This Day in History (29-Feb-1904) – Theodore Roosevelt, appoints 7-man Panama Canal Commission to proceed with completing a canal at the Isthmus

The dream of digging a water passage across the Isthmus of Panama uniting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans dates to the early 16th century. The Isthmus of Panama, was characterized by mountains, impenetrable jungle, deep swamp, torrential rains, hot sun, debilitating humidity, pestilence and some of the most geologically complex land formations in the world. Both malaria and yellow fever were endemic to the Isthmus. When the Americans took over construction work from French teams in 1904, Medical researchers had found that mosquitoes cause malaria and yellow fever. Necessary prevetion measures and medical aids were provided to combat these diseases. Providing food for more than 40,000 employees and their families in a country with little food production capability and few stores was a tremendous. When the work was completed, 5609 lives were lost from disease and accidents during the American construction era in addition to around 20,000 during French construction era.

The first complete Panama Canal passage by a self-propelled, oceangoing vessel took place on January 7, 1914.  It cut the ship journey of around 8000 miles. On average, it takes a ship 8 to 10 hours to pass through the canal. While moving through it, a system of locks raises each ship 85 feet above sea level. Ship captains aren’t allowed to transit the canal on their own; instead, a specially trained canal pilot takes navigational control of each vessel to guide it through the waterway. In 2010, the 1 millionth vessel crossed the canal. Today, some $1.8 billion in tolls are collected annually.

David McCullough in his book “The Path Between the Seas,” wrote:  “The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of over four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice.  The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished.  Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together.  It is a work of civilization.”



This Day in History (3-Feb-1815) – World’s 1st commercial cheese factory established, in Switzerland

On this day in 1815, the world’s first commercial cheese factory began operating in Switzerland, ushering in the mass industrialisation of one our most popular and ancient foods. With the introduction of industrial production, types of cheeses, like so many other foods over the past two centuries, were standardised and rolled out on a global scale—the intricacies of local characteristics often left behind.

Cheese is mentioned in ancient Greek mythology and evidence of cheese making has been found on Egyptian tomb murals dating back over 4000 years. It is interesting to note though, that many of the popular cheeses we eat today (such as Cheddar, Parmesan and Gouda) are relatively new to the cheese story, having only appeared in the last 500 years or so. One legend has it that a merchant crossing the Arabian desert poured milk into a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach. The combination of the strong sun and the rennin from the stomach lining caused the milk to congeal, and as the merchant journeyed the milk separated into curds and whey. That evening, or so the story goes, the hungry merchant was the first human to eat cheese (i.e. the curd).

Cheese is produced from a variety of animals, most commonly cows, ewes and goats, but also water buffalo, yaks, horses and llamas. Beyond the source of the milk, the taste of cheese is altered by a variety of variables, including the treatment and temperature of the milk, along with added ingredients. Over the centuries, especially in the cool climate of Europe, certain regions became well known for their singular tasting cheeses.

Popular European cheeses today—like French Brie, Dutch Gouda, English Cheddar and Italian Parmesan—all originate in the mid to late middle ages, and many, like Parmesan, remain very close to their original form. However, with industrial processing, some of these cheeses were stripped of their defining local traits and delivered to the mass market. As a result, cheeses were standardised and thus introduced to a number of regions in Asia, Africa, and South America where cheese had not been seen before, or were at least not part of the normal diet.


This Day in History (4-Jan-1847) – Arms Manufacturer Samuel Colt Sells Revolvers to the Texas Rangers

When he was just 15 years old, Samuel Colt decided he needed more adventure than his father’s textile mill offered him. So he signed on a ship as a sailor and went to sea. According to legend, it was while at sea that Samuel Colt developed his idea for a pistol with a revolving cylinder, while watching the ship’s wheel and ship’s capstan. After obtaining revolver patents in Europe and US, he established a factory to manufacture firearms in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1836. But his revolving cartridge firearm was slow to gain acceptance, and the business, Patent Arms Manufacturing, closed down in 1842.

In 1847 Colt rekindled his firearms business when the U.S. Army contacted him to purchase a sizable quantity of his revolvers. His patented revolvers, capable of firing multiple shots in quick succession without reloading, provided a crucial firepower advantage to settlers and soldiers who were expanding the United States westward in the 19th century.  Colt was able to fulfill the government’s request and it was the boost he needed to focus on firearms again.

