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Twice a week, I play trivia with some of my election office colleagues, who are all pretty left-leaning politically. One my teammates, an artsy-fartsy guy who’s started dabbling in socialism, offered me my turn at a book we’re passing around to study for one of the more challenging categories. Unsure of when I’d have a moment to pick it up, I told him to hang onto it.
“You don’t have time because you’re a capitalist,” he said with a grin.
Both of these things are true. I am a capitalist, and I don’t always have a lot of free time. (Just money and satisfaction.) Time was especially at a premium last week as I put in extra work before my weeklong vacation to see family on the east coast. In the interest of not overloading my brain, I decided to combine two things I love — capitalism and trivia — in today’s column by posing a few trivia questions to readers on the innovative products produced under capitalism.
1.What ailment was John Stith Pemberton trying to cure when he invented the beverage that would eventually become Coca-Cola?
2.Who is the only American president to hold a patent?
3.What brand of vacuum cleaner was created using technology initially developed for the purpose of bomb detection?
4.What popular kitchen cupboard item was invented in 1946 by a failed landscaper-turned amateur chemist who experimented with industrial waste?
5.What brand of blue cheese was invented by chemists at Iowa State University?
1.John Stith Pemberton was seeking a cure to his addiction to morphine stemming from a sabre wound he sustained while fighting for the Confederacy when he created Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, made from wine, the coca leaf, and the kola nut. It was advertised in 1885 as a nerve tonic. Pemberton had to revise his formula to remove the wine when Atlanta introduced prohibition in 1886. Renamed “Coca-Cola” by Pemberton’s business partner, the new syrup was combined with carbonated water and sold at a pharmacy for five cents a glass. Pemberton was a well-respected pharmacist, but not much of a businessman. Coca-Cola exploded in popularity only after Pemberton sold the recipe shortly before his death to Asa Griggs Candler, a local business tycoon.
2.Years prior to his presidency, Abraham Lincoln invented a device for “Buoying Vessels Over Shoals” and was granted a patent in 1849. Lincoln had worked as a ferryman in his youth, carrying passengers and other cargo on his small boat. On more than one occasion, his boat had gotten stuck on a shoal, or a submerged sandbank frequently hidden from plain sight. Getting unstuck usually meant unloading cargo, so Lincoln’s device was designed to carry inflatable bellows on the side to lift the vessel high enough to be freed from the bank. While Lincoln was enthusiastic about the innovation spurred by capitalism, we’ll never know if his invention would have worked. It was never actually produced.
3.The company iRobot was founded in 1990 by three researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By 1996, they had developed software for an autonomous robot that featured object recognition technology intended to detect and dispose of explosives. After receiving a contract from the Department of Defense to build a robot that was later used to search for survivors in the rubble of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11th attacks, the company expanded into the consumer market, creating a robotic vacuum cleaner which you might know as the Roomba.
4.Earl Silas Tupper was a tree surgeon whose landscaping business went bankrupt during the Great Depression. He worked for one year at a plastics manufacturer called the Dupont Viscoloid Company (which is often mistaken for the larger, well-known chemical company DuPont.) After leaving Dupont Viscoloid to form his own company, Tupper started experimenting with polyethylene slag, an industrial waste product which he obtained from his former employer. After trial and error, he was able to refine the black, smelly, inflexible material to a translucent odorless plastic that could be molded and remain durable, and in 1946, Tupperware was created. After initially low retail sales, Tupperware began selling exclusively through home parties in 1951.
5.Prior to the creation of Maytag Blue Cheese, blue cheese was made using milk from a sheep or a goat. In the 1930s, Fred Maytag of Maytag Dairy Farms in Newton, Iowa approached food scientists at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) looking for ways to diversify the use of milk from his and his brother’s Holstein cows. Maytag offered to pay royalties and furnish a factory in exchange for Iowa State developing the process. The collaboration was successful, and the technology remains in use today.
I’ll admit it — I didn’t want to work too hard before my vacation. Perhaps it’s a bit ironic, then, that I wrote about some of America’s hardest workers. Their contributions were made possible thanks to a system that has made America what it is today — capitalism, the voluntary exchange of goods and services for mutual benefit in a free market, where anyone can become an entrepreneur and market the next life-changing product.
Entrepreneurship breeds innovation in the neatest ways sometimes. Sometimes it’s by accident. The inventor of Silly Putty was looking to create a rubber substitute during World War II and instead invented a bouncy novelty sold in toy stores. Sometimes it’s on a whim. A track coach at the University of Oregon had been looking to develop a better running shoe when he experienced an “a-ha”-type moment while looking at his waffle iron. He used it to create it for the prototype for the Waffle Trainer, Nike’s flagship shoe product. However it happens, the standard of living we enjoy today is in part because had an idea and decided to capitalize on it.
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