Match Safes

Once you’ve discovered fire, you have to keep it from burning you. This is how it was managed before the safety match.

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Christopher Latham Sholes: The Seventy-sixth Inventor Of The Typewriter

Charles Weller was at his post in the Western Union office in Milwaukee one day in 1867 when his friend Christopher Sholes came in. With the long, tragic face of an El Greco martyr, Sholes looked to be nothing less exalted than a poet, but in fact he was collector of customs for the city. He liked to invent things on the side, and that was why he had come to see Weller: he wanted a piece of carbon paper for an experiment. “What kind of experiment?” Weller asked, handing over the paper.Read more »

“God Pity A One-Dream Man”

The Ordeal of Robert Hutchings Goddard

In 1901, just after Christmas, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a sickly nineteen-year-old high school student named Robert Hutchings Goddard sat down to compose an essay on an enterprise of surpassing technological challenge. He was no stranger to enterprise. He had already tried to fly an aluminum-foil balloon filled with hydrogen gas and attempted to build a perpetual-motion machine. Samuel P.Read more »

Roll Around

The roller skate was born centuries ago in Europe when small boys tied wooden spools to their shoes. An eighteenth-century Belgian showman named Joseph Merlin is said to have fashioned the first metal-wheeled skates, though he never entirely mastered them: once, while simultaneously skating and playing the violin for a London party he “impelled himself against a mirror … and wounded himself most severely.” But it was an American, James L.Read more »

From Pearl Street To Main Street

Lighting Up America

“Remember,” Thomas Edison liked to say, “nothing that’s good works by itself, just to please you; you’ve got to make the damn thing work.” One hundred years ago this October, after trying to make the damn thing work for thirteen months, Edison invented an incandescent bulb that would burn for forty hours.Read more »

Frederick Winslow Taylor

The Messiah of Time and Motion

Toward the end of the last century an idea took form in the mind of a Philadelphia factory engineer that was destined to change, in profound and troubling ways, the nature of work in the modern world. The engineer was Frederick Winslow Taylor, a brash and eccentric young man whose most notable prior accomplishment had been the invention of a crook-handled tennis racquet, shaped like a giant teaspoon, with which he had taken the measure of a number of the leading players of the day.Read more »


The outdoor electric-light spectacular that transformed cities all over the world was born at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, where a single lighted column glowed with no fewer than four thousand incandescent lamps. By 1900, fifteen hundred incandescent bulbs had been hung on the narrow front of the Flatiron Building in New York City to form America’s first electrically lighted outdoor advertising sign. After that, incandescent signs began to flicker on across the country.Read more »

Head Lines

In an age more sanguine about the benefits of progress than our own, Scientific American enthusiastically reported on man’s inventive genius every week. On March 9,1878, its readers learned all about the Hat Conformator (Fig. 1, below), a bewilderingly complicated French tool used to measure men’s heads in order to block their hats properly. Read more »

Close Encounters Of The Earliest Kind

During November of 1896 the United States experienced its first publicized UFO flap, and it is perhaps not surprising that it should have occurred in California. After all, Erich von Däniken would have us believe that the prehistoric petroglyphs in Inyo County represent interplanetary flight; Fray Geronimo Boscana, the missionary at San Juan Capistrano, described a “two-tailed comet” overhead in 1823; and in 1883 the scientist John J.Read more »

“all Safe, Gentlemen, All Safe!”

The ups and downs of the invention that forever altered the American skyline

Of the mechanical wonders placed on view in the Crystal Palace, the great iron-and-glass exhibition hall erected in New York City in 1853 to house America’s first world’s fair, one of the most popular was a towering machine that was destined to transform the look of the world’s cities and the feel of city life. The machine was a freight hoist, or elevator, and it was the invention of a Yonkers, New York, factory engineer named Elisha Graves Otis.Read more »