Hans Riegel recently died at age 90. He was not a household name, even in his home country of Germany. But he changed the world for the better. He brought us gummi bears.
Of course, life would go on without the gelatinous fruit-flavored candies. Nevertheless, Riegel gave pleasure to millions of people. His father concocted the precursor to the bear candies in 1923. After the latter’s death, Riegel fils became the master marketer for Haribo, his father’s candy firm. At his death Riegel was estimated to be worth $3 billion.
Human creativity and ingenuity—punctuated with a mix of luck and hard work—constantly transform our lives, leaving us far better off as a result.
Politicians routinely crusade against wealth and inequality, but much of that occurs naturally when people create products and offer services benefiting the rest of us. Our lives have been immeasurably enriched by the ingenuity and inspiration of others. They deserve to be enriched financially in return.
Today people live on their cell phones. Once we didn’t even have telephones. Thank Alexander Graham Bell, born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, for this invention. His father was an elocution professor who taught the deaf to speak. In 1876 the son allowed us to speak to people around the world. The following year he and two colleagues established Bell Telephone, which eventually became AT&T.
The internal combustion engine auto came from Karl Benz. He was a design engineer who in 1886 created the two-stroke engine, and won a patent for what he termed the “motor car.” He started his own company, which eventually merged into what is now Daimler-Benz—which makes the famed Mercedes. In 1888 Benz’s wife, Bertha, drove his motorized three-wheel contraption from Mannheim to Pforzheim, demonstrating to the world that the vehicle worked.
Who among us has not enjoyed Life Savers, the circular fruit-flavored candy? In 1903 Clarence Crane started what became the world’s largest Maple Sugar business. He sold that company and moved into chocolate production—obviously a worthy endeavor—but found that some people didn’t want to purchase a sweet that melted during the summer. So he created the hard fruit candy, originally only in peppermint, which he called Life Savers because they looked like ship life preservers.
Helen Greiner came up with the Roomba vacuum cleaner robot in 2002. Born in London and the daughter of Hungarian refugees, she was a fan of Star Wars’ R2D2. Her family moved to the U.S. and she went to MIT—naturally!—and formed a company, iRobot, with two other MIT graduates. She initially focused on research and military robots, before turning to the consumer market. She said her objective is “A robot in every office building. A robot in every home that has a computer. We will change the world with this technology.”
No one knows who actually created brandy, a favorite of alcohol connoisseurs the world over. A 16th century Dutch ship captain figured out how to save cargo space by removing water from wine. At the destination he added water and called the final product Bradwijn, which meant “burned wine.” The new drink later was known as brandy.
Who could live without a computer today? John Mauchly and John Eckert created the first computer in 1946. The former, an engineer and physicist, wanted to find a better way to make the complex computations necessary for weather forecasting. The latter was an electrical engineer who joined Mauchly to develop the Electronic Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, the first general digital computer. They also created the first commercial computer company. Consumers now play with far more powerful computers.
Thomas Edison gave us light bulbs in 1879. Inventors routinely build on what came before them. Humphrey Davy made the first incandescent light in 1800. Warren De La Rue added a bulb in 1820. Many others attempted to create a commercially viable bulb. Joseph Swan might have beaten Edison, who accounted for a record 1093 patents—and developed cement kilns, fire alarms, stock tickers, and improved telegraphs, among many other gadgets. But Edison bought Swan’s patent and received attendant credit and fame. Edison’s bamboo carbon filament lasted 1200 hours, making it the real deal.
The first 3-D printer was created in 1983 by Chuck Hall, who was working at a small California manufacturing firm. His day job was creating ultraviolet-light curable resins. Off-hours he experimented with using the resin to create plastic models. His first creation: a tea cup. Today the devices have been used to produce everything from tools to guns.
Not every invention is utilitarian. During World War II the U.S. government needed synthetic rubber to meet its vast demand for boots, tires, and more. General Electric engineer James Wright worked at it, but his 1943 concoction failed—indeed, it yielded no practical application at all. Six years later ad man Peter Hodgson discovered the malleable material at a cocktail party when people were playing with it. He was writing a catalog for a toy company at the time and began selling it, investing $147. Silly Putty was born.
The agricultural combine harvester, in contrast, was eminently practical and came along more than a century earlier. In 1836 Hiram Moore hoped to revolutionize agriculture with a harvester that was pulled by a team of 20 horses. His invention cut the cost of harvesting by four-fifths while losing little of the ripened grain. He charged the more famous Cyrus McCormick with stealing some of his ideas, sparking extended litigation. Improvements like Moore’s enable us to feed increasing numbers of people with fewer farmers and less land.
Thomas Jefferson is credited with the invention of the swivel
chair, though not its commercialization. He came up with the idea
of a chair which rotated on a spindle and rollers. He had one made
to his specifications, and apparently used it when drafting the
Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The microwave oven was developed in 1946 by Percy Spencer, an orphan who taught himself engineering, mathematics, metallurgy, and physics. During World War II he worked at Raytheon. While developing magnetrons for radar he noticed that a candy bar in his pocket melted. He and his colleagues experimented with other foods, starting with popcorn. It took two decades before consumer-friendly microwave ovens hit the market. Today who can imagine a kitchen without one?
Credit for television, probably even more pervasive than microwaves—though I have to confess that I don’t own one!—goes to Russian émigré Vladimir Zworykin. The original Star Trek included the persistent claim by Pavel Andreievich Chekov that most everything known to man had been developed by Russians. In this case, at least, it may be true. Zworykin fought with the anti-Bolshevik Whites and fled his homeland via the Arctic. In 1920 he joined Westinghouse Electric Corporation, where he developed an iconoscope, or television transmission tube, and kinescope, or television receiver. His company saw little value in the devices, so he moved to RCA. A legal battle ensued when Utah’s Philo Farnsworth claimed invention rights from a television that the latter created in 1927.
