Ferris: His Wonderland

The First Ferris Wheel, Chicago, 1893; photograph by Starks W. Lewis (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum via the Commons on Flickr)

Around this time of year in 1893, millions of people were flocking to Chicago to see the great world’s fair the city was hosting.  Formally known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, the fair belatedly commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World.

In a bid for national and international celebrity, Chicagoans (whose young city had burned to the ground 22 years earlier) went all out in constructing the fair’s great White City: acres and acres of magnificent pavilions, illuminated at night by millions of dazzling electrical lights, and all organized around a network of waterways.

To make it even more special, the organizing committee hired a young engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., to dream up something similar to the amazing tower that George Eiffel had designed for the world’s fair in Paris in 1889.  Similar to that tower, but better.  Yet at first the organizers of Chicago’s fair were doubtful about the idea that Ferris came up with.

Ferris, 34 years old (and destined to die of typhoid fever just three years later), had already gained an impressive reputation as an engineer and bridge-builder, a reputation that sprang from his understanding of steel.  The design that he proposed to the fair’s organizers was for a gargantuan wheel, that, if built, would tower above everything and lift passengers effortlessly, treating them to aerial views from astonishing heights.

Starks W. Lewis, an amateur photographer who managed to get his camera (it would have been pretty bulky) set up on the wheel, captured the wonder of it all.  From his vantage, the intricate workmanship of the wheel itself, as well as size and design of the passenger cars, each of which was designed to hold 60 people, is clearly revealed.

Despite organizers’ fears, Ferris’s daring contraption worked perfectly.  Rising to a height of 264 feet and measuring 825 feet around, the Wheel weighed more than 2.6 million pounds.  It was powered by two 1,000-horsepower steam engines and operated reliably, unimpaired by lightning and gale-force winds.  According to Judith Adams-Volpe, writing about Ferris in the American National Biography, the wheel became the Fair’s leading attraction, the first instance of “technology being harnessed purely as a pleasure machine.”

View of the Fair from the Ferris Wheel, 1893 photograph by Starks Lewis (Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum via Flickr Commons)

What steel gave society was the capacity to rise above the earth and gain an entirely new perspective on itself.  The people who visited the Fair from all over the US could see their world as they had never seen it, from a perspective previously offered only by mountains or the occasional steeple.  In the wondrous aerial vision Ferris gave the world came a hint of the built marvels that were still to come.

Images: Photographs of and from the first Ferris Wheel
by Starks W. Lewis, 1893, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum, from this source.

Bringing Political Innovation to Market

Photograph of a Polaroid Land Camera 1000 by Chris Lüders (shared via Wikimedia Commons)

Can corporate models teach us anything about political change?  One of the problems politically active Americans face today is that the Republican and Democratic parties are organized around outmoded ideas (a topic I’ve written a lot about already).  Yet what do we know about how to bring new political ideas to market?  How do we introduce better ways and ideas to a political marketplace that, for over a century, has been dominated by just two parties?

The Instagram/Polaroid analogy

I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading a smart article by Nick Bilton about Instagram, the digital photo-sharing start-up that Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire.  The hallmark of an Instagram is its resemblance to an old-fashioned Polaroid.

What interested Bilton was why a start-up had brought this idea to market, rather than an old-line camera company like Kodak or Polaroid.  These were, after all, the towering pioneers of innovative film processing.  Polaroid, in particular, had made its name developing a camera and film process that allowed people to make and share their photographs instantly.  For decades, Kodak and Polaroid were cash cows, dominating the markets that sprang up around their own innovative technologies.

Yet, amid the onslaught of digital technology, neither proved able to change enough.  Though the market for their products had been dwindling for decades, neither company managed to make the transition to digital.  Today, both companies are teetering on the brink of death, while Instagram has grown rich and famous on the strength of images with a “Polaroid feel.”

“Disruptive technologies”

Bilton concluded that the success breeds constraints that make established companies hesitant to embrace the next new idea.  Companies become wedded to the ideas that brought them to the top.  They develop cultures aimed at perpetuating the gains that have already been made.  Having once brought a new idea to market, the resulting business rightly views the next new idea or technology as disruptive.

A company dependent on profits from an existing technology will have trouble compromising that in order to capitalize on the next new thing.  As one of Bilton’s sources observes, “It’s tough to change the fan belt when the engine is running.”  (And didn’t Bill Gates once admit to being terrified of the next unknown, tinkering with a new idea in his garage?)

The analogy applies to the political scene

This is exactly how I think about the political scene, whose very landscape the Democratic and Republican parties have shaped.  These two parties became dominant because, at crucial points in our history, they supplied ideas and platforms that were right for the time.  The visions and forms of action they proposed were ones around which millions of citizens could organize.

Support for the major parties is dwindling because they rely on outmoded ideas.  They sell products many of us have no interest in buying.  An estimated 30 percent of voters are not aligned with either party, making each “major” party a minority.

Yet, structurally, the parties deter competition.  Though ideologically moribund, the Republican and Democratic parties are vigorous institutions.  They are known entities.  They have millions of adherents, and familiar brand names.  They’re well capitalized.  And they sit atop vast hierarchies of state and local organizations that penetrate into every ward and district of the country.  Every political event in the US is understood and described in terms of these two entities, a sure sign of their authority.

These behemoths are more interested in maintaining market share than in changing their offerings.  Too much newness carries risk, just as it did for Kodak and Polaroid.  There may be a broad constituency out there, clamoring for new political leadership, but the major parties will view as a disruption any force hoping to reinvigorate politics by espousing a new ideology.

The calcified rhetoric of our politicians and their parties is strangely at odds with the political ferment of the time.  All around lies evidence of amazing levels of political activism and concern, whether on the left or the right, whether in populist movements like Occupy or the Tea Party, or in the billions of comments, tweets, and posts that Americans generate in political conversation every day.

Unlike in business, how ideas move from the bottom to the top of the political hierarchy is incredibly murky.  Yet anyone who wants to get this country into better political shape needs to take an interest in the how of political change.

Image: A Polaroid Land Camera 1000,
courtesy of the photographer, Chris Lüders, from this source.

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