Motherlode of Invention

Leave it to the Garden State to make everyone’s life better.

Illustrations by Plankton Art Co.
Illustrations by Plankton Art Co.

The Garden State may be short on space, but what we lack in acreage, we more than make up for in ingenuity. New Jersey, in fact, ranks fourth in the number of U.S. patents issued (156,813), and it’s the only state in the nation with its own inventors’ hall of fame. (We not only produce geniuses; we celebrate them.) Like New Jersey’s citizenry—a crazy quilt of ethnicities, lifestyles, and points of view—the inventions that had their genesis here are mind-bogglingly varied: We’ve given the world the light bulb and tetracycline, the visible-light laser and bubble wrap, oral ACE inhibitors and the TV dinner.

What’s at the root of all that ingenuity? “Certainly, some of it can be credited to the large number of prominent educational institutions located here,” says Ralph Selitto Jr., a patent attorney and spokesperson for the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame, citing Princeton University, Stevens Institute of Technology, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology as “leaders in engineering and science.”

Then there’s the state’s history as an industrial powerhouse, from Paterson’s eighteenth-century beginnings as the cradle of America’s industrial revolution through the great wave of immigration that powered the factories of the state’s expanding cities in the nineteenth century. More recently, the heyday of high tech and big pharma attracted giants in corporate research and development.

And finally, there’s the legacy of Thomas A. Edison, brilliant, hyperactive, and, with more than 1,000 patents to his name, the most prolific inventor of all time. He was, of course, responsible for motion pictures, the phonograph, and the world’s first commercially viable incandescent light bulb. But Edison also dreamed up hundreds of other useful—often revolutionary—innovations, including the stock ticker, a magnetic ore separator, paraffin paper for wrapping candles, and an electrical vote recorder. He might well have been speaking for all the New Jerseyans of acumen and foresight who would tinker in the state’s garages and its corporate and academic laboratories when he noted, “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”

We celebrate those forward-thinking Garden Staters with a sampling of New Jersey inventions that might even have astounded the Wizard of Menlo Park:

Pop Stars:
When Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes were laboring in a Hawthorne garage to create a paper-backed plastic wallpaper, they stumbled on something that would one day ensure the safety of countless breakables, mindlessly entertain millions, and find a place in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Their serendipitous invention was an unparalleled packing material that came to be known the world over as Bubble Wrap. This year, the company they founded, Elmwood Park-based Sealed Air Corporation, is celebrating 50 years of marketing the air-filled polyethylene sheeting and other products (2009 revenues: $4.2 billion). We don’t know who first discovered the addictive pleasure of popping Bubble Wrap’s tiny pockets, but in 2001, Spirit 95 Radio in Bloomington, Indiana, officially recognized this small source of joy with the launch of Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, celebrated annually on January 25. Neither of Bubble Wrap’s creators lived to witness the widespread veneration of their humble product, but if there’s a heaven for inventors, we suspect they’re up there somewhere, bursting bubbles with pride.

Cold Comfort: Willis Haviland Carrier began his engineering career designing industrial heating systems, but after devising a way to lower the heat and humidity in a Brooklyn printing plant, his name would forever be linked with all things cool. Though other inventors had previously developed methods of indoor cooling, Carrier’s formula—which involved passing warm air through an atomized spray—was able to dry the air as well as cool it, effectively launching the modern air-conditioning industry. In 1915 he founded the Carrier Engineering Company in Newark and in 1921 patented the centrifugal chiller, the first system to efficiently cool large spaces. A 1934 profile of Carrier in Time magazine observed: “If not yet a common private convenience, conditioned air is a necessity in many an industry, a valuable trade-getter for hotels, theaters, stores, [and] railroads.” The magazine further reported that Carrier’s chiller was at that time manufacturing the weather in a number of public spaces, including the White House executive offices and the ape house at the Bronx Zoo. While sales of his 1928 Weathermaker—the first air conditioner designed for private home use—languished during the Depression, business took off after World War II, rendering summer tolerable not just for gorillas and heads of state, but for the rest of us as well.

Liquid Asset: It all began with a carrot. In 1888, an Austrian botanist named Friedrich Reinitzer discovered liquid crystals (strictly speaking, not crystals at all, but liquids whose molecules scatter light the same way crystals do) in cholesterol he had extracted from carrots. But it took George Heilmeier and a group of fellow scientists at RCA’s David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton to envision the use of those crystals in wristwatch and other displays, and to produce the world’s first LCD in 1968. Heilmeier went on to earn fifteen patents; help develop stealth aircraft, lasers, and artificial intelligence for the Department of Defense; and head New Jersey-based Bellcore (formerly Bell Communications Research). But he remains best known as the man who enabled us to spell hello on a calculator.

