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Men and Machines

Glenn Curtiss on his V-8 motorcycle, Ormond Beach, Florida, 1907. (From Wikimedia Commons.)
Great Northern elevator and shipping, Buffalo, New York, circa 1900. (From the Library of Congress.)

Archival materials at the UB Science and Engineering Library

An exhibit on the History of Technology in Western New York at the UB Science and Engineering Library features historical photos such as of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss looking rakish on his Hercules model motorbike (he made and raced motorbikes before he started making airplanes) on which he was clocked in a race in 1907 at 136.3 miles per hour, earning him the title “fastest man on earth,” and harbor and waterfront detail portions of artist Charles Magnus’s spectacular 1863 Bird’s Eye View of the City of Buffalo, New York, showing a dozen or so functional grain elevators and bustling commercial scene overall. A bird’s-eye view illustration of how the Union would win the war, particularly if it was going to turn out to be a war of attrition.

But the strength of this compact exhibit is in the adjunct feature listings of a score or so of related web resources, including a few sites on Buffalo area history in general and many on specific technology topics, such as the regional grain, steel, and electrical industries, and some UB Archives collections pertinent to the history of technology in Western New York.

Some potential data-mining treasure troves here. For example, the papers of Clifford C. Furnas, the university chancellor 1954 to 1962, who oversaw the switch from a private to a state institution. Previously he had been an Olympic athlete (5,000-meter run; he won his heat, but then did not medal), had taught engineering for a decade or so at Yale, and during the war years, from 1942 to 1945, directed the Airplane Division of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, and from 1946 to 1954, directed the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, now known as Calspan.

Separate sections of the exhibit are on Cornell Aeronautical Lab, and in the Glenn Curtiss section, on Curtiss-Wright, which after a long history of disputes, mostly over patents, represented the merger of the commercial enterprises of Curtiss and the Wright Brothers. Curtiss began building airplanes in Hammondsport, in the Finger Lakes region, but then due to the sharply increased demand for planes during World War I, relocated to the Buffalo area for its many industrial production advantages, including ample work force. The merger with the Wright Brothers occurred in 1929, and during World War II the combined corporation here produced over 17,000 airplanes, most of them the era iconic P-40 Warhawk fighter, the plane sometimes said to have won the war.

Cornell Aeronautical Lab was created by Curtiss-Wright as a first-of-its-kind aircraft research facility and has continued in that capacity to the present time but also branched out into other areas of engineering testing, particularly safety testing. In 1950 the company developed the first crash-test dummy and over the years has conducted move than 2,500 automobile crash tests. For aircraft and other testing, during the late 1940s the company constructed a wind tunnel capable of producing winds up to 700 miles per hour. In 1956 the wind tunnel was upgraded to trans-speed-of-sound capability.

Another intriguing UB Archives resource consists of the course records from a 1977 summer course taught by guru architectural writer and historian Reyner Banham. The course was called “Buffalo: the Industrial Heritage,” and much of it was conducted on the waterfront, where teacher and students explored the grain mills and other industrial buildings and documented their architectural history. The files are said to contain field notes, photographs, architectural drawings, and copious other information the course developed or discovered.

Other sections of the exhibit—more noted in passing than explored in depth, but necessarily, it would seem, for such an enormous subject matter as this area’s technological history—are on automobile manufacturing, with particular attention to the Pierce-Arrow brand, the last word in automobile luxury and prestige until the company went bust in the Great Depression, hydroelectrical power development, and of course iron steel, focusing on the Lackawanna Steel Company, which later became Bethlehem Steel. In the matter of the birth, growth, and demise of different industries, which this area has seen lots of in its long industrial history, it is noted how the now largely idle Bethlehem property is currently transitioning toward the brand new industry of wind farming for power production.

The exhibit was researched and developed by Engineering Librarian Nancy Schiller and produced by Architecture and Planning Librarian Rose Orcutt. The Science and Engineering Library is on the second floor of Capen Hall, on the UB North Campus.

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