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pittsburgh 250
Pittsburgh Approaches 250 Years of Life-Changing Innovation and Advancing Technology Forward.

If necessity is the mother of invention, it can only have been prophetic when two and a half centuries ago the father of our country directed the construction of a makeshift stockade named Fort Necessity just fifty-five miles from the “Forks of the Ohio,” the site of what would become, arguably, the most inventive city in the world.


As we reckon Pittsburgh’s history today, the city’s founding coincides with the 1758 French abandonment of Fort Duquesne and Pittsburgh’s official naming by British forces (Colonel George Washington included). Since that time, innovation has been the hallmark of Pittsburgh and its neighboring communities. It is the place where things like railway tunnels, wire rope, steel rails, air brakes, alternating current, electric locomotives, nuclear power, polio vaccine, television, pull-tabs, ketchup, organ transplants, MEMS, robotics, RFID, search engines and innumerable others were, and continue to be, invented.


Mother Nature’s Gifts

As though destined for greatness by geological forces, Pittsburgh is situated in one place with two unique geographic features: At the common mouth of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which drain more than 18,000 square miles of fertile land; and at the same time, at the source of the Ohio River Basin, which drains more than 43,000 square miles of land and communicates with the third largest river system in the world, the 1.2-million-square mile Mississippi Basin.


Given Pittsburgh’s surfeit of navigable waterways, it is hardly surprising that one of the earliest books about the area is Zadok Cramer’s, “The Navigator: Containing Directions for Navigating the Monongahela, Allegheny, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.” Originally published in 1801, the book enumerates the region’s exploitable resources and established industries, including coal mines, salt wells, sugar camps and rich farmland yielding wheat, rye, barley, oats, buckwheat, corn and potatoes. Cramer’s 1802 Almanack gives Pittsburgh industry: 1 large brewery, 2 glassworks, 1 fine glass factory, 1 large paper mill and 1 boatyard.


While a boatyard in an inland city may strike the modern reader as incongruous, given the ready availability of timber, the arduousness of “poling” keelboats upstream and easy access to downstream markets along more than 1,200 miles of river, it was only natural that Pittsburgh should become a boatbuilding center. Until the age of steam power, river currents and high water served to power cargo downstream. At their final destination the rugged craft would be unloaded, dismantled and sold for lumber.


So it is not surprising that on July 15, 1803, just 11 days after Thomas Jefferson’s Independence Day announcement of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase, Ensign Meriwether Lewis arrived in Pittsburgh to purchase the keelboat upon which The Corps of Discovery would commence its exploration of the newly acquired American West and usher in the Age of Manifest Destiny.


As the region grew, agrarian production and natural resource extraction led to the establishment of numerous manufactories, virtually all of which required power for operation. Before the age of steam and internal combustion engines, manpower, horsepower, windpower and waterpower were the only options for the mechanization of work. In The Navigator, Cramer commented on the value of the region’s waterpower: “In short, the durableness of the streams, added to their rapidity, afford numberless seats for water works of every description,” he wrote. Among his inventories of manufacturing facilities, Cramer mentions blooming furnaces and iron forges, both of which required power for their air blasts and hammers, as well as mills for rolling, slitting, grinding, sawing, fulling and paper making, along the banks of the Allegheny, Monongahela, Youghiogheny and Cheat Rivers and their tributaries.


The natural resources of the rivers and surrounding lands endowed Pittsburgh with everything necessary for the establishment of a robust center of commerce and industry – food, clothing, building materials, heating fuel, water power, locomotion and communication. What is more, in addition to plentiful waterpower, Pittsburgh’s natural resources were remarkably easy to obtain – a virgin forest awaiting harvest; seams of coal straining to burst through the Earth’s surface; sand from the rivers for glass; and oil seeping into creeks and from the ground.


Leveraging Natural Resources with Human Resources

But as abundant and easily obtainable as Pittsburgh’s natural resources were, it would take a highly skilled and motivated workforce to put them to industrial use. Fortunately, during the 19th century, Pittsburgh served the double role as point of departure for thousands of westward travelers at the same time it served as a magnet for technological talent, creativity and ambition. The census of 1800 reports that fully 10 percent of Pittsburgh workers identified themselves as “mechanics,” the occupational forebears of today’s scientists, engineers and technologists.


