by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
One Summer In Mexico – Part 1 – June 21, 1970
The first Barrett Fellowship from Georgia Tech
It really was not until 2018 that I had the technology and software to progress beyond the experiences that I had in Mexico in 1970 and then develop new understandings of the past.
Señoras y señores, ladies and gentlemen . . . welcome aboard Eastern Airlines Flight 340 . . . non-stop 727 Whisper Jet service from Atlanta, Georgia to Mexico City, Mexico. This week, Atlanta Regional Airport has become the Atlanta International Airport. As of this is one of the first direct flights between Atlanta and Mexico City, complimentary champagne will be served to all passengers, 18 and older, to enjoy on your flight. Estimated flight time is three hours and twenty minutes. We expect to arrive at Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City at 10:43 AM, Central Standard Time.
* The legal alcoholic drinking age in Georgia then was 18 . . . in Mexico it was 16.
And so, the adventure began. As the flight progressed across the Gulf of Mexico, I became increasingly less excited and more terrified. I had never been outside the United States. I had never been farther west than Birmingham, Alabama, farther south than Tampa, Florida or farther north than Racine, Wisconsin. I was traveling alone to a country for three months where I didn’t know a soul. The Mexican Consulate in Atlanta had made reservations for me at a pension in Colonia Coyacan for a week, but after then I was on my own. The pension was near the former homes of artist Diego Rivera, Bolshevik Leon Trotsky and artist Frida Kahlo. That’s all I knew.
The first Barrett Fellowship could have well turned into a disaster without the kindness and extreme hospitality of the Mexican People . . . especially, the family of José, Guadalupe, Gionela and Ruth Soto. Therefore, I dedicate this series to the people of Mexico.
The Barrett Fellowship was created in the autumn of 1969 by an endowment to Georgia Tech from Architect Sid Barrett. That was in the era when architects were at the peak of their earning power and prestige in communities. Back then our curriculum was as much geared to train us to be civic leaders as it was for professional skills.
Initially, one student each year would be awarded a $1000 fellowship to study architecture, architectural history or urban planning overseas. Maybe that does not sound like much, but it was the equivalent of $6,600 today. In addition, I received some donated freebies from the Atlanta Archaeological Society and Mexican government, bringing the real value up to about $7,000.
A series of improbable events in 1969 led to me being awarded a post-graduate fellowship in 1970, when I was only a rising senior. It is too complicated and long a story to be covered in an essay of reasonable length. That story is explained in the video below. I urge you to watch it, if you want to understand the interpersonal relationships that I developed during the first three weeks in Mexico. They will not be explained in future articles. This video is a year old and I now have much more sophisticated equipment and video software, but I think you will find it entertaining.
In recent decades, a student going overseas to study for a season is almost the norm. Fifty years ago, it was not. Atlanta was then considered a culturally inferior Southern city by the rest of the nation. The New York Times snipped that it would take more than flights to Mexico for Atlanta to become an international metropolis. Now Atlanta has the busiest airport in the world, the Centers for Disease Control, the 1996 Olympics and two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize on its belt. Does that count?
The fellowship was divided into three sections. I had to pass seven courses in anthropology, Pre-Columbian architecture, ceramic arts, ceramic history, ceramic engineering and photography before funds would be released for me to travel to Mexico. I had to take at least 2500 slides of as many Mesoamerican sites as possible. Upon returning, I had to write a thesis on my experiences in Mexico.
The Mexican Consul was a licensed architect and graduate of Georgia Tech. He decided to make me a poster boy for promoting tourism to Mexico. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and several suburban newspapers had long articles about my selection for the fellowship, plus the planned itinerary. He arranged for me to get VIP treatment by Mexico’s Relacciones Exteriores and Instituto Nacional de Antropologia E Historia. After returning home, I received small honorariums from the consulate for giving slide shows at Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Atlanta University, Emory University, the University of Georgia, University of West Georgia, Mercer University and Wesleyan College. SO . . . a lot of pressure was on me to make this journey a success.
A metaphor for the changes in 50 years
The color slide at the top of this article is a metaphor for the technological changes that have occurred in the past 50 years. It was the first color slide that I took in Mexico. Almost immediately after the jet passed over the Gulf Coast beaches of Veracruz; a dense cloud cover concealed the landscape. Shortly after our “Fasten seat belts” light came on, the clouds parted and I quickly snapped a photo of the terrain of Mexico. The lowest elevations were about 8,000 feet (244 m) above sea level.
