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Virginian inventions that made their mark on history 

Shenandoah National Park
(© sschremp – stock.adobe.com)

Humans are inquisitive folk. For our entire history, we’ve continually asked “what if”, with some seriously dedicated people committing large portions of their lives to experiment with different methods of inventing tools to make our lives easier.

Had we not done any of this, we’d still be nomadic peoples, living in small groups, traveling from place to place in search of our next meal. But thanks to various inventions, we created agriculture, sanitary systems, and building materials so we’d have somewhere to live, safe and sheltered from the elements.

Sometimes, these inventions are deliberate, with people spending months or even years of their lives trying to perfect a tool or technique. One of the most famous cases of this was Thomas Edison who, along with his associates, spent over three years experimenting with thousands of different ideas for creating an electric lightbulb.

Other times, these inventions are accidental. Penicillin, one of the most important medicines in the modern world, was discovered entirely by chance when Alexander Fleming left a petri dish contaminated with a mold spur alone for two weeks.

Similarly, the game of roulette was invented as a consequence of the French inventor, Blaise Pascal’s quest to create a perpetual motion machine. Instead, he stumbled upon a fun game that is enjoyed by millions of players to this day. Of course, like the light bulb and antibiotics, roulette has evolved in the 21st century, with multiple variants to choose from, including American and European which use different roulette numbers to change the house edge. But, if it hadn’t been for Pascal, none of these modern creations would exist.

While many of these famous inventors and inventions are household names right around the world, there are many creations that often fly under the radar while providing vital benefits to the way we live our lives. Not only that, but many were created right here in Virginia.

The mechanical reaper

Grains are vital to our existence. If we’re not eating them directly, we’re feeding them to animals, so it’s important to be able to secure enough of them for us to achieve food security. Prior to the 19th century, it was back-breaking manual work to harvest grain crops from the fields. But when Cyrus McCormick of Rockbridge County created the mechanical reaper, he started a revolution.

It meant farmers could boost their yields by 200% and use fewer people in the process.

Of course, modern machines have come a long way since the original version in 1831, but they wouldn’t exist had it not been for McCormick.

Lip balms

Lip balm is useful for when your lips get dried out by the weather. The problem was, before 1912, the only way to apply this wax-like substance was to dip your finger in a pot of petroleum jelly and smear it on your face.

Chapstick, the first brand of lip balm in stick form was created by John Morton of Lynchburg, repackaging his previous lip-protecting substance into a convenient and hygienic alternative.

Peanuts

Peanuts weren’t invented in Virginia, in fact, they’ve been around for more than 2,500 years. They were brought to the US from Africa in the 1700s, though few considered them to be a source of food.

It would be another century before peanuts began to be cultivated on any meaningful scale.

George Washington Carver from Missouri and Alabama is widely cited as being responsible for inventing peanut butter, though this isn’t quite accurate. He was, however, the man behind many other peanut products, and an advocate for crop diversity, including the growing of peanuts.

He wouldn’t have been able to champion this legume had it not been for Virginia. In the early 1800s, the state had begun growing peanuts on a large scale for the purposes of creating oil, though they were also used as a substitute for cocoa.

Over time, America’s love for the peanut has grown bigger and bigger, culminating with today’s obsession over different types of peanut butter and peanut butter-flavored foods. But none of it would have been possible without Virginia.

Story by Luke Windsor


augusta free press
augusta free press
augusta free press

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