Mark Martel’s ‘Dayton’s Children’ reinvents

By Mark Luedtke

Photo: Aeronautical engineer Maude Elsa Gardner (left) and chemist Thomas Midgley Jr. (right) from ‘Dayton’s Children’; photos: Mark Martel

Few people know many of the technologies they use every day were invented in Dayton. Mark Martel wants to fix that. Martel published a history of the fascinating characters that molded Dayton and laid the foundations for modern technology called
“Dayton’s Children.”

An artist by trade, Martel proves himself a superior author and editor, too.  Of the 20 profiles in his book, Martel wrote 14 and collected the others. Because of Martel’s skill, the book reads as if one author wrote it; once readers pick it up, they won’t want to put
it down.

Readers will quickly realize this book was a labor of love. Martel credits his contributors for making it easy but acknowledges the real secret. “I think I’ve become hooked on the thrill of the hunt,” he admits.

“We keep coming back to this great quote from Orville Wright: ‘Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so that we could discover them!’ Put that on your refrigerator. I think that feeling has intensified the deeper I get into this stuff,” he says.

Having dug deeply into Dayton’s history of innovation, Martel knows of what he speaks. “Dayton’s Children” begins with the names everybody knows—John Patterson, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Edward Deeds, and Charles Kettering—but many of the stories Martel relates will be new to readers. Martel doesn’t limit the stories to the lists of accomplishments anybody can find in historical sites around town. He brings the characters to life by highlighting their methods, personalities, eccentricities, foibles, and even mistakes. While most local histories treat the Wright brothers as a unit, Martel examines them as individuals who complemented each other.

And Dayton’s children weren’t saints. Both Patterson and Deeds were convicted of antitrust activities and arguably only saved from prison by the 1913 flood. Wilbur Wright’s patent crusade set American aviation back nearly a decade. By presenting a fuller picture of Dayton’s innovators, Martel’s book becomes more interesting than the standard, commonplace hagiographies.

Of the big names, Martel is drawn to Deeds. “Deeds is the most fascinating to me because of his contradictions. He was a flamboyant tycoon that kept a low profile, a one percenter who actually was a job creator for thousands of tech workers. He was a super boy scout when he wasn’t bending all the rules—Bruce Wayne when he wasn’t Doc Shadow.” Infamous for firing his best talent at NCR, Patterson always kept Deeds around and, after the flood, put him in charge of erecting the levees and flood controls that protect the Miami Valley today.

But “Dayton’s Children” goes beyond the famous names, profiling 15 more characters that also shaped the world as we know it. Some names readers will recognize. Some they won’t. Martel highlights the irony associated with Edward A. Murphy Jr., the namesake behind Murphy’s Law.

“Murphy is sort of the George Smiley of the group, boringly colorless but the unsuspected center of things. Murphy himself didn’t know for 20 years he’d had a law named after him, which is poetic justice. It’s also the typical cheap shot about Murphy’s Law that I tried to go beyond. The real Murphy was a safety engineer who worked to engineer things that couldn’t go wrong, like a wall plug that only fits one way.”

Much as the starship Enterprise carried the characters from story to story in Star Trek, the Engineers Club of Dayton connects the stories in “Dayton’s Children.” Founded and funded by Deeds and Kettering so innovators could “hunt” together, Orville Wright opened it with a rare public speech, and all the book’s characters congregated there. In its heyday, Martel relates, “There used to be standing instructions not to launder the tablecloths until someone checked that any scribbles on them weren’t valuable.”

But that former center of innovation risks crumbling into an anachronism. Martel observes, “The club is at the point where several futures diverge. It has survived long enough to see downtown begin to revitalize, and it may find new life as a hotspot for the next generation of hackers, makers, young professionals, and urban leaders. It might turn into a museum of local inventors, perhaps as part of Dayton History. The roof could cave in from a bad winter storm and put it all at risk.”

“Dayton’s Children” proves history doesn’t have to be boring. It also explains why Dayton’s history matters. These are valuable lessons for every bored school child, cynical adult, or any curious mind. “Dayton is central to American history, not just some Podunk town,” Martel says. “The Progressive Era hit a high water mark here, pardon the pun. And that history is relevant today. Can you say socialist? Antitrust? Climate change? Drones? Immigration? You start to see hidden stuff that was there all along.”

Martel finishes “Dayton’s Children” with a summary of Dayton’s long decline, a theme readers will note runs through the book, but he also offers hope for the future. In praise of the book, aviation photographer Dan Patterson asks, “Is Dayton willing to reinvent itself?” The more people who read this book, the more likely that will happen.

To learn more about Dayton history or to buy “Dayton’s Children,” please visit
DaytonInnovationLegacy.org.


Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at MarkLuedtke@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at MarkLuedtke@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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