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.


Asphalt increased the utility or roads by allowing horses to travel faster, carriages and bicycles ride more smoothly, and (later) enabled cars.

Natural asphalt paved the Champs-Élysées in 1824. However, it was unstable and difficult to maintain.

de Smedt created an artificial asphalt, manufactured from oil, that was more consistent and manageable than natural asphalt. His first asphalt street was laid on William St., in Newark St., NJ, Jul. 29, 1870. Today, all paved roads used de Smedt asphalt.

“In the very midst of the city, the ground was covered by some dark stuff that silenced all the wheels and muffled the sound of hoofs. It was like tar, but Papa was sure it was not tar, and it was something like rubber, but it could not be rubber because rubber cost too much. We saw ladies all in silks and carrying ruffled parasols, walking with their escorts across the street. Their heels dented the street, and while we watched, these dents slowly filled up and smoothed themselves out. It was as if that stuff were alive. It was like magic.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder


As described in the post about rubber, Charles Goodyear created the vulcanization plastic making mass-market rubber possible. Goodyear’s durable rubber enabled an entire field of new products from tires to raincoats.

However, rubber is both thick and spongy, giving it limited utility. Nobody is going to create a rubber telephone and a rubber water bottle — despite that it might be chic — isn’t especially practical.

Enter modern plastic.

Alexander Parkes created Parkesine, arguably the first plastic, in 1856. It was brittle, flammable, and not especially useful though opened the idea that a synthetic material might have enough utility to create a larger market.

One of the most common uses for Parkesine was to make early movie film, though the Parkesine film — exposed to a high-heat lamp when run through a projector — had a tendency to catch fire and sometimes burn down theaters.

John Wesley Hyatt refined Parkesine into modern more useful plastic. Parkes sued Hyatt for patent infringement and lost at first. However, a different judge eventually ruled Parkes was the inventor of plastic. 

As usual, the litigation helped the lawyers but didn’t do much for either inventor and, in any event, Hyatt’s plastic was far more useful. It wasn’t the plastic we know today but was strong enough to be used for billiard balls, fake teeth, and various machine parts.

The new plastic was also resistant to heat, humidity, and fire resistance; it didn’t burst into flame. That made it especially valuable to the then-burgeoning auto industry that required a material with exactly those properties for their cars.

In 1895, Hyatt hired master manager Alfred P. Sloan to manage the company. Sloan eventually bought Hyatt out, purchasing his shares though leaving him as President.

Hyatt’s company, Hyatt Roller Bearing Company, was eventually sold to General Motors. Sloan went along with the sale and, not long after, went on to become the long-time legendary CEO and President of GM.


Dynamite blows up otherwise difficult to move things, like boulders, mountains, and bedrock. It lowers the cost of removing rocks to make level land and tunnels, railroads, roads, and enables foundations for skyscrapers.

In 1847 chemists Théophile-Jules Pelouze and Ascanio Sobrero had synthesized nitroglycerin but the chemical was unstable and difficult to harness. Nobel encased the nitroglycerin into explosive sticks used for mining, quarrying, construction, and demolition. Nobel also created canons and other weapons: he was an arms dealer. Later in life, he bequeathed much of his wealth to a foundation that, today, gives out the Nobel Prizes.

Judah engineered the first transcontinental railroad before dynamite; workers chiseled the rock away bit-by-bit. It was an extremely time consuming and expensive undertaking.

Nobel did try to send pre-dynamite nitroglycerine to Judah but the box exploded, killing 15 people in San Francisco and leading to a ban on the import and shipment of nitroglycerine in CA.

Aluminum Reduction


Charles Martin Hall
Paul Héroult

Aluminum is the most common material in the earth. Despite the abundance of aluminum, it tends to be spread out in tiny flakes impossible to collect by hand. Aluminum reduction vastly lowered the price of extracting aluminum.

Before aluminum reduction, aluminum was extremely expensive. People would sift through earth searching for whole nuggets of aluminum that could then be melted together and purified. Aluminum nuggets were less common than gold and silver. Napolean is said to have served upper-royalty on aluminum plates with aluminum cutlery whereas ordinary guests ate off gold plates with silver cutlery.

In some ways, aluminum reduction — although a process rather than a machine — is arguably a type of automation since it eliminated something done via manual labor. However, the process was so laborious that very little aluminum was actually produced.

On Feb. 23, 1886, Hall found that passing an electric current through alumina created purified aluminum. He patented his method on July 9, 1886.

Around the same time, Frenchman Héroult discovered the same and the aluminum purification process — called aluminum reduction — is referred to as the Hall-Héroult process.

Hall went on to co-found aluminum giant ALCOA and became fabulously wealthy.

Aluminum reduction requires massive amounts of electricity so aluminum plants are typically places in areas where electricity is inexpensive to produce. US smelters run by coal in coal-rich areas used to be common. However, more recently, most aluminum smelting plants have moved to Iceland due to inexpensive abundant electricity generated via the island-states numerous renewable resources.

As aluminum became less expensive its uses became more apparent. Early aluminum was used to create teapots and tableware. Eventually, it became useful for automobiles as a lightweight but strong metal. The Wright Brothers used an aluminum engine in their airplane to save weight. Aluminum foil was introduced in 1910. Today, countless ordinary items are made of inexpensive aluminum using the original Hall-Héroult process.