He opened a facility in England. In 1855, he completed construction of his new Hartford manufacturing plant along the Connecticut River, which was the largest private arms manufacturing facility in the world. Here he implemented new ideas in manufacturing, including the use of interchangeable parts, production lines, and advanced precision machinery. Colt was a masterful marketer and self-promoter who relied on more than just advertisements. He personally commissioned artist George Catlin, famous for his depictions of Native Americans and life in the West, to incorporate Colt revolvers into a dozen paintings, six of which were reproduced as mass-market lithographic prints.  Colt also hired authors to pen stories about his revolvers for magazine features and traveled the world to present heads of state with lavishly engraved, gilded pistols. After Colt presented an Ottoman sultan with a gold revolver, the Turks ordered 5,000 of his pistols.  Colt firearms were known for their high quality and dependability. They were widely used in the Civil War, and the Colt .45 calibre Peacemaker model became synonymous with America’s West.


This Day in History (22-Dec-1900) – First “Mercedes” is delivered to its buyer

Gottlieb Daimler was the first man to harness with any true degree of success a combustion engine into a road vehicle. Daimler’s first four-wheeler, a Victoria-type motor driven carriage, was built in 1886. By 1890 demands for Daimler’s engine made expansion necessary and a corporation was formed, the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, or Daimler Motor Company as it was known in English.

The first recorded auto race, sponsored by the Petit-Journal of Paris in 1894 and conducted over a Paris to Rouen course, attracted forty-six entries and was looked forward to as a test of the steamer and electric versus the gas burners. The first three winning cars were powered by Daimler-built engines. A wealthy banker-sportsman Emil Jellinek of Vienna was much impressed by the success of the Daimler motor in racing competition. He purchased controlling stock interest in Daimler in the early 1890’s and put nearly unlimited funds at the disposal of Gottlieb Daimler’s two sons, Paul and Adolph. It was Jellinek who encouraged Daimler in his idea to create what was to be the most powerful car of its day, a 35 h.p. Monster.

In 1900 the 4-cylinder Daimler was completed and the car was christened in honor of Emil Jellinek’s beautiful daughter, Mercedes. The new car was an immediate sensation. From its flaring front fenders, rakish rearward sloping steering column to the T-head type cylinder construction and twin carburetors, the Mercedes was a beauty and did justice to its namesake.

Jellinek was so obsessed with his interest in high-speed automobiles that for nearly’ five years he held exclusive rights to the bulk of the Mercedes production and carefully limited the sale of the cars to individuals of known influence. Jellinek’s own international reputation as a sportsman and his careful selection of purchasers of the limited number of Mercedes available placed the cars with an upper-bracket clientele which, nearly as much as the car’s own intrinsic superior engineering and design, gave the Mercedes it’s reputation as a quality and high performance product.


This Day in History (27-Nov-1895) – Inventor Alfred Nobel signs his last will and testament, establishing a Nobel Prize after he dies

Alfred Nobel, who was interested in explosives since childhood, built a factory to manufacture nitroglycerin, a very unsafe explosive, and continued the research on safe detonation. In 1863, he invented a practical detonator. In 1865, Nobel invented an improved detonator called a blasting cap, triggering the modern use of high explosives. Nobel’s nitroglycerin factory blew up in 1864, killing his younger brother Emil. Undaunted by this tragic accident, Nobel built several factories to manufacture nitroglycerin for use in concert with his blasting caps. Nobel’s second important invention was that of dynamite (from Greek dynamis, “power”) in 1867 and was granted patents for it. Dynamite established Nobel’s fame worldwide and was soon put to use in blasting tunnels, cutting canals, and building railways and roads.

In 1875 he invented a more powerful form of dynamite, blasting gelatin, which he patented the following year. In 1887 Nobel introduced ballistite, one of the first nitroglycerin smokeless powders and a precursor of cordite. In 1893 he became interested in Sweden’s arms industry, and the following year he bought an ironworks at Bofors, near Varmland, that became the nucleus of the well-known Bofors arms factory. He registered more than 350 patents in various countries.

