Running Down Dallas’ 25 Greatest Inventions.
Something we’ve noticed while doing background research for various articles — and, most notably, our Songs About Dallas series — is that Dallas, from almost the very beginning of its founding, has been way ahead of the curve in a lot of areas.
To wit, the terms “ecstasy,” “brain freeze” and “Super Bowl” were all coined by Dallasites.
What’s more, the first guitar shows in the world were held in Dallas, the Statler Hilton was the first hotel to feature elevator music, and the Adolphus was the first hotel in the country to feature air conditioning.
Then there’s Henry Garrett, who not only gave us the country’s first city-owned radio station (WRR) in 1920, but patented and demonstrated a water-fueled engine in 1935. And let’s not forget that Deep Ellum almost singlehandedly owes its existence to the many improvements to the cotton gin industry that were invented and produced there.
But above all — and this is something we think you’ll quickly notice while browsing this list, which highlights 25 of Dallas’ greatest inventions — Dallas’ two biggest contributions to society are junk food and convenience. That is to say, if it makes you lazier and/or fatter, there’s a good chance it came from here.
Take a look at our picks for Dallas’ 25 greatest inventions, and you’ll see what we mean.
Invention: Snow Cones/Snow Cone Machines.
Inventor(s): Samuel Bert.
The treat we know as the snow cone goes by many different names depending on whether the ice is shaved or crushed, how fine the bits of ice used are and so on. But in order to rightfully be called a snow cone, crushed ice is a mandatory component. By all accounts, Dallasite Samuel Bert — or “King Sammie” as he was locally known — debuted the treat at the 1919 State Fair of Texas. The next year, he patented an ice-crushing machine that helped him crank out as many as a million snow cones a year during the fair’s run from the early ’50s until his death in 1984.
Invention: Drive-In Restaurants.
Inventor(s): Jessie G. Kirby and Reuben Jackson.
In the early ’20s, Dallasite Jessie Kirby is said to have quipped to his business partner Reuben Jackson that “people in their cars are so lazy that they don’t want to get out of them to eat.” And when the pair opened its first Kirby’s Pig Stand location in September 1921, the drive-in concept proved just as popular as Kirby had imagined. In addition to being the country’s first drive-in restaurant, the Pig Stand is said to have been the first fast-food restaurant to use drive-through windows (1931) and fluorescent lighting (1939). It is also believed to be the birthplace of fried onion rings, chicken-fried steak sandwiches and Texas toast. That last item purportedly came when a 1941 order for thick slices of bread from the Rainbow Bakery resulted in slices too thick to fit in the restaurant’s toaster, resulting in an enterprising cook buttering them up and throwing them on the grill.
Invention: Convenience Stores.
Inventor(s): John Jefferson Green.
In 1927, Green, an employee of Dallas’ Southland Ice Company, decided to start selling items such as milk, bread and eggs from a makeshift storefront at one of the company’s locations. A year later, he’d expanded the idea into a chain of Tot’em stores that sold gasoline in addition to food items. By 1946, the stores were so popular that they began staying open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. — a practice nobody else was really doing at the time — and changed its name to 7-Eleven to reflect these new hours. These days, most locations of the chain stay open 24 hours. Aside from pioneering the convenience store concept, 7-Eleven was also the first store to offer fresh coffee in to-go cups, to install self-serve soda fountains and to sell pre-paid phone cards.
Invention: Drive-Through Banking.
Inventor(s): George Dahl.
Architect George Dahl designed many prominent Dallas buildings, and perhaps most notably the Neiman Marcus, Titche-Goettinger and Mayfair Buildings in Downtown, two of which have since become lofts. He also oversaw construction of collection of Art Deco buildings in Fair Park that were originally intended to celebrate the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936. Perhaps his most lasting design achievement, though, was the Hillcrest State Bank. When the University Park-located bank opened in 1938, it featured the country’s first drive-up banking window.
Invention: Corny Dogs.
Inventor(s): Neil and Carl Fletcher.
