From fire to the wheel to rockets– new things are always being discovered, created and invented. Virginia has made her fair share of contributions to the world thanks to some pretty incredible people who either did their work in Virginia or got their start here. In fact, the National Inventors Hall of Fame is located in Alexandria. If creative geniuses are your cup of tea, then it’s definitely worth checking out. In the meantime, here are a few Virginia inventions and inventors that have made the world a better place…
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1. U.S. Patent Grants. Seems a logical place to start.
Remember when Al Gore invented the internet? Neither does anyone else. Fact is, anyone can claim they invented anything. In fact, I’m pretty sure I came up with the idea for Pajama Jeans. But without a patent, it means nothing. And I’m not saying Virginia invented inventions, but…it was our boys, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, that got the official process rolling in 1790, when GW signed the first US Patent Grant. His faithful right-hand man, Jefferson, was the first US patent examiner, keeping the process of inventions and intellectual property kosher from the start.
2. Mechanical Reaper for Grain
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. McCormick was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1976.
3. America’s First Test Tube Baby
We didn’t invent babies, but 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.
Dr. Charles Browne Fleet of Lynchburg created the lip balm that we have all come to rely on for luscious lips in the early 1880s. His original product wasn’t very user-friendly, so he sold the rights to fellow Lynchburg native, John Morton, in 1912. Morton re-packaged the product into the miracle stick we know today.
5. The microphone as we know it .
Prince Edward-born James West is responsible for creating foil-electret transducers for sound recording and voice communication. Before you fall asleep, let me just say that, basically he created the technology used in 90% of all microphones and most new phones used today. He’s the reason when the Verizon guy says, “Can you hear me now?” You can. West is also a National Inventors Hall of Famer with 47 U.S. patents and nearly 200 international patents. He’s pretty much earned the right to drop the mic. Boom.
6. Over-the-counter enemas and laxatives. You’re welcome, world.
Remember the Chapstick guy? Not one to sit idle, Dr. Charles Fleet also created the laxative and developed over-the-counter enemas, which he sold in his pharmacy. Does the name “Fleet” ring a bell now? The C.B. Fleet Company is still located in Lynchburg.
7. The eradication of Yellow Fever in the U.S.
Thanks to Army doctor Walter Reed, yellow fever has been eradicated in the U.S. Born in Gloucester County in 1851, Reed completed his M.D. at the University of Virginia at the age 18. He was, and still is, the youngest student to receive an M.D. from the university. Much of his research on the deadly fever was done along the Potomac River before he discovered that it was mosquitoes, not humans, who transmitted the virus. His discovery in 1901 led to additional epidemiological research that eventually ended the spread of yellow fever and saved thousands of lives.
8. The Popularity of the Peanut
Peanuts have been around a long time. European explorers first came across peanuts in Brazil and their origins could go back as far as 1500 B.C. The first peanuts in the U.S. were introduced by African who were brought here by means of slavery in the 1700s, but the “ground nuts” weren’t noticed much as a food source. It wasn’t until the first commercial crops of these lovely little legumes were grown in Virginia in the 1800s that widespread consumption began.
9. Smallpox Vaccine Needles
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.
10. Tree and Bark Camouflage
While working as a teacher in Alexandria, Jim Crumley, began developing an idea. An avid hunter his entire life, Crumley started thinking that there had to be a better way to blend in with his surroundings while hunting. Thus “tree and bark” camouflage was born – and Crumley is now the owner of a multi-million dollar industry. He is hailed as the “father of camouflage” for his signature Trebark pattern. Of course, to get an autograph, you’ll have to find him first.
11. Edison’s Vitascope
Thomas J. Armat studied at Richmond’s School of Mechanics before inventing one of the most successful motion projectors available in 1895. He began showing movies for paid admission on the machine before contracting his work to Thomas Edison in 1896 and renaming it the Vitascope. His work in cinematic innovations earned him the recognition as a pioneer in early cinema, an Academy Award in 1947 and a spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
12. Innovations for Amputees
Bessie Blount, an African-American physical therapist and inventor, was born in Hickory in 1941. She studied physical therapy at Panzer College of Physical Education in New Jersey before serving as a physical therapist during World War II. It was while working with wounded veterans, many of who were amputees, that she developed an apparatus for them to feed themselves. She later developed an electronic feeding tube. The American Veterans Association didn’t accept her inventions, so she sold her ideas to France, where they were widely used. She went on to a career in law enforcement and forensics, working in the Norfolk Police Department, as well as becoming the first African-American woman to work and train at Scotland Yard in England. In 2005, she was recognized a Notable Woman in Virginia History and I, for one, agree.
13. Smithfield Ham
If you haven’t had it, you should. The curing process for this now-famous country ham was developed in Smithfield in the 1700s, with the first receipt for a commercial sale dating back to 1779. The techniques used to make the ham are based on Native American curing processes learned by settlers of the region in the 1600s. Since then, it’s become a local treasure and can only be produced within the town limits of Smithfield. Really. It's an actual law. The law was made to guarantee consistent flavor thanks to Smithfield's unique combination of air quality, humidity and airborne enzymes that flavor the rind.
14. The Father of Abdominal Surgery
Ok, so not the most romantic title in the world, but thank goodness for Dr. Ephraim McDowell. Born in Rockbridge County in 1771, McDowell was a physician and pioneer surgeon whose work eventually took him to Kentucky. However, we claim him as a Virginia boy and praise the work he did. He was the first person to successfully remove an ovarian tumor in 1809 and became the first person to successfully perform exploratory abdominal surgery due to his “scrupulously clean” surgical practices.
15. Thomas Jefferson and the Moldboard of Least Resistance
This post wouldn’t be complete without a T.J. shout out. It’s true he was a brilliant thinker, innovator and creative genius, but for all the things he gets credited for (macaroni and cheese, dumbwaiters, the polygraph copying tool, swivel chairs, etc.) there’s really only one invention that he can take full bona-fide credit for – and sadly, it’s not macaroni and cheese. Rather, it’s the “Moldboard of Least Resistance”. I realize that it sounds more like a weapon from the Lego Movie than a mind-blowing innovation, but the moldboard he developed for plowing was much lighter and easier to use, decreasing labor significantly. He won a gold medal for his creation from France’s Society of Agriculture. He also created a wheel cipher for coded messages and a spherical sundial, but the jury is still out on whether those were actual “inventions” or just ideas from earlier civilizations.
There’s no doubt. Virginia is full of big brains and great ideas. How many of these had you already heard about? I’d love to hear of any more that you know!