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Soaring Twenties PUBLIC ACCESS

The Rise of Cities, and of the Machines that Built them, Set a Trend that has Outlasted the 20th Century.

[+] Author Notes

John Varrasi is a senior writer in the Public Information Department of ASME in New York.

Mechanical Engineering 127(05), 39-41 (May 01, 2005) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2005-MAY-4

Abstract

This article reviews the rise of cities, and of the machines that built them has set a trend that outlasted the 20th century. Emboldened and enjoying newfound prosperity and modernity, Engineering, reflecting the times, was bold, and perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the American city. While electric and steam locomotives coexisted on America’s railways in the 1920s, the two technologies resided in completely separate camps. Each sector had strong adherents, who often faced off to debate the technical merits and future prospects of one technology over the other. Together with the automobile, the highway system contributed significantly to the development of the nation, enabling towns and cities to take root well beyond the confines of urban centers and railway stations. Mechanical engineers played a vital role in highway development in such areas as construction machinery, cost analysis of projects, and materials.

Article

The 1920s was one of the booming decades in the history of America. The '20s were a time of energy and vitali ty, as people drove about in cars and swung their hips to a new genre of music called jazz. The country's military success in World War I, Charles Lindbergh's daring flight over the Atlantic, and Babe Ruth's home runs stirred national pride and instilled great optimism in the hearts and minds of the masses. Emboldened and enjoying newfound prosperity and modernity, Americans in the go-go '20s lived with gusto, reaching for the heights and seeing no limit to the good times.

Engineering, reflecting the times, was bold, and perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the American city. In New York during the late 1920s, the Chrysler Building rose to 1,046 feet and 77 stories, with a stunning art deco spire that pierced the sky. The Chrysler Building was a symbol of vitality and the limitless boundaries of engineering, and touched off anera in the building of skyscrapers that would continue for decades. The 102-story Empire State Building in New York was completed in 1933.

As ASME celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, Mechanical Engineering is running articles every month that highlight key influences in the Society's development. This, the fifth in our series, examines the engineer's role in building America's urban landscape, a legacy that developed much of its character in the 1920s.

In addition to growing vertically in the 1920s, the American metropolis was becoming a place of burgeoning social activity. Requiring an effective means to move the crowds within and beyond city limits, municipal authorities in the large cities established mass transit departments to explore transportation options and to plan routes and service. One of those options was electric rail.

Electric traction railcars, a proven technology that was developed prior to the turn of the century, continued to provide intracity and, in places such as New York, intercity transportation for large numbers of people. Electric traction benefited from the expanding availability of electric power in cities. While the required infrastructure of substations, steam turbines, and overhead catenaries was costly, electric traction succeeded in gaining a foothold in cities because the trains produced less noise and smoke than the hulking steam locomotives, which several municipalities restricted or banned outright.

Railway landmark: The Electro-Motive EMD-I03 diesel-electric freight locomotive.

Grahic Jump LocationRailway landmark: The Electro-Motive EMD-I03 diesel-electric freight locomotive.

Diesel-electric locomotives began to emerge toward the latter part of the decade. While the first dieselelectrics were underpowered and had tracking problems at high speeds, the trains proved useful in urban areas. Large companies—General Electric, Westinghouse, and Baldwin ari10ng them-poured resources into research and development of diesel—electrics, and in the 1930s the technology began to dominate the U.S. rail industry. In 1930, auto maker General Motors bought the Winton Engine Co. and Electro-Motive Corp., and formed the GM Electro-Motive Division, which became a leader in the development of diesel-powered trains. The 1939 Electro-Motive EMD-I03 freight locomotive is an ASME Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

While electric and steam locomotives coexisted on America's railways in the 1920s, the two technologies resided in completely separate camps. Each sector had strong adherents, who often faced off to debate the technical merits and future prospects of one technology over the other. ASME was at the center of those debates. The Society had roots in late 19th-century industrialization when steam ruled the rails, but by the 1920s, AS ME was broadening its scope to include new technologies that appealed to an ever more diverse membership. As such, the Society provided an open forum for the presentation of ideas and viewpoints.

The trainmen at ASME functions debated everything from acceleration to braking, thermal efficiency to maintenance costs, traction to wheel arrangement. They even discussed personnel issues. In a meeting in New York on Oct. 22, 1920, a railroad executive named John E. Muhlfeld, representing the steam side of the business, explained that the electric locomotive required for its operation the motorman "and a second man comparable to the fireman of a steam locomotive, although not functioning as such." According to Muhlfeld, the wage of the second worker was "an added expense without economic return."

