Tag Archives: automobiles

Unimate and the Rise of the Robots (The First Podcast)

THE FIRST PODCAST This is the history of the future.

Robots conjure up thoughts of distant technological landscapes and even apocalyptic scenarios, but the truth is, robots are a very old creation, tracing back to the ancient world.

We can thank science fiction writers for inventing new serious ideas about robots, automatons previously relegated as mere amusement. But they remained an unimaginable concept — rendered in a corny, campy fashion in the 1940s and 50s — until the development of computing and cybernetics.

In 1961 the first industrial robot named Unimate not only changed the automobile industry, but it opened the door for the vast, realistic possibilities of robotics in our everyday lives.

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A scene from Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)

Electro the Robot with his companion Sparko the Dog.

George Devol and Joseph Engelberger, enjoying a cocktail served by their invention.

The Estate of George Duvol


This is Unimate, the robot which changed automation.

Audio from these clips was featured on this week’s show:

And other videos relating to this topic that you might enjoy:

Another promotional video about Unimate:

The introduction of Robbie the Robot, a popular character in the 1950s and 60s:

Another goofy robot from the 1950s

Robots can help you do household chores!

The most famous robots from television are probably the Daleks from Dr. Who.



A city of bridges: One century ago, Scientific American predicted a future of elevated sidewalks


Imagine a city where the High Line isn’t just a novel park, but the primary form of urban conveyance.

In 1913, with the proliferation of the automobile, it seemed humans were being crowded out at ground level.  People were beginning to think of themselves as removed from the street.  Daredevils were experimenting with flight, and small, single-man crafts began appearing over the skies of Manhattan.  The world’s tallest building, the Woolworth Building, had been completed a few months before.  Perhaps the streets themselves could elevate, granting pedestrians a space of their own?

Scientific American suggested the possibilities of a city of elevated layers in its July 26, 1913 issue. “The Elevated Sidewalk: How It Will Solve City Transportation Problems,” written by engineer and science writer Henry Harrison Suplee, posits that humans and automobiles are simply incompatible and opposing engines upon ground level, and that one will have to give way to the other.

“One of the greatest impediments to city transport today is the continuance of the obsolete method of attempting to conduct foot and vehicular traffic upon the same highways.”

Below: Cars and people seem to co-exist peacefully on Fifth Avenue (pictured here in 1913). But, darn it, automobiles are meant to go fast! 

Courtesy Shorpy
Courtesy Shorpy

After all, cars are meant to go fast.  “In nearly every large city today there appears a tendency to enforce traffic regulations intended to permit the most conflicting elements to be operated together and the result is naturally the impeding of the very traffic which it is desired to help.”

By keeping people and automobiles on the same plane, one risks lives, sure, but more importantly, it slows progress by keeping the potential of auto motion on a short leash.

Suplee’s solution: “Take the foot passengers off the surface of the street entirely, and leave the highways solely for vehicles!”

Below: Evidence of the incompatibility of foot and automobile was being amply displayed all over New York City, most notably on “Death Avenue,” the trecherous tangle of roads on Manhattan’s West Side. Eventually the elevated freight railroad today known as the High Line was built to relieve this issue.



New York had many precedents for this.  The great passages over the East River (the Brooklyn, the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges) had all been completed with elevated pathways for pedestrians, situated over or alongside those paths for vehicular traffic.  Trains were either elevated overhead along the avenues, or buried underneath the ground.

Suplee doesn’t imagine a world were pedestrians become smarter, or any type of place with sophisticated traffic lights or crosswalks.  Instead, elevated sidewalks would hover over the major thoroughfares; “[S]uch sidewalks might be built on Broadway from the Battery to Union Square, there sloping down to the surface level until further extensions were required,” he writes.

In a city of skyscrapers, bridges could be constructed several stories above the street.  Store fronts would appear on the second or third floors, while the ground floor would be exclusively used for delivery and store.  Life would essentially reside many feet above the ground.

Bicycles figure nowhere in his model, but he does carve out one exception to his pedestrian only level.  “The power vehicles should be kept absolutely to the surface, and there given unrestricted facilities for speed, weight, and numbers; and the foot levels maintained for absolute freedom for pedestrians, with the possible exception of carriages for small children.”

As commenter Boris mentions below, while New York City never adhered to this suggestion, other cities certain did — to a certain extent.

You can read Mr. Suplee’s article here.

(A shorter version of this blog post originally ran June 2013)

TAXI: A History of the New York Taxi Cab

PODCAST The history of the New York City taxicab, from the handsome hansoms of old to the modern issues facing the modern taxi fleet today.

