Day 551: The Original Lifesaver’s Life Story

originally published July 4, 2013

With 450 days remaining in this mad dash to a million words, I can confidently state that I have reached the perfect, comfortable plateau in terms of subject matter. In the beginning I worried I’d run out of quality material in the Wiki-wide-world – though in all fairness, the fact that I devoted an early kilograph to the polypropylene chair should have been a clue that my ability to expound upon the banal would never dry up.

I’m also probably a year away from worrying about running out of days with a hearty stack of quality topics that won’t get their proper due. In short, I’m in the sweet spot.

And speaking of the sweet spot, I’m going to drop some candy onto today’s plate, and relate just a glimmer of the fascinating life of Edward John Noble, the guy responsible for the sweetest books a Christmas stocking has ever held, some of the finest light-show explosions in the mouths of children everywhere, and – in a roundabout and indirect way  – MacGyver.

Edward John Noble was born in Gouverneur, New York, an upstate village probably best known as the headquarters for Kinney Drugs. When Noble was 30 years old, a Yale grad in search of a new business venture, he came across a man named Clarence Crane. Crane had invented a new candy that wouldn’t melt like chocolate in the summer sun. They were hard mints, and while mints weren’t a revolutionary concept, up to that point they had mainly been sold as stomach aids, back when actual medical science wasn’t a necessary component of relief-type products at the local drug store.

Clarence Crane’s mints were ring-shaped, named Life Savers after the nautical life preservers they resemble; the notion that Crane chose that name because the hole in the middle would literally save the lives of choking victims is nothing more than an urban legend. Edward Noble loved the product, and happily forked over $2900 (just over $68,000 in today’s money) for the patent. Ed Noble had good instincts.

The first thing Noble did was package the candy in tinfoil tubes to keep them from going stale. Pep-O-Mint was the original flavor, though over the ensuing decade a myriad of tastes were added, all taking advantage of the candy-shaped ‘O’ in their name: Wint-O-Green, Lic-O-Riche, Cinn-O-Mon, Vi-O-Let, Choc-O-Late, and Cl-O-ve (seriously – that last one was a little weak). Robert Peckham Noble, Edward’s brother and a Purdue engineering grad, developed the machinery to allow for mass candy production, and from there an empire was born.

The candy was a hit at drug stores, barber shops, restaurants and cigar stores. But they really took off during Prohibition, sold at saloons and speakeasies as the perfect way to shoo away that illicit smell of sweet, sweet liquor from one’s breath before heading home.

Of course it didn’t take long for kids to learn a little science lesson from these candies, specifically about triboluminescence. That’s the same reaction found in the charging stages of a lightning bolt; on a much smaller scale it can be viewed when one bites into a Wint-O-Green Life Saver in the dark, emitting a tiny spark in one’s mouth.

By the 1920’s, Life Savers were available in fruit flavors. Orange, lemon and lime came first, followed by anise, butter-rum, cola, and a failed attempt at making an O-shaped cough drop with methol. The fruit flavors became more popular than the mints, partly because they possessed a snazzier crystal-like translucency, and partly because there was simply nothing else on the market quite like them.

In 1935, the classic five-flavor roll was introduced, featuring the original three fruit flavors along with cherry and pineapple. Here’s something I didn’t know – in Canada, the five-flavor package of Life Savers includes the same flavors I knew as a kid, the same flavors Edward Noble offered in 1935. However, in 2003 the American wing of the company (of course Life Savers has long-since been bought up by a massive conglomerate, just like everything else) changed the lineup. Now the five flavors south of the 49th parallel include cherry, pineapple, raspberry, watermelon and blackberry. I think I just found a weird reason to be patriotic – I like our flavors better.

But Edward Noble was not content to build a candy empire and laugh at the world from his sugary throne. One might say Mr. Noble was a bit of an overachiever. In 1938 he became the first chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Authority, the forerunner to today’s FAA. Noble was also appointed as the Undersecretary of Commerce in 1939, working as part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. When the war broke out, Noble made sure tiny packages of Life Savers were dispersed to the troops overseas, to remind them of one of the joys of home.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission was giving RCA a hard time. They felt it was unethical for a single corporation to own too much real estate on the airwaves, so in 1943 they ordered RCA to get rid of one of their two radio networks. The choice was simple: RCA would keep control of NBC and get rid of the Blue Network. Edward Noble saw an opportunity, and purchased the Blue Network for himself, giving it a much catchier new name.

ABC was a tough road. NBC and CBS were established networks with solid corporate money behind them and huge reputations already in place. In 1951, Noble merged the company with United Paramount Theatres, a movie theater chain that had recently been forced by a Supreme Court order to separate itself from its parent company, Paramount Pictures, in yet another attempt to prevent corporate media dominance by the companies at the top of the heap.

We all know the ABC story turned out well, and Edward John Noble lived to see it, passing away in his sleep in 1958 at the age of 70. Before shuffling off this mortal plane, Noble purchased St. Catherine’s Island off the coast of Georgia, which is still used today for scientific studies in the fields of zoology, archaeology, botany and ecology. Noble has three hospitals and a massive foundation named after him.

Not a bad legacy – one of the pillars of network television and one of the pillars of quality confectionary, all at the hands of a single man. His is a life story worth sharing, and a great boost to my confidence, as I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find another 449 great stories like his.

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