On this day in 1876, 29-year-old Alexander Graham Bell receives a patent for his revolutionary new invention – the telephone.
The Scottish-born Bell worked in London with his father, Melville Bell, who developed Visible Speech, a written system used to teach speaking to the deaf. In the 1870s, the Bells moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where the younger Bell found work as a teacher at the Pemberton Avenue School for the Deaf. He later married one of his students, Mabel Hubbard.
While in Boston, Bell became very interested in the possibility of transmitting speech over wires. Samuel F.B. Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1843 had made nearly instantaneous communication possible between two distant points. The drawback of the telegraph, however, was that it still required hand-delivery of messages between telegraph stations and recipients, and only one message could be transmitted at a time. Bell wanted to improve on this by creating a “harmonic telegraph,” a device that combined aspects of the telegraph and record player to allow individuals to speak to each other from a distance.
With the help of Thomas A. Watson, a Boston machine shop employee, Bell developed a prototype. In this first telephone, sound waves caused an electric current to vary in intensity and frequency, causing a thin, soft iron plate – called the diaphragm – to vibrate. These vibrations were transferred magnetically to another wire connected to a diaphragm in another, distant instrument. When that diaphragm vibrated, the original sound would be replicated in the ear of the receiving instrument. Three days after filing the patent, the telephone carried its first intelligible message – the famous “Mr. Watson, come here, I need you” – from Bell to his assistant.
Bell’s patent filing beat a similar claim by Elisha Gray by only two hours. Not wanting to be shut out of the communications market, Western Union Telegraph Company employed Gray and fellow inventor Thomas A. Edison to develop their own telephone technology. Bell sued, and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Bell’s patent rights. In the years to come, the Bell Company withstood repeated legal challenges to emerge as the massive American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) and form the foundation of the modern telecommunications industry.
On this day in 1899, the Imperial Patent Office in Berlin registers Aspirin, the brand name for acetylsalicylic acid, on behalf of the German pharmaceutical company Friedrich Bayer & Co.
Now the most common drug in household medicine cabinets, acetylsalicylic acid was originally made from a chemical found in the bark of willow trees. In its primitive form, the active ingredient, salicin, was used for centuries in folk medicine, beginning in ancient Greece when Hippocrates used it to relieve pain and fever. Known to doctors since the mid-19th century, it was used sparingly due to its unpleasant taste and tendency to damage the stomach.
In 1897, Bayer employee Felix Hoffman found a way to create a stable form of the drug that was easier and more pleasant to take. (Some evidence shows that Hoffman’s work was really done by a Jewish chemist, Arthur Eichengrun, whose contributions were covered up during the Nazi era.) After obtaining the patent rights, Bayer began distributing aspirin in powder form to physicians to give to their patients one gramme at a time. The brand name came from “a” for acetyl, “spir” from the spirea plant (a source of salicin) and the suffix “in,” commonly used for medications. It quickly became the number-one drug worldwide.
Aspirin was made available in tablet form and without a prescription in 1915. Two years later, when Bayer’s patent expired during the First World War, the company lost the trademark rights to aspirin in various countries. After the United States entered the war against Germany in April 1917, the Alien Property Custodian, a government agency that administers foreign property, seized Bayer’s U.S. assets.
Two years later, the Bayer company name and trademarks for the United States and Canada were auctioned off and purchased by Sterling Products Company, later Sterling Winthrop, for $5.3 million.
Bayer became part of IG Farben, the conglomerate of German chemical industries that formed the financial heart of the Nazi regime. After World War II, the Allies split apart IG Farben, and Bayer again emerged as an individual company. Its purchase of Miles Laboratories in 1978 gave it a product line including Alka-Seltzer and Flintstones and One-A-Day Vitamins. In 1994, Bayer bought Sterling Winthrop’s over-the-counter business, gaining back rights to the Bayer name and logo and allowing the company once again to profit from American sales of its most famous product.
On this day in 1963, the Hula-Hoop, a hip-swivelling toy that became a huge fad across America when it was first marketed by Wham-O in 1958, is patented by the company’s co-founder, Arthur “Spud” Melin. An estimated 25 million Hula-Hoops were sold in its first four months of production alone.
In 1948, friends Arthur Melin and Richard Knerr founded a company in California to sell a slingshot they created to shoot meat up to falcons they used for hunting. The company’s name, Wham-O, came from the sound the slingshots supposedly made. Wham-O eventually branched out from slingshots, selling boomerangs and other sporting goods. Its first hit toy, a flying plastic disc known as the Frisbee, debuted in 1957. The Frisbee was originally marketed under a different name, the Pluto Platter, in an effort to capitalise on America’s fascination with UFOs.
Melina and Knerr were inspired to develop the Hula-Hoop after they saw a wooden hoop that Australian children twirled around their waists during gym class. Wham-O began producing a plastic version of the hoop, dubbed “Hula” after the hip-gyrating Hawaiian dance of the same name, and demonstrating it on Southern California playgrounds. Hula-Hoop mania took off from there.
