Ode to inventors
Sep 4, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Labor Day first appeared on calendars as an official holiday around the turn of the 20th century. This celebration, observed on the first Monday in September, marks the transition from Summer to Fall. Originally it signaled much more than the beginning of the school year, it was created to symbolize the extraordinary achievements of the American workforce. You may wonder why it took so long to create a moment of distinction for this activity? After all, people have been working since the beginning of time! The answer lies in the nature of work itself. The dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s ushered in an era of unprecedented mechanization. Suddenly the work day transitioned from time spent in nature (i.e. farming) into hours toiling in hot, unsafe conditions. The factories of this time were notorious for injuries and long working hours. (Most folks labored for seven days a week, during 12 hour shifts.) As you can imagine, these appalling conditions made fertile ground for riots. Despite growing national attention, it took the crippling of the nascent American industry to get Congressional action. The Pullman strike in May (which ground the railroads to a halt) set the stage for the creation of this Federal holiday in September, 1894.
One hundred and twenty five years have passed since the first Labor Day. The nature of work continues to evolve with many people working from home and finding employment in the “gig economy.” Advancements in technology has paved the way for many of these iterations, so in honor of this historic Labor Day anniversary, we offer an ode to inventors – the people who transformed our day-to-day activities. Join us as we learn more and tell us about your favorite inventions / inventors in the comments…
We’ve waxed poetic on the history of laundry in the past. Cleaning clothes used to be a herculean endeavor, but what about other clothes care steps? Admittedly ironing is not my favorite activity. But ironing in 2019 is a very different undertaking than it was in previous eras. During the 1600s giant slabs of iron were heated over an open flame and pressed onto fabric to smooth wrinkles. This technique was appropriately called the “sad iron.” Fast-forwarding to the time of our first Labor Day, consumers would find irons that ran on whale oil or natural gas. While the iron itself developed alongside inventions like electricity, a fundamental problem existed. A problem that Sarah Boone intended to fix!
Sarah, whose family escaped to the North on the Underground Railroad, was a dressmaker in New Haven, Connecticut. During this time period dressmakers were the Macy’s of the day, churning out wardrobe staples for the entire family. Showcasing nicely pressed dresses and suits could often make the difference between success and failure for business owners such as Sarah. The challenge was that the fashion of the time (narrow waistlines and sleeves) proved incredibly difficult to iron. Sarah had enough of fighting with wooden planks and chair backs to get her creations ready for clients, so she invented the first proper ironing board. Both collapsible and padded, she thought of every detail and at the age of 60 her brilliant design was awarded a patent. The year was 1892, making her one of the very first African-American women to receive this honor. Next time you tackle your ironing, thank Sarah for her ingenuity!
It’s hard to imagine life without a dishwasher these days. Thanks to Josephine Cochrane, we no longer do we have to be daunted after a night of entertaining. Created six years before Sarah’s patent was issued, the automatic dishwasher was invented. Like Sarah, Josephine found that necessity really is the mother of invention. After countless beloved dishes were broken during nights of dish washing, Josephine decided it was time to create a machine to complete this task. You may think this seems like a leap, but as her grandpa invented the steamboat, engineering a solution was second nature to Josephine. Her first iteration involved a wooden wheel, wire compartments to fit the dishes, and a copper boiler. It debuted during the 1893 World’s Fair to an eager crowd of housewives and restaurateurs. All of this success led to the creation of the Kitchen Aid company and the rest, as they say, is history!
We’d be remiss to exclude the brilliant Nikola Tesla from our list. He put his mind to all manner of scientific discovery and, much like Leonardo da Vinci before him, was a man ahead of his time. It may surprise you (I know it did me!) to discover that the remote control is an invention from the late 1800s. Tesla showed off this cool, new technology personally at Madison Square Garden in 1898. The debut caused quite the spectacle, with Tesla powering a toy boat via an antenna and levered remote control. While a successful publicity stunt, the invention’s commercial appeal fell short. The U.S. Navy was not impressed (Tesla’s ideal client), but fellow inventors saw the possibilities. As the Jazz Age burst onto the scene, household appliances were on the rise and firms were keen to offer remote controls to the growing consumer base.
Today’s remote controls have come a long way from that sunny day in New York City. Tesla would be proud to see how far his radio wave signals have traveled in our modern time. Every time you get to sit on the couch, cruising through your Netflix list, thank Tesla for this convenience! It’s difficult to limit our list to three, we could go on and on about all the wonderful creative minds who have contributed to our reduction in labor. This research has shown me that one idea can pave the way for a multitude of amazing developments. We stand on the shoulders of others and it just takes one inquisitive person to set genius in motion. So tell me, dear reader, what challenge are you going to tackle today?