A Brief History
On May 13, 1958, George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer trademarked Velcro, and the company called Velcro is based in the Netherlands. Did you think Velcro was American invented and made? Many products or inventions that “seem” as is they should be American are not necessarily so. Here is a list of 10 such items. What additions to this list would you make?
10. Baseball and Football, circa 1344, 1400.
Baseball is really a variant of Cricket, and forms of it have been played since 14th Century France. Football is a form of Rugby, which started around the beginning of the 15th Century in England. Of course, Basketball and Snowboarding are as American as apple pie, oh, wait on that one until number 3!
9. Firearms, 1200.
The exact date firearms were first used is unknown, but it is well before Columbus came to the Americas. The Chinese are said to have invented gunpowder and logic would lead you to believe they probably had the first firearms. Of course, gunpowder may have been invented independent of the Chinese by experimenters in Europe and the Middle East and guns followed soon after. Although the US is perceived to be a “gun culture” with an enormous private ownership of guns, many of the finest firearms have been made and still are being made outside of the US. Our military rifles are mostly made by Fabrique Nationale (Belgium) and our military pistol is the Italian designed Beretta 92 (M9). The main infantry machine gun used by the US is now made by FN, and police departments around the country largely use pistols by Glock or Beretta. The first American military rifle in the smokeless powder age was the Krag-Jorgensen, a Norwegian design, and the famous ‘03 Springfield (M-1903) was a copy of the M-98 Mauser.
8. Chocolate, 1900 BC.
The image of American soldiers giving children chocolate bars in war zones might make you think the good old Hershey Bar is an American invention, and of course, Hershey is an American company, but chocolate is not an American invention. In beverage form, chocolate was used by Central and South American Indians (Meso-Americans) for many centuries and the milk chocolate we know of today was an invention of Swiss chocolatiers Peters and Nestle (1875). The modern process by which cocoa is made was invented by a Dutchman, and dark chocolate was first made (1847) by an Englishman.
7. Rockets, 1792.
Not to be confused with paper or cardboard bodied fireworks, we are talking about metal bodied rockets used for delivering a military or scientific payload. The first metal bodied rockets were made and used in India against the British, who quickly grasped the potential of such a device. The Congreve and then the Hale rockets were British inventions that were widely used in warfare. Non-Americans Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky theorized the use of much larger rockets for space travel. It is true that American Robert Goddard did important research on rocketry before World War II, while German racketeers were doing similar work, as were Russians and others. During World War II the Germans showed their preeminence in rocketry by the 1943 invention of the V-2 rocket that was used to bomb cities from 200 miles away. German scientist Werner von Braun was captured by Americans and “persuaded” to lend his talents to the US, which was instrumental in the US space program. Even then, the Russians put the first satellite in space (Sputnik) and the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin).
6. Computer, 1941.
The first digital, electromechanical programmable computer was made by German Konrad Zuse. The world’s first programmable electronic computer, the Collossus, was built by Englishman Tommy Flowers in 1943 and was used to break German codes. Even the first mechanical computer (not using electricity) was built by an Englishman, Charles Babbage in the early 1800’s. His machine used punch cards like automatic looms of the day. (Sorry IBM, you did not even invent that!)
5. Automobile, 1886.
Invented in Germany by Karl Benz (the “Benz” of Mercedes-Benz), the first vehicle with an internal combustion engine that we would recognize as a car was European idea. Of course, Americans led by Henry Ford soon eclipsed the European engineers, but there it is, the motor car is not an American invention. Even the vehicles that can be considered proto-cars powered by steam and other contraptions were first built in Europe. While at one point in the early 1920’s almost half of all cars in the world were Fords, import brands have flooded the US and the most prestigious cars come from overseas.
4. Refrigeration, 1856.
Depending on how you want to define it, refrigeration can be as simple as putting something in the shade to keep it cool, or using ice, snow, or a local cool creek to keep your stuff cool. For our purposes, we refer to the normal modern type of refrigeration used in our refrigerators and air conditioners. Englishman James Harrison living in Australia patented the first practical refrigeration system using a compressor in 18, which he turned into the first commercially produced ice making machine. Ferdinand Carre from France invented an ice maker of his own which was actually used in New Orleans during the Civil War when ice from the north was unavailable. It is fair to say Americans did have some impact on the development of refrigeration, as well as air conditioning, but the fact is, refrigeration is not an American invention.
3. Apple Pie, circa 1300.
As American as apple pie? NOT! Since the only apples native to North America are crabapples, Americans did not even have the apples for apple pie until trees could be grown from seed brought from Europe. Europeans have been making apple pie for centuries, with a recipe in England dating from 1391. Many European countries have distinct varieties of apple pie, and it is likely that early examples did not contain sugar. Somehow, in the late 19th century and early 20th century people started associating apple pie with America. (Probably better than crabapples!)
2. Ice Cream, 200 BC.
Various cultures have used fruit or fruit juice mixed with snow as a sort of frozen dessert, but the Chinese are the ones (probably) that first used milk frozen with other ingredients. Later, Arabs created something along those lines, and in Europe ice cream seems to have its roots in Italy. There is an English recipe for ice cream dating from 1718 and a 1751 English cookbook also lists a recipe. Quakers brought ice cream to America and several of our Founding Fathers are known to have enjoyed eating it. Pierre’s Real French Ice Cream has no connection to France, and Hagen Daz is just a made up name. In many countries, the term ice cream refers to any of a number of frozen desserts, such as what we call sherbet, sorbet, Italian ice, snow cones, frozen yogurt, frozen custard and others.
1. Aspirin, 1897.
Aspirin was invented by Felix Hoffman of the German company, Bayer. The main ingredient, salicylic acid, was discovered in England in 1763 by Edward Stone. Aspirin is truly the wonder drug, used for an incredible array of purposes, most commonly pain relief, fever reduction, inflammation reduction, heart attack and stroke prevention, cancer prevention, arthritis, and a host of other uses. Of course, aspirin does have side effects and people with ulcers and pre-teen children should not use it without the advice of a doctor. Cracked fact: In some countries Bayer is the only legal user of the name “aspirin” for their product, and other brands must call theirs acetyl salicylic acid (ASA).
For more information, please see…
Heimann, Jim. All American Ads of the 60’s (Midi Series). TASCHEN, 2002.