Illinois might not have the best business climate these days, but in the past, the state was a breeding ground for groundbreaking inventions and innovation. These inventions from the Land of Lincoln arguably changed the world, obviously some more than others. In fact, Abe himself is the only U.S. president to be issued a patent for a device he conceived in 1849 that helped buoy vessels over shallow water, though it was never manufactured — probably because he had more important things going on. While there are plenty more, here are 15 notable Illinois inventions, their inventors and some interesting facts you might not have known.
1. The Cell Phone – Schaumburg
- Invented by Martin Cooper in 1973 while working as the head of Motorola’s communication’s systems division.
- The original handset, DynaTAC 8000x, was nicknamed “the brick” or “the shoe” because it weighed 2.5 pounds and was 10 inches long.
- DynaTAC’s battery, which weighed about five times more than today’s modern cell phone, was good for only 20 minutes of talk time before requiring a 10-hour recharge.
- Cooper got his inspiration from Star Trek and the communicator used by Captain James T. Kirk.
2. The Mechanical Dishwasher – Shelbyville
- Josephine Cochrane is credited with developing the first mechanical dishwasher in 1885.
- Cochrane was a wealthy Illinois socialite who hosted many dinner parties. It was after one of these soirees when Cochrane realized one of her servants chipped a piece of her best china – allegedly dating back to the 1600s. After assuming washing and drying duties, she loathed the time consuming task so much it drove her to develop a more efficient method of dishwashing.
3. The Zipper – Chicago
- Whitcomb L. Judson was a mechanical engineer and creator of the zipper. He held as many as 30 patents, nearly half of them for street railway innovations before developing a metal zipper with locking teeth in 1890. The invention was referred to as a “clasp-locker” at the time, which consisted of a complicated hook-and-eye fastener mechanism that was not without its technical problems.
- Judson patented the clasp-locker in August 1893 and showed off the invention later that year during Chicago’s World Fair where he was unsuccessful in his marketing efforts. Judson died in 1909 before the zipper was improved by Swedish-American engineer, Gideon Sunbach, in 1923.
4. The Pinball Machine - Chicago
- Pinball enthusiasts can thank Steve Kordeck for his innovations to the pinball machine in 1948, which made them less expensive to produce and gave players more control. Kordeck revolutionized pinball by inventing the two flippers that were controlled by buttons on both sides of the machine.
- Kordeck’s game, Triple Action, was an instant hint when it was introduced at a trade show in Chicago.
- In February 2012, Kordeck passed away at the age of 100.
5. Barbed Wire – Dekalb
- Joseph Glidden was granted a patent for his improved version of barbed wire fencing in November 1874. The barbs, made from coffee mill, were held in place by one wire twisted around the other.
- Barbed wire drastically improved the work life of farmers and ranchers, but its effectiveness has made it a go-to option for security fencing worldwide.
- Litigation ensued over who was the true inventor of barbed wire, which Glidden eventually won and then founded the Barbed Fence Company in Dekalb. By the time of his death in 1906, he was one of the richest men in America.
6. Cast Steel Plow – Grand Detour
- Perhaps one of the most well known inventors from Illinois, John Deere created the first cast steel plow in 1837. While Deere created the new and improved plow in Grand Detour, he later moved business operations to Moline, which was a major transportation hub along the Mississippi River.
- The cast steel plow was made of wrought iron with a polished cast steel share, making it possible to cut through the sticky clay nature of prairie soil without clogging up the equipment.
- By 1855, Deere had manufactured and sold more than 10,000 plows. And in 1868, he officially incorporated his business as Deere & Company.
7. Dentistry – Jacksonville
- Known as the “father of modern dentistry,” Dr. Greene Vardiman Black relocated to Jacksonville after the Civil War and began his career in the largely unknown medical field of dentistry.
- Dr. Black was the first to use nitrous oxide while extracting teeth, invented the first cord-driven dental engine operated by a foot motor and perfected the use of amalgam for fillings.
8. Brown Corn-Planter – Galesburg
- A farmer and carpenter by trade, George W. Brown came up with the idea of turning a cultivator into a corn-planter in 1848. After experimenting for several years with different designs and testing the device on both his and a neighbor’s farmland, he sold all of his possessions to secure a patent for his invention and relocated his business to Galesburg.