Nonetheless, Pittsburgh’s topography continued to obstruct westward expansion because, wagon roads notwithstanding, crossing the Alleghenies was an arduous task, especially when compared to the easy journey facilitated by New York’s Erie Canal. In response to that problem, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania connected the eastern and western branches of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal by building the Allegheny Portage Railroad in 1831, a conglomeration of rivers, dams, canals, viaducts, aqueducts, bridges, tunnels, rails, mules, boats, barges, incline planes and stationary steam engines that connected Hollidaysburg, in the Susquehanna watershed, with Johnstown, in the Allegheny watershed. At the time of its construction the system was considered to be an engineering marvel. The system’s Staple Bend Tunnel was the first railway tunnel (mule-drawn) in the United States. Initially, the system’s two-section breakaway canal boats were hauled over the mountains on incline planes powered by stationary steam engines with nine-inch diameter hempen rope that, aside from its unwieldiness and cost, tended to break with alarming frequency. The results of such calamities were disastrous for passengers, crew and cargo alike.


Invention from Necessity


In response to this problem, in 1840 John Roebling, a state engineer, living in Pittsburgh’s municipal neighbor, Saxonburg, developed wire rope which proved to be stronger, safer and more durable than the hemp it replaced. What is more, its uses extended far beyond simple haulage tasks. In 1845, Roebling supervised the construction of the world’s first wire rope suspension aqueduct in Pittsburgh and, three years later, a vehicle suspension bridge that connected Smithfield Street with the Southside. Roebling’s technology transformed bridge building as he went on to build the Brooklyn Bridge and others.


While Roebling was busy building the Smithfield Street Bridge, in 1848 8-year-old Andrew Carnegie immigrated to Pittsburgh from Scotland with his family. Smart and hard-working, the young Carnegie was a master of aligning social need with technological opportunity. As a young man, investments in railroad sleeper cars and oil wells made possible his entrée into the fields of iron bridge building and steel making, where his success became legendary.


In 1868, while Carnegie was building his steel empire, a young inventor named George Westinghouse came to Pittsburgh in search of capital for several of his inventions, including the railroad airbrake. After a period of struggle, Westinghouse found investors and proved the utility of his airbrake. Thereafter, Westinghouse went on to develop inter-train communication systems and automated signal and switching systems. In collaboration with Nicolas Tesla, he developed and promoted the use of alternating current. After ensconcing his early inventions in the Westinghouse Airbrake Company in 1868, and Union Switch and Signal in 1881, Westinghouse formed the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in 1889. That enterprise went on to develop technologies that, in the truest sense of the phrase, changed the world. Among Westinghouse’s inventions were: automated switchboards; multiplex telegraphy; improved incandescent light bulbs; with Tesla, the AC generator and motor; the world’s first alternating current power network (Niagara Falls); the AC power meter; the high-power steam turbine generator; the world’s first nuclear power generating plant (Shippingport, Pa.); the first nuclear reactor for ship propulsion; and hundreds of other inventions, including methods of natural gas extraction and distribution and some of the first MEMS.


The year after Westinghouse’s arrival in Pittsburgh, a native son named Henry John Heinz founded a company that grew vegetables in the fertile soil along the banks of the Allegheny, canned them for sale and began to develop what would become one of the world’s most famous brands. Over time, Heinz sold horseradish, pickles, vinegar, pepper sauces, olives, pickled cauliflower, pickled onions, mincemeat, mustard, baked beans, soups and, most famous of all, ketchup, a novel product for the packaged food industry. Heinz used the phrase 57 Varieties to build his product line into one of the most famous brands in the world. Today the Heinz story is a classic in the field of brand marketing.


While Andrew Carnegie, George Westinghouse and Henry Heinz were building their empires, a brilliant young inventor named Charles Martin Hall came to Pittsburgh in search of an investor to support his newfound method of refining aluminum from its parent ore, bauxite. Hall found such a benefactor in the renowned metallurgist, Captain Alfred Hunt. Together they formed the Pittsburgh Reduction Company in 1888. In 1890 the Mellon family, of banking fame, invested in the company, changed its name to The Aluminum Corporation of America and installed Arthur Vining Davis as its President. Thereafter, the company went on to become the largest producer of aluminum in the world.


From Empire to Enterprise

During the 19th century, as natural resources and human inspiration combined to form the world’s most robust industrial infrastructure, the seeds of Pittsburgh’s next fruit took root in the form of the corporate, social, educational and scientific institutions that define the region’s character today.


