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Rensselaer County Historical Society

Designing Modern America

Brooklyn Bridge
Washington A. Roebling, Rensselaer Class of 1857, was chief supervisor of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883. Besides its utilitarian role as a link between Manhattan and Brooklyn, the bridge was a celebration of modernity.
Of course, regional boosterism was not unique to this area at that time. What may well have been unique here, though, or at least pathbreaking, was the direction that boosterism took as its proponents became aware that they were leaving rural America behind. At the time that such advocacy started around the 1780s, roughly 90 percent of the nation's population lived in wooden-age farm areas. Despite their enthusiasm for what was then called "manufactures," as well as for many of the other trappings of what we think of as modern life, most of the contemporary advocates for "improvement" never quite escaped this rural frame of mind.
  To be sure, George Washington had what was then considered a high-tech, fully automated grist mill, designed by Oliver Evans—the Philadelphia area's Thomas Edison of 1800—installed on the fringes of his estate at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson had a water-powered nail factory built at the foot of Monticello, but their vision of the distant future projected a whole continent carpeted with perfected versions of Mount Vernon and Monticello, with yeoman farmers and their helpers in a rustic utopia. (In an oft-cited classic treatment of the subject, MIT's distinguished American historian Leo Marx called this vision "the machine in the garden.") Van Rensselaer and the others in Greater Troy started down that same road, with the Patroon advocating Henry Burden's improved plow, and Amos Eaton setting out at Rensselaer School to prepare teachers of the farmers' children.
Chicago Historical Society   
Ferris's wheel, 1893. Was Burden the inspiration?
  As Erie Canal traffic picked up and the Rensselaer School began to evolve into Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, however, events in the area took a decidedly modernist turn. At a time when many, perhaps most, Americans still thought of the country as a loose federation called "These United States," Trojans became extraordinarily nationalist, naming downtown streets "Congress" and "Federal" and the like, as well as devoting a whole section of the southern end of town to streets named after the presidents.
  In 1861, in only one example of the many ways that the region profited from the Civil War much the way that Silicon Valley profited from the Cold War, Trojans John Griswold and John Winslow helped sell the Lincoln Administration on the design of the day's equivalent of the Stealth Bomber, namely, the exceedingly weird-looking USS Monitor, for which Troy supplied the rivets and the hull plates. Troy manufacturers were among the first in the nation to realize that, once the canals and then the railroads provided cheap transportation costs to a geographically widespread market economy, and only after that happened, would it make good business sense for a small number of centralized operations in a single city to manufacture, at various times and in various plants, 75 thousand stoves a year, a million horseshoes and a quarter-million Arrow shirts a week, and a million detachable collars and cuffs a day. (Invented in the 1820s in Troy by Hannah Lord Montague, the detachable shirt collar proved to be one of many adaptations to modernity, akin to our adoption of the microwave oven, that Troy invented for those struggling to make everyday urban industrial life function smoothly. The city's innovative labor unions, and even commercially baked Freihofer's bread, were others.)

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