There is something very, very bizarre about a can of soda.
How did this sugary, bubbly beverage – dark brown, or neon orange, or grape, or whatever color Mountain Dew is – how did THIS become such an influential force in American culture?
This is the strange and inconceivable story of how the modern soft drink was created. It's a story in four parts --
1) At the start of the 19th century, two dueling soda fountains in lower Manhattan would set the stage for a century of mass consumption.
2) Soft drinks weren't just tasty. For over a century, many believed they could provide a litany of cures to some of man's most vexing ills. It's from this snake-oil salesmanship that we get many of today's top soft-drink brands.
3) Coca-Cola may pride itself on its 'secret formula', but in fact that formula has frequently changed since the 1880s, when a Confederate war veteran first invented this magical brew mixing three exotic ingredients -- cocaine, wine and kola nut.
4) Soft drinks have professed to relieve many physical ills. By the 1950s they even attempted to promote weight loss. But the rise of diet drinks sparked a marketing war with manufacturers of one of their most reliable (and delicious) ingredients.
The Black Crook is considered the first-ever Broadway musical, a dizzying, epic-length extravaganza of ballerinas, mechanical sets, lavish costumes and a storyline about the Devil straight out of a twisted hallucination.
The show took New York by storm when it debuted on September 12, 1866. This is the story of how this completely weird, virtually unstageable production came to pass. Modern musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, and Hamilton wouldn't quite be what they are today without this curious little relic.
WARNING: You may leave this show humming a little tune called "You Naughty, Naughty Men."
Featuring music by Adam Roberts and Libby Dees, courtesy the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
The art of tattooing is as old as written language but it would require the contributions of a few 19th century New York tattoo artists -- and a young inventor with no tattoos whatsoever -- to take this ancient art to the next level.
This is the story of the electric tattoo machine, how it was first perfected in a tiny tattoo parlor underneath a New York elevated train and how this relatively simple device changed the face of body art forever.
Subscribe to The First podcast on iTunes or stream it on Stitcher, Overcast or other podcast streaming services. Thanks for listening! -- Greg
Imagine if we could hear the voices of Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria or Frederick Douglass? Believe it or not, somebody was making audio recordings as far back as the 1850s. This is the story of the first audio recordings ever made and the oldest song recording to ever be heard today, thanks to an intrepid group of tech-savvy historians.
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Of the tens of thousands of U.S. patents granted in the 19th century, only a small fraction were held by women. One of those women -- Josephine Cochrane -- would change the world by solving a simple household problem.
While throwing lavish dinner parties in her gracious home in Shelbyville, Illinois, Cochrane noticed that her fine china was being damaged while being washed. Certainly there was a better way of doing the dishes?
Cochrane's extraordinary adventure would lead to places few women are allowed -- into gritty mechanical workshops and the exclusive corridors of big business. Nobody could believe a woman responsible for such a sophisticated mechanical device.
In her own words: “I couldn’t get men to do the things I wanted in my way until they had tried and failed on their own. They insisted on having their own way with my invention until they convinced themselves that my way was the better.”
FEATURING: The voice of Beckett Graham from the History Chicks, portraying the actual quotes of Mrs. Cochrane! (Or shouldn't that be Cochran?)
The Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla is known as one of the fathers of electricity, the curious genius behind alternating current (AC), the victor in the so-called War of the Currents. But in this episode of The First, starting in the year 1893, Tesla begins conceiving an even grander scheme -- the usage of electromagnetic waves to distribute power.
Today we benefit from the electromagnetic spectrum in a variety of ways -- Wi-Fi, X-rays, radio, satellites. One of the roads to these inventions begins with Tesla and his experiments with remote control, using radio waves to operate a mechanical object.
But you may be surprised to discover Tesla's initial application of remote control. Far from inventing a children's toy, Tesla's remote controlled device would be used as a weapon of war.
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This year marks the end to the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and, with it, the end of the traditional American circus. Once at the core of the American circus was the performing elephant. Today we understand that such captivity is no place for an endangered beast but, for much of this country's history, circus elephants were one of the centerpieces of live entertainment.
This is the tale of the first two elephants to ever arrive in the United States. The first came by ship in 1796, an Indian elephant whose unusual appearance in the cattle pens at a popular local tavern would inspire one farmer to seek another one out for himself.
Her name was Old Bet, a young African elephant at the heart of all American circus mythology. She appeared in traveling menageries, equestrian circuses and even theatrical productions, long before humans really understood the nature of these sophisticated animals.
