40 Years Ago (Nov, 1968)

This piece and it’s companion article, 40 Years in the Future were published in the November 1968 issue of Mechanix Illustrated.

You also might want to see the editors introduction to the first issue, then called Modern Mechanics.

40 Years Ago

AUTHOR Donald G. Cooley with Weston Farmer was co-editor of Modern Mechanics, later to be renamed Mechanix Illustrated, when the magazine was first published in November 1928. Mr. Cooley subsequently became full-time editor of MI before embarking on a career as a free-lance writer. Today Mr. Cooley is recognized as one of the foremost medical writers in the world with a number of highly regarded books bearing his name.

THE bank building in Robbinsdale, Minn., a sleepy suburb of Minneapolis, bore a sign on its brick exterior: Home of Fawcett Publications— More than 2,000,000 Readers a Month. It was a three-story building without elevators. A long flight of stairs that reversed itself at a landing where a pert redhead ran the switchboard brought you to the third floor, an expanse that bustled, buzzed, rustled, clattered and often echoed a belly-laugh as half a hundred editors, associates and secretaries went about their business.

On the street side were screen magazine offices occupied by editors who stood not in awe of great stars like Warner Baxter, Clara Bow, Alice White, Buddy Rogers and Anita Page. A left turn at the top of the stairs took you past the executive suites of Capt. W. H. Fawcett (founder of the firm), Capt. Roscoe Fawcett (his brother) and Jack Smalley, managing editor, into a corridor that ended in a fire escape that hung over a spread of rusted fenders contributed by the car dealer next door. Head-high partitions of wood and frosted glass marked off offices on either side of the corridor. The third door on the right opened into a 9xl5-ft. cubicle containing three desks and a filing cabinet.

9 Here Mechanix Illustrated was born. The baptismal name of the magazine was Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The world into which Mechanix Illustrated was launched 40 years ago was a world without television, computers, radar, automatic transmissions, lasers, nuclear power, jet engines, quasars, antibiotics, nylon, artificial kidneys, molecular biology, color movies, transistors, power steering, contact lenses— without frozen dinners, aerosol spray cans, tubeless tires, plastic jugs, bikinis, blue eye shadow, rotary mowers, pre-sliced bakery bread, credit cards, plastic bags and other ameliorations of the human condition. Gold sold for $20.67 an ounce.

In 1928 we were all young, it seems now, and the world was full of a number of things. What sort of world was it? Well, it was a world of Coolidge prosperity. The stock market zoomed upward; on some days a million shares changed hands. We heard stories about bootblacks, clerks, typists who bought on margin and made paper fortunes. Not that cash was all that plentiful but what we had went quite a way. Dollar bills were 20 per cent larger in size than today’s and went further. Gasoline cost 14 cents a gallon, first-class postage was 2 cents an ounce. Direct-to-you tailors sold men’s suits for $9.95. Lunch at Joe’s place next door cost 35 cents if you took soup and dessert. There was a federal income tax but it didn’t affect the likes of us. The grocery bill of a family of five who lived pretty high on the hog averaged $60 a month. Most families had ice boxes but a few well-heeled ones bought new-fangled electric refrigerators. Thousands of home furnaces were fueled with coal.

November 1928, the natal month of Mechanix Illustrated, Hoover was elected President. King George V of England was thought to be dying from a lung infection. It was a bad time to suffer an infection. It was to be another year before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and another dozen years before it became a drug. The King pulled through with the aid of a fog machine and an incision through the ribs for drainage.

Sports was big business. The second Tunney-Dempsey fight in Philadelphia drew a gate of more than $2 million. There were heated arguments over the long count in the seventh round, when the referee delayed the count until Dempsey went to a neutral corner after knocking Tunney down. In 1928, to the dismay of promoters, Tunney quit the leather-pushing trade and took to giving lectures on Shakespeare and exhibiting cultural bellicosity unbecoming to a pugilist. A frantic search for a new heavyweight champ bogged down when promoter Tex Rickard died. His remains, in a glass-covered coffin in the center of Madison Square Garden, were viewed by some 40,000 cauliflowered mourners.

The New York Yankees under Miller Huggins won the World Series, as they had the year before. Babe Ruth failed to outdo his 1927 record of 60 home runs. Leo Durocher, a flip kid on the substitute’s bench, got the Yankee shortstop job when the previous tenant faded out. Golf was dominated by Bobby Jones, who for the sixth successive year won either the amateur or open championship and was accounted the greatest of all time. Walter Hagen won the British open, as was his custom. Bill Tilden was preeminent but fading in tennis. Helen Wills captured the U. S., British, and French women’s tennis championships. Gar Wood drove a power boat at 93.123 mph. Knute Rockne died in the crash of a Fokker monoplane in Kansas and the entire football world mourned.