I was using an Olympus 52 mm Single Lens Reflex camera with a telephoto lens and Kodak Ektachrome color slide film. National Geographic photographers used Ektachrome. So, I was using state-of-art technology for my time . . . except couldn’t begin to afford the Swedish Hasselblad cameras, used by National Geo and NASA astronauts.
Being a mechanical camera, not a digital camera of the 21st century, the Olympus contained no mechanism to compensate for vibrations. Top-of-the-line Hasselblad cameras and professional movie cameras had shock absorbers and springs to partially compensate for vibrations. However, they also cost the equivalent of over $100,000 today. Most of my best color slides from the 1970 trip to Mexico were made when the camera was mounted on a tripod.
The first roll of 36 slides made in Mexico were developed about two weeks after I arrived. As I sat at the Soto’s breakfast table, I eagerly put each slide into a slide viewer that illuminated them and magnified them about 150%. The first slide in this viewer looked like several paint cans had been spilled on the floor. I put it in the “dump” box and moved on. I did keep the slide because it was the first one, but never looked at it again until the spring 2019.
Out of curiosity, I digitized this slide and looked at it on the large HD screen of my graphics monitor. I was astonished to see that my first slide was of Teotihuacan (upper left) and Serra Gordo Mountain (right) which I would be climbing in three weeks.
With my first public speaking honorarium in the autumn of 1970, I purchased a state-of-the-art Kodak slide projector with remote controlled slide carousel and auto-focusing lens. It still works perfectly today, except . . . the combination of a mediocre optical lens, low resolution of chemically developed film and harsh light from the bulb makes it impossible to see the type details that are taken for granted in digital photography.
Since then I have digitized and re-examined many of the Mexico slides at the high resolution and scale of a monitor screen. I have seen many details that I missed for five decades. That’s one of the many important technological changes that we will be discussing later. Digital cameras, digital projectors and personal computers make it possible to discern details that were completely missed by many generations of architects and archaeologists.
Stark cultural changes
The first Mexican restaurant I ever ate in was in Colonia Coyacan on my first day in Mexico. That says it all. In 1970, other than the Cubans in South Florida, there were few Latin Americans in the Southeast. Most Georgians had never even seen a Mexican in person.
Now over 1/10th of the population of Georgia is Latin American. Over 16% of the public-school population in Georgia is Latin American. While their parents often entered the labor market at the bottom rung of the ladder, the second and third generations are getting college degrees and entering the main stream of the economy.
In 1970, there was stark segregation in the Southeast between white professionals and people from other ethnic backgrounds. In the spring of 1971, when I spoke to a large group of anthropology professors, archaeologists and anthropology students at Georgia State University, I opened the presentation with a series of questions. NOT ONE PERSON in the room, except me, had carried on at least a 20-minute conversation with, ever dined with, invited into their home, gone on a date with, held hands with or kissed either a Mexican or indigenous American Indian. I told the women that they had really missed out on a treat. We Creek Indians are great kissers because of our big lips. The muscular lips actually come from blowing South Georgia gnats off our faces throughout childhood.
Despite quintupling in size and all its achievements since 1970, Atlanta still has a cultural inferiority complex, which defines the term “sophisticated” as acquiring what other cities have and not having any eccentric local traditions. This inferiority especially manifests itself in college curricula and the hiring of professors. Georgia Tech and Emory University, in particular, spend a great deal of energy trying to prove that they are not located in the Southeast.
During my six years at Georgia Tech, I never took a historic preservation class, because there was none. I also never had a design project involving an historic building. During the seven quarters that I took Architectural History classes, one hour was spent on Savannah and Charleston, SC together. Yet, I know for a fact that Swedish Gymnasium (high school) students study Charleston, Savannah and Atlanta in detail as part of their World History and Civics curricula. I found that educated Swedes knew far more about the architecture and city plan of Savannah than most Georgians.
