Contrary to popular – and Progressive – belief, most America’s great inventors, scientists, and pioneers came from humble beginnings. They left to the posterity of future generations technological, scientific, and medical advances that improved not just America but the world, and advanced America economically, as well.
California: Charles P. Ginsburg
Technology has made such giant leaps that Charles Ginsburg’s contribution, the first practical video cassette recorder, or VCR, is already a museum piece.
Ginsburg, otherwise known as the "father of the video cassette recorder," was born in San Francisco in 1920.
He received his bachelor's degree from San Jose State University in 1948 and worked as a studio and transmitter engineer at a San Francisco area radio station. In 1951, he received a telephone call from Alexander M. Poniatoff, founder and president of the Ampex Corporation in Redwood City, Calif., who believed Ginsburg could help him with an important project.
At Ampex, Ginsburg got the opportunity to lead the research team that developed the first broadcast-quality videotape recorder (VTR), U.S. patent number 2,956,114. The VTR revolutionized television broadcasting. Tape recording of television signals dates to just after World War II, when audio tape recorders were used to record the very high frequency signals needed for television. These early machines were pushed to their limits, running the tape at very high speeds of up to 240 inches per second to achieve high-frequency response.
Ginsburg and his team came up with a design for a new machine that could run the tape at a much slower rate because the recording heads rotated at high speed, allowing the necessary high-frequency response. The Ampex VRX-1000 (later renamed the Mark IV) videotape recorder was introduced on March 1956. The machine sold for $50,000. With the advent of the VTR, recorded programs that could be edited replaced most live broadcasts. CBS was the first network to employ VTR technology, starting in 1956. With that, today's multimillion dollar video business was born.
Colorado – Willard Frank Libby
Just how ancient is the VTR, the forerunner of the VCR? Well, thanks to Willard Frank Libby’s discovery of carbon dating, we could find out.
Libby was an American physical chemist, famous for his role in the 1949 development of radiocarbon dating, a process which revolutionized archaeology.
Born in Grand Valley, Colo., in 1908, he attended Analy High School in Sebastopol, Calif. The school library has a mural of Libby, and a nearby highway is named in his honor.
He received his B.S. in 1931 and Ph.D. in 1933 in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, where he became a lecturer and later assistant professor. Libby spent the 1930s building sensitive geiger counters to measure weak natural and artificial radioactivity. In 1941, he joined Berkeley's chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma.
Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, he spent most of 1941 at Princeton University. After the start of World War II, he worked on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University with Nobel laureate chemist Harold Urey. Libby was responsible for the gaseous diffusion separation and enrichment of the Uranium-235, which was used in the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
In 1945, he became a professor at the University of Chicago. In 1954, he was appointed to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Professor of Chemistry at University of California, Los Angeles, in 1959, a position he held until his retirement in 1976. He taught honors freshman chemistry from 1959 to 1963 (in keeping with a University tradition that senior faculty teach this class). He was Director of the University of California statewide Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) for many years including the lunar landing time.
In 1966 he married Leona Woods Marshall, an original experimenter on the world's first nuclear reactor and a UCLA professor of environmental engineering. He also started the first Environmental Engineering program at UCLA in 1972.
In 1960, Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for leading the team (namely, post-doc James Arnold and graduate student Ernie Anderson, with a $5,000 grant) that developed Carbon-14 dating. He also discovered that tritium could be used for dating water, and therefore wine.
Connecticut: Charles Goodyear
The first thing you might think of when you hear the name “Charles Goodyear” is the Goodyear Blimp, and the second think you might think of is tires. But Goodyear was born in the year 1800 and died in 1860, before the Civil War, and long before anyone even remotely thought of an automobile as a means of transportation.
As a matter of fact, by the mid-1830s, the American rubber industry was going under. Rubber was unstable. In winter, it froze solid and cracked. In summer, it melted into goo. After accidentally learning about rubber’s fatal flaw, Goodyear – an inventor with no training in or knowledge of chemistry – set out to find a way to make the substance more stable.
Goodyear was born in New Haven, Conn., the oldest of six children. His father, Amasa, was quite proud of being a descendant of Stephen Goodyear, one of the founders of the colony of New Haven in 1638.
In 1814, Charles left his home and went to Philadelphia to learn the hardware business. He worked industriously until he was 21, and then, returning to Connecticut, entered into partnership in his father's business in Naugatuck, where they manufactured not only ivory and metal buttons, but a variety of agricultural implements.
In August 1824 he married Clarissa Beecher. Two years later the family moved to Philadelphia, and there Goodyear opened a hardware store. This is where he did most of his work. His specialties were the valuable agricultural implements that his firm had been manufacturing, and after the first distrust of domestically-made goods had worn away — for all agricultural implements were imported from England at that time — he found himself heading a successful business.