ALCOA advertisement, 1962

Synthetic Dye

As the Industrial Revolution gained steam (OK – bad pun), England’s population became denser. Eventually, the resulting pools of water bred mosquitos that eventually became a malaria epidemic.

Perkin, a 15-year-old student, ran crude experiments to create lower-cost quinine, a malaria medicine. One of his processes accidentally produced a strong purple liquid. Useless as a medicine, Perkin suspected it might work as a fabric dye.

Expensive and difficult to produce fabric dyes, that produced dull colors which faded fast, dominated before Perkin. Purple was especially difficult to produce, so expensive only royalty and the extremely wealthy wore purple clothing. Perkins innovation lowered the cost and increased the quality of eyes.

However, Perkin’s inexpensive dye not only created a strong purple color but it also withstood sun and repeat washing. He abandoned his studies, patented his dye at the age of 18, and opened a dye factory. Bright colors for the inexpensive cotton fabric, produced by the machines of the Industrial Revolution, became commonplace.

Perkin eventually created more artificial dyes and, later, perfumes. His dye factory was a commercial success. The Perkin Medal, named after him, remains a prestigious award for industrial chemists.

High Strength, Mass Produced Steel (Bessemer Steel)

Vastly increased the quality and decreased the price of steel. Unlike the iron furnaces, that created small amounts of high strength iron, the Bessemer process created enormous amounts of much stronger steel. The Bessemer process is still in use today.

On Aug. 24, 1856, Bessemer described the process of forcing air through steel that dramatically increased the strength of the steel, creating modern steel.

His steel-making company did well and he was eventually rewarded financially and given a knighthood.

Besides making steel stronger Bessemer’s process also dramatically decreased the price of steel. Over time, prices reduced by an order of magnitude from 1873 to 1893.

American William began similar experiments years before Bessemer, in 1847. However, he lacked the finances to prove and patent his method.

Portland Cement


Joseph Aspdin
William Aspdin
William Beverley

Portland cement is modern cement. It’s admittedly dull — unless being used on dilapidated ships by mobsters for shoes — but extremely useful with more mainstream uses.

Portland cement is used to make buildings, stadiums, stairs, sidewalks, foundations, and shares the unfortunate honor of being the enabler of brutalist architecture.

The Torre Velasca (Velasca Tower, in English) is a skyscraper built in 1950s by the BBPR architectural partnership, in Milan, Italy.
Brutalist Architecture: this is apparently not a prison

Portland cement vastly lowered the cost of high strength stone-like buildings. It enables much of the buildings we today take for granted. It was called Portland cement because the inventor tried to convince people it looks like a type of stone in England; it has nothing to do with the hipster paradise in the Northwest United States.

Image result for portland stone
Portland Stone

Joseph Aspdin, the son of a bricklayer, invented the process to make Portland Cement and obtained a patent for it on Oct. 21, 1824. Aspdin’s neighbor, William Beverley, bankrolled the initial plant. Aspdin expressed his appreciation by giving him the shiv at the first opportunity, pushing him out of the business, a common pattern we see to this day.

Joseph’s process never entirely worked. His son, William, is described by historians as an ungrateful dishonest spendthrift, possibly thanks to his dad’s jealousy. An obnoxious dolt or not, William apparently perfected the cement-making method.

Joseph, the father, tried to push out William, the son (note: between shoving out his first inventor and the man who perfected his method, his own son, we’re seeing a pattern here). Instead, William moved north and built his own cement factory.

Rather than try to explain the process, we’ll defer to the website because, let’s face it, anybody who’d build a whole website on the subject knows a lot more than us. They explain: Portland cement is “produced by firing finely-ground clay and limestone until the limestone was calcined.” In other words, you cook clay and limestone in a giant oven.

Vulcanized Rubber

Vulcanization is the process that makes rubber useful. Before vulcanization rubber was effectively a useless gooey material. It melted in the heat, went brittle in the cold, and made for terrible raincoats. Vulcanization stabilized rubber in a useful state. The rubber we know now exists due to vulcanization.

Charles Goodyear ran a small but successful hardware store earlier in his life. It went bankrupt during a recession.

He pivoted to figuring out how to work with rubber, which ー at that time ー not only melted in the heat but also tended to decompose and smell.

The project was a labor of love, and his family frequently went hungry. While working on his rubber stabilization project, Goodyear was often arrested and jailed for debts he accrued, primarily to purchase chemicals to try to stabilize rubber. His family did not have adequate food and three of his children died. We hear of stories about funder hardships but Goodyear literally sacrificed his children.

In 1839, after years of poverty and debtors’ jail, Goodyear finally discovered that rubber infused with sulfur and slowly heated becomes more flexible. More importantly, it does not again melt, decompose, or smell.

Goodyear won a patent in the US, which others paid him $50,000 for a non-exclusive right to. This company, the Naugatuck India Rubber Company turned into United States Rubber then Uniroyal. Goodyear had entrusted a sample to be sent to England, but Englishman Thomas Hancock literally stole Goodyear’s innovation for patenting in the UK, sending the formula Goodyear shared with him to the patent office as his own. Others also tried stealing his patents but eventually failed.

Goodyear died in 1860, $200,000 in debt. But patent royalties left his family comfortable. In hindsight, many of his patent licenses were sold for far too little. Goodyear had nothing to do with the Goodyear Rubber & Tire company; it was founded in 1898, 28 years after Goodyear’s death.