Posts Tagged ‘inventions’

The Taco Salad

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

National Salad Month is a time for reflection as well as for celebrating. A month designated by a venerable professional association – the Association for Dressings and Sauces – reminds us that the corporate and the cultural have been deeply fused for a longer time than we may realize.

Take the Taco Salad. Truly, an American innovation worth celebrating. Sure, it may be disparaged by more discerning palates, but the taco salad is a Tex-Mex classic, right up there with nachos, chimichangas, and chili con carne. Who can resist the two kinds of crunchiness – crisp icebox lettuce, and crunchy fried tortillas? And come on, you have to love a food that allows you to eat the bowl it comes in.

But the story behind the taco salad is a bit different than those others. It’s a story of collusion between two American greats: the Walt Disney Company and Frito-Lay.

Elmer Doolin, the founder of Frito-Lay, known for Fritos as well as other delicious snacks, petitioned Disney to allow Frito-Lay to open their very own “Mexican” restaurant at Disneyland. Casa de Fritos opened in August 1955, just down the way from Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House. Casa de Fritos specialized in basic Mexican-style dishes, each served with a bag of Fritos. And if you wanted more Fritos, there was an animatronic vending machine on the way out.

Besides inventing the Dorito (by frying their stale tortillas rather than throwing them away), Casa de Fritos invented the venerable taco salad.

As you can see, at the top of this menu is “taco in a ‘tacup’,” which was in fact, a tiny taco salad – ground beef, beans, sour cream, and cheese, served in a hard “taco cup” made out of a frito shell.

As word spread, the taco in a “tacup” was copied by other restaurants and grew in size into the taco salad. By the 1960s, taco salad was appearing in recipe books.

And as its fame spread, so did its mystique. To this very day, this American classic brings a fiesta wherever it goes.

So three cheers for the manufactured-yet-beloved taco salad and to the corporate powers which made it possible!

Everyone loves taco salads!

Summer Beaches: Alfred Ely Beach

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

It’s Summertime! What better time of year to celebrate famous Beaches?

Today we remember Alfred Ely Beach (1826 – 1896).


Alfred Beach, born into a publishing family, bought a fledgling magazine called Scientific American and brought it to the level of prestige it still has today. The magazine stayed in his family for generations.

But Beach’s great passion was invention. He used his position at Scientific American to advise and assist inventors when he wasn’t busy inventing things himself. Beach was one of the early innovators of the typewriter, and patented a typewriter for the blind. But Beach is most famous for his inventions using pneumatic tubes.

Beach was the first to envision mail delivery in cities via pneumatic tubes, and this technology later became widely used. However, Beach’s big dream was the creation of a pneumatic subway system.

It was the 1860s, and the world’s first underground transit system had just opened in London. Beach saw an opportunity to apply his novel approach in New York City. Beach faced a lot of opposition, from Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall and politically-connected property owners, but, amazingly, he was able to secretly dig a tunnel under Broadway to test his system.

The tests were a success, but a combination of political opposition, the financial panic of 1873, and the invention of electric tracks prevented Alfred Beach’s Pneumatic Transit System from becoming a reality.


What could have been…

A dedicated philanthropist, after the Civil War, Beach helped establish a school in Savannah, GA to provide private education to freed slaves, and the original Beach Institute lives on today as Alfred E. Beach High School.

In 1896, the pneumatic inventor succumbed to pneumonia.

Alanson Crane Extinguished

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

On February 10, 1863, Alanson Crane received Letters Patent No. 37,610 for his “Fire Extinguisher.”

Fires were much more dangerous and commonplace in 1863 than they are today. The (arson-set) fires of the Civil War draft riots caused $21 million in damages (in 2003 dollars), and a single (accidental) fire in December destroyed many manufacturers and burnt out more than 25 families living in tenements – almost an entire city block. Most buildings had no fire escapes, emergency exits, or fire-fighting equipment and safety codes were lax. (In fact, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would not horrify citizens and spur them to reform for decades yet).

Of course, Crane’s fire extinguisher was not the hand-held tank we know today. It was a system of water pipes with perforations that were to be run through an entire building or house, something like a latter-day sprinkler system. He provided his design with a locking device to make sure its use was limited to an “authorized person.”

