10 Pre-21st Century U.S. Inventions That Changed Life as We Know It
Build a better mousetrap, goes the old saying, and the world will beat a path to your door. But just how good a mousetrap do we need? And who wants the world messing up your lawn beating paths to your door? No matter. There are things that come along in life that make a difference. Some foster big changes, some so small we don’t even really notice them. Here, in more or less chronological order, are ten inventions from U.S. history that changed American life and continue to make it more tolerable.
Safety pin (1849)
A New York mechanic named Walter Hunt owed a friend $15. Being an inventive man (he had invented America’s first sewing machine but refused to patent it because he thought it would throw people out of work), Hunt began fiddling with a piece of brass wire, coiling it at the center and shielding the point. In 1849, he patented his invention but then sold the rights for $400 to the guy to whom he owed the $15. Which left him $385 ahead.
Elisha Otis was a Vermont man who had to move some stuff upstairs at his boss’ bed factory. He could use an elevator — they had been around for decades — but elevators had the unfortunate habit of frequently crashing to the first floor. So Otis came up with a brake system. He demonstrated his invention at an exposition in New York in 1854 — and revolutionized urban life by making it far easier to make buildings taller.
Blue jeans (1873)
Jacob Davis was a Reno, Nevada, tailor with customers who were tough on their pants, even though the pants were made of denim. Davis came up with the idea of putting metal rivets at areas of stress. Great idea, but Davis lacked the $68 he needed to file patent papers. So he called on a successful San Francisco businessman named Levi Strauss and offered to share the patent. They received their patent in 1873 — and the rest is fashion history.
Leo Baekeland was a Belgian-born chemist who made his first million by inventing a photographic paper that could use artificial light to be developed. Then he turned his attention to coming up with a new substance for insulating electrical coils and wires. In 1909, he introduced the first fully synthetic plastic, called Bakelite. Hundreds of variations have been invented since, and it’s hard to imagine a world without plastic.
Women had been trying to figure out what to do with their bosoms, in a fashion sense, for thousands of years, but New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob still wasn’t satisfied. Faced with having to wear something under her new sheer evening gown, she fashioned two handkerchiefs, a cord, and some ribbon into the first modern bra. Jacob received a patent in 1914. Stock prices for corset companies were never the same.
Philo Farnsworth was mowing an Idaho wheat field in 1920 when he came up with an idea: Scan a picture in horizontal lines, like the rows of wheat, with an electron beam, and reproduce it somewhere else. By 1927, he had patented his idea, and two years later was head of the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation. Television made its official debut at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, but Farnsworth was too involved in legal fights over his baby to enjoy it. He died in 1971, dispirited and forgotten. Television survived.
Remote Control (1950)
What’s TV without a remote? The first remote controls were developed in World War II by the German navy to control motor boats that could ram enemy ships. After the war, the Zenith Corporation developed a unit called “Lazy Bones.” It was connected to the TV by a cable, but people kept tripping over it. In 1956, company engineers developed a unit using ultrasonic waves, and 20 years later, an infrared beam unit. And you wonder why the upholstery is wearing out on the couch.
The pill (1960)
If you were an ancient Egyptian and wanted to practice birth control, you used a mixture of crocodile dung and fermented dough. But that wasn’t appealing to Katherine McCormick, the fabulously wealthy heiress to the McCormick mechanical reaper fortune. She forked over about $2 million in the 1950s to finance research into a contraceptive that was safe, easy to use, and effective. In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved such a pill. It gave women more control over their reproductive lives than ever before.
Microwave oven (1967)
At the end of World War II, Percy L. Spencer, a high school dropout who had taught himself physics, was experimenting with radar microwaves when he noticed a candy bar in his pocket had melted. Intrigued, he tested the microwave energy on popcorn and an egg, both of which heated up quickly. Spencer’s employer, Raytheon, soon obtained a patent and built a “microwave oven.” But it wasn’t until 1967 that a Raytheon subsidiary, Amana, introduced the first microwave oven small enough, reliable enough, and cheap enough ($495) to win widespread popularity. By 1975, more than a million microwave ovens a year were being sold in the U.S. By 2008, more than 90 percent of American homes had microwave ovens, and bachelors would never again be as helpless as they once were.
Post-It notes (1980)
Okay, it’s not the greatest invention since, well, sliced bread, but you have to admit they are handy. They were invented by a 3M Company research scientist named Spencer Silver, who was trying to develop a super strong adhesive and came up with a weak one instead. A few years later, a colleague of Silver’s named Arthur Fry stuck some of Silver’s glue to the back of some markers that kept falling out of his church hymnal. Voila! Losing telephone messages got a little harder to accomplish.