The cultural insecurity continues until this day. After seeing me on the History Channel, a librarian at the Georgia Tech College of Architecture called me in January 2013 to ask if I ever gave guided tours of Track Rock Gap. She and several of the students wanted to see it. I then told her that actually I was a Georgia Tech graduate and had been a recipient of the first Barrett Fellowship. She then asked me why I wasn’t teaching at Tech.
The librarian called back and asked me to contact the Dean of Architecture’s secretary about setting up paid speaking engagements. I did that and soon received a copy of a letter from the dean to several professors, directing them to set presentations by me to the students. That never happened.
I called back in late April and told the Dean’s secretary that I had never been contacted. The Dean sent out another letter, which was also ignored. The following September I called the Dean’s secretary to tell them that I still had not been contacted. She gave me the names and contact info of the three professors. They ignored my emails and phone calls.
One professor finally returned a phone call to tell me not to bother her any further. She was from the Mid-West, I believe it was Minnesota. She clearly had no knowledge of Georgia beyond the bars in Buckhead and wasn’t interested in learning more. I asked her, “Are you aware than the oldest known man-made structure in North America (3545 BC) is located in Savannah?” She responded that “very frankly, she didn’t care and what she taught her students could be taught anywhere.” That was the end of that.
Back in 1970, there was no war between the sexes, but the days of treating women like chattel were long gone. All professions were open to women and the women of my age were just beginning to learn that. Young men and women genuinely liked each other, and generally just wanted to have fun. Americans have become so mean-spirited and deceitful; it is hard to explain how different relationships were back then . . . both between lovers and between neighbors.
Technology, then and now
Finally, we will look at several components of the technology, utilized by architects and archaeologists and explain how it has changed. The world is very different than what we imagined it would be 50 years ago. In 1971, I was a college intern for Governor Jimmy Carter. At the end of the quarter, Jimmy took us on a retreat to the new Alpine resort of Helen, GA. Our charge was to imagine what the world would be like in the year 2000. We got virtually everything wrong.
We imagined our physical environment to be like Star Trek and our social environment to be more loving and egalitarian with free healthcare and free college educations. The closest we got to reality was the Star Trek Tricorder, which could not do near as many neat tricks as a Smart Phone.
By the way, I was playing Allman Brothers and Atlanta Rhythm Section albums with Jimmy Carter and his offspring in February 1973 at the Governor’s Mansion garage apartment, when a very young Joe Biden dropped by with his nephew unexpectedly to ask Jimmy to run for President. In the spring of 2019, I happened to be behind Governor Nathan Deal and his wife, Sandra, shortly after he left office.
Conversation was quite pleasant, although you could tell that they were puzzled why I was not lowering my head in deference like the other people behind me. We Creeks are not submissive to anyone, except the Master of Life. Well . . . I asked them if the garage apartment was still behind the Governor’s Mansion. They said “yes,” then asked why I asked. I told them the amazing experience that I had there long ago. However, when I said the word, Jimmy Carter, they turned white as ghosts. You would have thought that I was the Angel of the Lord coming to judge them for their transgressions.
Nathan skedaddled out of there faster than that male bear does when he sees my herd dogs. Sandra stared at me in fear for a few moments and then also skedaddled. Guess, it was a good thing that I didn’t tell that Jimmy introduced me to Joe as a future governor of Georgia. They would have had heart attacks with the horrific thought of a free thinker in the mansion. I was never interested in being a politician, though. It’s more fun to watch 400-pound bears skedaddle.
The United States has had an excellent topographic mapping system since the 1890s. In 2016, I literally found the real site of Chiaha with a 1914 map of the Smoky Mountains, produced by the United States Geological Survey. However, in 1970, high resolution satellite photos were not available to the general public, because of fears that they would get into the hands of the Soviets.
In Mexico, it was another matter. I never knew where I was. There was NO national terrain mapping system. All I had access to were maps similar to our state highway maps. Of course, back then there was no such thing as Ground Position Satellites or GPS location devices. What I would do when tromping into the jungle or uninhabited mountains was to take along my compass and a note pad. At major landmarks like a big tree, a stream crossing or a mountain top, I would take three bearings on my compass, sketch the appearance of the landmark and then write in the triangulated bearings.
Honestly, I never knew where I was in Mexico until the spring of 2019, when Google Maps uploaded their new high-resolution satellite images and topographic maps of Mexico. I matched views of the landscape on slides to the details on the Google Maps to get precise locations where the slides were shot.
