Saturday, December 16, 2023

A Somewhat Technological and Completely Bananas Appendix to Postblogging Technology, August 1953: Fire!


Of course Celtic Women covered it. 

Someone once said that J. H. Hexter would have been a better known historian if he hadn't been like the horse that only ran when it had a burr under its saddle, in his case  this being historians with an excessive bent for synthesis, particularly Marxists. I understand, Jack, I understand. For me, it's Correlli Barnett. Audit of War comes out of an era of intense British self-loathing, building on Fordism, with all its Fascist tendencies. Practically everything American is better, and there's a neat convergence between supporter and critic, where the American factory is better for Barnett, while his critics defend laggard British per-person productivity by pointing to the vast floor space possible for American factories.

  Of course the factory is big. It's America

Here's another big factory:

On 12 August 1953, the nearly forgotten "greatest industrial fire in metro Detroit history" broke out at GM's Hydra-Matic factory in the Detroit inner-ring suburb of Livonia. Another story we tell about vast American spaces has to do with the strong North American preference for automatic transmissions in our cars. Over here on our vast new continent, we're either counting off the miles on the open road, or lurching through overgrown strip developments from stop light to stop light. Either way, we ain't got time for gear changin'! 
By Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0,

It's interesting therefore that the Wikipedia history of the Hydra-Matic begins before the synchromesh, caught on, in the Thirties, back when shifting a car's gear might still involve the dreaded "double clutch." This perhaps helps explain the divergence in practice between the two hemispheres. GM pioneered the automatic hydraulic transmission with the Hydra-Matic, first offered for the OldsMobile line in the 1940 product year (which is to say, in 1939.) Wikipedia reports a factoid I've seen elsewhere, that it was a $57 option on the basic Olds, becoming a $125 option on the 1941 Cadillac. It  went into the Army's light tanks during the war, and became a Pontiac option in 1948, going into 70% of the cars sold, and inspiring rival Dynaflow and Powerglide options from two other GM marquees. The 1949 high compression Oldsmobile Rocket V8 was only available in Hydra-Matic, sparing the expense of developing a manual transmission for the new generation engine. Understandably, Nash, Hudson and Kaiser-Frazer adopted the Hydra-Matic under license, and even Rolls-Royce took it up in 1952. Ford introduced a rival transmission in 1951, developed by Borg-Warner, the Ford-O-Matic. Also-ran Studebaker had the best automatic transmission on the market, also from Borg-Warner, but it was too expensive or something. (Studebaker's abiding sin being apparently treating its South Bend employees too well, and not a hapless management team, even if they did bring in Curtiss Wright to turn things around in the mid-Fifties [gigantic eyeroll].)  

So the automatic transmission was the Coming Thing, and no wonder that in 1949 GM opened a brand new forty million dollar factory to manufacture it at Livonia, "fifteen miles northwest of downtown Detroit" (twenty, per Wikipedia) to replace the ramshackle facilities where the Hydra-Matic was produced in its first decade. I've never been even close to Livonia, but there's pictures at Google Maps give an impression of an industrial development notwithstanding a century of history as an agricultural township. "As of 2000, Livonia was the city in the United States with over 100,000 people that had the highest percentage of non-Hispanic white people." 

Pictures can, of course, be deceiving. It has one of the biggest Palestinian American communities in the US, and I bet there's a hidden history behind its being named after Livonia in wester New York, formerly Seneca Conesus. What pictures don't hide is the suburban flight  that ensured it wasn't overburdened with property tax liabilities like excessive amounts of fire protection infrastructure. When the Detroit fire department's response to the outbreak of fire at the plant at afternoon shift change on Wednesday, 12 August 1953 was delayed for 20 minutes by "red tape." I'm not going to pull out my Jennifer Lawrence gif for the "red tape" reference, but suffice it to say that according to the Detroit fire department, once all the 30 available reporting engines were hooked up, Livonia municipal water pressure fell well below the threshold needed to supply the Detroit pumps, which were delayed because it took that long for the mayor of Livonia to call the Mayor of Detroit, inasmuch as no contract for standby protection existed, Livonia having baulked at Detroit's price. In the end, first response mainly served to salvage the administrative records and associated impedimenta, "electrical recording and other equipment . . . was moved to safety on forklifts," while ambulances evacuated the more seriously injured, including many telephone switchboard operators who remained at their post until the last minute, and workers trying to protect classified equipment at the  separate Ternstedt Division. The scene outside said it all. The Livonia plant's fate was sealed.

