Edsel: Famous for All the Wrong Reasons

Or: Is That a Citrus Fruit You’re Driving?

The Ford Edsel: Not Very Good Looking

Lemon? Or Lemonade?

In the automotive world, if there's a name that's synonymous with “lemon,” it's Edsel.

Produced in the late 1950s, the Edsel is something auto buffs commonly refer to as the worst car of all time. Ford lost $250 million on the Edsel—an absurd amount of money in the 1950s.

You know what, though? In many ways, the Edsel actually wasn't that bad of a car.

We hear a lot of claims about the Edsel. One of the most common: it was underpowered. That's actually not true. At 345 horsepower, it was one of the most powerful mass-produced American cars at the time (only three or four other cars were more powerful during its production run).

Another claim? That the Edsel was unreliable, which is also somewhat untrue. Since the Edsel was only assembled in Ford and Mercury factories, not in its own factory, quality control was difficult. And so a certain number of Edsels at certain factories turned out pretty badly, often with missing parts.

The Edsels that were completed—and had all their parts—were quite reliable, even for an already-reliable mid-century Ford. It was also the first car to include self-adjusting brakes and automatic lubrication, which later became industry standards.

So, why did the Edsel fail? There were a couple reasons, starting with Madison Avenue.

The Edsel was so drastically over-hyped that the American public was, essentially, expecting a spaceship. When they just got another bland, boring Ford, the public turned against it in droves. (Or, rather, they just didn't buy it in the expected numbers.)

Despite those problems and statistics, the Edsel remained a high-selling car (accounting for 5% of total car sales in 1958).

Original expectations, though, were for sales to be much higher, so Ford manufactured too many. And now combine that with a short economic recession in 1957 and 1958, and you see the lemon status come into full bloom.

Yes, the Edsel had other problems, including a lack of name brand recognition. What might have put the kibosh on the entire effort, though, is this: the Edsel was a really ugly-looking car.

East Meets West

Or: Is This Progress?

Go West, Old Country

Days of Future Past

I meant to be already retired by now, but HR tells me they’re still looking and can I stay a bit longer, and otherwise they’ll sue me. So, I stay. (I think Maggie is bribing HR.)

The closer I get to that possible retirement, the more books I find myself reading. I’ve always been a reader, though I seem to have more time for it now. If you've followed my blog, you can probably guess I tend toward history, with an emphasis on logistics, architecture, and construction.

My most recent read is Daniel Brook's A History of Future Cities. Despite the name, it's not science fiction. Instead, it's a history of four cities (St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Dubai, and Shanghai) that have undergone rapid Westernization and industrialization by their rulers in an effort to turn them into world class cities.

These “instant cities” all have histories that eerily echo one another. They all seem to have gone through remarkably similar life cycles:

  • They began as nothing, or as a provincial backwater, then were built up massively in a very short time by order of their rulers.
  • They undergo a period of absurd Westernization, to the point of hiring exclusively Western architects, who often never even go to the cities before designing their buildings.
  • They all undergo a period of rejection and resentment by the rest of the nation.

These cities are most strongly characterized, however, by their rejection of the traditional ways of their country.

Each city is, of course, still extremely distinct from one another. Dubai, for instance, has a population that's 97% foreign workers, divided between affluent foreign businessmen and poor itinerant laborers shipped in from other countries and paid a pittance.

Mumbai is surrounded by and interwoven with one of the world's largest slums.

Shanghai disguises all of its poor workers it imports in uniforms and houses them in dorms on the outskirts of town.

Brook does an excellent job exploring the rise and fall of cities in regions trying to rapidly adapt to and join the technological West. The result is that these cities become not just comparable power players but places actually trying to be the West, in a very real sense.

Though A History of Future Cities definitely tends towards the somber at times, it's a surprisingly gripping read.

Telegraphing Human Communication

Or: The Dot and Dash of Connecting

In 1838, the world changed forever when Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone introduced the first commercial electric telegraph in England.

The early telegraph systems were crude, only transmitting Morse code (and competing telegraph codes) a few tens of miles. They soon—and rapidly—began growing longer and more efficient. Within a few short decades, we were stretching cables around the world.

Laying Cable

Laying Cable

It's a bit astonishing to think that this technology existed alongside the early telegraphs. The first transatlantic cables were laid in the 1850s by the H.M.S. Agamemnon, a converted British sailing warship.

This sort of thing gets left out of how we often think about history; it was absolutely chock full of anachronism. (Just like today, people didn't adopt then to the newest technology all at once. Sailing ships still existed alongside steam ships and telegraphs. In fact, clipper ships, a type of sailing ship, remained some of the fastest ships on the planet well into the early 1900s.)

