubber mattress and lighting, reading, and eating arrangements—an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds.

In fact, it sounded a lot like the water beds found in stores across the county.

How much, if anything of all this that design student Charles Hall knew is open to conjecture.  Like Dr. Arnott and Heinlein, Hall’s initial design was therapeutic.  He wanted to build a chair for those in chronic pain.  Working with the assistance of fellow students Paul Heckel and Evan Fawkes he first experimented with filling a vinyl bag filled with 300 pounds of cornstarch.  He hoped that the fine powder would provide just enough “give” and softness.  Unfortunately, it was uncomfortable. He next turned to gelatin, but it had a tendency to decompose even in the sealed bag.  

He abandoned the idea of a chair, and turned to making a bed, which was structurally simpler.  He soon turned to water to fill the bag.  The resulting simple waterbed was much like Arnott’s more than a hundred years earlier.  His main innovation was replacing the rubberized canvas with modern, flexible vinyl.  He also discovered in addition to any health benefits and patient comfort, the motion of his beds enhanced sexual calisthenics. 

Hall obtained a patent and founded Innerspace Environments which became a pioneering waterbed manufacturer, distributor, and retailer.  He marketed his products as pleasure pits.  Sales took off.  But Hall, like many inventors, never really got rich from his innovation.  His basic original idea—a single chamber bag with a rudimentary heating system was so simple that it was easy for competitors to make improvements and get their own patents.  Hall spent so much money on fruitless patent infringement lawsuits that his business was barely profitable.  And many of those innovations, especially multiple sections and baffling to reduce motion, as well as more sophisticated heaters and thermostats, made his simple original model rapidly obsolete. 

How could anyone resist a deal like this?  An ad like this undoubtedly ran in the Chicago Seed.

If Hall did not become rich selling water beds, plenty of others did.  Several regional and national retail chains made the waterbed store a ubiquitous urban feature.  Until they became sold with elaborate frames and platforms and later models incorporated padding, water beds were significantly cheaper than brand name box spring and mattress sets.  And they had the caché of hot sex.  They were naturally popular among young people.

But they had their drawbacks—most notably the “domestic disasters” Heinlein tried to avoid.  They could, and did, spring leaks.  I had a friend whose cat tried sharpening her claws on a mattress and flooded her apartment and drenched the one below.  There were many cases reported of the heavy beds crashing through floors that could not support them.  The beds were also a hassle to drain and move.  Heaters often failed and were expensive to continuously operate.

Like all fads interest eventually waned.  Some blamed landlords who increasingly banned them, and insurance companies that either canceled policies of water bed owners or charged exorbitant premiums.  Meanwhile there was a revolution in conventional mattresses including layers of padding, improvement in innerspring coil technology, and especially the introduction of memory foam. 

Today waterbed stores have virtually disappeared.  Only about 2% of American mattress sales are waterbeds and they are made, just as old Dr. Arnott had hoped, mostly for therapeutic purposes.