- In 1874, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled he was the sole inventor of the corn-planter, and by 1878, Brown was manufacturing about 8,000 per year.
- His company employed 130-230 men during the 1870s, and used 2000 tons of coal, 500 tons of castings, 250 tons of wrought iron and steel, 15 tons of paint and oils and 500,000 feet of lumber each year.
9. Pullman Sleeping Car – Chicago
- George Pullman built the first railroad sleeping car, or “palace car” in 1864.
- The invention gained national attention after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, when his body was transported from Washington D.C. to Springfield in one of Pullman’s sleeper cars.
- Pullman was one of the leading industrialists in the late 1880s and bought 4,000 acres of land near Lake Calumet south of Chicago where he built his factory as well as a company town to cope with labor unrest and poverty.
- The Pullman Strike of 1894 occurred with the decline of manufacturing demand, leading Pullman to cut jobs and wages while increasing work hours without lowering rent in the company town. Pullman’s actions resulted in violent protests and led President Grover Cleveland to send in U.S. troops who brutally quashed the strike. Four years later, the town of Pullman was annexed to Chicago after an order by the Supreme Court of Illinois.
- After Pullman’s death in 1897, his family worried former employees would attempt to dig up his body. Pullman was laid to rest in a lead-lined mahogany coffin that was sealed inside a block of concrete and lowered into a large grave, the walls of which were reinforced with 18 inches of concrete. The coffin was covered with asphalt and tar paper, a layer of concrete, followed by steel rails bolted at right angles and then topped off with even more concrete. The entire process took two days.
10. Wrench - Hutsonville
- Albert A. Coon was the first to patent the concept of a wrench in November 1886, which served as both a bolt-holder and nut or pipe wrench.
- According to U.S. Patent 352,518, “the movable jaw is linked to the main bar by a clevis; a thumb latch secures the adjustment when the wrench is used as a nut wrench.” A year later, Coon improved his tool by adding springs to hold the jaw in operating position, and a thumb lever to the loop piece at the base of the adjustable jaw.
11. Vacuum Cleaner – Chicago
- The first manually powered vacuum cleaner was invented in 1868 by Ives W. McGaffey and dubbed the “Whirlwind.”
- It was quite a bulky piece of equipment, requiring the user to crank a belt driven fan by hand. While the product was marketed and sold, it was awkward to use and its success varied.
12. Automatic Street Traffic System – Chicago
- Earnest Sirrine invented the first known automatic street traffic system in 1910, which had the non-illuminated words “Stop” and “Proceed.”
13. Ferris Wheel – Chicago
- George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., a Galesburg native, built the original Ferris Wheel that was the centerpiece of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
- The wheel itself rotated on a 71-ton, 45.5-foot axle, which was the largest hollow forging at the time, weighing just over 89,000 pounds. Two cast iron spiders on both sides of the wheel were 16-feet in diameter and weighed 53,000 pounds.
- With 36 passenger cars, each was able to hold up to 60 people. The Ferris Wheel itself had a maximum capacity of 2,160.
14. Mass Production of Penicillin – Peoria
- Before World War II, the U.S. was looking for ways to mass produce penicillin in order to supply troops with a large enough stockpile.
- The Peoria-based National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (formerly the Northern Regional Research Laboratory) conducted research on the fermentation of corn steep liquor, which provided the U.S. with the ability to produce 2.3 million doses just in time for the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.
- In 1943, a moldy cantaloupe in a Peoria marketplace was found to contain the best strain of penicillin for the corn steep liquor fermentation process. By June 1945, more than 500 billion units of penicillin were produced annually.
15. Softball – Chicago
- George Hancock, while working as a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, invented the game of softball in 1887. The game was initially intended to be played indoor during the winter as an alternative to baseball. After gaining widespread popularity, the game was moved outdoors a few months later in the Spring of 1888.
[Editor's note: The cast steel plow was originally invented in Grand Detour, which corrects an earlier version that identified the city as Decatur.]
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