Great Inventions of Famous Men (Jan, 1937)
Great Inventions of Famous Men
by Aubrey D. McFadyen
SENATOR WILLIAM G. McADOO’S fingers were burned at a picnic when he picked up a metal thermos bottle cap-cup full of hot coffee. So he went home and invented a heat-proof cap. The Senator’s latest patent covers improvements in the familiar safety razorâ€”the new razor being constructed so that the blade can be inserted or removed without taking the razor apart. To such casual inventors the world is indebted for most of the 2,059,187 inventions patented in the United States during the 100 years existence of the American patent system, the centennial of which was observed in Washington on November 23.
Everybody, from Presidents to prisoners, has been inventing all manners of things. It excites little wonder when an eminent pianist patents numerous automobile structure, or when a pugilist patents a monkey wrench, or even when a scion of one of the nation’s wealthiest families patents a shoe polishing device. The name of Dr. Albert Einstein is so much in the daily print in connection with his theory of relativity that when he patents a novel refrigerating system it is not even regarded as news.
When one reads that Thomas A. Edison patented 1,101 inventions, that John F. O’Connor, Chicago railway engineer has patented 968, or that Carleton Ellis, Montclair, N. J., chemist, has patented nearly 700 inventions ,the conclusion is immediately drawn that professional inventors are the backbone of the Patent Office. Nothing is farther from the truth. Men like John F. O’Connor, Elihu Thomson, Carleton Ellis, Henry A. Wise Wood, Clyde C. Farmer, John Hays Hammond, Jr., and Ethan I. Doddsâ€”all living inventors, each having patented over 300 inventionsâ€”are the exceptions. For every professional inventor there are hundreds of amateur or casual inventors. In fact, by reason of the inexperience of the casual inventors, and their tendency to dabble in fields in which they have little or no experience, frequently their ideas have been the more radical and revolutionary. Edmund Cartwright, a clergyman and poet, invented the power loom; Eli Whitney, a New England school teacher, conceived the idea of the cotton gin while sojourning in Georgia; Richard Arkwright, a barber, invented the spinning frame; the Wright brothers, inventors of the airplane, were bicycle mechanics; Samuel Segal, inventor and founder of the lock company which bears his name, was a New York City policeman; while the automatic telephone exchange is credited to Al-mon B. Strowager, a Kansas City undertaker, who thought a rival had bribed telephone operators to bungle his calls!
Because of the same inexperienceâ€”many ideas of the casual inventors have not been adopted commercially. That is true, for example, of the sole invention patented by Abraham Lincolnâ€”the original model of which is one of the few preserved by the Patent Office in Washington.
As a young man Lincoln had made the trip by flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, and had noted the trouble of navigators on the shoals. After steamboats had begun to replace flatboats he conceived the idea of attaching buoyant chambers, much like huge bellows, to the sides of the boats, to be inflated or otherwise forced open by the power of the engine when the steamboat went aground on a shoal. The added buoyancy was supposed to lighten the draft of the vessel, so that it would float off the shoal.
Lincoln was not the only man to become president of the United States who did a little inventing on the side, though he was the only one to take out a patent. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for examples, were both inventors.
Jefferson originated the folding buggy top; also the swivel chair and the modern plowshare, to mention two still in use today. The original of another of his inventionsâ€”a writing desk with an adjustable topâ€”is in the Smithsonian Institution at Washington. Because of Jefferson’s inventive and scientific traits, the duty of passing upon applications for patent was delegated to him in the early days.
George Washington’s inventions included a “wine coaster,” a seeding plow, and other farm devices, all of which are recorded in his diary. In the entry of March 26, 1760 we find this entry:
“Spent the day in making a new plow of my own invention.”
Further entries read:
“March 27. Set plow to work and found she answered very well in the lower pastures.”
“Apr. 5. Made another plow, the same as my former, except it has two eyes, and the other one.”
