12 Inventors, Inventions, And Innovations Westchester Can Call Its Own

From soft-serve sensations to IBM’s DRAM (keep reading to find out what that is), Westchester creations reach far beyond the county’s borders.


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The  entrepreneurial boom is in full swing in America, and it seems there have been more inventions in the past few years than ever before. Case in point: Westchester’s own  Andrew McMurray, vice president of Zachys Wine & Liquor in Scarsdale and chief consultant to Zipz Wines, recently secured a $2.5 million deal with Kevin O’Leary of  ABC’s Shark Tank, who invested in Zipz’s portable single-serve wines (and we hear that Shark Lori Greiner has also come in on the deal). 

But innovation is nothing new in the county. Westchester has been a hub of intellectual curiosity for centuries—and home to dozens of well-known (and not-so-well-known but equally significant) inventors and inventions. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, hundreds of patents are granted each year to Westchester-based inventors and corporations. In fact, between 2000 and 2013, nearly 11,500 utility patents were granted in the county. 

Here, we take a look back at some of Westchester’s most notable inventors and their creations.

 

Going Up?

In 1853, Yonkers resident Elisha Graves Otis invented a unique elevator safety device, effectively enabling the development of the modern vertical city.

The next time you find yourself in one of those super-fast elevators common to Manhattan skyscrapers, consider paying a silent tribute to Elisha Graves Otis for making sure your safety is all but guaranteed.

Otis, who was born in Vermont and moved to Yonkers in 1852, didn’t actually invent the elevator, but his invention—a device that prevented elevators from free-falling in the event of a cable snap—was certainly essential to the elevator’s safe operation, which is why he is often credited with inventing the “safety elevator.”

Without Otis’ invention, the elevator would not exist. His spring-and-ratchet contraption helped ensure safe rides, making free-falling elevators a rarity. 

Otis hit upon the idea when his employer, Maize & Burns, needed a hoisting device to safely lift equipment and machinery to the upper floors of buildings. After months of tinkering, Otis settled on a design that involved a steel wagon spring that meshed with a ratcheting device. The concept was simple: If the elevator cable snapped or came loose, the spring-and-ratchet contraption would hold the elevator, and its occupants, in place.

In 1854, Otis promoted his innovative device at the World’s Fair at the Crystal Palace in New York City, where he had an elevator hoisted high above the crowd, then called for the  hoisting rope to be cut. The elevator held firmly in place, much to the amazement of the large crowd (see illustration on previous page).

Otis’ device paved the way for generations of skyscrapers to be built and, without his invention, “it would have been a two- or a three-story world,” Robert S. Caporale, editor of Elevator World magazine told the New York Times recently.

Otis died during the diphtheria epidemic of 1861, leaving the elevator business to his two sons, who eventually transformed it into a multimillion-dollar empire.

Today, Otis Elevator Company employs approximately 61,000 people worldwide and has roughly 2.5 million Otis elevators and escalators in operation. 

 

 


The iconic 64-assortment box of Crayolas—with built-in sharpener!—debuted in 1958 and was coveted by kids for generations.


Colors of Childhood

Shrub Oak native Edwin Binney and his cousin C. Harold Smith invented Crayola crayons.

Edwin Binney was born in Shrub Oak in 1866. After graduating high school, he handled operations for his father’s business, The Peekskill Chemical Works.

In 1885, Binney and his cousin C. Harold Smith formed a partnership, calling their company Binney & Smith. Early products included red oxide pigment used in barn paint and carbon black used to color automobile tires. Binney also invented the first dustless white chalk.

At the turn of the century, Binney & Smith began producing slate school pencils at its factory in Easton, Pennsylvania. The company’s line of black colorants were entered into the chemistry industries competition at the 1900 Paris Exposition and earned a gold medal award in chemical and pharmaceutical arts. 

The company produced the first box of eight Crayola crayons in 1903. The Crayola name, coined by Binney’s wife, Alice, came from “craie,” French for chalk, and “ola,” from “oleaginous,” or oily. 

Today, Pennsylvania-based Crayola LLC produces about 120 Crayola crayon colors.

 

 

Ice Cream King

How a flat tire in Hartsdale led to a multimillion-dollar soft-serve ice cream empire.

Tom Carvel—born Athanassios Karvelas (or Thomas A. Carvelas, depending on the source) in Greece in 1906—was a test driver for Studebaker cars when he invented a machine to dispense soft ice cream (which was also known as “frozen custard”) in the 1930s. The machine would be the first of some 300 ice-cream related patents, trademarks, and copyrights held by Carvel, who is also considered to be one of the founding fathers of the franchise system in the US.

