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Authors: Wilson Casey

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As early as 1500 B.C.E., Egyptians used an elixir of opium to dull the senses of patients undergoing trepanning, an operation to relieve brain pressure by drilling a circular hole in the skull. Much later, the invention of ether, the first anesthetic, brought about the end of surgical pain. On March 30, 1842, Dr. Crawford Williamson Long of Jefferson, Georgia, applied ether gas under a towel to patient James M. Venable to numb him so he could painlessly remove a cystic tumor from the back of Venable’s neck. The operation was a success, and Long’s bill was $2.25 (25¢ for sulfuric ether and $2 for excising the tumor). In 1845, dentist Dr. Horace Wells demonstrated the use of ether during surgery for Harvard Medical School students. In 1846, he was credited as being the first to discover the use of ether as an anesthetic. (Dr. Long’s successful use in 1842 wasn’t reported until 1852, when the Georgia State Medical Society was informed.)
Animated Cartoon
The first animated cartoon was
A Good Beer,
created by French inventor Charles-Émile Reynaud. On October 28, 1892, at the Musee Grevin in Paris, Reynaud exhibited three short animated cartoon films,
A Good Beer, Poor Pete,
The Clown and His Dogs,
consisting of loops of 300 to 700 individually painted images on frames. He had hand-drawn his cartoons onto film paper, which he then projected to audiences using his Theatre Optique system, a device that created optical moving illusions, similar to modern film projectors. This first performance of all three animated cartoons, which lasted about 15 minutes, was known as
Pantomimes Lumineuses
Luminous Pantomimes
The first substance recognized as an antibiotic or as an agent that destroys bacteria was penicillin. In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist at London’s St. Mary’s Hospital, whose lab was often kept in disarray due to his workload, was straightening up a sink piled with Petri dishes (culture plates) when he noticed something strange. He found that a mold on a discarded culture plate had an antibacterial action. The mold was growing on the plate, but the area around the mold had no bacteria growing. It had killed the bacteria by interfering with cell wall growth. He called the mold
and the chemical produced by it
Fleming really didn’t realize what he had discovered, but his findings, written up in 1929, presented penicillin as a possible antibiotic.
Antitank Weapon
Antitank rifles were the first attempt at stopping a tank with a portable weapon. They needed to be quick to reload and easily carried by one man. The world’s first antitank weapon was the 13.2mm Rifle Anti-Tank (Mauser), a German weapon created during World War I that first appeared in February 1918. German engineering originated the idea of using heavy caliber and high-velocity rifles to stop tanks, and they designed the world’s first weapon for the sole purpose of destroying armored targets. The weapons were mass-produced by the Mauser Company at Oberdorf and were issued to antitank detachments. Despite being cumbersome, the 13.2mm Rifle Anti-Tank weapons were fairly effective against early tanks that were protected by no more than about ½ inch of armor plating.
Although famously associated with the Romans, aqueducts, artificial channels to convey water from one location to another, were actually devised much earlier. On the orders of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, the first aqueduct of notable record appeared in 691 B.C.E. and was 34 miles (55km) long. It consisted of a single arched bridge 30 feet high over a valley 900 feet long and was built to carry water from a distant river, the Great Zab, to Assyria’s capital city of Nineveh with its beautiful gardens. Built of limestone masonry, this first aqueduct demonstrated an understanding of siphons and basic hydraulic principles.
Area Code
In 1951, the first area code assigned for telephone customers was 201. It covered the entire state of New Jersey as part of the North American Numbering Plan. Although it was part of the original set of 3-digit area code telephone numbers assigned to the United States in 1947, this first 201 area code was not placed into service for customer-dialing calls until 1951. Before this, only long-distance operators used the codes. On November 10, 1951, the first directly dialed call was made from Englewood, New Jersey, to Alameda, California. Direct-dialing using area codes gradually spread throughout the country. By the mid-1960s, it was commonplace in many larger cities, as each 3-digit area code may contain up to 7,919,900 unique phone numbers. For uniformity and consistency, the first digit was a number between 2 and 9, and the second digit was either 0 or 1.
Art Exhibition
Although cave paintings were a form of communication and also an artful form of expression, it’s difficult if not impossible to ascertain any definite firsts among them, let alone the dates of creation. The first public exhibition of art began on April 9, 1667, in the courtyard of the Palais-Royale in Paris, France, and ran until April 23, 1667. Local artists displayed their paintings and hand-crafted sculptures as organized by the Academie de Peinture et de Sculpture. The palace was royal property at the time and was used for courtly entertainment, including opera productions and cultural events. The art exhibitions became very popular, and beginning in 1671, they were held biennially in the Louvre. This allowed for more exhibitions with public awareness and attendance.
Artificial Gene
A gene is a unit of heredity that determines the characteristics an organism inherits from its parents. Dr. Hargobind Khorana, an Indian American scientist, was responsible for producing the first manmade or artificial gene in his laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1970. It was created using transfer-ribonucleic acid and was a 207-base-pair chain identical to a virus gene. Six years later, Dr. Khorana and his team created a second artificial gene, this one remarkably capable of functioning in a living cell. This valuable effort laid the foundation for a future in which scientists could use artificial genes to manufacture important proteins or cure hereditary diseases in humans.
Artificial Insemination
In 1783, Lazzaro Spallanzani achieved the first recorded artificial insemination when he successfully transferred semen from a spaniel to a female hunting dog. The Italian biologist’s experiments on dogs proved for the first time that both semen and an ovum were required, and there must be physical contact between the two, for an embryo to develop. That first successful artificial insemination experiment in Spallanzani’s laboratory revolutionized the way scientists thought. Up until then, they had a very primitive understanding of conception largely based on how plants grew.