Tag Line:
Store owners, mall cops, librarians, parents, and surgical patients can all thank Dr. Philip Anderson of Ramapo College for making their lives a little easier. In 1987, Anderson invented the acoustomagnetic electronic article surveillance system (EAS), whose white plastic anti-theft tags are now ubiquitous in retail establishments worldwide. Variations on the system protect newborns against abduction in hospitals, alert shopping parents when their kids wander out of the mall, hold down pilferage in libraries, and remind surgeons to remove sponges and other surgical tools from unconscious patients. (If only Anderson had devised a way to ensure the tag’s removal from your new sweater before you leave the store.)

Slip-sliding Away: In 1938, Roy Plunkett was experimenting with the refrigerant gas tetrafluoroethylene (aka Freon) when he stumbled on a substance that would release a million muffins and help the Allies win World War II. The 27-year-old chemist at DuPont’s Jackson Lab in Deepwater had filled several cylinders with Freon, but when he later tried to discharge the gas, one of the cylinders turned out to be a dud. Risking an explosion, he pried it open and found a waxy white substance inside. He could have tossed it out, but something about the stuff excited his inventor’s antennae, and he decided to run some tests. Inadvertently, he had created a heat-resistant, super-slippery polymer. Sensing it might be useful, Plunkett turned it over to DuPont’s polymer specialists. The substance, trademarked as Teflon, made its public debut in 1945. Its first applications were in artillery-shell fuses and nuclear production for the Manhattan Project. But in the early 1960s DuPont introduced the Teflon we know and love, a peaceable product that has served as nonstick coating for innumerable pots, pans, griddles, and, yes, muffin tins.

Second Sight: Jerome “Jerry” Lemelson was the very model of a modern inventor. He began tinkering in high school (rigging up an illuminated tongue depressor for his father, a family doctor), and, once he turned 30, averaged one patent application a month for the rest of his life. Like his hero, Thomas Edison, he was an obsessive innovator, turning out everything from a new process for producing integrated circuits to Velcro ping-pong. But among all his inventions, he was proudest of machine vision, a technology unveiled in 1954 that gave robots sight via a system of computers, digitized images, and video cameras. Lemelson’s baby might have seemed wildly futuristic at mid-century, but today, robots worldwide use the vision bestowed on them by the Metuchen inventor to produce electronics and automobiles for the global market.

No Big Thing: The world’s first practical electron microscope was created in Canada but perfected in Camden, at the Radio Corporation of America. In 1938, James Hillier, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, drew on the work of German researchers to create a prototype capable of magnifying an image 7,000 times—three times greater than the capability of optical microscopes of the day. But it was his work at RCA that allowed him to fix the device’s most serious glitch: a tendency to burn delicate items (“to a crisp,” in Hillier’s words) under the microscope’s powerful electron beam. Hillier, who died in 2007, lived to see electron magnification grow to the power of 2 million and allow scientists to view an actual atom (of silicon) in 2004.

Soup-y Sales:
How do you make a profit from your canned soup if you’re paying a small fortune to ship it to stores? And how do you get the public to buy it when those shipping costs inflate the retail price? That was the challenge facing Joseph Campbell & Company, when chemist John T. Dorrance, a nephew of the company’s cofounder, joined the Camden-based business in 1897. That same year, Dorrance arrived at an elegant solution, devising a method to condense the soup by removing the water, making it less costly to package, ship, and store. A year later, inspired by Cornell University’s new red and white football uniforms, a Campbell exec suggested changing the color of the company’s condensed soup cans, and an American icon was born.

The Little Triangle That Could: Techies call it the most important invention of the twentieth century, and rightly so. The transistor allowed for the miniaturization of circuitry that ushered in the Information Age and made possible a staggering array of innovations, from personal computers to guided missiles. Nevertheless, changing the world was not foremost in the minds of its inventors, who, instead, were looking for a way to help AT&T grab a larger share of the expanding telephone business. Working at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, under the leadership of William Shockley, were charged with finding a replacement for the vacuum tubes that powered telephone technology (not very efficiently, as it happens) in its early days. In 1947, they revealed their invention—a small triangular device that conducted current and could switch it on and off, and acted as both a transmitter and a resistor (a nifty trait that also gave the gizmo its name). In 1956, the team was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, a fitting honor for an invention that helped bring the world both space shuttles and Space Invaders.

