When it comes to innovation, invention and…well, just trying new things, Virginia has been a leader from the beginning. Starting with the first permanent English settlement in 1607, Virginia has been the home to countless groundbreaking adventures, discoveries, and inventions. Here are a few that you may or may not be familiar with…
1. The first successfull Electric Streetcar was invented in 1888.
After 74 attempts around the world to create a proper electric trolley railway system, we finally nailed it in Richmond. In 1888, The Union Passenger Railway was the first electric railway system be more efficient than animal-powered trolleys. It was considered a milestone in engineering by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and set the stage, or laid the tracks rather, for future railway trolleys.
2. The first fraternity in the United States was founded at William & Mary in 1776.
The first formal fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, was created at the College of William & Mary on December 5, 1776.
3. And soon after, we brought you the first official streaker. You’re welcome, world.
Thanks to George William Crump, not long after fraternities came in to being, streaking became a tradition at many colleges– or just a really bad choice on a Friday night. The first recorded streaker in U.S. history, Crump, a student at Washington and Lee, bared it all and ran through the streets of Lexington in 1804. Sure, he got suspended for a semester, but went on to become a senator. Go figure.
4. Sorry, Pilgrims. We also had the first Thanksgiving in 1619.
Nearly 2 years before the Pilgrims sat down to feast at Plymouth Rock, 38 English colonists arrived at Berkeley Hundred, site of the Berkeley Plantation. On December 4, 1619, they held a feast as a way of giving thanks to God for their safe arrival in the New World.
5. Gabby Douglas became the first African American to win gymnastics gold in 2012.
Gabby Douglas of Virginia Beach became the first African American to win an all-around gold medal in gymnastics at the London Games in 2012.
6. The first public theater in the U.S. was built in 1716.
We may not have Broadway, but we started it all with the first theater in North American in 1716. The theater was built on the Palace Green in the colonial capital of Williamsburg.
7. Chapstick was invented in the early 1880s in Lynchburg.
That’s right, every time that little miracle stick saves you from dry, cracked, chapped lips, just remember Dr. Charles Browne Fleet from Lynchburg, who invented ChapStick in the early 1880s.
8. The first commercial crop of peanuts was grown in the mid 1800s.
Peanuts were introduced to North America by Africans in the late 1700s, but weren’t an important agricultural crop until the first half of the 19th century when the first commercial crop was grown in Sussex County. As more and more ways were found to use these protein-packed "ground nuts," peanuts soon rivaled cotton as a cash crop in the South.
9. The first free public school started in Hampton in 1634.
In 1634, the Syms-Eaton Free School was established by Benjamin Syms to provide schooling for the children of Hampton, Elizabeth City and Poquoson. Syms donated 200 acres and 8 cows to help the school get its start.
10. The first Mechanical Reaper for grain was invented in 1831.
Cyrus McCormick of Rockbridge County combined the work of multiple farming tools to create the mechanical reaper in 1831. Before he perfected his design, harvesting grain had been backbreaking, time-consuming work. His invention allowed farmers to increase crop yields up to 200% and is the basis of today’s commercial machines.
This modern day reaper shows how McCormick's design is still used today.
11. America’s first IVF baby was born in 1981.
The first successful IVF pregnancy in the U.S. happened at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. A healthy baby girl was born by Caesarian on December 28, 1981.
12. The invention of a Smallpox Vaccine Needle changed healthcare in 1961
A vaccination needle might seem trivial, but what good is a vaccine if you don’t have a good way of administering it? Virginia Tech graduate Benjamin Rubin invented the bifurcated needle that allowed for just the right dose of the vaccine. The needle was the World Health Organization’s primary tool during their Smallpox Eradication Campaign from 1966 -1977.
13. The fIrst formal law school program was started at William & Mary in 1779.
In 1762, George Wythe, a prominent Williamsburg lawyer, took a young William & Mary grad named Thomas Jefferson under his wing and trained him in the field of law. With no schools offering a formal law degree at the time, Jefferson and Wythe recognized a new need for the nation. And so in 1779 while serving as governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson encouraged the creation of a new degree in law at his alma mater with Wythe as the first professor. John Marshall, who became the Chief Justice of the United States in 1801, also studied under Wythe in 1780. The statue of Wythe and Marshall shown above now sits outside of the William & Mary School of Law.
14. The first President of the United States was born in Virginia in 1732.
George Washington may have been the first, but he was far from the last president to be born in Virginia. In fact, 4 of the first 5 presidents and 8 presidents in total were from Virginia, earning us the nickname "Mother of Presidents."
15. The Wright Brother tested the first military aircraft at Ft. Meyer in 1908.
While it would be years before a formal military air program was established, the Wright Brothers began pushing for it soon after their first successful air crafts were invented. The first test flights at a military installment were held at Ft. Meyers in 1908. Sadly, this was also the site of the first airplane-related fatality in September 1908 when Army Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge died from injuries sustained during a crash.
16. The first "Mental Hospital" was established in Williamsburg in 1773.
The Public Hospital in Williamsburg is the oldest psychiatric hospital in the nation and the first hospital specifically purposed for treatment of the mentally ill. Founded in 1773, the Public Hospital was built at a time when mental illness was not diagnosed by a doctor, but rather by a jury-like group of 12 citizens who gave a verdict of “criminal, lunatic or idiot”.
Did we leave anything off the list? Let us know about any Virginia firsts that we may have overlooked in the comments below!