A look at some obscure presidential innovations


By Sue Curtis



This weekend includes a day set aside to honor our nation’s presidents. I’ve always enjoyed this holiday, especially since it routinely afforded a day off school or work! Being president is a big job in and of itself, but some of our presidents also have some other impressive accomplishments.

For example, as a farmer, George Washington always looked for ways to improve efficiency on his estate. At the time, separating grain from stalk was an arduous task. The easiest method involved letting horses trample the grain. Though this method was faster, it was still inefficient. So Washington invented a two-story barn that left spaces between the floorboards on the second floor. That way when the horses trampled the grain, the separated product fell through the granary to the bottom floor, where it could be winnowed and shipped to the mill for processing. The result was a machine-like increase in efficiency.

Also amazing is Abraham Lincoln, the only U.S. president to hold a patent. He created an apparatus that lifted boats over shoals and sandbars, based on inflatable chambers on either side of a boat. Although the patent was granted, the device was never produced.

Our fourth president, James Madison, invented a walking stick with a microscope inside. This allowed him to inspect anything interesting on the ground without having to kneel down. Unfortunately, the walking stick was too short for men over five and a half feet tall (Mr. Madison was 5’ 4’’).

Although not an invention, per se, Herbert Hoover was the inspiration for “Hooverball,” a sport developed by the White House physician at the time. The sport combined aspects of tennis and volleyball, and involved teams of two to four people throwing a four-to-six pound ball over a net. It was intended to keep the president active, and seems slightly less boring to watch than golf.

While not strictly an invention, Theodore Roosevelt was the muse for toymaker Morris Michtom. Mr. Roosevelt gave Michtom permission to use his name for a stuffed animal — now famous — and so the “teddy bear” was born. The rest of the story isn’t so cuddly, as we all know that Roosevelt enjoyed his big game hunting. I’ll just leave you with the knowledge that he did inspire one of our favorite childhood toys.

Also not an invention, I feel compelled to mention that Grover Cleveland was the first president to use electric lights to decorate the White House Christmas tree. Electric light strands had been invented in 1882, but were met with indifference by Americans. In 1885, Mr. Cleveland requested electric lights for the tree, which popularized the now commonplace multi-colored bulbs.

Thomas Jefferson, one of our more prolific presidents, invented quite a few things. Not satisfied with simply authoring the Declaration of Independence, he also created a plow that dug deeper into the ground and a macaroni press. My personal favorite, however, is the swivel chair. I know it’s saved many an office worker time and energy!

Happy Presidents’ Day to you all! Email me at suecurtis9@gmail.com.

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By Sue Curtis

Sue is a retired public servant who volunteers at the Hospice store (For All Seasons) in Troy and teaches part-time at Urbana University. She keeps busy taking care of husband, house, and pets. She and her husband have an adult son who lives in Troy.

Sue is a retired public servant who volunteers at the Hospice store (For All Seasons) in Troy and teaches part-time at Urbana University. She keeps busy taking care of husband, house, and pets. She and her husband have an adult son who lives in Troy.

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