Father Knows Best: Sidney Pestka didn’t invent interferon (we can thank the human body for that bit of ingenuity), but he did figure out a way to produce it in the laboratory and put it to work in the fight against disease—an accomplishment that earned him the sobriquet Father of Interferon. In 1969, when Pestka went to work at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, it was widely understood that interferon—a protein produced by white blood cells in the presence of pathogens and tumors—could trigger the immune response. What researchers didn’t know was how to harness the power of that protein. While at Roche, Pestka, who had spent a good part of his childhood destroying his mother’s cookware in the name of scientific experimentation, figured out how to genetically engineer and manufacture interferon. The drug has since been used to treat chronic hepatitis B and C, multiple sclerosis, various cancers, and, we suspect, to make Pestka a justifiably proud papa.

Sticky Situation: If Josephine Dickson had been a more careful cook, we might still be packing our scraped knees and nicked fingers with gauze and wrapping them in bulky bandages. As it happened, though, Dickson was reckless in the kitchen, and her husband, Earle, a cotton buyer for Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, was a man of both sympathy and ingenuity. After three years of helping his wife bandage her fingers the old-fashioned way, he devised a streamlined alternative, folding a small piece of gauze into a narrow cushion and attaching it to a strip of surgical tape. In 1920, he convinced his bosses at J&J to manufacture the invention, but it wasn’t until the company distributed free Band-Aids to the nation’s Boy Scouts (who, apparently, were as accident prone as Josephine) that the product finally took off.

Check It Out: Without N. Joseph Woodland, we’d all be spending even more time in line than we already do. In 1952, the Atlantic City resident received a patent for his “classifying apparatus and method,” an unassuming name for a technology that would ultimately boost productivity in every sector of American industry. His brainchild was a series of concentric circles capable of encoding data that could then be electronically read and stored, and those circles eventually morphed into the lines of the familiar bar code. A generation later, the checkout process was further streamlined when C. Harry Knowles, founder of Metrologic Instruments in Blackwood, devised the world’s first retail laser scanner and launched the beep heard round the world.

The Right Track: It brought us Sgt. Pepper and Milli Vanilli, Phil Spector’s celebrated “wall of sound” and those dogs that bark “Jingle Bells.” In this age of digital technology and 64-track studios, it’s hard to imagine a time when audio recordings were made without the use of multiple tracking. But that’s what life in the studio was like until the middle of the last century, when Mahwah resident Les Paul began fiddling in his garage with multitracking—the layering of several recordings into one—and asked the Ampex Corporation to produce an eight-track tape machine for him. Now, in theory at least, every musician could be a one-man band, every singer could harmonize with his or her own voice, and an album could become a complex tapestry of music and sound. In a conversation between legends, another of music’s illustrious Pauls (McCartney, that is) summed up Les Paul’s legacy: “I don’t care how much guitar you played, I don’t care how many hits you had, you invented that multitrack recording, and that made the difference.”

Safe at Home:
Ball chasers in sandlots everywhere owe the demise of their humble duties to Hopewell’s Wellington Titus, catcher for the town’s amateur baseball team, the Hopewell Athletic Club. In 1907, fed up with pursuing runaway pitches and fouled-back balls, Titus came up with a design for a portable “baseball backstop,” the prototype for the modern batting cage. Before his stroke of genius, ball retrieval was the domain of catchers and neighborhood kids (the aforementioned ball chasers), who might or might not be fleet of foot. Now, players could spend more time playing and less time waiting for the return of errant balls (and spectators were less likely to walk away with the balls—not to mention welts).

Water Works: Most of us can’t imagine a time when Americans put their lives at risk by drinking a glass of tap water. But in the early part of the last century, water-borne illnesses like typhoid fever claimed tens of thousands of lives annually in the United States. Then Charles Frederick Wallace, an engineer living in Belleville, came up with a simple device that pumped small amounts of chlorine gas into local water supplies to rid them of bacteria and other pathogens. His first customer was the Jersey City water department, which in 1913 paid Wallace $150 for a chlorinator to sanitize the Boonton reservoir. His highly affordable invention was a miracle at any price, and in a few short years chlorination devices were purifying half the world’s drinking water—reason enough to raise a glass in Wallace’s memory.

A Few More From Jersey’s Tinkerers:

• Magnetic recording technology, 1878, by Oberlin Smith, Bridgeton.
• The modern catcher’s mask, 1922, by James Edward Johnstone, Newark.
• The drive-in movie, 1933, by Richard Hollingshead, Camden.
• Streptomycin, 1943, by Selman Waksman (who also coined the word antibiotic), Rutgers University.
• The TV dinner, 1944, by William L. Maxson, West Orange.
• The flight simulator, 1950, by Richard Dehmel, Curtis-Wright Corporation.
• Tetracycline, 1952, by Lloyd Conover, Pfizer.
• The visible-light laser, 1962, by Alan White, Bell Telephone Laboratories.
• Valium, 1963, by Leo Sternbach, Hoffman-LaRoche.
• Antibacterial toothpaste, 1988, by Abdul Gaffar, Colgate-Palmolive.

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