Chapter One: The Boy and the Machine

New Year’s Day

Anything, everything, is possible.
– Thomas Edison, 1908

On the cool, fine afternoon of January 1, 1908, a sixteen-year-old boy named Terrance Kego — or Tego, as several brief accounts had it in the next day’s papers — stepped onto his bicycle at his home on West 131st Street and began pedaling down Amsterdam Avenue in the direction of Central Park. Other than his address and his occupation as a clerk, few details about the boy survive. A few more, though, can be surmised.

Making waves: President Teddy Roosevelt bids farewell to some of the 13,000 Navy sailors in the Great White Fleet as they begin their 43,000-mile journey around the world on Dec. 16, 1907.

As he started down the wide avenue, descending from Harlem Heights to the valley at 125th Street, he would have passed through a sloping neighborhood of row houses and low apartment buildings occupied by working-class families. Because today was a holiday, and because the weather was pleasant, some of the families would have been out on the avenue, strolling the bluff above the river. Young children would have turned to watch Terrance glide by on his bicycle, hunched over his handlebars, cap pulled low on his head, wind pulling at the tail of his coat. Perhaps a few flecks of confetti escaped from the furls of his coat and fluttered out behind him like tiny bright moths.

Certainly Terrance had gone out to greet the New Year the previous evening. What sixteen-year-old boy could have resisted the tug of the street? He may have joined the swollen tide of revelers on 125th Street, where the festivities had continued, with occasional interruptions from the police, until nearly dawn. Or more likely, being a self-supporting and spirited adolescent — the kind of go-getter, according to the next day’s New York World, who had made a New Year’s vow to “take no one’s dust when on his bicycle” — he’d traveled downtown to Forty-second Street to cast himself into that great cauldron of humanity that was Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Only a few years earlier, well within Terrance’s young memory, New Year’s Eve had been a quiet and civilized affair spent at home or on the streets of lower Broadway, where the chimes of Trinity Church rang harmoniously at midnight. These last several years, though, it had metamorphosed into something entirely different — more like an election night bacchanalia, with a bit of Independence Day bumptiousness thrown in, plus some frantic energy all its own. The chimes still rang at the old church downtown, but the action was uptown now, and its pulsating center was right here at the nonsectarian intersection of Broadway and Forty-second street.

Arriving in Times Square, Terrance would have climbed directly into a press of bodies and a blizzard of confetti swirling under the dazzling lights of Broadway. The streets had been filling since early in the evening, tens of thousands of bodies funneling in from Union Square and the Flatiron district, from the Tenderloin, still others from the outer boroughs by streetcar or subway or ferry. “An acrobat could hardly have managed to fall down for a wager, so tightly did the people hold each other up,” reported the next day’s New York Evening Sun. A special correspondent for the Chicago Daily Tribune judged the noise in Times Square to be more varied than in previous years. “Slide trombones that yowled like a cat in torture, a combination of cowbells and street car gongs, tin horns with a double register, sections of iron pipe that could be rasped with files till they gave forth bellows that carried for blocks,” were a few of the sounds the correspondent recorded. Shouts and squeals blended with these other sounds to create, as the New York Tribune put it, a “terrifying reverberation.”

To step into that crowd was to release all sense of direction and decorum. It moved as an organic, unruly mass, drifting, lulling, then surging spasmodically. A sixteen-year-old boy on the last night of 1907 would have been astonished to find himself squeezed in among so many strangers; or, more to the point, among so many young women. While the usual distaff armor — overcoats, ankle-length skirts, petticoats, shirtwaists, steel-plated corsets, undergarments — did its job of keeping feminine flesh secured, the rules of Victorian modesty lapsed that night. Men and women ground against each other indiscriminately.

At every corner, meanwhile, temptation beckoned in the form of vendor carts stocked high with horns and nickel bags of confetti. Assuming you could get to one of these vendors, you could stick a horn into your mouth and stuff your pockets with confetti, all for a dime, then dash back into the swarm to discharge your colored specks into the face of a stranger. More aggressive boys and men squirmed through the crowd with small feather dusters — “ticklers,” they were called — brushing the exposed flesh of women’s faces and ears, then vanishing before they could be reprimanded or cuffed. Police Commissioner Bingham had issued an edict against the use of ticklers this New Year’s Eve but nobody paid him any mind. Many of the women had taken matters into their own hands, covering their faces with heavy veils to ward off the feathers.

