Technology in Early Years

I, an only child, was brought to life October 28, 1925, by my mom, Ceil Kay. No one in my family had ever even thought about a career in technology or, for that matter, math or science. What headed me that way? I was exposed to the technology of the day with little understanding of how it had evolved or where it was heading. Only in hindsight can I evaluate the evolution of technology and realize how it affected society and me, a little boy in that era.

When I was four years old, Dad and Mom and I had to squeeze in with Mom’s parents, Max and Annie, and Mom’s only sibling, my uncle Eddie. My father, Harry, born in 1900, was very protective of me and a fine person. He was a lawyer and studied New Jersey statutes like a Talmudic scholar. He became a lawyer’s lawyer, widely recognized as knowing more New Jersey statutes than anyone. I was closer to my mom and to Uncle Eddie than to my often inaccessible father.

Grandpa Max owned a wholesale candy business, a customer pickup bus he drove daily, and several rental properties including the first floor of the house we moved into. Eddie, who was nineteen years older than me, with my father’s support in a few years became a lawyer. For three years, until I was seven, when Eddie married and brought his new bride, Carolyn, into the house, I got the benefit of lots of time with him and less afterward. Eddie taught me checkers, chess, Battleship, and other games that fascinated me; let me look at his magazine, Popular Science (intriguing but to me hardly intelligible); and once took me down to a room in the cellar to see his new “chemistry lab.” He performed an experiment. He put a clear liquid in an eyedropper and dripped it into a test tube holding another clear liquid. Both looked like pure water. Each drop turned red as it fell into the test-tube liquid, which then turned pink. This was the most marvelous thing I had every seen, and ranked in my boyish mind as advanced chemistry.

When a bit older, I liked to go down to the cellar and do secret things. In one small room for a while my father had a steamer trunk that on several occasions I opened and soon understood that they were about a Scotsman whose life and times I found puzzling and interesting. I was very careful to put everything I opened back as it was. My secret was never uncovered. I learned later that these papers were the remnants of a man who died intestate. My father was handling his estate for the probate court. I never told him that I had opened the steamer trunk.

I was fascinated by the technology I saw. A bin in the cellar was fed coal by an adjustable metal slide into the bin. The other end of the slide was attached to the delivery truck. The truck driver set up the rig. The coal rolled down the slide through a ground-level window accessible to the truck parked in the street. Grandpa Max got up early every cold weather morning, emptied the hot ash bin, shoveled coal from the coal bin into the furnace, and relit the tinder. In the winter the house was freezing until the coal fire heated water in a tank, producing steam or hot water that circulated the heat to radiators in the rooms on the floors above.

In the summer, my grandma Annie placed on the windowsill (just above the coal window) a sign with three numbers: “10, 25, 50.” She rotated the sign till the desired size ice block (in pounds) was at the top. When the iceman came later in the day, he grabbed, with an ingenious one-arm ice pick, the requested size block from his truck, and Annie held the icebox door open while the iceman pushed it in. The ice had been cut during the previous winter from a frozen pond with large two-man ice saws and kept in an insulated icehouse where the blocks lasted until late in the year. It was only when home-refrigeration technology became widely available in the late Thirties that the iceman’s job was no longer required. We got one refrigerator for the whole house around 1935.

Grandpa Max chose his bus routes for some passengers who waited for him. Others he picked up ad hoc, taxi style. He would go off the route to accommodate customers. Before we moved into Max’s house, Max would pick me up at our house in Newark, New Jersey, and later return me to Mom so Grandma could relieve Mom for a few hours or maybe a day. Into the 1930s some trucks were motorized, but many still were horse-drawn. Max’s bus was motorized.

Before coal was available, logs were used to heat homes. Home central heating was not common prior to the twentieth century.

How much was new technology affecting consumers when I was a boy? Residential air-conditioning was unknown. Trains, trolleys, and horses had a capacity and usage exceeding that of automobiles and trucks. In the ensuing seventy-five years, the internal combustion engine increasingly dominated ground transportation. Trains, trolleys, and horses have, relatively speaking, almost disappeared, replaced by trucks and autos. Airplanes, accessible to very few travelers at the earlier time, only relatively recently became mass transport.

The technological changes in agriculture and food distribution over the years have also been enormous. Unlike the vast variety of food provided today by big-box supermarkets available in all but the most rural areas, buying food seventy-five years ago even in dense city populations was much closer to farm harvesting. Houses were mostly three stories with twenty-five-foot frontage where we lived in East Orange, a few blocks from even more crowded Newark. On foot Grandma daily shopped for a chicken, sometimes with me. In a kosher butcher shop she picked out her chicken from a cowering flock. The butcher wrung its neck. Sometimes, perhaps to amuse me, he let it down to run around like a chicken with its head cut off. Usually he just plunged it into a hot-water barrel, plucked its feathers, and handed it over to Grandma. Milk and other perishables came by your door down the street on horse-drawn carriages. It was not today’s farmers market. Mom told me that her grandfather, Charles Leitener, had owned a farm in downtown Newark. He had a horse, named Baby, that, hitched to a buggy, occasionally took Mom and other relatives up to the South Mountain reservation for a picnic in South Orange. Unused to cars and not looking, Mom’s grandfather stepped off the curb and was killed in 1920.

Telephones were uncommon in homes. In 1934 we had the first on the block, phone number Orange 5-8798 (amazing, what trivia I sometimes remember). Children were not allowed to use phones in my neighborhood. Operators making hand connections, plugging and unplugging switchboards, had just been replaced by automated connection within a few exchanges.

Radio was big. In some homes, then as now, radios were on all day listening to music. My mother loved Bing Crosby. I listened to that and to shows after school, like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. (Talk about technology of the future: Buck Rogers could fly around in his “space suit” decades before Star Trek.) “Victrolas” providing recorded music were available but rare. No television until after WWII.

At one point I was frustrated because Uncle Eddie was not continuing chemical experiments with me in the cellar. At age seven or so, I decided to take the matter into my own hands. I took the tin lid off a used paint can and poured a little kerosene, turpentine, or whatever into it and set it on the concrete cellar floor. Just a few teaspoons. Of course nothing happened. A little heat was required. I struck a safety match and let the fluid on the can lid start to burn. It was burning away for what I felt was an enormous amount of time. The whole thing was silly. Nothing interesting was going to happen. Time to end it.

I stamped on it with my shoe. The burning fluid splattered and some landed off to the side on a few rolled-up carpets protected by brown wrapping paper. I looked up and saw the paper beginning to burn. I panicked. I ran upstairs to my mother and told her. She peeked at it and called the fire department. It seemed to me the fire had become enormous by the time the firemen came. They put it out quite quickly, just as my father was coming home. As requested by him, the fire chief gave me a stern lecture. When he towered over me, wearing fireman’s gear and carrying an axe, I wanted to disappear or at least shrink to a puddle on the floor. Then Grandpa Max showed up and reacted quite differently. To the grownups he said, perhaps jokingly, “Should have let the whole house burn. The insurance would pay for it.”

(This is an excerpt from MILITARIST MILLIONAIRE PEACENIK: Memoir of a Serial Entrepreneur by Alan F. Kay and is reprinted with the permission of the author)

For more about Alan F Kay see Alan F. Kay.