This is the fifth in a series about the six classical simple machines.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to visit Hyde Park, a mere hour south from where I live, but I finally got around to it last week and it was kind of a revelation. Springwood, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s estate, which is the house he grew up in and lived in whenever he could, tells you so much about the man who was one of our best and, without question, our swankiest, president (to wit: his 1936 Pierce Arrow had a special device next to the steering wheel that actually dispensed lit cigarettes).
Naturally the part that interested me most in his house was the dumbwaiter that Roosevelt used to lift himself up to the second floor and, after it was described in the loud informative voice favored by our guide, my girls and I rushed over to look at it. The chair inside looked just like a regular chair on wheels, which is exactly what it was. Roosevelt had had one specially made so that it wouldn’t look like a wheelchair, even though that’s exactly what it was. He would wheel himself into the dumbwaiter, and then pull the rope of the lift’s pulley system (according to Jack Dempsey, Roosevelt had the upper body strength of a boxer) to move it up to the next floor or down. There was no elevator in the house.
You are likely aware that Roosevelt, struck by a mysterious disease (Was it polio? That’s what he was diagnosed with, but today it is thought that it could have just as likely been Guillain-Barre Syndrome) at the age of 39, was paralyzed from the waist down during all of his presidency, but the extent to which he hid it from the public is fairly remarkable. (For the full details, you might want to check out FDR’s Deadly Secret, which I totally plan on getting to after I finish the dozens of Shirley Jackson books I just took out of the library as well as this.)
Remember, people saw pictures of Roosevelt in that car or sitting at his desk during the famous fireside chats. People were vaguely aware of the wheelchair, but they didn’t see it all that often (Secret Service agents, upon seeing a photographer taking a picture of Roosevelt in his wheelchair, were directed to seize the camera and rip out the film). Sometimes there would be the occasional magazine photo of Roosevelt in a wheelchair, but really any mention of it was extremely rare.
Mostly what the public believed (and what Roosevelt wanted for them to believe) was that he had contracted polio, but through his own sheer will, had triumphed over it. And yet, despite his fierce determination to the contrary, his legs were truly paralyzed, and he moved, with crutches, by pivoting his waist and pitching himself forward with his incredibly strong upper body.
Now there really is a pulley in this story, so let’s get back to it. Dumbwaiters have always interested me, for some reason, which I suppose is because I love the idea of objects traveling in an elevator without anyone in it (something I also love similarly are those escalators at certain Whole Foods that you can put your grocery cart on and allow it to travel and meet you on the floor above or below, all on its own!).
At first dumbwaiters were controlled manually by ropes on pulleys until electric motors were added in the 1920s. I can only imagine that a home with a dumbwaiter seemed the height of luxury, even if they were only used to move serving trays. Roosevelt, who’d had a big role in the renovation of his home in 1915, which occurred before his paralysis, probably didn’t want anything major done to accommodate him afterward. So the dumbwaiter would do just fine. (If you’re wondering about the word “dumbwaiter,” as I was, it was used to mean “silent waiter,” which is certainly one way to describe a lift on a pulley system.)
One thing about pulleys is that, like their name, you almost can’t picture them without someone pulling on them. So I leave you with the image of FDR, hoisting himself up his own pulley system, hand over hand, charging through to the next floor, kind of the way he charged through the presidency for 12 years. Even though he liked to keep this kind of heavy lifting out of the public eye.
(And finally: the screw.)