Monday, September 11, 2006

1890: A Tipping Point

Some years ago I inherited a Browning model 1955 Pocket Pistol. Like most of John Browning's designs, the model number was also the year it was introduced. This is a tiny little hammerless smooth-cornered semi-automatic pistol designed for a gentleman of that era to carry in his suit coat or pants pocket. It was a nice piece, and it still shoots just fine.

Being my usual anal-retentive self, I began researching the 1955. While it is not nearly as famous as an earlier Browning design, the 1911 (which is known by most as the iconic ".45 Automatic") it does have some interesting claims to fame. The 1955 was a re-release of an earlier design, the 1910, which itself was an earlier version of what evolved into the 1911. And the tiny Browning 1910 was the handgun used to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event which sparked off the First World War.

Author and television host James Burke, through his PBS shows such as Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, was always taking his viewers down a long contorted path of history to show how inventions and events were improbably linked together. And so shall I. WWI lead to the collapse of Germany under the leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The collapse of Germany lead to the rise of the Nazi party and of Adolph Hitler. This lead to WWII (which unlike WWI really was a global conflict). And WWII lead to the Atomic Age.

So you could argue that 1914 was a tipping point in history, and that the assassination of an archduke with a Browning 1910 Pocket Pistol led to the Atomic Age. But I'm going to argue that there was an even more interesting tipping point connected to this chain of events: the year 1890.

Wilhelm II was an ambitious, impatient, and it turns out maybe a little brain-damaged, emperor of Germany and King of Prussia. In 1890, just two years after ascending to the throne, Wilhelm fired his Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, because Bismarck just wasn't getting with the program for the conquest of Europe. Now by all accounts, Bismarck was a Prussian's Prussian. He has been described as brilliant. And by all accounts, although he may not have been the nicest guy, he really understood that diplomacy was a whole lot cheaper than warfare. So clearly he had to go. The canning of Bismarck in 1890 was a pivotal point in history as part of a chain events that eventually led to the Atomic Age.

The year 1890 was an interesting one for other reasons. In that year, the United States Census Bureau declared, based on the 1880 census, that the western frontier was closed. All the unclaimed land had been claimed, most of it had been settled, and thanks to the Transcontinental Railroad, the western United States was safe from incursion by foreign powers. (Just as Eisenhower saw the need for the Interstate Highway System for moving troops based on his experience with the German autobahns during WWII, Lincoln saw the need for the Transcontinental Railroad to move troops to the west coast to secure it from invasion by the European powers via Canada or Mexico). Because of this, most historians consider 1890 as the end of the era we think of as the "Old West".

I think it must be hard for folks from outside of the United States to appreciate the mythic quality the Old West has in our country. The period lasted barely a generation, from the end of the American Civil War in 1865 until 1890. If you added up all of the western films and television shows ever made (including the spaghetti westerns made in Italy), the total viewing hours might be longer than the Old West period actually lasted. But today, we're still making western movies and television series, still writing western novels, and millions of us (including me) still own at least one pair of cowboy boots that are likely to never set foot in a stirrup. I might own a couple of cowboy hats too.

The U.S. Census Bureau played another crucial role in the year 1890. The 1880 census took so long to tabulate, seven years, that the Bureau was seriously worried that the 1890 census might take longer than a decade to complete. They turned to a recent Ph.D. graduate, Herman Hollerith, for help. Hollerith had designed a mechanical tabulating machine that could sort and collate information stored in the form of holes punched on paper cards the size of the 1890-era U.S. dollar. The Bureau adopted Hollerith's invention, and the 1890 Census was completed in two and a half years. Hollerith went on to found the Tabulating Machine Company, which in the fullness of time became IBM.

So here's the crux of it: 1890 was the year in which the U.S. Census Bureau ended the Old West and began the Information Age. And it was the year in which the sacking of Otto von Bismarck would lead to two World Wars and the Atomic Age.

Living in Denver Colorado and working in information technology, I find it remarkable, and very resonant, that the Old West ended and the Information Age began in the same year, and through the same agency of the U.S. Government. And actions taking place that same year led to a chain of events that so thoroughly defined our current world.