May 20, 2009 - 9:29 am
Filed in: 1920s,Avia-Corner,Eastern Europe,Guest Bloggers,Technology

[While in Europe in late November and early December, my friend and colleague Nathan Wood began research on his next project, a book-length study that will explore the introduction of bicycles, automobiles, and airplanes in the lands of East Central Europe (specifically Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland). Tentatively titled, “East Central Europe in the Age of Speed” Nathan’s future work promises to shed a great deal of light on a region typically ignored by historians of technology. It’s a terrific concept. Soon after his return from Poland, Nathan drafted a short piece describing his project accompanied by a few photos he collected during his travels. He graciously agreed to allow me to post them here — back in January. But as one thing led to another (including my first site hack) I put-off blogging altogether. At long last, I have resolved to get back up to speed blogging about Russia, technology, aviation, and whatnot. So without further delay… ]

Here’s Dr. Nathan Wood on East Central Europe’s “Age of Speed”:

If East Central Europe is often considered backwards in comparison to its Western neighbors, what did this mean in an age of fast new forms of personal transportation? Could transportation technologies be seen as a way to “catch up” or even surpass the center? I will look at the mechanics and specialists who built and steered the machines, the avant garde and futurist artists and poets who rhapsodized about them, and the popular reception of these machines in the illustrated press.

In the four photos I have selected here, you can see something of the interconnectedness of these machines. The people who were interested in bicycles were also intrigued with automobiles and airplanes. Recall that Orville and Wilbur Wright had a bicycle shop and that Charles Howard, the owner of Seabiscuit, worked in a bicycle shop before specializing in cars. Moreover, to the public, his knowledge of bicycles meant that he should also know something about cars.

The inventors of the first plane in Cracow were a Czech and a Pole who worked in an auto garage. The Czech pioneers of motorcycles and autos, Václav Laurin and Václav Klement, were cycling specialists first and then they designed airplane engines. Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) designed a revolutionary airplane engine, and BMW first built airplanes, before specializing in cars. In my research, I found that bicycling magazines soon had sections on automobiles, while car magazines, like Samochód (the Polish word for automobile) had sections on motorcycles, motorboats, and especially airplanes. The question on the cover of this issue, one frequently asked in the popular press, is: Who’s faster and defter? (The plane or the car)

There is also a sense of progressiveness connected to the new machines, especially for women. For a woman to ride a bicycle was at first scandalous, but of course it was also empowering, offering her freedom of movement otherwise impossible in an age when a respectable woman was expected to have an escort in public. Note that the girls in the top photo from the 1920s demurely pose sidesaddle for the picture, even if they did not ride that way.

The cover from Auto and Sport from 1928 seems so familiar to us today because we are accustomed to seeing pretty women and fast machines on the cover of specialty magazines almost exclusively for men. It is also telling that automobiles and sport are connected. Dunlop, the company that made the tires for 60% of the early automobile racers also made tennis racquets. The connection between cars and sport was natural. To play tennis, ride motorcycles, and drive cars was all part of being modern.

The final point, and this should come as no surprise, is the fact that much of the language regarding the new machines is readily recognizable in a variety of languages. Just as the driver in this last photo probably looks no different from a motorist in any other country at the time, so too, do many of the words look familiar. I suspect you had no trouble deducing what “Auto i Sport” is all about, or “Auto i Turysta”–especialy given the clue in the Polski Touring Klub’s title. The Polish word for bicycle, “rower,” came from an English invention, the Rover, the “safety bicycle” invented in 1885 that looks like the bicycles of today and gradually rendered the large front-wheeled “pennyfarthings” obsolete. Does this make everyone who used slight variants of the original word derivative, or are the terms simply evidence of the interconnectedness of the users of these new technologies in the Age of Speed? Well, that is something I still have to work out. . .

–NW

One Response to “Getting back up to speed”
  1. 1
    Airminded · History Carnival 77 Pinged With:
    June 1, 2009 - 6:37 am 

    […] When dinosaurs roamed the Earth alongside humans. A freethinking biology textbook from the 1970s. Interwar eastern Europe and speed. Historians tend to like books. But not all books. Not-Harry Potter and the Anachronistic Samurai. […]

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