GET UPDATES IN YOUR INBOX! Subscribe to our SPAM-free updates here:

GET UPDATES IN YOUR INBOX! Subscribe to our SPAM-free email here:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Friday, August 11, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Hedy Lamarr and the Invention of Wi-Fi

An actual postcard for "Postcard Thursday"! (OK, so it's Friday, but one step at a time.)

The home above belonged to the woman in the inset, actor Hedy Lamarr, star of such films as Ziegfeld Girl, Tortilla Flat, and Samson and Delilah, the highest-grossing film of 1949.

But on August 11, 1942 -- 75 years ago today -- Lamarr's most lasting contribution to the world happened with little fanfare: she was awarded a patent for a frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication system. The system, which she invented with composer George Antheil, was not the first to use random sequences to create a covert communications system, but the method patented by Lamarr and Antheil was later adopted by the US Navy and became the basis for both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies.

There's a brief article at CultureLab that's worth reading in full about Lamarr's contributions to science, but here's a brief excerpt:
The invention was not her first. Lamarr previously experimented with cola-flavoured bouillon cubes for homemade soft drinks. But her new idea, which officials would only say was "related to remote control of apparatus employed in warfare", would become a signal innovation of the century, the technology now underlying cellphones and Wi-Fi. Expertly explaining the genesis and consequences of Lamarr's invention, in Hedy's Folly, Richard Rhodes transforms a surprising historical anecdote into a fascinating story about the unpredictable development of novel technologies. 
When Lamarr turned her attention to national defence, following the tragic sinking of a ship full of refugees by a German U-boat in 1940, she knew far more about armaments than most movie stars. Before arriving in Hollywood, she had been married to the Austrian munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, who supplied the Axis powers. Dining with Nazi generals, Lamarr not only learned about the latest submarines and missiles but also the problems with them: notably the challenge of guiding a torpedo by radio, and shielding the signal from enemy interference. 
Her insight was that you could protect wireless communication from jamming by varying the frequency at which radio signals were transmitted: if the channel was switched unpredictably, the enemy wouldn't know which bands to block. But her ingenious "frequency-hopping" idea was just a hunch until Lamarr met fellow amateur inventor George Antheil at a Hollywood dinner.

Notorious in the music world for avant-garde compositions featuring airplane propellers and synchronised player pianos, prior to the war, Antheil had galvanised Paris, and incited riots, with his cacophonous Ballet Mécanique. He had also attempted to invent an open-top pianola with which to teach basic keyboard technique. It flopped, but this background came in handy. To realise Lamarr's idea, Antheil proposed coordinating transmitter and receiver by controlling the switching between channels with two identical piano rolls running at the same speed.
Lamarr died in 2000, but not before being recognized in 1997 with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award for her contributions to modern technology. In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Postcard Thursday: "For the Accommodation of the People"

As you sweat through the "summer of hell" (to use Governor Cuomo's term) at Penn Station, here's a look back at what things were like before the Pennsylvania Railroad even had a terminal in Manhattan. We recently ran across this advertisement in the New York Herald from 1909 for all the various ways the Pennsylvania Railroad Company used to be able to get people into and out of Manhattan.

As the "bulletin" points out, the railroad had "nine conveniently located gateways" to the city. Four were ferry terminals, at Cortlandt Street, Desbrosses Street, West 23rd Street, and Fulton Street in Brooklyn. The remaining five were what we today know as PATH train stations, though many of these are now defunct. For example, in 1909 there was a PATH station at 19th Street, which closed in 1954, and there was a direct connection (for an additional five-cent fare) between the 23rd Street PATH and Jersey City.

(Today, if you ride in the front car of the PATH from 23rd Street, you can see the remnants of the 19th Street station as you head toward 14th Street.)

The ad mentions that the "wholesale district" (today's Tribeca) is served by the Desbrosses Street station (by which they mean ferry slip), but doesn't point out that you could also pick up a street car here that would whisk you across the island to the Grand Street ferry slip, and thence to Brooklyn. (This is probably omitted because the Pennsylvania Railroad did not have any financial interest in the street car company.)

Also interesting is the information at the end, almost as an aside, about the "largest, handsomest, and most commodious" railroad station that the Pennsylvania Railroad was building at 34th Street. Penn Station, as it came to be known, opened less than a year after this ad ran, and the ability for trains to run directly from Jersey and Long Island into Manhattan made most of the "nine conveniently located gateways" touted in this ad virtually obsolete.

