Milestones of Innovation 3: ‘Modern Pioneers’ at the Waldorf–1940

Opinion

When people made lists of leading innovators 75 years ago, they saw a landscape very different from today’s for putting discoveries, techniques, money, workers, and customers together to get something new and useful onto the market. In the brief interval between the Depression and World War II, the dominant factor was the large, vertically integrated corporation able to use retained earnings to finance its own scale-up to mass-marketing of cars, light bulbs, and plastics.

On the evening of Feb. 27, 1940, a lot of high-powered Americans gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York to honor the nation’s top innovators of the previous 25 years. Those who had done the most to advance “the American standard of living” were designated “Modern Pioneers.” Each received a special plaque depicting factories, dynamos, laboratory flasks, and airplanes thrusting aside the ox and the covered wagon.

The 1,500 at the Waldorf were celebrating the impending  150th anniversary of the first United States patent law of April 10, 1790.  The not-so-hidden agenda behind the banquet was to combat the notion, widely held in the Depression, that new technology was a job-killer, and to build sentiment against changing patent practices to encourage non-exclusive licensing (as the New Deal Anti-Trust Division advocated).

The event had quite a buildup. The principal sponsor, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), recruited a prestigious jury to pick the Pioneers, headed by MIT President Karl Compton. They winnowed 1,000 nominees down to 572 who were honored at some 15 regional dinners, including a bash at Boston’s Copley Plaza Feb. 18.

All those honored were men, and all were individuals except 10 members of the DuPont team that developed nylon. Its leader, Wallace Carothers, had committed suicide three years earlier. Other Pioneers, such as Lee DeForest of the Audion triode tube, Henry Ford of the automobile assembly line, and Orville Wright of the airplane, were also absent. The Belgian immigrant Leo Baekeland of Bakelite was represented by his son. Charles Kettering, inventor of the automobile self-starter and the legendary “boss” of General Motors research, addressed the banqueters by telephone from his laboratory in Coral Gables, FL. His theme was, “Pioneering never ceases.” Kettering said, “We have only scratched the surface of invention… America is not yet finished.”

The youngest of the national winners, 30-year-old Edwin Land of Polaroid Corporation, stood beaming in the center of the front row of the Waldorf group picture, next to x-ray developer William D. Coolidge, boss of GE’s research, who had tried to hire Land years before. Land’s invention of inexpensive plastic light-polarizing sheet was already used in many pairs of sunglasses; it was being tested for use in all automobiles to cut nighttime highway glare.

Others in the front row were Vladimir Zworykin, inventor of RCA’s television tube; Irving Langmuir of GE, developer of a more efficient incandescent light bulb; Willis Carrier of air conditioning fame; George Curme of Carbide and Carbon, inventor of Prestone anti-freeze; and Harry Steenbock of the University of Wisconsin, who found a way to add Vitamin D to milk. In the back row, looking glum, was Edwin H. Armstrong, inventor of the circuitry behind commercial two-knob radios as well as FM.

The occasion couldn’t banish larger issues entirely. Dictatorships in Europe and Asia had launched World War II. And American unemployment, while declining, was still huge. On Jan. 3, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt told Congress, “We have not yet found a way to employ the surplus of our labor which the efficiency of our industrial processes has created.” He added, “To face the task of finding jobs faster than invention can take them away is not defeatism.”

NAM president H.W. Prentis was indignant. He told the banqueters that from 1870 to 1930 (tactfully omitting the Depression), U.S. production increased 11-fold, while employment nearly quadrupled. “Did invention take away jobs faster than other jobs could be found in those years? Obviously not. Moreover, employment today is most nearly normal in those industries that are most highly mechanized—on which there has been the greatest technological advance.”

Few at the Waldorf could have known how quickly the task of defeating the dictators would bring industry together with government and lead to the greatest private-public partnership in history.

[Editor’s Note: This is the third of an envisioned series of notes about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. You’re invited to suggest other milestones of innovation for in the Xconomy Forum. Example: This year will mark the 150th anniversary of Alexander Holley’s pilot plant in Troy, New York, for making steel by the Bessemer process.]

Further reading:

Victor K. McElheny, Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land, Inventor of Instant Photography, Perseus Books, 1998.

“Trade is Defended in ‘Labor Surplus,’ “ New York Times, Feb. 28, 1940.

Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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