Homegrown American Ingenuity: A History

Photo: Setting up the trebuchet

Photograph by NGC and Flight 33

By Patrick J. Kiger

Today, in an age when we’re surrounded by electronic gadgetry, it’s safe to say that many Americans think of technology as something created for us, in shiny laboratories by teams of teams of white-clad scientists with more degrees than the Freemasons. But that isn’t really accurate, and it never has been.  The word technology actually includes any sort of device or method for accomplishing a task, whether it’s a supercomputer or an ingeniously simple homemade coffee cup warmer, fashioned from repurposed household items--electrical tape, a corn skewer, ear buds from an MP3 player, and a pair of AA batteries—that an inventor recently demonstrated on YouTube.  And practically since the nation’s inception, ordinary non-credentialed folks have been tinkering in their barns, basement workshops and garages, perfecting their own homespun gadgets—often improvised from familiar items that have been repurposed or modified, or fashioned from parts scavenged from broken junk.

One of the most illustrious American inventors, for example, was the nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, who was a lawyer by training and a farmer by profession, but also a self-taught scientist, engineer and architect in his spare time.  Jefferson filled Monticello, his Virginia home, with gadgets that he designed, sometimes out of repurposed parts. His drawing room, for example, featured a special clock that not just the hour but the day of the week, thanks to a pair of slowly-descending cannonballs on ropes that Jefferson rigged inside it instead of the usual clock weights.  He wrote the Declaration of Independence in a chair of his own design with a swiveling seat, one that is the indirect ancestor of today’s office chairs, and built a contraption that automatically signed letters for him.  Another early American autodidact, Benjamin Franklin, cobbled together a slew of gadgets, including an extension arm grabber with fingers attached that allowed him to reach books on high shelves.

That was just the start. In the 1800s and early 1900s, before the era of mechanized mass production, blacksmiths, toolmakers and machinists plied their trades by hand and had to use their cleverness and imagination to create whatever people needed. From that fertile ground sprung numerous inventors—including such luminaries as Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Henry Ford and the Wright brothers--with little academic education but practical trade skills and wide-ranging curiosity, and a penchant for what today is known as “thinking outside the box.”   Of course, there were also plenty of would-be Edisons laboring in their basements and garages whose gizmos never caught on.  A 1910 Spokane Daily Chronicle article, for example, details a plethora of also-ran innovations such as the self-tipping hat, which utilized gears borrowed from a clock to raise and tip a man’s headgear whenever he bowed to a passing lady, and eyeglasses for chickens, designed to keep them from pecking one another’s eyes out in the barnyard.  There also was the mechanical cat, fashioned from sheet iron, a bellows and clockwork, which was intended to sit on rooftops and periodically howl to chase away actual felines.

But even some credentialed American scientists have resorted to cobbling together their inventions from found materials. Dr. Robert Goddard, who pioneered modern rocketry in the 1920s and 1930s by developing innovations ranging from liquid-fueled rockets to gyroscope controls for guiding them, built much of his test equipment and rockets from scavenged odds-and-ends, ranging from clock parts to tobacco tins.

While some homespun American innovators have been motivated by the dream of turning old junk into a gadget that would make them a fortune overnight, others have been motivated by necessity or economic hardship. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, for example, Americans who couldn’t afford store-bought devices often resorted to building their own versions.  Social historian Bettye Burkhalter’s book The Generation That Saved America: Surviving the Great Depression, recounts the story of onesuch impoverished everyday inventor, her father Cecil Burrell, who fashioned a “roll-around” toy for himself out of a syrup bucket lid and a stick when he was four or five years old, and went on to design and build an astonishing array of items-- flat bottom boats, cattle trailers, barbeque grills, even kitchen carving knives-- out of scrap materials.  When he wanted tables for his patio, he made them from old piston rings from industrial engines. “Rather than see it go to waste, I put it to use,” he explained.

Other innovators have used their cleverness in an effort to evade the law.  In the 1950s, moonshiners running bootleg liquor on rural back roads took creaky junkers and modified them to create exotic hot rods equipped with massive, powerful engines, sometimes lifted from old Cadillac ambulances,  and all sorts of evasive gadgetry.  A 2005 Hot Rod magazine retrospective includes one such car, whose shift console was fitted with a switch that turned off the brake lights, so that police cars couldn’t tell when a driver was slowing down before making  a sudden turn.

Some of the most ingenious American inventors have been soldiers in wartime.  A 1944 Popular Science article, for example, reported that “wherever American soldiers show up, they astound, amuse, and confuse the native population with an assortment of makeshift gadgets, some of which would make a Rube Goldberg creation seem downright simple.”  World War II servicemen in North Africa, for example,  took  empty oil drums and hoses, mounted them on scaffolds built from scrap lumber, and created  improvised showers; when they needed a stove to keep warm during the desert nights, they fashioned one from scavenged parts, including the wreckage of a German aircraft.  More recently, during the Iraq War in the 2000s, soldiers discontented with the shortage of adequately armored vehicles fashioned their own “hillbilly armor” by scavenging steel panels from vehicles in Iraqi junkyards and welding them onto their troop carriers.

While some bemoan what they see as the gradual demise of American ingenuity, in recent years we’ve also seen the rise of the DIY (For “Do-It-Yourself”) movement, whose members pride themselves on finding creative uses for old junk and stage “Maker Faire” events across the nation to showcase their contraptions.  At one such event, tinkerers gave a demonstration of Gon KiRin, a 69-foot-long fire-breathing dragon, which was fashioned from salvaged automobile parts.  It may not be the most practical homegrown innovation ever, but at least they put some old clunkers to use.

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