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Good Will Engine Company, No. 4 Pic-Nic

James was (virtually) thumbing through old copies of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle recently researching a story and realized he was reading papers that were issued in July 1867, a century-and-a-half ago. Too often, history is reduced to big events and the exploits of exceptional individuals, so it can be very refreshing just to peruse a daily paper to see what was newsworthy on an average day.

The above correction from the Eagle from July 27, 1867 -- 150 years ago today -- is typical. Having reported on the Good Will Engine Company picnic (or "pic-nic") the day before, the editors felt the need to rectify the fact that Mr. R. Cowen's lager, soda water, and sarsaparilla had been left out of the original reportage. Egads! Notice, however, that while Cowen is singled out along with Messrs Pearce, Carroll, Goodrich, and Burns, the ice cream department's ladies don't get names.

Ah, well, at least they get a "God bless them."

You can read copies of the Eagle and other Brooklyn papers at

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Apollo XI

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo XI capsule landed on the moon and humans walked on a celestial body for the first time.

A few days later, the Apollo astronauts--back on terra firma--were feted in New York with a major ticker tape parade.  At the time, many claimed it was the largest ticker tape parade New York had ever seen, but as we were researching Inside the Apple, we found that same claim was made for many parades and it’s almost impossible to verify. (Four million people were said to have attended the Apollo parade—an impressive number, even if it’s not the largest.)

Certainly, it was the longest parade. The city’s traditional parade route runs from Bowling Green Park at the foot of Broadway to City Hall. The Apollo astronauts, however, after receiving the key to the city, continued up Broadway to Herald Square and then on to Times Square. As the New York Times noted, the confetti in Midtown was “made up more of paper towels and pages from telephone directories than tickertape” and that it grew “so dense that the astronauts could hardly see.”

As we write in Inside the Apple:
It was also one of the fastest ticker tape parades. The astronauts started at Bowling Green at 10:17 a.m. (about half an hour ahead of schedule) and arrived on the steps of City Hall just fourteen minutes later! Many people who showed up for the parade were disappointed to discover that the astronauts had already passed them by…. By 1:15 p.m. the astronauts were back at Kennedy airport to go to Chicago. They ended the day with festivities in Los Angeles. Having just been to the moon and back, a quick one-day jaunt across North America must not have seemed like such a big deal.

The astronauts had to go through customs upon their return--follow this link to see the astronauts declaration form ("Departure from: MOON. Arrival at: Honolulu, Hawaii, USA").

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The New York City Draft Riots

Children play in front of the Colored Orphans Asylum, which was burned down during the riots

On July 13, 1863, the deadly New York City draft riots began with an attack on the Ninth District Office.

As we write in Footprints in New York:
July 1863 was hot—so hot that the New York Times warned of the “close and uncomfortable weather.” Still, the rising temperatures did not stop a crowd of at least 150 people assembling inside the Ninth District draft office on Third Avenue and 46th Street on the morning of Saturday, July 11, 1863. Some were merely spectators, there to watch the show. Others had a personal stake in what was about to happen: the first large-scale military draft in America’s history. 
On stage, a two-foot-high wooden drum stood front and center. To ensure impartiality, the clerk charged with selecting the names was blind- folded. After the names were mixed, the clerk put in his hand and extracted the first cylinder of paper. He handed it to Provost Marshal Charles Jenkins, who read out: “William Jones, Forty-Sixth Street corner of Tenth Avenue.” 
The crowd broke out into nervous chattering and bad jokes. “Poor Jones!” someone cried. 
“Good for Jones!” said someone else. 
As the day wore on, the process turned monotonous, though observers tried to remain “jocular” (in the words of the New York Herald). By four o’clock in the afternoon, about twelve hundred names had been pulled— nearly half of the district’s quota. The office would be closed on Sunday, but the draft was set to resume on Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. 
I wonder when word finally reached William Jones that he had the dubious honor of being the first name picked. Was he with the crowd that showed up that Monday morning—their jocularity long since replaced with fury? 
As soon as the draft resumed Monday, it was chaos. First, the crowd shattered the windows; then they torched the Ninth District draft office. The insurrection that began that morning, known now as the New York City Draft Riots, lasted four days—still, a century-and-a-half later, the deadliest civil disturbance in American history. Hundreds were killed and perhaps as many as ten thousand injured. The fact that this is nothing compared to the carnage of the war itself—almost eight thousand people had been slaughtered over two days at Gettysburg just ten days earlier—does not diminish the size of these riots. If anything, it shows how bloody and awful the Civil War had become. It was a conflict, from the beginning, in which New York didn’t even want to take part.

