Inventions of the Gilded Age
(First posted on Crime Reads, August 2023)
"We don’t have a choice in the matter, Mr. McAllistar, we must go where history takes us." In the HBO Gilded Age series, these were Bertha Russell’s brave words to Ward McAllister on the night Thomas Edison flipped the switch to electrically light up the New York Times Building. McAllister had expressed a qualm about the direction of the future, echoing sentiments of many others at the time. The scene mirrored the real-life moment, in 1882, when Edison ushered in the Electrical Age by flipping the switch at his power station on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan, allowing electricity to flow into homes for the first time in history. It was a bold, thrilling moment. It was also a frightening moment, fraught with uncertainty.
For good or ill, the Gilded Age was much more than a time of conspicuous consumption, excess, and self-indulgence, where a handful of individuals controlled the greater portion of the country’s wealth. It was also a time of invention and innovation that paved the way for our modern world.
By 1895, the year The Gilded Newport Mysteries opens with Murder at The Breakers, electricity had become a standard inclusion in most wealthy households, including The Breakers, the summer cottage of the Cornelius Vanderbilts. But Ward McCallister’s skepticism hadn’t faded into the darkness. Most people still distrusted this new-fangled technology and continued to build houses powered by both electricity and gas. Why were they doubtful? Until the breakthroughs in technology by inventors like Edison and physicists like Tesla, Faraday and Maxwell, electricity had few practical applications and no guarantee of dependability. Not to mention its many dangers, especially when systems were overloaded or wiring improperly installed and insufficiently insulated. In those cases, death could come swiftly, with no warning.
We see this particularly in Murder at Ochre Court, the sixth book in the series. Ochre Court’s electrical system has been sabotaged so that when the victim, an heiress making her debut, sits on her throne of honor, she is electrocuted to death. The very technology meant to make life more glamourous and comfortable is transformed into a murder weapon.
In Murder at The Elms, electricity is once again showcased, but this time as the sole means of powering a household. At the insistence of its owners, Edward and Herminie Berwind, The Elms was one of the first houses in America to forego gas as a backup source of power. With unlimited coal from his own mines, Berwind had his electricity generated right in his own basement, with men shoveling coal into three massive furnaces twenty-four hours a day, in eight-hour shifts. Despite these men toiling constantly in conditions of blazing heat and back-breaking labor, this constituted a major step forward in the modernization of American households.
What other life-changing inventions are credited to the Gilded Age, and how have they figured into the Gilded Newport Mysteries? In Newport at the time, electric streetcars had replaced the horse-driven ones of a decade ago. Emma often rides these trolleys through town when she’s on a case, or must quickly step out of the way while crossing Spring Street or Washington Square. Throughout the series, Emma also makes use of the telephone in the
alcove beneath the stairs in her home. A gift installed by her Uncle Cornelius, this wooden callbox, which has no dial, allows her to connect with places in town, including the police station where she often consults with her friend, Detective Jesse Whyte. She needs to be careful what she discusses, though. Telephone lines weren’t private in those days, and you never knew who might be listening in, especially the friendly but nosy switchboard operator. And when visiting New York City, she would have seen some of the world’s first skyscrapers, as new technologies in steel-girder construction, which created a load-bearing skeleton, allowed for buildings taller than the typical four to five stories possible with masonry construction.
In Murder at Wakehurst, we see a casual use of cameras—not the older, professional double-box cameras mounted on tripods and using chemically sensitized plates to capture images, but the hand-held single-box models that used first flexible paper film, and then celluloid, invented by George Eastman in the late 1880s. This new, inexpensive means of photography allowed ordinary people to dabble in the art of capturing images, thus creating a more comprehensive record of ordinary family life from that point onward. Cameras would also soon become part of police forensic procedures. The “mug shot” as we know it today was developed in the late 1800s by French photographer and police records clerk, Alfonse Bertillon, who standardized the technique for photographing suspects, and who would go on to develop crime scene photography in the early years of the twentieth century. Photographs created a permanent record of a crime scene before it was contaminated and allowed that scene to be reexamined as often as needed.
Probably the most life-changing invention of the Gilded Age, of course, was the automobile. At the turn of the twentieth century, there existed three main types of automobile engines: gasoline, electrical, and steam-powered, each vying for dominance in the marketplace. It’s probably no surprise that steam-power proved tricky to operate, with several steps involved in simply turning on the engine, not to mention the tendency for steam to build up pressure and explode. No wonder steam-powered cars didn’t last long.
In Murder at Kingscote, set in 1899, we see automobiles in action for the first time in an automobile parade organized by Alva Belmont. As history has it, the entrants decorated their vehicles in florals and ribbons to resemble a fantasy float, and demonstrated their driving prowess by navigating an obstacle course. In the story, however, an automobile also becomes a murder weapon. Simply, the murderer is able to push the car into his/her victim, pinning the individual against a tree with the full weight of the front end. In real life, automobiles came to pose quite a danger in Newport during those early years, with wealthy young men racing along the twisting, hilly roads with little regard for wildlife, farm animals, or even unwitting humans. In particular, Reginald (Reggie) Vanderbilt, youngest son of Cornelius, garnered quite a reputation as a reckless often inebriated, driver.
But while Reggie might have been something of a wastrel, his older brother, Cornelius III, was not. Having married against his parents’ wishes, Cornelius, or Neily, was disinherited and stripped of his leadership position at the New York Central Railroad. After his father’s death, Neily was hired back at the railroad by his brother, Alfred, as a mere employee, but, having earned an engineering degree at Yale, he went on to develop technology that would improve the efficiency of railroad travel, and also had a hand in establishing New York City’s subway system.
Let’s not forget the most exhilarating development of the Gilded Age, when, in 1903, human beings took flight in a powered aircraft for the first time as Orville and Wilbur Wright succeeded in getting their motor-operated plane off the ground. From kerosene to incandescent lightbulbs, from carriages to cars, and from trains to airplanes, the Gilded Age, with its audacity and creativity, it’s excessive wealth and yes, even its greed, propelled the world into a thrilling future that could not have been imagined some thirty years earlier. Imagine if they could see where history has taken us, just over a century later.