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Twentieth Century Inventions


June 19, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

There were so many inventions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that I could have filled ESCAPING YESTERDAY with them. Instead, I chose to mention a few of them in passing and to highlight details only for the automobile. This week, I get to share a few more with you!

Inventors began exploring ideas for a “speaking telegraph” as early as 1844 with Alexander Graham Bell credited for the invention of the telephone in 1876, nearly twenty-five years before the turn of the century. However, the telephone did not come into common use until years later. Several other inventions and innovations would be necessary first. The telephone switch (Tivadar Puskas, 1876) allowed the creation of telephone exchanges and networks. Bell and Thomas Edison worked on call bells and transmitters while others developed the battery and wiring.

At first, exchanges were not used. Early subscribers paid for a contractor to run a line between two points and leased two telephones, one for each end of the line. Thus service ran only between two parties. If a subscriber wanted to talk to additional parties, he or she would have to lease additional pairs of telephones and run additional lines. These earliest commercial telephones also had only one port, used for speaking and for sound. Employees of the local telephone company had to periodically visit subscribers to maintain batteries and transmitters.

With the invention of the telephone exchange and the switchboard, lines were run from the exchange to the subscriber rather than from party to party. The subscriber would connect with the exchange and a switchboard operator would then connect the caller to the line of the party he or she wished to contact. In turn, this necessitated the need for some type of signal or ringer for each subscriber.

As the turn of the century neared, more cities were connecting with lines and more rural areas were beginning to connect. Improvements in the telephone itself were constantly being made and in 1890, a smaller, more efficient phone was introduced. These were the wall phones many of us recognize with the crank, ringer bell, center speaker, and earpiece that set in a cradle when not in use. The popular desk set telephone was introduced after 1900.

In the early 1900s, photography became accessible to everyone…not just professional photographers. George Eastman has pioneered changes in photography, beginning with the invention of the dry plate process in 1879. He and William Walker invented flexible roll film in 1882, eliminating the need for glass plates. In 1888, Eastman developed the first KODAK camera. It sold for $25 and was simple to use. Its fixed focus allowed for more general use. But by 1900, the Eastman Kodak Company was able to produce a camera that cost only one dollar. Suddenly, photography was affordable for everyone. These early camera took round pictures. The entire camera had to be sent to the factory in Rochester, New York.

Though the electric light bulb was invented and improved throughout the nineteenth century, the improvements around 1900 made the bulb truly useable for the masses. The first electric light, invented by Humphry Davy in 1800, was a primitive combination of wires, a piece of carbon, and a battery. In 1860, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan discovered that a carbon paper filament resulted in better light but it didn’t last long. Charles Francis Bacon experimented with carbon arcs in Cleveland, Ohio. His 1877 improvements were used in a few buildings and for the lighting around a public square. Otherwise, electric lighting was used by few people. Thomas Alva Edison experimented with thousands of different filaments in his search for one that both produced a bright light and lasted. Edison created the incandescent bulb when he discovered that a carbon filament in an oxygen free bulb lasted 40 hours. His later improvements resulted in a bulb that provided light for over 1500 hours. Willis R. Whitney invented a treatment for the filament so that it no longer darkened the inside of the bulb (1903) and the tungsten filament, which lasted even longer than previous materials, was invented in 1910 by William David Coolidge. The invention of the two blade electrical plug and socket by Harvey Hubbell in 1904 allowed Americans to use lamps to access the increasing number of electric lines. Together, this changed how the world was lit.

The stop sign was conceived in 1890, believe it or not! William Phelps Eno of Connecticut devised the first set of traffic laws in an article he wrote that year. However, the first actual use of a stop sign was in 1915 in Detroit. It was white with black lettering. The current, universal design did not come into being until 1975!

A few food (and food related) items we all know and love came into existence around the turn of the century. Shredded wheat was invented in 1890 by Henry Perky. Cotton candy was co-invented by William Morrison and John C. Wharton, both candy makers, in 1897. Candy corn was first sold in 1898, though it is thought to actually have been invented by George Renninger in the 1880s. The first patent for an ice cream scoop was issued to African-American Alfred L. Cralle in 1897. Charcoal briquettes were patented in the same year (Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer, inventor). In 1903, the tea bag was invented by Thomas Sullivan, a tea and coffee merchant; made of silk, it was intended as packaging to be opened by the consumer but people soon began to brew the tea directly in the bag!

There were also a number of practical inventions around 1900 which made life easier. The crown cork (the first form of the modern bottle cap) was invented in 1892. The same year, Arthur Lovett Garford invented the first padded bicycle seat. In 1893, Whitcomb L. Judson invented the zipper and further perfected it in 1905. William C. Hooker received a patent for the mousetrap in 1894, the same year disposable medical gloves were created by William Stewart Halsted. Automobile mufflers were invented in 1897 by Milton O. Reeves. Office work was made easier by the introduction of the filing cabinet (Edwin C. Seibels) in 1898. Both the fly swatter (Robert R. Montgomery) and the thumbtack (Edwin Moor) were invented in 1900.

In 1901, the assembly line concept was introduced. The idea was that of Robert W. Domm and was put into use by Ransom Olds who patented the idea and used it to create the first mass-produced automobile, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash. If was Henry Ford, however, who saw the potential and combined it with conveyor belts to make production faster, producing a Model T in ninety-three minutes.

Further practical inventions included the safety razor (King Camp Gillette) and the windowed envelope (Americus F. Callahan) in 1901, the collapsible periscope (Simon Lake) in 1902, and windshield wipers (Mary Anderson) in 1903. The automatic transmission was developed in 1904 by the Sturtevant brothers and the telescoping curtain rod was invented in 1907 (Charles W. Kirsch).

The turn of the century also ushered in some fun and entertaining inventions. In 1891, George Washington Ferris invented the Ferris Wheel. The amusement was introduced to the public at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Billiards enthusiasts were given the cue chalk in its modern form by William A. Spinks and William Hoskins in 1897. The world of shooting was changed in 1898 by the invention of the semi-automatic shotgun by John Moses Brown. The design was patented in 1900 as the Browning Auto-5 and dominated gun design for over 50 years. Widely used during World War I, it remained popular for years before production ceased in 1999. Even the remote control was invented around this time—Nikola Tesla gave the first demonstration of the device at the 1898 New York Electrical Exhibition. In 1900, duckpin bowling, which uses a six-inch ball and smaller pins, was played by a group of bowlers using pins made by John Van Sant. Children fell in love with the Teddy Bear, designed by Morris Mitchtom, in 1902. The stuffed bear was inspired by a political cartoon that featured President “Teddy” Roosevelt sparing the life of a bear cub. Michtom received Roosevelt’s permission for the design and his wife hand-sewed the toy.

And, of course, the airplane was invented during the first decade of the twentieth century. Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first sustained powered flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. Each year thereafter, they made improvements. By 1905, their fixed wing plane was able to fly a distance of 24.5 miles in a flight that lasted 39 minutes. The key feature allowing the Wright Brothers’ success was the tree-axis control which allowed the pilot to steer the plan and maintain balance. This invention became the standard for all fixed-wing aircraft.


We’ll spend one more week on changes that happened at the turn of the century, this time with the focus on leisure activities. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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