I soon realized that the stone walls I crossed going up the slopes of Serra Gordo covered the whole mountain. It was probably the largest agricultural terrace complex in the world. That is how Teotihuacan fed itself. Unfortunately, Guatemala still does not have high resolution Google Maps for rural areas, so the situation there and in Belize has not changed.
Of course, the cellular phone as we know it today, did not exist anywhere. The mobile radio telephone had been around since the 1940s, but it was expensive to own, took up space in a vehicle and was limited to being in a visible line of sight to radio towers at telephone switchboard buildings. Direct dialing from Atlanta to Mexico City began around 1980. It came much later or never to more rural areas of Mexico.
In 1970, all long-distance calls to Mexico were operated assisted. You first punched in the number with a 0 prefix to the Mexican area code. Then an international operator, who spoke Spanish, verbally told the number to a Mexican operator. Then after the phone rang, the maid answered (back then proper Mexicans did not answer their own phone) you said, “Por favor con Alicia,” and hoped that she spoke Spanish clear enough for her Spanish to be understood by you and then your Spanish to be correct enough for her to understand you.
A daytime call to Mexico City from Atlanta could cost as much as $40 for 20 minutes. That’s $250 today. One never really knew what the charge would be, because AT&T used a magical, mystery toll system. So, for students like myself, the primary means to stay in touch with your True Love was by mail. The internet has radically changed international love life and certainly speeded up the process of young people getting to know each other. Communications would have been so much easier with email and instant messenger.
Personal transportation technology has changed very little in 50 years. We assumed that by 2020 everyone would be literally flying around town in hover cars. Back then people regularly bought new cars. A full-size sedan was about $2400 and gasoline was about 50 cents a gallon. Cars were much more spacious and comfortable, plus went faster. Auto insurance was not mandatory and the equivalent today of about $20 a month. The standard speed limits were 70 mph or 75 mph on expressways and 60 mph on two late highways. Blame my hero, Jimmy Carter for lowering the speed limits!
Nowadays, cars are small, uncomfortable and expensive. Gasoline was expensive until recently and automobile insurance is highway robbery – literally.
In 1970, airplane seats were much larger. The airline served gourmet food to all passengers. Domestic flights were cheaper than today. Trans-Atlantic flights were far more expensive than today.
This is funny, considering that smoking is not allowed on planes now . . . but all of those airline gourmet meals included a mini-pack of cigarettes. Until the 1990s, even the stewardesses smoked on flights and switched to pot in the hotel room. Most were also allowed to have a glass of wine or a single cocktail on each flight so they could put up with the drunk celebrities in First Class.
Airlines competed to see who could hire the most eye candy as stewardesses. Flight attendant was an unknown word. Stewardesses generally were between 19 and 24 years old and liked men. Most airlines terminated stewardesses, who got married or became pregnant. Thus, the gals tended to be quite fun-loving and not looking for a suffocating relationship. . . so to say. My last girlfriend before going to Mexico was a Northwestern Airlines stewardess. She was also my first girlfriend, after being divorced, so this is trustworthy, eyewitness history.
The Soto’s oldest daughter had VW bug and Alicia had a Plymouth Barracuda sports car . . . so getting around Metropolitan Mexico City was a matter of waddling through eternal gridlock. Elsewhere in La Republica, I went by bus or hiked.
The state of the art in engineering and architecture was the pocket calculator. My freshman Fall Quarter was the first time that Georgia Tech legalized them in the classroom. Prior to that they were considered a cheating device. In fall of 1967, an $85 Hewlett Packard or Texas Instruments calculator could add, subtract, multiply, divide, square and find the square root. The price of $85 in 1967 would equal $555 today. By 1970 that same $85 would purchase a pocket calculator that was essentially a mini-computer than could even do trigonometry and simple calculus equations.
In 1971, Hewlett-Packard would introduce the HP-33 Pocket Calculator, which could do all the mathematic functions of the advanced 1970 models, but also could do logarithms, plus store data like the future personal computer. Since that time, there has been very little improvements in pocket calculators. They are dirt cheap now.
