Abraham Lincoln was issued a patent for his invention to lift boats over shoals and other obstructions in a river.
As a teenager the future President had taken a flatboat along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. After moving to Illinois he was employed by Denton Offutt a merchant and owner of a general store, to ferry goods along the Mississippi and its tributaries.
During these river trips Lincoln’s boats had run aground on more than one occasion, leading to the exhausting process of freeing the boat before it sank or the cargo went overboard. These experiences were to provide the inspiration for his invention.
Lincoln is believed to have begun work on his device in 1848, in which ‘adjustable buoyant air chambers’ attached to the boat could be forced under the water and inflated to float the boat free of the obstruction without the need to unload any of the cargo. He filed an application to the Patent Office on 10 March 1849, and Patent No. 6469 was awarded two months later on 22 May.
A model of the device is said to have been produced with the assistance of Walter Davis, a mechanic from Springfield, although Paul Johnston from the National Museum of American History believes it may instead have been made in Washington. Whatever the truth behind the creation of the model, this is the furthest that Lincoln’s invention ever got since nobody ever tried to install the system on a full-size boat.
The model itself can be seen on display at the Smithsonian Institute, and is claimed by the curator of the Marine Collection to be ‘one of the half dozen or so most valuable things in our collection.’ The invention is also significant in that it makes Abraham Lincoln the only President in the history of the United States to have been awarded a patent.
British inventor Edwin Budding went into partnership with foundry owner John Ferrabee to manufacture the world’s first lawn mower.
Edwin Budding grew up near the Gloucestershire town of Stroud, where he often saw teams of labourers using scythes to manually cut the lawns of the landed gentry. The labour-intensive nature of this work would later inspire him to create the ubiquitous machine.
Having begun work in an iron foundry as a pattern maker, Budding came across a mechanical napping machine created by John Lewis in 1815 that was used to trim fibres from the surface of woven cloth to produce an even finish. Later developments to this machine used a cylindrical cutting blade that directly influenced Budding’s lawn mower design.
Powered by a large iron roller and a series of gears that span the cutting cylinder close to a knife plate, Budding’s mower was pushed from behind. A second roller could be adjusted to alter the cutting height, while the clippings were flung into a collection box at the front.
On 18 May Budding signed an agreement with John Ferrabee, owner of the Phoenix Iron Works at the nearby town of Thrupp, to manufacture the machine. One of the first models was sold to Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens in London where the head gardener reported that the new lawn mower allowed two men to do as much work as six or eight men with scythes.
Ferrabee subsequently licensed other manufacturers to produce Budding mowers, while Budding returned to inventing. He went on to create the first adjustable spanner in 1842.
Chappe was born into a wealthy family in 1763 and originally trained as a member of the church. However, the turmoil of the French Revolution meant that he was unable to continue in his position and he returned home to focus on science. Working with his brothers, Chappe began to experiment with optical telegraph designs.
Chappe was not the first person to attempt to create a system of long-distance communication. The English scientist Robert Hooke had presented a proposal a century earlier, but his idea was never implemented. Consequently the Chappe brothers were the first to successfully transmit a message when they demonstrated their system on 2 March 1791, covering more than 16km from Brûlon to Parcé.
Using what became known as the Synchronized System, Chappe was able to transmit the phrase ‘If you succeed, you will soon bask in glory’ in just four minutes. Two pendulum clocks had their faces modified with a series of symbols and, after being synchronised, were placed in the two locations alongside a telescope that pointed to the other. The transmitting station used black and white panels to alert the receiver to when the second hand of the clock was passing over the appropriate symbol, which they then recorded. The string of symbols, when decoded, produced the message.
Chappe soon abandoned synchronised clocks in favour of mechanical arms to portray the different symbols. When mounted on top of a tower, the arms could be seen through a telescope and their alignment either recorded or relayed onwards. A 230km semaphore line of these towers between Paris and Lille was installed in 1792.
The DuPont company’s organic chemist Wallace Carothers received a patent for linear condensation polymers, the basis of the material better known as nylon.
Carothers joined DuPont from Harvard University, where he had taught organic chemistry. He was initially reluctant to move due to concerns that his history of depression would be a problem in an industrial setting, but DuPont executive Hamilton Bradshaw persuaded him otherwise and he took up his role in February 1928.
