Often a Great Notion

If “necessity is the mother of invention, ” Alabama is a good mom. Here are some of her sons, 10 remarkable men you probably never heard of. Some were sons of immigrants, another the grandson of a slave; two were small town doctors and one is a Demopolis man with an invention that may have won World War II.

Regardless of roots, born or raised in the “Heart of Dixie, ” the world is a better place from the products they invented. From coal mining machines to synthetic bubble-gum, these are their stories — tales of 10 men who made a difference.

Donald Croom Beatty

Aviator, explorer and inventor, Donald Croom Beatty began his innovating on wings and a prayer — lots of prayer. As a teenager, young Beatty built an airplane with a motorcycle engine. He crashed it. Later he constructed a hand-powered submarine, which like all good submarines, sank. Unfortunately his did not resurface. 

But he never gave up. Among his patents are the automatic telephone dialer, telephone amplifying voice device (speaker phone) and the telephone answering machine. 

Beatty built Alabama’s first voice radio station network, used to broadcast weather conditions for pilots. He enhanced crystal wireless radio and established a forerunner system for satellite communications used today. He was born in Birmingham in 1900 and died there in 1980.

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Synthetic rubber magician Waldo Semon at B.F. Goodrich around 1940.

Library of Congress photo

Waldo L. Semon

Demopolis’ Waldo L. Semon helped win World War II. Just before the war, he established Ameripol, a synthetic rubber, vital in the war effort. But he is best known for being the inventor of vinyl, the second most used plastic in the world. 

Though Semon is credited with creating more than 5, 000 synthetic rubber compounds, the one he talked about most often was the one that got away — a chewable but indigestible rubber compound version of today’s bubble gum. “It would grow great big bubbles, ” he excitedly told friends and the press. But his employer, B.F. Goodrich, thought no one would buy it. Waldo-gum was never marketed.  The other bubble gum was created in 1928. 

In 1999, Semon died in an Ohio nursing home at the age of 100. 

J.W. Justus

Birmingham’s James W. Justus saw the potential for helicopters – underwater. And thus, invented the hydrocopter.

“His machine will perform underwater much as a helicopter does in the air!” proclaimed the Birmingham Post-Herald, in a 1954 newspaper account. “It will be used for wide-scale treasure hunts off the Florida coast.” 

His patented aqua-machine, an electrically propelled submersible with five observation ports, two floodlights and a hydraulic boom with a crab-like pincher, was capable of descending ocean depths of 1, 000 feet — impressive today, amazing in 1954. It could scoop a thousand pounds of ocean floor material.

Touched by the death of 21 men in a submarine accident off Hawaii in 1915, Justus also invented the forerunner of today’s diving bell. 

Erskine Ramsey’s coal car handling system at Pratt Mines.

Photo by John Horgan, courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History

Erskine Ramsey

The son of Scottish immigrants, Erskine Ramsey was born in Pittsburgh in 1864 and moved to Birmingham in 1887, accepting a job with Pratt Mines. At his death in 1953, area newspapers lauded Ramsey’s passion for miner safety and eliminating waste. Ramsey’s obituary includes a favorite saying of his: “Whenever you replace anything, whether it be a bolt, a car, a furnace, or an idea, make something better to take its place.” 

He created numerous inventions related to the coal industry, including an improved mine car, a coal dumping device, and a coal car handling and dumping system. 

The Birmingham industrialist was a celebrated philanthropist who, by his age 87 death, had given away more than $5 million dollars — in 1953 dollars. His favorite charities were local libraries, Alabama schools and youth organizations. 

Dr. Percy Julian

The grandson of a slave, Percy Lavon Julian was born in 1899 in Montgomery, where he received only an 8th grade education, because Montgomery high schools were unavailable to black students.

He moved to Greencastle, Indiana, enrolled in DePauw University, attended high school-credit classes by night, college courses by day, and graduated with honors. Dr. Julian went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna, Austria. 

He holds more than 130 chemical patents and was a pioneer in developments leading to cortisone, steroids and birth control pills. He was heavily involved with the development of today’s firefighting foam, used by emergency responders. Julian was the first African-American chemist to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.

Arthur B. Haswell

Describing the early days of industrial blast furnaces, Arthur B. Haswell euphemistically said about fume waste discharge, “It leaves the furnace in a relatively high velocity” — meaning it was basically a man-made volcano. Haswell changed that.

An engineer and vice president of Tennessee Coal and Iron Co., he created a series of blast furnace channels that cooled the discharge and slowed the velocity, rendering a safer blast. The principles are still in use today.

Other Haswell inventions included the tin plate mill, which enabled his employer to turn out 200, 000 tons of metal in 1937. In 1934, he received a patent for “the flying cutter, ” industrial blades that sliced metal into desired multiple lengths while the material was moving. Don’t try this at home.

Haswell died June 13, 1980 and is buried at Elmwood Cemetery, Birmingham.

Kenneth Latimer Rule Daniel

Kenneth Rule Daniel’s resume includes business leader, railroad executive, inventor and war hero. In 1938, he was hired as furnace foreman in the melting department of Birmingham’s American Cast Iron and Pipe Co. (ACIPCO). By 1963, he was company president. 

Daniel joined the Army one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Decorated with medals, the lieutenant colonel found time during military life to invent an alternative trigger for M1 rifles. 

But he is best known for his post-Army career, returning to ACIPCO. While rising through the ranks to the company’s top office, Daniel received seven U.S. and 24 foreign patents for machinery, pipe castings and equipment automation. His “Hold-Down Device, ” (patented Nov. 24, 1959) literally prevented objects from flying out of high spinning centrifuges. 

Dr. Robert Andrew Hingson

At his death in 1996 at age 83, The New York Times hailed Anniston’s Dr. Robert Hingson as “a pioneer in public health.” He was noted for reducing maternal and infant mortality throughout the world, with a firearm that shot medicine.

Hingson invented “the Peace Gun, ” a jet injector, pistol-shaped device that could inject a thousand people per hour with simultaneous vaccines. The injector was placed into service in 1941 when he was director of anesthesia at the U.S. Marine Hospital on Staten Island. His life-saving medical instrument treated many diseases, including smallpox, measles, tuberculosis and leprosy, throughout the world. 

Dr. Hingson’s other inventions included a portable respirator, and he was an early innovator in childbirth anesthesia. 

Walker Reynolds Jr.

Another Anniston medical man, Dr. Walker Reynolds Jr. spent his entire life (1916-2001) in his hometown, except for World War II military service. And he devoted 30 years as a physician at Anniston Medical Center. But his invention, the surgical staple, replacing sutures for closing incisions, was a medical game changer.  

His other medical inventions include surgical tongs, the bone compression plate and three patents on the stethoscope. 

When not practicing medicine, Dr. Walker practiced his golf swing. The former president of the Southern Golf Association, the Alabama Golf Association and the Alabama Seniors Golf Association invented and patented a golf putter and golf putter head.

George Henry

Back in the 1800s, in George Henry’s world, cotton was king. But Mobile’s Mr. Henry was an oil man — cottonseed oil. The potential was huge. Cotton was shipped from Alabama to all parts of the world, for cloth products. But oil was an untested market. The trick was squeezing it out of the seeds. Henry’s inventions seized the squeeze.

He created a machine that presses out the oil and drops it into a hopper where it is collected and later added to foods. Cottonseed oil is used in mayonnaise, salads, margarine and more. His other inventions include a machine for drying wet cotton and manufacturing cotton yarn.

Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He is based in Satsuma.

Text by Emmett Burnett

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