Not many people know — or care — that the modern corkscrew, that noble tool, was born in New Haven on March 27, 1860. Philos Blake, nephew of Eli Whitney, filed U.S. Patent No. 27,665, and lovers of obscure trivia everywhere gave a collective squeal of joy.
In the grand scheme of human innovation, Blake’s contribution is little more than a footnote. While his uncle, known as the father of the cotton gin and mass production, would become American legend, Blake’s corkscrew is legend to only a few dedicated corkscrew collectors. To make matters worse, M.L. Byrn of New York actually lays claim to the first American corkscrew. The same day that Blake filed his patent, Byrn beat him to the punch with Patent No. 27,615, a more primitive version of the same device.
The dustbins of history are cluttered with Philos Blakes, and New Haven has contributed more than its share. Native sons take a particular pride in the city’s history as a hotbed of innovation — and rightly so. New Haven’s long list of “firsts,” as complied by the New Haven Convention and Visitors Bureau on their “Totally Amazing Facts” Web site, contains both the impressive and the obscure. Here, famous uncle and overshadowed nephew are both honored.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Web site is only the most recent incarnation of a New Haven tradition of compiling famous firsts. Lists of such trivia can be found in magazines and pamphlets dating to the 1940s in the New Haven Colony Historical Society’s archives.
“The whole firsts thing has been an issue here [for many years],” said James Campbell, the library director at the New Haven Colony Historical Society. “I think that some of these were a stretch, personally.”
Uncorking the facts behind the New Haven firsts presents a tricky task. Some of the legendary items on the list, such as the Frisbee and the lollipop, have little more than hearsay and oral tradition to back them up, while other lesser known inventions have more legitimate records. In some cases, the dusty New Haven city directories housed in the Historical Society’s library contain the only evidence the supposed inventors existed at all.
Alexander “The Iceman” Twining joins Philos Blake as one of the most underappreciated New Haven inventors. Ice was a high-profit business back in the pre-refrigerator days, and Twining had big dreams of supplying the world with frozen water when he created the first commercial ice-making machine in 1849.
“It is obviously a settled fact that the warm climates of our country are soon to be supplied with artificial ice by means of this invention,” Twining boasted in his 1857 book, “The Manufacture of Ice on a Commercial Scale and With Commercial Economy by Steal or Water Power.”
Needless to say, the world is still waiting for Twining’s ice age.
In contrast to Twining and Blake’s now superfluous inventions, some of New Haven’s apocryphal firsts still exist as important parts of mainstream popular culture. The Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site lists the hamburger, pizza, Frisbee and lollipop as local inventions.
Louis’ Lunch on Crown Street has a reputable claim on the hamburger — it still uses the original broilers, now over 100 years old, to cook the burgers. Pepe’s Pizza is also, by most reports, one of the first two American restaurants to market the “tomato pie.”
“Clearly, it’s Italian, and clearly Pepe was early in the deal,” Campbell said.
But some of these firsts are questionable, at best. The lollipop has many supposed inventors, from San Francisco to Racine, Wis. Its name, however, supposedly originates from New Haven candy store owner George C. Smith’s penchant for horse racing. Smith reportedly trademarked the name lollipop in 1931 in dedication to his favorite horse, Lolly Pop. When his store closed in the depression, he lost the trademark, and lollipop became public property.
The Frisbee’s history also involves sweets. Mrs. Frisbie’s pie-making company was located in Bridgeport, and the story goes that Yale students were the first to hurl the aluminum pie tins in 1920 with exuberant cries of “Frisbee!” A second version of the story says it was the workers at Mrs. Frisbie’s that first threw the tins, and still a third legend claims that, in protest to the passing of the collection plate in chapel, Yale student Elihu Frisbie flung the tray towards the college quad, and the practice became tradition.
Whatever the truth may be, it is clear that these stories contain a heavy dose of mythological embellishment. The plastic Frisbee was not invented until 1948 by Walter Frederick Morrison and Warren Franscioni in Los Angeles. Everything else was just a flying pie tin.
“A lot of these firsts come from people who claim they are the first, and no one else claims it,” New Haven Colony Historical Society Curator Amy Trout said. “New Haven had very early renditions of some of these.”
But don’t feel too bad for poor, forgotten Philos Blake. Cult followings sometimes brighten the legacy of even the most forlorn New Haven inventors. Yale alums may not open wine bottles with a Blake corkscrew — it was never mass produced — but Blake has the last laugh. The first cotton gin is sitting in a museum, while a Blake’s 1860 corkscrew patent sold for 9,775 pounds (around $15,000) at a 1998 Christie’s auction.
Take that, Uncle Whitney.