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From Twinkies to yellow pencils, 175 years of firsts in Chicago

The one Chicago event thhad biggest impact was 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Its influence can hardly be overstated. More than

The one Chicago event that had the biggest impact was the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Its influence can hardly be overstated. More than 20 million people visited Chicago for the fair. The Ferris wheel was invented to thrill them.

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Updated: April 5, 2012 8:16AM

Happy birthday, Chicago! The city of broad shoulders became a city exactly 175 years ago Sunday. If the big day caught you by surprise, it shouldn’t have — it’s right there on the city seal, “INCORPORATED 4th MARCH 1837.” The first charter divided the city into six wards, with the mayor elected to a one-year term.

Fate had smiled upon Chicago — the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 meant that the trade of the world came to the doorstep of what was up to then a sparsely populated frontier outpost, prompting a frenzy of land speculation, immigration, investment and unprecedented growth.

The new City of Chicago immediately began smiling back at the world. Every catalog of Chicago’s gifts to humanity must begin with architecture, but not with the first steel-frame skyscraper (the Home Insurance Building, rising a dizzying 10 floors in 1885), nor the renowned Chicago School, nor the first parking garage with a ramp (built here in 1918), not even Frank Lloyd Wright and his Prairie style.

Chicago’s first — and arguably most significant — contribution to the world’s dwellings came from Augustine Taylor, who arrived here in the 1830s and took the heavy-beamed construction used to build houses for centuries and substituted a way of constructing lighter structures that critics called “balloon-frame” buildings because, they complained, houses that light would blow away in the wind. They didn’t. Today most homes built in America are balloon-frame construction.

That was just one of many new business concepts that first sparked in Chicago. Retail by mail got its start in 1872 when Aaron Montgomery Ward sent a single sheet price list to 40 farmers belonging to the National Grange organization. A decade later, his catalog had 10,000 items. Chicago saw the first Pullman sleeping cars (1859) and full-service railroad dining car (1868). In 1868, printer William Rand formed a partnership with Irish immigrant Andrew McNally. They printed business directories and railroad guides, and by 1872 began to include maps in the guides. In 1904, Rand-McNally published the first automobile road map — not of Chicago, alas, but New York.

Not all was business. While Philadelphia’s zoo was up and running by 1874, the Lincoln Park Zoo was founded first — in 1868, with the donation of a pair of mute swans. On Thanksgiving Day 1887, a popular American sport was invented in Chicago, when a baseball game was played at the Farragut Boat Club using an old boxing glove and a broomstick.

Despite what Bears fans might believe, football was not invented in Chicago — though the modern fiberglass helmet was, patented in 1940 by John Riddell Sr., a former math teacher and football coach at Evanston High School.

Without question the one Chicago event that had the biggest impact on history was the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Its influence can hardly be overstated. More than 20 million people visited Chicago, and the Ferris wheel was invented to thrill them. Zippers were first displayed there — invented by Chicagoan Whitcomb Judson — and the mechanical dishwasher, invented by an Illinois society matron tired of her servants breaking her china. A host of foods debuted that would become perennial household favorites: Cream of Wheat, Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum.

At the fair, Pennsylvania caramel manufacturer Milton Hershey saw chocolate-making equipment that inspired him to try a new area of the candy business. The fair also led to timeless novels written by Chicagoans — The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.

Pencils are typically yellow because the Koh-I-Noor company made a splash at the exposition with its display of pencils with 14 coats of golden-yellow lacquer. After that, everybody wanted yellow pencils.

In the 19th century, Chicago looked east for culture, but by the 20th it was making its own. Creative giants were born here — including Walt Disney — and created here: Tarzan of the Apes was written in Oak Park, where Ernest Hemingway was born. Early movies were shot here — Essanay Studios opened in 1907 and filmed more than 1,000 silent movies in Chicago, including “His New Job” with Charlie Chaplin.

