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A Short List of NOT-SO-FAMOUS Firsts

By Walker Joyce

This column has already paid some attention to our state’s rich technological history. Indeed, the very first one was a salute to Murray Hill’s Bell Telephone Laboratories, and how they gave birth to the Digital Age.

Some people know the transistor was invented there, which led to silicon chips and eventually personal computers, et al. Ditto how mass communication began when the telegraph was perfected and demonstrated in Morristown. And it’s common knowledge that Edison created the light bulb and most of his other epochal inventions in Menlo Park and West Orange.

But did you know the log cabin was a New Jersey innovation? I myself would’ve guessed New England or Kentucky. Ah, but archeologists and historians say the very first ones date back to the 1640’s in Gloucester County.

During the same decade, the nation’s first brewery turned out its beer in Hoboken. Lord bless whoever that entrepreneur was!

Continuing in creature comforts, the air conditioner came from a Newark factory, when Willis Carrier, an innovator in both heating and cooling wrote a treatise on its precepts. I’ve known of the corporation that bears his name, but I assumed the breakthrough occurred in Florida, where the company is now headquartered.

Transportation owes us a lot too. Consider:

--In 1793, the first commercial flight—via hot air balloon--landed in Deptford. It traveled 46 miles from Philadelphia, carrying a letter from George Washington.

--America’s first steam engine appeared in the 1750’s to pump out copper mines in Arlington.

--The Train Era peaked when Paterson, the country’s first planned industrial city (thank you, Alexander Hamilton), became home to several companies manufacturing steam locomotives.

--Traffic circles like the dreaded one in Somerville and jug handle ramps were first built here. Did we therefore pioneer the modern traffic jam and fender-bender too? Probably.

Did you know the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk was also the world’s first, and was built by the aptly-named Alex Boardman? That was in 1870. Soon thereafter, some enterprising confectioner in that resort town came up with Salt Water Taffy. And of course, we all recall that the modern beauty pageant movement began after the first Miss America was crowned there in 1921.

Another cherished rite of summer was started in Pennsauken. In June of 1933, a clever fellow by the name of Richard Hollingshead tacked up a screen on a maple tree, plopped a projector on the hood of a Ford and voila, the Drive-In Movie Theatre came to life. Ironically, this first one was never profitable, and the operation then moved to Union. Very quickly, however, drive-ins became a national fad, and the industry thrived until home delivery systems began to eclipse it in 1980’s. Lately, however, the drive-in has been making a comeback, fueled by nostalgia and the Johnny Rocket food chain.

Speaking of recreation, forget the Cooperstown Myth. Organized Baseball was actually first played in Hoboken on June 19th, 1846. The game only lasted four innings, as by then the New York visitors were throttling the locals 23 to 1!!

And college football was born on November 6th, 1889, when Princeton invaded Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights won 6 to 4, and soon the game was dominating autumns on campuses coast to coast.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that New Jersey has been the site or progenitor of so many things. After all, we were among the first settled locales on the eastern seaboard, and with New York and Philadelphia tapping our barrel at both ends, we’ve always been a crossroads for armies, merchants and people who didn’t want to live in the cities.

It’s just a pity we don’t brag enough on such history.