They Built the Future: Inventors from Our Own Back Yard

DID YOU KNOW THE CONVEnience store, paddle boat, double Ferris wheel, tamale machine, Freezesleeve, and the modern pizza oven were all invented by Dallasites? True. And local innovators have left other marks on daily life:

The telephone. Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call in Boston, but Dallas jeweler and electrical pioneer John M, Oram had the first telephone line installed in 1878.

The airplane. A few months after the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk, Frank Mc-Carroll built his own plane in the workshop behind his home on Ninth Street in Oak Cliff. In 1915, McCarroll patented a device that was the forerunner of retractable landing gear. He hatched the idea while watching buzzards tuck in their legs to cut down wind resistance.

Traffic lights. In 1923, Henry S. “Dad” Garrett, an electronics wizard, installed the nation’s first automated traffic signal light on Elm Street.

Health insurance. To rescue Baylor Hospital after the stock market crash of ’29, hospital administrator Justin F. Kimball created a prepaid health insurance plan. The first members were local school teachers who paid 50 cents a month to cover hospital stays beyond the school-sponsored sick days. The “Baylor Plan ” eventually grew into the nationwide Blue Cross plan.

The shopping center. Highland Park Village, at the intersection of Preston Road and Mockingbird Lane, was the first shopping center in the country to have a unified architectural theme and buildings that faced inward, away from the street. Highland Park promoters Hugh Prather, Sr. and Edgar Flippen opened the center in 1931.

Liquid Paper. In 1951, Bette Nesmith Graham, alocal bank secretary, took to her office a concoction of tempera waterbase paint she had blended in her kitchen mixer to cover up her typewriting errors. Others noticed, and Graham, the mother of Michael Nesmith of the musical Monkees, began marketing the product, first called “Mistake Out” and, in the 1960s, Liquid Paper.

The ATM. Also in the 1960s, Don Wetzel of Irving, a marketing executive for Docutel, a manufacturer of automated baggage handling systems, came up with the idea of using plastic cards to tap bank accounts. He later made the Money magazine Hall of Fame in recognition of his role in the development of the automated teller machine.

The computer chip. A shoo-in for the technology hall of fame, Jack S. Kilby of Texas Instruments designed the integrated circuit, now known as the microchip, in 1958. The invention represented an enormous improvement in storing and manipulating information in a very small space {often no larger than a baby’s fingernail), This led to the development of the silicon chip, which has, in short, revolutionized the world. A $600 billion electronic equipment market has grown around Kilby’s innovation.

Bombs Away

Along with successes, Dallas tinkerers have had their share of flops:

Square poker chips. In 1947, R.H. Buchheit, a local auditor, created the “Roll-No-More” poker chip, designed to give gamblers more time at the tables and less time on the floor looking for missing chips that had rolled away. No dice.

The jet-powered automobile. In 1948, John R. Mitchell, owner of die Fixit Shop on Singleton, converted a 1934 Packard to jet propulsion. Mitchell said that the vehicle would run on kerosene, crude oil, or whiskey. A large sign on the back of the auto warned drivers to stay back 50 feet.

Four-handed chess. In 1951 Victor Constantinovitch Manakin, a former colonel in Tsar Nicholas’ army who later taught Russian at SMU, introduced four-handed chess, which he called “the missing link between chess and bridge.” One-eyed cats, two-headed calves, and three-legged aardvarks were featured pieces.

The Cool Shoe. Hoping to eliminate the ancient problem of sweaty feet, Anthony Farinelli invented the air-conditioned shoe in 1966. The shoe featured a tiny battery-powered motor and a squirrel-cage fan in the heel blowing air into the shoe through a flexible cable.


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