Great American Inventions

Englishman Winston Churchill once said: “Americans always do the right thing, but only after exploring all the alternatives”. The USA has always been a consumer driven society, obsessed with invention, liberty and sex. The trend of modern materialism in the Western world is mainly down to the American appetite for more. Israel Zangwill described America as “God’s crucible”.

Americans have always loved to come up with new ideas, and patent them. This has its basis in the Constitution where early Americans defined their freedoms. Article 1, Section 8 guarantees “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”.

Americans are obsessed with sex, as some of the history of patents shows. An 1879 address to the Baltimore Medical and Surgical Society caused a national debate about the hydraulic principles of erection, and in 1897 the first truly effective penile dorsal vein clamp was patented in Washington by inventor Horace D Taggart of Akron, Ohio.

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America was where the bra came into being. First patented as a “breast supporter” by Marie Tucek in 1893, her version included separate pockets for the breasts, and straps that went over the shoulder, fastened by hook-and-eye closures. Socialite Mary Erectile dysfunction inventions brought a flood of patents during the 1890s, for erection detection and response systems, by people who thought sex outside marriage sinful. There were scary electro-mechanical devices, giving a painful jolt if a guy started to get aroused, and as late as 1936, patents appeared for “Anti-Masturbation Clothing Systems”. One included adhesive tape, to glue garments to the offender’s groin. How painful might that have been?

Phelps Jacobs is credited with the patent of the ‘Brassiere’ on November 3, 1914, but her device was lightweight and flattened the breasts, with no cups to support them.

No surprise then, that the modern bra also came from America, the Warner company being the first, in 1935, to introduce the notorious A-D cup sizes.

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The American preoccupation with sex was epitomised in 1959, when the big busted ‘Barbie’ made her entrance at the New York Toy Fair wearing a striped swimming costume and stilettos.

Ruth Handler, who dreamed her up, had been inspired by Lilli, a pre-war German sex toy, and Barbie became a huge success. Handler’s own children were actually called Ken and Barbara, so it came as no surprise when Barbie’s boyfriend turned out to bear that name.


Many of the great achievements of America have nothing to do with philosophy or fine art, but the world of public consumption. Think about household names like Jack Daniel’s whiskey, Lucky Strike cigarettes or Coca-Cola soft drinks.

‘As American as Apple pie’ is one saying, but how much does that sentiment apply to things like KFC chicken, McDonald’s hamburgers or Tupperware? Much of the world’s ability to communicate so easily today is down to the brilliance of Thomas Edison, who put in over 1000 patents for new inventions in his lifetime.

He invented batteries as we know them, the microphone, early cinema cameras and even the electric light-bulb. He built the first commercial power station in 1882, and his ‘speaking machine’ of 1878 was the forerunner of the juke-box, but he was only one inventive American.

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In 1895, King Camp Gillette came up with a new way of shaving. In 1901, he patented the idea and by 1905, he’d sold 90,000 razors and nearly 12.5 million blades. In 1907 Murray Spangler, a store janitor, constructed a device from a tin can, a broomstick, a flour sack and an electric motor, which could suck up dirt from the floor. He sold the rights to a leather manufacturer called Hoover, and they produced the first commercial model in 1908. By 1912, they’d opened a factory in Canada, and were even exporting to Europe.

Image: Terry Wha

Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908, and by 1914 had it in mass production. Though it was in 1899 that Mrs Cochran of Indiana first invented the dishwasher, it wasn’t until 1914 that the electric version came on to the market, fully forty years before Europeans began to use them.


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Mechanic Charles Strite was the man who dreamed up the electric toaster, and it was marketed by McGraw international of Minnesota as early as 1926. Motorala introduced car radios to the USA in 1930, and George C Blaisdell patented his world famous ‘Zippo’ lighter in 1932. Could he have guessed that over 300 million would be sold worldwide?

Hoover introduced the first reliable steam iron in 1949 – though versions had been around the States since 1926, and the Motorala company introduced the radio pager in 1956. The Iron City brewery of Pittsburgh became the first drinks maker to sell beer cans with ring pulls in 1962.

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Texas Instruments produced the T1-92 pocket calculator in 1967 (having invented the microchip nine years earlier), and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak launched the first personal computer with colour screen and separate keyboard – the Apple II – in 1977.

It was in this time that the US defence department decided it wanted a system of communication that could survive nuclear attack, using computers. The required system was developed, and the ‘internet’ was born. Look how far the world has taken it.

With the famous US pioneering spirit as strong as it ever was, who knows what the next 100 years might bring, in terms of patenting the American dream? My kids can hardly wait to find out.