Welcome to America Comes Alive!, a site I created to share little-known stories of America's past. These stories are about Americans - people just like you - who have made a difference and changed the course of history. Look around the site and find what inspires you. Kate Kelly

Fathers of Invention, June 2012

Last month we featured mothers so this month we’ll celebrate “fathers” of invention, with a particular emphasis on some inventions we appreciate but don’t always recognize. (And to read about some very forward-thinking Mothers of Invention, click here.)

Inventor of the Remote Control

My husband is known for telling people he had a “remote control” for his TV set when he was just a child—it was his little brother.

But not all people had someone younger whom they could order around, so an engineer named Eugene Polley (1915-2012) had to invent an electronic control.  Polley worked for Zenith, and in 1955 he invented the Flash-Matic, the world’s first wireless remote control.  Shaped like a snub-nosed revolver, the Flash-Matic could be aimed at the television to click through the channels (remember this was in the days of a very few channel options) and control the volume.  A selling point from Zenith was that “You can even shut off annoying commercials while the picture remains on the screen.”

Polley earned 18 other patents but to his dismay, his Flash-Matic was soon replaced in the market by a remote control that used sound waves.

Polley sometimes felt his work was overlooked since his remote didn’t last long in the marketplace, but he did enjoy the fact that remote controls had come into our living rooms to stay.  In an interview that appeared in The Guardian (U.K.) he said: “Maybe I did something for humanity, like the guy who invented the flush toilet.”


The Inventor of Air Conditioning

Imagine life without air conditioning…for most of us, our summers would be pretty miserable.

 Being overly warm is uncomfortable for people but it can be disastrous for certain types of businesses.  One of the turn-of-the-twentieth century businesses that did poorly in hot weather was the printing industry.  Particularly in a climate with humidity, the heat caused the paper to expand so the color printing did not distribute on the paper as planned during the warm months.

A recent Cornell graduate, Willis Haviland Carrier (1876-1950), was hired by a printing plant and came up with a formula having to do with the balance between temperature, humidity, and dew point. By working with this formula, he was able to create a cooling system that is still the basis for air conditioning today.   Carrier got his first patent in 1906, and by 1915 he and six other engineers formed the Carrier Engineering Corp.

Industries quickly began to add cooling systems to their plants, particularly those that made film, tobacco, processed meats, medical capsules, textiles, and other products where excess heat was a problem.

In 1921 Carrier patented the first machine that could cool large spaces, and in 1924 Hudson Department Stores installed the machine in their Detroit store.  City residents flocked to the store to enjoy the cool air.  Theaters in New York and Los Angeles soon followed suit and saw an increase in business.

The home air conditioner from Carrier was introduced in 1928 but with the stock market crash of 1929 followed by the Depression, it was many years before home air conditioning took hold.

Invention of Coca-Cola 

In May 1886 Coca Cola was invented by Dr. John Pemberton (1831-1888), a pharmacist in Atlanta, Georgia. Pemberton had been selling a French Wine Coca that was very popular but in 1886 Atlanta passed laws against the selling of alcohol so Pemberton needed to do something different.

Pemberton experimented over a small fire in his backyard, replacing the alcohol with sugar syrup and still including coca leaves mixed with the caffeine-rich kola nut.  Coca-Cola was first sold to the public on May 8, 1886 from a soda fountain in an Atlanta pharmacy.  That first year only about a few gallons of the tonic were sold.

Frank Robinson (1845-1923) was bookkeeper and secretary for Dr. John Pemberton at Pemberton Chemical Company. Robinson had beautiful penmanship and he not only suggested the name of the product but he scripted the words that are now the classic logo. The logo was registered as a trademark in 1893.

In 1887 another pharmacist in Atlanta,  Asa Candler (1851-1929),  bought the formula from Pemberton for $2300.  Candler was very interested in marketing, as was Frank Robinson who took a job with Candler, and soon Coca-Cola was one of the country’s most popular fountain drinks.

Pemberton died just a few months after he sold to Candler, and all the druggists closed their pharmacies to attend the funeral.


The popsicle was the invention of a future father.  Frank Epperson (1894-?) was only 11 and living with his family in San Francisco when he left a mixture of powdered soda, water, and a stirring stick in a cup on his porch.   It was an unseasonably cold night and when he got up the next morning he found a tasty treat frozen around the stick.  At the time he called it an Eppsicle.

Frank had to grow older before he had an opportunity to experiment with whether this could be a future business.  By 1923 he was a father and he lived near Neptune Beach, an amusement park in New Jersey, where Frank found that sales of Eppsicles were brisk.  His kids, however, prevailed upon him to change the name before applying for a patent.  They wanted their pop to call it a Popsicle.

Fast Facts About Inventors