This continued to increase until it seemed that he was to be a wealthy man. Between 1829 and 1830 he broke down in health, being troubled with dyspepsia. At the same time came the failure of a number of business houses that seriously embarrassed his firm. They struggled on, however, for some time, but were finally obliged to fail.
Between the years 1831 and 1832, Goodyear heard about gum elastic and read every article that appeared in the newspapers about this new material. The Roxbury Rubber Company of Boston, had been for some time experimenting with the gum, and believed it had found means for manufacturing goods from it. It had a large plant and was sending its goods all over the country. It was some of Roxbury's goods that first attracted Goodyear's attention. Soon after this, Goodyear visited New York, and his attention went to life preservers, and it struck him that the tube used for inflation was not very effective nor well-made. Therefore, upon returning to Philadelphia, he made some tubes and brought them back to New York and showed them to the manager of the Roxbury Rubber Company.
The manager was pleased with the ingenuity that Goodyear had shown in manufacturing the tubes. He confessed to Goodyear that the business was on the verge of ruin, and that his products had to be tested for a year before it could be determined if they were perfect or not. To their surprise, thousands of dollars worth of goods that they had determined to be of good quality were being returned, the gum having rotted, making them useless. Goodyear at once made up his mind to experiment on this gum and see if he could overcome the problems with these rubber products.
However, when he returned to Philadelphia, a creditor had him arrested and imprisoned. While there, he tried his first experiments with India rubber. The gum was inexpensive then, and by heating it and working it in his hands, he managed to incorporate in it a certain amount of magnesia which produced a beautiful white compound and appeared to take away the stickiness.
He thought he had discovered the secret, and through the kindness of friends who invested in his experiments was enabled to improve his invention in New Haven. The first thing that he made was shoes, and he used his own house for grinding, calendering and vulcanizing, with the help of his wife and children. His compound at this time consisted of India rubber, lampblack, and magnesia, the whole dissolved in turpentine and spread upon the flannel cloth which served as the lining for the shoes. It was not long, however, before he discovered that the gum, even treated this way, became sticky. His creditors, completely discouraged, decided that he would not be allowed to go further in his research.
Goodyear, however, had no mind to stop there in his experiments. Selling his furniture and placing his family in a boarding house, he went to New York and in an attic, helped by a friendly druggist, continued his experiments. His next step was to compound the rubber with magnesia and then boil it in quicklime and water. This appeared to solve the problem. At once it was noticed abroad that he had treated India rubber to lose its stickiness, and he received international acclamation. He seemed on the high road to success, until one day he noticed that a drop of weak acid, falling on the cloth, neutralized the alkali and immediately caused the rubber to become soft again. This proved to him that his process was not a successful one. He therefore continued experimenting, and after preparing his mixtures in his attic in New York, would walk three miles to a mill in Greenwich Village to try various experiments.
In the line of these, he discovered that rubber dipped in nitric acid formed a surface cure, and he made many products with this acid cure which were held in high regard, and he even received a letter of commendation from Andrew Jackson. Exposure to harsh chemicals, such as nitric acid and lead oxide, adversely affected his health, and once nearly suffocated by gas generated in his laboratory. Goodyear survived, but the resulting fever came close to taking his life.
Together with an old business partner, he built up a factory and began to make clothing, life preservers, rubber shoes, and a great variety of rubber goods. They also had a large factory with special machinery, built at Staten Island, where he moved his family and again had a home of his own. Just about this time, when everything looked bright, the panic of 1837 came and swept away the entire fortune of his associate and left Goodyear penniless.
His next move was to go to Boston, where he became acquainted with J. Haskins, of the Roxbury Rubber Company. Goodyear found him to be a good friend, who lent him money and stood by him when no one would have anything to do with the visionary inventor. A man named Mr. Chaffee also assisted him financially. About this, time it occurred to Mr. Chaffee that much of the trouble that they had experienced in working India rubber might come from the solvent that was used. He therefore invented a huge machine for doing the mixing by mechanical means. The goods that were made in this way were beautiful to look at, and it appeared, as it had before, that all difficulties were overcome.
Goodyear discovered a new method for making rubber shoes and received a patent which he sold to the Providence Company in Rhode Island. However, a method had not yet been found to process rubber so that it would withstand hot and cold temperatures and acids, and so the rubber goods were constantly growing sticky, decomposing and being returned to the manufacturers.
In 1838, Goodyear met Nathaniel Hayward in Woburn, Massachusetts, where Hayward was running a factory. Some time after this Goodyear himself moved to Woburn, all the time continuing his experiments. He was very much interested in Hayward's sulfur experiments for drying rubber. Hayward told Goodyear that he had used sulfur in rubber manufacturing.
