Texas Mothers (and Fathers) of Invention!
Written by: S. Worthington Campbell
Texans have a reputation for being many things: proud, friendly, and perhaps a bit brash, just to name just a few! They also are known to be extremely resourceful, as dozens of important discoveries have been made right here in Texas. From the first frozen margarita machine to Liquid Paper, to the original handheld electronic calculator, here are some of the stories behind just a few life-changing inventions!
Frozen Margarita Machine
In 1971, entrepreneur Mariano Martinez opened Mariano’s Mexican Cuisine restaurant in Dallas, and one of his most popular offerings was a crushed-ice margarita cocktail made in a small blender. As demand for his version of the drink grew, his bartenders said that the concoction was too complicated and time-consuming to prepare for large crowds. Meanwhile, customers complained that each batch tasted differently. But Mariano knew a good thing when he saw it and was determined to find a solution to his problem. After noticing a Slurpee machine in a neighboring 7-Eleven, he got the idea to create a machine in which he could pre-mix a large volume of the drink in with the crushed ice. He and a friend revised his margarita recipe so that it could be mixed with ice in an adapted soft serve ice cream machine and “The World’s First Frozen Margarita Machine” was born! The machine and the resulting frozen margaritas were a huge success. Unfortunately, Martinez could not patent his revolutionary creation and clones of his contraption soon started appearing across the country. According to Martinez, “Improved consistency, overall better product, and ease of use due to the frozen margarita machine made the drink so popular that it brought bars in Tex-Mex restaurants front and center. People came to Mariano’s for ‘that frozen margarita out of the machine.’”
In 2005, the original machine was moved from Mariano’s first restaurant to the National Museum of American History, a part of the Smithsonian Institution, where it still resides. Frozen margaritas and other frozen cocktails, as well as their accompanying workhorse machines, have become a mainstay at restaurants across the country.
Never doubt the ingenuity of a busy Texas woman! Decades before personal computers, secretaries and college students alike typed their letters, memos, and reports on typewriters. If a mistake was made, the typist was usually forced to completely retype the document, which was not only tedious but a waste of time. In the 1950s, Bette Nesmith Graham worked as a secretary for the Texas Bank & Trust in Dallas. Bette came up with the time-saving idea of using a paintbrush and white, water-based tempura paint to cover her typing mistakes. Her boss never seemed to notice her corrections, and for many years Bette kept her secret to herself. In 1956, Bette began mixing up extra bottles of the correction paint in her home and came up with the name “Mistake Out.” She began selling the mixture to her peers and, over the next year, gathered a team of friends, patented the product, and renamed it “Liquid Paper.” She sold and marketed the fluid in her spare time.
After Bette was fired from the bank in 1958, she slowly but surely built up a profiting company, factory included. In 1979, she sold her product to the Gillette Corporation for $47.5 million, and it
has continued to flourish even into this age of computers. In 2000, the Liquid Paper brand was acquired by Newell Rubbermaid and had added a number of related products to the line. An additional claim to fame, Bette was the mother of Michael Nesmith, a member of the 1960s television show, The Monkees.
First Self-Contained Shopping Center
With shopping centers seemingly around every corner in Texas, it is hard to imagine a time when they did not exist. Highland Park Village in Dallas opened in 1931 and was the first self-contained shopping center in the country. According to the Texas State Historical Association, “The idea of a one owner cluster of stores arranged around a parking area was copied by other developers throughout the nation.” Located on the corner of Mockingbird Lane and Preston Road in Highland Park, Edgar Flippen and Hugh Prather, Sr. created the innovative shopping center after pending many months gathering ideas for their project in Barcelona and Seville Spain, California, and Mexico. The developers hired American architects Marion Fresenius Fooshee and James B. Cheek to design their combination shopping center and town square for Highland Park in a Mediterranean/Spanish Revival style.
The center succeeded for several decades but fell into disrepair and neglect in the sixties. The Henry S. Miller Company and partners acquired the center in 1976, restored the original architecture, introduced more luxury brand stores, and launched a welcome renaissance. Since that time Highland Park Village changed hands one more time and became one of the most well known and prestigious shopping destinations in the state with stores such as Chanel, Christian Louboutin, and Christian Dior, a renovated movie theatre, and several trendy bistros and restaurants. The center was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998 and was named a National Historic Landmark in 2000. The beautiful vintage center not only offers outstanding shopping but also continues to serve as a popular gathering spot for the residents of Highland Park and University Park, just as the original creators intended.
Texas Ruby Red Grapefruit
Happy accidents have led to some of our world’s most important discoveries! One such occurrence in Texas resulted in the deliciously sweet red grapefruit grown in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Texas farmers first began growing white and pink varieties of grapefruit in South Texas in 1893. However the first commercial shipment was not made until 1920. In 1929, a reddish grapefruit mutation on a usually pink-fruited tree was discovered. Over the next decade, various growers discovered additional red mutations in their groves, and each called their new variety a different name. Eventually, all of the red varieties began being marketed under the Ruby Red name and the fruit was granted a U.S. patent.
After some devastating freezes in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Rio Grande Valley farmers decided to eliminate planting the white and pink grapefruit trees in order to concentrate on their unique Ruby Red variety. In 1970, after years of experimentation, Dr. Richard Hensz, a scientist at Texas A&M University, perfected an even redder and sweeter grapefruit that he named Star Ruby, followed by the Rio Red variety in 1984. Today, Texas citrus growers market their sweet red grapefruit under two trademarked names: Ruby-Sweet and Rio Star. South Texas’s sub-tropical climate, fertile soil, and sunny weather create an ideal citrus growing environment, and Texas grapefruit farmers continue to successfully grow and ship their unique citrus across the United States and Canada.
Electronic Hand-Held Calculator
The introduction of the electronic hand-held calculator in the 1970s made a profound impact on the daily life of everyone from accountants to high school students! Today the revolutionary devices are so indispensable and inexpensive that several are found in almost every home in the country! The machine was invented in 1966 by a team of scientists at Texas Instruments (TI) in Dallas including Jack Kilby, Jim Van Tassel, and Jerry Merryman. A 1974 patent for the “personal-sized, battery operated calculator” ran on a single integrated semiconductor circuit that had also been developed by Kilby and TI a decade earlier. According to information from TI, “The first machine was able to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It had a small keyboard with 18 keys and a visual output that displayed up to 12 decimal digits.”
The first device measured about 4-by-6-by-2 inches and carried out functions at the time only found in much larger machines. The first iterations of the calculator also had a semiconductor thermal printer that could print out calculations of up to 12 digits. A prototype of TI’s first handheld electronic calculator is now housed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.