With more than half-a-million corny dogs being sold at the State Fair of Texas alone each year, it’s no wonder so many companies attempt to lay claim to the king of fried foods’ invention. But with their first corny dog stand existing at the 1942 State Fair, Neil and Carl Fletcher’s claim looks to be the earliest and strongest. Back then, though, the brothers sold their corny dogs for just 15 cents each.
Inventor(s): Margaret Sames.
Like Fletcher’s corny dogs — and, really, most of the food items in this list — it’s nearly impossible to unequivocally pinpoint the exact origins of the margarita. But one of the most widely-accepted versions (and the version we choose to believe because, hey, we’re from here) is that wealthy Dallas socialite Margaret “Margarita” Sames created the drink to serve at one of her parties during the 1948 Christmas holiday season. Helping to bolster this argument is the fact that the first printed appearance of the recipe that used the “margarita” name was in the December 1953 issue of Esquire magazine, which indeed gave credit to Sames for the drink.
Invention: Frito Pie.
While the Frito-Lay company credits its employee Nell Morris with creating the Frito pie recipe after being hired by the company in 1950, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the dish was created much earlier. In her book, Fritos Pie: Stories, Recipes, and More, Kaleta Doolin, whose father Elmer founded the Fritos company in the ’30s, points out the fact that she’s found “Fritos Chili Pie” listed on a menu of foods served to the Dallas Dietetic Association in 1949 — the year before Morris was hired. Doolin’s best guess is that the dish was first prepared by employee Mary Livingston, who was hired in the mid-’40s and was responsible for the company’s “Cooking With Fritos” campaign. In any case, the dish’s breakout moment came when the company began printing a Frito pie recipe directly on its bags of chips in 1962. It read: “Heat can of chili, pour into bag of Fritos, and sprinkle with grated cheese, and chopped onions.”
Invention: Liquid Paper.
Inventor(s): Bette Nesmith Graham.
In 1951, Dallas typist Bette Nesmith Graham began mixing tempera paint and other ingredients using the blender in her kitchen in hopes to come up with a fluid to correct her many typing mistakes. For the next five years, she began making bottles of Mistake Out for her coworkers. After being fired from her typing job, she decided to try and sell her product to IBM, who turned her down. Then, in 1979, Graham finally sold her Liquid Paper Company to Gillette for $47.5 million plus royalties. When she died the next year, her fortune was passed down to her son, Mike Nesmith, who played guitar in The Monkees.
Invention: Silicon Transistors.
Inventor(s): Gordon Teal.
Transistors are widely regarded as the most important invention of all time. And while Gordon Teal wasn’t around when the first transistors were invented, he did develop a way to grow pure enough silicon to make silicon transistors possible. Silicon transistors can withstand way more heat and conduct more energy than their germanium-made predecessors. To put it lightly, virtually every device made today that contains any sort of computer or relies on the transmission of radio waves in any way contains a silicon transistor.
Invention: German Chocolate Cake.
Inventor(s): Mrs. George Clay.
Contrary to its name, the German Chocolate Cake is not actually German at all. The first recipe for the cake appeared as the “Recipe of the Day” in the June 3, 1957, edition of the Dallas Morning Star newspaper. The dish derives its name from the sweet baking bar used to make it, which was invented by Sam German of The Baker Chocolate Company.
Invention: Integrated Circuits.
Inventor(s): Jack Kilby.
Also known as microchips, integrated circuits completely revolutionized the world of electronics and made things such as home computers and mobile phones possible. Thanks to the small and powerful design, more than a billion transistors can now fit into a space the size of a fingernail. The invention, which is now used in every single electronic device on the market, earned Kilby the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Invention: ICEE/Slurpee Machine.
Inventor(s): Orville Mitchell.
The ICEE wasn’t invented in Dallas, but one could argue that it was here where the frozen drink was perfected. That’s because when Omar Knedlik, who owned a Dairy Queen in Coffeyville, Kansas, initially came up with the concept, he was just throwing bottles of soda into a freezer and waiting for them to get slushy. Knedlik then turned to the John E. Mitchell Company in Dallas, which at the time was manufacturing aftermarket AC units for automobiles, and, a few years later, the ICEE machine was born. A staff artist at the Mitchell Company even developed the blocked logo with icicles that remains on the company’s cups to this day. Another local tie? In 1967, the 7-Eleven company began licensing the product from ICEE and selling it under the Slurpee name.
