As hip, tech-savvy citizens of the 21st century, we’re biased to believe that contemporary times represent the most incredible scientific and technological progress in history.
I mean, just Google it on your smartphone.
Funny thing, though. Many of the truly breakthrough inventions, the ones that laid the foundation of so much of what we take for granted in “civilized” society, weren’t created in the last couple decades. They even predated the 20th century.
You have to go back to the 1800s to compile a definitive list of the revolutionary inventions that effectively changed Western commerce and business. From among those many creations, like the cotton gin, the mechanical reaper and the wringer washer, I’d nominate three that have been particularly impactful on society and lifestyles:
The steam engine. With this invention, wooden sailing ships were rapidly replaced with giant iron-hulled behemoths, which allowed movie directors to replace scenes of cutlass-wielding pirates firing cannonballs at some hapless frigate with the iconic juxtaposition of shirtless guys shoveling coal into blazing furnaces with cutaways of elegant diners luxuriating in a first-class dining salon several decks above them.
The telephone. Life was never the same after the introduction of a device that could continually interrupt dinnertime and provide teen-agers with what turned out to be their best excuse ever to avoid chores, homework and family responsibilities.
The camera. By the late 1880s, the Kodak camera — pre-loaded with enough film for 100 pictures — effectively ended the era of staged portrait photography in which families dressed up and posed formally, ushering in a century-plus of people caught in embarrassing, compromising and unflattering poses. Thank you, George Eastman.
A Wartime Favorite
However, there are a couple other inventions that ought to be on that list — well, at least another 19th century inventor who deserves recognition.
Although rarely identified as an inventor, his name is a familiar one: Gail Borden, a native New Yorker who, as the definitive reference source Wikipedia described him, “worked as a land surveyor, newspaper publisher, and inventor.” Borden is best known as the guy who came up with canned, condensed milk, which like SPAM 80 years later, became popular as Army rations, in Borden’s case during the Civil War.
The Union Army purchased trainloads of the evaporated, sugar-sweetened milk product, allowing Borden to open up factories in the East and Midwest to manufacture the then-novel food item.
As a recent Smithsonian Magazine article noted, “For the first time, milk could be kept pure and storable without benefit of refrigeration. For the first time, too, it could be distributed over great distances.”
Borden’s firm was originally called the New York Condensed Milk Company, which confirms that the 1860s predated the advent of modern marketing. Only after his death in 1874 was the name changed to the Borden Dairy Co.
These many decades later, condensed milk is still around, although it’s about as popular as lard or molasses for everyday meal preparation.
But Borden should be lauded for more than creating canned condensed milk. During his career, he designed an amphibious vehicle, developed a type of “bone meal bread” and marketed an “I Don’t Believe It’s Butter” product made from milk and lard.
Neither of those latter two products were anywhere near as creative as what Smithsonian described as Borden’s pièce de résistance, the Meat Biscuit.
A flyer promoting his new product explained the Meat Biscuit was made by “combining a [meat] extract with flour and vegetable meal and baking it in the form of a biscuit or cracker.”
The Meat Biscuit’s descriptive flyer went on to inform potential customers that one pound of Meat Biscuit “contains the nutriment or essence of five pounds of good meat, or all of the nutriment (except the oily portion) of 500 pounds of good, fresh meat packed into a 20-gallon cask.”
Do you realize what Borden created 150 years ago? He invented a high protein, low-fat, nutrient-dense super food that would have been perfect for extreme sports enthusiasts, CrossFit participants or Paleo Diet adherents.
Had any of those activities existed back in the 1860s.
It’s too bad that Borden’s product launch was ahead of its time.
About 150 years too soon.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.