Suzie from England and Steve from Scotland are on a joint mission to share their appreciation of various aspects of their respective countries, which are currently still both part of the same sovereign state of the United Kingdom. Suzie very kindly invited me to tag along even though the US isn’t even part of the Commonwealth. The first series was about music by English and Scottish acts. This week’s vector of appreciation is our favorite inventions from our respective countries. But first, a quick chart to elucidate geographical nomenclature for my fellow Americans, because I know it confused the hell out of me before I looked it up.
|United Kingdom||British Isles||Great Britain||
(Island of) Ireland
|Republic of Ireland||x*||
*Apparently the Republic of Ireland is not fond of this? I dunno.
I do so love charts. It’s no pie chart, but it’ll do.
Anyway, I’ve mentioned that despite all its gun-toting, birth-control-hating, results-based-educating, crappy-healthcaring faults, I love my country and I think there’s still plenty to be proud of. In no particular order, here is my list of favorite inventors/inventions from the United States of America.
Maybe it’s because I’m currently reading And the Band Played On, and granted I’m only 100-some odd pages in, but I find it impressive that despite major cuts into the medical research budget at the hands of the Reagan administration, political indifference, and public apathy towards the initially affected demographics, doctors and researchers at the National Cancer Institute were able to mobilize and develop a drug that fights a retrovirus like HIV. Sure, AZT doesn’t halt HIV by itself full stop, but it did lead to the development of other antiretroviral drugs, the cocktail of which has saved many, many lives.
2. Thomas Edison
Ok, so maybe he ripped of Tesla, and maybe he didn’t and, no wait, maybe he did. I don’t know. He was clearly a marketing and patenting genius though and advanced development of the industrialized world, even despite his loss of the War of Currents. His pillaging of other people’s work from his lab in Menlo Park in New Jersey paved the way for innovative science and engineering, and thanks to his business acumen we can do things like watch movies and see in the dark and listen to this:
3. Chocolate Chip Cookies
I wish I could claim pie as an American invention, but pie is older than basketweaving and the domestication of sheep and cats. I can’t even claim apple pie, because the British were already making making apple pie when Chaucer was writing fart jokes into The Canterbury Tales. I’m just grateful pies made it over to the colonies because I don’t know how great “As American as spotted dick” sounds.
The chocolate chip cookie is very American though. It was reputedly invented in the 1930s by a woman named Ruth Graves Wakefield who owned the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts. It’s so popular that I don’t even feel the need to explain why it’s on my list. Currently, it’s the state cookie of Massachusetts and the proposed state cookie of Pennsylvania, where it’s locked in battle with the Nazareth sugar cookie. And earlier this year, Wyoming rejected a house bill to make the chocolate chip cookie its state cookie (there’s a recipe in the bill). It’s thanks to the chocolate chip cookie that there’s such a thing as chocolate chip cookie pie.
4. General Tso’s Chicken
Mmm, deep fried chicken smothered in sweet, tangy, spicy sauce, possibly sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with steamed broccoli. It’s so reliable and formulaic that you can almost judge the quality of a restaurant by its General Tso’s Chicken. Nobody’s 100% sure what the origin of this dish is, but one popular theory is that it was created in New York in the 70s, and I’m absolutely willing to take credit on that basis for the purpose of this list. One thing’s for sure: the only thing about General Tso’s Chicken that actually came from China was its namesake, 左宗棠 (Zuǒ Zōngtáng), a real general from the Hunan province.
Also, my grandfather was from Hunan, and his family name was also 左, so it’s entirely possible The General and I are related, right?
5. Ernest Lawrence & The Cyclotron Atom-Smasher
Science! The Cyclotron Atom-Smasher was a circular particle accelerator invented by Ernest Lawrence in the 1930s in Berkeley, CA, for which Lawrence won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939. The great thing about the cyclotron, besides what it actually did, was the name, in that it did exactly what the name suggested, which is that it smashed atoms into each other. Lawrence designed a circular accelerator (as opposed to the linear accelerator), where two particles would whip around the circular track, accelerating along the way, slam into each other and go KABLOOEY! into their subparticles.
Last year, the Higgs boson was finally discovered using the Large Hadron Collider, a bigger, more powerful circular particle accelerator (the biggest, most powerful particle accelerator to be accurate). The European grandbaby of the American Cyclotron Atom-Smasher, you might say. And this was a big deal because it validated everything physicists had theorized about Why Shit Exists (or really, Why Shit Has Mass).