Or more sealed, anyway. News coverage the week of the fire blamed a fire started by a welding torch lighting a pan on a conveyor belt that spread the fire through the building. In fact, although it did involve a welding torch igniting a "a conveyor dip pan that contained a highly flammable liquid used as a rust inhibitor for transmission parts," the belt was not moving, and initially the fire was successfully attacked with fire extinguishers, until these ran out --not surprisingly since the "pan," or "trough" was suspended seven feet above the floor from which the extinguishers were directed. At this point the fire began to spread quickly through the 1.5 million square foot building, including the separate, partitioned Ternstedt division (making fire control apparatus for the T-41 Chaffee at the time), where the three GM fatalities of the day occurred, but not into the administrative wing, which was protected by the only firewall in the building. This, a scathing
Fire Engineering investigation pointed out, in spite of what GM claimed to be the "most modern fire-prevention and fire quenching equipment." This probably refers to a sprinkler system that originally covered the whole plant, but which was not extended as the plant was hastily built out to its final extent. The state fire marshal report says that 10 to 15% of the building was covered by the sprinklers, but "others" say that it was greater. In any case, it is hard to imagine sprinklers beating a fire caused by burning oil dripping onto oil-soaked wood floors. A National Roofing Contractors of America report, citing the National Fire Protection Association Quarterly, has some of the most complete coverage, with special emphasis, understandably enough, on the 34.5 acres of roof, which covered a facility with 3 400 gallon wash tanks and three 450 gallon dip tanks of rust inhibitors, all under a structure with no roof vents. The roof consisted of a deck of 18 gauge steel plates covered with built-up layers of tar paper and asphalt, a total of 3lbs of tar and asphalt per square foot, 2000t for the entire roof. Soon, hot tar was dripping on the fire, a "literal rain of fire." Two of the inhouse firefighting team were found dead in the bathrooms, a division chief in a locker room. They were safe there from dripping, burning tar, but not smoke. The NRCA retrospective details the changes in roofing regulation that resulted, but also notes that the industry was paralysed for six months after the fire as contractors refused to specify metal decks under tar and asphalt. The real problem was one of putting inflammables under inflammables, preferring tile and concrete until PVC barriers came into general use. 

At the time, the general expectation was 250,000 people out of work, 300,000 cars lost, and $750 million in sales. That didn't happen, in part thanks to Henry Kaiser showing his particular strengths as a businessman (because he did have them!) by signing a lease for the Willow Run space vacated by the C-119 cancellation. In the official, heroic story of GM's recovery, skilled GM workers from around the nation were mobilised to salvage and repair the special purpose machine tools at Livonia and transfer them to Willow Run to get Hydra Matics into production within six months, while Dyna Flow and Power Glide production (or even, as much as the dealers fought it, manual transmissions) were put into GM cars until Hydra-Matic production came back. The reality was a bit more nuanced, as was revealed in March of 1977, when a story about GM putting Chevrolet engines in its Oldsmobiles, rebadged as "Rocket 88" engines broke. The went back to the recovery efforts of 25 years before, but consumers of 1977 were less inclined to trust GM than their parents.  Good on Henry for getting out of the Willow Run albatross, though. I'm amazed that he went back to it after the B-24 fiasco of the war years, but all's well that ends well, and I'm reminded that David Hounshell's excoriating investigation of that fiasco, in his award-winning From the American System to Mass Production, didn't save him from being an unemployed academic from his 36th year until he was rescued by United Steel in 1991. Goes to show, better a grifter than a grinder! Corelli? Is that you!

So that's the story of how a turgid and sloppy automatic transmission came to just about monopolise American cars, and was built in a firetrap instant factory until a spark dropped in the wrong place damn near shut down the American economy in the summer of 1953. All dug out of esoteric Internet sites because, I mean, fire safety, right? Who even cares about that stuff?

 If you want a lot worse, do your own image search for "burn survivors."

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