From the automobile to the rocket ship, from chewing gum to the TV dinner, from the first face in a photograph to the first voice on the telephone, the world has been forever changed by impossible technologies and startling ideas. But these inventions do not always make the world a better place. These are the stories of The First, a podcast exploring the history of human innovation, focusing less on iconic inventors and more on the forgotten geniuses and everyday people that were responsible for bringing us the tools of the modern world. Brought to you by Greg Young of the Bowery Boys podcast.
The First Apartment Building in America (A Stuyvesant Story)
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
The Lost Highway: America's First Cross Country Road
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.
How Electric Light Changed Christmas Forever
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.
The Plant Doctor: The Extraordinary George Washington Carver
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?!
The Real Housewives of Early America: The Story of the First American Cookbook
“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!
The Rebel: America's Founding Inventor
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.
Customer ReviewsSee All
I’m a fan of his history podcast The Bowery Boys. I wish The First had continued to give us a deep dive into interventions and their impact on society.
Excellent enjoyable history
Very well done putting you in the time and place of that era.
This podcast will return
Greg is coming back as soon as he’s done writing his book. Best of luck to him. This podcast is fantastic and rivals the Bowery Boys! Keep me’ coming!