Wednesday, September 24, 2014

General Motors and "Dynamic Dayton" prior to WWII





The City of the Future and Dynamic Dayton of the 1930s
            Just as the Buick “Y Job “ was a final stylistic statement before the interruptions of a global war, so too the GM Futurama exhibit at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 was of similar significance in terms of the highways that would carry these new forms of vehicles. Expressing rather na├»ve notions about what lay ahead and the role of technology in underdeveloped nations, GM exhibited the model of a road-building machine, a “factory on wheels,” that was to cut through jungle forest and lay one foot of concrete road per minute, with service people installing lighting and other appurtenances shortly thereafter. Its models – some 1 million small scale structures -- and mechanisms expressed the visionary ideas of designer Norman Bel Geddes, previously expressed in his Magic Motorways.32 Bel Geddes envisioned a world connected by automated and elevated highways that reached into the far suburbs of large American cities, a futuristic environment of elevated broad expressways reaching out like ribbons into the hinterlands. More than a million visitors were transported in sound-equipped lounge chairs through the exhibit, and while developments that would turn this vision into reality were interrupted by World War II, it would be prophetic in terms of how American life would develop during the last half of the twentieth century.

The Futurama exhibit represented a vision of the future GM-shaped city, but at the same time GM had already had a profound influence on a number of urban areas. Next to Flint, Michigan and perhaps Russelheim, Germany, no city in America had been influenced by GM’s success more than Dayton, Ohio.33 With a history in agricultural implement manufacture and the home of the National Cash Register Company, Dayton was home to a large number of skilled machinists who subsequently found employment in the rapidly-growing automobile-related firms established by Boss Kettering and his associates. According to Fortune, in 1938 approximately 100,000 of the 200,000 residents of Dayton owed their economic livelihoods directly to General Motors. And not all of these activities were strictly involved automobile manufacturing, for Frigidaire employed 12,000 workers making refrigerators, beer coolers, air conditioners, electric ranges and water heaters. Nearby, in central Dayton, Delco Products made electric motors not only for Frigidaires, but also for Maytag washers, Globe meat slicers, and DuPont rayon spinners. It was estimated that some 10 million motors worldwide could be traced back to Dayton. Additionally Delco made coil springs and shock absorbers for GM, Nash, Hudson, Graham and Packard automobiles. Finally, Delco had a brake operation, making hydraulic brake assemblies and brake fluid while housed in perhaps the only flop to bear GM’s corporate name, General Motors Radio. Often overlooked, GM’s Inland Manufacturing in Dayton had its origins in WWI and the Dayton-Wright Airplane Co. After the war, its woodworking department formed the basis of an enterprise to make wooden steering wheels and later rubber-based ones. Product diversification followed, so that the firm made everything from rubber cement to running boards, motor mounts, and weather strips. To borrow a phrase from a book boosting the city during the 1950s, truly GM’s Dayton operations were at the heart of was “dynamic Dayton.”

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