Music, Balloons, and More to Win a War

Bridge Street

A century ago, in 1917, the nation was in a very different mindset as World War One raged on across the Atlantic. American soldiers had just entered the conflict, making the war a much more pressing concern for everyone at home in the United States. Scrap drives, war bonds, and bake sales were everywhere, but some citizens went a step further. One local man made contributions in more ways than one. Gregg Tripoli from the Onondaga Historical Association tells us more.

Melville Clark was a Syracuse resident, inventor, and highly talented musician, proficient in 27 instruments and specializing in the harp. He created more than a few impressive pieces of technology, but his longest-lasting legacy might be a somewhat simpler concept: touring entertainment for the troops. The tradition is alive and well today, of course, but it goes back further than just Bob Hope.

Clark was a good friend of then-President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter Margaret, who was a talented singer and, during the time of her mother’s illness early in the war, practically an acting First Lady. He spent plenty of time around the White House and around the First Family. He even, on occasion, played the harp privately for the President, who was, of course, sorely in need of ways to unwind – what Melville described as a clear tenor voice probably also helped.

Through that connection, he and Margaret were able to set up a series of musical tours to troop locations across the country. Playing to full halls of soldiers and sailors, they became the first program to address the need for fighting men to have access to quality entertainment. Modern troop tours are a little more elaborate than just a harp, but the base principle is the same as what Clark and Wilson were doing a century ago.

Clark was still an inventor, and he contributed to the war much more than just musically. In fact, his biggest involvement was top secret at the time, born of a 25-minute pitch meeting with the president. By the time the US had entered the war, it was fairly clear that the Allies were winning, but the German people under the Kaiser had no idea – all news sources in the country were propagating the message that Germany was winning. Clark believed that the people ought to know the truth, and so, years before the technology existed to drop leaflets from planes, found a solution: balloons.

Rubber and cloth were both important war materials, so he designed a coated paper that could make a balloon resilient enough to carry letters into Germany that outlined the real situation of the war, countering enemy propaganda. The effect was very tangible, lauded by American headlines as “shattering morale” among the opposing forces. The Kaiser was furious, going so far as to offer a cash reward for unopened letters.

One hundred years later, we still have troop concerts and WWI is comfortably concluded – and Melville Clark, a lifetime Syracuse man, contributed to both of those things. Linda Kaiser’s book Pulling Strings: the Legacy of Melville A. Clark, available through the Syracuse University Press, has much more to say about the man, his life, and his inventions.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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