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Maine’s inventors and innovators spotlighted in ‘Downeast Genius’

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The notion of Yankee ingenuity is one that has long been engrained into the cultural consciousness of New England. The twin tenets of “needs doing” and “making do” are huge parts of the region’s history, with generations of people finding ways to accomplish what needs accomplishing via utilizing what’s on hand through general cleverness.

As you might imagine, this also means that there is a lengthy history of invention and innovation that springs from the region. And a great deal of that inventing and innovating has taken place in the state of Maine.

Author and historian Earl H. Smith has taken it upon himself to celebrate Maine’s inventors with his new book “Downeast Genius: From Earmuffs to Motor Cars, Maine Inventors who Changed the World” (Islandport Press, $17.95). It’s a quick-hit breakdown of over 50 Mainers whose creations made an impact on the world – some big, some small, but all entertaining.

The work of these innovators spans the decades, reaching from the waning days of the 18th century to the cusp of the 21st. These inventions also impact a wide variety of industries, from the agricultural age to the electronic. And each of these people – and their work – is brought to our attention in eminently readable bite-sized fashion. A fun, quick read – engaging and informative.

We start in the days before Maine was even a state, in the time before the Missouri Compromise carved it off from Massachusetts. In that first chapter – evocatively titled “The War of the Reapers” – we’re introduced to the Obed Hussey (whose name is even more awesome than the chapter in which we meet him). Born in Hallowell in the final decade of the 18th century, Hussey spent his early years working on whaling ships, dealing with shipwrecks and other accidents (including one that cost him an eye and led him to wear an eyepatch for the rest of his days – dude was badass).

Later in life, Hussey became enamored with the possibilities of mechanizing certain aspects of farm work. This led to him developing and eventually patenting a horse-drawn mechanical grain reaper; his claim would be disputed by a Virginia blacksmith who would claim that he was in fact the one who had developed the first grain reaper. When both devices were patented, the country bore witness to the aforementioned “War of the Reapers,” with both men traveling the country and demonstrating their respective devices at agricultural fairs.

Other men, like twin brothers Hiram and John Pitts of Winthrop and William Deering of South Paris, would also contribute to the burgeoning development of mechanically-enhanced agriculture.

And that’s just the FIRST CHAPTER.

There are basically 50 more stories like this one that unfold over the course of the book. It’s broken down into a rough chronology, with similar inventions grouped together and references to other prominent names in the various fields. There’s a lot of stuff related to the lumber industry, unsurprisingly – things like the peavey, the log hauler and the toothpick. Paper too – the flat-bottomed grocery bag and the paper plate have Maine connections. Random things as well – did you know that donut holes AND earmuffs were both invented by Mainers? All that, plus notables from the early days of aviation and artillery and the automotive industry.

And, lest we forget, good old Leon Leonwood Bean himself.

“Downeast Genius” is a delightful read. It’s short and sweet, cramming A LOT of entertaining information into its 130ish pages. Students of Maine history will likely recognize many of these names and their accomplishments, but the truth is that by spreading his focus, Smith allows some lesser-known figures their time in the spotlight, people that may not have invented the thing that we know, but rather something else that ultimately made that thing feasible or indeed possible.

Books like these ones are wonderful introductory texts, reading experiences that can serve as entry points into fascinating pockets of Maine history. Frankly, I defy anyone to read this book and not come away with the desire to delve more deeply into the lives and works of some of these people. Whether it’s the person who invented flavored chewing gum or the noiseless typewriter or the machine gun, you’re going to find someone here about whom you’ll want to learn more.

All of this brought to life in straightforward style by Smith, whose depth of research cannot be denied. While these entries are all relatively short, there’s an art to conveying this degree of information with brevity; one imagines that he could have gone longer on all of these figures, but chose instead to craft his biographical sketches in a manner that allowed him to do more with less.

“Downeast Genius” will make for a marvelous read for anyone with an interest in history, whether it be the history of Maine or the history of innovation. Mainers have been doing what needs doing while making do for generations; this book gives readers the chance to learn a little more about just what that means – and how far it can take you.

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 June 2021 18:32

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