Tractor Treads

1904

Benjamin Holt

“In the Roberts Island tract, where a man could not walk without sinking to his knees, and where tule-shoed horses could not be used, the new traction engine was operated without a perceptible impression in the ground.”

Farm Implement News, May 18, 1905

“It looks like a caterpillar,” said a photographer observing Benjamin Holt’s new device, a machine that crawled on treads rather than moved along on wheels. Holt’s named his tractor, and later his company, after the term.

Tractor treads enabled tractors to move through uneven terrain, lowering the cost of farming. Eventually, the also treads enabled military tanks.

An “endless track steering specially adapted for vehicles having both steerable wheels and endless track” is how Holt’s patent described his invention.

Holt Tractor Patent

Holt and his brothers were in business building combine harvesters. Treads were an innovation to better move over rough terrain. Before Holt, over a hundred patents issued for various treads but none worked.

Holt traveled to England, where most research was done, to study the failed experiments. On Nov. 24, 1904, Holt demonstrated a working tractor tread.

Created and initially used for farm equipment, the tractor tread became vital during WWI for the ability to maneuver over barbed wire and through trenches. Great Britain, France, and Russia ordered Holt tractors but the Germans were not interested. After the outbreak of WWI, the Allies had over 1,000 tractors in Europe that could be converted to early tanks whereas the Germans had none. Throughout the war, Germany failed to develop more than a few dozen tractor tanks.

Eventually, the Holt Manufacturing Company evolved into Caterpillar. In 2018, Caterpillar had $54.7 million in revenue with an $81 billion market cap, a Fortune 100 company.

As oftentimes happens, Alvin Lombard allegedly first built a tractor but there were few witnesses. Lombard’s machine ran on treads and hauled logs. Patent litigation ensued which, as usual, eventually settled.

Air Conditioning

Combining prior innovations and ideas, Carrier added his own ー related to humidity ー and created modern air conditioning. Tasked with controlling the humidity in a printing plant, because humidity affects paper, he found the connection between humidity and temperature.

Carrier designed equipment to control humidity that also controlled temperature, modern air conditioning. By 1911, he presented the “Magna Carta of Psychrometrics,” the study of gas-vapor mixtures, to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

After WWI Carrier’s employer, the Buffalo Forge Company, decided to shutter the air conditioning division to focus on manufacturing. They licensed the patents to Carrier and a team six other engineers who formed, what became over several mergers, the Carrier Corporation.

Early setbacks included the Great Depression and WWII, but they overcame these to eventually dominate the market. Carrier still exists as a division of United Technologies. As of 2019 they remain the world’s largest manufacturer of air conditioning equipment.

Synthetic Ammonia

Fritz Haber arguably saved and killed more people than any other single person in history.

Synthetic ammonia vastly lowered the cost of making fertilizer, explosives, and other chemicals.

The process to create synthetic ammonia was a concurrent invention. That is, two scientists came up with it at the same time independently of one another.

Because it allows for inexpensive fertilizer, the Haber-Bosch is responsible for approximately half the food grown in the world today. Fritz Haber, who both invented and also commercialized the process, saved billions of lives.

However, there is a darker history. Haber was a German Jew, a key German chemist developing chemical weapons for Germany in WWI. He oversaw their first use at the Second Battle of Ypres, where approximately 67,000 allied troops were killed in one gassing. His first wife committed suicide after learning how many people he helped kill.

Later, the institute he founded invented Zyklon A. Nazis used a successor chemical, Zyklon B, to murder millions in death camps including many members of Haber’s family. This caused his second wife to leave him, with the marriage ending in divorce.

Both, like Haber, converted from Judaism to Christianity though the Nazis did not care and banned Haber from his lab. He escaped Nazi Germany but died soon after the Nazi’s ascent to power in Basel, Switzerland.

Haber won the 1919 Nobel Prize in Chemistry but died a miserable man.

Mass Manufactured Soft Drinks

Background

John “Doc” Pemberton was an Atlanta chemist. After the Civil War he, like many chemists of the time, used coca-derived “wine” as a prescription for various ailments, real and imagined. Some of the wines contained distilled coca leaves, which cocaine is made from. Others contained the less expensive already distilled cocaine. Cocaine during this time was considered a harmless drug, not unlike caffeine today.

