Intrepid vintage inventors
Oct 11, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
It’s easy to get excited about today’s inventions – shiny and sleek smartphones, electric cars, robots that clean our floors. It’s all so buzzy and marketed with techno beats, luring us to reach for our wallets. But what about the list of amazing vintage inventions? They may seem dusty compared to their 2017 counterparts, but in their time, they were revolutionary. Without the fearless development of these ideas we wouldn’t have the shiny new inventions we enjoy today. So let’s get to know a bit more about the inventions and the intrepid vintage inventors behind them!
Next time you look to the stars, I want you to think of a name. Not Neil Armstrong, not Galileo Galilei, but Beatrice Hicks. She may not be as famous as these two juggernauts of pop culture, but her contributions are arguably just as mighty. Her gas density sensor was a foundational component for our fledgling space travel program. Beatrice’s invention measured the actual amount of gas, rather than reading pressure as other devices of the day. Beatrice’s system was used in the Apollo moon missions and her patent (number 3,046,369 for the trivia fans out there) is referenced in development & research projects to this day! In addition to this ground-breaking device that allowed us to reach for the heavens, she also developed a suite of sensors that measured pressure levels, alerted the pilot when speeds exceeded structural safety ranges, and flow rates for different liquids.
Beatrice focused her efforts on business-critical developments for the space and transportation industries. Her cavalier spirit can be traced back to her academic days – she was one of the first women to achieve an engineering degree. Beatrice graduated with her bachelors of science in chemical engineering in 1939, followed by her masters ten years later. She gave back to her community, supporting fellow women with a passion for engineering, co-founding the Society of Women Engineers.
The former architect in me got quite excited about this next inventor – Augustine Sackett. You don’t know it, but most likely his invention is at the center of your home and office. I’ll give you three guesses…. drum roll please… drywall. Augustine’s first prototype called Sackett Board, dramatically reduced the time needed to finish a home. In the late 1800s this product helped support a building demand in a young country looking to heal. Augustine was working hard at college, but his studying was derailed by the Civil War.
After his time in the US Navy, he settled in the big apple and began inventing. The board Augustine created meant that construction workers could get walls finished in a day (versus the multi-day process of wet plaster). As the decades past, drywall continued to evolve and improve. It was the go-to construction material in WWII during a material shortage. And just as it was used to rebuild the country after its own conflict, it built the homes of returning GI’s – bringing healing to a new generation.
Healing is a direct focus for our next inventor – Earle Dickson. A cotton buyer for Johnson & Johnson, his idea created our modern day band-aid. The original design included cotton gauze with adhesive strips. The first band-aids were actually each handmade and were over a foot long. In time, manufacturing processes improved and the size decreased… making them a bit more user-friendly. Eight years after his initial patent, he was promoted to the board of directors in 1929. Earle continued to invent and rose to the level of vice president in 1932. That initial design grew to be a $30 million industry in the early 1960s.
We’ll wrap our tour of this year’s hall of fame vintage inductees with another female scientist. So far we’ve met inventors who address our dreams in far-off places, who address our dreams at home, who address our health, and now an inventor who addresses them all. Allene Jeanes graduated a year ahead of Beatrice, getting her degree in organic chemistry.
A known innovator in her field, she started working on a blood plasma substitute. Her developments had an immediate impact on the battlefield. Always wanting to learn more, she started working next with xanthan gum. Its use was approved by the FDA in the late 1960s and is seen in a variety of uses: from gluten-free foods to makeup and fuel. What a range! Needless to say Allene’s work didn’t go unnoticed. She received the coveted Federal Woman’s Service Award from President JFK in 1962. These inventors are just the tip of the iceberg – everything we interact with today stands on the shoulders of intrepid vintage inventors. I find it pretty inspiring to follow this narrative through our history – from random, happy accidents to focused determination – we’re a plucky group of thinkers. So, dear reader, what do you think the future holds?