It would be like if Louis Pasteur studied microorganisms and developed vaccines thinking, “Well, it’s probably germs like the germ theory says, but it could be very ferocious badgers”, but then validated his thoughts – about the germs, not the badgers – with his experiments.
Put simply, a transistor controls electrical current. It can either amplify a little current into a big current or use a little current to turn a big current on or off. The transistor is why we have nice things like computers and robot dogs and the Hitachi Magic Wand.
First, there were vacuum tubes, which sucked because they were expensive to make, and took a lot of energy, and then leaked that energy, and had to be replaced at a rate unreasonable for how expensive they were to replace. Then the transistor was invented in New Jersey in 1947 by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley – jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956. Gradually, vacuum tubes became passé, except when it comes to amps for electric guitars because the distortion totally sounds better, man.
7. Tea bags
The tea bag was invented in the 1900s in New York. I’m putting it on the list even though I use loose tea leaves in conjunction with Mr. Tea and my chimpan-tea because I really appreciate not doing that thing where you try to sip the tea, but the leaves gather and stick to your upper lip, and then you either suck in the leaf and do an awkward expectoration or try to blow or push the leaves out of the way. Is that just me? Am I the only one who doesn’t know how to control her loose tea leaves?
I can’t even define jazz, but it is a genre that was purely grown in the United States and inextricably tied to our history, especially to that of Black American History. So many sub-genres and spinoff genres came from jazz, like ragtime and blues and swing, and so many styles have been influenced by jazz, and so many brilliantly amazing jazz musicians have left indelible marks in American music. Here, have some Duke Ellington, because I love big band.
9. Internet (not WWW)
Because the World Wide Web was a British invention. However, development of the internet – communicating across networks using packets of data – was contracted by the US Department of Defense for military use, because what else would the US government in the 1960s be interested in but military use? And so some nerds got together, designed a network (ARPANET) with a fairly simple topology, and established one node in UCLA and another at SRI (the Stanford Research Institute). Then they did some packet-switchy host-namey things, and voilà! The first message ever was transmitted about 350 miles away from LA to Menlo Park, CA. It was a legitimate message too: “login”. None of this “Come here, Mr. Watson” or “What hath God wrought?” business. Only the “-gin” didn’t make it and the system crashed, so they recovered from the crash, fixed some things, tried it again, and managed to send the entire “login” message.
It’s so humbling to think that all that research and hard work started with such a simple message like “login”, bringing us to today when we can send each other profound statements of connection like, “Show me your bewbs, lol”.
Oh you bet your sweet bippy I put spreadsheets on this list. The first spreadsheet was implemented by some nerd in Wisconsin in the 1960s. MY KIND OF NERD. When Earl and I got engaged and started wedding planning, the first thing I did was make spreadsheets. We just received 11 cake designs to choose from and the first thing I did was do an analysis of my rankings compared to Earl’s and a cost analysis. Then I color-coded the top candidates based on average ranking, Δ ranking (|Earl ranking-Jenny ranking|), and average cake price. Could I have eyeballed it just based on 11 rankings? Probably, but then I wouldn’t have anything to color code.
Plus, spreadsheets help me make some sweet pie charts, which is the only way I make topics having nothing to do with pie pie-relevant.
Bonus Inventor of Shame: Thomas Midgley, Jr.
I can’t do justice to this man and his invention of the chlorofluorocarbon better than Bill Bryson does in A Short History of Nearly Everything, but the short of it is this: he invented leaded gasoline and despite getting seriously sick from overexposure to lead months before, paraded for reporters pouring tetraethyl lead all over his hands to prove that it was totally safe, yet assiduously avoiding it at all other times. Then he invented CFCs because the existing refrigerants were giving off too many dangerous (flammable, corrosive, unhealthy) gases. The CFCs were then launched up into the atmosphere, exacerbating the greenhouse effect and punching holes into the ozone layer. Then Midgley got polio and invented some contraption with lots of pulleys and cords that would help him get up out of bed, but in the process of using the contraption, ended up getting tangled in the cords and died of strangulation.
There you go. Between the lead and the ozone-depletion, we are to this day dealing with the consequences of one bumbling American engineer’s fuckuppery.
Thanks to Suzie and Steve for letting me play, and please do feel free to add your own favorite American inventors/inventions. I didn’t even mention the guy who invented IUDs and discovered the G-spot.