John Patterson, Edward Deeds, and Wilbur and Orville Wright are just a few of the big names from a time when Dayton was a hotbed of innovation and invention. These famous names prompted a question from WYSO listener Susan Thornton:
“Why did Dayton produce so many inventors—for example, Charles Kettering, the Wright Brothers, the pop top can inventor?”
Thornton says she was inspired by learning about Dayton’s history of inventors as a kid, and it’s part of what motivated her to become an engineer. WYSO Curious went back to her starting point—Carillon Historical Park in Dayton—to look for answers.
In the early 1900s, Dayton became the invention capital of the United States, with the most patents per capita. From the end of the 19th century through the 20th century, the city's influential inventions included the airplane, the cash register, the self-starting ignition for automobiles, and the pop top beverage can. The long list of inventions also includes the electric wheelchair, the stepladder and the parking meter.
Mary Oliver, the director of collections with Dayton History at Carillon, shows off a room filled from floor to ceiling with elaborate cash registers, each engraved with the words National Cash Register.
“In my opinion, exactly why we’re standing here is why Dayton was so innovative...NCR,” she says. Oliver thinks National Cash Register is where a lot of it got started. John Patterson, who founded the company in 1884, didn’t actually invent the cash register: he was an entrepreneur, and he surrounded himself with creative folks. He was also an eccentric individual with a knack for marketing; Oliver says one of his great inventions may have been junk mail.
John Patterson and NCR bring us to the first, most obvious answer to Susan Thornton’s question about why Dayton was a hub for invention: Dayton had the people.
“Dayton had a particular group of people all in this golden era all coming together at the same time that really had that mindset,” says Alex Heckman, education director for Dayton History. Patterson hired engineers Edward Deeds and Charles Kettering, who went on to invent the ignition self-starter and other innovations in the auto industry.
But there’s a chicken-egg question here. Which came first? Did the people make Dayton, or did something about Dayton make the people? Of course, this question is subjective—there’s no definitive work on the issue. But WYSO found the short answer is, there’s more than one factor contributing to why Dayton was a hub for invention. The second factor: location.
“There had always been a lot of machinists in the area, a lot of small-scale manufacturing, things that we call today tool and die,” says Janet Bednarek, a history professor at the University of Dayton. She says Dayton was near rivers and transportation, which made it a good place for building and making things. As the industrial economy exploded, the high level of production drew people here. The city’s productivity, in turn, led to the third key factor in inventiveness: capital.
“The late 19th and early 20th century was a time of tremendous technological change, a lot of energy, a lot of capital was available for innovators at that time,” says Bednarek. The steel industry, meatpacking, and of course Patterson’s booming cash register business were raking it in. “That capital has to go somewhere.”
Dayton at that time was kind of like the Silicon Valley of mechanical engineering, with investment to support a whole class of inventors and thinkers. That investment, in turn, fed into a final factor driving Dayton’s inventiveness: collaboration. Professor Bednarek says the Wright Brothers and Kettering and Deeds used to hang out and put their heads together, forming a group known as the “Barn Gang” that later developed into the Dayton Engineers Club.
“It seems if you get a lot of creative people within close proximity to one another, it seems to have this synergistic effect, and a lot of things happen, and that’s what happened in Dayton around the turn of the last century,” says Bednarek.
A spirit of collaboration and creativity lasted through the 20th century and inspired many more inventions.
But Dayton took off as the patent capital more than a hundred years ago, and in a recent national report from the Brookings Institution, the city came in near the bottom of the list for patents, with negative growth in the last couple decades.
Jonathan Rothwell with Brookings says Dayton still has inventors, of course—but they’re not really where the money is anymore.
“The top patenting companies in Dayton include the Air Force, which obviously is not rolling out new technologies at the same rate as a company like Apple or Microsoft,” Rothwell says. The explanation for that, he says, is simple: Apple and Microsoft have an interest in cutting-edge marketable technologies, whereas Air Force research must focus first and foremost on national security and defense needs. “Companies just think about things very differently. They think, what are the growing markets globally?”
The areas with the most patents today are heavily focused in computer technologies and communication; Dayton’s legacy of heavy industry and even high-tech manufacturing don’t give it the same edge in the current global economy. Rothwell adds that the presence of major research universities, as well as the quality of local schools can help draw and retain talent and investment.
Still, all of us live with ideas that came out of the Dayton area, whether it’s the airplane, the ice cube tray or the bar code scanner in a grocery store. In the lobby of the history museum, Dayton native Greg Franklin, visiting from Cincinnati, says he’s not sure what made the city a center for invention. He guesses maybe some folks were just in the right place at the right time.
“Dayton was good farm country, and they bought up the land and their minds went to work, [to] make it work better,” he says. Barely a hundred years after they transformed that farmland, a lot of those big industries uprooted and left. Even NCR moved on in 2009. Franklin says there’s still something left of the old Dayton: “Seeing Dayton reinvent itself.”
He’s hopeful that by working together, the people of Dayton will “bring it back to greatness like it was, back in the day.”
WYSO Curious is our series driven by your questions and curiosities about the Miami Valley. Is there something you’ve always wondered about the Miami Valley’s history, people, culture, economy, politics or environment? Send in a question now, and check back to see which questions we’re considering.
Lewis Wallace is WYSO's economics reporter and substitute morning host. Follow him @lewispants.