Did you know that Joseph Francis invented the first metal life-saving boat? Or that Gail Borden invented the process for creating condensed milk? Neither did I until I heard The World Is Yours episode titled “Unheraled American Inventors,” which originally aired on April 4, 1937.
Where most of the episodes I’ve listened to begin with the host walking up to two people while they are looking at an exhibit in the United States National Museum, this episode skips the polite introductions to visitors “Mother” and “Jim” and begins with Old Timer introducing the two to a dramatization of a shipwreck. The wreck was the first time that a galvanized steel life-saving boat was used, and all but one of the passengers were saved. This story leads Old Timer to a lesson on unknown inventors of everyday things.
[Jim] Old Timer, you said you had a reason for telling us that story.
[Old Timer] I did. Can either of you tell me off hand who invented that life-saving car?
[Mother] I’m sure I couldn’t.
[Jim] Well, let’s see. The card up there says Joseph Francis.
[Mother] Oh, that’s cheating Jim.
[Old Timer] Did you ever hear of him before?
[Jim] (laughing) Uh, no.
[Old Timer] That’s my reason for telling you the story. Right here in this Arts and Industries building, there are some 18,000 objects with dramatic stories behind them. 18,000 objects which represent the bulk of American inventions. Mechanical and technical improvements on old ways of doing things. The work of hundreds of almost unknown men.
[Mother] 18,000. Just think. And there are an awful lot of things in this building. Why, right from here I can see automobiles, and boats, and engines of all sorts.
[Jim] And airplanes, too. There’s an autogiro. Oh, and Colonel Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.
[Old Timer] They’re all the products of man’s inventive genius. The genius that makes it possible for us to play during the long hours our fathers had to work.
[Mother] How we depend on inventions every day of our lives.
[Old Timer] Yes, and how many of the men who have given us these things do we know? Can you name ten of the hundreds?
[Jim] Sure. Ten, that’s easy.
[Old Timer] Hm?
[Jim] Yep. Edison. Marconi. The Wright Brothers, that’s two remember. (laughs) Bell. Eli Whitney. And, uh, well now let’s see, that’s six.
[Mother] And there’s Howe and, uh, Westinghouse.
[Jim] And McCormick, and uh, well, that’s nine, and uh. Alright, I give up. I confess I’m stumped for the tenth.
[Mother] Why, Joseph Francis, of course. Didn’t you just learn that Jim? (laughs)
[Old Timer] There, you see. About us are all the thousands of inventions that make our modern life what it is and it’s difficult to remember ten of the men who have given them to us.
The program then moves on to discuss a very early prototype of the typewriter created by Christopher Latham Sholes. Unlike other episodes, there are three dramatizations involving the typewriter as opposed to just one. Also, two of these dramatizations are unique in that they are memories from Old Timer and Mother regarding their early experiences with typewriters. Old Timer’s memory was about a colleague who was outraged at being sent a typed letter because he felt the sender was implying he couldn’t read handwritten text. Mother’s memory, however, was of outrage of a different kind. She remembered her father being upset at the idea that she wanted to go to the city to get a job as a secretary using a typewriter, and her father felt that it would imply he couldn’t support her himself. For Mother, the typewriter meant freedom and independence.
From the typewriter, the program switches to how Gail Borden came up with the idea and process for condensed milk in 1853. It started when he observed the difficulty of feeding babies good milk while onboard a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. For the next two years after that voyage, he worked to find a way to condense milk so that it wouldn’t spoil.
[Dave] Brother, you are sad.
[Gail Borden] I just can’t find the answer, Dave.
[Dave] But you wanted to condense milk and you have.
[Borden] Boiling the water out of milk condenses it alright, but it still spoils. And those immigrant babies must have pure milk.
[Dave] You have to find out why it spoils then.
[Borden] Say. Pure milk. Pure milk. Pure. Pure. Maybe the reason the milk spoils is because there’s dirt in it.
[Dave] If you could be sure of that.
[Borden] I can. Look at these jars right here. All of this milk was condensed the same day and look at it.
[Dave] Some still looks good, some is already spoiled.
[Borden] Exactly. And that milk came from three different farms. I’ll bet the milk that isn’t spoiled came from the farm that has the cleanest cows and the cleanest barns. Come on Dave. Let’s find out right now if I’m right.
[Old Timer] Borden’s hunch was right. Clean cows and clean barns meant clean milk. Milk that did not easily spoil. Then began the long tedious job of finding out how to keep dirt out of the milk.
Following the dramatization, Old Timer describes all of the ways that condensed milk has since been useful to society, such as being able to get milk to soldiers on the front lines. The program continues with a description of an invention by Abraham Lincoln to get boats off of sandbars easily. After that, the next invention is Thomas Davenport’s electric motor that he developed to replace boilers in factories. His initial design utilized technology from a magnet invented by Joseph Henry, who would later become the first Secretary of the Smithsonian.
Now you have five more names to add to the list of famous inventors you can name easily.
Check back for highlights from another episode of The World Is Yours next month!
- "It's National Radio Day and The World Is Yours" by Emily Niekrasz, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- "Hearing 'The World Is Yours'" by Kira Sobers, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution Sound Recordings, circa 1915-1941, Accession 05-142, Smithsonian Institution Archives