Life Is a Highway


I took my kids on a college visit last week. As we drove down the highway, I began wondering about the interstate system. I knew that the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 at a spike-driving ceremony in Promontory Summit, Utah. (Although the railroad would not be a continuous line until 1870 because in 1869 passengers still had to complete one small portion of the journey by stage coach, but I digress!) Nevertheless, by the late 1800s, people could crisscross the country by train, but the train’s heyday was short-lived. The American love affair with the automobile also began around the turn of the century, and the people needed roads to drive on. So when was the first transcontinental interstate completed and where did the construction crews drive the proverbial golden spike for the interstate?

Get Your Kicks

Route 66 (The Mother Road) was one of the original US highways (work completed in 1926), but it only meandered from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California. The Lincoln Highway actually was a transcontinental road, and it will celebrate its 100th birthday in October 2013. A motorist could leave New York City, drive over 3,000 miles along its route, and arrive in San Francisco. One traveler did make such a trip in 1919. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a lieutenant colonel in the army, joined the first Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy. It was supposed to be a reliability test of the road and the army’s vehicles. Eisenhower noted that “Delays sadly were to be the order of the day.” At times the convoy rolled along at less than six miles per hour, equipment broke down, road conditions were in turns dusty or muddy, and many of the bridges were in poor condition, collapsing under the weight of the convoy. The trip took sixty-two days. Eisenhower would later compare that trip to his experiences in World War II Germany, where he witnessed the Nazis (and later the Allies) easily moving troops along the more modern Autobahn.

King of the Road

Convinced that a modern highway system was need for national defense, postwar President Eisenhower championed the law that would create the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Of course other presidents, notably Franklin Roosevelt, had studied the idea as well, but Eisenhower helped figure out how to finance the project, by using Federal gas taxes and other similar sources of revenue to create the funds needed to actually pay for the US government’s share of the construction costs. The act also set national standards for the road construction, including width of lanes (12 feet) and shoulders (10 feet).

Hit the Road Jack   

So once there was funding, where was the first road built? There are actually three states that make a claim: Missouri was the first to sign contracts ordering work under the new act, and a section of what is now I-70 in St. Charles County was the first to receive the Federal funds.  Kansas, on the other hand, was the first to complete a road (also a section of I-70) with the Federal money (although construction had already started when they received the funding). Pennsylvania, however, claims that their turnpike was the first interstate because a large section of it opened in 1940, well before the 1956 act!

So, which state was first is a matter of interpretation. What about completion? Surprisingly, the first transcontinental east-west interstate was not completed until August 1986—thirty years after Eisenhower signed the act! This was Interstate 80, and fittingly, I-80 was also completed in Utah, but this time near Salt Lake City. Winding from New York City to San Francisco, the odometer of a car making this trek would clock just over 2,900 miles—making I-80, at the time of completion, the world’s longest completed freeway. The completion of I-10, I-90, and I-70 would follow, although critics argue I-70 is still not complete as it is missing exchanges.

The Long and Winding Road

You may have noticed that all of these even-numbered roads run east-west. What about the north-south interstates? These odd-numbered interstates include I-95, the major East Coast north-south route, which is the interstate that traverses the most states (sixteen). Despite that feat, I-95 isn’t scheduled to be complete until at least 2018, as there is a nine-mile gap between Pennsylvania and New Jersey! There is another interstate oddity to mention: Hawaii has three interstates (H-1, H-2, and H-3) all on the island of Oahu. If the roads aren’t even inter-island, how can they be interstates? They get the designation because they were completed with interstate funds.

In all, more than 47,000 miles of roadway make up the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highway today. I think Eisenhower would be pleased to note an east-west cross-country journey can now be completed in less than fifty hours. Road trip, anyone?

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Additional Reading:

Pencil Pushing


I spent some time over the last couple of weeks working on college-related things with the kids. We were looking at various schools and trying to sort out some application and scholarship choices. In discussing options, we began to wonder about ACT scores, specifically which university has the highest average composite ACT scores. Several schools have an average ACT of 34, including Yale (CT), Harvey Mudd (CA), and the California Institute of Technology (also CA, of course). Then we wondered which university has the lowest composite ACT scores on average. Shaw University (NC) had the lowest that we could find, with an average composite score of 14. Fourteen may be the true lowest average or perhaps schools with lower ones don’t bother to report these scores! The national college and university average for composite ACT scores is currently 22 (out of a possible 36).

Money, Money, Money

The ACT is just one of the dozens of standardized tests schools use to sort and rank students throughout their scholastic careers. A Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings report from November 2012 estimates states spend $1.7 billion per year on standardized testing. And let’s not forget that this sum does not include what parents spend! For although, Illinois, for example, has made it compulsory for all high school students to take the ACT and pays for them to do so, Illinois is no longer requiring the ACT with Writing. So if your student is applying to a school that demands the writing portion, you’ll be paying for that out of pocket (currently $50.50 per student) because your student will have to take the test a second time at a testing center. If you need to send your students’ scores to more than four schools, you’ll pay $11 for each additional report. And if your kid needs help studying for the ACT, you may decide to fork over money for books ($10 and up) or classes (which can run hundreds of dollars), all of which contributes to the very lucrative standardized testing industry (ACT, SAT, and half a dozen other major players—along with several smaller companies).