As Carvel, who had begun selling ice cream from a vending truck in 1929, told the story, his truck broke down in Hartsdale on Memorial Day Weekend, 1934, and he pulled into the parking lot of a pottery store, where he sold his entire supply of melting ice cream from the truck. That year, he patented a “no air pump” ice cream machine, developed a secret soft-serve recipe, and concocted the “buy one, get one” promotional tactic. In 1936, Carvel incorporated his business and bought the Hartsdale pottery store, which became the first Carvel location. 

Even as the company grew, Carvel kept its Westchester base, operating his main office in a converted Yonkers motel. The office had served as Carvel’s headquarters since the late 1960s. Carvel, who credited his strong work ethic to his father, sold his company in 1989 for $80 million. He died the following year at the age of 84. To the dismay of many Westchesterites, the iconic original store closed for good in October, 2008.

 

 

To Have and to Hold

Had it not been for a New Rochelle socialite, Victoria’s Secret’s “angels” might be strutting the catwalk in boned corsets. 

The Victorian and fin de siecle torture devices known as corsets kept women hourglass-shaped and uncomfortable—not to mention unhealthy—with the help of nasty things like whale bones and steel rods wrapped in mercilessly stiff corset covers. By the turn of the 20th century, women longed to abandon the “beauty must suffer” mentality of the times in favor of comfort and a more natural beauty, and, by 1910, New Rochelle native and socialite Mary Phelps Jacob, who was nicknamed Polly, had had enough and decided to do something about it. One evening, as she was dressing, she noticed that the whale bone was sticking out of her corset and showing through the sheer fabric of her gown, cramping her style—and her body. She asked her maid for a couple of silk handkerchiefs and some ribbon and crafted an undergarment that was not only comfortable, it also separated her pendulous breasts and gave her the silhouette of a woman—instead of the body of a cello. In 1914, Jacob received a patent for her invention, known as a “backless brassiere,” and began marketing and selling it under her somewhat coy new moniker, Caresse Crosby. Unlike the stiff armor women were used to wearing, Crosby’s brassiere was relatively lightweight, soft, and feminine. It was the first brassiere—later shortened to “bra”—to gain widespread acceptance, though it didn’t become really popular until the United States entered World War I in 1917 and women were asked to stop buying corsets in order to help conserve metal. 

Crosby founded the Fashion Form Brassiere Company and manufactured the brassieres in Boston, but her business never really took off. So she sold her patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500. In three decades, the company made more than $15 million selling her invention. If only she could see the ubiquitous bra today.

 

 

A New Take on Steak

James Henry Salisbury, a 19th-century American physician who lived in Dobbs Ferry, is credited with inventing the Salisbury steak as part of a diet program for his patients.

It may not be pretty or glamorous, but that neighborhood-diner staple, the Salisbury steak, is not only delicious in a comfy old-shoe kind of way—it’s ubiquitous. So the next time you mix your mashed potatoes with a forkful of that brown-gravy-covered, steak-shaped ground beef, you can silently thank (or not) Dr. John Salisbury.

Salisbury was born in Cortland County and attended Rensselaer Institute and Albany Medical College. After a brief time in Cleveland, he moved to New York, where he became known as a specialist in chronic diseases. He was also an author, publishing several definitive papers on plant anatomy and anatomical chemistry.

Salisbury, who was an early advocate of a low-carbohydrate diet, invented his eponymous steak in 1897 as part of a health plan for his patients. In the ’60s and ’70s, the Salisbury steak became synonymous with frozen food and TV dinners, making it an easy weekday meal for moms—and the bane of Boomer schoolchildren and the culinary elite.

“I’ve never seen Salisbury steak on a restaurant menu. It’s only in frozen dinners. Is there something we should know about that? What is Salisbury steak anyway? And where do they hunt or harvest the salisburies?” Kelli Jae Baeli wrote in her book of humor essays Bettered by a Dead Crustacean. Funny—but not entirely accurate. Is there anybody who hasn’t at least secretly enjoyed a Salisbury-steak dinner on a cold winter evening? We’ve become a foodie culture, but even Joe Bastianich must have had Salisbury steak—at least once. 

 

 

He Made Plastic Beautiful

Bakelite, one of the first completely synthetic plastics, was invented in Yonkers in 1907 by Leo Baekeland.

Bakelite, a polymeric plastic invented by Leo Baekeland, was the material largely responsible for ushering in the “Polymer Age” or the “Age of Plastics.”

After completing his doctorate at the University of Ghent in his native Belgium, Baekeland traveled to New York City to continue his studies in chemistry. Following a fellowship at Columbia University and a brief stint as a chemist at a New York photographic supply firm, Baekeland invented Velox, an innovative photographic paper that could be developed in gaslight rather than sunlight. Baekeland sold the invention in 1899 to the Eastman Kodak Company for a reputed $750,000, according to the Chemical Heritage Foundation.  

