On Interstate 70 in east central Ohio, we make our way
through the northern outskirts of the Dayton metropolitan area. Dayton is
well-known as an aviation center. The Wright Brothers built the world’s first
successful engine-powered aircraft here and today the community hosts the
Wright-Paterson Air Force Base, one of the nation’s largest military bases. Over
22,000 people are employed at Wright-Patterson, which occupies a site where the
Wright Brothers tested their fledgling airplane about a century ago.
But there’s more to this city than airplanes. Did you know
that Dayton claims one of the highest patent rates per capita in the nation?
There have been more inventions here that have changed our everyday lives than
just about anywhere else. Such as, the automobile self-starter, developed by
Charles Kettering, thereby earning him the title of the man who put women behind
the wheel. Before the self-starter, getting a car going was an arduous task of
cranking. After the self-starter, all it took was the turn of a key to get the
old buggy rumbling. (Though it’s probably not fair to suggest that only women
are beneficiaries of Kettering’s invention.)
Or, consider other inventions patented by Daytonians: the
stepladder, anti-knock gasoline, carbonless carbon paper, the gas mask,
time-released medications, the LCD liquid crystal display, digital thermometers,
the photoelectric cell, the motorized wheelchair, and the movie projector. The
world’s first aerial photograph from an airplane was of Dayton, taken in 1910.
And where would we be without the black light, employed by generations of high
school and college students to weird up their rooms? And where would we be
without the lighted scoreboard for sports events? And where would we be without
cellophane tape? And where would we be without the song, “Hang On Sloopy,”
recorded by a Dayton band, the McCoys, and later named the official rock song of
the State of Ohio? We have Dayton to thank for all this.
So how did this hub of inventiveness get started?
Dayton’s first settlers arrived in 1796 and camped out on the
plain where three rivers and one stream from the north flow into the Great Miami
River. Indians living in the area warned against establishing a community here
because it so regularly flooded, but the settlers set up housekeeping anyway.
Sure enough, the first 125 years of Dayton’s existence were punctuated by floods
that washed sections clean of homes and businesses. It wasn’t until after a
disastrous flood in 1913—which claimed over 360 lives and cost over 100 million
dollars—that Dayton got serious about protecting itself, building a series of
dams that contained the waters.
Dayton was named for John Dayton, a congressman from New
Jersey who, along with several partners, owned the land when the original
settlers arrived. The region was referred to as the “Dayton Purchase,” then just
Dayton. It is said that John Dayton never visited Dayton, Ohio.
The first decades of the new community’s existence were
occupied by cutting woods, building houses, grinding grain, and producing corn
whiskey—not unlike most settlements on the Ohio frontier. But Dayton had a
resource not available to many fledgling Ohio communities: natural waterways
that provided transportation. Then, in 1829, the Miami and Erie Canal came
through, connecting the city first to Cincinnati, the Ohio River, and points
south. Then to Toledo, Lake Erie, and the east coast via the Erie Canal. Dayton
evolved into a commercial and a manufacturing center.
The city’s first really big business started inauspiciously in 1879 when James
Ritter produced an invention he called the “mechanical money drawer.” This
contraption drew mostly curious stares from onlookers when it was first put on
display and laughter at the loud bell that jingled each time the drawer was
opened. Five years later, a man named John H. Patterson came to Dayton and
bought the company Ritter had started to produce his invention. The price:
$6,500. Patterson apparently had a bad night after buying the company because
the next day he tried to sell it back—for half the price he paid.
But he couldn’t unload it so he went to work trying to make
money off this machine which was by then called not the “mechanical money
drawer,” but the cash register. Patterson founded the National Cash Register
Company and in just over 25 years after trying to get rid of what he feared was
a white elephant, the company had sold its 1 millionth cash register. John H.
Patterson went on to become not only a successful business head but a leader in
the Dayton community, and the contributions of the Patterson family have been
recognized in the naming of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Today the company,
now known as NCR, is still headquartered in Dayton and produces items such as
point-of-sale terminals, bar code scanners, and automatic teller machines.
One more contribution of Patterson’s National Cash Register
Company. During the 1890’s the company printed signs and posted them where
employees gathered. It was a one-word sign, printed in capital letters, with an
explanation point at the end. That word: THINK! These THINK! signs were widely
copied and appeared in many places other than the National Cash Register
We don’t know if they’ve done any good.
For more about Dayton and its surrounding communities, see
the CD for
Columbus, OH to Richmond, IN or I-70 East:
Richmond, IN to Columbus, OH.