Inventions We Would Hate to Live Without, May 2011
What would we do without windshield wipers, the lawn mower, or the dishwasher three random inventions that would be hard to live without.
But first, a few notes: For those who took the baseball quiz, you can check the answers by clicking through to Baseball Quiz and Answers.
The enthusiasm for the daily features about interesting women during Women’s History Month has encouraged me to celebrate the Dog Days of Summer in July. Each day there will be a new story about an American dog–I’ll feature military dogs, “first family” dogs, service dogs, and radio and television star dogs. If you’d like to receive an e-mail each day with the dog being profiled, please write me ([email protected]) and put “dogs” in the subject line. You can also check the website regularly. The posts will start in July. By that time my office–and my two four-legged assistants–will be relocated on the West Coast. (And yes, George is coming, too!)
In honor of Memorial Day, check my lead story…primarily about the veterinarian who created a program for using dogs with the marines of World War II.
The Invention of Windshield Wipers
Today one of the simplest parts of our modern day cars still remains one of the most important—the windshield wiper. What’s more, the invention is little-changed since it was first designed by Mary Anderson (1866-1953).
In 1902 Anderson, who lived in Birmingham, Alabama, came to New York for a visit, but she was quite surprised by the unpleasant weather she encountered–quite different from her life in Alabama. She boarded a streetcar and noted that the driver had a terrible time seeing ahead of him because of snow that blocked the windshield. Over the next several days, Anderson noted that drivers had two options: Stop the streetcar and brush the snow from the windshield, or in some cases, the streetcars had split windshields. When too much snow collected, the driver could pull a lever which opened the windshield and dumped the snow. The problem was that the driver–and any riders toward the front of the streetcar–got a blast of cold air when the window was opened, and because the system was imperfect the snow did not always fall away from the streetcar; a good percentage of the snow often dumped on the driver.
Anderson returned to Birmingham and puzzled through the problem. She envisioned that a lever on the inside of the streetcar might control a “wiping” arm made of wood and rubber that could clean the outside of the window. By using a counterweight, she could even out the pressure on the windshield to make for smooth removal.
In 1903 Mary Anderson was given a patent for her “window-cleaning device” and she then approached several companies to see if they would buy rights to the idea from her and manufacture windshield wipers. Companies were worried about the device, however, as they feared the swinging arm would distract drivers. However, by 1916 windshield wipers gad become standard equipment on automobiles.
Mary Anderson never benefited financially from her idea, but today we really couldn’t drive today without the wipers that Mary Anderson thought of more than one hundred years ago.
The Lawn Mower: A British Import
Though the image of suburban houses surrounded by green lawns is a very Americann image, the device that makes a groomed lawn possible started as a British import.
Before the invention of the lawn mower, only the wealthy had lawns. They were kept trimmed by sheep that grazed on the property and gardeners who came through with a scythe to trim what the animals wouldn’t or couldn’t eat.
The first patent for a “machine for mowing lawns,” was granted on August 31, 1830 to British engineer Edwin Beard Budding (1795-1846). Budding had observed a tool used in a factory for the uniform trimming of carpet. It was a reel-type mower with blades arranged around a cylinder. These early cylinder mower worked well on big lawns and sports fields, but it took two gardeners to operate the machines. (Some early machines were designed to be pulled by a horse.)
In 1868, American Amariah Hills figured out a way to build a lightweight cylinder mower, and this became the standard mower used until after World War II when the sale of power mowers (invented in the 1920s) really took off, partly because some parts could be made of plastic which helped bring costs down.
Thank Goodness for the Dishwasher!
Today most Americans have dishwashers in their kitchens, and every now and then when we have pot that is oversized or are feeding a large number of guests, we are reminded of the work involved in standing over a sink of hot water, scrubbing, and scraping, and then often having to hand-dry the dishes.
Two early patents were issued for machines that were intended to wash dishes. In 1850 Joel Houghton received a patent for a hand crank that sprayed water onto the dishes; it was not reliable or particularly effective. In 1865 a fellow named L.A. Alexander created a rack that also employed the crank system; it did not make it to the commercial market either.
In the 1880s, a well-to-do woman, Josephine Cochrane (1839-1913) granddaughter of John Fitch who had invented the steamboat, did not do dishes herself but was frustrated that her servants sometimes chipped her fine china when they washed it. She felt there had to be a way to get the job done with less damage to the dishes.
In 1886 she came up with a design that laid the groundwork for the dishwashers used today. Plates and cups could be placed in a wire rack which spanned across a copper boiler and blasted the dishes with pressurized water until they were clean. She arranged to unveil the new device at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. A few orders came in from Cochrane’s well-to-do friends, and more orders came in from Illinois restaurants and hotels who had seen the device at the World’s Fair. She sold the items under the company name Cochrane’s Crescent Washing Machine Company.
The size of the machine and the cost of the machine did not really make sense for home use until the 1950s when electronic motors, electric drying elements, and the ability to create a more compact device all came together to make dishwashers an affordable , compact addition in the home.
Fast Facts about Other Good Ideas
1894–the birth of breakfast cereal. Corn flakes were invented by accident in 1894 by John Kellogg (1852-1943) and his brother Will (1860-1951). John Kellogg operated the Battle Creek Sanitarium that was founded on the principles of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. John and his brother Will (1860-1951) were preparing breakfast food and they accidentally let some cooked wheat dry out overnight. In order not to waste it, they pressed it through a roller to flatten it out, which turned it into flakes. They decided the next step was toasting it. Discovering that the new concoction tasted good, they decided to offer it to guests at the sanitarium; the flakes were served with milk and/or marshmallows, and the rest is history!
1902–the advent of air conditioning. We can tip our hat to a color printing plant in Buffalo, New York for pushing along the invention of air conditioning. The plant found that the color nozzles became gummy when the heat soared and the humidity rose. They hired a fellow by the name of Willis Carrier (1876-1950) to figure out a way to keep their color printing plant a constant temperature and humidity. Carrier was able to create a system that solved the problem, but The machinery needed was big and the cost was prohibitive for individuals. However, by 1922 he had perfected his technique for something that was more affordable, and a theatre in Los Angeles was one of the first buildings to have cool air fed into the theater. One can only imagine what this did for ticket sales! Today air conditioning makes day-to-day life in warm climates more comfortable, but it also has saved lives because fewer people die of heat-related illnesses.
1919 the invention of the pop-up toaster. While today the microwave is a more common kitchen appliance that the toaster, most of us can remember when a pop-up toaster sat on every kitchen counter. The toaster itself had been invented before 1919, but a factory worker in Stillwater, Minnesota, Charles Strite, did not like eating burned toast. Strite started fiddling with a regular toaster but adding a timer and springs so that the toast would pop up and stop cooking at the right time. By the mid-1920s, the Toastmaster Company was selling this invention with an ad that read: “Automatic Electric Toaster You do not have to Watch it–the Toast can’t Burn.”