WTF Fun Fact 13108 – The Invention of Sliced Bread

Have you heard the expression “It’s the best invention since sliced bread”? Well, that only goes back to the 20th century. The invention of sliced bread occurred in 1828.

Inventing sliced bread in Missouri

Humans have been baking bread for millennia (around 30,000 years, we estimate). But pre-slicing it is another matter. And we have to admit that while bread baking has reinvented itself to make bread slices seem passé, it’s convenient to have!

According to History.com (cited below), “The first automatically sliced commercial loaves were produced on July 6, 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri, using the machine invented by Otto Rohwedder, an Iowa-born, Missouri-based jeweler.”

Rohwedder had long tried to make a machine to slice bread but was thwarted for over a decade when a 1917 fire destroyed his factory, blueprints, and prototype.

But he persevered, and “in 1928, Rohwedder’s rebuilt “power-driven, multi-bladed” bread slicer was put into service at his friend Frank Bench’s Chillicothe Baking Company.”

The reaction to slicing

People seemed to know immediately what pre-sliced bread meant for convenience in the home. As the website recalls, “an enthusiastic report in the July 6, 1928, edition of the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune…noted that while some people might find sliced bread ‘startling,’ the typical housewife could expect ‘a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows. So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.'”

We’re only surprised that “some people” may have found sliced bread “startling.” But we know there will always be folks startled by new technology – in fact, we’ve been there. It’s hard when things change, but the convenience of sliced bread remains (as do beautiful artisan loaves without a knick in them).  WTF fun facts

Source: “Who Invented Sliced Bread?” — History.com

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WTF Fun Fact 12972 – Lonnie Johnson and the Super Soaker

The tale of NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson and the Super Soaker is one of intelligence, perseverance, and creativity. And who knew the iconic sibling-drencher was invented by accident?!

Lonnie Johnson’s story

Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1949 to parents who supported his ambitions to find out how things worked. Even as a kid, he played with rockets (and nearly burned down the house trying to make rocket fuel on the stove one day).

By the time he was in high school, he was trying to build his own robots. Despite going to a segregated school, he found ways to excel in the sciences and won a 1968 science fair for a robot created out of scrap metal. However, despite the attention that would have normally earned a young inventor, the University of Alabama showed no interest in admitting a Black student. So Johnson attended Tuskegee University, graduating in 1975 with a degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in nuclear engineering on an ROTC scholarship.

After university, Johnson joined the Air Force, and during his service he received his first patent for a “Digital Distance Measuring Instrument.” According to Biography.com (cited below): “Simply put, it was an early version of DVD-reading technology, an innovation he later called “’he big fish that got away’ because he did not pursue it further.”

Lonnie Johnson’s accidental invention of the Super Soaker

In 1979, Johnson was recruited by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In addition to his illustrious career in engineering (he was part of NASA’s Galileo mission that sent an unmanned spacecraft to Jupiter), he’ll likely be remembered for an invention that was largely an accident.

One day he was experimenting with new ideas for a refrigeration system that could use water instead of freon (which is hazardous). He happened to be in the bathroom at the time and hooked up a nozzle to the bathroom sink, accidentally shooting water across the room.

That’s when he realized it would make a great water gun toy. But it would be years before that toy would make it to shelves because Johnson rejoined the Air Force to help build B-52 stealth bombers in Nebraska.

The birth of the Super Soaker

At night, Johnson would work on his water gun, giving the first prototype to his 7-year-old daughter, Aneka. She quickly became the hit of the Air Force base with her new toy and Johnson knew it would do well in stores.

He was originally quoted $200K for the manufacturing of the first 1000 toys, which was more than he could afford. That meant he had to find a partner.

Biography.com explains that it was a company called Larami that helped Johnson launch the Super Soaker: “Larami put the first line of the gun, then known as the Power Drencher, on shelves in 1990. It was an instant hit, and after it was redesigned and rebranded Super Soaker the next year, sales went through the roof, with more than two million units sold in the summer of 1991.”  WTF fun facts

Source: “How Lonnie Johnson Invented the Super Soaker: The engineer tuned toy inventor gamed up the idea for the water gun while preparing for a NASA mission” — Biography.com

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WTF Fun Fact 12724 – Creating Summer Indoor Entertainment

Without Willis Carrier’s 1902 invention of the air conditioner, we’d have a very different world. And it would have started with missing out on opportunities for indoor cultural experiences in the summer when people are most commonly off from work and school.