The enormous popularity of the Hula-Hoop was short-lived and within a matter of months, the masses were on to the next big thing. However, the Hula-Hoop never faded away completely and still has its fans today. According to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, in April 2004, a performer at the Big Apple Circus in Boston simultaneously spun 100 hoops around her body. Earlier that same year, in January, according to the Guinness World Records, two people in Tokyo, Japan, managed to spin the world’s largest hoop – at 13 feet, 4 inches in diameter – around their waists at least three times each.
Following the Hula-Hoop, Wham-O continued to produce a steady stream of wacky and beloved novelty items, including the Superball, Water Wiggle, Silly String, Slip ‘n’ Slide and the Hacky Sack.
On 4 March 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is inaugurated as the 32nd President of the United States. In his famous inaugural address, delivered outside the east wing of the U.S. Capitol, Roosevelt outlined his “New Deal” – an expansion of the federal government as an instrument of employment opportunity and welfare – and told Americans that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Although it was a rainy day in Washington, and gusts of rain blew over Roosevelt as he spoke, he delivered a speech that radiated optimism and competence, and a broad majority of Americans united behind their new president and his radical economic proposals to lead the nation out of the Great Depression.
Born into an upper-class family in Hyde Park, New York, in 1882, Roosevelt was the fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, who served as the 26th U.S. President from 1901 to 1909.
In 1905, Franklin Roosevelt, who was at the time a student at Columbia University Law School, married Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, the niece of Theodore Roosevelt. After three years as a lawyer, he decided to follow his cousin Theodore’s lead and sought public office, winning election to the New York State Senate in 1910 as a Democrat. He soon won a reputation as a charismatic politician dedicated to social and economic reform.
Roosevelt supported the progressive New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and after Wilson’s election in 1912 Roosevelt was appointed assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, a post that Theodore Roosevelt once held.
In 1920, Roosevelt, who had proved himself a gifted administrator, won the Democratic nomination for vice president on a ticket with James Cox. The Democrats lost in a landslide to Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and Roosevelt returned to his law practice and undertook several business ventures.
In 1921, he was stricken with poliomyelitis, the virus that causes the crippling disease of polio. He spent several years recovering from what was at first nearly total paralysis, and his wife, Eleanor, kept his name alive in Democratic circles. He never fully covered and was forced to use braces or a wheelchair to move around for the rest of his life.
In 1924, Roosevelt returned to politics when he nominated New York Governor Alfred E. Smith for the presidency with a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention. In 1928, he again nominated Smith, and the outgoing New York governor urged Roosevelt to run for his gubernatorial seat. Roosevelt campaigned across the state by automobile and was elected even as the state voted for Republican Herbert Hoover in the presidential election.
As governor, Roosevelt worked for tax relief for farmers and in 1930 won a resounding electoral victory just as the economic recession brought on by the October 1929 stock market crash was turning into a major depression. During his second term, Governor Roosevelt mobilised the state government to play an active role in providing relief and spurring economic recovery. His aggressive approach to the economic crisis, coupled with his obvious political abilities, gave him the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932.
Roosevelt had no trouble defeating President Herbert Hoover, who many blamed for the Depression, and the governor carried all but six states. During the next four months, the economy continued to decline, and when Roosevelt took office on 4 March 1933, most banks were closed, farms were suffering, 13 million workers were unemployed, and industrial production stood at just over half its 1929 level.
Aided by a Democratic Congress, Roosevelt took prompt, decisive action, and most of his New Deal proposals, such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act, National Industrial Recovery Act, and creation of the Public Works Administration and Tennessee Valley Authority, were approved within his first 100 days in office. Although criticised by many in the business community, Roosevelt’s progressive legislation improved America’s economic climate, and in 1936 he easily won re-election.
During his second term, he became increasingly concerned with German and Japanese aggression and so began a long campaign to awaken America from its isolationist slumber. In 1940, with World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific,
Roosevelt agreed to run for an unprecedented third term. Re-elected by Americans who valued his strong leadership, he proved a highly effective Commander in Chief after the December 1941 American entrance into the war. Under Roosevelt’s guidance, America became, in his own words, the “great arsenal of democracy” and succeeded in shifting the balance of power in World War II firmly in the Allies’ favour. In 1944, with the war not yet won, he was re-elected to a fourth term.
Three months after his inauguration, while resting at his retreat at Warm Springs, Georgia, Roosevelt died of a massive cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 63.
Following a solemn parade of his coffin through the streets of the nation’s capital, his body was buried in a family plot in Hyde Park. Millions of Americans mourned the death of the man who led the United States through two of the greatest crises of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II. Roosevelt’s unparalleled 13 years as president led to the passing of the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which limited future presidents to a maximum of two consecutive elected terms of four full years in office.