Most everybody in college used the state-of-the-art electric typewriters, which could even erase mistakes. Professional offices and institutions such as the Museo Nacional de Antropologia de Mexico used Remington Memory Typewriters, which were the forerunners of the personal computer. Anything typed on the computer was stored on memory sticks that functioned identically to a USB stick, but had much less memory.
In 1974, Don Lancaster invented the TV Typewriter, which was the first word processor. It required the purchase of a $120 kit, which had to be assembled, but could be plugged into any television. He made two mistakes . . . not manufacturing the device himself and secondly, not getting a patent on the assembled unit. A couple of years later, Steve Jobs and Steve Woziak would get a patent on a very similar device, but call it an Apple Computer. Lancaster would be left in the dust.
Soon after then, typewriters began to be obsolete. By the late 1980s, they were completely replaced by personal computers connected with printers.
The computer mouse as we know it today was invented and developed by Douglas Engelbart, with the assistance of Bill English, during the 1960s and was patented on November 17, 1970. It would not be a standard feature on all personal computers until the late 1980s.
Believe it or not, the plotter, used by architects and engineers to create drawings, dated back to World War II. It was developed by the aeronautics and ship-building industries. However, at $80,000 a machine they were totally unaffordable to private practice architects and engineers until the prices started dropping in the late 1980s.
In 1973, the ASR 33 Teletype machine eliminated the need for punch cards . . . the demons which were hated by all computer science students in my generation. One could make one tiny programming error on one punch card and then have redo the time-consuming process of punching out all the cards.
By 1976, Radio Shack, Commodore, Atari, IBM and Apple were manufacturing personal computers that did not have mouse input. About all they could do was type letters and play simple games like Pong. The concept of “software” or “applications” did not exist. These early computers had no internal memory. They had two floppy disk drives, one for input and one for output.
I bought my first computer in 1984. It cost $2800 and contained neither a built-in memory nor a mouse. It was only good for typing specifications and letters.
The CADD Revolution
Shortly after moving to Virginia in 1987, I bought a Leading Edge tower style computer that had a mouse, the new Windows operating system and 30 megabytes of internal memory. Wow! Quite a few people in Shenandoah County stopped by my office just to see that powerful computer. Microsoft found out that I was an architect of good repute and so asked me to be a Beta Tester for the VisioCad that they were developing. I received free software and free training for using the CADD software. I was able to find a simple plotting machine. Lo and behold, I was in the CADD era – Computer Aided Design and Drafting.
Most of my fellow Georgia Tech architecture graduates did not learn CADD when it was simple and cheap. Microsoft eventually gave their software to a company in Europe in order to make the European Union happy. Through the years, I kept on upgrading and learning the new technology as it became more complex. My peers didn’t. By the mid-1990s most of them were obsolete and had left the profession.
Then the internet got rolling seriously around 2000. It was the new way to do architectural and specifications research. My huge library of building component manufacturer’s books was obsolete and was literally dumped.
When the new three-dimensional virtual reality softwares came on the market in the early 2000s, I purchased one from France that was designed for historic buildings. By 2004, I learned that Artlantis was also perfect for creating virtual reality images of ancient buildings of the Americas. Simultaneously, an architect in Arizona figured out that Artlantis could be used to create images of the structures of the buildings in Chaco Canyon.
However, my Leading Edge computer had become a useless dinosaur. Also, in 2004, I bought a Hewlett Packard Graphics Platform computer that had a million MB internal memory. Soon thereafter, the Architecture Channel in England did a one hour special on the ground-breaking research that the Arizona and Georgia architects were doing in applying architectural skills to archaeology. It was later broadcast by PBS in 2005 and the Georgia archaeologists did not like that at all. Another profession was going to be fact-checking them.
From the money I received from having over one million primary readers of my Examiner article on Track Rock Gap, I bought another Hewlett Packard Graphics Platform that had 4 billion bytes of internal memory. Then in 2019, when a lightning bolt fried me and that computer, my Systems Engineer sister gave me a computer for my birthday that had 4 trillion bytes of internal memory. The rest is history.
So . . . in reality, I had to wait almost 50 years to truly understand what I had seen in Mexico. Any earlier and I would have missed important clues. Now if I could only get this 4 terrabyte computer to make a clone of Alicia, when she was 21. And also, a robot trainer to get me in the physique that I had before being struck by Lyme Disease at age 40. LOL