13 Chicago inventions and firsts

Which can our city claim, and which remain disputed to this day?

October 30, 2013

On March 1, 1893, the gates opened at the Chicago World's Fair: an entertainment wonderland attracting 26 million visitors over the course of six months with never before seen art, food, alcoholic beverages, and a newfangled bevy of technological gadgets. 

120 years later, the Field Museum has unveiled Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair, a 10-month long exhibit of incredible artifacts and specimens from the fairgrounds to commemorate the occasion.  

A recent post by WBEZ's Curious City also paid homage to the incomparable splendor of the World's Fair, and it got me thinking about the many Chicago "firsts" that the fair produced.

Which Chicago inventions debuted at the 1893 fair, and which came after? And which of these can our city really claim?

1. Brownies.

The beloved chocolate treat was created in Chicago's Palmer House kitchen in 1893. Bertha Palmer, wife of millionaire hotelier Potter Palmer, wanted a new dessert to serve at the World's Fair that was smaller than a cake, but still had cake-like qualities. These first brownies were baked with semi-sweet chocolate, an apricot glaze, and crushed walnuts, and they are still beng made at the hotel according to the original recipe.

2. Yellow pencils.

In 1889, the Hardtmuth Company of Austria introduced a fancy new line of pencils into the World's Fair of Paris. The pencils were made from the finest graphite in the Far East and painted with 14 coats of golden-yellow lacquer. In China, the color yellow is associated with royalty. Four years later, European producer Koh-I-Nor brought the yellow pencils to Chicago's World's Fair, where they made quite a splash and officially became an American staple.

3. The Ferris Wheel.

George Ferris invented this engineering marvel to outdo the Eiffel Tower, which was the centerpiece of the 1889 World's Fair in Paris. Making its debut at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the first Ferris Wheel carried 36 elegantly outfitted passenger cars, each of which could fit 40 people sitting or 60 peiple standing. The wheel was dismantled in 1894, rebuilt in Lincoln Park the following year, and then sold in parts to St. Louis, where it was eventually destroyed by dynamite. 

4. The zipper.

First introduced as a "clasp locker" at the 1893 World's Fair by Chicagoan Whitcomb L. Judson, the original zipper was a complicated hook-and-eye shoe fastener that still wowed fairgoers as a technological marvel at the time. The zipper as we use it today — based on a system of interlocking teeth — was invented by a Swedish employee of Judson in 1913. 

5. The vacuum cleaner.

The first manually powered vacuum cleaner was born in the basement of Chicago inventor Ives. W. McGaffey in 1869. Made from wood and canvas, the "Whirlwind" was lightweight but difficult to maneuver, as it required the user to turn a hand crank while pushing it across the floor. The machines were sold for $25 in Chicago and Boston, until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 incinerated all but two of them. One of these original models currently resides at the Hoover Historical Center in North Canton, Ohio.

6. Softball.

Some sources say the sport originated in France as early as 1334, while others point to the British game rounders as inspiration for what softball and baseball would later become. However, it is also widely believed that softball — a variant of baseball played with a larger ball and on a smaller field — was invented in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day 1887, when members of the Farragut Boat Club began playing indoor ball with an old boxing glove and a broomstick. 

7. The electric dishwasher.

After Josephine Garis Cochran of Shelbyville, Ill. showed off her novel yet highly practical contraption at the 1893 World's Fair, the habitual chore of washing dishes would never be the same. The first electric dishwashers were primarily used in hotels and large restaurants until the early 1950s, when the everyday feasability of these machines began to catch on with the general public. Cochran also founded a company to manufacture her dishwashers, which eventually became KitchenAid.

8. The film critic.

Being a film critic was not considered to be a "real job" until 1914, when the Chicago Tribune hired Jack Lawson as the first paid full-time film critic. Lawson's hiring paved the way for many more famous names to follow, including Gene Siskel at the Tribune and Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert also became the first person to win a Pulitzer Prize for film critcism in 1975.

9. The telephone.

Scottish engineer Alexander Graham Bell is widely credited with inventing the first practical telephone in Boston circa 1876. However, Elisha Gray of Highland Park, Ill. was also experimenting with acoustic telepathy during this time, and filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office on the same day as Bell. Three days later, Bell succeeded in getting his telephone to work,  but only after using a transmitter that matched Gray's design. Bell also drew a diagram in his notebook similar to that in Gray's patent caveat, leading many skeptics to theorize that Bell stole the invention.

10. The frozen pastry industry. 

The famous Sara Lee Corporation of Downers Grove, Ill. began as a popular Chicago bakery chain in the 1950s, founded by Charles Lubin and named after Lubin's daughter, Sara Lee. Today, the corporation is divided into two companies: one for North American operations renamed Hillshire Brands (though the Sara Lee name remains on many of the desserts and deli products) and the other for international beverage and bakery businesses named D.E. Master Blenders 1753. Some of the most well-known brands under this umbrella include Hillshire Farms, Jimmy Dean, Pickwick Tea, and Sara Lee frozen desserts. 

11. The first cartoon character.

Walt Disney may have been born in Chicago, but contrary to popular belief, he did not invent the first animated cartoon character with the introduction of "Steamboat Willie" Mickey Mouse in 1928. In fact, that honor belongs to lesser-known cartoonists Wallace Carlson and Winsor McCay, who created "Gertie the Dinosaur" in 1914. The following year, Carlson debuted a new character called "Dreamy Dud," who appeared in perhaps the country's first afterschool special for Chicago's Essanay Studios. 

12. Skyscrapers.

Chicago's Home Insurance Building, built in 1884, is widely considered the world's first skyscraper. At 10 stories high and 138 feet tall, it was also the first building to use structural steel in its frame. The building was demolished in 1931 to make way for the Field Building (now the LaSalle National Bank Building). Chicago is also home to the tallest skyscraper built by a female architect, Jeanne Gang. She and her team at Studio Gang Architects constructed residential skyscraper Aqua in 2009.

13. Deep dish pizza.

In 1943, Ike Sewell invented deep dish pizza at his restaurant Pizzeria Uno, where delicious Chicago-style pies are still served today. Other Chicago food inventions include Twinkies, Cracker Jacks, Juicy Fruit gum, Oscar Mayer weiners, Jays potato chips, Italian Beef, and, of course, the Chicago-style hot dog. 

Leah Pickett writes about popular culture for WBEZ. Follow Leah on Twitter @leahkpickett.

Categories