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Forgotten Inventors


Can Opener, 1858
British merchant Peter Durand made a huge stride in food preservation with his 1810 invention of the can. Canned rations provided to soldiers and explorers saved legions from sure starvation. So grateful for its inner contents were the hungry recipients that no one really complained about the sweat and toil often required to simply open the can. 

In 1858 Ezra J. Warner of Waterbury, Connecticut, patented the first can opener. An intimidating combination of bayonet and sickle, Warner's invention was nonetheless eagerly adopted by the U.S. military during the Civil War. Household use of the can opener increased when William W. Lyman's more user-friendly model was introduced in 1870. No longer did opening a can of peaches mean risking one's fingers.

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Blue Jeans, 1850s
Working as a canvas salesman in San Francisco during the California Gold rush of the 1850s, Levi Strauss made a keen observation. He noticed that pants of prospectors and miners could not withstand the wear and tear of their profession. Strauss decided to stitch some canvas together and sell them as pants. What they lacked in comfort, Strauss's pants made up in durability. When he discovered that using denim — canvas dyed blue to better conceal stains — produced even more popular and comfortable apparel, an American fashion mainstay had been established. Once the workwear of cowboys, miners, and ranchers, blue jeans are today worn by people of all walks of life, at work and play.


Frisbee, 1957
Combine a pie maker from Bridgeport, Connecticut, and an UFO aficionado from Southern California and you come with the Frisbie. 

William Frisbie's pies, nestled in circular tin pans bearing the family name, were all the rage in 1870's Bridgeport, Connecticut. As years went by, students at nearby Yale University came to consider them a two-fer: not only did they enjoy eating the tasty pies, but they seemed to gain equal pleasure from tossing around the empty pie pan. 

Meanwhile, Californian Walter Frederick's interest in the UFO craze of the 1950's propelled him into designing his own toy flying saucer. The Wham-O company of San Gabriel, California, bought Frederick's idea and in 1957 set out to turn the rest of country on to the "Flyin' Saucers" craze. When Wham-O president Richard Knerr ventured east he discovered college students tossing Frisbie pie pans for fun. Knerr had a new name for his toy — the Frisbee — and America had a new pastime.


Feather Duster, 1876
Susan Hibbard's patent of the feather duster in 1876 was hard fought. In fact, it came down to her squaring off against her own husband, George Hibbard, in patent court before she was justly awarded ownership of the patent. It was not the first time a man had claimed a woman's invention for his own. Often times a woman, ignorant of patent law and schooled in subservience, willingly handed over their creation to a man. In other cases, ideas and inventions were stolen outright. 

Susan Hibbard's notion of turning discarded turkey feathers into a duster may not rival the invention of the locomotive engine or the light bulb, but her fight for recognition went a long way in bolstering the spirits of other women inventors.


Gas Mask, 1912
On July 25, 1916, an explosion occurred in Tunnel No. 5 of the Cleveland Waterworks. Some 250 feet beneath Lake Erie, more than 30 workmen were trapped. As smoke and dust threatened to consume the men, a call was put out to find Garrett A. Morgan. Someone had remembered that Morgan, a Cleveland inventor and entrepreneur, had designed a device called the Morgan safety hood and smoke protector back in 1912. Equipped with the gas mask, Morgan, his brother, and a team of volunteers were able to rescue 32 of the trapped men. 

In the aftermath, the African American inventor was awarded a medal from the city of Cleveland and was inundated with orders for his gas mask from fire departments all over the country. 


Oil Burner, 1880
Well before 1880, Amanda Theodosia Joneshad already established herself as an author and an inventor. Her early work in attempting to devise a method of preserving food resulted in her being awarded two patents. Having failed to establish a successful canning company, Jones set her sights upon perfecting a method of heating furnaces. It was in the oil fields of northern Pennsylvania that Jones completed her trial and error efforts and came away with a patent for the oil burner in 1880.

Blood Bank, 1941
A car crash on April 1, 1950, brought an abrupt end to the brilliant career of Dr. Charles Drew. Drew, an African American physician and surgeon, gained notoriety for his techniques for processing and storing blood plasma for use in transfusions. Because of the existence of "blood banks," accident victims were far less likely to bleed to death.


In 1941 Drew became director of an American Red Cross program for the U.S. armed forces, developing methods for using dried instead of liquid plasma. Disheartened by the military's decision to store the blood of Caucasians and non-Caucasians separately, Drew resigned his post after only three months. He went on to become a professor of medicine at Howard University.


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