Nobel died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his villa in San Remo, Italy, in 1896. The opening of his will, which he had drawn up in Paris on November 27, 1895, and had deposited in a bank in Stockholm, contained a great surprise for his family, friends, and the general public. He left the bulk of his fortune in trust to establish what came to be the most highly regarded of international awards, the Nobel Prizes. Incidence in 1888 may have triggered the train of reflection that culminated in his bequest for the Nobel Prizes. That year Alfred’s brother Ludvig had died in France. The French newspapers reported Ludvig’s death but confused him with Alfred, and one paper sported the headline “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead.”) Perhaps Alfred Nobel established the prizes to avoid precisely the sort of posthumous reputation suggested by this premature obituary. It is certain that the actual awards he instituted reflect his lifelong interest in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology, and literature.


This Day in History (30-Oct-1888) – John J Loud patents ballpoint pen

This principle of the ballpoint pen dates back to an 1888 patent owned by John J. Loud for a product to mark leather. However, this patent was commercially unexploited. A Hungarian journalist named Laszlo Biro noticed that the type of ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. He decided to create a pen using the same type of ink. The thicker ink would not flow from a regular pen nib and Biro had to devise a new type of point. He did so by fitting his pen with a tiny ball bearing in its tip. As the pen moved along the paper, the ball rotated picking up ink from the ink cartridge and leaving it on the paper.

Laszlo Biro first patented his pen in 1938, and applied for a fresh patent in Argentina in 1943. The British Government bought the licensing rights to this patent for the war effort. The British Royal Air Force needed a new type of pen, one that would not leak at higher altitudes in fighter planes as the fountain pen did. Their successful performance for the Air Force brought the Biro pens into the limelight, forming Eterpen Company in Argentina.

Eversharp Co. teamed up with Eberhard-Faber in June 1945, to acquire the exclusive rights to Biro Pens of Argentina. The pen re-branded the “Eversharp CA” which stood for Capillary Action. Less than a month after Eversharp/Eberhard close the deal with Eterpen, Chicago businessman, Milton Reynolds visited Buenos Aires. While in a store, he saw the Biro pen and recognized the pen’s sales potential. He bought a few pens as samples. Reynolds returned to America and started the Reynolds International Pen Company, ignoring Eversharp’s patent rights. He copied the product in four months and sold his product Reynold’s Rocket at Gimbel’s department store in New York City, starting 29th October 1945. Priced at $12.50, $100,000 worth sold the first day on the market.

However, the Reynolds’ pen leaked, skipped and often failed to write. Eversharp’s pen did not live up to its own advertisements. The ballpoint pen fad ended by 1951. Parker Pens introduced its first ballpoint pen, the Jotter, in 1954, which wrote five times longer. It had a variety of point sizes, a rotating cartridge and large-capacity ink refills. Best of all, it worked, re-initiating ballpen era.



This Day in History (9-Oct-1855) – Isaac Singer patents sewing machine motor

At 12, Isaac Singer left home with minimal education and started as an unskilled laborer. But his interest in acting soon spurred him to abandon the job and form a traveling theater troupe instead. After nine years on tour, Singer went broke and the group was forced to disband. After Singer’s acting endeavor fell apart, he resumed work as apprentice mechanic. In 1839, he established himself as an inventor when, while working in Illinois, he patented a rock-drilling machine for the government. A decade later, he invented a wood-and-metal-carving machine and then opened his own factory in which to manufacture his product. Unfortunately, the factory was destroyed in an explosion.

By 1850, Singer was working at a machine shop as a sewing machine repairman. When his boss asked him to fix a Lerow and Blodgett sewing machine, Singer put his inventor’s hat on and went so far as to design and construct a superior model—in a mere matter of days. Singer’s sewing machine, which used a suspended arm and encased the needle within a horizontal bar, was the first that could sew continuously on any part of an object—as well as in curves. His design also included a presser foot, enabling an unprecedented speed of 900 stitches per minute. Since the Singer sewing machine implemented some of the basic principles of inventor Elias Howe’s sewing machine, when Singer applied for a patent, Howe sued him for patent infringement, and won.

The suit didn’t bar Singer from producing his machine. In 1857, he struck up a partnership with Edward Clark, and I.M. Singer & Company was born. Using a mass-production facility in New York, they were able to make movable parts for their sewing machine, enabling them to cut production costs and sell the machine to average housewives nationwide for an affordable $10. By 1860 the company achieved the distinction of becoming the biggest sewing machine manufacturer worldwide. Singer and Clark incorporated in 1863, under the name Singer Manufacturing Company. By that time the company had secured an additional 22 patents. Nearly a century later, in 1963, the corporation was renamed Singer Company.