Marathon dances drew big crowds to auditoriums to watch couples stagger on their feet day after day after day until the last survivors won a prize. Shipwreck Kelly sat on a pole for 23 days and 7 hours, a record that still stands. Society was changing, too. Judge Ben Lindsey of Denver drew the bitter condemnation of parents and clerics for his advocacy of companionate marriage— living together without benefit of clergy so long as there were no children. Girls dared to smoke in public and to wear skirtless one-piece bathing suits. And the shameless cheek-to-cheek dancing! Most of the elders despaired over the younger generation that was dooming the country to the fate of orgiastic Rome.

Saxophones dominated dance bands. People hummed My Time Is Your Time and other tunes crooned through a megaphone by Rudy Vallee at $10,000 a week. It was a low-fi era of 78 rpm records played on hand-cranked phonographs. Hit songs of the day were My Blue Heaven, I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover, Baby Face, Louise (popularized by young Maurice Chevalier) and Showboat tunes, Bill, Old Man River, Why Do I Love You, to mention a few that have endured.

Talking pictures—Jolson’s Mammy and John Barrymore’s Sea Beast—were novelties that some enthusiasts thought would put the silents out of business. Theater musicians were confident that audiences would never put up with canned music. Two systems, sound-on-film and sound-on-records, competed. The latter system often got out of sync and needed an operator in the audience who buzzed the projectionist to get back on the track. A hit picture of the year was Lilac Time, a silent movie with World War I background (we were only a decade removed from the Armistice) . It starred Colleen Moore and a leading man who was a star from then on, Gary Cooper. All movies were black-and-white, but Eastman Kodak was working on a process for tinting entire scenes in solid color.

Radio kept a lot of people up nights on the chance of hearing something, anything from Havana or Canada. For a time, the fanciest receivers used supplementary 6-volt car batteries that required frequent recharging. Sports, news and entertainment habits were revolutionized. Some 40 million people heard the second Tunney-Dempsey fight. Boake Carter, H. V. Kaltenborn, Floyd Gibbons and Lowell Thomas came on with the news. For music there was Ben Bernie (the Old Maestro, yowsah!), Wayne King, hotel bands, the A & P Gypsies and Clicquot Club Eskimos. Broadcasting studios were hung with heavy draperies to dull echoes. The word electronics did not get into dictionaries until years later.

In 1928 the country was more than ever on wheels, with a fantastic 23 million motor cars in use. Two out of three families had a car. Ford finally unveiled the long-awaited Model A, to face competition from a newborn car, Plymouth, which invited customers to look at all three. Outside of cities, not many roads were payed. There were no freeways, throughways or turnpikes. Gravel and gumbo were the rule. The usual village speed limit was 15 mph and all highways seemed to pass through villages.

Into this world we prepared to deliver a new magazine.

The inception of Mechanix Illustrated was a memorandum from Capt. W. H. Fawcett directing that steps be taken to create an outstanding magazine in its field. It would require somewhat different skills than motion picture, detective and pulp paper magazines of which the company was a leading publisher. The first man hired was Weston Farmer, a handsome, kinetic six-footer with curly dark hair and electric blue eyes who was a naval architect and amateur flyer.

Farmer had a nogginful of mechanical savvy. The same could not be said of the next addition to the staff, the present writer. I had been scarred for life by our eighth-grade manual-training class assignment to build bird houses which would be exhibited at the St. Paul Auditorium. My own creation was judged by the instructor to be an insult to avian architecture. But by 1928 I was earning checks as a fiction writer and a competent writer, I assured my interviewers, can write about anything if he gets reliable information. They bought it and I joined the staff in May.

Our slogan, Edited by Experts, was nevertheless well merited. Farmer, who loved to dictate (and sing) into a technologically advanced machine that inscribed his voice on a wax cylinder, invited outstanding authorities to contribute. Acknowledged experts were persuaded to write monthly departments on aviation, motor mechanics, radio, home workshop, model making. One expert was a major in the air force who had flown with Capt. Roscoe Fawcett in World War I. We paid him $50 a month to do the Plane Talk department. His name was H. H. Arnold— the Gen. Hap Arnold of World War II fame.

In August, Al Allard assumed the general art direction of all the company’s magazines but left the strictly mechanical stuff to us. For years Allard worried that the job would blow up and he wouldn’t have steady work. He’s still around today and is recognized as one of the country’s most eminent art directors.

We had six months, from May to October, to produce our first issue, which carried a November dateline. We had a clear notion of our main direction: lots of how-to, complete working plans for ambitious and less-ambitious projects; a great deal on boats, motor cars and airplanes and in-depth articles on scientific progress, invention, the world we lived in and were about to live in.

