From harebrained schemes to feasible dreams, the Bay area has never been in short supply of inventors with ideas that could — and did — change the world.
JOHN ELLIS FOWLER
Born in Mississippi in 1862, John E. Fowler moved to Mobile in 1884, where he set up a clock and sewing machine repair business on Dauphin Street. Interested in all things mechanical, Fowler began constructing primitive flying machines at Monroe Park, charging admission to anyone curious enough to take a look.
Considering the Wright brothers were a couple years away from soaring across the sands of Kitty Hawk, Fowler was operating on the cutting-edge of scientific discovery. There was only one problem: He never actually achieved powered flight. Although some Mobilians claimed to have seen him performing gliding experiments across Mobile Bay, the existence of such has never been proven.
According to Billy Singleton’s “Mobile Aviation,” upon Fowler’s death in 1939, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Magnolia Cemetery. It wasn’t until 1997 that relatives erected a headstone, reading “John Ellis Fowler, Pioneer of Flight.”
WILLIAM C. POWERS
The year was 1862. As Union ships blockaded key Confederate ports, frustration mounted throughout the South, which lacked the naval power to directly challenge the blockade. During this time, some men, such as Horace Hunley, decided to take the battle under the waves. Alongside a team of engineers in Mobile, Hunley would build the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel.
And yet, there was another man who sought a different approach; William C. Powers would break the blockade from above. Powers, an architectural engineer living in Mobile, dreamed up a Confederate helicopter of sorts which would be powered by steam engine and propelled by Archimedean screws to give it thrust and lift.
Unfortunately, Powers’ flying machine never matured beyond sketches and a small model. It’s estimated that Powers, recognizing the South’s limited production capabilities, hid away his idea lest it fall into Union hands where it could be produced and used against the South. While modern engineers doubt the design would have ever worked, you’ve got to admire Powers’ optimism.
The Hearing Aid & the Klaxon Horn
MILLER REESE HUTCHISON
In Miller Reese Hutchison’s 1944 obituary, the Birmingham News summarized: “Dr. Hutchison, one of the nation’s greatest inventors and scientists, was born and largely educated in Alabama and here began his work that led him to become Thomas Edison’s right hand man for many years.” His death, it asserted, “did not receive the attention in Alabama it deserved.”
Born in 1876 in Montrose, Hutchison would go on to become Baldwin County’s most prolific inventor, responsible for more than 1,000 patents. His two most celebrated creations were the portable hearing aid and the Klaxon horn. The Acousticon, as his hearing aid was called, was developed by Hutchison to benefit a childhood friend whose hearing was lost to scarlet fever.
The Klaxon horn came about after Hutchison observed the chaotic traffic of New York City and decided an obnoxious horn would work better than the more melodic predecessors. Described as “harsh, raucous and diabolical,” the now famous “ah-oo-gah” shriek of the Klaxon horn led Thomas Edison to remark that Hutchison had invented the horn to deafen people so that they’d have to wear his hearing aid.
ABOVE McLean pictured at New Jersey’s Port Newark in 1957 in the early days of his containerization revolution.
The Shipping Container
In 1956, North Carolina native and former truck driver Malcom McLean and his brother and sister purchased the Waterman Steamship Company in Mobile. McLean used the opportunity to test out a simple but revolutionary idea. Instead of loading and unloading a ship’s cargo piecemeal with pallets and slings, what if its contents could be organized into giant containers holding tons of cargo?
McLean sent a couple of ships up to Chickasaw to test out his idea, cutting large cells into the ships where his crewmen could lower truck trailers. The experiment was deemed a success, and McLean undertook the task of building the world’s first container ship. The Ideal X, as it was named, forever changed world trade. Forty years later, President Bill Clinton told McLean, now dubbed the Father of Containerization, “Four decades ago … few could have foreseen the global impact of your innovative idea.” Today, 90 percent of the world’s cargo is transported by container ships.
