“Cranks are noble,” says Charles P. Peirce, author of Idiot America, “because cranks are independent.Their value comes when, occasionally, their lonely dissents from the commonplace affect the culture, at which point the culture moves to adopt them and their ideas come to influence the culture.”
A footnote in Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead has gotten me reading and thinking about Commander Edwin Jenyss Quinby (1895-1981). Brilliant, eccentric, and very likely a crank, Quinby was one of those rare conspiracy theorists who was right.
One of Quinby’s formative experiences, according to this on-line tribute, was seeing the visionary scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla demonstrate a remote controlled submarine in Madison Square Garden. A Marconi radio operator on a tramp steamer (and later a Commander in the Naval Reserve), Quinby would be one of the first electrical engineers hired by RCA. He went on to patent a slew of inventions himself, but his life-long passion was for railroads and trolleys. He’d scandalized his wealthy parents when he took a job as a conductor and motorman on an interurban trolley that ran between Patterson, New Jersey and Suffern, New York after graduating from college; in 1968 he published the definitive history of the line, Interurban Interlude , A History of the North Jersey Rapid System.
In the 1950s, he was instrumental in efforts to save the paddlewheel riverboat The Delta Queen; he spent the final years of his life developing a prototype for an electric car in his basement. A 1960 article in American Heritage magazine describes the remote-controlled steam-powered calliope he created for the Delta Queen. At the time, he was also developing a calliope that could be installed on a trolley car–he’d helped set up a trolley museum in Branford, Connecticut so he had access to forty of them–“a kind of ‘trolleyope,’ which will use compressed air from the brake pump (the panting organ under the floor that used to go thump-thump thump when the cars paused) to play airs on various trolley bells, horns, and whistles.” Amazon lists a quaintly-titled book he published in 1974 (out of print and unavailable) that reflects the whole range of his interests: A Few Glimpses of the Passing Scene: Involving the Strange Combination of Steam Calliopes, Steamboats, Pipe Organs, Telegraphs, Cables, Radio, Electric Railroads and Gyro Monorails .
Quinby earned his footnote status in history in 1946, when he wrote a 24- (or 26- or 37-page–different accounts provide different numbers) pamphlet, ran off dozens of copies on a mimeograph machine in his basement, and mailed it to Congressmen, mayors, and city managers across the country. “This is an urgent warning to each and every one of you,” it began, “that there is a carefully, deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your most important and valuable public utilities–your Electric Railway system! Who will rebuild them for you?” Quinby was a well-known figure in the subculture of ‘juicefans’ (trolley enthusiasts). As far back as 1934, he’d founded the Electrical Railroaders’ Association, a group that, according to Colin Divall and Winstan Bond’s Suburbanizing the Masses: Public Transport and Urban Development in Historical Perspective (Ashgate, 2003), “had an explicit political agenda, not merely to preserve and publish information on electric railways, but also to lobby on their behalf wherever they were threatened.”
The threat Quinby had uncovered was a deadly one. In short, General Motors and a consortium of other large corporations, working through holding companies like National City Lines, had been buying up streetcar companies, scrapping their electric trolleys, and then locking the cities into contracts that required them to buy buses, parts and fuel from themselves. Mass Transportation magazine (which had named National City Lines’ president E. Roy Fitzgerald its Man of the Year) ridiculed Quinby and his manifesto. “Edwin J. Quinby took full advantage of the great American privilege of the free press to feed the lunatic fringe of radicals and crackpots springing up like weeds in the United States today,” Ross Schram wrote in a five-page cover article headlined “The Queer Case of Quinby.” “The document, printed on cheap paper, is natural fertilizer for suspicions, for disunity. What is the Quinby pattern? Was he used by some strange political influence?”
A year later–thanks in no small part to Quinby’s efforts–National City Lines, Inc., American City Lines, Inc., Pacific City Lines, Inc., the Standard Oil Company of California, the Federal Engineering Corporation, the Phillips Petroleum Company, the General Motors Corporation, the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company and the Mack Manufacturing Corporation were all indicted on anti-trust and conspiracy charges, along with seven executives: E. Roy Fitzgerald and Foster G. Beamsley of NCL; H.C. Grossman of General Motors; Standard Oil of California’s Henry C. Judd, L.R. Jackson of Firestone Tire & Rubber; and Frank B. Stradley and A.M. Hughes of Phillips Petroleum. They were convicted in 1949 and received slaps on the wrists. Each corporation was fined $5000; the executives were fined just $1. America’s trolleys continued their march to extinction.
Whether or not GM and its cohorts killed the trolleys by themselves or merely hastened their demise, there can be no doubt that they had spearheaded an illegal conspiracy that placed their corporate interests ahead of the public’s. Quinby’s mimeographed pamphlet might have looked and read like ravings from the fringe, but it was anything but. Just because you’re paranoid, as the saying goes, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get you.
Yesterday’s New York Times reported that Bashar al- Assad “labeled pro-democracy demonstrators as either ‘duped’ or as conspirators in a plot to destroy the nation.” Syria’s unrest, the opthamologist turned dictator said, was manufactured by saboteurs who want “to fragment Syria, to bring down Syria as a nation, to enforce an Israeli agenda.” Now that’s a conspiracy theory.