Thursday, May 15, 2008


L. Frank Baum was born on this day in 1856 in Chittenango, New York.

A failed theater owner, dry goods seller and magazine editor, and a some-time breeder of fancy poultry, Frank Baum began writing books for children in 1899, publishing the modestly successful Father Goose. The following year he wrote the book which would make his name in pop culture, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), a fantasy tale with decidedly Nietzschean undertones about a Kansas girl and her adventures with a scarecrow, a tin woodsman and a lion in a magical other-world. Baum took the name for his other-world from the letters on the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet: "O-Z."

Wildly popular, the book was almost instantaneously turned into a musical, but the most familiar musical version, preserved in MGM’s classic film, The Wizard of Oz (1939; directed by Victor Fleming, with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr), did not take shape until shortly before that movie was made, when Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg collaborated on such songs as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "If I Were King of the Forest."

Following the book’s success, Baum wrote 13 more Oz books, none of which came close to matching the first in its irresistible, mythically pregnant plot or its lasting popularity. He unsuccessfully tried to promote his books with a traveling vaudeville slide show and toured in Europe for a time before filing bankruptcy in 1911 and settling in Hollywood on his wife's money in a home he called "Ozcot." He died there on May 6, 1919.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Moving Staircase

Charles D. Seeberger, the "inventor" (sort of) of the escalator, was born on this day in 1857 in Oscaloosa, Iowa.

Seeberger was a Yale-trained engineer who obsessed over the prospect of a moving staircase while working in the family hardware store in Chicago. In 1895 he left the family firm and filed a patent for an "escalator," a name he coined; the Patent Office was a little mixed up by the time it granted Seeberger's patent under the title "elevator."

Seeberger wasn't satisfied with his own design, however, preferring George Wheeler's "flat-step" design. He acquired Wheeler's patent in 1898, meshed it together with bits and pieces of what he had designed himself and engaged the Otis Elevator Company (founded by Elisha Otis in the 1850s) to build the prototype. The Otis Company and Seeberger unveiled the escalator at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, where it competed for attention with Jesse Reno's "inclined elevator," a conveyor belt with step-like rows of iron cleats to support the feet of the passengers as they leaned forward precariously. Although Reno's design was a lot less comfortable than Seeberger's, it did have a comb of fingers at the landing which passed between the cleats and kept stray shoelaces and skirts from getting caught in the machine.

The Otis-Seeberger and the Reno moving-staircases competed against each other until 1910, when Otis purchased Reno's company. Even as late as 1911, however, the Otis Company had to go to extreme lengths to reassure customers of the safety of the escalator; when the first Seeberger escalator was installed in the London Underground, the Otis Company hired a man with a wooden leg, "Bumper" Harris, to ride the escalator all day to demonstrate its harmlessness.

Seeberger left Otis in 1915; and in 1920, the Otis Company combined Seeberger's modified flat-step escalator with Reno's combed landing, producing what was to become the most popular model of moving-staircase, selling more units in the 2 years that followed than it had ever sold of the either the Seeberger or Reno designs alone. None of them perfected a way of keeping people walking instead of standing in my way on escalators, however.

Seeberger passed away in September 1931 in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.

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