The Mobile Home
LAURA AND JAMES SWEET
Although Snopes.com, the Internet’s go-to source for debunking urban myths, confirms the following details, there’s still plenty of uncertainty surrounding this story. Nevertheless! At the end of World War II, a couple in Prichard, Laura and James Sweet, saw an opportunity in the housing shortage America faced as millions of servicemen and women returned home from overseas. Their idea was to construct prefabricated homes that were light enough to be loaded onto flatbed trucks and delivered to a customer’s desired location. After the Sweets saw a little success, competitors flocked to the Mobile area, where they could find a large and cheap labor pool.
With the building of the new interstate system, the product attracted national attention, and consumers raved over these “Mobile homes.” As national producers jumped on the bandwagon, it was quickly forgotten that the term “Mobile” was actually a geographic reference and not an indication of the buildings’ mobility.
If that doesn’t blow your mind, consider this: It’s said that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s hit “Sweet Home Alabama” was a tongue-in-cheek reworking of a 1951 radio jingle for James and Laura’s “Sweet Homes, Alabama.”
ABOVE Kirchoff bravely performs an airbag demonstration during the 1970s.
Photo courtesy of George Kirchoff
GEORGE F. KIRCHOFF
During the 25-year period from 1987 to 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that airbags saved 39,976 lives. “That’s enough to fill a major league ballpark,” its website continues.
Known as “the father of the airbag,” 84-year-old George F. Kirchoff lives in Montrose with a view of Mobile Bay. The Birmingham native and Auburn graduate moved to Baldwin County with his wife Gene in 1997 following a career that forever altered vehicular safety for the better. Having worked for many years in rocketry, Kirchoff became familiar with pyrotechnics, a useful skill that would serve him well down the road. He was eventually hired by Thiokol Inc., in Utah and led their effort to build a reliable airbag, using his pyrotechnic skills to detonate gases in order to inflate a nylon bag.
The airbag was not a new invention, but companies had yet to effectively develop it. Kirchoff and his team, however, were successful. At an award presentation in 1992, Ralph Nader declared, “The inventors of the airbag technology have remained anonymous for too long.”
ABOVE Johnson with his world-famous invention, the Super Soaker.
Photo courtesy of Johnson Research & Affiliates
The Super Soaker Water Gun
From early on, it was clear that Lonnie Johnson, a Williamson High School student, might have a future as an inventor (Johnson remembers nearly burning down his parents’ house making rocket fuel as a kid). Today, his astonishing resume includes working with the Air Force on a stealth bomber program and assisting NASA with nuclear power for the Galileo mission to Jupiter.
But during his hours off, Johnson continued to tinker on other projects. While experimenting with a new type of refrigeration system, he hooked up a nozzle to a bathroom faucet, and a powerful stream of water erupted across his sink. It sparked an idea.
After several years of false starts and many prototypes, Johnson teamed up with Larami toy company. In 1991, Larami sold 20 million of Johnson’s Super Soaker water guns. “I remember just staring at my royalties check in disbelief,” Johnson would later write. The Super Soaker was a cultural phenomenon. Even Johnny Carson got in on the fun by soaking his sidekick Ed McMahon on “The Tonight Show.”
Today, Johnson runs a scientific research facility in Atlanta.
The mechanical Oyster Shucker
GEORGE HENLEY AND LES STINSON
In the late ’80s, two Baldwin County minds converged to crack a tough nut — creating a reliable and easy-to-use oyster shucker. One day, while selling restaurant furnishings, Les Stinson was shown an old 19th century oyster-shucking device. He was intrigued. After asking around to see if anyone knew of a good metalworker, he was introduced to George Henley.
After some good old-fashioned tinkering, the pair submitted a patent. While it wasn’t the first oyster shucker on the market, it was the only one that showed commercial promise. Henley maintains that the concept and design are rather simple: “It’s something that should have been invented 150 years ago, but, then, that’s how it goes sometimes,” he said in 1988.
Nearly 30 years later, the EZ Shucker, as it was named, is still at the forefront of oyster-shucking technology. Henley is now the product’s sole proprietor, spending roughly three months of the year making the EZ Shuckers at his home in Fairhope to be supplied to his distributor in Texas. Henley estimates that 99 percent of the machines are sold to restaurants, stretching from Mobile to New Zealand.