Innovating during tough times
Aug 26, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Human history is full of folks rising to the occasion. Several of my friends are living this out during our current moment. Whether that be pursuing new passions, championing causes, or returning to school my pals are making the most of this year as they follow in the footsteps of generations past. Every crisis brings its own challenges, but people continue creating and dreaming in spite of it all. During WWI we saw fashion become a vehicle for change. Shakespeare did some of his best work during the plague. Philanthropy began a new chapter during the American Civil War. In every generation people find a way to transform pain into progress. Regardless of time and place, humanity moves forward. How is it that people can dig deep and keep innovating during tough times? Let’s find out…
Our journey focuses on the last three decades of the 19th century. From 1873-1896 the world was in the throes of an unprecedented economic depression. America was reeling from two major fires (Chicago & Boston), inflation was on the rise, and people were betting big on fledgling railways. When you also consider the brutal Civil War ended just eight years prior, this shaky financial foundation was sure to fail. But calamity wouldn’t just visit our shores. Actions being taken across the Atlantic dovetailed with American woes, immediately catapulting local problems onto an international stage. For twenty-three years global economic unrest produced an environment of despair. Simply put, people had never seen anything like it. Hope was at a premium.
Yet some people seem to thrive when the chips are down and the inventors applying for patents during this time fit the bill. In fact, many of the products or services we enjoy today can trace their roots back to these particular decades. I wonder what inventions will rise from the ashes of 2020 and inspire future generations?
We’ll start our tour with one of the most iconic symbols of American culture: denim jeans. Co-invented by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, their idea to strengthen work pants by introducing the structural copper rivet revolutionized everyday apparel. Their partnership started on the dusty streets of a young San Francisco. Levi Strauss and his family migrated from their native Bavaria to make a better life in America and soon they set their sights on the bustling West Coast. This was a heady time when golden fortunes were found and lost in an instant. Levi watched it all unfold from the helm of his successful dry goods store. Through his business he knew most people in town – including a tailor named Jacob Davis. The men formed a friendship over the years, so when Jacob needed a partner for his patent application Levi’s name topped the list. What followed is one of the most successful business alliances of the 19th century. The extended lifespan these sturdy work pants offered went on to play a pivotal role in the expansion of America. Remember that these were the years when back-breaking work was happening from coast-to-coast as our recently reunited country sought to build tangible connections. Railroads, roadways, bridges – the great American construction project was underway and jeans were there for every railroad spike, laid brick, and raised timber.
I think every vintage enthusiast has a soft spot for the typewriter. The timbre of each key stroke is mesmerizing and each typewriter brand has its own soundtrack. I always love watching an old film scene where an army of secretaries is typing away, the room awash with sound. That level of synchronization can only be achieved by consistency. This is a fact I never gave much thought to until I learned that the QWERTY keyboard system was patented in 1874. The format is so intuitive I just assumed that it’d been with us from the very beginning. But like every new technology, the market was flooded with different versions, each one angling to get ahead. You can think of it as the Apple vs. Microsoft of its day (except the field of competitors soared well beyond two!).
Meet Christopher Latham Sholes, Renaissance man. A former senator and newspaper man, one day Christopher came across an article about the Pterotype (an early typewriting machine). After one look at the contraption, Sholes decided there was room for improvement and got to work. What’s most intriguing to me about Sholes’ story is his openness to receive feedback. He guessed that stenographers would be the best focus group so he sent prototypes their way, receiving their remarks (which were at times harsh), and iterating. This feedback loop is how our modern keyboard came to be. The QWERTY layout was developed to address a technical limitation of the typewriting mechanism. This limit was only discovered because of the lightning pace required by stenographers. By arranging the keys in the QWERTY design meant the machine wouldn’t jam, allowing the fastest of typists to keep pace. Even though we now longer face these mechanical barriers, QWERTY’s love note is typed on our tech savvy hearts!
I would be remiss to discuss this era and overlook the impact of Thomas Edison and his Menlo Park Lab. The lab, opened in 1876, was a first of its kind. A true research and development facility, it lived up to its nickname as the “invention factory.” One of the first big ideas to come from the lab was the phonograph, a machine that created voice recordings. The next big thing to come out of Menlo Park was arguably the biggest. In 1879 Edison’s incandescent light bulb became the first to glow for more than a few minutes. In fact, it burned for over 13 hours! Subsequent versions lasted up to 40 hours and soon the Edison Electric Company was established, promising to “make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” The light bulb, when paired with Edison’s generators, quite literally powered a new chapter for the world. In fact, some credit this season of creativity with ending this global crisis. Naturally there were several factors in motion during the last years of the 1800s, but one tenet is clear: dreams aren’t like orchids, they can thrive even under the worst of conditions. So tell me, dear reader, what are you dreaming about these days?