January 19, 2014
If you want to talk about mankind's greatest innovations, you have to include the list. It's not the wheel or saran wrap, but the list is ubiquitous and incredibly versatile.
Maybe you saw the list of the 20 greatest innovations Chicago gave the world that the Chicago Tribune published recently, courtesy of the newspaper's Blue Sky Innovation team and website.
It made you proud to be a Chicagoan. But who looked at that list (at blueskyinnovation.com) and didn't think maybe it could be tweaked?
Nuclear reaction topped the Blue Sky list of great Chicago innovations, followed by the skyscraper, the cellphone, open-heart surgery, balloon-frame construction, mass production of the McCormick reaper, the first gay rights group, reversing the flow of the Chicago River, the first televised presidential debate and FermiLinux code. The second 10 were the farm silo, the Ferris wheel, deep-dish pizza, consumer preference research, the mechanical dishwasher, Pullman sleeper car, the game of softball, the zipper, mail-order retail and the vacuum cleaner.
Chicago, which can credit its own rebirth after the Great Fire of 1871 to a surplus of innovation, entrepreneurship and ambition, has advanced so many world-changing concepts and products over the years that a list of 20, 30 or more would be hard-pressed to hold them all.
So, in the spirit of Chicago innovation, which is fueled by a driving desire to challenge one's self and challenge others, here's my own list of Chicago contributions.
10. Scoreboard as entertainment
White Sox owner and master showman Bill Veeck introduced the pinball-inspired "exploding" scoreboard at Comiskey Park in 1960. So prevalent have these flashy, loud billboards become that the Cubs, whose old-fashioned Wrigley Field scoreboard is beloved, say they must install massive video screens to meet the expectations of today's fans and compete financially.
A White Sox home run cued Veeck's strobe lights, electric pinwheels, a variety of sound effects and fireworks. Complete with a modest Sox-o-Gram message board and its own sound system, the original scoreboard reportedly cost $300,000, which is about $2.3 million today. When the Seattle Mariners last season installed a new scoreboard in 14-year-old Safeco Field, the 202-by-57-foot video screen came with a $15 million price tag.
9. Modern options trading
The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus is said to have bet on the future olive harvest around 300 B.C., and there have been various forms of options investment after that. Its modern form began with the 1973 launch of the Chicago Board Options Exchange.
Chicago, through the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade, had long played a significant role in the trading of commodities and the establishment of futures trading. The idea for CBOE as an independent operation began at the Board of Trade in response to regulations that kept it from running its own options business.
Options trading enables investors, anticipating changing conditions, to acquire the right but not the obligation to buy or sell some asset or financial instrument at a later date. Before CBOE, options traded over the counter and lacked standardization. CBOE was the first marketplace for trading listed options.
8. Improvisational theater
A Chicago-born woman named Viola Spolin, drawing from innovative teaching techniques she had learned here, developed what she called theater games to get young actors to connect with the inner truth of their characters and situations. Spolin's son, Paul Sills, helped launch the Compass Players, the nation's first improvisational theater troupe and forerunner of today's Second City, which used it to develop a distinctive kind of comedy.
Chicago became a hotbed for improv acting, making it a magnet for both dramatic and comedic talent. The result is a thriving theater scene that influences TV, movies and on stages around the world.
7. The A.B. Dick mimeograph machine
Thomas Edison invented the stencil duplicator, a device that enabled a person to print a number of copies of a document. Chicago's A.B. Dick is responsible for popularizing the mimeograph machine. Anyone who grew up in the pre-Xerox era has the memory of quizzes and newsletters that were run off on A.B. Dick mimeograph machines and spirit duplicators, with their specific look, feel, smell and, sometimes, residual stain.
6. Portable radios
Broadcasting became the dominant mass media of the 20th century. But helping set that stage was Chicago-area Zenith, which introduced what's considered the first modern portable radio in 1924.
Zenith would go on to introduce the first pay-TV service in 1947, invent FM stereo broadcasting, first authorized by the Federal Communications Commission in 1961, and offer the first wireless TV remote control in 1955.
5. Shopping centers
Chicago was at the forefront of the City Beautiful movement that made setting aside land for public use a priority, but another use of land Chicago and Chicagoans helped popularize became even more influential: the mall.
Others claim to be the nation's first planned suburban shopping center, but the National Register of Historic Places has deemed it to be Lake Forest's Market Square, which opened in 1916.
An early version of what would become the typical indoor mall, Lake View Store, opened that same year in the U.S. Steel company town of Morgan Park, Minn. The mall was designed by the Chicago architectural firm Dean & Dean.
Funded in part by a $1,000 loan from his mother, Hugh Hefner launched Playboy magazine in Chicago in 1953. The men's magazine caught the front edge of the sexual revolution, bringing nudity and other adult content into mainstream pop culture. The magazine, in the tradition of predecessors such as Esquire, also introduced readers to many leading 20th-century writers of the day.
Hefner's multimedia empire and influence grew in time, then receded as those who followed through the openings he created pushed past limits he wasn't prepared to cross.
3. Soap operas
Chicago Tribune broadcast cousin WGN-AM's sales manager wanted a program that could sell products to home-bound women during the day in 1930. So Irna Phillips created the first soap opera, "Painted Dreams."
Dubbed the Queen of Soaps, Phillips would go on to develop radio and TV daytime dramas that defined the genre: "Guiding Light," "The Road of Life," "Young Dr. Malone," "The Brighter Day" "These Are My Children," "As the World Turns," "Another World," "Our Private World" and "Love is a Many Splendored Thing." She also served as creative consultant on "Peyton Place."
Ray Kroc didn't invent fast food. He didn't even invent the McDonald's hamburger. He was a salesman of milkshake mixers who saw what the McDonald brothers were doing in California and saw the potential to make it work on a far grander scale through rigorous consistency, marketing and franchising. The McDonald's story is almost as well known as the global brand.
1. Automated conveyor (dis)assembly lines
The Union Stockyards became what they were in part because of the development of refrigerated train cars that enabled meat processed here to get elsewhere with minimal spoilage. Another major factor was that they figured out how to maximize output, speeding the processing of cattle and hogs through automated conveyors. They also reduced the actions to 13 discrete steps, with individuals doing the same action, such as hanging the animals on hooks.
Others had used conveyors, but not on this scale. Among those impressed with the speed and output was Henry Ford, who would take inspiration and bring the assembly line to Michigan to increase production of the Model T, which further changed the world.
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