A State Of Inventiveness
HERE IN OHIO WE’VE BEEN IN A CELEBRATORY MOOD since the start of 2003. This is the bicentennial year of Ohio statehood as well as the centennial of the invention of powered flight. Two Dayton residents invented flight, and they did almost all their research and development right here in Ohio, leading some folks to feel a bit grumpy over the claims that come from a certain state that shall only be identified as encompassing a small community known as Kitty Hawk.
Unhappiness over that state’s decision to print “First in Flight” on license plates is a large part of the reason that Ohio license plates describe this state as the “Birthplace of Aviation.” Just to make sure all of America gets the message, Ohio’s commemorative 25-cent coin is backed by the words Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers , next to an engraving of the Wright Flyer winging over a spacesuit-clad figure representing John Glenn (born in Cambridge) and Neil Armstrong (born in Wapakoneta).
I’m sure insecurity played no role in the Ohio Bicentennial Commission’s decision to award a grant to the National Inventors Hall of Fame so we could spend months researching the inventive contributions of individuals who worked, or were born, in Ohio. For instance, the names Wilbur and Orville are recognized around the world, but few know the name of a Toledoan who produced some world-changing technology at the same time the Wrights were perfecting flight. Michael Owens, a glassblower, moved to Ohio to join a glass start-up founded by Edward Libbey in 1888. When Owens learned his trade, it had changed remarkably little since its beginnings 2,000 years before, but Libbey financed Owens’s dream of creating a glassblowing machine. In 1891 Owens produced a machine that could blow the globes required for electric light bulbs when fed glass by hand. In 1892 he developed a new version that massproduced oil-lamp chimneys, hedging his bets against the possibility that electricity might be a passing fad.
Owens’s greatest success came in 1903, the same year the Wright brothers were making history at Kitty Hawk. That’s when Owens made a machine that could create bottles so cheaply it facilitated the growth of numérous industries that bottled everything from wine and ketchup to household chemicals. He went on to help develop massproduction techniques for window glass and helped guide the company into research that eventually led to the production of fiberglass. Owens made glass a commodity instead of a luxury.
Two inventors who have even less name recognition than Owens are James B. Wilson and Benjamin Eggleston. In 1862 they patented an invention with consequences far beyond what they envisioned. At the time, Cincinnati was the nation’s foremost meatpacker and known to many Americans as Porkopolis. To speed the butchering process, Wilson and Eggleston (who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives) created a mechanical system that transported hanging carcasses from one butcher to the next. Each man removed a particular cut of meat from the hog. The technology later became a crucial part of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. That’s where a Michigan native named Henry Ford saw what was then known as a “disassembly line” in operation. Ford credited the invention with inspiring his creation of the assembly line.
I took special pleasure in researching the work of Worcester Warner and Ambrose Swasey because of my personal interest in astronomy and telescopes. The Warner & Swasey Company, of Cleveland, was an engineering firm that specialized in precision machinery. The two men recognized that they could generate publicity for their business if they solicited contracts to build large observatories. Warner and Swasey are best known for building the mounting for two gigantic refractors: the 36-inch telescope that opened in 1888 at the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton in California, and the 40-inch refractor installed at the Yerkes Observatory in 1897 in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, that remains the world’s largest refractor today. They also created dozens of other large research instruments.
A few blocks from my home in the city of North Canton, history of a different kind occurred in 1908. That’s when the inventor James Murray Spangler sat down with his cousin’s husband, William H. Hoover, a leather-eoods manufacturer, to discuss a partnership to manufacture what they called the “electric suction sweeper.” With Spangler’s inventive skill and Hoover’s marketing genius, the two convinced homemakers around the world that they couldn’t do without a high-tech approach to housework.
Other Ohio innovations, great and small, include:
- • Ready-mixed paints, developed in the late 187Os by Henry Sherwin and Edward Williams of Cleveland, which ended the need for consumers to blend their own paints.
- • The modern golf ball, fashioned by Coburn Haskell of Cleveland and Bertram G. Work, the general superintendent (and later president) of B. F. Goodrich, in Akron. The core of tightly wound rubber made golf so much more fun that the game exploded in popularity after the ball’s introduction in 1898.
- • The sanitary drinking fountain, invented in 1912 by Halsey W Taylor of Warren.
- • The Heimlich antichoking maneuver, invented in 1974 by Dr. Henry Heimlich of Cincinnati.
Most of the experts I interviewed for this project were historians who specialized in the history of their communities, and they had similar comments to make about significant technological breakthroughs. For example, Tim Messer-Kruse of the University of Toledo noted that the development of high-tech glass technology provided a sense of excitement to members of that community. “Watching those automated machines putting out glass by the ton was really something to see,” MesserKruse said. Knowing that they lived in a place where worldchanging technology was being invented gave residents of the Toledo area a special kind of pride.
Akron, the home of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, was once the rubber capital of the world. Akron’s special niche in industrial history was opened in 1870, when Benjamin Franklin Goodrich arrived in search of cheap labor for his small rubber business. The young industry grew gradually over the next 30 years as other rubber companies took advantage of the availability of natural latex and specialized chemicals that became a local commodity after Goodrich arrived. This small, cozy group of companies made products ranging from rubber hoses to raincoats.
Everything exploded when a new invention, the automobile, created a sudden, voracious demand for rubber tires. Akron became the fastest-growing city in America, tripling in size between 1910 and 1920. The excitement ratcheted up again in the years before and during World War II, when the need for a synthetic source of rubber became the most important strategic material problem facing the Allied powers. One reason Waldo Semon, a Goodrich chemist, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995 was the central role he played in the rushed development of synthetic rubber. Blue-collar workers shared the burden as well, because they had to quickly invent new techniques to get the synthetic materials to work on machines developed to process natural rubber. The whole thing crashed in the 1970s, when international competition overwhelmed every major U.S. rubber company except Goodyear. Firestone, Goodrich, and General Tire all closed their Akron headquarters, and virtually all commercial tire manufacturing in the city ended.
Rubber was always a dirty, unglamorous business, but it gave the people of Akron a sense that they lived in a place that was creating the future. The collapse prompted the city to embark on a wide range of redevelopment efforts, from the boosting of polymer-related businesses to the construction of downtown projects like the stately Canal Park minor-league baseball stadium and the gleaming National Inventors Hall of Fame. For the aging residents who still remember what Akron used to be like, though, the sense of loss is profound.
Before I finish, I have to mention another unusual invention that came out of Ohio. During the 1950s and early 1960s, a dynamic woman named Ruth Lyons was one of the most highprofile residents of Cincinnati. She organized charitable campaigns, preached civic pride, and pioneered broadcasting during the early days of television. She hosted an unusually innovative daytime talk show. She’d begin with a conversation with that day’s guest and then take her microphone into the studio audience and invite them to quiz the guest themselves. A young broadcaster in Dayton named Phil Donahue recognized the worth of Lyons’s interactive format, and he used her invention to create one of the most popular (and enlightening) programs on daytime TV.
Alas, the same idea occurred later to a failed politician in Cincinnati—former mayor Jerry Springer. It just proves how dangerous a good invention can be in the wrong hands.