Today, we care for wounded soldiers. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
An odd item in the Smithsonian
Institution: It looks like an old Western chuck wagon
with its canvas top and somewhat square shape. It has a
small red cross painted on the side.
This wagon is an important piece of history. To tell its
story we go first to the aftermath of the Battle of
Solferino in Italy -- a part of the little-known War
of 1859. After the battle, a young Swiss named Henri
Dunant worked with other bystanders to care for thousands
of wounded French, Italian, and Austrian soldiers.
In 1862, Dunant wrote a book about that ghastly
experience. He used it to call for the creation of an
international group that would give relief in war. People
responded. Two years later, the International Committee
of the Red Cross had been formed with its headquarters in
Ambulances were fairly new at
that time. They were all horse-drawn, and they were owned
and operated only by the various armies. A few years
after the Red Cross was formed, the German army started
painting the Red Cross symbol on its ambulances.
Historian Herbert Collins tells us that the Red Cross
didn't provide its own ambulances until the
When Cubans revolted against Spanish rule in 1897,
Clara Barton, head of the
American Red Cross, asked President McKinley to help her
raise public money for Red Cross relief to Cuba. The
government finally did join the effort, but only after
the conflict had widened into the Spanish-American
War a year later.
The Red Cross raised $36,000. And Barton directed most of
that money into building eleven mule-drawn ambulances.
Each carried four stretchers and a water cask under the
driver's seat. Two of the stretchers could be mounted as
bench seats inside. The ambulances were made by the
Studebaker Company, shortly before it began making
Six of the eleven ambulances went to Cuba, where Barton
later found that the Army hadn't even bothered to unload
them. Two were used in New York City and one at Camp
Thomas, Georgia. Only two of the eleven saw action.
They'd been sent, not to Cuba, but to Puerto Rico. And
they were very useful there.
The one in Georgia was sent back to Clara Barton in
Washington after the war. A vegetable peddler eventually
bought it, and the Smithsonian didn't find it until 1962.
When they restored it, they found it'd originally been
painted Prussian blue and chrome yellow.
You might not see anything special when you first look at
this simple ambulance. But then its meaning emerges. You
see Henri Dunant's flash of ingenuity after the suffering
at Solferino. You see Clara Barton's organizational
ingenuity. This humble little wagon represented the first
real action by a world relief organization that owed
nothing to any national interest.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.