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Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation

on Mon, 11/17/2014 - 00:00

Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation
Say the name Pittsburgh and what comes to mind? Steel mills, bridges and rivers perhaps? How about Steelers, Pirates and Penguins? All would be valid responses, but in reality Pittsburgh extends beyond the obvious and has been on the cutting edge of culture and society since its founding in 1758.

Maybe there’s something in the water, or maybe it’s because the city’s three rivers has made it one of the centralized locations in the United States, but as the ongoing exhibit at the Senator John Heinz History Center eloquently states, Pittsburgh has a “Tradition of Innovation” that goes back centuries. The region has bared witness to many of the major moments in American history, while likewise being at the forefront of mankind’s most significant and greatest achievements.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, for instance, began their famed Lewis and Clark Expedition in Pittsburgh, making their way along the Ohio River to the Missouri and then literally across the country to the Pacific Coast. In late 1811, Robert Fulton—often considered the “Father of the Steamboat”—built a specially designed version of his craft with his partners Robert Livingston and Nicholas Roosevelt, launching it in Pittsburgh and proving the capability of such vehicles to transverse the Mississippi River, opening a new form of transportation to America’s Heartland.

The popularity of steamboats, as well as Pittsburgh’s three connecting rivers, exposed a young Stephen Foster to multiple musical formats, enabling him to combine these various elements into a unique style and becoming the “Father of American Music” in the process. Famed engineer John Roebling, meanwhile, perfected his wire rope cable suspension bridge over the rivers of Pittsburgh years before he built the Brooklyn Bridge.

In 2012, VisitPittsburgh—the official tourism organization for the Steel City—launched a campaign in which it referred to Pittsburgh as the “Birthplace of Pop Culture,” and many of the exhibits within A Tradition of Innovation at the Heinz History Center certainly reflect that statement. Although Andy Warhol, the most famous and influential pop artists of all time, is not represented, there are a plethora of other displays that lend credence to the unique role that the Steel City has played in Pop Culture.

The first theater solely dedicated to the screening of motion pictures opened in 1905 on Smithfield Street in downtown Pittsburgh, while Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad started spinning records over the airwaves in the early days of radio, leading to the creation of KDKA in 1920 and the first commercial radio broadcast on November 2nd of that year.

Although Pittsburgh has never hosted a World’s Fair, it has played a significant role in a number of them nonetheless. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for instance, featured the first Ferris Wheel as its centerpiece, created by Pittsburgh-based engineer George Ferris, and it was George Westinghouse and not Thomas Edison who provided the electrical currents that lit the Exposition during the evening hours.

Elektro the Moto-Man, meanwhile, was a seven-foot tall, walking, talking and smoking robot designed by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation that appeared at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Elektro even made a repeat visit the following year, this time bringing Sparko, a robot dog that could bark, sit and beg.

Another Westinghouse employee created one of the most iconic images of female empowerment during World War II, the famed “Rosie the Riveter” factory worker that has appeared on “We Can Do It” posters for over seventy years. The Army Jeep—whose emergence during the war effort against Germany is often considered a major factor in the resulting Allied victory—was invented by a small Butler, Pennsylvania, manufacturer called the American Bantam Car Company.

The numerous icons that originated in Pittsburgh goes beyond the fictional and mechanical, however, as Fred Rogers, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Jonas Salk and Rachel Carson were all either born in Pittsburgh or made the Steel City home at one point during their illustrious careers.

While it can be argued that American cities were built on Pittsburgh steel, aluminum manufactured by Alcoa has reshaped society, having been used in the engine designed by Orville and Wilbur Wright for their flying machine as well as the hatch on the Lunar Module that Neil Armstrong stepped through on his way to becoming the first man on the moon.

Then there’s Jim Delligatti, the owner of a Pittsburgh-based McDonald’s during the 1960s who designed a new sandwich called the Big Mac that was later offered at fast-food restaurants across the nation and around the globe. Although the Big Mac might have its own “special sauce,” the ketchup that people use on their French Fries is still predominantly Heinz.

The Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation exhibit comprises the second floor of the Senator John Heinz History Center and commemorates many other achievements and residents of the region than those mentioned above. Pittsburgh may often be referred to as the Steel City, or the City of Bridges, or even the capital of Steeler Nation, but its history goes back to the birth of the United States while its influence extends beyond a mere three rivers—and the evidence of that fact, as well as the legacy, can be found around the world.

Anthony Letizia

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