Nineteenth century Pittsburgh saw the establishment of: the Bank of Pittsburgh in 1810, a humane society and library in 1813, the Pittsburgh Medical Society in 1821, a historical society in 1834, the Allegheny Observatory in 1859, Chatham College in 1869, Duquesne University in 1878 and the Pittsburgh Medical College in 1885. In 1890, the University of Pittsburgh evolved out of the University of Pennsylvania West of the Alleghenies, which in 1819 had grown out of The Pittsburgh Academy, which had been founded in 1787. Presbyterian Hospital and the Eye and Ear Hospital were founded n 1895, the same year in which Andrew Carnegie founded and funded the Pittsburgh Carnegie Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Hall of Sculpture and Architecture, Carnegie Music Hall, and the Carnegie Library. In 1898 the Pittsburgh Zoo opened. In 1900, the Carnegie Institute of Technology, which would later become Carnegie Mellon University, opened its doors.


Institutional Innovation

By the turn of the 20th century, what had begun a century earlier as a promising array of natural and human resources evolved into a socioeconomic complex of corporate capital, industrial capacity, educational prowess and institutional infrastructure that, combined with the workforce diligence for which Pittsburgh was famous, would put the city in a position to become the technical innovation capital of the world.


Throughout its development Pittsburgh had been both defined and driven by new forms of energy: in turn, waterpower, coal, oil, natural gas and electricity. True to form, the 20th century saw Pittsburgh transform itself into a world center of nuclear power technology. The transformation was a natural extension of Westinghouse innovations in the field of electric power generation and distribution.


In the field of electronics, during the 20th century, Pittsburgh witnessed: the world’s first commercial radio station – KDKA; the construction and testing of the world’s largest electric locomotive in 1925; the first demonstration of television in 1928; the first atomic energy power plant, built at Shippingport, Pa., in 1954; and some of the first MEMS and optoelectronic devices in the 1970s.


With the advent of the digital age, Pittsburgh’s vast understanding of electronics combined with its vast stores of knowledge, led to advances in information technology, including ways to access ever-enlarging masses of information. Carnegie Mellon’s solution to the problem was Lycos, the world’s first search engine and Web portal. Launched in 1994, Lycos became the forebear of such Internet notables as HotBot, Web Monkey and WhoWhere.


But even with such advances in IT as search engines, the world still needed a way to integrate the benefits of database computing with the real world of people and the goods they exchange with each other. One solution to the problem came in the late 1990s in the form of Product Emitting Numbering Identification (PENI), a variant of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), developed by University of Pittsburgh Professor, Marlin Mickle. The wireless system employs very small electronic tags that communicate by means of microscale transmitters, receivers and antennae to identify objects, such as packages in transit. Mickle’s first patent was filed in 1998. His latest patent, awarded in August 2006, is for an energy harvesting circuit that captures free radio frequency waves from the local environment and converts them into electrical power.


In the field of medicine, in March 1953, the University of Pittsburgh’s Jonas Salk changed the lives of children everywhere with his polio vaccine. During the 1960s, organ transplants and brain surgery became the city’s stock and trade. Pittsburgh’s acumen in organ transplantation naturally led to efforts to develop synthetic and regenerative organs. Today, the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine is a world leader in the field.


In 1985, the physical sciences and life sciences began to merge in Pittsburgh when Carnegie Mellon University opened a research center for fluorescent marking of living cells. The trend continued the following year, when Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh joined forces to develop magnetic resonance imaging, a technology that would change the world of medical diagnostics.


The Magnet Grows Stronger

Today, Pittsburgh continues to answer the call of Mother Necessity by drawing intellectual talent from all over the planet. At the city’s world-renowned universities, researchers study the secrets of the largest and smallest things in the universe: from the energy of black holes to the superposition of quanta. At the same time, industrialists exploit those secrets and apply them to human benefit: from the nanoscale characteristics of materials for disease diagnosis, to the energy absorbing and electro-conductive characteristics of organic materials for power and light generation.


Three Patents a Day

Pittsburgh’s inventiveness is born out by the fact in the past thirty years, more than 25,000 patents have been awarded to inventors in the region. On average, that’s more than three a day. The impossibility of paying homage to all who deserve it notwithstanding, beginning next month the author of this article will detail some of the stories behind a few of the inventions that have made Pittsburgh the global center of innovation that it has become. With a great deal of effort and a little bit of luck, a new TEQ column titled “Innovation Chronicle,” will help us all better appreciate how necessity and invention have affected the Forks of the Ohio in the past two and a half centuries. At the same time, it helps us imagine what the next 250 years may bring to the City of Pittsburgh.


This story first appeared as a cover story in TEQ magazine.

©Copyright 2006 Thomas P. Imerito/ dba Science Communications


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©2009 Science Communications
thomas@science-communications.com