Invention: Forward Looking Infrared Systems.
Inventor(s): Texas Instruments.
Initially developed for the military, this technology, which converts thermal radiation into an image that can be displayed on a screen, has since been used in a number of different applications. Forward looking infrared systems have been used to detect leaks in HVAC systems, pilot aircrafts in low-visibility conditions, and by firefighters to locate victims through thick clouds of smoke — just to mention a few.
Inventor(s): Arch West.
In 1961, Frito-Lay’s marketing executive Arch West was on vacation with his family in San Diego. It was there that he stumbled upon a little shack selling fried tortilla snacks of its own. He brought some chips back to show his bosses in Dallas, who were initially unconvinced of the snack’s potential. Without his higher-ups’ knowledge, West then finagled around some money from some research and development accounts, and began, somewhat secretly, developing and testing his new chips in markets in California. West called his chips Doritos — a sort of Americanization of the Spanish word doradito, which translates roughly to “little bits of gold.” And, after finding success in test markets, Frito-Lay officially put Doritos on the market in 1966. The following year, the company introduced a taco-flavored version of the popular chips. Later, in 1972, Doritos introduced its best-selling nacho cheese flavor. In the years since, the company has released over 100 different flavors of Doritos on the market.
Invention: Self-Serve Salad Bars.
Inventor(s): Norman Brinker.
In the ’60s, only two types of restaurants existed: fast-food and upscale joints. It was Norman Brinker who decided that, were he to open a joint that sold eight-ounce filets for under $2, it’d be a massive hit with the middle-class. Thus, Steak and Ale was born. That chain is also said to have launched another dining innovation — the self-serve salad bar. The forward-thinking chain was also one of the first restaurants to hire a primarily college-aged wait staff, and is credited for creating and enforcing the standard “Hi, my name is ____, and I’ll be your waiter today/tonight” greeting that has since become an industry staple.
Invention: Hand-Held Calculators.
Inventor(s): Jack Kilby, Jim Van Tassel and Jerry Merryman.
When Texas Instruments introduced its four-by-six-by-one-and-a-quarter-inch-thick calculator to the market in 1972, it quickly took over a market still dominated by the slide rule. No wonder, really: The company’s closest competitor was offering a 55-pound model that cost $2,500 and had to be plugged into the wall to operate. TI’s less-than-three-pound model could add, subtract, multiply and divide — and printed its results on a small roll of paper.
Invention: Automatic Teller Machines.
Inventor(s): Don Wetzel.
As the story goes, an executive at Docutel, which produced automated baggage handling equipment for the airline industry, grew increasingly irritated the longer he stood in line at the bank, waiting to deposit a check. As his lunch hour dwindled further and further away, Don Wetzel then began to wonder why tellers were needed for most of these transactions in the first place. And thus the Docuteller — a sort of proto-ATM — was born. Then, in 1969, Docutel took on New York’s Chemical Bank as a customer. To promote its exciting, new, Docutel-produced gadget, Chemical Bank launched an ad campaign that said, “On Sept. 2, our bank will open at 9:00 and never close again!” Because these early machines were much more limited in their functionality, however, that statement was only really true for the bank’s most loyal customers. How so? The first ATMs weren’t online with the bank’s central computers, meaning they could do little more than dispense cash.
Invention: Frozen Margarita Machine.
Inventor(s): Mariano Martinez.
Until the ’70s, ordering a frozen margarita at a bar was an inconsistent, time-consuming venture that required blending the concoctions one at a time. That is until Mariano Martinez of Dallas-based restaurant Mariano’s Hacienda got his bright idea to mass create the drink from 7-Eleven, which, just years before, began selling Slurpees. When the company refused to sell him a machine, Martinez retrofitted an old soft-serve ice cream machine to meet his needs. In the years since, the frozen margarita has become a staple of the Tex-Mex industry. As for that original machine? It’s now in the Smithsonian, where it sits next to equally important inventions, like the first light bulb.
Invention: Stadium Nachos.