In this episode, we recount almost 175 years of getting around New York in a private ride.  The hansom, the romantic rendition of the horse and carriage, took New Yorkers around during the Gilded Age. But unregulated conduct by ‘nighthawks’ and the messy conditions of streets due to horses demanded a solution.

At first it seemed the electric car would save the day but the technology proved inadequate.  In 1907 came the first gas-propelled automobile cabs to New York, officially ‘taxis’ due to a French invention installed in the front seat.

By the 1930s the streets were filled with thousands of taxicabs. During the Great Depression, cab drivers fought against plunging fare and even waged a strike in Times Square. In 1937, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia debuted the medallion system as a way to keep the streets regulated.

By the 1970s many cabdrivers faced an upswing of crime that made picking up passengers even more dangerous than bad traffic.  Drivers began ignoring certain fares – mainly from African-Americans – which gave rise to the neighborhood livery cab system.

Today New York taxicab fleets face a different threat – Uber and the rise of private app-based transportation services. Will the taxi industry rise to the challenge in time for the debut of their ‘taxi of tomorrow’?

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The Bowery Boys #189: TAXI: The history of the New York City taxicab

Top picture: Photo by Albert Fenn/Office of War Information, Cleaned up image courtesy Shorpy (Get a print of it here)



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A snugly dressed cabbie awaiting some fares at the Battery Park elevated train station — 1895. Note that the poor horse too is swaddled up for a bad winter.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New  York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York


A hack from 1896.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library


A hansom cab from 1906. This was still the dominant cab ride in New York during the period despite the introduction of the ‘horseless carriage’ onto the city streets.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York


A fleet of electric cars in 1896, and a couple Electrobats in action outside the Metropolitan Opera House 1898. Compare these with the picture of the hansom above.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art
Johanne Marie Rogn/Pinteresst
Johanne Marie Rogn/Pinteresst


A taxicab waiting outside Alwyn Court (West 58th Street/7th Avenue)

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York


A cab waiting passengers at West 150th Street.

Photography by Charles Von Urban, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photography by Charles Von Urban, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

A view of the bustling street life of Herald Square, 1935. The horses are off the street but there are many other kinds of transportation options joining the taxicab.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library


Grabbing a Checker Cab on Park Avenue 1944

Courtesy Life Magazine/Getty Images
Courtesy Life Magazine/Getty Images


A row of Checker Taxis, sitting idle during a taxicab strike in 1940.

: Keystone/Getty Images)
: Keystone/Getty Images)


Some vivid 1960s photography by Ernst Haas capturing the mystery and allure of the New York taxi.

Courtesy Ernst Haas / Getty Images
Courtesy Ernst Haas / Getty Images

Ernst Haas (9)

Some scenes from the 1970s…

Courtesy City Noise
Courtesy City Noise

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New York City’s “stripped and abandoned” car crisis

The fate of an automobile at Breezy Point, 1973 (Courtesy US National Archives)

The abandoned car, that most dramatic symbol of urban blight, is a sight that has pretty much vanished from most New York City streets. (Most, not all.)  In a city refitted for the automobile by the mid 20th century, people just began leaving their cars everywhere, either vandalized beyond repair or too expensive to tow when their vehicles became unusable. These husks of metal were scavenged for parts, then left to rust, the city’s sanitation crews unable to keep pace of the growing problem.

I recently found an intriguing article in New York Magazine from 45 years ago, titled “Stripped and Abandoned,” outlining the causes of the city’s sudden population of vehicular remains:

“Last year, by Department of Sanitation records, 31,578 cars were abandoned in New York City.  Some were wrecks; some were stolen, then stripped; some were involved … in minor highway mishaps which caused their owners to leave them — to expert instant strippers, who evidently abound.”

By 1969, the problem had grown so unwieldy that the city hired third-party contractors to take care of most of it, but its budget for such removal would only shrink as the city entered the hard-knock 1970s.  Within a few years, the city would not even bother to remove such blight from certain neighborhoods.

“At any one time,” wrote author Fred Ferretti in 1969, “there are about 2,000 cars strewn about the highways and local streets.”

Below: From the New York Magazine article, the fate of a vehicle in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side (photos by Robert D’Alessandro):

In 1970, standing in stark contrast to a city of polluted, automotive remains, one artist at the very first Earth Day celebration in Union Square attempted to address the problem.  A crushed sedan sat alongside the environmental merriment with a sign: “57,742 Cars Removed in 1969; 21,635 Removed in 1970, as of April 21.”  The New York Times would later note a total of 72,961 abandoned cars in 1970. [source] [source]

They weren’t just eye sores.  What wasn’t pilfered or siphoned out was left to rot in the elements, leaking oil, attracting vermin.

