Seven Chicago Inventions and Innovations That Changed America and the World

Updated on August 1, 2018
Claudette Jones profile image

Claudette, a freelance writer interested in numerous topics, may be found writing on subjects from architecture & history to hair braiding.

Early Chicago was a City of Great Inventions; Creative Innovation; Risky Entrepreneurship

During its early years, the city of Chicago earned the reputation for being a brawling, sprawling and rowdy metropolis, but at the same time was known as a place where an enterprising individual with a little vision, money, and nerves of steel could make his mark in the up and coming world of business and industry.

The rewards for innovation and creativity could and did reach far beyond just monetary, as many of the era's inventions forever changed the landscape of America and the world.

For instance, In 1893 Chicago presented its first World's Fair, The Columbian Exposition, which promoters promised would be "The greatest thing the world has ever seen". The fair lived up to those expectations and then some. Many new items introduced at the fair are mainstays of American life and culture today.

Between 1893 and the first World War, both new ideas and innovations were coming out of Chicago at a rapid fire pace and is credited by many historians as fashioning modern American civilization. Historian and author, Kenan Heise described these developments as "The Chicagoization of America".

Below are seven out of the thousands of inventions that came out of Chicago and changed our lives:

World's First Skyscraper Ushers in New Era of Architecture

The world's first steel-frame skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building was completed in Chicago in 1885. At the time brick was used for both the exterior and interior of buildings, however architect, William Le Baron Jenney had discovered how to use steel beams for the skeleton of buildings.

Jenney was the first to figure out that thin pieces of steel could support a building just as well as thick stone walls, weigh less in the process and create more flexibility particularly in terms of the building's height.

The steel required to support the Home Insurance Building weighed only one-third as much as a 10-story building made of thick masonry.

When completed the building stood 10 stories high and was 138 feet tall. Made of steel, its exterior facing was brick. Unfortunately, the building was demolished in 1931 long before its historical significance was recognized.

The First Skyscraper: A Modern Marvel in 1885


The First U.S. Blood Bank Created Life-saving Model

Dr. Bernard Fantus, director of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at Cook County Hospital in Chicago (now called John Stroger Hospital), established the first U.S. Blood Bank. After the development of blood transfusions the idea was conceived that somehow actually storing blood would be a natural progression; if blood was readily available exactly when needed, even more lives could be saved.

It was Dr. Fantus that created a hospital laboratory that could preserve and store donor blood and it was Fantus who orginated the term "Blood Bank".

Within a few years of this innovation hospital and community blood banks began to spring up across the United States using Fantus' model as the guide.

DR. BERNARD FANTUS,                               Cook County Illinois Images
DR. BERNARD FANTUS, Cook County Illinois Images

The World's First Ferris Wheel Considered Early Skyscraper

The first Ferris Wheel was designed and constructed by George W. Ferris for Chicago's 1893 world's fair, The Columbian Exposition. The Ferris Wheel was then, and still is over one hundred years later a source of wonder and amazement.

Ferris, a Pittsburgh engineer was aware that Chicago was engaged in what had been until that time a fruitless search for a centerpiece for the fair; something that would hopefully rival The Eiffel Tower, which had been erected for the 1889 Paris Exposition.

With great anticipation, Ferris submitted his idea for a giant wheel that would carry passengers and was roundly rejected. It was determined that something that big, that heavy, that monstrous had to be dangerous. But in the end for lack of anything less dangerous, but just as exciting, Daniel Burnham (Chief Architect in charge of the fair) finally conceded.

The wheel was constructed and was a huge hit among attendees. After the fair it was eventually moved to St. Louis, Missouri for their 1904 World's Fair and was soon after demolished.

The dimensions of the Ferris Wheel:

    • Stood 250 feet in height (about 26 stories).
    • Had 36 cars made of railroad boxcars (train cars).
    • Each car carried 60 people (40 seated, 20 standing) totaling 2,160 people on the wheel for each ride. The wheel always carried a full load.
    • The foundation of the Ferris Wheel was the largest piece of steel ever forged in America at the time.

Many consider the Ferris Wheel the world's first real skyscraper.

The Ferris Wheel

The First Ferris Wheel Comprised of Railroad Boxcars
The First Ferris Wheel Comprised of Railroad Boxcars | Source

The First Train Sleeping Car Brought Added Luxury to Travel

The sleeping car for trains was invented in Chicago in 1857 by George Pullman, an American industrialist and engineer; a man with a background in cabinetry and contracting.The sleeping cars, which were quite luxurious at the time were designed for the comfort of overnight passenger travel. Commercial manufacturing of the cars began at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago in 1865.