Neither Washington nor Jefferson turned their inventions to commercial account. In those days it was considered beneath the dignity of a gentleman to accept remuneration for inventive effort. Benjamin Franklin, however, not regarding himself as a “gentleman” in the parlance of the day, did not hesitate to exploit his inventions. On his copper plate press was printed the first paper money used in New Jersey. He first devised spectacles with double lenses, for reading and distance; he also invented a mangle for pressing linen, and the renowned “Franklin stove,” a sort of cast iron fireplace which could be set up in the room and connected by pipe to the chimney. It was the first heater in which most of the heat did not go up the chimney.
Among the American men of letters the late Samuel L. Clemens stands among the very first in the affections of the reading public, but few know that Mark Twain was an amateur inventor, and that one, at least, of his inventions made money for him though he lost more money on another man’s invention. Clemens financed an inventor named Paige, who had worked out a type-setting machine; Mark Twain’s own experiences as a printer interested him in the problem. One
machine was completed at a cost of $1,300,000; it is now on exhibit at Columbia University. But before Paige’s machine reached the commercial stage Ottmar Mergenthaler’s much simpler and cheaper slug casting machineâ€” the linotypeâ€”was on the market, and all of Clemens’ investmentâ€”$190,000, constituting most of his wealthâ€”was lost. Dejected, Clemens wrote to the publishers of a book intended to aid inventors: “If your book tells how to exterminate inventors, send me nine editions.”
Three patents were issued to Mark Twain himself, however. The first was an adjustable and detachable strap for the backs of waistcoats and trousers. Then in 1873 Clemens took out a patent entitled, “Mark Twain’s Self-Pasting Scrap Book,” which can still be bought in stationery shops. Its pages are provisionally gummed, and need only be moistened to make clippings adhere to them. Hunting for a paste pot was always disagreeable to Mark. His third invention, patented in 1885, was for a game to help the players remember important historical dates.
Few names are better known than that of Cornelius Vanderbilt, but few realize that three out of the four Americans who have borne it were inventors. The first Cornelius Vanderbilt who began as a farm boy on Staten Island and established the first ferry service between the island and Manhattan, became captain, then owner of the first steamboat to navigate New York Bay and the Raritan River to New Brunswick. Then he began to build steamboats of his own design.
His grandson, second of the name, was not of an inventive turn, but the great grandson, the family’s present head, General Cornelius Vanderbilt, is well known among railroad men for his inventions. He was trained as a mechanical engineer, and the Vanderbilt locomotive firebox has been for years standard equipment.
The latest Cornelius Vanderbilt, the General’s son and well-known journalist, figures in the Patent Office as the inventor of a shoe-polishing device. The device is about the size of a large fountain pen. Inside the barrel is a polish which feeds into a brush attached to one end, while concealed within, wound up like a roller shade, is a polishing cloth.
Colonel John Jacob Astor, who went down with the Titanic, patented a device for cleaning macadam roadways, doubtless arising from his experience with dusty roads about his country place at Rhinebeck-on-the-Hudson. It worked on the general principle of a vacuum cleaner. The Colonel dedicated his invention to the free use of the public, this gallant gentleman, like Washington and Jefferson, disdaining to accept money for his invention.
Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh and Dr. Alexis Carrel, author of the book-hitâ€””Man, the Unknown,” have invented and are now testing out an artificial heart with synthetic blood stream, which aims to make it possible to keep vital organs alive and functioning outside the body.
Even royalty dabble in invention. Prince Henry of Prussia, brother of the former Kaiser, took out a United States patent on a “windshield wiper” just three months before the World War began.
Princess Elain von der Lippe-Lipski, now residing in Washington, is quite a prolific inventor. Recently three patents were granted her in a single day. One of these inventions, the Princess explained, involves usage of the red and violet rays to work with medical preparations by which surgical wounds that have taken as long as forty-five days to heal can be closed in from seven to ten days. Another is an automobile headlight which brightens and dims itself automatically.
The theater is well represented, too. Both Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston, magicians, knew that the only way to stop new-comers from taking the fruits of their labors was to patent the illusions which they performed.
Will Mahoney, of vaudeville fame, patented that odd musical instrument, the Mahoney-phone. And Jimmy Durante was able to register a trademark consisting of the word “Schnozzle,” associated with his photograph and signature.
