Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mothers of Invention

Today, Quondam Washington would like to pay tribute to some Washington inventors--men and women whose creativity, ingenuity and perseverance have somehow been forgotten to history.

Mr. James H. Welch of Georgetown who designed what observers claimed was the most perfect machine yet produced for its purpose—that is, the liquor bottle register. A nickel-plated device, it was attached to the neck of liquor bottles so that it registered every drink a customer took. This way, bartenders had no opportunity to forget how much liquor they dispensed. At the time of this invention (1878), the liquor tax was two and a half cents per drink—that is, if they remembered to register the drinks. Proponents of Welch’s bottle register suggested that if the contraption were used consistently, tax authorities could reduce the liquor tax to a half cent a bottle and still generate more tax revenue.  Dull, yes, but clever.

Mr. John J. Burrows patented in 1872 a form of pavement involving rectangular wooden blocks—it’s a bit difficult for the highly non-technical QW to visualize the system: Block were composed of one vertical and one inclined side, and one concave and the other convex. When the blocks are laid, the projection of one block would fit into the recess of an adjoining block. Oh, yeah, I get it now. Between each row strips would be placed, which would leave grooves—and these would be filled with concrete, gravel or sand.

Good thinking, Mr. Burrows. But even more boring than the liquor bottle register.

19th Century schoolteacher Miriam E. Benjamin conceived of a device she called a “Gong and Signal Chair” for hotels. Hotel and restaurant guests, if they needed the service, would simply press a button located on the chair which would not only send a signal a waiter or other attendant, but cause a small light on the chair to be illuminated. In her patent application, Ms. Benjamin declared that her invention would “reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages.”  QW gives her honorable mention, as her chair was an important predecessor to the signals we now use on airlines across the globe.

At least two African American women of Washington obtained patents for their inventions:  In 1884, Judy W. Reed, the first woman of color to ever do so, was awarded a patent for her hand-operated dough kneader and roller. I'd buy one--if they were still offered for sale.  I'll wager Ms. Reed never got rich, and there is scant mention of her in the literature. 

QW’s heart goes out to another African-American inventor in Washington, Ms. Ellen Eglin. She invented the clothes wringer for washing machines which would have been a real money-maker for her. However, she sold the patent rights to her wringer for a mere $18, because, as she explained,

You know I am black and if it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention white ladies would not buy the wringer, I was afraid to be known because of my color, in having it introduced into the market, that is the only reason.

James William Bryan in 1923 announced he had some three dozen or more patents for an automobile with legs. Imagine a five-passenger car with no clutch, no gears, no springs—and weighing half of a Model T or any other wheeled car. Most amazing of all, Mr. Bryan claimed that with two engines developing a combined horsepower of 40, why, his machine was capable of racing as fast as 81 miles per hour. Most amazing of all, he claimed his car could rise up or down one foot—without moving the motorcar from a horizontal plane. You hear that, Smart Cars???

Perhaps the city’s most prolific inventor was Mr. C. Francis Jenkins, a lowly stenographer with an interest in film. Mr. Thomas Edison may have gotten all the credit for inventing the kinetoscope, but it was Jenkins who originated and patented the original Phantascope. After a dispute with Jenkins, his partner Thomas Armat sold the design to Edison—and it was reborn as the Vitascope.

In 1924, Jenkins wowed Washingtonians with a demonstration at the Wardman Park Hotel of the “radio photo letter”—the predecessor of today’s facsimile machine.

By 1913 he was promising Americans that they would be able to enjoy radio vision—that is, moving pictures by wireless. In 1925, he said that he had only a few more details to work out. “To me, it does not seem strange that we shall presently plug into the loudspeaker jack of our radio receiving set a small boxlike device which will project a picture on a small white screen—an action picture of some event then taking place downtown, or in some more distant city, a Presidential ceremonial, a national sport, a spectacular event.” Jenkins built the nation’s first television transmitter, located on the Virginia side of the Anacostia river. On June 13, 1925, he performed his first public wireless transmission from Arlington, Virginia across the river to Washington, D.C.   Besides all this, he was granted more than 400 U.S. patents for inventions ranging from an altimeter, a brake for airplanes, a machine that shelled beans and even the conical paper drinking cup.

QW doesn’t step into an elevator without wanting to go back in time and give Thaddeus Cahill a sharp elbow in the ribs.  The grandfather of Muzak, Cahill was a Washington lawyer and inventor who liked to fool around with sound. He wanted to be able to amplify music through the telephone, but there was really no way to amplify it enough so that anyone but the person holding the receiver could hear. If there were, why music could be played in hotels, restaurants, theaters and even private homes.

Thus was the Teleharmonium born. In the earliest model, sound was audible via acoustic horns built from piano soundboards; later models were linked directly to the telephone network or to a series of telephone receivers fitted with special acoustic horns – not unlike those used in old Victrolas.

Cahill built three Teleharmonims [ae?], each one bigger than the last. The final machine weighed about 200 pounds and took up an entire building on west 56th street in New York City. Sadly, his scheme to pipe music on a grand scale failed because it ended up costing too much—in addition, it was discovered that the Teleharmonium interfered with local telephone calling.

Finally, we go way back in the history of our nation, all the way back to our first Commander in Chief, George Washington, who, according to legend, invented an object without which nary a cocktail or a Starbucks latte could be mixed—the swizzle stick. Or so at least one New York Times journalist would write. It was during a trip to Barbados to visit his ailing brother. One hot day, the two men were out walking, and George’s brother declared to that he was tired and thirsty. “It is against my principle,” said George “to venture in uncertain taverns out of idle curiosity.” Why, he would just as soon cut down a cherry tree than taint himself as a barfly!

However, it being an emergency, and his brother looking so terribly peaked, George led the two into a certain tavern before—clearly, he was no stranger there, for the tavern keeper took one look at him and produced a bottle of schnapps.

But on this day, schnapps alone would not do. Our founding father wanted something a bit cooler. The tavern keeper produced a few local ingredients, and George set about composing a concoction that even Washington’s mixologist celebre Derrick M. Brown would envy:  Four parts schnapps, a teaspoon of South American bitters and a grating of kola nut. George then broke his clay pipe in half and used the stem to stir the mixture until foam appeared at the top.  Thus, the swizzle, both stick and cocktail, was born.

Well, truth or not, this wins QW’s award for one of the most useful inventions ever produced by a Washingtonian. And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to log off, go into the kitchen to mix a Swizzle, which I will stir to a perfect froth with a swizzle stick (lacking a pipe, I'll use my finger), pour it all into a conical paper cup and plop my feet up in front of my portable radio vision machine for some well-deserved leisure time.

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