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The Top 10 Makers Of The Modern American Summer

April 2024
2min read

On a blowy March day during a season of cold rain that felt as if it might very well be eternal, the editors pondered the distant pleasures of summer with the goal of choosing the 10 people who are most responsible for the season as we experience it now. The exercise came down to some tough choices (Fred Waller, inventor of water skis, vs. Wally Byam, father of the Airstream, vs. Ed Headrick, the winner among this trio) but finally reached the following consensus:

1 Thomas Midgley, chemist.

In 1921 he gave a big boost to America’s nascent road culture by inventing leaded gasoline, which allowed cars to accelerate, climb hills, and go faster than 50 miles per hour without knocking and wheezing. Then in 1930 he unveiled the Freon family of chlorofluorocarbons. Not only did they make home refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners practical, but the damage they did to the ozone layer will have us all wearing sunscreen for decades to come.

2 David R. Francis, president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, better known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, can be thought of as the Bauhaus or Xerox PARC of junk food. With varying degrees of reliability, it’s been credited with the invention, or at least popularization, of the ice-cream cone, the hamburger, the hot dog, the club sandwich, cotton candy, peanut butter, Dr Pepper, and iced tea. Some of these attributions are questionable; frankfurters, for example, were sold at Coney Island in the 1860’s and were being put in buns well before the turn of the century. But it’s clear that the fair was a watershed of creativity for American snacking, and every teenager who buys his date an ice-cream cone (almost certainly a legit product of the fair) owes thanks to Francis.

3 Gen. John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.

As head of the Union veterans’ organization in 1868, he established May 30 as Memorial Day, thereby giving Americans an extra month of summer.

4 George Fret, surfer.

After emigrating from Hawaii in 1907, Fret introduced surfing to Southern California. For good measure, he served as California’s, and possibly the country’s, first lifeguard. In later years his brethren in that profession would save the lives of thousands of bathers—and brighten the lives of millions of women who never even went in the water.

5 Dwight D. Eisenhower, President.

Imagine taking a cross-country drive in a nation where each state and locality was responsible for building and maintaining its own roads. That’s how things were until the 1950’s, when Eisenhower looked at the inadequate patchwork of U.S. routes and saw a vital defense weakness if rapid mobilization ever became necessary. Cold War concerns are less important today, but Ikea’s legacy of interstate highways has made the summer road trip a cherished American institution.

6 William Willett, builder.

As early as 1784 Benjamin Franklin suggested setting clocks ahead in summer, but the idea proved no more popular than his advocacy of the turkey as our national symbol. Not until 1907 was the idea taken up seriously—in Britain, where Willet wrote a pamphlet on the subject and sent it to members of Parliament. During World War I his proposal was finally adopted, first in Germany and Britain, then in most other European countries, and finally in the United States after it entered the war in 1917. Following the Armistice, Congress repealed daylight-saving time, only to reconstitute it temporarily during World War II and permanently (subject to local option) in 1966.

7 Maurice Yock, inventor.

In 1957 this New Zealander patented the “jandal,” a sandal with a thong between the first and second toes, which developed into the modern flip-flop.

8 Steven Spielberg, producer-director.

With the unprecedented success of Jaws (1975), he introduced the concept of the high-budget, special-effects-laden summer blockbuster, inaugurating a durable summer tradition at the minor cost of wrecking American studio films forever.

9 John Muir, naturalist.

As the founder of America’s conservation movement, between the 1890s and 1910s he was instrumental in getting millions of acres set aside as national parks and forests—and establishing, in a nation not long removed from frontier days, the idea that hiking and camping were things to do for fun.

10 Ed Headrick, engineer.

In 1967 he added concentric grooves to the top of the Wham-O company’s Pluto Platter and renamed it Frisbee. The change transformed it from an ephemeral toy to a way of life and an indispensable piece of equipment for beachgoers.

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