Find out how her strange, eventful and tragic life helped inspire the invention of American spectacle and how her memory lives on today in one town in Upstate New York.
Robots conjure up thoughts of distant technological landscapes and even apocalyptic scenarios, but the truth is, robots are a very old creation, tracing back to the ancient world.
We can thank science fiction writers for inventing new and serious ideas about robots, automatons previously relegated as mere amusement. But they remained an unimaginable concept -- rendered in a corny, campy fashion in the 1940s and 50s -- until the development of computing and cybernetics.
In 1961 the first industrial robot named Unimate not only changed the automobile industry, but it opened the door for the vast, realistic possibilities of robotics in our everyday lives.
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In 1907, the professional swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested on a Massachusetts beach for wearing a revealing bathing suit -- a skin-tight black ensemble which covered most of her body.
Less than forty years later, in 1946, the owner of a Parisian lingerie shop invented the bikini, perhaps the smallest amount of fabric to ever change the world.
In this podcast, I'll tell you what happened to change people's perception of public decency in those forty years and explain how the bikini represents the best -- and the worst -- instincts of modern American culture.
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The harnessing of electricity by the great inventors of the Gilded Age introduced the world to the miracle of light at all hours of the day. But exposure to electricity's raw power was dangerous to man and a few thought this useful in the employment of the state’s darkest responsibilities -- capital punishment.
This is the story of the first electric chair, the peculiar rivalry which helped create it -- an epic feud between Edison and Westinghouse, between DC and AC -- and its fateful effects upon the life and punishment upon a man named William Kemmler, the first to be killed in this morbid seat.
This is the story of the first vaccine, perhaps one of the greatest inventions in modern human history. Starring -- a country doctor with a love of birds, a milkmaid with translucent skin, an eight-year-old boy with no idea what he's in for and a wonderful cow that holds the secret to human immunity.
The Pledge of Allegiance feels like an American tradition that traces itself back to the Founding Fathers, but, in fact, it's turning 125 years old in 2017. This is the story of the invention of the Pledge, a set of words that have come to embody the core values of American citizenship. And yet it began as part of a for-profit magazine promotion, written by a Christian socialist minister!
In this podcast listen to the Pledge wording evolve throughout the years and discover the curious salute that once accompanied it.
You may know the story of Alexander Graham Bell and his world famous invention. You may know that Bell made the very first phone call. But do you know the story of the man who ANSWERED that call?
His name was Thomas Augustus Watson. He met Bell when he was just 20 years old. He left the employment of Bell at age 27 a very rich man. What would you do with all that money? This is the story of the joyous consequences of being associated with a great inventor.
American eating habits were transformed in the early 20th century with innovations in freezing and refrigeration, allowing all kinds of foods to be shipped across the country and stored for long periods of time. But it would actually be the television set that would inspire one of the strangest creations in culinary history -- the TV dinner.
Inspired by airplane meals, the TV dinner originally contained the fixings of a Thanksgiving meal, thanks in part to a massive number of overstocked frozen turkeys. The key to its success was its revolutionary heating process, allowing for all items on the tray to heat evenly. And the person responsible for this technique was a 22-year-old woman from Omaha, Nebraska named Betty Cronin, a woman later called 'the mother of the TV dinner.'
Dorothy Catherine Draper is a truly forgotten figure in American history. She was the first woman to ever sit for a photograph -- a daguerrotype, actually, in the year 1840, upon the rooftop of the school which would become New York University..
The circumstances that got her to this position were rather unique. She was the older sister of a professor named John William Draper, and she assisted him in his success and fame even when it seemed a detriment to her. The Drapers worked alongside Samuel Morse in the period following his invention of the telegraph.
The legendary portrait was taken when Miss Draper was a young woman but a renewed interest in the image in the 1890s brought the now elderly matron a bit of late-in-life recognition.
FEATURING Tales from the earliest days of photography and walk through Green-Wood Cemetery!
01: The first Ferris Wheel was invented to become America’s Eiffel Tower, making its grand debut at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The wheel’s inventor George Washington Gale Ferris was a clever and optimistic soul; he did everything in his power to ensure that his glorious mechanical ride would forever change the world.
That it did, but unfortunately, its inventor paid a horrible price.
FEATURING a visit to one of the most famous wheels in the world and a trip to one of Chicago’s newest marvels.