New York City was only one problem spot within a new American crisis, with millions and millions of cars across the country already overfilling scrap yards.  Here, however, it was a harbinger of hard times on the way.

“Everywhere you look, there are abandoned cars, stripped and junked,” said one resident of Brownsville, Brooklyn, returning to his deteriorating neighborhood in 1970.

A car almost completed ingested by Jamaica Bay, 1973  (Courtesy US National Archives)

Abandoned vehicles became the New York Sanitation Department’s biggest issue in the 1970s, although by the new decade, there was some improvement.  According to a New York Times article from 1981:

“Total abandoned-car collections declined from more than 79,000 in 1978 to 33,112 last year and to 14,900 in the first half of this year, officials said. Robert Hennelly, chief of cleaning operations, said he thought the drop was ”perhaps because the cost of cars has gotten so high that people are holding on to them longer.”

Some cynically still considered the abandoned vehicle to be a recognizable mark of New York City, even in the 1980s, a sort of native animal.

Not that an abandoned car couldn’t have some useful purpose, as this picture by Camily Jose Vergara illustrates. (Click here for more of his terrific photography)

With the general infrastructural improvement of the city during the 1990s, the beast had receded somewhat from view in most neighborhoods.  There are still abandoned cars galore — here’s the city’s current policy for reporting derelict vehicles — but few are so unscrupulously picked clean or left to decay into a rusty shell.

Below: As with the others above, Jamaica Bay 1973, near JFK Airport (US National Archives)

No sheep in Sheepshead Bay, but lots of fish with human teeth

The sheepshead is a common variety marine fish known for its distinctive black stripes and a very scary looking set of teeth.  If you look too long at it, you will have nightmares tonight.  Some believe the fish’s unusual name comes from the notion that its teeth actually look like those of adult sheep.  I personally don’t see it, but you can compare here and here.

What we do know, however, is that the Sheepshead lends its name to one of Brooklyn’s loveliest places — Sheepshead Bay and the adjoining neighborhood.of the same name.

Below: Sheepshead Bay in 1905 (courtesy George Eastman House)

But who thought to name the area after one of its common aquatic residents?  We can probably bestow that honor onto Benjamin Freeman, who owned much of the land around the bay and became one of the first entrepreneurs to open a hotel here in 1844.  He called his establishment The Sheepshead, adorning the front with a large picture of a sheepshead.  This decision by Freeman would forever give the area its unusual name.

During the mid and late 19th century, the bay area would never hold the same luxurious reputation as Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach to the south.  Its hotels and recreation spots had a less respectable appeal, though not without certain charms.

 A 1870 roundup in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Sheepshead Bay offering sings the praises of  the Union, “the largest hotel in the bay,” owned by a Brooklyn congressman Patrick Burns, a place of rambunctious entertainments.  From an 1873 report in the New York Tribune:  “[N]umerous roughs from New York and the Fifth Ward of Brooklyn were leaving in coaches to Burns Hotel in Sheepshead Bay to witness a prize-fight.”

Below: The Sheepshead Bay racetrack, taken by George Bradford Brainard, courtesy the Brooklyn Museum

Sports would always define the early recreations of Sheepshead Bay, and not just fishing and boating pleasures.  In 1880, one of America’s great horse-racing tracks was constructed here, a popular draw due to the Gilded Age moguls who funded the venture, including the godfather of horse racing August Belmont Jr.  When racetrack betting became illegal in the 1910s, the track was refitted for auto racing.

And, as you can see below, sometimes stunt airplane acrobatics!  This image, from the Library of Congress, shows a Sheepshead Bay ‘race’ between two very modern devices — an automobile driven by Italian racing legend Dario Resta and an airplane steered by pioneering pilot Katherine Stinson.

Below: From the June 1880 opening of the Sheepsead Bay Race Track.  Note this disturbing sentence: “A steeplechase, with an unusual number of picturesque accidents and injured horses, ended the days contests.”

Fish picture at top from a cigarette card, courtesy NYPL

Easter fashion parade 1913: Images of the annual stroll, now with automobiles, celebrities and ‘ladies in vermilion’

In the picture above: People in Sunday finery stroll past the New York Public Library building. The library had not even been open two years by the time this picture was taken in March 23, 1913.