The first animated animal cartoon character was created in Chicago — but not by Disney. Sidney Smith, a popular cartoonist, drew Old Doc Yak, a goat in striped pants that hit the big screen in 1913. The next year, the Tribune hired the first full-time film critic, Jack Lawson. Chicago also boasted the first full-time professional sportscaster — Hal Totten, an NU grad who joined WMAQ in 1924.

The first radio soap opera started in Chicago — “The Smith Family,” in 1929. The next year, the Chicago Daily News experimental TV station, W9XAP, was broadcasting three hours of programming a day. Twenty years later, “These Are My Children” debuted live, the first daily TV soap.

The idea of consumer market research started in Chicago — in 1928, when William Burnett Benton at Lord & Thomas spent two months talking to housewives about their preference in toothpaste, trying to win the Colgate-Palmolive account. Leo Burnett cooked up some of the great advertising mascots here.

Some Chicago innovations were pure accident. In the 1880s, Oscar Mayer was just another Chicago butcher, with his brothers Gottfried and Max. But they were forced to move their shop after landlord troubles and, hoping to keep their customers, began packaging their meats.

Charles Lubin wanted to send his cheesecakes to a customer in Texas, so he created the frozen pastry industry, naming his company after his daughter, Sara Lee. After Reddi-Wip, developed at a Chicago dairy, was introduced in 1948, American consumption of whipped cream doubled in three years. Paint in spray cans was invented here, too.

Technology was always big here. The most significant technological moment to occur in Chicago was the first man-made nuclear chain reaction, achieved by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field on Dec. 2, 1942.

As far back as 1876, telephone pioneer Elisha Gray developed an early prototype of the telephone in Highland Park, and a case can be made that his invention was stolen by Alexander Graham Bell.

The Congress hotel had the first air-conditioning — cooling its Pompeian Room in 1907 with a carbon-dioxide fan-coil system.

The public first heard loudspeakers in Chicago — working together, Bell Telephone and Western Electric installed 10 loudspeakers at the Olympic Theater in 1912 — to transmit sound-effects from backstage. The first stereo tape recording was a similar joint effort — General Motors was looking for a way to analyze engine noise, and Magnecord came up with stereo tape to help out, then realized it also had consumer value, demonstrating it at the U.S. Audio Fair in 1949. The Shure Radio Corp. opened on Wells Street in 1925 and became the largest manufacturer of phonograph cartridges in the country. In 1953, it introduced the first mass market wireless microphone — the “Vagabond.” It cost $800.

Chicago was a center for automatic entertainment — the first jukebox that played records was manufactured by the Automatic Machine & Tool Company in 1906. The first self-contained coin-operated soda machine was the Vendrink, which saw its test run at the Lincoln Park Zoo in 1934, when there were a dozen different pinball machine companies in Chicago, where the game was invented.

The first event broadcast on the first telecommunications satellite, Telestar, was supposed to be a speech by John F. Kennedy. But the feed went live early, so a Cubs game against the Phillies at Wrigley Field in July 1962 was broadcast instead. The first movies on VCR tape for home use were offered in the Chicago area by Sears in spring 1972, according to Patrick Robertson in his Robertson’s Book of Firsts.

Not every invention was monumental. Brownies were invented at the Palmer House, Twinkies in Schiller Park. Lava lamps were made on Irving Park Road. Chicago holds a central place in candymaking — Lemonheads were invented here. The Weber Grill, too.

Chicago has a key role in fast-food history. The crenellated designs of White Castle outlets that popped up around the country in 1921 were based on our Water Tower, and of course, McDonald’s took root in Oak Brook.

The superlatives go on — as everyone knows, President Barack Obama was a Chicago law professor, while the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere is — still — Willis Tower. Major Internet firms such as Groupon sprouted in Chicago. Someone is waking up this morning and creating something new and fantastic that will be lauded in the Sun-Times at the city’s bicentennial, on March 4, 2037. Something to look forward to with pride.

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