Innovators: Place and Process

For hundreds of years, Pittsburghers have used the region's natural resources and proximity to the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers to create innovations that have changed the world. Their ingenuity, dedication, and commitment to the creative process have helped shaped history.

“Pittsburgh from the Salt Works at Saw Mill Run,” by Russell Smith (1843) by Russell SmithOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections


Strategically located on the inland water system, the rivers, abundant wildlife, and natural resources attracted people to the region. The hills and valleys challenged innovators, but also provided opportunities with the rich natural resources found on the land.

"Elevation for the Monongahela Bridge," by John A. Roebling (April 1845) by John A. RoeblingOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections


Fire offered an opportunity to Roebling. On April 10, 1845, a massive fire destroyed more than 2,000 buildings along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. The covered wooden Monongahela Bridge—the city’s first and oldest span—burned in less than 10 minutes. Roebling proposed a wire rope cable suspension bridge to replace it. He had perfected his rope while working for the Pennsylvania Canal and used it for a canal aqueduct he built across the Allegheny River. Though untested on heavy, load-bearing bridges, his cable successfully proved its strength. The bridge launched Roebling’s career; he is best known for designing and building the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Pittsburgh from the Salt Works at Saw Mill Run,” by Russell Smith (1843) by Russell SmithOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections


Smoke indicated prosperity in the early 19th century and coal earned Pittsburgh the nickname, “Smoky City” by the 1820s. Abundant bituminous coal from the Pennsylvania Coal Seam fueled the glass and iron industries and gave innovators an advantage over eastern competitors.

Loading rail cars with coke, H.C. Frick Coal and Coke Co. (c. 1900)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center


In 1871, Henry Clay Frick and two relatives purchased 123 acres of land and 50 coke ovens in Fayette County to produce coke for iron foundries and steel blast furnaces. The first by-product coke oven opened in Connellsville two decades later. By 1900, the H.C. Frick Coke Company controlled about 15,000 coke ovens – half the ovens in southwestern Pennsylvania. Vital to the metal making process, high quality coke resulted in a better quality steel.

Kier’s Petroleum Rock Oil bottle (c. 1850)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections


In the late 1840s Samuel Kier began to bottle and sell “Rock Oil” as a medicinal treatment for rheumatism, gout, and other ills. Shortly thereafter he opened a one-barrel still in downtown Pittsburgh to refine oil into kerosene. In 1859, the first successful commercial drilling for oil, by Edwin Drake in Venango County north of Pittsburgh, provided a steady stream of “black gold” to be refined into products such as kerosene, grease, and petroleum. Kerosene revolutionized lighting, providing a cheap, effective fluid that cast a much stronger light than candles or whale oil.

"Charles Lockhart portrait," by Verona A. Kiralfy (1899) by Verona A. KiralfyOriginal Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Oil, discovered in great quantities north of Pittsburgh in 1859, became a major resource for lighting, to generate energy, and as grease for industrial machinery. Charles Lockhart and his partners built the first commercial scale oil refinery in the United States, on the south bank of the Allegheny River to produce kerosene. The Brilliant Oil Works eventually became a major supplier of both domestic oil products and kerosene for export.

Bakewell pressed glass furniture knobsOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

The availability of coal, and later natural gas, gave Western Pennsylvania glass houses an advantage over eastern factories that used wood for fuel. And the rivers west linked Pittsburgh manufacturers to the growing markets in the interior United States. With abundant raw materials, such as river sand and limestone, the industry grew. The introduction of machine pressing in iron molds in the 1820s further benefitted Pittsburgh glass makers in this iron city. By 1840, the Pittsburgh region led the nation in the production of pressed glass.

Salk polio vaccine bottle (c. 1955)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections


Innovators are idea people. But how do their ideas become reality?

Usually innovators follow a process – they see a need for something new or have an idea about a way to make the world better. Then they must develop, test, and refine that idea until it works. Sometimes they need to go back a step or two and rethink how to best move forward. Sometimes they can skip a step and jump ahead. Often, they fail and have to start all over again. But that’s okay – because knowing what doesn’t work can help innovators figure out what does.

Rachel Carson Topps Card (2009)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Observe and Understand with Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson's ideas may not seem revolutionary today. But in 1962, few people thought about ecology or environmental awareness. Widespread use of newly developed pesticides and insecticides went on without rigorous testing or much concern about possible negative side effects. After years of observing and writing about nature, Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, tackled this subject, one that had concerned her for almost 20 years. The publication of her book Silent Spring called into question the use of chemicals such as DDT and ignited a storm of controversy over her findings. But the book, meticulously written and prepared, with 55 pages of notes, shared Carson’s observations and research and became the foundation for the modern environmental movement.

Salk polio vaccine bottle (c. 1955)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Test and Modify with Dr. Jonas Salk

Between 1948 and 1955, staff at the University of Pittsburgh Virus Research Laboratory worked tirelessly to “type” strains of polio and develop an effective vaccine. Director Jonas Salk tested the vaccine locally at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children, the Polk School, on his own family, on members of the lab, and finally on several thousand Pittsburgh Public School children. In April 1954, a national field trial involved nearly 1.8 million children. It took a year to coordinate and evaluate the results, but on April 12, 1955, the report from Salk’s team declared their vaccine “safe, effective and potent” against polio.

Heinz ketchup bottle (1910)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Develop and Protect your brand with H.J. Heinz

H.J. Heinz developed a strong brand before the term branding had even been coined. Certain motifs were found in the company’s products and advertisements including the 57 varieties, Heinz pickle logo, keystone label shape, and an emphasis on the quality of Heinz Company products. At a time when there were few regulations in the food industry, Heinz pushed for more, hoping to build trust in the industry and emphasize that Heinz already enforced stricter standards for a pure product, devoid of fillers and additives.

Alcoa aluminum violin (1934)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Bring your idea to market with Alcoa

Aluminum existed before Charles Hall’s experiments in the late 1800s but it was expensive to produce and used solely for luxury items. The initial investors in the Hall process, the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, saw potential in the light and versatile metal, but they needed more capital to fund research and create a demand for aluminum. The Mellon family also believed in the potential of aluminum and supplied the necessary capital to expand facilities and enable production.

Alcoa aluminum teakettle (1910)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Convincing industrial and individual consumers to use this new type of metal provided the next challenge. Initially used as an additive in steel, owners of the Pittsburgh Reduction Company knew they needed a viable commercial market to survive. The tea kettle became one of the first successful uses found for aluminum. Alcoa fabricated their own aluminum kettle, after they failed to convince existing fabrication companies to take a chance on their new metal. Light weight and rust resistant, it proved popular. The aluminum violin did not fare as well. To showcase the qualities and potential uses for aluminum, the company created aluminum violins that were effectively used in some school and camp music programs, but they never gained widespread use by musicians who preferred the sound generated by traditional wooden instruments.

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