Friday, October 29, 2010

The Johnstown Flood

In 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania was a busy little city on the
Conemaugh River, about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. In the 1850s, the state had constructed an earthen dam north of town, on a tributary of the river. A body of water, Conemaugh Lake, had formed behind the dam. Because people wanted to enlarge the lake for fishing, the dam was made higher –but unfortunately not stronger.

Heavy rains fell throughout the spring of 1889, raising every river and stream above flood stage. Then, on the afternoon of May 31, disaster struck. The dam suddenly gave way, and the waters of Conemaugh Lake roared down the narrow river valley. A wall of water – traveling at 40 miles an hour and carrying with it huge boulders, whole trees, and other wreckage – smashed everything in its path. Farms, factories, and most of Johnstown itself were swept away. For most victims, the only warning was the thunder of the water advancing upon them. Sixty acres of wreckage piled up against a bridge below Johnstown. Broken oil-tank cars exploded, setting fire to the rest of the wreckage , which burned for days. The Johnstown flood killed more than 2,200 people. It was one of the worst American disasters in the nineteenth century.

Because the lake at Johnstown had been enlarged for fishing, one writer summed up the flood in these words: “All the horrors that Hell could wish, such was the price that was paid for fish.”

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer is regarded as one of America’s greatest artists. No other American painter has captured the power and beauty of the sea as effectively.

As a child in Massachusetts, Homer knew that he wanted to be an artist. He spent his free time sketching animals and people. When he was 18, he went to work for a lithographer (a printer of pictures).

And in his early 20s, he moved to New York to become a sketch artist for Harper’s Weekly, a popular magazine. Soon Harper’s sent him to sketch the soldiers and battles of the Civil War. After the war, Home taught himself to paint. At first he painted in oils, but later he used watercolors, too. He usually painted fashionable young women, carefree children and simple country scenes.

In the early 1880s, Homer spent time in an English fishing village. There he discovered the sea – the subject to which he would devote the rest of his life. When he returned home, he settled at Prouts Neck, Maine, on a lonely part of the coast. There he created his greatest paintings. Some, such as “Breezing Up,” show a friendly ocean. But many show the sea at its most turbulent, as though in combat with the courageious men who made their living there.

One of Homer’s most dramatic paintings, “The Gulf Stream,” shows sharks circling a boat that has been badly damaged in a storm. A single man lies motionless on the deck.   "The Gulf Stream" is pictured with this article.

Otis and the Elevator

In May, 1854, an amazing demonstration took place at the American Institute Fair in New York City. Elisha Graves Otis rode an open elevator to a great height. Then he ordered its lift cable cut. Onlookers gasped, expecting the elevator to plunge to the ground, but it stayed in place. Otis had invented and installed an automatic safety device for elevators. And he had risked his life to prove that it worked!
Born in Vermont in 1811, Otis manufactured wagons and carriages and then worked as a master mechanic in factories. The need for safe ways to install heavy machinery in factories led to his first experiments with “safety hoists” for elevators. Soon he invented the device that prevented an elevator from falling if its lifting cable broke.

The advent of skyscrapers in the 1870s led to a huge demand for Elisha Otis’ invention. Today, many US elevators are built by the Otis Elevator Company, which was founded by Elisha Otis’ sons. So the Otis nameplate is familiar to many people who live or work in tall buildings.

Elisha Otis also invented a steam plow, a rotary oven, railroad-car brakes, and a steam-driven elevator.