Posts Tagged ‘inventors’

Summer Beaches: Moses Yale Beach

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

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

This week we remember Moses Yale Beach (1800-1868).


Moses Beach was the father of another of our famous Beaches, and the apple didn’t fall far from this inventor and publisher.

Beach had some successes and failures as an inventor. He tried to create a gunpowder engine to propel balloons (failure) and invented a rag-cutting machine for paper mills (success, but he neglected to apply for a patent until it was too late, so he didn’t make any money from it).

Beach was more successful as a publisher. He bought the New York Sun in 1838 and threw himself into its fierce competition with the New York Herald. The Sun kept carrier pigeons atop its building to get news faster than other papers, and the legendary publishing stunt the “Great Moon Hoax” happened under Beach’s watch, as did Edgar Allan Poe’s follow up, the “Ballon Hoax“.

Beach started the first European edition of an American paper (American Sun), and was so well-known and respected that James K. Polk sent him to negotiate a peace with Mexico. Peace negotiations didn’t go well, but on the plus side, the Sun got to cover the Mexican War. It was during the Mexican War that Beach made one of his lasting contributions to American journalism. Covering the Mexican War was expensive, and Beach wanted to find a way for journalists to share resources. He gathered the publishers of the five major New York City newspapers in his office for a meeting, and the Associated Press was born.

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.

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.”

May 6th: Happy Refrigerator Day!

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

On the 6th of May in 1851, Dr. John Gorrie was granted Patent No. 8080 for his Improved Process for the Artificial Production of Ice.

While we primarily use this technology to chill beer, keep ice cream, and make ourselves more comfortable in warm weather, Dr. Gorrie’s invention sprang from his medical practice in Florida. In the midst of his study and treatment of tropical diseases, he advocated the draining of swampland and the use of mosquito netting. To cool the rooms of his yellow fever patients, he used quantities of ice which had to be brought from the North, so he began to experiment with machinery to manufacture ice artificially.

Eventually, Dr. Gorrie quit medicine altogether in order to free up his time to perfect refrigeration. Unfortunately, he ran into some extremely bad luck: business partner died, finances gave out, and his own health failed. These misfortunes meant he was unable to manufacture his invention, although his hard work and insight continue to benefit us today.

Dr. Gorrie’s marble statue stands in Washington, DC. Why don’t you visit him the next time you’re in the Capitol Building’s National Statuary Hall? That would be cool.