Carrier’s original design was meant for a publishing company in Brooklyn that needed to keep its paper from expanding and contracting so it could achieve proper print quality while it was hot and humid. But not long after that, businessmen saw the opportunities to add it to factories (which technically cut off some summer break for workers who could now work more safely in the summer) and then to department stores. The real cultural moment came when it was added to movie theaters in the mid to late 1920s and regular theaters in the 1960s.

For example, Carrier’s company put an air conditioner in Lincoln Center in 1961. This extended the performing arts season in New York City from “a single season to 52 weeks a year,” according to the Carrier website.

For more cool facts and stories about the history of air conditioning, check out:
Slate, “A History of Air Conditioning”
JSTOR Daily’s “Can We Live Without Air Conditioning?”
BBC, “How Air Conditioning Changed the World”

 WTF fun facts

Source: “The History of Movie Theaters and Air Conditioning That Keeps Film Lovers Cool” — WPLF

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WTF Fun Fact 12723 – Air Conditioning Was Invented In Buffalo, New York

Willis Carrier is the man to thank if you’re cooling off in an air-conditioned space today. He was born in Angola, New York, and attended high school in Buffalo, where he would later work, he submitted the first drawings for a cooling unit in 1902.

Children and some laborers were already some time off in the summer when productivity was low because of heat and humidity. But, of course, many companies needed to keep on producing their goods.

Carrier, who got an engineering degree at Cornell and then returned to work as a research engineer at Buffalo Forge Company, was set upon the task.

But the primary goal wasn’t to give us all comfort during sweltering summers. In fact, according to the Willis Carrier website, the “young research engineer initialed a set of mechanical drawings designed to solve a production problem at the Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing Company in Brooklyn, New York.” Ironically, it was a problem with paper.

Also interesting is that Buffalo Forge was a supplier of forges, fans, and hot blast heaters. Creating cold air is the first challenge that needed addressing!

So why begin with paper? Why does paper need to be cool?

Well, it turns out it expands and contracts when heat and humidity are a problem – and that’s just not good when you need to print something.

Again, according to the website that now carries his life story:

“In the spring of 1902, consulting engineer Walter Timmis visited the Manhattan office of J. Irvine Lyle, the head of Buffalo Forge’s sales activities in New York. Timmis’ client, Sackett & Wilhelms, found that humidity at its Brooklyn plant wreaked havoc with the color register of its fine, multicolor printing. Ink, applied one color at a time, would misalign with the expansion and contraction of the paper stock. This caused poor quality, scrap waste and lost production days, Timmis said. Judge magazine happened to be one of the important clients whose production schedule was at risk. Timmis had some ideas about how to approach the problem but would need help. Was Buffalo Forge interested?”

Carrier was tasked with the problem because he already had a sterling reputation as a researcher and data collector, and this problem would need a lot of work.

But he did it. He was able to not only produce cool air but humidity as well by “replacing steam with cold water flowing through heating coils, balancing the temperature of the coil surface with the rate of air flow to pull the air temperature down to the desired dew point temperature.”

It wasn’t perfect, but it did the job. Carrier later started a company, and sold his updated creations to factories, and then to department stores and movie theaters in the 1920s.

The source down below is a comprehensive website on his invention and the impact it had on the world (just click through the dates on the left side of the page to follow the timeline to today).  WTF fun facts

Source: “The Invention That Changed the World” — WillisCarrier.com

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WTF Fun Fact 12713 – da Vinci’s “Helicopter”

It’s hard to put into words the genius of Leonardo da Vinci. You have to look beyond his paintings and into his notebooks to see just how masterfully his brain worked. It’s like he understood the secrets of nature in a way no one else could (either then or now).