As the telegraphs spread, the world got smaller and smaller. The phrase “global village” might have been coined in the 1960s to talk about television, but it really started with the laying of the great undersea telegraph cables.

This was nowhere more strongly exemplified than by the eruption of Krakatoa on August 27, 1883. The news of its eruption actually raced ahead of the shock wave itself, and many people could identify the source of the massive soundwave that traveled around a large portion of the globe before it reached them.

The Krakatoa eruption was the first time the entire world was paying attention to a single natural disaster and, in many ways, it was a real game changer. The British didn’t learn of Napoleon’s defeat until four days after. It took mere hours to hear of the eruption of Krakatoa, halfway around the planet.

We can brag about how much the Internet has changed the planet, but the Internet is merely an extension of what the telegraph cables started.

The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar—
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.

Here in the womb of the world—here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat—
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth -
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.

They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed
their father Time
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o'er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, 'Let us be one!'

— “The Deep-Sea Cables” by Rudyard Kipling

Very Superstitious

Cat Got Your Tongue?

superstitions, explained

Dashingly Superstitious

I love researching the historical underpinnings of superstitions.

Take spilling salt, for example. A common superstition says that if you spill salt, you need to throw a little bit over your shoulder. This isn't actually the whole story, though.

You're supposed to throw it over your left shoulder (into the eye of the devil lurking over it) without touching the thrown salt with your thumb or index finger.

The superstition has a few possible origins. Some claim that Judas spilled salt at the last supper. Da Vinci actually painted Judas spilling salt in “The Last Supper.” Others think it came from the fact that salt was extremely expensive in the Middle Ages. That one seems rather reasonable to me, except that then throwing it over your shoulder as a cure for the bad luck doesn't make a ton of sense.

Another superstition says that you should hold your breath when passing a cemetery. If you don't, a spirit might fly into you. I'm actually going to argue that this one doesn't make sense anymore. In the Middle Ages, graveyards were dank, miserable places. Graves were cramped, placed close together, and often shared. Burials were often shallow, so bones would stick out. The gravestones were decorated with grim and gloomy reminders of eternal suffering. They were dank, awful places—both by design (to compel people to the Church) and by poor urban planning (cities tended to be cramped and without green space).

In the 1800s, this began to change. People began to have a very different view of humanity: rather than being doomed, sinful creatures, we instead began romanticizing humanity, and began considering it naturally good.

Graveyards became cemeteries. The word cemetery comes from the Greek koimeterion, meaning “place of rest.” We started honoring our dead, placing them more widely apart, and giving them beautiful, well-tended green space. In fact, the first cemeteries built this way were such popular tourist attractions that they began inspiring American cities to begin building parks and having more green spaces in the city.

So why doesn't that superstition apply anymore? Well, it would make perfect sense that spirits would want to leave a dank, miserable graveyard. A cemetery, though? Sounds to me like a pretty nice place to rest once you're gone.

The Ordos Dilemma

Or: I Don't Think Casper Would Like Living Here

Ghostly Ordos

Statues in Ordos, Looking for Some Company

China is full of ghost cities.

Huge, sparkling, well designed new cities. With no one living in them.

For the past couple of decades, China has been building brand new cities and neighborhoods for people to move into. And yet no one wants to.

Ordos City—specifically, the Kangbashi New Area—is the most famous of these ghost cities. The Kangbashi district was designed to be a brand-new city of a million people, in order to help deal with infrastructural problems in the existing nearby city of Dongsheng.

The growth of the nearby Ordos desert had been causing water shortages in Dongsheng, so the new city was designed and built some 16 miles away, near several pre-existing reservoirs. Despite the beauty of the new city, the impressive high-tech public works, and the incredibly cheap real estate, no one wanted to move there for a long time.

Even today, only some 150,000 people live there.

It's not an isolated case, either. Most new cities constructed from scratch have similar problems attracting people. Why is that?

Successful new cities tend to grow for a reason. Oil or mineral resources are found, and workers are brought in. New industry is opened up. Shipping lanes change. And so on and so forth.

Historically, there has to be an economic incentive to start a new city. Just building a new city won't necessarily attract anyone.

That's not the whole story, though. People want to move somewhere where they know people, or where they know that there will be good schools and cultural activities. On top of that, cities tend to grow organically. People usually prefer moving into neighborhoods that have arisen naturally, rather than being completely planned out.

Cities aren't just buildings and infrastructure. They're the people in the buildings, the culture the people build, and the history behind them.