With a portion of the money from that sale, Baekeland purchased a home in Yonkers known as Snug Rock, where he also set up a new laboratory. 

Baekeland, who also cofounded the Nepera Chemical Company in Yonkers, invented Bakelite in 1907, after searching for a suitable alternative to organic resins and compounds. The new material, which was a hard moldable plastic that was non-flammable, quickly found commercial success in the rapidly expanding automobile and radio industries.

But Bakelite had more aesthetic uses, too. From the time of its invention until the late 1940s, and especially during the Roaring ’20s, Bakelite jewelry was extremely popular. 

In 1939, following years of commercial success, Baekeland retired to sail his yacht, the Ion, and sold his company to the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation, now a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company. He died in 1944 in Beacon,
New York.

Though Bakelite fell out of favor in the mid-20th century, it has experienced renewed popularity among collectors in the past couple of decades, and vintage pieces as well as reproductions are hot sellers on eBay—and, of course, at the occasional thrift shop or tag sale. Notable items that are often made of Bakelite include checkers, chess pieces, and billiard balls.

 

 

Torpedo Junction 

Scarsdale resident Frank McDowell Leavitt developed one of the most effective—and lethal—torpedoes ever produced.

Frank McDowell Leavitt was a well-known inventor and engineer, who, early in his career, developed and patented an innovative process to make tin cans. But Leavitt is perhaps best known as the inventor of a particularly lethal type of torpedo, dubbed the Bliss-Leavitt Torpedo.

In 1904, Leavitt developed a steam-turbine-powered torpedo and had it manufactured by his employer, E.W. Bliss and Co., in Brooklyn. The new design was an immediate success and hundreds of Bliss-Leavitt torpedoes were purchased by the US government at a cost of roughly $4,000 to $6,000 each.

In 1905, the New York Times described Bliss-Leavitt torpedoes as a “deadly step” in the evolution of modern warfare. “It is said that the turbine torpedo will travel nearly twice as far as the Whitehead (torpedo) and at least eight knots faster…The torpedo itself is a marvel of mechanical skill. It weighs 1,229.5 pounds and is a cigar-shaped shell, the component parts being adjusted with such nicety that scarcely a joint is visible,” the Times wrote.

After spending many years at E.W. Bliss, where he served as chief engineer, Leavitt retired just before the start of World War I. He died at his home in Scarsdale on August 6, 1928.

 

 

A Brilliant Memory

A dynamic and indispensable invention was created in Yorktown Heights.

Very few inventions remain largely unchanged for decades while still retaining wide-scale popularity. However, Robert H. Dennard, an electrical engineer, patented a unique memory storage device in 1968 that is still in use today.

Unless you’re a computer geek or a tech wiz, you probably don’t recognize his name. But the significance of Robert H. Dennard’s invention is monumental. 

After earning a PhD from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Dennard joined IBM’s Research Division in 1958, where he initially focused on circuits for logic and memory applications. In 1963, he relocated to the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights. In 1967, while working on microelectronic research, Dennard invented a game-changing computer memory cell called Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM), for which he received a patent in 1968. DRAM is still in use today on most modern computing systems, and, while incredibly complex in design, it was lauded for its structural simplicity, which allowed processors to access any part of a computer’s memory directly rather than having to initiate a search from the beginning of a data set.

For his work on DRAM and other inventions, Dennard received several notable awards, including The Harvey Prize (1990), The IEEE Edison Medal (2001), The IEEE Medal of Honor (2009), and the prestigious Kyoto Prize (2013).

 

 

Rolling Along 

World War II veteran Bernard Sadow invented rolling luggage in 1970 and made the drudgery of traveling through airports a little less awful.

Chappaqua resident Bernard Sadow had the one quality that all great inventors possess: curiosity. He didn’t invent things with hopes of becoming rich or famous, but did so for the
simple pleasure of discovery and creation, according to his son Brian D. Sadow, who resides in Hastings-on-Hudson.

“I think, like any inventor, my dad saw things differently,” says Brian. “He was an explorer of ideas.” Following a family vacation to Aruba in 1970, Bernard came up with an idea for putting wheels on luggage. At the time, he was head of sales at the New York office of US Luggage Company, selling various forms of luggage to customers all across the United States.

“They kept telling him that nobody would want luggage on wheels, and, basically he never understood the word ‘no,’” Brian says.

Brian recalls that early versions of his dad’s invention consisted of parts Bernard had found around the house. “I had this little electric car. I remember him mounting the luggage on that.” 

