Presidents Day is this Monday, in case you forgot (or never realized). That means a lucky few of you will be getting a day off next Monday. The federal holiday equivalent of unexpectedly discovering a fiver in your jeans, Presidents Day is a day when we’re supposed to remember presidents past and present.
Remember them we will, but not by the usual presidential deeds of breaking promises, being hated by roughly half the country, and making executive decisions with interns. We’re going to remember the presidents who had something more to offer – inventions. We all know George Washington invented America and freedom, but what about numbers 2 to 44?
Already known for innovations like the Declaration of Independence and interracial relationships, one of the central founding fathers also had some technical skill, which he displayed in his designs for, of all things, a macaroni press. Jefferson and his son-in-law also developed an iron plow that could dig deeper into the ground than the wooden plows in use at that time. Which is great, and really useful, but forget all that. He invented the swivel chair. You can start planning your pilgrimage of gratitude to the Jefferson Memorial now.
Creating children’s toys wasn’t really the business of the Rough Rider, but there’s no denying that without him, we wouldn’t have the teddy bear. Kids everywhere would have had one less best friend growing up, and Seth Macfarlane would have had to find another way to get into feature films. So, we’ll give Theodore Roosevelt a fair amount of credit for the teddy bear, a toy created by Morris Michtom after Roosevelt gave the OK for Michtom to use his name. Michtom modeled the bear after a cuddly cub drawn in an editorial cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman. The story gets considerably less heartwarming when you finally get to the source – Roosevelt deciding to mercy kill a wounded bear cub in Mississippi. Why was he in Mississippi? Among other reasons, to go on a bear hunt.
There were indeed a few presidential inventors, but only can call himself a patent holder – Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln filed for and was granted a patent for an apparatus that would lift boats over shoals and sandbars, involving two chambers on either side of the boat that would inflate, lifting the boat up and preventing damage caused by obstructions in the water. Lincoln developed the idea after being frustrated one too many times by his own boats running into sandbars. He could have opened up his infomercial with an “Are you tired of…” that wouldn’t have been totally full of it.
Madison was all about combining multiple products into one – truly, a man ahead of his time. One of his contributions was a walking stick with a microscope inside, so people could take a finer look at the things they usually trampled over on a daily basis. No pictures or sketches of Madison’s creation are to be had, so we can only speculate about how much the spirit of MacGyver was involved here. Also, the fourth president’s invention may or may not have been used by the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, to get a better view of the people he was beating the hell out of.
Hoover wasn’t the inventor here, but he was a central figure in the creation of a sport – Hooverball. Developed by the White House physician at the time, Admiral Joel T. Boone, Hooverball combines the court and scoring of tennis with the net of volleyball. Teams of two to four people take turns throwing a four to six pound ball over the net, which has to be caught and thrown back immediately, without the player moving from the spot of the catch. A ball that heavy made for a sport that met its goal – keeping President Hoover fit. It also made for maybe the only sport more boring to watch than golf.
By some accounts, President Cleveland started what is now granted as tradition every December in the United States – electric Christmas lights around the tree. In 1882, Edward H. Johnson, a friend of Thomas Edison, created the first string of Christmas lights, which were met with collective indifference by a people content to keep burning their houses down by adorning their trees with lighted candles. Cleveland introduced sanity to the holiday season by requesting electric lights for the White House Christmas tree in December of 1895, which finally popularized the now-ubiquitous multi-colored bulbs.
We could say Jackson was a key innovator in not giving a crap (when political opponents called him “jackass,” Jackson adopted the name for the rest of the presidential election). We could say he was a key figure in the founding of seething political hatred (his famous deathbed regrets were that he “had been unable to shoot Henry Clay or to hang John C. Calhoun.”). Instead, we’ll give him credit for making the spoils system big, giving key government jobs to his best buddies who helped him get elected, in an effort to encourage party loyalty. That nepotism has been copied and corrupted ever since, becoming a key part of our time-honored political system today.
No, inventing the country wasn’t enough for our first president. He also had to go ahead and invent a few farming innovations, like a drill plow and a fifteen-sided barn used for more efficient threshing of wheat. Both inventions were created and used by Washington himself, and, according to the president, improved agricultural output. Truly, the greatest of all time. And, lest we forget, Washington is also the reason for Presidents Day – originally implemented by the government as a celebration of Washington’s birthday. Happy 281st!