Having thrown himself into researching the structure and synthesis of polymers, Carothers and his team were responsible for creating the first synthetic replacement for rubber which was later named neoprene. Their laboratory, which was nicknamed “Purity Hall”, then began to focus on producing synthetic fibres that could be used in place of silk as this was becoming harder to source due to declining relations with Japan following the Great Depression.
On 28 February 1935 Carothers produced a fibre initially referred to as polyamide 6-6 as its components had six carbon atoms. Although the manufacturing process was complicated, DuPont were excited by the new material’s strength and elasticity and ordered the laboratory to press ahead with their research. However, plagued by depression, Carothers committed suicide in a hotel room in April 1937 by drinking potassium cyanide dissolved in lemon juice.
DuPont continued to refine the manufacturing process and revealed women’s stockings made of nylon, as it became known, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. By the time the first pairs were made commercially available in 1940, the company had invested $27 million into the development of a material that is now found in everything from guitar strings to medical implants.
Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr was the director of research at DuMont Laboratories in New Jersey where he was exploring the use of cathode ray tubes in television sets. It was during this period that he and Estle Ray Mann created their game, which was directly influenced by Second World War radar displays. The two scientists combined a cathode ray tube with an oscilloscope to allow a player to simulate launching an explosive shell at enemy targets in what they called The Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device.
The patent stated that targets needed to be physically positioned on the screen of the device using transparent overlays. The player then used the controls of the oscilloscope to position a spot of light created by the CRT, much like the controls on an Etch A Sketch toy, in order to hit the target. When a switch was flicked the spot would move in a parabolic arc, mimicking the flight of a shell, at the end of which the light would become unfocused in imitation of an explosion. If the spread of the beam hit the target, the player scored a hit. Additional controls allowed the player to change the angle and trajectory of the light beam, and change the time delay before detonation.
Despite securing a patent for the device, the game never went into commercial production. The parts were too expensive and DuMont Laboratories were more interested in advancing television technology. Consequently The Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device’s place in video game history is negligible, and it is likely that later developers created their own games without any knowledge of the work done by Goldsmith and Mann.
The DeLorean DMC-12 sports car was later used as the time machine in Back to the Future.
The DeLorean Motor Company was founded by engineer and automobile executive John DeLorean in 1975. The prototype DeLorean Safety Vehicle was completed in October 1976 with initial investment from celebrities including Johnny Carson and Sammy Davies Jr. Meanwhile DeLorean secured significant financial incentives from the Northern Ireland Development Agency to build the manufacturing plant in Dunmurry, a suburb of Belfast, in an attempt to cut unemployment and curb sectarian violence.
The factory was built in 1978 with production of the car scheduled to begin the following year. Subsequent engineering delays and budget overruns meant that work on the first units didn’t actually begin until 1981. Built by an enthusiastic but largely inexperienced workforce, the first of the distinctively shaped DeLorean DMC-12s was completed on 21 January. Fitted with gull-wing doors and finished with stainless-steel body panels, the car’s appearance was expected to be a unique selling point.
However, by the time the first cars were available a recession had hit the United States that had a devastating effect on new car sales. Combined with mediocre reviews and customer complaints about the quality of the finished vehicles, it’s reported that at least half of the 7,000 cars produced by February 1982 had not been sold.
Although the company limped on for a few more months, the DeLorean Motor Company went bankrupt shortly after its owner was charged by the U.S. government with trafficking cocaine. Although he was later acquitted, DeLorean’s reputation was irreparably damaged.
On the 31st December 1935, the board game Monopoly was patented. Although the patent for the game was awarded to Charles B. Darrow, a Philadelphia heating salesman who had lost his job during the Great Depression, it’s now widely recognised that he was just one of many people who developed the complex design and rules that we now know as Monopoly.
As early as 1902 an Illinois-born writer and engineer called Elizabeth Magie created a board game called The Landlord’s Game which bears striking similarities to Monopoly. She patented this game in 1904 and approached Parker Brothers with the idea in around 1910. Although they declined to publish it, her self-produced copies became popular with Quakers, university students, and members of the public who supported Georgist economics.