After one of the cars was attached to the funeral train that carried Abraham Lincoln's body in 1865 there was a large increase in demand for this new innovation. Dubbed "The Lincoln Special " the train essentially retraced the 1,654 mile route Mr. Lincoln had traveled as president-elect in 1861 and, as well as the president, carried approximately 300 mourners.

In 1880 George Pullman built a complete town on what is now the south side of Chicago where employees could live independently of the communities around them.

The community boasted neat rows of houses for the workers, its own hotel, church, stores and was a totally self-sufficient company town. Unfortunately, the town was also the site of the famous Pullman Strike and resulting riots in 1894.

The Pullman community still exists today and was named a Historic Landmark District in 1972 and was designated a National Monument on February 19, 2015.

1800's Style Sleeping Cars
1800's Style Sleeping Cars

The First Car Radio Provided Sound in Motion

Brothers Paul and Joseph Galvin, pioneers in mobile communications had the idea of putting radios in cars in the late 1920's. Their company The Galvin Manufacturing Company was located in Schaumberg, Illinois a suburb of Chicago.

Their first product, a battery eliminator was a device that allowed battery-powered radios to run on standard household electrical current. The battery eliminator had been a successful product for the company until the Stock Market crash of 1929 left the brothers in need of a new money making product.

With the increasing popularity of cars people wanted to take their radios with them while driving. It wasn't long before the idea of actually installing radios inside the cars came full circle. After a series of trials and errors the company introduced the first commercially successful car radio in 1930.

That same year the company came up with the brand name ... Motorola; the name was a combination of the words Motorola and Victrola (an old time record player).

Early Car Radio
Early Car Radio

Daytime Soap Operas Captivating Audiences for Over Eighty Years

The first daytime soap opera ever broadcast was created in 1930 by Ima Phillips for WGN-Radio in Chicago. The radio soap was called "Painted Dreams" and was the first of numerous serials that Phillips would create and write including, "The Guiding Light" which ended a 72-year run in 2009; it ran for 15 years on radio and 57 years on television. The Guiding Light is the longest running drama (and soap opera) in American television history.

The first American television soap, also written by Ima Phillips was "These are My Children" which debuted on NBC in 1949. Broadcast live from Chicago the show aired 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Phillips is called "The Queen of Daytime Soap Operas" because of her trailblazing in the industry, her prolific writing and the many soap operas she created.

Ima Phillips, Creator of the First Daytime Soap Operas
Ima Phillips, Creator of the First Daytime Soap Operas

Cracker Jack: A Symbol of Americana

In 1869 F.W. Rueckheim immigrated from Germany to Chicago. When Rueckheim's brother Louis arrived from Germany they formed the partnership of F.W. Rueckheim & Bro., and opened a small candy and popcorn shop on East Van Buren Street in Chicago.

The brothers introduced a unique popcorn, peanuts and molasses confection at Chicago's 1893 World's Fair The Columbian Exposition and the rest is history. The name "Cracker Jack", which at that time was a phrase describing something of high quality was officially registered in1896.

In 1908 Jack Norworth wrote the song "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with the words ... "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack" in the third line and forever immortalized the product.

Cracker Jack was purchased by Borden, Inc. of Ohio in 1964 and was purchased from Borden, Inc. by Frito Lay in 1997, but regardless of ownership will always remain a symbol of Americana.

Cracker Jack Yesterday
Cracker Jack Yesterday
Cracker Jack Today
Cracker Jack Today

Impacting Chicago, America and the World

So the city that began as a rough and tumble, muddy oasis in the middle of cow country grew up to become one of the great 'influencers' of modern American civilization.

The thousands of inventions and innovations birthed in the city of Chicago have changed our lives forever. Below are just a few more of these inventions and innovations:

  • Spray Paint
  • Roller Skates
  • Color Television
  • Vacuum Cleaner
  • Zipper
  • Mail Order
  • Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer
  • Wrigley's Gum
  • Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix
  • Pasteurized Cheese


  • Geoffrey Baer's Chicago - Geoffrey Baer in association with WTTW-TV (DVD)
  • Home Insurance Building - Guinness World Records
  • George Mortimer Pullman: Palace Car Magnate by Daniel Alef
  • Encyclopedia of Chicago
  • Chicago Architecture Foundation

© 2018 Claudette Jones


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