What if the authorized person was nowhere to be found? In that case, someone could trigger the water flow and, in Crane’s words, “flood the several floors with water, and thereby extinguish the fire at a moments notice and without the least injury to the building.” Good thinking, Alanson Crane. It’s important to have a contingency in cases like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, when the owners abandoned everyone else and fled to the roof to save themselves.


Laugh and the World Laughs with You Whether You’re Funny or Not

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

On September 9, 1950, the laugh track made its network debut on “The Hank McCune Show,” a sitcom that was filmed without an audience. An electrical engineer named Charles Rolland “Charley” Douglass invented the process for simulating a live comedy atmosphere by mixing in pre-recorded sound.

Douglass used his top-secret “laff box” to add laughter, applause – even the illusion of an entire audience where none existed – to the soundtracks of television shows. In the early years, Douglass would enhance reactions to make quiet responses sound more appreciative. However, as time went on, TV producers came to rely on laugh tracks, and came to insist that even the weakest of jokes receive outrageous laughter and applause, and even a spirited “woo!”

Sometimes the overwhelming response of the “audience” was bewildering to those at home who assumed they had missed something, and although Douglass varied his recordings, fans of TV sitcoms came to recognize many of the individual laughs of his canned crowd.

The television industry recognized Douglass’ contributions to the medium and awarded him an Emmy in 1992 for lifetime technical achievement.

Though laugh tracks have their fans and detractors, it must be said that Douglass found the humor in even the least funny situations.

Of course, if he didn’t find humor in a situation, he put it there.

Just Your Type

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

On August 26, 1843, Charles Thurber received patent No. 3,228 for “Machine for Printing” – a typewriter that looked like the love child of a fairground calliope and a Gatling gun.

His patent documents describe it as “a new and useful Machine for Printing by Hand by Pressing Upon Keys Which Contain the Type” and it makes your carpal tunnels flutter just looking at it.


It is specially intended for the use of the blind, who, by touching the keys on which raised letters are made and which they can discriminate by the sense of touch, will be enabled to commit their thoughts to paper. It is intended for the nervous, likewise, who cannot execute with a pen…

Sure, it was slow going, but for people with disabilities or those with execrable penmanship, it must have seemed magical – or as magical as a contraption was liable to get.

Though his invention never made it to manufacture, he did come up with two inventions that appear in your office printer and typewriter (if you fill out those forms in triplicate for local government offices who can’t afford to upgrade): the returning paper carriage and the roller that lets you scoot the paper up and down.

His invention was slow and awkward, but what of it? That remains a popular typing style today.

Margarine! Margarine! Margarine!

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

On July 15, 1869, the French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès made a patent application for his delectable concoction of beef tallow, skimmed milk, sulfate of soda, margaric acid, and water – and thus was born our love/hate relationship with margarine.

Napoleon III had offered a prize for a cheap butter substitute and Mège-Mouriès won with his invention of “oleomargarine.” (Margaric acid was discovered by fellow Frenchman and chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who named the pearly substance “acide margarique” after the Greek word for pearl: margarites).

No sooner was patent No. 86,480 issued than its owner attempted to capitalize on it; however, Mège-Mouriès found his invention a hard sell. Though butter was hard to come by in France (thanks to the Industrial Revolution’s migrations and the oil shortages of the Napoleonic Wars), people weren’t exactly lining up for the Mège-Mouriès gloop, so he sold it to Jurgens, a Dutch concern.

Since margarine in its unnatural natural state was white, the Dutch company hit on the idea of dyeing it yellow to resemble butter. Though this appealed to consumers, it did not impress the powerful dairy interests in, well, every country where margarine was ever introduced. Margarine has been banned, taxed, protested, and spawned thousands of pieces of legislation concerning its ingredients. Did we say margarine has been made with whale oil? Margarine has been made with whale oil. Everyone, all together: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Blubber.

Yes, it’s odd that a genuine Frenchman in the land of culinary excellence was responsible for the invention of margarine, but rest assured that compared to the rest of us, France has never manufactured or eaten much of the stuff.

As for Mège-Mouriès, he died broke and in obscurity in 1880.

The Dutch company that originally bought his patent went on to become part of Unilever, manufacturer of that great-great-grandchild of oleomargarine: something called “spread.”