New York tends to attract/breed dreamers, geniuses and makers, so it’s no surprise some of the world’s weirdest, best, and coolest creations have come from here. With so much to choose from, the possibilities sent us down the rabbithole. Scientific innovations, products that make life better, toys and games, foods, even dances...
Below, a dozen of our favorites (not counting Buffalo Wings, which we’re guessing you already knew were invented here), in no particular order.
Yes, those ubiquitous trees hanging from vehicle mirrors all over actually were created in Watertown in 1952 when Julius Sämann came up with a solution to a milk truck driver’s complaint to him about the smell of spilled milk using a special blotter material and fragrance. He apparently used the tree shape as tribute to “his years extracting aromatic oils in Canada’s pine forests.”
Photo: Little Trees
Not exactly what you associate with your entertainment system remote...In 1898, Nikola Tesla, brilliant inventor and engineer who had immigrated from Serbia to New York, debuted his “teleautomaton” at Madison Square Garden using a wireless system to control a miniature boat via radio waves. Signals were transmitted from a box with a lever and a telegraph key to an antenna on the boat on one frequency; the signals changed electrical contacts on the boat to alter rudder and propeller settings and thereby control movement of the boat. While Tesla’s boats were not a commercial success, his wireless control idea was swiftly incorporated into other products and has played a huge role in technology.
Nikola Tesla's patented design for his "teleautomaton"
It wiggles, it jiggles, it comes from Le Roy. Pearle B. Wait came up with the iconic Jell-O dessert in 1897. While not heeding up health-focused diets today, many children of the 60s and 70s consumed this colorful stuff virtually as a staple. If you ever want to take a deep dive into this gelatinous American treasure, head straight to the museum of Jell-O at 23 E. Main Street in Le Roy. Meantime, make a batch and dig in while you read the inside scoop in Jell-O Girls, a well reviewed, revealing memoir written by family member Allie Rowbottom.
Join us in attempting very hard to not think about what people did before toilet paper existed, won’t you? Albany businessman Seth Wheeler saved civilization, or at least our rear ends in 1891 by patenting commercial toilet paper and making it available across our great nation. In his patent, Wheeler opined that the toilet paper roll should be on the outside, in the over position. While everyone embraces his stance on the necessity of T.P., the debate on proper paper position rolls on.
Legend has it a fed-up cook created potato chips after a fussy diner complained about his thick and soggy fried potatoes one too many times way back in 1853 at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs. The chef, George Crum, became so incensed, he sliced the potatoes thiiiiiis thin, over-salted them, then threw them in the frying pan. Magic.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Virtually every American kitchen today has at least one piece of Pyrex, whether measuring cup, baking dish, bowl, or other. Pyrex products are the domestic application of a “thermally resistant ‘non-expansion glass’” that Corning Glass Works developed in 1908 for railroad signal lanterns and other industrial uses. According to Casey Barber’s article “A Short History of Pyrex: The 100-Year-Old American Classic Glassware,” [t]his clear glass moved into the kitchen through the efforts of Corning employee Jesse Littleton. As the origin story goes, he brought a sawed-off battery jar home to his wife Bessie, and she used the shallow mold to bake a cake,” and, by 1915, Corning “was selling Pyrex pie plates, casserole dishes, and bakeware to the housewives of America.”
1956 ad for Pyrex
Ah, one of modern life’s great luxuries. Buffalo’s Willis Carrier invented the first air conditioner in 1902, and the world has been breathing a little bit easier ever since. Or not! The New York Times published an article earlier this month calling into question the value of air conditioning, even suggesting there might be a sexist component, and the internet immediately became roiled in the debate!
Most of us have had a shoe salesperson measure our foot size with this device, but do not know what it is called or from whence it came. Syracuse and Otis Brannock are the answers! Brannock, a Syracuse University student born into a local shoe business family, “built a prototype using an Erector set,” after spending a couple years seeking the best way to measure feet for shoes. He patented his device and began manufacturing it in 1926 and 1927, vastly improving upon the then-existing method of using “a primitive block of measured wood.” During World War II, the U.S. Army engaged Brannock to make sure enlisted men wore boots and shoes that fit, and the Brannock Device has remained the standard measurement device for the footwear industry ever since.
THE PNEUMATIC RAILWAY (NEW YORK’S FIRST SUBWAY)
Inventor, patent attorney, and owner of Scientific American (among other publications), Alfred Ely Beach introduced the world’s first air-propelled train to NYC in 1870. It cost a quarter to ride and was pushed one block under Broadway from Warren to Murray Streets, courtesy of a 20-ton fan, the “Roots Patent Force Blast Blower.” Unlike its modern cousin, Beach’s “subway’s waiting room alone astonished reporters. Its frescoed walls, elegant paintings, grand piano, bubbling fountain, and goldfish tank — all were ecstatically received. Then there was the single small car, called “spacious” (it seated twenty-two) and was “richly upholstered.” But most of all the press was overwhelmed by the great blowing machine that propelled the car, that sent it “skimming along the track like a sail before the wind and, once the car had reached the end of the track, calmly drew it back again!”
Photo: Wikipedia, circa 1873
Beach’s efforts to expand his subway were literally stopped in their tracks by the machinations of Boss Tweed, who saw it as competition for his stronghold on New York City’s streetcar companies. Broken in many ways by his battles with Tweed, Beach lost his reputation and recognition; while he was a “giant of America’s mechanical age,” his only acknowledgement as father of the New York subway system is a small plaque in City Hall Station, where Beach’s original subway tunnel has been incorporated into the larger system.
Love it or hate it, hip hop is one of the purest forms of all-American expression. Hip hop emerged from the Bronx in the 1970s, as a sometimes joyful, sometimes angry, always catchy expression of pain, beauty, love, hate, art, violence, transcendence, poverty and genius, all told through the lens of the performer’s resourcefulness, skill, drive, and paradigm. Even if you know nothing about hip hop, you can experience it firsthand by taking a drop in class at Broadway Dance Central.
We would be oh-so-very bored without board games! When the Great Depression slammed American economy -- and spirits -- in the late 20s, people had to get creative. One such inventor, an unemployed, game-loving architect from Poughkeepsie named Alfred Mosher Butts, had plenty of time to take on a new and challenging project. He allegedly said, “...there is one thing that keeps word games from being as popular as card games: they have no score.” After years and years of Butts trying to perfect his game, and finally meeting business partner James Brunot, who shared the same gaming passions, the SCRABBLE Brand Crossword Game was trademarked in 1948 and the iconic letter tiles were born.
When several New York City commercial bakeries in the late 1800s joined forces and became Nabisco, the cookie revolution began. Arguably one of the most famous snacks ever made, Oreos were invented by Nabisco and hit the shelves in 1912 as “two round biscuits made of chocolate flavor and filled with creme in between.” It’s that simple. And we all know about the “twist” consumption design of the biscuits and that they taste even more delicious after being dunked in a glass of milk (why else would it be dubbed “Milk’s Favorite Cookie”?). Billions have been sold worldwide.
Graphic by Jessica Haas Designs
Long live the weird, brilliant, revolutionary thinkers and doers of the great Empire State!