Editorial Feature

The Inventions We Have Kansas City To Thank For

Get a glimpse into the creativity borne out of Missouri’s largest city

Kansas City has been the birthplace of many inventions that have become a part of everyday life. From Teflon-coated pans to automatic fire alarms, check out some of the creations that have come out of KC.

Teflon-coated frying pan

An everyday kitchen staple for many, the idea to coat frying pans with Teflon – in turn making them non-stick – came from Kansas City innovator, inventor, entrepreneur, and professor Marion A Trozzolo in 1961. Trozzolo patented the “Happy Pan” and an original now lives at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.

Mickey Mouse

Did you know Walt Disney studied and worked in Kansas City during the early part of his career? In fact, some of his first animations were created in his Kansas City studio, Laugh-O-Gram Studios, which was established in 1921. The studio was located on the second floor of the McConahay Building on 1127 East 31st. While it was only open for two years, this is where Mickey Mouse was first realized with the help of the other animators that Disney worked with.

Mickey Mouse made his public debut in Steamboat Willie in 1928 and the short was co-created with Disney animator Ub Iwerks. However for decades, Walt Disney was credited with being the sole creator of the iconic cartoon.

In reality, Iwerks not only drew the animation, but he also designed Mickey Mouse himself – though Disney did provide Mickey’s falsetto voice. Despite the Kansas City-born animator not being properly credited, Iwerks still had a successful career; after helping create Mickey Mouse, he left the company, founded his own studio, and then later returned to Disney working on developing special visual effects.

Mickey Mouse watch face (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

The Happy Meal

The brainchild of Kansas City advertising mogul Bob Bernstein, the Happy Meal debuted in four American cities in 1977: St Louis, Phoenix, Las Vegas and, of course, Kansas City.

The original Happy Meal contained a burger, fries, soft drink, cookies and a toy. The toy, the colorful box and the food inside were a hit with the kids and the Happy Meal was released nationally in the summer of 1979. It’s said that 250 Happy Meals are bought every second today.

McDonald's Mystery Happy Meal box (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)

Multiplex Movie Theaters

In 1963, AMC Theatres opened the two-screen Parkway Twin movie theater in Kansas City, the first of its kind. Company president Stan Durwood claimed to have come up with the concept a year before, after realizing he could double the revenue of a single theater just “by adding a second screen and still operate with the same size staff”.

Three years later, AMC took the idea further with a four-screen theater in 1966 and a six-screen theater in 1969. Durwood's insight was that one box office and one concession stand could easily serve two (or more) attached auditoriums. Another AMC innovation was to offset the starting times of films, so staff members who previously had nothing to do when films were running in a single-auditorium theater would now be kept continuously busy servicing other auditoriums.

Automatic telephone switcher system

Surprisingly, this invention was borne out of an industry completely unrelated to telecommunications.

Almon Brown Strowger was a Kansas City undertaker who was tired of a rival undertaker’s wife, a switchboard operator, directing business calls to her husband alone. To fix the problem, Strowger invented an automatic telephone switching system that allowed people to dial each other directly, thereby eliminating any need for a (potentially biased) telephone switchboard operator. While Strowger wasn’t the first to come up with the concept, the undertaker’s model was the first to work on several telephone lines within one system. He received a patent for his invention in 1891.

Telephone switchboard at General Electric (From the collection of Museum of Innovation & Science)

Bumper Stickers

The bumper sticker as we know it today was invented in 1946 by a Kansas City screen printer named Forest P Gill. After World War II, Gill found himself with a surplus of adhesive-backed paper and fluorescent paint, so decided to combine them. While the first bumper sticker Gill created isn’t on record, the stickers soon became popular as mementos of fairs and other events.

Bumper sticker: World Peace Not Pieces (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)

M&M’s candy coating process

M&M’s came into the world in 1941, and very little about the brightly colored, candy-coated buttons has changed since. The concept behind coating chocolate in a sugar shell was inspired by a method used to allow soldiers to carry chocolate in warm climates without it melting.

While the company had managed to coat the chocolate successfully, in the early 1950s, the Midwest Research Institute (now MRIGlobal) in Kansas City, worked on behalf of M&M's to perfect a process whereby 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg) of chocolate centers could be coated every hour. It meant production could finally keep up with demand.

M&Ms yo-yo (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)

Automatic fire alarm

George C. Hale was fire chief of Kansas City from 1882 to 1902. During this time he became the holder of more than 60 patents for firefighting equipment. One of these inventions was the automatic fire alarm that he created at the turn of the 19th century. Hale’s system alerted a city’s fire station to a fire’s exact location, which improved the speed and effectiveness of the fire service forever.

Postcard of City Fire Department, Kansas City (From the collection of Kansas City Museum)
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