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The Story Behind Famous Inventions

The Coat Hanger

Today’s wire coat hanger was inspired by a clothes hook patented in 1869 by O. A. North of New Britain, Connecticut.

Albert J. Parkhouse, an employee of Timberlake Wire and Novelty Company in Jackson, Michigan, created a coat hanger in 1903, in response to co-workers’ complaints of too few coat hooks. He bent a piece of wire into two ovals with the ends twisted together to form a hook. Parkhouse patented his invention, but it is not known if he profited from it.

Schuyler C. Hulett received a patent in 1932 for an improvement which involved cardboard tubes screwed onto the upper and lower portions to prevent wrinkles in freshly laundered clothes.

Garbage Bags

The familiar green plastic garbage bag (made from polyethylene) was invented by Harry Wasylyk in 1950.

Harry Wasylyk was a Canadian inventor from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who together with Larry Hansen of Lindsay, Ontario, invented the disposable green polyethylene garbage bag. Garbage bags were first intended for commercial use rather than home use - the bags were first sold to the Winnipeg General Hospital. However, Hansen worked for the Union Carbide Company in Lindsay, who bought the invention from Wasylyk and Hansen. Union Carbide manufactured the first green garbage bags under the name Glad Garbage Bags for home use in the late 1960s.

Garbage Disposer

Architect and inventor John W. Hammes built his wife the world's first kitchen garbage disposer in 1927. After ten years of design improvement, Hammes went into business selling his appliance to the public. His company was called the In-Sink-Erator Manufacturing Co.

Paper Towels

Extracts from Kimberly-Clark press release on company history: Scott Paper Company was founded in Philadelphia by Irvin and Clarence Scott in 1879. Brothers Seymour and Irvin Scott ran a paper commission business for twelve years, but the poor economy in the 1870s forced them out of business. Irvin and his younger brother, Clarence, then decided to form their own company out of the remains of the first. Irvin reportedly borrowed $2,000 from his father-in-law and added it to the $300 the two brothers had to form the capital of Scott Paper Company.

In 1907, Scott Paper introduced the Sani-Towels paper towel, the first paper towels. They were invented for use in Philadelphia classrooms to help prevent the spread of the common cold from child to child.


Thomas Stewart of Kalamazoo, Michigan, patented a new type of mop (U.S. patent #499,402) on June 11, 1893. Thomas Stewart had invented a clamping mop that could wring the water out of itself by the use of a lever.


In 1899, Joshua Lionel Cohen came up with an idea for a decorative lighting fixture for potted plants: a metal tube with a light bulb and a dry cell battery that could run the light bulb for 30 days. He passed the idea along to one of his Eveready salespersons, Conrad Hubert, along with his company. Hubert turned the metal tube, light bulb and battery into the world's first flashlight and began selling the batteries and the flashlight, both together and as separate items.

Hubert became a multi-millionaire, Eveready became a huge company, and Joshua Lionel Cowen finally achieved the success he really wanted: he was the person who invented toy trains in 1900. As happened with the fuses and the flashlight, Cowen was actually trying to invent something else when he invented toy trains. He originally intended to create a store window display, a battery powered toy car that travelled on a circle of track. People wanted to buy the display more than the real merchandise for sale. Cowen started Lionel Model Trains.

Cotton Swabs

Cotton swabs or Q-Tips were invented in 1923 by a Polish-born American named Leo Gerstenzang who founded the Leo Gerstenzang Infant Novelty Company to market his new invention. Q-tips was not the first name Gertenzang used, Baby Gays was. In 1926, Baby Gays was expanded to Q-Tips Baby Gays, and later the Baby Gays part of the name was dropped. The Q in Q tip stands for quality, and tips refers to the cotton ends.

Post-It Notes

Everyone knows what Post-it® Notes are: They are those great little self-stick notepapers. Most people have Post-it® Notes. Most people use them. Most people love them. But Post-it® Notes were not a planned product.

No one got the idea and then stayed up nights to invent it. A man named Spencer Silver was working in the 3M research laboratories in 1970 trying to find a strong adhesive. Silver developed a new adhesive, but it was even weaker than what 3M already manufactured. It stuck to objects, but could easily be lifted off. It was super weak instead of super strong.

No one knew what to do with the stuff, but Silver didn't discard it. Then one Sunday four years later, another 3M scientist named Arthur Fry was singing in the church's choir. He used markers to keep his place in the hymnal, but they kept falling out of the book. Remembering Silver's adhesive, Fry used some to coat his markers. Success! With the weak adhesive, the markers stayed in place, yet lifted off without damaging the pages. 3M began distributing Post-it ® Notes nationwide in 1980 -- ten years after Silver developed the super weak adhesive. Today they are one of the most popular office products available.

History Channel to Air Series:
10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America

The most ambitious original programming event in THC history, 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America encompasses 10 days in American history as envisioned through 10 powerful documentaries that will be written, produced and directed by 10 award-winning filmmakers. Expansive in scope, the goal is not to countdown or list the “most important” days in U.S. history, but to select days that represent the broad themes that ultimately shaped America’s people, culture and history. The series premiered on The History Channel April 9 and continues through April 13 Episodes include:

Massacre at Mystic – The first time the English settlers engaged in the slaughter of Native Americans after years of relative peaceful coexistence. Known as the Pequot War, this massacre in Mystic, Connecticut set the pattern of the taking of Indian land throughout the country.