That same year Austrian Eduard Hass developed the peppermint candy, “pfefferminz” in German, known as PEZ. He viewed it as an early alternative to smoking. PEZ containers have become a top collectible.
A century before the Scottish Charles Macintosh came up with the waterproof raincoat, known, appropriately enough, as the Mackintosh Raincoat. A store clerk turned chemist, in 1823 he figured out how to use rubber to make waterproof fabric.
Infections once were common killers. But in 1928 another Scot, Alexander Fleming, discovered penicillin. A doctor attempting to develop a flu vaccine, he discovered a mold which prevented bacterial growth. He called substance penicillin, still widely prescribed today.
Edward Binney and Harold Smith brought crayons to the world’s children in 1903. They owned an industrial pigment company, sold slate pencils, and invented dustless chalk. Wax crayons existed, but mainly for industrial use. While visiting schools to market their chalk, Binney and Smith saw the opportunity combine industrial pigments with paraffin wax. By 1996 100 billion crayons had been produced.
It took another three decades for Frederick McKinley Jones to produce portable air-conditioning for trucks. He was an auto mechanic who never got past the sixth grade but collected 61 patents. His 1935 invention forever transformed agricultural, food, and pharmaceutical markets. Jones became the first African-American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers.
Edward Goodrich Acheson created Silicon Carbide—a hard ceramic used in everything from bulletproof vests, car brakes, and semi-conductors—in 1893. He was a railroad surveying assistant who ended up working for Thomas Edison, before moving on to lamp manufacturing. He came up with Silicon Carbide while attempting to develop artificial diamonds.
John Pemberton gave us Coca-Cola, which is best when served cold. The Atlanta pharmacist developed the original formula in 1885, in response to local prohibition which banned the sale of his dubious wine-coca “patent medicine.” His bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, suggested both the name and famous script.
Basketball, which unlike American football has become a global sport, originated six years later. Canadian-born James Naismith studied theology and worked on physical education, including for a YMCA in Massachusetts. In 1891 he relied on a childhood game, “Duck on a Rock,” which employed a soccer ball and two peach baskets, to develop basketball as a sport to be played indoors in the winter. It soon spread throughout YMCAs throughout the east.
Frenchman Philippe de Girard created the tin can in 1810. He fled revolutionary France for England—probably for the better business opportunities rather than the freer politics—and used the more commonly cited Peter Durand as his agent to win a patent, since the former remained a citizen of a nation at war with Great Britain. The cans preserve food and ease transport.
Beautiful as well as practical is the fountain pen. Hundreds of other inventors unsuccessfully tried before him, but in 1884 Lewis Waterman developed the writing utensil which remains with us to this day. He was an insurance salesman who, goes the tale, lost a contract when the inferior pen to be used for signing malfunctioned. He took ten years to perfect his invention.
In 1974 Arthur Fry gave the world the “Post-It Note.” He was both a chemist at 3M and member of his church choir. He wanted a bookmark that would cling to hymnal pages and thought of a failed glue created by a colleague. Many of his colleagues were skeptical of the idea, but his company marketed the result.
Ruth Wakefield did the world an incredible service when she came up with the chocolate chip cookie in 1930. With her husband the dietician and food lecturer purchased an inn, and became regionally famous for her cooking. She ran out of baker’s chocolate while making cookies and substituted chunks of semi-sweet chocolate. Her recipe generated a jump in chocolate sales and became known to Nestle, which consequently created chocolate chips—with the Wakefield recipe printed on the package. Her compensation included a life-time supply of chocolate. What else could anyone ask for?
We don’t know much about the man who came up with the first version of the modern toilet. Amazingly, versions of the flush toilet go back to 3000 A.D. But in 1206 AD the chief engineer of the Middle-Eastern Artuqid dynasty, known as al-Shaykh Ra’is al-A’mal Badi’ al-Zaman Abu al-’Izz ibn Isma’il ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari, developed a toilet which both flushed and refilled. He also is said to have created the water clock.
Stephanie Kwolek came up with Kevlar in 1964. The daughter of Polish immigrants, she ended up a chemist hoping to save enough money to go to medical school. But she made Dupont her career. While seeking a new synthetic fiber she developed the well-nigh indestructible product—commonly part of bullet-proof vests—by combining two polymers.
In 1912 the son of two former slaves, Garrett Morgan, came up with the gas mask. He began as a sewing machine repairman, started his own business, and became an inventor: The stop light was one of his ideas. He marketed the gas mask to fire departments, mining companies, and the U.S. army.
What would life be like without the cornflake? John Harvey Kellogg gave us the ultimate breakfast cereal in 1894. The vegetarian headed a Michigan sanitarium. Faced with wheat gone stale, he decided to process it into dough anyway and ended up with flakes. He toasted and served them, to the approval of his sanitarium’s residents. With his brother, Will Keith, Harvey created the Kellogg Company.
Of course, these are just a few of the inventions which surround and enrich us. Look around your home or workplace and you see the fruit of continual innovation. These products permeate our world. Human creativity and ingenuity—punctuated with a mix of luck and hard work—constantly transform our lives, leaving us far better off as a result.
Few things better illustrate Adam Smith’s axiom that people can simultaneously benefit the rest of us while pursuing their own interest. Of course people should do good. But they often do best while trying to advance themselves.
Some inventors just love to create. Others hope for money, glory, or something else. Whatever their motives, the rest of us gain.
Like when people created phones, computers, chocolate chip cookies, raincoats, and even gummi bears. Hans Riegel, RIP!