Artificial Organ
The human kidney was the first organ to be artificially approximated by a machine. Willem Kolff, a young Dutch physician, invented the artificial kidney in 1943, during World War II. From 1943 to 1945, he treated 16 patients with acute kidney failure but had little success. All that changed in 1945, when his drumlike contraption worked. A 67-year-old woman in a uremic coma regained consciousness after 11 hours of hemodialysis (blood filtering) with Kolff’s dialyzer. (Her first words out of the coma were, “I’m going to divorce my husband.”) Kolff’s invention, although crude, became the standard treatment for chronic kidney failure during the Eisenhower years, leading Dr. Willem Kolff to be known as “the father of dialysis.”
Assembly Line
In 1901, Ransom Eli Olds was the first person to use the assembly line, a manufacturing process in which parts are added to a product in a sequential manner to create a finished product much faster than with handcrafting-type methods, in a commercial environment. His product: the Curved Dash Oldsmobile. In 1901, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company of Lansing, Michigan, produced 425 cars and was the first high-volume automobile manufacturer of the day. Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan, came more than a decade later with his conveyor (moving) assembly line and is often wrongly credited as utilizing the first assembly line.
Aristarchus of Samos (Alexandria), who lived approximately from 310 to 250 B.C.E., is often referred to as the “Copernicus of antiquity.” Considered the world’s first astronomer, he laid the foundation for much scientific examination of the heavens. Aristarchus suggested that the earth revolved around the sun and provided the first estimate of Earth to sun distance. He was also the first to propose a heliocentric universe with the sun at the center. Written from a geocentric point of view, his thesis on the sizes and distances of the sun and moon was a breakthrough in finding distances to objects in the universe. His methods, concepts, and laws of the heavenly orbs were used by later astronomers and mathematicians.
Athletic Club
The world’s first amateur athletic club, founded in London, England, in 1866 mainly for track and field events, was applicably named the Amateur Athletic Club (AAC). John Chambers, an Eton and Cambridge graduate, and noted Oxford 1-mile race competitor Victor Albert Villiers formed the AAC. They organized a “counter-to-the-Olympics” group and published the world’s first definition of an amateur athlete. The AAC did not define amateur and professional as we do today in terms of money or athletic profit; rather, its definition was mainly a question of social class.
were synonymous, while
meant “working class.” The AAC declared that men who were mechanics, artisans, or laborers were de facto “pros” and were barred from all amateur contests, which were reserved for “gentlemen,” the ones who did no labor for a living.
On September 2, 1969, the first ATM (automated teller machine) opened for business, dispensing cash to customers at Chemical Bank in Rockville Center, Long Island, New York. This debut ATM, located in the bank’s wall and available for walk-up customers, was only able to give out cash after a coded card was inserted into a slot on the unit. Several industrious folks had worked on earlier versions of the ATM, but Don Wetzel, an executive at Docutel, a Dallas, Texas, company that developed automated baggage-handling equipment, is credited for conceiving and implementing the process for the modern ATM. Wetzel came up with the idea while waiting in line as a customer at a Dallas bank. The other two inventors listed on the patent along with Wetzel were Tom Barnes, the chief mechanical engineer, and George Chastain, the electrical engineer. It took $5 million to develop the ATM.
The automobile as we know it today was not invented in a single day by a single inventor. More than 100,000 worldwide patents created the modern automobile. In 1769, the first vehicle on record to move under its own power was designed by Frenchman Nicholas Joseph Cugnot and constructed by mechanic M. Brezin. This first automobile was powered by a steam engine and was used by the French Army to haul artillery. The vehicle could reach 2½ miles per hour on its three wheels and had to stop every 10 to 15 minutes to build up more steam power. Its two rear wheels were about the height of the average man, while the front wheel was smaller and attached to the steam engine and boiler. In 1771, Cugnot accidentally crashed one of his vehicles into a stone wall, making him the first to get into an automobile accident.
On October 15, 1581, the
Ballet Comique de la Reine
The Comic Ballet of the Queen
) was performed in Paris at the court of King Henry II and Queen Catherine de Medici for the marriage of the queen’s sister. This first ballet presented the ancient story of Circe, who had the magical power to turn men into beasts. The magnificent 5½-hour show was performed by entertainers and featured sets staged by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, a violinist and dancing master who was ballet’s first great impresario. He had come from Italy to be Queen Catherine’s chief musician, and to be sure the audience followed the storyline, Beaujoyeulx provided copies of the verses used in the ballet. The spectacle included instrumental music, singing, dancing, and spoken verse as well as spectacular costumes, scenery, and elaborate floor patterns created by lines and groups of dancers.
Ballpoint Pen
The first patent on a ballpoint pen was issued on October 30, 1888, to John J. Loud of Weymouth, Massachusetts. Loud was an American leather tanner and shoemaker whose invention featured a reservoir of ink and a roller ball that applied the thick ink to leather hides. The pen had a rotating small steel ball, held in place by a socket with its marking point capable of revolving in all directions. On the patent application, Loud said that such a pen would be excellent for writing on leather and fabric. He called it useful for marking on rough surfaces such as wood, coarse wrapping paper, and other articles. Although he made a few of his ballpoint pens, Loud did not commercially exploit them and allowed his patent to expire.
BOOK: Firsts
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