The Bandleader’s Blender
When Fred Waring died in 1984, the obituary writers remembered him not only as the leader of the clean-cut Pennsylvanians choral group but also as the inventor of the blender that carried his name. They were wrong. Fred Waring did not invent the blender, but he did throw his energetic support behind it to help turn a half-formed idea into standard equipment in millions of bars and kitchens across the nation.
The blender’s true inventor was one Frederick J. Osius. In the summer of 1936 Osius produced a prototype he termed a “disintegrating mixer for producing fluent substances.” It didn’t work very well. He needed a backer to sponsor further development. Hearing that the bandleader had a fondness for gadgetry, Osius approached Waring backstage after a radio broadcast from Manhattan’s Vanderbilt Theater. He managed to convince Waring that he held the key to a revolution in food preparation. Waring agreed to put up money.
After six months and twenty-five thousand dollars, Osius still hadn’t made it work. Key obstacles included the need for a leakproof bearing in the base of the liquid container and a flexible coupling between the motor drive shaft and the rotating blades in the container. Waring turned the project over to his associate Ed Lee. Under Lee the mechanical problems were resolved. Next Waring hired a noted German-born designer, Peter Muller-Munk, to give the machine an appealing look. MullerMunk turned out something of a classic in industrial design, a sleek, Art Deco study in chromium and glass. The Miracle Mixer, as it was dubbed, was introduced in September 1937 at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago, selling for $29.75 as an appliance for making frozen daiquiris and similar beverages.
Soon renamed the Waring Blendor, the machine caught on in bars and restaurants. On tour with the Pennsylvanians, Waring plugged the blender ceaselessly. Peter Kiefer, who worked with Waring for thirty years, beginning as a sound and recording man, remembers: “He liked to experiment with different drinks. He’d grind up anything with the blender. The Pennsylvanians used to avoid his dressing room because he’d want to try out his concoctions on them.” Waring showed the blender to Rudy Vallée, who was so taken with it that he began to promote it himself.
Sales were steady but unspectacular at first—86,705 were sold between 1937 and 1943, when war restrictions temporarily halted production. In 1944 Waring sold the company to an entrepreneur named Hazard Reeves. Reeves’s marketing savvy made the blender a popular fixture not only in bars and restaurants but in homes as well. The one-millionth blender was sold in 1954. Spin-off products found application in industrial and scientific tasks: Jonas SaIk used a Waring Aseptic Dispersal Blendor to prepare culture materials used in the development of his polio vaccine.
Rival blender manufacturers appeared in the 1950s, sparking a series of lawsuits over whether Osius’s “disintegrating mixer” represented a clear technological innovation. In 1959 the United States Court of Appeals ruled that “Osius was the first to achieve … an improved apparatus not only to mix liquids but also effective to accomplish rapid and thorough disintegration, mixing and aerating of solids, including pulpy and fibrous materials, and fluent substances to form a uniform and creamy blend in which the solid material is thoroughly emulsified.”
In the 1960s competing blender manufacturers engaged in an allout “battle of the buttons.” Standard two-speed blenders gave way to four-speed machines in 1964. An eightbutton blender appeared in 1966, countered the next year by a nine-button machine from Waring Products. In 1972 Waring unleashed a blender with no fewer than fourteen speed-control buttons. Today’s Waring Vortex Blendor, which retails for $47.95, has a mere eight buttons, but its dual-speed feature gives it sixteen different operating speeds. The advent of the home food processor in the 1970s took a big bite out of blender sales, but the Waring and its rivals remain common fixtures in America’s kitchens.
During his lifetime Fred Waring was known as “the man who taught America how to sing.” Perhaps he will be remembered longer as the man who bankrolled and promoted the machinery to make a good strawberry daiquiri.