The first issue contained an installment of a science-fiction story, Conquest of the Moon, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who knew naught of Apollo. We soon dropped fiction and got back on the ball. But it was a narrow squeak. A handsome oil painting illustrating a scene from the Burroughs story stood in our office for weeks. It showed nice earth men in fearsome conflict with nasty moon men who were half horse, half human—and that was to be our first cover. At the last minute we junked it and regretfully wrote off $75. We substituted a painting of an airplane disabled on an ice field, with a spike-wheeled arctic rescue ship coming to the rescue of a pilot who was battling a polar bear.

The main cover line on the first issue was How to Build and Fly Your Own Airplane. We didn’t know it then but it was the daddy of many subsequent build-your-own-plane articles that gave a unique stamp to the magazine. We showed how to convert a motorcycle engine into a light-plane power plant. In six months we ran enough airplane material to bring out the Flying Manual at the unheard-of price of a dollar. It is now a collector’s item.

We started a series of flying lessons in the first issue. Gene Shank’s flying field was a couple of miles up the highway from the office, across from the Log Cabin Cafe. Before our time the field had been used by pioneer air-mail pilots, who sometimes thumbed rides into Minneapolis. One of them was a Minnesota boy named Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr.

At lunchtime we often hopped into my 1925 Chevy (it had 22 x 4.40 tires and a fat bag of tools, including a crank) and drove to the field, where we ate sandwiches with Shank and his associates. Shank sold joy rides and lessons in flying and plane construction. He had a snappy Waco biplane and a decrepit World War I Jenny behind a hangar to show how far design had progressed. Shank claimed the world’s record for consecutive loop-the-loops, no less than 569 of them. This sportive form of aerial cart-wheeling, which rolled up vast mileage without getting anywhere, was highly esteemed. So it was only natural for Shank to write our flying lessons, with the aid of Farmer.

An aura if not the actual clamor of construction suffused our cramped office from the beginning. Farmer’s first love was boats and before there was any assurance that we would have a second issue we were building his design for a 12-ft. cruiser at a boat works at nearby Lake Minnetonka. Our how-to goal was to give step-by-step photos showing construction details. The craft, when launched, floated. Barefoot, we poured pails of concrete into the hull for a half ton of ballast. The boat was Humpty Dumpty, ancestor of dozens of boat plans which proved enormously popular.

Nobody would let me drive a nail and my own efforts during that long hot summer were devoted largely to cracking a deadline whip on mechanical geniuses, editing technical copy (if I could understand it, anybody could) and developing features. We were alert to timely stories, which have been sadly blurred by time.

We were pretty hot on predictions too. A piece on Skyrocketing to Mars had everything in it but a gantry. In What Makes the Movies Talk? we explained the mechanics of competing phonograph and sound-on-film systems. Over-age Lizzies were piling up in backyards and we started a contest on New Uses for Old Fords.

At long last we put the baby to bed. If I remember, the first printing was around 80,000 copies (but there were some 50 million fewer Americans then). Would it sell? It sold. Now we had to put out an issue every month and the working pace accelerated. Admiral Byrd told what he expected to find at the South Pole. Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker predicted for us that “cruising speeds of 100 to 150 miles an hour for commercial planes are perfectly feasible.”

Our shelf of past issues grew fatter and fatter. Much of the material was too valuable to be lost when an issue went off the stands. Very soon we had enough fine how-to’s to put out one-shots on How to Build 20 Boats and the Handy Man’s Home Manual, nucleus of a thriving operation today.

Looking back, I think our old 1928 staff did pretty well in laying the footings for Mechanix Illustrated. Other hands, not to mention the scientific and technological explosion, have shaped it in the way it should go. Farmer left for other pursuits after a couple of years and I became chief of staff. By then I could tell a grommet from a gasket. Headquarters moved to Minneapolis and the staff enlarged.

By the early 1930s the original editorial staff had dispersed. I left for the South Seas and eventual specialization as a medical science writer. I was succeeded by William Kostka, then Tom Mahoney, Robert Herzberg and others.

That was MI 40 years ago. Only yesterday.

4 comments
  1. jayessell says: March 27, 200812:16 pm

    Great article Charley!
    What was that about Mars?
    From the 50s or 60s I bet.

  2. Charlie says: March 27, 200812:22 pm

    Nope, actually it’s from the first issue. It’s an article about flying a rocket ship to mars.

  3. Blurgle says: March 28, 20085:26 pm

    Now I’m going to wonder why a man an Inuit-style parka is shooting a polar bear-leopard hybrid on the cover of the first issue. What does that have to do with mechanics or inventions?

  4. Blurgle says: March 28, 20085:26 pm

    Or a man *wearing* an Inuit-style parka, if you want to be fussy about it.

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