Magie, by now married and with the new name Phillips, re-patented an updated version in 1924 and was again turned down by Parker Brothers. However, the updated version spread widely through word-of-mouth, with Charles Darrow’s wife eventually learning it. Darrow began to distribute his own version of the game, and in October 1934 was himself rejected by Parker Brothers who found the game “too complicated, too technical, [and] took too long to play.” However, successful Christmas sales led Parker Brothers to reverse their decision and the game from Darrow in March 1935. Before the end of the year they learnt that he was not the sole inventor, but pressed ahead with the purchase and helped him secure a patent, while they bought up the patents to similar games – including The Landlord’s Game – to ensure that they had definitive ownership of the idea.
On the 3rd December 1910, the first neon light went on show at the Paris Motor Show. Invented by Frenchman Georges Claude, the first neon lights were simply 35m long tubes. However, by 1912 he had begun to create advertising signs using the new technology with the first apparently being sold to a Parisian barber.
Claude’s neon lighting at the Paris Motor Show was used simply to light the front of the large exhibition space at the Grand Palais with red lighting. Frustrated that the red light meant his invention couldn’t be used to replace conventional home lighting, Claude was persuaded by his friend and associate, Jacques Fonseque, to use it for advertising. After the first successful sign was sold to the barber, a large sign for the alcoholic drink Cinzano became the first use of neon to actively advertise a product.
Claude patented his invention in 1915, which gave him a virtual monopoly over the production of neon lights for the first few years of their existence. However, it wasn’t until he sold the first neon lights to a Los Angeles-based car dealer in 1923 that he really began to take advantage of his creation. The new ‘liquid fire’ signs as some people referred to them became – in some places – even more popular than the businesses they were advertising, with signs such as Vegas Vic at Las Vegas’ Pioneer Club becoming cultural icons.
Neon lighting is still a popular form of advertising in the 21st Century, but has also made its way into many homes: the technology forms the basis of plasma televisions.
Improved fencing systems were vital to the farmers who had headed west to settle in the Great Plains. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed honest citizens to claim up to 160 acres if they built a home and worked the land for five years, but the new settlers struggled to erect fences in an area where there were few trees to provide timber. Roaming cattle could push through smooth wire fences and trample crops.
Various early versions of barbed wire had been patented before Joseph Glidden, a farmer from DeKalb, Illinois, developed a form of double-stranded wire that could be mass produced to specifications that are virtually unchanged today. Improving on an earlier design by New York resident Michael Kelly, an inventor called Henry Rose had exhibited a fencing system of barbs mounted on a wooden rail at the DeKalb county fair. Inspired by the idea that a barbed fence would keep livestock away from the fence, and believing that barbs fixed to wire would be easier to both produce and install, Glidden set about making his own improvements.
Glidden adapted a hand operated coffee mill to create wound barbs that would then be threaded onto a strand of wire. A second strand would be laid alongside, and both were attached to a hook on the side of an old grinding wheel. Rotating the grindstone twisted the two wires together and held the barbs on the first wire in place.
The new barbed wire had a dramatic effect. The expanse of the Great Plains was fenced off, changing the lifestyles of the cattlemen whose herds grazed there and the Native Americans whose already-dwindling territory was now being enclosed by ‘the Devil’s rope’.
On the 21st November 1877, American inventor Thomas Edison announced his phonograph, the world’s first practical machine that could record and play sound using a cylinder. Although Frenchman Charles Cros presented plans for a sound recording and reproduction machine called a paleophone earlier that year, the machine was never actually built. Edison made the first demonstration of his phonograph on the 29th November and patented it the following February. Within two decades it had spawned an entire industry built around the recording, distribution and sale of sound recordings.
Edison’s original phonograph was developed as a result of experiments that aimed to record telegraph messages. He had worked with diaphragms during his work developing the carbon microphone for telephones, and was aware that if you could inscribe the movements of the diaphragm he could effectively ‘record’ sound.
His first recording medium was a grooved cylinder covered with tin foil. As the cylinder rotated, an arm attached to a diaphragm would make an indentation of the movement into the tin foil. The arm moved up and down the cylinder, embossing the recording. By adjusting the machine, the arm could then be used to play back the recorded sound through a horn. The first machine was hand-cranked, but it worked well enough to impress everyone who heard it. Within six months he had demonstrated it to scientists and representatives of the government in Washington DC.
Although heralded as a ‘genius’ by the Washington Post, Edison did very little with his invention. Within a few years, however, other inventors developed engraved wax cylinders and – later – flat disks to record sound.