Charles Ray, the motion picture idol of a decade ago, is the originator of auto turn and stop signal lights, for which he received a patent as far back as 1919. The numerous patents to William Fox and David Wark Griffith, as might be expected, relate to photography and motion picture production. Lee de Forest, of radio fame, has been outstanding in the development of talking pictures.
Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War under President Wilson and a noted Cleveland attorney, last year patented a suction cleaner for the dusting of books in cases. It is now being manufactured. Another attorney, Herbert L. Satterlee, brother-in-law of J. P. Morgan and former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, maintains a private laboratory in which he works on X-Ray and radio inventions.
Admiral Bradley A. Fiske, one of the heroes of the battle of Manila, since his retirement, has strayed from his chosen field to the extent of patenting several systems and apparatus for printing in extremely small characters, to be read through microscopes mechanically fed along the printing at any desired speed. The arrangement was intended to conserve space.
As the Marines always bob up where there is activity, it is not surprising to find General Smedley D. Butler was one of the pioneers in range finding apparatus.
That Arde Bulova takes out a patent for improvements in watches, or A. J. Reach for a baseball mask, or that Dr. Vannevar Bush patents an improved radio system, is hardly news. Neither is it news when Henry Ford patents another improvement in automobile structure; but few are aware that he has patented 100 such devices.
It was as late as 1930 that the patent laws were extended to embrace certain new forms of plant life. Among the first patents granted under the amended law was one to Harold L. Ickes, now Secretary of the Interior, for a dahlia. Two other plant patents have subsequently been granted to Mr. Ickes. As fate would have it, the new law took effect so near the end of Luther Bur-bank’s career that only one patent was awarded him and that was granted after his death.
Women as inventors run largely to feminine or juvenile devices. Thus, Mrs. Winifred (Hudnut) Guglielmi professionally known as Natacha Ram-bova, patented a combined coverlet and doll shortly before the death of her famous former husband, Rudolph Valentino.
Mrs. Horatio Nelson Slater, famed as a leader in New York society, patented over twenty inventions. The profit from her inventions has been devoted to charity. Several of Mrs. Slater’s patents relate to dolls. She also patented a military blanket, an automatic ice-case for refrigerators, a book cover and a couch and chair.
Other women have worked entirely in man’s field. Mrs. Martha J. Coston invented the flare light used by mariners all over the world. Maude Adams, actress, has given much research and energy in attempting to develop motion pictures producible in daylight.
There is Miss Beulah Louise Henry, of New York City, who has received the soubriquet of “Lady Edison” for her many inventions, ranging from football valves on through a new type of sewing machine. Though her total of fifty patents may seem small compared with those of male inventors, they loom large in comparison with others of her sex. Less than two per cent of the patents have been granted to womenâ€”a proportion practically constant since 1900.
In every branch of sport may be found famous athletes who have succumbed to the inventive urge. Walter Hagen patented a golf ball having a surface design which, he claims in his patent papers, makes the ball “accurate in flight as well as in putting and rolling.”
Rene Lacoste, internationally known tennis player, has patented numerous inventions in racket structure. Sandow, the “strong man,” devised a strength-measuring apparatus and patented it.
In baseball, player-inventors are almost as common as player-managers. If you have ever seen Max Carey, formerly of the Pittsburgh Pirates, slide into a base, you may have wondered what saved his hide. Well, Max always used a special sliding pad which he himself invented and patented.
On the other hand, the late Benjamin Shibe, owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, patented a mass of inventions on player equipment, including baseballs and baseball-making machinery. Thomas Shibe, late president of the Athletics, and John Shibe, now president of the club have both contributed inventions along the same line. In fact, it is under the Shibe patents and in the Shibe plant that the balls used by the American League are manufactured.
Charles Brickley, former Harvard football star and Ail-American fullback, is said to have been the greatest dropkicker of all time. He wore a patented shoe of his own invention.
From the side lines the coaches give thought not only to the plays, but to the equipment needed by the players. For instance, we might mention Glenn S. (“Pop”) Warner, dean of coaches, whose patents include a “shoulder protector.”