Towards the late 1800s, a temperance (anti-alcohol) movement was becoming popular in certain cities, including Atlanta. In response, Pemberton created a non-alcoholic version of the coca-wine, an extract of cocoa leaves combined with kola nuts. He combined the syrup with carbonated water in May 1886. Bookkeeper Frank Robinson submitted a patent for the formula and coined the name Coca-Cola, as well as creating a label that used the iconic font still in use today.

Early sales were slow. In the first year, Pemberton sold 25 gallons of Coca-Cola syrup, increasing to 1,049 gallons the second year. In 1888 Pemberton’s health took a turn for the worse and he sold the business to Asa Candler for $2,300, dying soon after.

Asa Candler

Candler grew Coca-Cola sales in Pemberton’s pharmacy and soon realized the soda business was worth more than the pharmacy. He regrouped with Robinson and several others to scale the business. They capitalized their new soda business with $100,000 and advertised their drink heavily.

Coca Cola grew in popularity as Candler saturation marketed using coupons, signage, calendars, clocks … virtually anything the Coca-Cola name could be printed upon. From 1894-1913 Candler gave out so many coupons that one in nine Americans had a free Coca-Cola drink.

In 1894 chemist Joseph Biedenharn started bottling Coca-Cola, selling cases along the Mississippi river. In 1899 Benjamin Thomas purchased exclusive US nationwide rights to bottle Coca Cola from Candler. He eventually could not manage the volume and sold smaller geographic bottling rights.

The first bottling factory opened in Chattanooga in 1899; twenty years later there were more than 1,000 bottling plants. Imitators and counterfeiters constituted a serious problem in the early days, so the company designed a difficult to replicate bottle that became an iconic trademark.

Initially marketed as both a medicine and a “soft” (non-alcoholic) drink the firm eventually quit advertising as a medicine to avoid regulation. Starting in the 1890s, the company eventually lowered the amount of cocaine in the drink to a trace. By 1929 the Coke recipe eliminated cocaine entirely. Candler said he would have eliminated cocaine earlier but feared false advertising due to the product name that implied some amount of cocaine.

A year earlier, Dr. Pepper, invented by pharmacist Charles Alderton, predated Coca Cola by one year.

Sit-Flat Paper Bags

Sure, sit-flat paper bags are not the condensing steam engine, the telegraph, pneumatic tools, or the dynamo generator but they represent something new: a woman entrepreneur.

After realizing the hassle of bags that would not stand Margaret Knight set out to create a machine for a bag with a flat bottom. She worked with three machinists.

The third machinist, Charles Anan, stole and patented the idea. Anan had asked to see what she was working on and outright ripped it off. During litigation the other machinists testified, Knight showed her notes, and Anan could not entirely explain his patent. Knight won and was awarded her patent in 1871.

She built a large bag business and spent her life making various other innovations, never marrying.

She worked hard: “At the age of seventy, [Knight] is working twenty hours a day on her 89th innovation,” reported the New York Times on Oct. 19, 1913. She died in 1914 with an estate worth $275.05.

Pasteurization

French scientist Louis Pasteur disproved the theory of spontaneous generation, the idea that certain organisms are ever-present in nature. For example, early scientists believed fleas came from dust and maggots from dead meat absent anything else.

Pasteur theorized and later proved that all organisms come from something else, that nothing exists in a vacuum. He extended his line of thinking to the realization that bacteria can cause problems. For example, grape juice will turn to vinegar instead of wine.

Killing the bacteria, Pasteur reasoned in 1864, results in grape juice that will always ferment into wine rather than vinegar. Pasteur’s methods involved raising the temperature then storing in a clean environment, a technique that became known as pasteurization.  

In 1882, Robert Koch discovered bacteria in milk was responsible for anthrax and these spores could be killed by Pasteur’s methods (winning him a Nobel Prize). Pasteurization applied to milk by chemist Earnest Lederle in 1810. Pasteur was also known for creating vaccines for anthrax and rabies. Through his discoveries about bacteria he also started the practice of keeping medicine clean. Pasteur died wealthy and famous but not from pasteurization.

Combine Harvester

Background

Before the combine harvester farmers would need to hire groups of people to harvest crops before they rotted. Since there were only so many people available, the ability to harvest limited the volume of crops that could be grown. The harvester fixed that, doing the work of many people at once. This enabled the large farms, and relatively cheap food, we see today.