A few years ago, we chronicled the Draft Riots day-by-day. You can read the whole series here.

New York's Seventh Regiment, recalled from the Battle of Gettysburg, helped quell the riots

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, July 6, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Happy (Belated) Independence Day

As long-time readers of the blog know, we are only a portion of the way through "Independence Week," so, technically, this post isn't late!

Hope you had a great holiday. Today's post features some actual turn-of-the-20th-century postcards, which were a popular way to share your Independence Day sentiments with friends and family. A number of these postcards are cautionary tales:

Many pay tribute to the Union Army (or GAR: Grand Army of the Republic), a reminder that every July 4th after 1865 became not just a celebration of the Declaration of Independence, but of the hard-fought war to keep the country intact.

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Little House on the Prairie

Do you remember these? You can visit this lunch box -- and lots of other Little House on the Prairie memorabilia from the books and TV shows -- at the various Laura Ingalls Wilder museums scattered across the Midwest. In honor of Wilder's 150th birthday, we drove the route the Ingalls family took in their travels for a story James was working on for The New York Post. You can read it here:

Thanks also to the big crowd that turned out for the Bowery walk last Sunday. Keep your eyes peeled for our next public tour in the fall.

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Frank Lloyd Wright at MoMA

Model of the Price Tower in Bartelsville, OK

If you haven't yet had the chance, we highly recommend heading over to the Museum of Modern Art to see "Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive," a wonderful collection of architectural drawings, renderings, and models. The show, curated by Columbia University's Barry Bergdoll, spans Wright's career from early work in and around Oak Park, Illinois, to his final, unrealized plans for a mile-high skyscraper. Many of the works on display are for commissions that were never brought to fruition -- and some, like that skyscraper, weren't even commissions -- and it's a rare treat to see these lesser-known ideas.

The exhibition runs through October 1, 2017. As preparation, you might want to check out some of James's recent work on Wright:

Frank Lloyd Wright. March Balloons. 1955. Drawing based on a c. 1926 design for Liberty magazine. Colored pencil on paper, 28 1/4 x 24 1/2" (71.8 x 62.2 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Last Chance for the Bowery

Reservations are going fast..... While the "early bird" deadline for signing up for our Sunday, June 25, tour of the Bowery is technically June 21, there are only a few spots left, so if you are planning to attend, do reserve at your earliest convenience. Full details below.

* * * * 


Sunday, June 25 | 11am - 1pm

Join award-winning journalist, author, and guide James Nevius for a walk up New York City's oldest street.

From country road to immigrant entertainment district to Skid Row (and beyond), the Bowery has witnessed New York's rich history. Together, we will explore 400+ years of New York's story along this famous thoroughfare.

The tour is $20 per person for those who reserve before Tuesday, June 21 (when the price goes up to $25 per person).

To reserve, email with
  • Your name
  • The number in your party
  • And a cell phone where we can contact you the morning of the tour if there's any problems
Exact details of where to meet will be emailed to you within 24 hours of receiving your reservation.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Frank Lloyd Wright at 150

The blueprints for Fallingwater, often called Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece
Today, June 8, marks the 150th birthday of Frank Lloyd Wright, who is considered by many to be America's most significant architect.

In his honor, Curbed has devoted a series of articles to Wright's work and legacy, and James wrote the one that looks at his early work in and around Chicago. Titled "Becoming Frank Lloyd Wright," the piece argues that even before the advent of the Prairie Style, Wright was incorporating architectural elements that he would revisit throughout his career.

You can read the story here:

And check out the rest of Curbed's #FLW150 celebration at

* * * *
In other news.... reservations are now open!

On Sunday, June 25, at 11:00 am, we will be conducting a walking tour of The History of the Bowery.

From country road to immigrant entertainment district to Skid Row (and beyond), the Bowery has witnessed New York's rich history. Together, we will explore 400+ years of New York's story along this famous thoroughfare.

The tour is $20 per person for those who reserve before Tuesday, June 21 (when the price goes up to $25 per person).

To reserve, send an email to with

  • Your name
  • The number in your party
  • And a cell phone where we can contact you the morning of the tour if there's any problems

    Details of where to meet will be emailed to you within 24 hours of receiving your reservation.

This walk may sell out, and reservations are being taken on a first-come, first-served basis, so RSVP soon!

Search This Blog

Blog Archive