When it comes to inventions, North Carolina is best known for the Wright Brothers and our celebrated status as “First in Flight.” But airplanes are far from being our state’s only breakthrough.
Back in the 1930s, for example, stores used a burdensome punch card system to track unique products and their prices at the point of sale. After a series of other inelegant tracking solutions, Research Triangle-based IBM engineer George Laurer finally developed the Universal Product Code (UPC) that is now industry standard. On June 26, 1974, the first UPC-marked item was sold in Troy, Ohio – a 10-pack of Wrigley Juicy Fruit gum that is now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The barcode was also recently named one of the 50 things that made the modern economy.
A shortage of sugar during World War I inspired Salisbury entrepreneur L.D. Peeler to infuse cherry juice into a bubbly concoction that became the iconic Cheerwine soda. Launched in 1917, under his newly formed Carolina Beverage Corp., Cheerwine now claims to be the oldest soft drink company still run by the same family.
In 1893, a local pharmacist in New Bern named Caleb Bradham developed a soft drink called “Brad’s Drink.” Five years later it was renamed for two of its ingredients, pepsin and cola, to form Pepsi-Cola.
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In the food category, Winston-Salem restaurateur Vernon Rudolph bought a yeast-based doughnut recipe from a New Orleans chef and started selling his “Krispy Kreme” glazed treats to local grocery stores in 1937. Last year, Krispy Kreme was acquired for $1.35 billion and is keeping its hometown headquarters.
Also out of Winston-Salem, Sam Garner, owner of the Dixie Pig Barbeque Stand, concocted a cayenne pepper-based hot sauce in 1929 to satisfy his customers’ need for more spice. Wanting to give it a cowboy ring, Garner and his three sons (one of whom was nicknamed Pete) came up with Texas Pete, which is now the third best-selling hot sauce in the United States.
As pioneers within North Carolina’s emerging life science industry, three different headache powders were invented in our state, including BC Headache Powder (Durham, 1906), Stanback Headache Powder (Salisbury, 1911) and Goody’s (Winston-Salem, 1932).
In the 1890s, Greensboro pharmacist Lunford Richardson developed 21 home remedies under the “Vicks” name (named after his brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick). The most famous used the little known Japanese ingredient menthol to create a head-clearing, cough-suppressing chest ointment called VapoRub. When the Spanish flu hit the United States from 1918 to 1919, sales of Vicks Vaporub skyrocketed, and it has been a household staple ever since. The Richardson family also became known for its philanthropy, including endowing Greensboro’s first modern hospital for African Americans as well as the Center for Creative Leadership (where Stephen and Christopher are both affiliated).
Not to be outdone by all of the men, one of the most famous inventors to come out of North Carolina is Beulah Louise Henry. Nicknamed “Lady Edison,” Henry was born in Raleigh in 1887. The granddaughter of Gov. W.W. Holden, Henry studied at Elizabeth College in Charlotte, where she filed her first patents. Over the course of her prolific life, she would develop 110 inventions, start two companies and file for 49 patents, including a bobbin-free sewing machine and a vacuum-sealed freezer. Henry was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.
One of North Carolina’s first African American inventors was Lunsford Lane, who was born into slavery near Raleigh in 1803. While enslaved, he was permitted to work at night chopping wood and selling tobacco for small sums of money. In 1830, he invented a smoking pipe and began selling a special blend of tobacco that he developed. While slaves could not get patents, Lane was able to use his inventions to save over $1,000 and buy his family’s freedom and move them to New York City in 1838.
In the ensuing years, some early African American inventors in North Carolina were able to file patents, including Horde Spears, who invented a military shield in 1870, and Edward Sutton, who earned a patent for a cotton cultivator in 1874. More recently, Winser Edward Alexander invented a system for enhancing thermal photographs in 1967, and Andrew Williams and Richard Ames patented a cranial drilling instrument in 1972.
The list of N.C. inventions goes on, including the first putt-putt course in Fayetteville in 1954, overalls out of Clinton in 1859, and Richard Gatling’s Gatling Gun out of Hertford in 1861. Have one to add? Let us know.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Cities, a founding partner of HQ Community, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.