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October 2006
Dayton, Ohio
 

    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 Company.

    We don’t know if they’ve done any good.

For more about Dayton and its surrounding communities, see the CD for
I-70 West: Columbus, OH to Richmond, IN  or I-70 East: Richmond, IN to Columbus, OH.


MOTOR Audio Tours are available to download for your iPod or mp3 player
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