New York City’s time-honored Easter custom — the Sunday morning Fifth Avenue Easter bonnet stroll — once turned the wealthiest residents of Fifth Avenue into primping peacocks, their Sunday best on display.   The makeshift parade, which some believe traces back to New York’s Dutch days, blossomed into a full-assault of expensive headwear once the upper crust made Fifth Avenue their home.

Thousands lined the street, either brandishing their most expensive apparel or else to gawk at those wearing it.  It was the closest New York got to a high-end fashion show, with dressmakers parked on the corner, taking notes.  “All the women were slim who could be,” remarked the New York Tribune’s fashion writer, “and a few were who couldn’t.”

But the 1910s brought a new accessory to the Easter parade — automobiles.

A decade before, there were probably no more than 1,000 automobiles in all of New York City. By 1913, there were enough to create what must have been Fifth Avenue’s very first automobile traffic jam.

All the photographs featured here are from Easter Sunday, 1913.

The magnificent Enrico Caruso even participated in the Easter stroll. He looks fanciful in his top hat and a bit like Batman villain the Penguin.

Apparently it was an unseasonably cold day that Easter in 1913 and most society women, braving the chill, wrapped up their fine gowns in heavy wraps and coats of various animal skin.  “Furs and pink noses” was the fashion assessment, according to the Tribune.

Still, in the sea of coats and curious hats, one woman managed to make an impression. “LADY IN VERMILION AN EASTER CUBIST‘ cried the newspaper the following day — on its front page, no less.  “…[W]ho was the young lady in bright vermilion, with lips of a vivid purple, who talked excitedly to hide her shivering as she passed St. Patrick’s Cathedral?”

The New York Tribune ran this banner photograph the following day. (Note the dog in the corner.) Sadly I don’t believe any of these ladies was the aforementioned ‘vermilion lady’:

Of course, there’s still an annual Easter bonnet parade; it’s smaller but far more flamboyant.

Pictures courtesy Library of Congress

Motor hotels: Manhattan’s most luxurious parking garage “Your car never touched by human hands!”

If you don’t already check in to the marvelous Modern Mechanix blog from time to time, then you’re missing out on some retro-futuristic genius. The blog usually highlights visionary drawings from the Modern Mechanics archives. But in the case of one illustration from May 1929, one particular wacky, wondrous dream was actually carried out — and promptly fizzled.

Automobiles had been a part of midtown Manhattan since the beginning of the 20th century, with dealerships lining the streets of the plaza that would soon take the name Times Square. But it wouldn’t be until the 1920s that the city recognized a crisis that would bedevil New Yorkers into today — where do you park your car?

Some cities outright banned curb parking during the decade. Chicago became the first city to charge motorists to park along city streets. But in New York, some private endeavors tried to solve the problem.

Perhaps seeing a bit of cross promotion, Packard Motors sold an area of property on Ninth Avenue and 61st Street (today’s 43-45 W. 61st Street) to the Kent Garage Investing Corporation in 1928. the brainchild by Westchester insurance salesman Milton A. Kent, the ambitious company opened a dizzying 25-floor* mechanical parking garage in a ‘flamboyant brick and terra-cotta’ art deco tower,  that could accomodate 1,000 cars, using an automatic elevator system that stored cars in upper floors. The cars were rolled into and out of elevators to desired slots in the structure, in theory using few human operators.  (See the clipping from the December 1928 issue of Popular Science at the bottom of this article.)

Advertisements touted the garage as a ‘motor hotel’. “Your car never touched by human hands!” went the Kent Garage slogan.

At right: The glamorous garage at West 61st Street, harkening a bit in appearance to the RCA Building, which would be completed in 1933. [source]

Kent Garages opened another location at 44th Street and 3rd Avenue and seemed to be the solution to the coming automobile boom that would fuel the ambitions of city planners like Robert Moses in the coming decade. Unfortunately, the Kent Garages were extremely inflexible, not suitable for cars of certain sizes, and employed highly defective machinery. And as you can probably gather, these were hardly swift forms of storage. It might take almost 30 minutes to retrieve your automobile during rush hour!

The garages were done in before they really got started thanks to the Great Depression. The Kents sold the 61st Street garage in 1931, although the building remained as a more conventional parking garage until 1943, when the building was refitted as a warehouse. (It’s an apartment building today.)

*Advertisements of the day tout a 25 floor structure, while the building’s landmark designation report lists a 24-floor building.

Top image courtesy of Modern Mechanix