The reaper harvests wheat. There is a short amount of time that wheat can be harvested before it rots. Before the mechanical reaper men would use scythes, cutting from sunup to sundown. They could only plant what could be harvested in a two-week window, before the crop rotted, limiting the amount of grain and the amount of food. Reapers dramatically increased efficiency, allowing a reaper with a small number of helpers to do the work of many times the number of people.

Patrick Bell invented but did not patent a horse-drawn auto-reaper in Scotland. Obed Hussey patented the reaper a year before McCormick. They competed and fought but Hussey folded, selling his patent rights to McCormick in 1858. Historians suggest that Hussey’s early reapers were flawed technology, but that McCormick had higher quality standards. Hussey died in an 1860 train accident but his descendants argue, convincingly given the patent dates, that he is the true innovator of the modern reaper. Hiram Moore improved and patented a large-scale reaper, pulled by 20 horses.

International Harvester

Cyrus McCormick built an enormous harvester business that, later combined with others, eventually became International Harvester. Moore and McCormick did not like one another (Moore sued McCormick) and there are reports insinuating McCormick was somehow stealing Moore’s patents before they could be processed.

A hyper-litigious McCormick sued a railroad over an $8.75 overcharge then litigated the case for 20 years, including three visits to the US Supreme Court. He fired his little brother, the then foreman of his factory when McCormick was 62 years old.

Historians argue McCormick’s brother, Leander, preferred one-off production but McCormick wanted a factory that could mass produce using standardized parts. As McCormick’s company grew he consolidated competition via acquiring companies, patents, and (according to some historians) some amount of espionage.

Besides McCormick’s harvester, he also pioneered a new idea, easy credit for farmers to purchase the harvesters on affordable terms. Despite easy credit he lent money at 6%, the same rate he paid as a large and well-established manufacturer; he purposefully used self-financing to build sales volume, not as a profit center itself.

Canning

Like refrigeration, invented a year earlier, this is another way to preserve food. All the sudden items available only for a certain portion of the year could be reliably preserved for far longer. This lowered the cost and increased the availability of food.

Appert is a Frenchman who perfected caning. Napoleon needed a consistent way to feed his far-flung troops and Appert’s method, revealed in 1806, worked. For his effort, he was awarded 12,000 francs. In 1811, Appert published a book describing his caning methods.  Appert built a canning factory but it soon burnt down, in 1814, during the Napoleonic wars.

In 1810, Peter Durand ー a Frenchman living in England ー extended Durand’s methods to tin cans. Canned foods were not popular until 1855 when Englishman Robert Yeates invented the can opener (before then cans were opened with chisels).

In Nov. 1858, American John Mason patented a glass jar with a metal lid suitable for canning, the Mason Jar. It is unclear how, but Frank Ball and his brothers acquired rights to the patent and made an automatic jar making machine; they sold many jars. Mason died poor. Ball would eventually spin off the jar-making operation but exists to this day as Ball Corporation, a Fortune 500 company with $11B in revenue.       

Refrigeration

For centuries ice boxes and ice houses kept food cold in warm weather. Businesses cut the ice into blocks in winter and stored it in underground caverns. Afterward, in warmer months, businesses delivered ice pieces to insulated boxes in homes, “ice boxes,” the original refrigerators.

Early Systems

William Cullen claimed to create the first artificial refrigeration system in 1748. Later, in 1805, Oliver Evans described the first vapor-based refrigeration system in a book. Evans is better known for his automated flour mill and high-pressure steam engine. His colleague, Jacob Perkins built a working refrigeration unit, based on Evans’ designs, decades later. Subsequently, Perkins received a patent in 1835, 30 years after Evans documented the process, leading to a prolonged patent fight.

Early refrigeration systems relied on natural gasses in a closed loop. Basically, vaporization of the gasses and lowered the temperature. The systems were both large, expensive, and highly toxic. In homes, the chemical-based systems were typically installed in basements with pipes leading to a small icebox in the kitchen.

Electric Refrigeration

Fred Wolf created the first self-contained refrigerator in 1913. Branded the DOMestic ELectric REfrigerator, or DOMELRE, it sold thousands of units, proving that branding doesn’t always matter.

In 1914, Nathaniel Wales of Electrolux created a thermostat controlled fridge and eventually branding it Kelvinator, an eventual bestseller.

Alfred Mellowes invented and patented a compact, reasonably priced refrigerator in 1915. Subsequently, William Durant of General Motors purchased the patent and branded the innovation Frigidaire: it became wildly popular.