New Jersey has always been a land of inventors. Some of those inventions have changed the world, and others have been forgotten, but local author Linda J. Barth seems to know about them all.
Barth, a retired fourth-grade teacher, has written numerous books and given frequent lectures about topics related to local history. Her latest book, “New Jersey Originals: Technological Marvels, Odd Inventions, Trailblazing Characters and More,” published by History Press in 2018, picks up where her previous book, “A History of Inventing New Jersey” left off.
Barth will discuss her new book in a free talk at the Princeton Public Library on Tuesday, May 28, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.princetonlibrary.org.
The book includes several inventions from the Princeton area:
What makes New Jersey so special? In addition to culture, wonderful suburban towns, a high standard of living, strong public schools, a mild climate, mountains, and beaches, we must add one more: innovation.
In addition to the creations of Bell Labs and Thomas Edison, New Jersey has innovators and inventors galore.
Before, during, and after World War II, the soldiers and civilians at Fort Monmouth and Camp Evans produced many innovations — including radar and night vision goggles — that helped the United States win the war. Cook College at Rutgers has produced important, often disease-resistant, vegetables and flowers. Among the edible inventions are pork roll, M&M’s, and the famous Campbell’s green bean casserole. Quirky firsts include Lucy the Elephant and the Francis life car. And just for fun, I’ve added some famous and not-so-famous New Jerseyans.
A few excerpts from the book follow:
Princeton Plasma Physics Lab — Dr. Lyman Spitzer (1914-1997). Dr. Lyman Spitzer, director of the observatory at Princeton University, conceived of a project that could generate fusion power. This is the process by which stars generate energy. Eventually this work led to the creation of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL), one of the most prominent research laboratories in the world.
Previously he had conceived of a space-based telescope that could allow astronomers to see farther and more clearly into the universe. The result of this work was the Hubble telescope, launched in 1990. In 2003 NASA launched another space telescope named in honor of Spitzer. This was the first telescope to see light reflected by a planet outside of our solar system.
Edison’s concrete homes: One of the great inventor’s lesser known creations is the concrete house, a building made from cast-iron molds. It took six hours to pour the concrete and six days for it to set. Several of these homes, dating from the 1930s, dot the Valley View neighborhood of Phillipsburg. Others can be found in Union and Montclair.
An article in the June, 1965, issue of “Concrete Construction” magazine described the Edison method of building a concrete home:
“Basic to the plans were Edison’s ingeniously conceived cast-iron molds, which when assembled would produce, in a single operation, walls, floors, stairways, roof, bath and laundry tubs, and conduits for electric and water service. As many as 500 different sectional molds were required for a single unit. Moreover, because of the intricate tracery being attempted, each mold had to be faced with nickel or brass. The cost per set of molds soared to $25,000. Nevertheless, since each set of molds could be re-used indefinitely, Edison estimated the cost per house unit at $1,200, including plumbing, heating, and lighting fixtures.”
The molds could be used in different combinations so that all of the homes would not look the same. A distinct advantage is that these homes are warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, due in part to the six-inch-thick walls.
While Edison was not in the business of building concrete houses, developers could buy his molds. But as Leonard DeGraaf, archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, points out, “Edison told The New York Times that the cost for getting the molds and the equipment a builder needed was approximately $30,000 which, in 1907, is a lot of money. So, the system wouldn’t be cost-effective unless a developer was building a lot of houses.”
Elwin Orton — Disease-resistant dogwood trees: Among those Rutgers professors inducted into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame is Elwin Orton of Millstone, New Jersey.
He has been credited with saving the U.S. dogwood industry by developing new strains of hardy, disease-resistant hybrid dogwoods. At this time diseases and insects threatened the native species of the flowering tree.
Professor Orton has earned over 15 patents for new strains of dogwoods and holly. Rutgers estimates that the retail value of his creations is greater than $200 million and licensing royalty proceeds to Rutgers exceed $1.9 million.
Orton has received an award from the American Horticultural Society and the Distinguished Service Medal from the Garden Club of America. He was inducted into the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association’s Hall of Fame and received the Norman J. Coleman Award of the American Association of Nurserymen. Most recently, the Eastern Region of the International Plant Propagator’s Association initiated a new Research Fund in his honor.
To what does Professor Orton attribute his success in this field? “Good note-taking skills and patience,” he said. “Sometimes it can take five, ten, or twenty years to see the characteristics of hybrids.”
Abram Spanel (1901-1985) —Apollo space suit: The Drumthwacket estate in Princeton, now the official residence of New Jersey’s governors, was begun in 1835 by Charles Smith Olden. He gave his home the Scots-Gaelic name Drumthwacket, which translates to “wooded hill.” Upon his death, Olden left his lands and Drumthwacket to his wife, Phebe Ann Smith.
In 1893 Moses Taylor Pyne (1855-1921) purchased Drumthwacket and began transforming it into a 183-acre estate. In 1921 Moses Taylor Pyne died and bequeathed Drumthwacket to his only grandchild, Agnes.
Abram Nathanial Spanel bought Drumthwacket in 1941. An ingenious inventor, Spanel founded the International Latex Corporation in 1932. It later became the International Playtex Corporation. During World War II Spanel’s company made latex products such as attack boats, life rafts, and canteens for the military.
During the war and beyond, Mr. Spanel’s engineering staff lived at Drumthwacket, conceiving many of his inventions in what today is the Music Room. At his death Spanel held more than 2,000 patents, including a pneumatic stretcher designed to carry wounded military personnel in the water. He also invented a home hair-cutting device.
In 1965 Abram Spanel’s company won a NASA-sponsored competition to develop the Apollo spacesuit. In an address to ILC employees, Spanel remarked, “It is the greatest privilege of my life to present to you the role that your company played in that colossal of all human achievements in placing two American astronauts on the surface of the moon for the glory of civilization and humanity.”
Custom-made by ILC employees as a training suit for Astronaut Paul Weitz who flew aboard the Skylab II mission in 1973, the suit is identical to all of the suits that were used on the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 lunar missions.