Inventor(s): Frank Liberto.
In 1976, concessionaire Frank Liberto of Ricos products developed a cheap, liquid cheese product that could not only be quickly pumped onto chips, but that had an extremely long shelf life without needing to be refrigerated. That year, he began selling the first ballpark-style nachos during Texas Rangers games at Arlington Stadium, where they were an immediate success. How popular were they? Well, Liberto sold his nachos to one in every 2.5 patrons in the park. The next-highest seller, popcorn, was only purchased by one out of every 18 patrons. By 1978, the idea had caught on at nearby Texas Stadium and started being sold at Dallas Cowboys games. During the first Monday Night Football game of that season — a contest between the Cowboys and Colts — commentators Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith were served ballpark nachos for the first time. Cosell, in particular, was so taken with the dish that he even began using the term “nachos” to describe great plays throughout the game (i.e. “What a nacho run that was!”).
Invention: SN76477 Sound Chip
Inventor(s): Texas Instruments.
Unlike other sound chips being used by electronic devices at the time, the SN76477 — or “complex sound generator,” as it was also known — was the first chip able to play continuous music while also playing sound effects. As you can imagine, this development completely revolutionized the video game industry. Case in point: The SN76477 is what made games like Space Invaders possible.
Invention: Single-Chip LPC Speech Synthesizers.
Inventor(s): Larry Brantingham, Paul Breedlove, Richard Wiggins and Gene Frantz.
In layman’s terms, linear predictive coding is a process that uses several types of equations to quickly convert digital signals into a waveform that replicates human speech. And while these Texas Instruments employees didn’t invent that process, they did manage to achieve the electronic duplication of the human vocal tract on a single chip of silicon. How did they mark the achievement? By cranking out thousands of Speak & Spell learning toys — y’know, the one that was immortalized in 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Invention: Voice Mail.
Inventor(s): Gordon Mathews.
When he died in 2002, Gordon Matthews held 35 separate patents. But it was his 1979 patent for the technology that we now know as voice mail that made him a legend. With his company VMX, which stood for Voice Message Express, he sold corporations equipment that allowed its employees to exchange, send, receive, store, forward and erase voice messages from any phone in the office. Fun fact: It was Matthews’ wife, Monika, whose voice served as the greeting on the company’s first commercial voice mail system.
Invention: Color-Changing, Moving Lights.
Inventor(s): Jim Bornhorst.
Before Vari-Lite came along, big concerts often required up to 3,000 individual lights — each permanently affixed in a set location and with a predetermined color. In the late ’70s, though, Jim Bornhorst developed a system that allowed dichroic filters to remotely and instantly change the colors of stage lights. Not long after, an offhand comment at a barbecue lunch led Bornhorst to add two additional motors to his invention and a real game-changer was born. In 1980, Bornhorst and his partners found themselves in England, showing a prototype of the light to the members of Genesis, who ordered 55 units for its upcoming Abacab tour on the spot. Concerts — as well as plays and most other large-scale live events, for that matter — have never been the same.
Invention: Gentlemen’s Clubs.
Inventor(s): Don Furrh.
When Don Furrh built his Million Dollar Saloon on Greenville Avenue in 1981 — a place said to have been named after the amount of money it took to build — the concept was considered somewhat crazy. Before opening the country’s first upscale “gentlemen’s club,” strip joints were thought to be seedy sin dens for the lower class — or, at best, somewhere frat guys and deadbeat husbands went to blow off a little steam. Furrh’s palace, which introduced things like valet parking, VIP rooms, high-quality sound and lighting, the use of multiple stages and dress codes, helped remove some of the stigma of going to a strip club, and opened up the industry to highfalutin businessmen types with deep pockets.
Invention: Laser Tag.
Inventor(s): George Carter.
Inspired by the movie Star Wars, Dallas’ George Carter decided to create a game that would allow players to run around and shoot each other with lasers. And, unlike when kids play cops and robbers growing up, a central scoring system would definitely let players know who, in fact, shot who first. Thus, he opened the first Photon lasertag arena in 1984. You can read a much more in-depth look at Photon’s origins and listen to some of the game’s original soundtrack here.