From the vault: Innovation in Connecticut

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Innovation is frequently an incremental process, involving small improvements to an existing product, device or process. The adage “To Build a Better Mousetrap” epitomizes this process. If patent records are a measure of a state’s innovative spirit, then Connecticut ranks high with some 20,000 patents issued between 1790 and 1891. For the years 1876-1891 Connecticut actually led the nation in patents issued. But throughout Connecticut’s history as a state there are numerous examples of innovation and invention.

Transportation:

  • Cyclometer - Connecticut’s role in transportation developments includes many innovations in bicycle designs, including chainless drives, safety bells and lamps, and even cyclometers to measure distance traveled. Veeder Manufacturing in Hartford produced many different cyclometers for bicycles, including a small model that dates to the very early 20th C. (CHS 1999.62.0).
  • Coaster brake - Later innovations included the safety coaster brake (CHS 1995.19.2) that first appeared on bicycles in the 1910s and lasted well into the 1960s. Instead of applying the brakes using handgrip levers, the rider could simply back-pedal to slow the bicycle. This example was manufactured in Bristol by New Departure in the 1930s.
  • Flight control device - In the 20th century, aircraft signified the cutting edge in technology and innovation. Connecticut’s contributions are many, and new advances are continually appearing, such as a patented fly-by-wire flight control device (CHS 2014.178.1) developed by Sikorsky Aircraft for a new family of high-speed helicopters.

Manufacturing:

The tinkerer, epitomized by the “mechanic” Hank Morgan in Mark Twain’s satirical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, has played a significant role in the state’s identity as a center of innovation. As the term tinkerer implies, many innovators tested ways to improve existing products or processes.

  • Wooden shelf clock - Eli Terry, an established clockmaker in the early 19th C. worked to develop a less expensive, but nonetheless accurate clock. The result was the mass-produced wooden works shelf clock, which revolutionized not only clock making, but also our sense of time. One of his prototypes , ca. 1815 (CHS 1978.44.1), emphasizes the use of locally produced wooden works.
  • Isaac Bevin patent - Bell manufacturing has long been associated with Connecticut, and the recent fire at the Bevin Bell Company serves to remind us of that fact. Constant innovation occurred in this business, as evidenced by a patent letter issued to Isaac Bevin in 1866 for an improvement in gong bells (MS 73508).
  • George Washington's inaugural suit samples - The textile industry became a major underpinning of the state’s economy by the mid-1800s. Certainly there was tinkering involved in the establishment of the nation’s first woolen mill at Hartford in 1788. Fabric produced here was used in the suit worn by Washington at his first inauguration (MS 79547). Letter encloses samples of wool for George Washington's inaugural suit, hoping that by wearing cloth made in Hartford, Conn., the president would set the fashion and thereby encourage one of America's infant manufactories rather than continuing the trend of buying cloth made in Britain
  • Waterproof rubber shoes - Production of footwear benefitted from local innovators like Charles Goodyear, whose work in developing vulcanized rubber helped create a market for waterproof shoes like these 19th C. examples (CHS 2003.1.2a,b).
  • Patent model for felting hats - Among those who worked to improve hat making processes was John Earle of Danbury, who in 1870 patented an improvement in machines for felting hats, shown by a patent model (CHS 1999.64.1).

Other Innovations:

  • Compendious Dictionary of the English Language - Noah Webster’s early 19th C. Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, (CHS Robbins Collection #1738), which helped put an American stamp on the dictionary and communication in general.
  • Wiffle Ball - David Mullany of Fairfield invented what became called the Wiffle Ball (CHS 2002.69.1a,b) in the 1950s.

 

Connecticut Historical Society

 

 

 

 

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