12 Things You Might Not Know Were Invented in Philly

From the toilet paper roll to bubble gum to one big hunk of hokum, a dozen examples of the progeny of great local minds.



You know Philly is a city of firsts, right? First capital of the United States, first department store, first taxi service, first national convention (in 1856) of the Republican Party. (The Evening Bulletin noted, “Our hotels are crowded to the highest flight with politicians of many shades.”) But we’re also a mother of invention. Here are 12 life-altering creations that got their start right here.

  1. Soda Pop: A libation with the ultra-catchy name Nephite Julep was created in 1807 by Philadelphia druggist Townsend Speakman. He added fruit flavoring to carbonated water in an attempt to make it palatable for people who wished to take advantage of its supposed health benefits.
  2. The Ice-Cream Soda: In 1874, at the semicentennial of the Franklin Institute, Robert M. Green was running a small soda fountain, whipping up drinks out of syrup, carbonated water and cream. When he ran out of cream, he bought some ice cream from a competing vendor, hoping to melt it for his own use. Alas, the line at his stand had grown lengthy, so he simply scooped the frozen stuff into glasses of pop—and a star was born.
  3. The Revolving Door: In 1888, Theophilus van Kannel was granted a patent for the first revolving door, an improvement on an existing door intended to cut down on drafts. (Myth has it van Kannel was motivated by a dislike for holding doors for women. Who knows?) Ever since then, impelled by claustrophobia and that strange terror that seizes you when you think another person might be getting into your revolving-door compartment with you, people have been avoiding using them. It’s scientific fact: Only between 20 and 30 percent of us use revolving doors when there’s an alternative.
  4. The Lightning Rod: Ben Franklin had a thing about fire. In addition to founding the volunteer Union Fire Company, a.k.a. Benjamin Franklin’s Bucket Brigade, he invented the lightning rod after a lengthy series of experiments in which it’s a wonder he didn’t get electrocuted. He published instructions for the device in the 1753 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac.
  5. The Odometer: Yep, Ben again. This time, it was in conjunction with the establishment of the Postal Service. In a five-month tour of existing post offices in 1763, Franklin used an odometer to measure the roads. You can also credit Ben with bifocals, swim fins, the library chair and streetlights, among other inventions.
  6. The Toilet Paper Roll: And thank God for it. In 1890, brothers Irvin and Clarence Scott of Philly’s Scott Paper Company fed perforated tissue onto rolls and sold it commercially. At first, they didn’t call it “Scott Tissue,” since they didn’t want the family name, erm, soiled. But by 1925, Scott Tissue was the leading toilet-tissue seller in the world. Another family member came up with the original catchy slogan: “Soft as old linen.” Ewwww.
  7. Bubble Gum: Back in 1928, 23-year-old Walter E. Diemer, an accountant at the Fleer Chewing Gum Company, was tinkering with formulas for gum when he accidentally stumbled on a super-stretchy variant. The president of the company dubbed it “Dubble Bubble,” and a brand was born. Diemer made his prototype pink because that was the only color of dye he had on hand. He had to trot around to shops to teach the clerks how to blow bubbles in order to increase sales.
  8. The Pencil With Attached Eraser: Pencils have been around for many years; in the original Latin, the word “pencil” referred to a small, thin brush. Graphite pencils caught on sometime in the mid-1500s. But Philly’s own Hymen L. Lipman registered the first patent for a version with a rubber eraser at one end, in 1858. Interestingly, the design is most popular in America; overseas, it seems, people aren’t so ready to erase the past. Before Lipman’s innovation, people erased marks made by graphite pencils by rubbing them with old bread.
  9. The Slinky: Penn State grad Richard Thompson James was working a dull desk job at the William Cramp & Sons shipyard in 1943 when he accidentally knocked over a bunch of spare parts. He watched in fascination as one such part, a coiled spring, “walked” across his desk, onto some books, and down to the floor. He spent a year experimenting with tension and different wire types before he landed on the right combination, which he tested out on kids on his block. His wife, Betty, dubbed it “Slinky” for the sound it made. Gimbels included the toy in its Christmas display in November 1945, but sales didn’t take off until James went to the store himself to demonstrate it. By Christmas, Gimbels had sold 200,000 of the springs. The Slinky made its national debut at the American Toy Fair the following year. James joined a religious cult, gave his money away, and ran off to Bolivia in 1960; Betty persevered, commissioned an earworm commercial, and eventually sold the company for a whole lot of money. Go, Betty!
  10. Candy Corn: The first known professional maker of this Halloween staple was George Renninger of the Wunderle Candy Company, in the 1880s; the Goelitz Confectionery Company first mass-produced it at the turn of the century, from sugar, fondant, corn syrup, vanilla flavor and marshmallow cream. Goelitz, which has morphed into the Jelly Belly Company, still uses its original recipe, though you can now find its corn colored to suit other holidays, like pink and red for Valentine’s Day and red and green for Christmas.
  11. Monopoly: The king of board games was invented during the Great Depression by a Germantown heater salesman, Charles Darrow, who cribbed the idea from the Landlord’s Game, patented by a woman named Lizzie Magie in 1924. She intended her game as an example of Georgian economics, to teach people how rents benefit landlords and drive renters into poverty. Quakers in Atlantic City adopted her game, but gave the spaces on the board their city’s street names. Darrow sold printed cardboard versions of his iteration, which included the A.C. references, at Wanamaker’s department store starting in 1934. He then sold his game to Parker Brothers, which also bought Magie’s for $500. By 1936, Parker was manufacturing 20,000 sets of the game per week.
  12. The Keely Motor: Never heard of the Keely Motor? That’s because it never existed. It was a hoax cooked up by a Philly carpenter and mechanic who announced in 1872 that he had found a new way of tapping into “etheric energy.” John Worrell Keely exhibited a prototype he said could use a quart of water to drive a train from Philadelphia to San Francisco and back again. He convinced a dozen engineers and capitalists to buy in and form the Keely Motor Company in 1872. In summoning up the “vibratory energy” of the ether, Keely used a violin and other musical instruments to turn on his machines. Funny thing, though—they never worked without him there to run them, and his backers eventually dribbled away. In the nick of time, he secured $100,000 plus a stipend of $2,500 a month from a wealthy widow. Before he died in 1898, he’d kept his company going for 26 years without ever producing a marketable product. After his death, his home was found to be riddled with hidden switches, pipes, mechanical belts and the like; a silent water motor was hidden in the cellar.

Follow @SandyHingston on Twitter.