Shays’ Rebellion: America’s First Civil War – A violent protest against debt collection and taxation practices motivated George Washington to come out of retirement to help strengthen the fragile new nation. This was the spark that led to the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Gold Rush – The explosive effects of gold being discovered spurred tremendous financial and physical growth throughout the West. For the first time in history, individuals – not kings or sultans – could have gold for the taking, spurring tens of thousands of immigrants to make the arduous journey West.

Antietam – The bloodiest day in American history, both sides paid a terrible price during this Civil War battle that resulted in 23,000 casualties. President Abraham Lincoln needed this victory to insure that no foreign country would support the Confederates and to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Homestead Strike – Harsh working conditions and long hours in Carnegie’s Homestead steel mill led to a union strike. The battle fought between management and labor signaled an end to workers believing they had an ownership stake in their jobs and widened the divide between management and labor.

Murder at the Fair: The Assassination of William McKinley - Set against the backdrop of the 1901 World’s Fair and the dawning of the new century, the assassination of President William McKinley ushered in a new Progressive Era under the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt.

Scopes: The Battle Over America’s Soul - The sensational courtroom battle between two giants – three-time presidential candidate and populist William Jennings Bryan and big city criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow – over the teaching of evolution in a small Tennessee town. The trial underscored a deep schism within the American psyche -- religion versus science, church and state, elitism versus populism.

Einstein’s Letter – Albert Einstein’s letter to FDR that launched the development of the atomic bomb. The result, known as the Manhattan Project, brought government and science together in a project to build the bomb and change the world forever.

When America Was Rocked - Elvis Presley’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, 1956, signified a whole new culture that involved teenage independence, sexuality, race relations and a new form of music.

Freedom Summer - There was a time when trying to register to vote in Mississippi could get one killed. When two white and one black Civil Rights workers went missing, national attention turned to the violence in Mississippi, which eventually led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Play the 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America trivia game at:

March Brain Teaser

What do the following words have in common: DEFT, FIRST, CALMNESS, CANOPY, LAUGHING, STUPID, HIJACK?

Answer: Each word has three consecutive letters of the alphabet.

April Brain Teaser

I can only live when there is light; I die if the light dies. What am I?

Answer: Next issue. (No prizes offered for correct answer.)

PS: If you make any money by winning bets on these brain teasers, a little commission would be nice :-)

March Contest

QUESTION: On July 4th, 1826, two founding fathers and former presidents died. Who were they?

ANSWER: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

Fifty-seven people entered the contest. Eleven were disqualifed due to an incorrect subject heading - they entered "Alternate Question" as a subject heading. This left forty-six people still eligible to win. Two prizes went unclaimed.
The March contest winners were:
  • Sylvia Burger - Virginia
  • Summer Brooks - Ohio
  • Kathleen Panek - West Virginia
  • Susan Freedman-Varbero - New York
  • Irv Justmab - California
  • R. Pollard - Indiana
  • Marjorie Gurley - Tennessee
  • Lee Ann Coyle - Minnesota

This Issue's Question

To enter the Grand Prize Contest, answer the question: Only one American president's image has appeared on an American stamp while still living. Who was it?

To enter the Alternate Contest, answer the question below and indicate which ONE prize you want if you win. (Only one of each is available.)

Alternate Contest Question: The Columbian Exposition was held in 1893 to observe the 400th anniversary of what?

Contest Rules

  • Contest entry deadline is Monday, April 17, 2006. Later entries will be disqualified. Winners will be notified by email within 24 hours after the contest deadline. Winners' names and states will be published in the next issue of the HistoryBuff.com newsletter.

  • Subscribers may enter both contests, but can only win one prize.

  • To enter either contest, email your essay or answer to help@historybuff.com.

  • If entering for the Grand Prize, enter "Contest Entry Grand Prize" for the subject heading.

  • If entering both contests, send separate emails.

  • Entries with prize desires such as "any prize is OK," "any of the historic newspapers" etc. will be disqualified. You MUST select ONE prize.

  • Subscribers entering the Grand Prize contest and submitting an essay of NOT MORE THAN 75 words in length, correct subject heading, and submission received by the deadline, will be considered for winning. All other Grand Prize entries will be disqualified.

  • From subscribers entering the alternate contest, submitting the correct answer, correct subject heading, submission received by the deadline, as well as advising which ONE alternate contest prize they want to win, NINE will be selected to win ONE of the alternate contest prizes below.

  • Subscribers to this newsletter that won a prize in my trivia contests in the last 90 days are ineligible to win.

Grand Prize
(One winner will be selected)

Civil War Archive
  • Original Civil War newspaper from 1864 with campaign ad for
    McClellan for President on the Front Page

  • Set of reproduction Confederate coins

  • Set of reproduction Confederate currency
Alternate Contest Prizes
Alternate Contest Prizes (Only one of each offered)

History Channel
Polo Shirt

Size Large
Wine Red

Two double-sided DVD's
60 Vintage Cartoons
Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Mouse,
Baby Huey, Little LuLu & More

VHS Documentary
Biography of John Glenn

DVD Party Game
Play By Yourself or Party Mode

Original Historic Newspapers

Original The New-York Columbian historic newspaper from 1813

Original Vermont Courier historic newspaper from 1833

Original The Union (Washington, DC) historic newspaper from 1833

Original The Daily Herald (Massachusetts) historic newspaper from 1863

Original The Commercial Bulletin (Boston) historic newspaper from 1867
That's it for this issue.

Rick Brown

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