(This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1.)
Last time, we saw how many well-known brands in the American building industry got their start through innovation and invention. It’s a credential that many of today’s reverse-engineered, flash-in-the-pan competitors can’t lay claim to — something to bear in mind next time you’re tempted by a slickly advertised brand you’ve never heard of.
Ironically, many old American companies tend to downplay their long experience, perhaps for fear of seeming fuddy-duddy in today’s high-tech world. As I have no such compunctions, however, I’ll single out a few more of our most venerable brands, some of them now well past the century mark.
Way back in 1901, for example, Chicagoan Albert C. Brown opened a small shop that made plumbing fixtures and other hardware. In 1913, Brown invented a replaceable and virtually drip-free faucet cartridge, which he called the Quaturn, because a mere quarter-turn of the handle could turn the water on or off. Brown’s invention soon became the mainstay of his Chicago Faucet Co. His cartridge has been refined over the years, but amazingly, it’s still interchangeable with any Quaturn faucet manufactured since 1913.
Some American firms not only go back a long way, but also practically created their own industries. Willis Haviland Carrier, for instance, invented the basics of modern air conditioning in 1902, which helps explain why the Carrier name has been keeping people cool ever since.
Perhaps less of a household name — unless you’re in the habit of reading your door latches — is that of German immigrant Walter Reinhold Schlage. A master mechanic and inventor, Schlage’s first patent, granted in 1909, was for a door lock with a built-in button that turned the room lights on and off. The idea didn’t catch on, but around 1920, Schlage came up with the now-familiar lockset with a push-button lock centered in the doorknob. What’s more, he designed the new lock to fit in a simple round hole bored in the door, eliminating the need for expensive mortising. This so-called “cylinder lock” created a minor revolution in the building industry, since it could be installed in minutes using ordinary hand tools. These two innovations remain the basis of all interior locksets today.
A more familiar household brand traces its lineage back to 1911, when two brothers in St. Joseph, Mich., founded the Upton Machine Co. to produce electric motor-driven wringer washers. Eventually, retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. began marketing Upton-manufactured washers under their house brand of Kenmore. Today, the little company founded by the Uptons is Whirlpool Corp., the world’s largest appliance manufacturer.
More recent domestic products are just as likely to have sprung from innovation by American firms. A classic example: Around 1946, Dr. Percy Spencer, an engineer with Raytheon Corp., was surprised to find that the candy bar in his pocket had melted while he was working on a device that generated microwaves. The following year, Raytheon demonstrated the world’s first microwave oven, calling it the Radarange. In 1967, having acquired Amana Refrigeration, Raytheon introduced the first countertop Amana Radarange oven. By 1975, microwave ovens were outselling gas ranges.
Today, of course, you’d be hard pressed to find any microwave ovens — including Amana’s — that are actually made in the U.S.A. Still, it’s worth giving credit where it’s due.