The First: Stories of Inventions and their Consequences

The history of inventions and their consequences.
RSS Feed
The First: Stories of Inventions and their Consequences



All Episodes
Now displaying: Page 1
Jan 3, 2018

Apartment living is something we take for granted today, the option for those who can't afford or don't desire a private home. But how did this type of living situation become popular in the United States?

In mid-19th century New York, people lived in townhouses, boarding houses or tenements. But far-thinking urban planners like Calvert Vaux touted a new form of housing popularized by the French -- the flat. Rutherford Stuyvesant, the wealthy heir of a couple notable American families, decided to build a version of this type of housing in the elite neighborhood of Gramercy Park.

But how to attract people to a risky form of living? You get celebrities to move in! In particular, one very well known person -- Elizabeth Custer, the wife of General George Custer, newly widowed after her husband was killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn. 

A version of this podcast was originally presented on The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast

Dec 21, 2017

In 1900, there were about 8,000 registered automobiles in the United States. They were a genuine novelty. Those that attempted to go on 'road trips' met with a frustrating reality -- there were no drivable roads, no unified road maps, no nation-wide infrastructure of gas stations or amenities. The first automobiles to attempt cross-country travel were essentially UFOs streaking through a sparsely populated and isolated America.

This is the story of how that all changed. This is the story of the Lincoln Highway, the first cross-country road in the Untied States, linking Times Square in Manhattan with Lincoln Park in San Francisco via a patchwork of pre-existing roads in twelve states.

The Lincoln Highway was developed by automotive executives who wanted to use the cross-country road to promote automobile sales. It accomplished more than that; the Lincoln Highway invented the pleasures and eccentricities of American road travel.

Dec 7, 2017

That string of multi-colored Christmas lights wrapped around your tree (or your house) is far more influential to American history than you might think. 

The first electric Christmas lights debuted in 1882, shortly after the invention of the incandescent light bulb itself, in the New York home of a Thomas Edison employee. They quickly became a vehicle for electric companies to tout the magic of electrical power.

In the process, they helped secularize very basic symbols of the Christmas season. In this episode, find out how the invention of whimsical colored lights helped redefine the holiday and create comfort and unity for millions of Americans.

PLUS: The origin story of those 'classy' lights you see wrapped around trees and lampposts on respectable urban avenues.

Oct 6, 2017

How much do you know about George Washington Carver, the man born into slavery who became America’s most famous botanist in the first half of the 20th century? He didn’t discover the peanut, a legume commonplace in the human diet for thousands of years, nor did he invent peanut butter. What Carver did – and what he remains underappreciated for – was help reorient man’s relationship with plants for the modern world.

He saw items like the sweet potato and the soybean for their unlimited potentials, not just to better the human condition but to improve the opportunities of American farmers. He saw plants as the secret to human health and well being.

And he did these things not merely as an African-American man in the Jim Crow South, but as a man of frequent ill health and eccentric character. He was as miraculous as his inventions.

George Washington Carver as an artist of uncommon tools – both a literal artist, armed with plant-based paints of his own design, but a conceptual one, finding a world of new ideas within the palette grown from his garden. He became the world’s most famous proponent for organic eating.

CO-STARRING: Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford and -- Mahatma Gandhi?!

Sep 21, 2017

 “Over the river and through the woods” into the history of early American cuisine.

The first published European cookbooks in the world weren’t meant to enshrine ideal meals but rather to inform a woman of her place in the household with titles like The English Housewife, The Compleat Housewife, The Frugal Housewife. But for American cooks, they lacked any ingredients that were native to the American colonies.

In 1796 a mysterious woman named Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first compilation of recipes (or receipts) using such previously unknown items as corn, pumpkins and ‘pearl ash’ (similar to baking powder). This book changed the direction of fine eating in the newly established United States of America. But Amelia herself remains an elusive creator.

Join Greg through a tour of 70 years of early American eating, identifying the true ‘melting pot’ of delicious flavors -- Dutch, Native American, Spanish, Caribbean and African -- that transformed early English colonial cooking into something uniquely American.

FEATURING early American recipes for johnnycakes, slapjacks and gazpacho!

Aug 25, 2017

Benjamin Franklin was the most famous American in the world by the time of the Revolutionary War, known as a writer, inventor and philosopher. But as an old man, he would earn another title -- rebel.

By the time of the Boston Massacre, Dr. Franklin was already an elderly man, watching the early days of American unrest from his comfy home in London. His scientific experiments were eventually put on hold as he rushed back to the colonies to help set up the mechanism of independence.

But while others went to war, Franklin went -- to France? It was because of his great celebrity that he was deployed on an unusual mission to court an important ally for George Washington and his Continental Army. And it was in the banquet halls and libraries of Paris that Franklin would actually invent one of his useful creations.

STARRING: Mesmer, Marie Antoinette, Voltaire and all the Founding Fathers!

Part Three of The Invention of Benjamin Franklin. Check the two prior episodes to catch up on his extraordinary story.

Aug 11, 2017

How much do you know about one of the most famous scientific experiments in American history?

In 1752 Benjamin Franklin and his son William performed a dangerous act of experimentation, conjuring one of nature's most lethal powers from the air itself. This tale -- with the kite and the key -- has entered American urban legend. But it did not happen quite the way you learned about it in school. (Did you know somebody died trying to duplicate Franklin's astonishing feat?)

In this second chapter of The Invention of Benjamin Franklin, the inventor becomes an international celebrity thanks to his clear writing style and pragmatic outlook. Not only would he change the field of electrical sciences, he would even change the English language.

PLUS: London inspires the invention of a beautiful glass instrument, capturing the music of the 18th century. 

Jul 28, 2017

Benjamin Franklin did more in his first forty years than most people do in an entire lifetime. Had he not played a pivotal role in the creation of the United States of America, he still would have been considered an icon in the fields of publishing, science and urban planning. 

How much do you know about Benjamin Franklin the inventor? In this podcast (the first of three parts), Greg takes a dive into his early years as a precocious young inventor and writer, a witty and determined publisher, and a great mind in search of the natural world's great mysteries.

FEATURING: The origins of the lending library, the Franklin stove, swim fins and even kite-surfing!

Jun 20, 2017

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.  

Jun 1, 2017

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.

May 19, 2017

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

May 5, 2017

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. 


Subscribe to The First podcast on iTunes (or wherever you get your podcasts) so you don't miss out on future episodes!

Apr 21, 2017

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?)…-washing-machine.html

Mar 26, 2017

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.


CHECK OUT THE WHOLE SERIES Of 'THE FIRST' EPISODES! You can find them on iTunes, Stitcher or any place you listen to podcasts. Just search for 'The First Stories'.

Mar 13, 2017

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.

Feb 24, 2017

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.


If you like The First: Stories of Inventions and their Consequences, please leave a review for the show on iTunes!

Feb 10, 2017

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.

Follow The First Podcast on Twitter at @TheFirstPodcast

Jan 27, 2017

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.

Jan 13, 2017

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.

Dec 16, 2016

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.



Dec 2, 2016

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. 


Nov 18, 2016

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.'



Nov 4, 2016

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!


Oct 28, 2016

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.

Oct 11, 2016

A preview of The First, a new podcast series from Greg Young of the Bowery Boys: New York City History, examining the birth of inventions and the people whose lives were immediately affected.