Day 440: Strange Tales From The Hall Of Inventors

originally published March 15, 2013

If you’re wandering through the halls of the National Inventors Hall of Fame museum in Alexandira, Virginia, then congratulations, you have more free time than most of us. This is a shame, because something is lost when we forget the paths these visionaries blazed for us. We might remember some of the most pertinent events – Thomas Edison inventing the steam-powered lemonade dispenser, Henry Ford coming up with the idea for pizza-flavored Pringles, Andy Williams constructing the first ceiling fan out of cabbage leaves and a tensor bandage – but the inspirational stories behind the stories will be lost to the ages unless this museum preserves them.

For example, did you know that Theophilus Van Kannel, the inventor of the revolving door, also invented the Witching Waves amusement park ride at Coney Island pictured above? Of course you didn’t! That’s what you pay me for.

In 1890, Russan Jew Conrad Hubert decided to come to America. He’d made a good living (and earned a formal education) making and selling booze back home, but there were few opportunities in that field when he landed. He tried opening a few businesses: a cigar store, a restaurant, a jewelry store, a milk wagon route, a farm, and a boarding house – hey, it was New York in a time when Ellis Island was still shuffling the huddled masses inward from distant lands. A guy had to find the right fit.

Hubert settled on a novelty shop, probably selling hand-buzzers, ceramic cats and fake rubber poo. He became interested in finding an electrical hand-held device that could produce light, and he received a patent for a forerunner to the modern flashlight. In 1905 he teamed up with W.H. Lawrence, who had invented the first consumer battery to power home telephones, and they formed the Ever Ready battery company, which is now fuelled by drum-pounding bunny angst known as Energizer power.

Interesting note: when Conrad died, his will stated that ¾ of his estate was to be distributed to organizations that help the general public, but specifically distributed by a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew. This is strikingly similar to my own will, in which I request my estate be placed on three separate Roulette wheel numbers, each by an Armenian, a professional juggler, and a Libertarian. We all gotta forge for peace in our own way.

Edwin Howard Armstrong not only deserves his spot in the Hall of Fame, he practically deserves a wing. He came up with amplification via positive feedback, which means nothing to most of my readers (or to me, really), but in electronics this concept is still in use today. Perhaps more importantly, he also developed wide-band frequency modulation, or what we call FM Radio.

Armstrong’s story lacks a happy ending though. He spent much of his life battling with RCA – first because they tried to quash FM completely, then because they claimed rightful ownership of the patent. Armstrong’s finances were crumbling, then one night in a fit of rage he smacked his wife on the arm with a fireplace poker. She packed up and left, and Armstrong took a stroll out the window of his 13th-floor New York City window. A sad conclusion to a life that brought so much awesomeness into the world.

Spencer Silver came up with a low-tack adhesive substance that could be reused, and wouldn’t break down or spread like a paste. But his employers, 3M, weren’t interested. Then one day, Silver was giving a seminar and a guy named Arthur Fry happened to be there. Fry was a church-goer, and was frustrated by the fact that his bookmark wouldn’t keep his place in his hymnal. I’d like to think Fry was the dancing type, and when he really got groovy with Jesus on Sunday mornings, the bookmark would just slip and slide all over the place.

But Fry figured Silver’s adhesive might help. From there, they expanded the idea into a pad of paper, held together by this same reusable glue. The Post-It was born, all because of the funky goings-on in a church.

I don’t want to rag on Thomas Midgley Jr. I’d like to think his heart was in the right place, that he simply wanted to improve the world and make a good living at it. He was granted over a hundred patents. I’m sure some of those were universally helpful, like maybe he came up with that pen with the woman on it, whose clothes disappear when you turn the pen upside down. I don’t know. What he’s known for is a little darker.

Lead in gasoline, for starters. Midgley started working for General Motors in 1921, and though it gave him lead poisoning (he needed an extended vacation to recover once the work had been done), he managed to figure out the inexpensive trick to eliminating ‘knocking’ inside a car engine.

But that isn’t all. Midgley was then brought to GM’s Frigidaire division, and asked to come up with an alternative to the ammonia, chloromethane and sulfur dioxide they’d been using in their fridges. Midgley thought to synthesize Freon, and subsequently invented CFCs.

When he died in 1944 (he had invented a complex system of ropes and pulleys to assist him in bed when he was sick with polio, and subsequently strangled himself by accident), no one knew that his inventions were toxic. Environmental historian J.R. McNeill believed that Midgley had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in the planet’s history. Wow.

Almon Brown Strowger just wanted to earn a decent living and provide for his family as an undertaker in Kansas City. Problem was, his competitor’s wife worked as an operator for the phone company, and this was back when every call meant someone had to pick up their phone and told the operator to connect them. So when someone would call for Strowger’s business, this operator-bitch would make sure the call went to her husband instead. It was dirty and underhanded, and an unfair marketplace advantage.

Strowger was pissed. He got his revenge with technology, developing the first automatic telephone exchange system in 1891. Now people could dial a number, and bypass the sort of bias that had been costing Strowger money. He started a company, which he then sold in 1898 for $10,000, plus another $1800 for his patents. Less than 20 years later, Bell would pay $2.5 million for those same patents.

Strowger moved to Florida and resumed life as an undertaker, before requiring one himself in 1902.

I hope this little trip through the hall of visionaries has inspired you to go out and make the world a better place. We’re all still waiting for the electric mustache-twirler and the flying car. They won’t invent themselves, people.

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