Testing Dynasties

But high schools students didn’t wake up one day and collectively demand a standardized test or a standardized testing industry, so where did all this testing start? A University of Iowa professor introduced a version of the ACT in 1959. The SAT is even older; it was first administered to high school students in 1926. Both of these tests, however, are Johnny-come-latelies to the world of standardized testing. To find the beginnings, you have to go back—way back—to China in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). That’s right. Standardized testing is more than 2,000 years old. The Chinese wanted a way to test men hoping to train for civil servant positions. Subsequent dynasties tweaked the original test, and like today, over the centuries there were arguments against this sort of testing (as some scholars disliked the rote memorization of Confucian texts for the test), but the system was used in one form or another until 1905!

Just as the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) was abolishing the Chinese scheme, the United States was adopting its own testing system. The College Board (maker of the SAT) was founded in 1900 to create a standardized admission test for colleges. The first essay-style exam was offered in 1901 and taken by almost a thousand students in 69 locations.

The modern standardized intelligence (IQ) test was also developed in the early 1900s. Alfred Binet (1857–1911), a French psychologist, and Theodore Simon (1872–1961), a medical student of Binet’s, created the Binet-Simon Scale in 1905—the precursor to the Stanford-Binet test still used today. This sort of IQ testing was adapted for U.S. army assignments in World War I, where tests were administered to recruits to select officer candidates. Army testing, in turn, was applied to education by Carl Brigham (1890–1943), who had worked on the officer recruitment project. Brigham was hired by the College Board to create a standardized test for college entrance, which resulted in the aforementioned 1926 SAT.

Tiny Bubbles

In the late 1930s, IBM made their contribution to the standardized testing world, patenting the IBM 805 Test Scoring Machine, which read marks made by a graphite lead pencil using wire brushes to scan the page for electrical conductivity. The technology allowed automatic scoring of answer sheets for the multiple choice test sections. By the early 1960s, the electrical method gave way to optical test scanning machines, which caused generations of students—from elementary school to high school and beyond—to learn how to completely fill in their answer bubbles.

In 2012 more than 3.2 million students took either the SAT or the ACT. That number is only likely to go up as more states make taking one of the tests mandatory for graduation. All of which means that test anxiety, the debate over the use and abuse of testing, and No. 2 pencils are likely to be around for a long time.

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Additional Reading:

Murder Most Fowl


My cousin sent me this Internet meme. He and I share a penchant for a good pun, and he knew I’d appreciate this play on words. He was right, but after I laughed, I also wondered why we call a group of crows a “murder of crows.” I knew that animals often have collective names beyond the prosaic “herd of cows” or “flock of seagulls” (even though the latter also got a band out of the deal). You probably know the more well-known “pride of lions,” “pod of dolphins,” and “school of fish”; you may also have heard of the officious sounding “parliament of owls,” the showy “ostentation of peacocks,” and the aptly named “chattering of starlings.” It even turns out the group term “barrel of monkeys” long predates the 1965 children’s game (now produced by Milton Bradley) with the same moniker.

But who makes up these names, and what exactly is the origin of a “murder of crows”? Unfortunately, the historical record is elusive, and even a crowbar couldn’t help dislodge the truth. We do know The Boke of Saint Albans (1486)—attributed to Juliana Berners (sometimes given as Barnes), who was purported to be a prioress of an abbey near St. Albans, England—contained a three-page list of these collective terms. Historians, however, believe that the terms were most likely simply collected by Berners (not created by her). The book was published in the transition period between Middle and Early Modern English, but you can attempt to read a copy of a 1905 reprint here.

The meaning behind murder of crows is even more slippery. There is much speculation, but little verified truth. Some suggest that crows occasionally hold a crow tribunal where an offending member of the crow society is tried and sometimes sentenced to death by the other crows. This, however, seems to be more folklore than fact. Others note that crows and other black birds are considered omens (usually bad ones), and the negative connotations of a murder of crows may derive from that. Still others believe the term evolved from crow behavior during war. Because the crow is a carrion bird, they were often seen picking over the dead and wounded after a battle, which certainly did not help their reputation as harbingers of ill fortune. None of these three theories has been conclusively proven, however; so although black birds of a feather may flock together, I’m destined to eat crow and admit that I still don’t know exactly why these particular avian creatures are collectively a murder. But it is killing me.

Additional Reading:

The PBS series Nature had an episode on crows. See their fact sheet.

Want more collective animal terms? The San Diego Zoo has a whole page.

Text: ©Rebecca Bigelow
Photo: Unknown Internet Meme