Friday, September 16, 2016

Special Discovery Channel edition!
Harley and the Davidsons. An intimate glimpse at the birth of Industrial America.

photo source: Discovery channel
I just caught this three part miniseries and I am very impressed. The period of innovation that existed as the 1880's was ending and the new Century was approaching is amazing. There was an explosion of new technology and new thinking that ultimately ushered in our Modern Era. There seemed to be so much opportunity for an individual to enter into these new industries and leave their mark.

This series recreates an era that has largely been ignored by television and movies. The industrial birth of modern America. The important early years of manufacturing motorcycles at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. Not only is it fantastic to see these early motorcycles brought to life and in action racing across the countryside, it is fantastic to see the process of manufacturing brought to vivid life.

There are shots from a foundry where molten metal is poured into forms to create the basic castings of the motor. A huge press is stamping out some type of metal product part. There are metal lathes, welding torches, bending and riveting equipment. We see the aluminum crankcase halves being drilled by William Harley, by hand! The components of the crankshaft, pistons and valve assemblies are on full display.

Will's beautiful hand drawn blueprints show how a home draftsman could design a machine so that it could be constructed at a rudimentary machine shop. Or backyard shed.

At this time, casting, machining and welding technologies had already ushered in the steam engine, the basic motive force for the Industrial Revolution. Machining techniques were further refined as the great popularity of the modern bicycle created a need for precision production methods. Samuel Colt introduced standardized parts in gun manufacturing, Henry Ford was perfecting the use of the assembly line to increase automobile production. Henry Leland introduced the use of precision tolerances and founded both of the great American luxury marques; Cadillac and Lincoln. There was an increase in the number of draftsmen and pattern makers. Precision machine shops were springing up everywhere. This was the perfect storm for innovation.

photo source: Occhio Lungo

Can anything capture the essential mechanical beauty of an early motorcycle better than a Harley Davidson four valve racer?

Lately my interest has turned towards the early days of the automobile and motor cycle. I find that I don't have much interest in the "Good Guys" muscle cars mentality. I prefer events like "Friendship Day" and "Pacific Coast Dream Machines" where I can find original antique cars and occasionally, motorcycles. I'm trying to search for antique car and motorcycle shows to attend. I find myself drawn to original or faithfully restored vehicles. The question is, "why have I become so interested in this historic period?"

Several years ago there was a movie entitled "The Prestige". I had caught the previews while at the theater but didn't pay too much attention, I mean, it was about magic.

Last year I stumbled across the novel at the local library. I read it and was intrigued by the depiction of turn of the Century technical expositions. There was also the mention of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison and a hint of a dark competition between them. In reality there was an actual competition of ideas. Edison favored direct current electricity versus Tesla's favor of alternating current. This was a real drama carried out in the early days of electrification.

Photo from the movie, "The Prestige"

This piqued my interest and I found a book entitled "The Age of Edison: Electric light and the invention of Modern America" (2013) written by Ernest Freeberg.

This made me realize how the existence of electric light changed American lifestyles forever. It allowed for an expanded freedom to use our time as we see fit. No longer was public life restricted to daylight hours. Just imagine if you looked out the window at night and saw the city lying in darkness. That would shatter our modern sense of security. The electrification of the city lead to the use of motorized transportation and appliances in the home. Early photographs illustrate how power poles were strung with multitudes of wires like so much spaghetti. creating an enormous safety hazard. Wires would fall and electrocute humans and horses alike. There were no standardization of methods which resulted in a amazing chaotic system.

This lead to my reading of this book, "Edison and the rise of Innovation" (2013) by Leonard DeGraaf.
This is a fine book that is beautifully illustrated with photographs of Edison's laboratory and inventions. Besides the electric light bulb and phonograph, Edison also innovated in the area of ore processing, movie making and Portland cement.  Not every venture was successful, a fact that history conveniently overlooks. Still it is amazing to see how Edison built a technology developing plant in New Jersey, bringing together not only intellectual assets but also skilled craftsmen like machinists, draftsmen, wood workers, glass blowers and pattern makers. He kept a huge storehouse of raw materials on hand. As he is quoted. "I don't want work to be stopped for a workmen's lack of a handful of boar's bristles!"

I read this book last year and found it to be a treasure trove of information on the state of the industrial innovation and manufacturing methods at the turn of the 21st. Century. While the cover of this edition depicts a 1949 model,this book actually spends the most time describing Henry Ford's early development of his cars and production methods. Now Henry Ford was a genius, an innovator, he was a promoter, even a race car driver. He was saddled by the prejudice filled thinking of his upbringing. He was, sad to say, virulently Anti- Semitic, and used his Ford newspaper to rail against the Big Bankers of Wall Street. Amazingly he ran a one man show and maintained one man control of his empire until his stubbornness almost resulted in the destruction of his kingdom. One thing I found so interesting was how Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone used to hang out and go on elaborate camping expeditions, always followed by an entourage that could provide for their comforts. Other Titanic figures emerge at this time also. The Dodge Brothers, portrayed on the recent spate of Dodge TV commercials were even more outrageous than pictured. This was a pair of hard working, hard drinking, hard fighting, womanizing young lions. They were fiercely loyal to each other and the business they built up between them. They insisted that all mail directed to them be addressed to "the Dodge Brothers". When a business associate addressed mail to either brother, it was promptly sent back unanswered. The Dodge Brothers built up one of the largest and finest precision machine shops in the Detroit area. They built the Ford motor and other components under contract to the Ford corporation. They initially received a portion of stock as part payment for their investment. This later became a problem as Henry Ford did not like paying out dividends. He much rather preferred holding onto the profits and investing them back into the company. The Dodge Brothers felt that they should receive a larger return on their investment. This lead to a showdown between the two parties. Actually other investors felt the same way and Ford, through a series of financial machinations succeeded in banishing all investors from the company. Really a fascinating story.  

Not that I forgot actual motorcycle history books. I bought this book back in high school. Still have it in my library.

Harley Davidson written by Maurice D. Hendry (1972). This book goes into great detail about the early days of the company. There are terrific photos of early boardtrack and speedway racers. This was the era brought to life so vividly and beautifully by the Discovery Channel miniseries. The book also covers the development of  less known models. The successful "Peashooter" singles and the unusual fore and aft aligned flat twin "Sport Model." The Sport Model featured an enclosed motor and enclosed chain drive.. This model was popular with middle class riders as well as women. Have you ever seen one? I wonder how many still exist. Of course the story of the 61 cubic inch OHV V twin, "The EL" is documented. This model pretty much set the tenor of the breed up until this day. This book was written before the marque has been so well received by the general public. There are no mention of bob jobs or customs and thankfully "American Chopper" was still forty years in the future.

photo source: Secrets of Speed Society

An excellent source for century old motorcycle information news, technical information and entertainment is the website "Occhio Lungo"  If you love the mechanical aspects of early motorcycles and cars, you must visit this site. Another fantastic website that deals with early Ford Speedsters is, "Secrets of Speed Society" Just so many great photos and coverage.

photo source Occhio Longo If this isn't enough to make you visit this site, you have no heart!

This issue of Motorcyclist magazine was a long way back, but it just hit me hard, in the gut. I haven't recovered yet.

photo source: Motorcyclist magazine

More to follow on that subject.

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