Ready for takeoff: Wilbur Wright made a record flight of 2 hours, 20 minutes on Dec. 31, 1908.

Near Forty-second Street, a group of enterprising young men pulled a clothesline across the sidewalk, tying one end to an iron post and drawing the other end taut to the curb. When young women approached, they raised the line a foot or two off the pavement. “Leap year, ladies!” they called. “Take the jump. Show what you can do for leap year!” Some women stepped down onto the street to walk around, but many accepted the challenge. They lifted their skirts above their ankles and jumped.

Young men executed most of the pranks that night, but the females were hardly blameless. Groups of them clasped hands to each other’s shoulders to form daisy chains, then ran into the crowd, whipping through it with merry violence. Late in the evening, at Forty-sixth Street and Broadway — was Terrance there to see it? — a dozen young women encircled a well-dressed young man. Locking their arms together, they refused to let him escape. The young man repeatedly tried to bash his way out of their circle but the young women only pushed him back into the center, taunting and jeering him. A policeman finally rescued the hapless young man, but not before the women had kicked his silk hat down Broadway.

What Terrance could not have witnessed that night were the diamond-clad women smoking cigarettes inside the glittering precincts of Rector’s and Martin’s. These two Broadway restaurants, among others, had relaxed their usual restrictions and allowed female patrons to indulge in tobacco, a fact so remarkable it was recorded on front pages of newspapers around the country. Much as Americans would tune their television sets to watch the ball drop in Times Square in later years, they looked to New York that New Year’s Eve for excitement, dismay, and provocation. On the night of the first-ever ball-drop, New York did not disappoint.

Just before midnight, a hush fell over the crowd. All eyes rose to the top of the Times building. Up there, hovering over the city beyond the glare of powerful searchlights, poised at the tip of the seventy-foot flagpole, a giant glittering sphere waited to fall. It was five feet in diameter, seven hundred pounds in weight, and cloaked in 216 white lights. Nobody could have guessed they were about to witness the debut of a custom that would still mark the New Year a century later; nor was it likely, at this moment, that anyone was peering so far ahead. It was enough, in the remaining seconds of 1907, to contemplate the difficulties of the year behind and the promises of the year ahead.

The crowd began to count backward: tens of thousands of voices rising to the sky above New York, joined together in anticipation of something new and marvelous. Then the gleaming orb fell and bright white numbers flashed on the roof of the Times building: 1908: 1908: 1908.

At the end of the long glide down to 125th Street, Terrance could either pedal furiously to gather speed, then take his chances dodging whatever traffic might be passing along 125th Street — thereby preserving his momentum for the long ascent to Morningside Heights — or he could veer east on 125th Street. The latter was the easier, more sensible route. The thoroughfare would have been quiet on New Year’s Day. A few horses would be standing at the curb before their carts, snorting patiently. An automobile might rumble past, but automobiles were still scarce in Harlem, since not many people living on fifteen or twenty dollars a week could afford one. Other than the piles of horse manure, which Terrance would be mindful to dodge, the street promised a smooth ride over macadam.

A few effortless blocks, then Terrance would turn south again, skirting Morningside Park. To his right, across the park, rose the stony cliffs of Morningside Heights. Atop them, blotting the weak afternoon sun, loomed the gray walls of St. John the Divine, the great cathedral begun the year Terrance was born and still in the infancy of its construction. The plain of Jewish Harlem spread out to the east. The road was flat all the way south to Central Park. Terrance’s legs would still be fresh when he got there.

Had there ever been a finer time to be an American boy on a bicycle than on that first day of the new year of 1908? Certainly the interests and passions of a sixteen-year-old had never coincided so perfectly with those of his country. America was very much an adolescent itself, brash and exuberant, stirring with strange and urgent new longings, one moment supremely confident and clever, the next undone by giddiness and hormones. The psychologist G. Stanley Hall had recently coined the term “adolescence” to describe the passionate “new birth” that occurred in humans between childhood and maturity. It was, wrote Hall, a phase characterized by “storm and stress,” but also by joy and delight, as “old moorings were broken and a higher level attained.” The description fit the America of 1908 as well as it did any teenager.