Later prototypes used casters but they were noisier than rubber wheels. After a bit of retooling and endless experiments around the house, Bernard settled on a set of design specifications, filing patent No. 3,653,474, “Rolling Luggage.”

In the years that followed, Bernard’s invention was superseded by Rollaboard, which utilized a long handle that could tilt the attached luggage at an angle.

“My dad did this stuff because he loved it,” Brian says. “He came up with hundreds of ideas in his career.” According to Brian, his father was driven by curiosity.

Bernard died in 2011 after a brief illness. He was 85. 

 

 

Cool Concoction

Among Westchester’s most respected gastronomes, both past and present, Louis Felix Diat is considered by most to be at the top of the list.

Louis Diat, who resided in both Hartsdale and New Rochelle, was the chef at New York’s famed Ritz-Carlton Hotel and is credited with creating the legendary vichyssoise, a cold, slightly tart, soup made from puréed leeks, onions, potatoes, cream, and chicken stock. Diat named his soup, which he invented in 1917, after Vichy, a town in central France known for the healing powers of its mineral springs. What he originally named “crème vichyssoise glacée” later came to be known as simply “vichyssoise.” 

Diat created the chilled soup as a cool palate refresher for diners at the hotel’s exclusive roof garden restaurant, which was open during the warmer months. Upon his death in 1957, the New York Times published
Diat’s famous recipe for his delicious culinary creation:

Vichyssoise

• Finely slice the white part of the leeks and the onion and brown very slightly in the sweet butter, then add the potatoes, also sliced finely. 
• Add water or broth and salt. Boil from 35 to 40 minutes. Crush and rub through a fine strainer. Return to fire and a add two cups of milk and 2 cups of medium cream. Season to taste and bring to a boil. 
• Cool and then rub through a very fine strainer. When soup is cold, add the heavy cream. 
• Chill thoroughly before serving. Finely chopped chives may be added when serving.”

 

 

The Father of FM

Yonkers resident Edwin H. Armstrong invented FM radio in the early 1930s, bringing static-free transmissions to generations of radio listeners. 

Did you know the first public broadcast of FM (Frequency Modulation) radio happened right here in Westchester? It was 1935 and inventor Edwin H. Armstrong, who’d moved to Yonkers with his family when he was 12, had just completed work on a broadcast tower at the Yonkers home of C.R. (Randy) Runyon. 

Two years before the inaugural transmission, Armstrong had secured four US patents, which were to be the basis for frequency modulation. The new system essentially varied the number of waves per second over a wide band of frequencies, creating a virtually static-free transmission.

However, FM was not an immediate commercial success, largely because the system required radio stations to install expensive broadcast equipment. After an agreement with RCA failed, Armstrong built his own station in Alpine, New Jersey. The site was one of the best points for broadcasting radio signals in the region, featuring unobstructed space for the broadcast of the station’s signal.

Eventually, Armstrong saw widespread adoption of FM radio after World War II, as more and more stations across the country installed the necessary equipment  to receive the FM signal.

In his later years, Armstrong became embroiled in various patent disputes, as larger corporations attempted to use Armstrong’s ideas without offering compensation. Tragically, in 1954, Armstrong took his own life, plunging from the 13th floor of his Manhattan apartment building.

Armstrong’s Yonkers home was designated a National Historic Landmark and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places before being demolished in 1983 after a fire.

 

 

A Streetcar for the City

John G. Stephenson of New Rochelle invented the original streetcar in 1832.

Though relatively few cities (Philadelphia, San Francisco) today use streetcars or trolleys for mass transportation, there was a time when nearly every major city in the world had a complex network of railcars shuttling city dwellers to points near and far.

John G. Stephenson, who owned a lavish summer home in New Rochelle, is credited with the invention of the original street car and was largely responsible for its manufacture and eventual popularity.

Stephenson was born in Ireland in 1809. As a young boy, he immigrated to the United States with his parents and eventually found work in New York City with the famed coachmaker Andrew Wade. Stephenson would later open The John Stephenson Company, a coachbuilding shop in Manhattan where he built a unique public-transportation vehicle called the omnibus.

In 1832, Stephenson developed designs for the first street railcar after officials from the New York and Harlem Railroad (which he also designed) placed a sizeable order for railcars capable of operating on city streets. 

Streetcars grew in popularity over the next three decades. In 1843, with demand for his product skyrocketing, he built a four-story manufacturing facility on Manhattan’s West 27th Street. It is estimated that between 1876 and 1891, the period considered to be golden age of streetcars, The John Stephenson Company produced more than 25,000 streetcars.

Stephenson died at his home in New Rochelle in 1893.

 

 

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