16. Abner Doubleday and the birth of American baseball
Baseball was a highly popular game in the 19th century, including among the troops of both sides during the Civil War, and shortly after the war ended professional baseball clubs emerged, starting with the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869. Numerous scholars and writers covering the growing popularity of the game speculated that the sport was derived from an old English bat and ball game called rounders. As the rounders theory gained support, Albert Spalding was aghast at the idea of an American sport being in fact the distant cousin of a British game. He organized the Mills Commission, on which he served, to determine the true origins of the American game.
Abner Doubleday was a Union officer during the American Civil War whose men, mostly from New York, played the game of baseball extensively in their encampments. Doubleday may or may not have provided written rules for the games played by his men during the war, depending on the source one chooses to believe, but the Mills Commission decided that based on his alleged actions he was the father and inventor of the game of baseball, which thus was relieved of the taint of British parentage. Doubleday was surprised to find himself described as the inventor of the game, which was still played according to largely local ground rules when he was elevated to his new status. The invention of baseball by Abner Doubleday is an American myth.
It is considered a gospel of American history that Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb after years of studying the subject. In fact, the light bulb had existed for some time, and Edison was just one of several others trying to find a way to make the existing lightbulb a practical source for illumination. His patent was for an improved electric light bulb, using materials for filaments which allowed the bulb to burn for several hours, and it was achieved almost simultaneously with another inventor, Joseph Swan of England. To avoid a lengthy and expensive patent litigation, Edison and Swan joined forces to marketing light bulbs in Great Britain.
One of the first facilities to be wired for and equipped with Edison’s new lighting systems was a ship, the steamer Columbia, which had the electric lighting installed in 1880. By then Edison was already awash in litigation over patent infringements, and his patent was ruled invalid in 1883, and later found to be valid after six more years of court fights. Swan held a patent which was issued over a year earlier than Edison’s, which led to the two reached an agreement to create a company they named Ediswan to market the lighting systems in Great Britain. More than two dozen light bulbs were invented prior to Edison’s, who created the first viable electric lighting system based on the work of predecessors which he improved and marketed to the public.
18 Mass defenestration following the stock market crash
In October 1929 the decade known as the Roaring Twenties came to an abrupt end, or at least that is how the history books tell it, with the stock market crashing, ushering in the Great Depression. In truth, the American economy had been exhibiting signs of problems throughout that spring and summer, and the collapse was foretold by the collapse of British markets a month earlier. The collapse of the New York Stock Exchange began on Thursday, October 24, was widely covered in the newspapers that weekend and nose-dived on Monday and Tuesday of the following week. Almost immediately sensationalist news reports told of mass panic in New York, with financiers, brokers, and bankers, leaping to their deaths from office windows as their fortunes were wiped out.
The tales of a dramatic increase of suicides during the collapse of the markets in 1929 were untrue, for the most part, and are part of the myth of the Great Depression today. Many brokers actually made money as the rich and large banks increased stock holdings to both boost public confidence in the markets and expand their shares. In fact, the reported suicide rate in New York decreased during the crash and for weeks following the financial disaster. Despite the florid accounts of people leaping from windows to the streets below, there were but two suicides by defenestration in New York between October 24 and the end of the year 1929, and one of those was challenged as being more likely a homicide.
19. Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds broadcast induced widespread panic in 1938
According to a popular story, when Orson Welles broadcast an episode of The Mercury Theatre of the Air based on H.G. Wells popular science fiction story The War of the Worlds, the live presentation caused a nationwide panic, as listeners were unable to ascertain that the broadcast was entertainment and not a live news broadcast. No doubt some listeners were fooled, and since commercial breaks were infrequent (that the story was fiction was aired during the first break, about thirty minutes into the broadcast) the tale presented as evolving news of a Martian invasion was frightening. The broadcast creating a widespread panic is a myth, however. For one thing, there just weren’t that many people tuned in. Four different times during the broadcast listeners were reminded that the show was a play.
The newspapers of the time exaggerated the level of the panic, far beyond the phone calls into CBS stations of listeners demanding more information. Radio was an emerging competitor for newspaper advertising markets, and the papers stressed first the irresponsibility of the airwaves inducing panic among the people for commercial gain. According to polls taken at the time, only about 2% of the radio audience listened to the CBS broadcast, and in many markets, CBS affiliates substituted local programming that Halloween night. The War of the Worlds broadcast did happen, and it did frighten some listeners, but the extent of the panic it created was wildly exaggerated, to the point it became another American myth, one which Orson Welles exploited for years.
20. Dwight David Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway System
One of the myths of the American Interstate Highway System is that Dwight Eisenhower, impressed with Hitler’s autobahn, wanted a similar system for the United States. Except that it wasn’t Hitler’s autobahn at all, it was largely in existence in 1931, two years before the Fuhrer became Chancellor of Germany and the Nazi party assumed control of the German government. Hitler did expand the project upon assuming power, under the leadership of Fritz Todt. The autobahns were not built to facilitate the movement of troops, as most of Germany’s war machines moved long distances by train or air. They were built as a public works project. Eisenhower, who had traveled across the United States by car and truck in the 1920s, was well aware of the need for a better road system there.
In the 1930s the US government began extensive studies of what eventually became the Interstate Highway System, as well as improvements to the existing US Highway System. As President, Eisenhower, no doubt recalling the months-long cross-country trip of the 1920s became a champion of the project, influenced by both General Motors and Standard Oil, both of which saw the benefits to their business models. Construction began in 1956. The original system was declared complete in 1992, after 35 years of work and more than $500 billion dollars spent. As the interstates grew America’s passenger and interurban rail systems faded. Large sections of the interstate system are functionally obsolete today, carrying traffic well beyond their design loads, especially on bridges across the country.
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