For example, in the 1480s, he was already imagining ways to create flying machines. And some might call his “aerial screw” the forerunner of the helicopter. That’s an innovation that it took us 400 more years to actually create!

(It’s only fair to mention that de Vinci’s drawing is not the first-ever of a helicopter-type vehicle. In 400 BCE, Chinese Taoist scholar Ge Hong described a “vertical flying machine” made of bamboo in the Baopuzi, though he was referring to a spinning toy. And since Chinese manuscripts made their way to Europe during the Renaissance, da Vinci was possibly influenced by this. It certainly influenced future helicopter inventors.)

Today, we even call the Renaissance artist’s invention “da Vinci’s helicopter” these days, and he wrote an entire treatise on flight. Just look at a page to see what he was capable of:

From: https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/codex/codex.cfm#page-20-21

In the modern world, companies still bicker over who invented the first real helicopter, so it’s just more fun to give credit to da Vinci.

Of course, the aerial screw isn’t the same helicopter we have today. It’s not like he built a gas engine or anything, but he did conceive of a blade that would lift a vehicle vertically off the ground. His blades were not flat but shaped like a screw or helix.

As physicist Tom Hartsfield described in Big Think:

“What da Vinci lacked was the modern materials necessary to construct a lightweight and durable blade. He described the helical screw as being made of linen, with the pores stopped up by starch.

He also lacked the continuous motive power for such a machine. Men turning cranks could never dream of flying: they are far too heavy and too weak to produce enough power to lift themselves…Cognizant of this limitation, da Vinci envisioned a spring, wound by the crank turners, building up and storing energy. That built-up energy could be released in a quick unwinding burst, spinning the screw rotor. But as far as we know, such a device was never built.”  — WTF fun facts

Source: “15th-century futurism: Leonardo da Vinci’s famous helicopter design finally takes flight” — Big Think

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WTF Fun Fact 12624 – The Night Mower

Edwin Bearn Budding is the inventor of the lawnmower. It’s a bit hard to imagine a world without lawns (though we’ve heard they’re not so great for the environment) and the people who take pride in them. In fact, the average American spends 4 hours a week taking care of their lawn.

But at first, Budding wasn’t so sure about his contraption. The year was 1830, and no one technically had a lawn to be mowed. Naturally, he figured people would make fun of him for the invention. And perhaps they would have.

Budding was so self-conscious about the invention that he would only test out his lawnmower prototypes at night, under cover of darkness, so his neighbors couldn’t see him. Of course, these were manual mowers, so they didn’t have the tell-tale engines that let us know when our neighbor is mowing today, though his machine was reportedly pretty noisy.

Most inventors seem pretty stoked about their creations, but perhaps Budding was just humble. While he was born the illegitimate son of a farmer, he got an education that led him to an interest in technical matters. He became a pattern maker at an iron foundry, then a machinist at a cotton mill.

Before his lawnmower, he also invented a pistol more sophisticated than a Colt, but it appears Colt’s 1836 patent won out in the end.

Budding’s lawnmower was conceived of during his time in the cotton mills, and in many ways, it mimics the movements of a napping machine, which uses blades to trim off long fibers from cloth evenly and efficiently.

The wrought iron machine had adjustable blades and was pushed from behind while a tray collected clippings at the front. (Frankly, it sounds better than some of the manual push mowers around today.)

After the patent, Budding went into business with John Ferrabee, who owned Phoenix Iron Works, so the machine could be mass-produced and sold (after all, you don’t get anything from just inventing something). Things went well for the pair, and a few years later, they were attracting buyers across England, selling 1000 machines by 1840.

Budding died of a stroke in 1846, so he never got to see how his invention changed people’s lives. It was used to care for sports fields and public parks, improve gardens, and cut down on manual labor on farms (a scythe or a grazing animal was your only choice before the lawnmower).

It also created a whole new class of gardeners and groundsmen who used it to create gardens as status symbols. A bit later, they were explicitly marketed to women as a fashionable way to get exercise.

We’ve come a long way since then (for better or worse), but it’s incredible to think it all started with one man mowing his lawn in the dark. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Budding Lawn Mowers” — The Daily Gardener

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