Stories from PA History
Science and Invention
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Science and Invention
Overview: Science and Invention

Benjamin Franklin is dressed in black with a red cape flowing across and behind him in this painting. He is shown drawing electricity from the sky into his outstretched hand. Angels assist him both by holding the string and guarding the bottles of electricity he has collected. One of the angels is depicted as a Native American.
Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, by Benjamin West, circa...
By the mid-1700s Philadelphia was the largest and most cosmopolitan city in British North America. It was also becoming a center of scientific inquiry, medicine, invention, and technological innovation. Home to Benjamin Franklin and a rich mix of mathematicians, natural scientists, doctors, and other homegrown and immigrant "gentleman scientists," Philadelphia after American Independence cemented its reputation as the scientific capital of the new nation. In the early 1800s, the city was home to the American Philosophical Society, the nation's first museum of natural sciences, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the University of Pennsylvania, the Franklin Institute, and other institutions devoted to scientific inquiry, and technological improvements.

Championed by the great Dr. Franklin, the application of science to the improvement of people's lives in the 1700s became a distinctive American frame of mind passed down from one generation to the next the - Sellers family of Delaware County - provide a wonderful example of this and unleashed wave after wave of discovery and invention.
Drawing of an automated mill.
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Illustration of Oliver Evans automated grain mill, from The young mill-wright...

Independence from Britain spurred American's drive to develop their own industries and expertise. In the 1800s, the state boasted hundreds of farm-machinery manufacturers who developed mechanical hoes, reapers, treadmills, peelers, lifts, tractors, milk separators, and other machines to reduce human labor and increase production. Pennsylvania growers developed new hybrids of livestock and plants, including the Neshannock potato, Chester White pig, and iceberg lettuce.

In the 1800s, scientific study and invention were hobbies practiced by Pennsylvania men and women of all classes. Working in sheds and basement workshops, Pennsylvanians developed everything from safety matches and typewriters to precision telescope lens. Very often these amateur inventors were poor businessmen, who through their own lack of knowledge or resources failed to market creations today associated with men with better luck or entrepreneurial skills.

John Fitch may have built the first steamboat, which he demonstrated at Philadelphia to delegates of the Constitution Convention in 1787, but it was Lancaster County native Robert Fulton who would receive credit for it after his Clermont first steamed up the Hudson River in 1807. Montour County's Christopher Sholes may have invented the typewriter, but it went nowhere until James Densmore of Meadsville in 1873 sold it to the Remington Arms Company. Few know that Luzerne County machinist Sephaniah Reese in the 1880s built one of America's first horseless carriages because he never went into the business of their manufacture.

Photo of The York, 1831
Reconstruction of the York, locomotive, built by Phineas T. Davis in 1831.
In the 1800s, Pennsylvania was an international center of technological and industrial innovation. Blessed with essential natural resources, including iron ore and the great deposits of both anthracite and bituminous coal, Pennsylvanians played essential roles in the development of two industries at the heart of the American industrial revolution: railroads and steel. Pennsylvanians designed and manufactured increasingly powerful locomotives, the first iron and steel t-rails, the first iron bridges, air brakes, switching signals, and the drawn metal wires that enabled the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the other great "suspension" bridges that still span American rivers. Here iron foundries introduced and improved the Bessemer furnaces that would transform southwestern Pennsylvania into the steel capital of the nation.

Ferris Wheel and general overhead view of part of Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition.
The Ferris Wheel at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, IL, 1893
While the scientific and technological revolutions of the 1800s fueled explosive economic growth, curious Pennsylvanians also put their technological skills to the development of new forms of play. In the 1880s, Philadelphia farm machinery manufacturer Samuel Leeds Allen's delight in coasting down snow-covered hills led to his patent of the "flexible flyer" sled. In Pittsburgh, structural engineer George Ferris designed the "gargantuan Ezekiel's Wheel" that would bear his name, for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The very next year, Philadelphian Edward Joy Morris patented the safety wheel system that by anchoring roller coasters onto their tracks permitted them to travel at ever greater speeds.

The 1800s also witnessed the continued professionalization of science and technological innovation. Gentleman scientists, epitomized by Benjamin Franklin, astronomer John Rittenhouse, and naturalist John Bartram in the 1700s, and in the early 1800s by West Chester naturalist William Darlington and Lancaster's Samuel Haldeman "who successfully dabbled in fields ranging from linguistics to conchology" gave way to university, corporation, and museum-based professionals. These included Philadelphia paleontologists Joseph Leidy and Joseph Drinker Cope, and astronomer Alfred Langley. After experimenting with wing design at Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory, Langley built an unmanned airplane that flew over the Potomac River a decade before the Wright brothers took flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903.

Frank Conrad with His First Broadcast Radio Set
Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad posing with his first broadcast radio set,...
In Pennsylvania, too, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) "at one point the world's largest corporation" and machinist George Westinghouse were among the first to establish corporate research and development departments. While the PRR managed the world's largest railroad testing laboratories in Altoona, a city built around this single employer. Westinghouse beat Thomas Edison in the electricity wars of the late 1800s, and then employed the scientists and inventors who helped develop the American radio and television industries. It was the work of Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad that led to the creation of radio station KDKA, which in 1920 became the first station to broadcast a presidential election.

By the late 1800s, Pittsburgh had emerged as a world center of technological and industrial innovation, and of finance capital. Here, engineer Charles Hall developed the processes for aluminum production that gave birth to the Aluminum Corporation of America (ALCOA), and Edward Acheson patented both carborundum and artificial graphite, an abrasive and lubricant, which were among the most important discoveries of the industrial age.

The technological innovations that helped the United States boast the world's largest industrial economy by the dawn of the 20th century were also essential to America's victories in the world wars of the 1900s. These wars accelerated technological innovation and scientific research, now increasingly funded by the federal government. Pennsylvania defense installations and manufacturers helped develop airplane catapults and black box recorders, weather satellites, rayon and Teflon, silent submarine propellers, and a host of other inventions. During World War II, West Chester mushroom chemist Raymond Rettew developed techniques for the mass production of penicillin, which saved millions of lives.

Dr. Jonas E. Salk and a nurse administer a polio vaccine to Pauline Antloger.
Dr. Jonas Salk giving a young girl a polio vaccine, Pittsburgh, PA, 1955.
In Butler County, American Bantam developed the first jeep. At the University of Pennsylvania, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly developed the first digital computers, helping launch the computer age. The ongoing infusion of federal funding also helped Pennsylvania's universities and affiliated hospitals and clinics become centers of scientific innovation and biomedical research, their accomplishments acknowledged by the succession of Nobel Prize winners who were trained and taught in Pennsylvania colleges and universities. While working at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1950s, Jonas Salk developed the vaccine that prevented polio. Blessed with a rich concentration of universities, medical schools, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies, southeastern Pennsylvania became a center of pharmaceutical breakthroughs.

In we build each story around Pennsylvania's historical markers, and most of the markers related to science and invention are dedicated to individuals. Keep in mind as you use this story, however, that from mid-1800s to the present, American science and invention underwent a profound shift from curious amateurs to well-funded research departments that employed highly-trained specialists working collaboratively on complex innovations with even more complicated histories. Indeed, the complex history of science and invention is often messy and difficult both to sort out and to explain.

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