In the same meeting, EH. Shepard of Westinghouse said, "With the present standards of train makeup, classification, and terminal handling, electrification will double the capacity of any railroad."

The chugging steam locomotive contributed greatly to the romance of the American railway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that time, a total of 260,000 miles of railways were laid for steam engines. However, steam-powered trains were not useful in urban centers, and many companies that operated steam locomotives failed to adapt their technology. The faster and lighter diesel-electrics began to replace steam in the 1940s, bringing an end to a great era in American railroading.

Mechanical engineers played an important role in highway development, which surged in the decade of the 19205.

Of course, many Americans in the 1920s could care less about trains. They wanted cars. And the car manufacturers were poised to meet the demand. Ford continued selling the Model T until 1927, then introduced the updated Model A.

General Motors was more successful than Ford in reaching out to consumers seeking a greater choice in driving machines. Led by the brilliant management of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., GM created automobile divisions that offered a car for every purpose and catered to specific consumer markets—middle class, wealthy, first-time buyers, secondtime buyers, and so on. Sloan also conceived the used car market, which allowed motorists to sell cars and put the cash proceeds toward the purchase of bigger-ticket vehicles. GM equipped its cars with powerful high-compression engines and front-wheel suspensions to promote improved handling, and Americans hit the open road. By the end of the 1920s, 23 million automobiles were crisscrossing America on 830,000 miles of paved highways. Road construction, benefiting from strong government support, surged in the decade. In 1921, the us. Congress reauthorized the Federal Highway Act mandating the states to collect a motor fuel tax. That m.oney was funneled to the newly created US. Bureau of Public Roads, forerunner of the Federal Highway Administration, to handle the creation of an interstate highway system. Total funding for highways hit $200 million annually by the close of the decade.

The focus of the Bureau of Public Roads was on an expertly planned, superbly designed federal highway system capable of the expeditious movement of people as well as farm products and manufactured goods. Roads traversing north and south in the system were designated with odd numbers and roads running east and west were identified with even numbers. The famous Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles, America's Mother Road, was. completed in 1926.

Together with the automobile, the highway system contributed significantly to the development of the nation, enabling towns and cities to take root well beyond the confines of urban centers and railway stations.

Mechanical engineers played a vital role in highway development in such areas as construction machinery, cost analysis of projects, and materials. Throughout the golden age of road building ASME provided settings for discussion and debate. At an ASME meeting in 1921 , a representative of the Associated General Contractors of America cited the absence of technical standardization, a lack of skilled mechanics on jobs, and a lack of knowledge regarding the operation of machinery as three primary problems that created delays and increased costs of highway construction.

Materials handling was another area of expertise that the mechanical engineer brought to highway construction. In 1920, ASME established the Materials Handling Division, which covered highway construction as well as other areas ranging from coal mining and automobile assembly to woodworking and food processing.

The Materials Handling Division reflected the growing interest among ASME members in forming technical divisions along specialized areas of engineering. The Materials Handling, Manufacturing Engineering, Fuels and Combustion Technologies, Power, Aerospace, Rail Transportation, Materials, and Management Divisions were created in 1920 and represent the Society's longest established technical divisions. Internal Combustion Engines (1921) , Textile Engineering (1921), Petroleum (1924), Fluids Engineering (1926) , and Applied Mechanics (1927) are the other ASME technical divisions that were born in the 1920s.

With the spread of urbanization and housing in the 1920s, ASME members became increasingly involved in plumbing systems and safety considerations of residential boilers. Many members worked in the electric utility industry, which by 1927 was supplying power to 63 percent of US. households and close to 75 percent of the nation's industrial facilities. Members also addressed the growing petroleum industry, which by 1924 was producing two million barrels of fuel a day.

Speeches by the Society's leadership addressed professional ethics, education and training, fair labor practice, and other non-technical issues of importance to the growing membership, which eclipsed 20,000 by the end of the decade.

Like the nation itself, AS ME enjoyed growth and prosperity during the 1920s. Industrialization and commercialization expanded and, with that, success and job opportunity abounded for the mechanical engineer. ASME, celebrating its 125th year in 2005, marked its 50th anniversary in 1930, closing out an eventful decade.

Skyscraping icons: The Chrysler Building (above) and the Empire State Building (opposite), as seen from the ASME offices in New York, set a tone for U.S. cities.

Grahic Jump LocationSkyscraping icons: The Chrysler Building (above) and the Empire State Building (opposite), as seen from the ASME offices in New York, set a tone for U.S. cities.

Copyright © 2005 by ASME
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