Some say that Goodyear tried the experiment with a similar material over an open flame, and saw that the gum elastic was charred, but on the edge of the charred areas were portions that were not charred, but were instead perfectly cured. Other sources claim that Goodyear accidentally spilled the rubber mixture on a hot stove. The key discovery was that heating natural rubber and sulfur created vulcanized rubber. This process was eventually refined to become the vulcanizing process.
The inventor himself admitted that the discovery of the vulcanizing process was not the direct result of the scientific method, but claims that it was not accidental. Rather it was the result of application and observation.
Now that Goodyear was sure that he had the key to the intricate puzzle that he had worked over for so many years, he began at once to tell his friends about it and to try to secure capital, but they had listened so many times that his efforts were futile. For a number of years he struggled and experimented and worked along in a small way. He and his family were plunged into extreme poverty. At last he went to New York and showed some of his samples to William Ryder, who, with his brother Emory, at once appreciated the value of the discovery and started manufacture. Even here, Goodyear's bad luck seemed to follow him, for the Ryder Bros. had failed and it was impossible to continue the business.
He had, however, started a small factory in Springfield, Mass., and his brother-in-law, Mr. De Forest, who was a wealthy woolen manufacturer, took Ryder's place. Goodyear continued working to make his invention practical. In 1844 the process was sufficiently perfected that Goodyear felt it safe to take out a patent. The factory at Springfield was run by his brothers, Nelson and Henry. In 1843, Henry started one in Naugatuck, and in 1844 introduced mechanical mixing of the mixture in place of the use of solvents.
In 1852, Goodyear went to Europe, a trip that he had long planned, and saw Thomas Hancock, then in the employ of Charles Macintosh & Company. Hancock claimed to have invented vulcanization independently, and received a British patent, initiated in 1843, but finalized in 1844. In 1855, in the last of three patent disputes with fellow British rubber pioneer, Stephen Moulton, Hancock's patent was challenged with the claim that Hancock had copied Goodyear. Goodyear attended the trial. If Hancock lost, Goodyear stood to have his own British patent application granted, allowing him to claim royalties from both Hancock and Moulton. Both had examined Goodyear's vulcanized rubber in 1842, but several chemists testified that it would not have been possible to determine how it was made by studying it. Hancock prevailed.
Despite his misfortune with patents, Goodyear is claimed to have said, “Life should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents. I am not disposed to complain that I have planted and others have gathered the fruits. A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps.”
Goodyear died July 1, 1860, while traveling to see his dying daughter. After arriving in New York, he was informed that she had already died. He collapsed and was taken to the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City, where he died at the age of 59. He is buried in New Haven at Grove Street Cemetery.
Forty years after his death, in 1898, another entrepreneur named Francis Seiberling, nearly 40, married, with children and also penniless decided to start a rubber business, which he named after Charles Goodyear – The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
Delaware – Oliver Evans
Building a steam engine turned out to be a dirty business – or at least it was built for dirty purpose – and Oliver Evans was the man to do it.
Evans was born in 1755 in Newport, Del., to a family of Welsh settlers. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a wheelwright. His first invention was in 1777, when he designed a machine for making card teeth for carding wool. He went into business with his brothers and produced a number of improvements in the flour milling industry. His most important invention was an automated grist mill which operated continuously through the use of bulk material handling devices including bucket elevators, conveyor belts, and Archimedean screws. Evans described this invention in The Young Mill-wright and Millers' Guide. He patented this invention in a few states and, when the U.S. patent system was established, in the federal patent system. Evans devoted a great deal of his time to patents, patent extensions, and enforcement of his patents. In 1782, Evans built the first automatic mill on Red Clay Creek, Delaware.
In 1792 he moved to Philadelphia, Pa., where he produced an improved high-pressure steam engine — his second most important invention. For some years he contemplated the idea of applying steam power to wagons. He was granted a patent for a steam-carriage design in 1789, but did not produce a working example of such a machine until over a decade later. Part of his difficulties was a failure to get financial backing. After lack of support in his native land, in 1794 he sent copies of some his designs to Great Britain in an attempt to interest investors there.
Because Evans designed a refrigeration machine which ran on vapor in 1805, he is often called the inventor of the refrigerator, although he never built one. His design was modified by Jacob Perkins, who obtained the first patent for a refrigerating machine in 1834.
The device for which Oliver Evans is best-known today is his Oruktor Amphibolos, or “Amphibious Digger”, built on commission from the Philadelphia Board of Health. The Board was concerned with the problem of dredging and cleaning the city's dockyards, and in 1805 Evans convinced them to contract with him for a steam-powered dredge.
The Oruktor Amphibolos was never a success as a dredge, and after a few years of sitting at the dock was sold for parts.
