Friday, April 4, 2014

Board of Trade -- April 4, 1903

Chicago Board of Trade -- April 4, 1903
Photograph by George H. Lawrence (Library of Congress Photo)
Anyone who does even the most basic research about the history of Chicago’s Board of Trade will come across the above photograph.  It was taken on this date, April 4, in 1903 at the height of the day’s trading session.  I always thought it was a really cool piece of work, capturing the hustle and bustle of the floor and the magnificence of the pits in which the traders were at work.

The photograph was the result of a really impressive piece of engineering on the part of the photographer, George Raymond Lawrence.  As The Tribune described the effort on the following day, “The largest amount of flashlight powder that has ever been used in taking one picture was used by George R. Lawrence yesterday when he took a photograph of all the traderings clamoring in the pits.”

Mr. Lawrence used twelve pounds of flash powder, distributed to 350 lights that were draped from the balconies of the trading room.  The lights were all discharged “simultaneously by electricity.”

George Lawrence came to Chicago at the age of 20, having attained an eighth grade education in the farm country around Manteno.  At an early age he showed a genius for tinkering and at his first job in Chicago – at the Abbott wagon factory in Auburn Park, he invented a system of attaching iron rims to wooden wheels that allowed the company to employ one employee to do a job that previously required eight men to complete.

Following his marriage to Alice Herenden in 1890, Lawrence opened the Lawrence Portrait Studio at Yale Avenue and Sixty-Third Street.  By 1896 he had a shop on the corner of Van Buren and Wabash, advertising the business in this way, “The hitherto impossible in photography is our specialty.”  [Petterchak, Alice.  “Photography Genius:  George R. Lawrence & ‘The Hitherto Impossible’”]

Always the tinkerer, he began to experiment with the flash powder that would make the Board of Trade photograph a reality.  He endured “numerous explosions which burned off his hair, his eyebrows and mustache, and burst his eardrums.”  [Petterchak]  In one unfortunate experiment he blew up a building on the South side.

Eventually, though, he found a magnesium formula that worked.  But he went much farther, developing a panoramic camera weighing 1,400 pounds with a bellows that extended 20 feet, a monster that required 20 assistants to operate.  The photographic plate on which the image was captured measured five feet by 8 feet.

San Francisco Panoramic Photo -- George Lawrence, photographer
(Library of Congress Photo)
Later he developed the ability to take aerial photographs, first by a balloon and then by a system of kites with special rigging to hold the camera steady.  It was this last innovation that allowed Lawrence to capture the images that come to mind when we think of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  That same year he assembled 28,000 pounds of photographic equipment and headed for Africa where it took 400 natives and 64 oxen to get the stuff into the jungle.

That was enough.  He quit photography and took on a new interest in aviation, which he followed closely until he died on December 15, 1938.

George Lawrence wasn't done when he exploded all that flash powder at the Board of Trade.  In the same week he headed for the Union Stockyards in Chicago where he took the following panoramic photo, an amazing shot that captures what an enterprise that must have been.

Chicago Union Stockyards -- George Lawrence, photographer
(Library of Congress Photo)

No comments: