Simple Inventions with Surprising Stories
Welcome to the June/July issue of American Snapshots. I have combined two of the summer issues as my web designer, Allisyn Deyo-Martin of Deyo Designs, and I have been busy re-doing the entire website. You’ll find it still has the 400 little-known stories of American history that have drawn you to it, but the site is brighter and easier to navigate. We’ll be doing minor adjustments for the next few weeks, but I hope you’ll be as pleased with the results as I am. Click here to check it out.
The May issue of American Snapshots celebrated women inventors, so this issue is dedicated to inventions by men. I chose items where the stories surprised me. I think they will you, too.
During July and August I feature true stories of American dogs, ranging from Toto to the Bush dogs as well as stories about military dogs and the early service dogs. If you’d like to be added to my mailing list for these stories, write me: [email protected]. Put Dogs in the subject line.
Have a great Fourth of July!
The wire coat hanger was invented in 1903 when Albert J. Parkhouse, an employee of Timberlake & Sons in Jackson, Michigan, arrived back at the workplace after lunch and found all the company’s coat hooks being used. The Timberlake Company made wire forms for lampshades and other novelties, so Parkhurst took some wire and bent it to fit inside the shoulders of his coat. Then he took an additional piece of wire and curled it in the center as a way to hang the coat almost anywhere.
Parkhouse continued to refine the idea, and over time, most of the employees began hanging their coats on Parkhouse’s new creation. (We are indebted to Gary Mussell, great-grandson of the inventor, who has posted a description of how the invention came about.)
Patents Held by Employees’ Companies
As was customary at the time, the company, not the employee, applied for the patent. On January 25, 1904, Timberlake’s lawyer applied for the patent, and the attorney’s own name was used on the line asking for the name of the inventor
“Be it known that I, CHARLES LEWIS PAT-TERSON [sic], a citizen of the Dominion of Canada, and a subject of the King of Great Britain, residing at Detroit, in the county of Wayne and State of Michigan, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Garment-Hangers, of which the following is a specification, reference being had therein to the accompanying drawings.”
For something that we all view as a relatively simple creation, the
patent application is not simple at all; it contains no less than a 500-word description of what was being patented! To reference the full patent, click here.
The only other major change in the coat hanger was the addition of the cardboard tube across the bottom so that when pants are hung across the bar, it minimizes wrinkles. The patent holder for that model is Elmer D. Rogers, and the patent was granted in 1935.
Until the early 1900s the only way to have a portable light source involved carrying a torch, a candle, or an oil or kerosene lamp, all of which bore the risk of fire. To develop what we know as the flashlight, many small elements needed to be invented first.
The invention of the dry cell battery was the first leap forward for the portable light; a dry element could work in any position, and the battery would not break or spill easily. However, the early portable batteries were six inches high and weighed 3 pounds. Then in 1896 the D cell battery was developed; these were smaller and lighter, so inventors turned again to ways to create portable lights.
The first company to successfully create flashlights was owned by an immigrant from Russia by the name of Conrad Hubert (his birth name was Chaim Hurewitz). Hubert acquired a company that he renamed the American Electrical Novelty & Manufacturing Company. He hired a bright young inventor, David Misell, from one of his suppliers. Misell was working on a bicycle lamp, and in 1897, Hubert and Misell filed for the first patent on a bicycle lantern.
Using this same technology, the men saw great potential in creating a handheld light, and together and separately the two men patented several flashlights. Early batteries were not very efficient, so the way these lights worked was through a contact process. The user pushed on a button that would turn on the light; the light would burn briefly before flickering out. Then the zinc-carbon batteries needed to rest in order to be turned on again. What the handheld torch actually provided was a “flash of light,” hence the name “flashlight.”
By 1903 Hubert received a patent for a closed circuit flashlight that would hold the light a little longer. He and Misell put together these first lights, and gave them to New York City policemen. Word of the flashlights spread quickly once the NYC policemen started talking about them. Hubert’s company went on to become known as Ever Ready.
In the early 1900s, a brochure was distributed describing the “light that everyone needs.” It suggested 105 ways to use a flashlight; among them reading fruit labels, filling the tank of a gasoline stove, examining a refrigerator’s interior, and signaling with Morse code.
In 1914, the company, now called Eveready, was folded into the National Carbon Company. In 1917, the company became part of Union Carbide. In the 1950s, The National Carbon Company was renamed Energizer.
While early Egyptians knew something about using plant extracts to protect their skin from the strong sun, their knowledge faded away with the end of their civilization. For that reason, we move to the 1930s and 1940s before we find several scientists from around the world working on ways to protect against the sun.
- In 1936 French chemist Eugene Schueller (who founded L’Oreal based on the success of a hair-color product) produced a sunscreen and began marketing it.
- In Austria scientist Franz Greiter was mountain-climbing at Piz Buin in the Alps where he suffered a sun and wind burn. He went back to his lab to work on a solution, developing a sunscreen called Glacier Cream in 1938. (Greiter would eventually change the world of sunscreen products by introducing the SPF–Sun Protection Factor–rating system in 1962.)
- In America Florida pharmacist and former military airman Benjamin Green wanted to develop a product to protect World War II soldiers stationed in the South Pacific. He tested the product by using it in the Florida sun on his own bald head. His first product was known as Red Pet Vet, because it was a red-colored jelly-like substance.
All of these creams were barrier creams. To work, they needed to be thick and pastry, and people found them to be uncomfortable. A new answer was still needed.
While the other chemists also made progress in the field, it was Green who hit it big. He continued to experiment with his formula until he created a product that he sold to Coppertone. While Coppertone was advertised as a way to get a better tan, the product also contained ingredients that helped to protect against burns. It was the first mass-produced consumer sunscreen product, and by the mid-1950s the product was very well known for its marketing featuring the iconic little girl and the dog who reveals her tan line.
- Neon light was patented in 1910, after being introduced in France a few years earlier. Neon is an inert gas from the atmosphere, and when the gas discharge was first harnessed for use, the products made were scientific instruments and novelty items.
- The searchlight was invented in 1915 and was initially used for military purposes, both for searching for items and for creating a “moonlight atmosphere” for night attacks.
- In 1960 laser lights were developed. The word is an acronym of Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation” and was first known as a “solution looking for a problem.” But before long, the laser’s ability to generate an intense, very narrow beam of light of a single wavelength was being harnessed for science, technology and medicine. Today, lasers are everywhere: from research laboratories at the cutting edge of quantum physics to medical clinics, supermarket checkouts and the telephone network.