'Mad Science' Looks At Groundbreaking Inventors

You may not know that the traffic signal, the firehouse pole, and instant coffee were all invented by people of color. The stories behind those inventions and many more are included in the new book, Mad Science. Editor Randy Alfred speaks with guest host Celeste Headlee.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Switching gears now. When you think of inventors, you probably think of Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, Nikola Tesla. But of course there are many people, especially people of color, who've created things that we used every day and yet we might not have heard of them. It was an African-American, for instance, who helped develop the modern traffic light and a Japanese man who thought up instant coffee.

We wanted to take a look at some of these lesser-known visionaries, so we've called Randy Alfred. He's editor of the new book "Mad Science: Einstein's Fridge, Dewar's Flask, Mach's Speed, and 362 Other Inventions and Discoveries that Made Our World Possible." He is also a contributing editor to Wired.com's This Day in Tech blog.

Randy, welcome.

RANDY ALFRED: Hi, good to be here.

HEADLEE: So you had a few huge number of different inventions dating back to the 1700s to choose from. Describe for us maybe the variety. It goes from A to Z in terms of inventions, right?

ALFRED: It does. It goes from A to Z. And more importantly, it goes from January 1 to December 31 with one for every day of the year. Partly it was a question of picking ones that people had to have there, like the light bulb, or things that people might not know anything about, but are everyday items, like the microwave or the traffic signal.

HEADLEE: Since you mentioned the traffic signal, let's talk about Garrett Morgan. He's an African-American man from Cleveland. He designed a traffic signal back in 1923. Tell me a little bit about his invention, and why it caught on.

ALFRED: It caught on because he made two innovations. One is he developed a signal that was stopping traffic in all directions, which meant it provided a safety interval. And the other is he had a variation of a signal that told people that the traffic signal was not working - the equivalent of our blinking yellow lights today. And because of that, General Electric - which was working on trying to develop a traffic signal - liked both those innovations and bought his patent, made him a fairly wealthy man.

And it was the General Electric traffic signal that proliferated all over the United States in the '20s and '30s and '40s, that caught on, and they virtually monopolized the market.

HEADLEE: Garrett Morgan was a really interesting man. He was a true inventor. I mean, that was his job. But we know nothing about him, really.

ALFRED: Very little, except he invented that item. He also invented a gas mask which became very useful in World War I, when the opposing side started using gas warfare in the trenches in Europe. But he invented it for firefighters who were going to be facing hot, searing gases and poisonous gases while fighting fires.

HEADLEE: Well, since you mentioned firefighters, that leads us directly to George Reid. He was an African-American firefighter. He designed the firehouse pole while he was working for Engine Company 21 in Chicago, which was an all-black crew. Tell me this story.

ALFRED: This was not an inventor, but a firefighter who saw better way of doing his job. This was way back in 1878. So we're not talking about automobiles and trucks that fire companies went out to fight fires in, but horse-drawn wagons. And if you have horses, you need to fuel them, and you feel them by feeding them hay. So you need a place to store the hay, and these were in haylofts, on the third floor of firehouses.

And he was loading hay up there one day when the fire alarm rang. And he suddenly realized that it was going to take him a long time to run all the way down two flights of stairs, to get to where the horses were already being hitched to the wagons. And he had a pole that had been used to secure the hay to the top of the wagon that he was unloading. And he just looked at it and decided to slide down it and got down. He didn't have to convince the head of his station. The head of his station...

HEADLEE: They saw how well it worked, yeah.

ALFRED: Saw how well it worked. They decided they were going to ask permission from the fire chief of Chicago to cut a hole in the floor, so it could be done regularly, because he jumped out the front of the building and down the pole out of the hayloft door. It was a great idea, and the Chicago fire chief ordered them for every station. The original fire poles were polished wood, which were sanded, smoothed...

HEADLEE: So there were a lot of splinters.

ALFRED: Yes...

(LAUGHTER)

ALFRED: ...even though they were waxed.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about the new book "Mad Science," with editor Randy Alfred.

Let's talk about another invention: instant coffee. And this was from Japanese chemist Satori Kato. Tell me this story about why he came up with instant coffee.

ALFRED: Because he had already invented instant tea, powdered tea, and he was hired by an American company to try and solve the problem of instant coffee, which have been tried many times before, but it always turned bitter. It went rancid. So he figured out a way, a chemical way, of getting the soluble fats out of the coffee. That made his invention workable.

It was another company that successfully brought it to market and marketed to the U.S. Army for use in World War I. Think about it: If you're out in a combat situation, you're not going to have a percolator. You're not going to have a drip machine, let alone an espresso machine. Even the Italians didn't have espresso machines in the field. And having instant coffee is a good way to get a soldier started in the morning.

HEADLEE: And these are products people use every single day. They're part of our daily lives. Why don't we know these men's names? How come when we think of inventors, we think of Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin only?

ALFRED: Well, those are the ones who are made heroes in our schools. So part of it's probably a problem of the curriculum that gets taught. And there is an unfortunate tendency for people of color, for women inventors, women scientists to be less represented in history. And then there's also the barrier problem of people who come up with things or who want to be a scientist or want to be an inventor, in the past, traditionally, have found barriers to their entry or to their success.

HEADLEE: Was there any invention here that you have a particular fondness for?

ALFRED: I have a fondness for the invention of photography by Louis Daguerre and the daguerreotype. The same year that photography was first exhibited, the head of the French Academy of Sciences said, this is a great invention. What we ought to do is have the French Parliament give a pension to the inventors, and then make the process public.

On that day in 1839, they published the process, and within weeks - well, within days, every chemist in Paris was sold out of the chemicals you need. Every optician sold out of lenses that were needed to make the camera. The manual on how to do photography was translated into a dozen languages within a couple of months, and it was this instant worldwide fame. It was an invention that people wanted, and France decided to make it their gift to the world. It's a great argument in favor of open sourcing of the advancement of technology.

HEADLEE: It feels as though times have changed since then, Randy, because, you know, oftentimes, science doesn't feel accessible to everybody. Inventions don't feel accessible. It feels like you need a lab and expensive equipment in order to invent something, whereas you read these stories, and they were made by people using absolutely everyday things and a stick, right?

ALFRED: Yes. And it's true that things have gotten more complex. And even if you come up with an invention in your garage, you have to get a way to get it marketed, patented, brought to market and so forth. But there are still innovators out there. And the whole world, our processes have become much more collective.

I mean, in the old days, you went down to the corner and had a soapbox and got on the corner. You didn't reach as many people, but you didn't need all of the technology. With the technology, you can reach more people, but it does require a group collective effort.

HEADLEE: Randy Alfred is editor of the new book "Mad Science: Einstein's Fridge, Dewar's Flask, Mach's Speed, and 362 Other Inventions and Discoveries that Made Our World Possible." He's also a contributing editor to Wired.com's This Day in Tech blog. Alfred joined us from NPR member station KQED in San Francisco.

And Randy, thank you so much.

Thank you. It's a pleasure.

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