“I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success. Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.”
—Nikola Tessla, Inventor
My father is a scientist, and I am not.
One of my sharpest childhood memories happened during science fair season in the 3rd grade—my dad, the chemist, is leaning toward me at the kitchen table, and we are surrounded by library books about hydrogen bonds, polar magnetism, and soap-making. We are making soap from scratch. A hunk of chicken is slumped sadly beside us on a chopping board with half its fat cut off in a lumpy yellow pile to mix with the pure lye he brought home from his lab.
I, though, am sobbing. There’s something in the rise of his voice and the craze in his eye that made my 8-year old self feel like I was missing something really, really vital. I was his first child, and every time I failed to hide my boredom an involuntary disappointment flashed across his face. This was the kind of thing that defined him as a scientist, as a man… and I just didn’t get it. Soap was for taking baths with; I didn’t care where it came from. (At the time, I also didn’t really care to take baths.)
There have been so many guys like my dad. Men who devoted their lives to science and invention and were damned good at what they did, only to find that the world around them just didn’t really get it. Or care. And then those men would disappear into the ether, leaving behind the daily evidence of their passion.
So for those men (and for my dad), I present the “Forgotten Men” series in which we will highlight an unknown inventor every week. Inventors underdogs who created incredible things but never had the textbook limelight of Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell.
And so, we will begin with Francis Wolle, the inventor of the paper bag.
Okay. Paper bags are not immediately fascinating, unless you’re a cat or Fiona Apple. But environmental issues aside (the U.S. uses ten billion paper bags a year, on average), think about what your life would be like without them. At one point the “hip” thing to carry while shopping was a straw cornucopia. (Not cool and potentially allergy-inducing.)
Then, in 1852, Francis Wolle, a Moravian grocery clerk-turned-schoolteacher-turned-clergyman from Pennsylvania, whipped up a machine that looked something like this:
Francis spent a lot of time working at his father’s grocery store in Jacobsburg, Pennsylvania, and after years of fiddling, perfected the design to help his father’s customers carry more things home.
Wolle and his brother then went on to patent the paper bag-making machine and found the Union Bag & Paper Company. The company opened a $4 million plant in Savannah and employed more than 500 workers—a blessing in the depressed South at the time. The plant actually became a bit of a tourist spot where people could come visit and see a thousand feet of paper fly by per minute. (The plant’s still around today.)
With all that said, however, most inventions are refined over time by myriad people. Shortly after Wolle patented his machine, Margaret Knight improved upon the design, adding the cut and folded boxy bottom, and shortly afterward Charles Stillwell added the pleated sides.