Inventions and Engineering Marvels
American ingenuity continued to advance after the inception of the railroads and the invention of the telephone in the 1870s. In the early 1900s, two brothers worked closely to develop early aeronautics. Wilbur Wright, along with his younger brother Orville, enjoyed constructing simple mechanical toys, and in 1888, they built a large printing press. The two soon began publishing a Dayton, Ohio, newspaper and opened a bicycle repair shop and showroom in 1892. Having read about German experiments with gliders, they built their first in 1900.
First in Flight
In September 1900, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers tested their glider invention, carefully noting their findings and correcting the problems they'd discovered. This work continued as they concurred that planes could be balanced best by pilots rather than by built-in engineering devices. Astutely, they patented their idea and went on to construct their first propeller and a machine with a twelve-horsepower motor. At Kitty Hawk, on December 17, 1903, Orville Wright made the first test flight in their first powered glider, the Flyer I, making this the first airplane flight in history (though it lasted a whopping twelve seconds). A subsequent flight on September 9, 1908, at Fort Myer, Virginia, where Orville Wright established several records under government contract for a sixty-two-minute flight, made him an international celebrity.
Despite some public skepticism, the brothers dedicated themselves to further developing better engines and airplanes. The Wright Brothers National Memorial, at the site of their first flight, is now administered by the National Park Service.
Americans found themselves learning about another mode of transportation as Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908. “I will build a car for the great multitude,” Ford said. His first Model T sold for $850, the price of a car's accessory by today's standards, but a hefty sum back then. Ford kept his promise, developing an assembly-line style of manufacturing that became efficient enough to bring prices down. This assembly-line approach became the industry standard in the manufacture of automobiles. By the time the Model T (commonly known as the Tin Lizzy) was discontinued in 1927, its price of around $300 was widely affordable.
The Panama Canal
Although not the type of invention the Wrights or Henry Ford created, the Panama Canal (connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean) was certainly an engineering marvel of its day. Without a canal, ships traveling from New York to San Francisco had to take the long route around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. Construction of the canal cut this journey by 7,000 miles. The work wasn't easy, for it required damming a river and digging a channel through a mountain range. Although construction began in 1904, epidemics of tropical disease delayed the work. Chief Engineer John F. Stevens came up with a new plan to speed the process, but Colonel William C. Gorgas, the sanitary officer, made the greatest contribution when he eliminated yellow fever and malaria. The project became a most difficult undertaking because of its complexity and its cost of $350 million. The fifty-mile-long Panama Canal opened to shipping on August 15, 1914, but not without ongoing dispute. Under a 1903 treaty, the United States controlled both the waterway and some surrounding land known as the Panama Canal Zone. Panamanian resentment over the next century led to new negotiations, and treaties were signed in the 1970s during the Carter presidency. These treaties recognized Panama's ultimate ownership of the canal and surrounding lands. Panama controlled the region from 1979 on, and the United States officially turned over the Panama Canal in 1999.
The Smithsonian Institution
There are museums of national note, but none like the Smithsonian Institution. Made up of sixteen smaller galleries on and off the National Mall, it charges no admission, thanks to government funding and private donations.
The Smithsonian stems from the generosity of James Smithson, a wealthy English scientist struck by the principles of the United States as well as the amazing discoveries made in our country in the nineteenth century. Upon his death in Italy in 1829, Smithson willed his fortune to his nephew, with the stipulation that if he died without heirs, the entire fortune would be given to the United States to create a fine institution where knowledge would be increased for future generations. President Andrew Polk signed a congressional act establishing the Smithsonian Institution, and construction began in the 1850s.