Evans wrote up proposals to mechanize road vehicles, but failed to get backing from investors, who saw the scheme as impractical. In 1812 he published a visionary description of the nation connected by a network of railroad lines with transportation by swift steam locomotives. It should be remembered that at the time the locomotive was little more than a crude curiosity, and no attempts to use it for long distance transport had yet been made
In 1811, he founded the Pittsburgh Steam Engine Company, which in addition to engines, made other heavy machinery and castings in Pittsburgh. The location of the factory in the Mississippi watershed was important in the development of high pressure steam engines for the use in riverboats.
In 1819, while in New York City, Oliver Evans was informed that his workshop in Philadelphia had burned to the ground. Evans suffered from a stroke at the news, and died soon after. He is buried in Trinity Cemetery, Broadway at 154th St., New York City.
Florida – Charles E. Merrill
What is capitalism without capitalists? If Charles Goodyear and Oliver Evans had known Charles Merrill, Goodyear might have gotten his vulcanized rubber vulcanized sooner and Evans would have realized his dream of what was, essentially, the automobile.
Charles E. Merrill, the son of physician Dr. Charles Merrill and Octavia (Wilson) Merrill, was born in 1885 in Green Cove Springs, Fla., where he spent his early childhood. In 1898, the same Goodyear Tire and Rubber came into being, the family briefly moved to Knoxville, Tenn., but within the year returned to Florida to settle in Jacksonville. After the school Merrill had been attending was damaged in the Great Fire of 1901, his parents decided to send him to the college preparatory academy operated by John B. Stetson University (yes, that John B. Stetson, of cowboy hat fame).
Merrill studied there from 1901 till 1903 and then in 1903 for the final year of high school was transferred to Worcester Academy. After two years at Amherst College, Merrill spent time at the University of Michigan Law School from 1906 to 1907. He worked at Patchogue-Plymouth Mills from 1907–09 and at George H. Burr & Co., New York City, from 1909–13. In 1914, he established Charles E. Merrill & Co. in 1914, changing the name to Merrill Lynch & Company in 1915 when his friend, Edmund C. Lynch, became his partner. He was 30.
Merrill made his money by investing. He orchestrated the 1926 merger which created the Safeway food chain, and Merrill Lynch provided investment banking services to Safeway to finance the acquisition of other chains, growing Safeway to more than 3,500 stores across the United States by 1931.
“Evil Capitalist” that he was, Merrill anticipated the Stock market crash of 1929, and divested many of his holdings before the Great Depression. Merrill merged his retail brokerage and wire operations with E.A. Pierce and Co., thereby restructuring Merrill Lynch and Co. to focus upon investment banking. Additionally, Merrill was known to have pleaded with President Calvin Coolidge (like Merrill, an Amherst alumnus) to speak out against speculation, but Coolidge did not listen to him.
In 1939, immediately preceding the boom caused by World War II, Merrill was approached by Edward A. Pierce to merge the struggling brokerage E.A. Pierce & Co. back together with Merrill Lynch. Merrill agreed to do so, but insisted that the combined firm retain the Pierce. Following a simultaneous acquisition of Philadelphia-based Cassatt & Co., the firm was reopened as Merrill Lynch, E.A. Pierce and Cassatt. Merrill was convinced that the average American who wanted to invest should be able to buy shares in the stock market, which was previously a playground for the wealthy. He instructed his employees to hold seminars at which husbands and wives could leave their children with child care providers while the parents learned how they, too, could invest.
Not only was he an “evil capitalist”, but Merrill was also a well-known philanderer and bon vivant. He was married three times and gained the nickname "Good Time Charlie Merrill". Still, all three of Merrill's children became wealthy from unbreakable trusts made early in childhood. In 1926, their father purchased the James L. Breese House at Southampton in Suffolk County, New York. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Merrill was the father of educator and philanthropist Charles E. Merrill Jr. (b. 1920) (author and founder of the Thomas Jefferson School, Commonwealth School, and former chairman of the board of trustees of Morehouse College); San Francisco philanthropist Doris Merrill Magowan (1914–2001); and poet James Ingram Merrill (1926–1995). Merrill's grandson, Peter A. Magowan, was President and CEO of Safeway Inc. and also the former managing general partner of the San Francisco Giants.
Okay, so “Good-Time Charlie” Merrill was an evil capitalist and a cad. But at least he didn’t leave his children and grandchildren on welfare. His investment banking operation initially allowed average income investors to build upon their savings instead of depending upon the government. His firm allowed businesses to flourish.
Inventors need investors. Businesses need backers. Economies need entrepreneurs. What America doesn’t need is a socialist government.
Tomorrow, we’ll find out how Coke was once used for medicinal purposes, who invented the gas pump, who invented the electrical digital computer, and how a quick-tempered railroad mechanic started a famous car company.