10 Inventions that Shaped America

on December 2, 2006
Media Bakery

Generations of Americans have grown up learning about inventions that shaped our nation, whether it’s Thomas Edison’s light bulb, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone or newer creations such as the Internet. History books, however, don’t always tell the whole story. Paul Niemann, author of Invention Mysteries, spent years uncovering the little-known facts behind the world’s greatest inventions. Here are his favorites:

The telephone
Perhaps no inventor in history paid the price more for being a day late and a dollar short than telephone inventor Elisha Gray (1835–1901) of Barnesville, Ohio. On Feb. 14, 1876, Gray filed for his telephone patent just two hours after Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) filed a patent for his version of the telephone. Actually, it was Bell’s father-in-law, Gardiner Hubbard, who filed the patent on Bell’s behalf at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. Gray eventually sued Bell for patent infringement and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Bell’s favor. In an interesting footnote, Bell offered author Mark Twain the chance to invest financially in his new invention. Twain declined.

The incandescent light bulb
Most Americans were taught that Thomas Edison (1847–1931) of Milan, Ohio, invented the incandescent light bulb. Actually, England’s Joseph Swan invented the world’s first incandescent light bulb in 1878, one year before Edison invented his version. The two briefly went into business together in 1882, forming the Edison and Swan United Co. Edison, however, was the first to put the light bulb to practical use by establishing a power grid to provide electricity for his light bulbs. Since he established the infrastructure, he was able to build and grow the industry, sparking the widespread belief that he is the true inventor.

Pharmacist John Pemberton (1831–1888) of Atlanta was trying to create a medicine when he concocted the formula for Coca-Cola in 1886. The soft drink has been the most recognizable brand in the world for decades, though a patent doesn’t protect it. Instead, Coca-Cola guards the formula of its secret ingredient—known as Merchandise 7X—as a trade secret. The folks at Coca-Cola are so secretive of their product that they won’t even reveal the number of Coke employees who know the formula. Despite worldwide popularity today, Coca-Cola was hardly an instant hit. Sales totaled only $50 the first year after Pemberton spent $70 to launch his company in 1886. Another little-known fact is that Pemberton used coca leaves and the cola nut in his original recipe. This is where Coca-Cola gets its name, and the original concoction contained a small amount of cocaine.

Even though RCA introduced television to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, it was teenager Philo Farnsworth of Rigby, Idaho, who played the biggest role in making television a reality. Farnsworth (1906–1971), who decided at age 6 to become an inventor, first envisioned how television should work while plowing his family’s potato field at age 14. Looking back at the horizontal rows he had just plowed, he realized that an electron beam could scan a picture in horizontal lines and reproduce the image almost instantly. While still in high school, he drew his idea on a chalkboard for his chemistry teacher, but the teacher could not comprehend Philo’s brainstorm. Six years later in 1927, he transmitted the first television image—a dollar sign—with the dissector tube that he invented. The dissector tube is the basis for all modern TV sets. Later that year, his wife, Elma, became the first person to appear on television. After Farnsworth died in 1971, Elma spent much of her life trying to help her late husband get the credit that he was due. She died earlier this year at age 98.

The discovery of electricity
While Boston’s Ben Franklin (1706–1790) first harnessed the power of electricity, he wasn’t the first person to discover it. That honor goes to England’s Dr. William Gilbert, who discovered electricity in 1600 when he showed that two substances—amber and jet—worked as a magnet when rubbed together, forming the basis for static electricity. Gilbert, who would later become personal physician to England’s Queen Elizabeth I, derived the word “electricity” from the Greek word for amber. Franklin improved upon Gilbert’s findings with his lightning-and-key experiment in 1752, proving that lightning and the spark from amber and jet essentially are the same thing.

Earl Tupper’s invention
Earl Tupper of Berlin, N.H. (pop. 10,331), went to work at DuPont in 1937 as a chemist. Tupper (1907–1983) asked his supervisor for some leftover plastic material, which he molded into bowls, cups and plates. He patented the airtight Tupperware seal in 1947 and began selling his invention in retail stores. Sales were slow, but a year later he noticed that two distributors for Stanley Home Products were selling a lot of Tupperware during “home parties.” So Tupper, a former door-to-door salesman, introduced the Tupperware method of selling to the nation. Single mother Brownie Wise (1913–1992) of Buford, Ga., with less than an eighth-grade education, became the company’s vice president and played a key role in developing the concept of Tupperware parties. Many historians say Tupper’s greatest invention wasn’t his Tupperware product, but rather his sales method. The company that bears his name now has 1.9 million independent distributors worldwide.

Air conditioning
The Buffalo Forge Co. was one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of blacksmith equipment in 1902. One of its new employees, Angola, N.Y., native Willis Carrier (1876–1950), was working for just $10 a week when he created a way to cool the building housing a Buffalo Forge customer, the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Co. of Brooklyn. Carrier’s air conditioner originally was designed for machines rather than humans, as it was invented to reduce the humidity and moisture in its customer’s building. In 1915, Carrier started his own company, the Carrier Engineering Corp., with six other engineers. The first use of air conditioning designed to benefit humans occurred in department stores and movie theaters, prompting customers to flock inside for the cool air during summertime. It wasn’t until 1928—a full 26 years after Carrier first began working on air conditioning—that he developed an air conditioner for home use.

Personal computers
The many innovations of the personal computer have come from many people, ever since Ken Olsen (born in 1926) of Stratford, Conn., co-founded Digital Equipment Corp. in 1957. Olsen’s company created the world’s first minicomputer, as well as the world’s first mass-produced minicomputer in 1965. Named the PDP-8, the computer cost $18,000 and was marketed to businesses. A decade would pass before computers would become available for home use, thanks to a couple of college dropouts named Steve. Californians Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak popularized the personal computer when they founded Apple Computer in 1976 in Jobs’ parents’ garage in Los Altos. To raise the necessary capital to get their computer company off the ground, the two sold their most valuable possessions: Jobs’ Volkswagen minibus and Wozniak’s scientific calculator, for a total of $1,300.

The Internet
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the U.S. government worried that a nuclear attack could wipe out America’s intelligence system. To protect the flow of information between military installations, the Department of Defense created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to develop a network of computers to exchange information among different geographical locations. By 1969, computer scientists, led by Vinton Cerf of New Haven, Conn., connected supercomputers from four major universities—UCLA, Stanford University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah—to form ARPAnet. The National Science Foundation, a federal agency, formed its own network of computers called NSFnet in 1986 and eventually replaced ARPAnet in 1990, becoming what is now the Internet. The name “Internet” originated from ARPA’s program of interlinking packet networks, which became known as the “Internetting” project. The resulting system of networks became known as the Internet.

The Barbie doll
Denver native Ruth Handler (1916–2002) created the Barbie doll in 1959 as an alternative to the two-dimensional paper dolls of the day. Despite initial rejections from Mattel executives who believed the doll was too expensive ($3 each) and lacked potential, the company has sold more than 1 billion Barbies worldwide. The doll’s iconic name was taken from Handler’s own daughter Barbara, nicknamed Barbie. Then in 1961, Mattel introduced Barbie’s boyfriend Ken, a name taken from Handler’s real-life son. Of course, Handler, who became Mattel’s president in 1967, wasn’t the only creative genius in the family. Her husband, Elliot, developed the popular Hot Wheels brand of toy cars in 1968.

Found in: Traditions