Inventors of Portage County: Changing the way we eat, drink and communicate

Portage County has turned out more than its share of inventors.

The Portager is pleased to present a three-part series about local men (yes, they’re all men) who have changed the world — and have the U.S. patents to prove it. This article will stick close to home as we focus on food, home conveniences and communications.

Local history buffs may recall Clarence A. Crane, inventor of Life Savers candy, which he called Pep-o-Mints. Crane was born in Garrettsville in 1875 and got his start in his father’s syrup business.

Clarence A. Crane

Crane went out west, where he somehow tasted the best chocolate he’d ever tried. This launched his lifelong goal to recreate it and to develop a product that wouldn’t melt in warm weather.

He never succeeded in recreating that chocolate, but along the way, Crane saw a pharmacist’s machine that punched out pills doctors had prescribed for customers. Crane got the idea to make hard mints instead of pills with the machines and added a hole in the middle, thinking they looked like the life savers he’d seen on boats.

Unfortunately, Crane first wrapped the candies in a cardboard tube that left its taste on the sweet treats.

According to the Trumbull County Historical Society (Crane lived in Warren for a short time), Crane sold the rights to his “Pep-O-Mints Life Savers” to New York City marketing exec E.J. Noble for $2,900 in the early 1900s. Noble created the Life Savers and Candy Co., wrapped the candies in foil instead of cardboard and added new flavors.

Noble, not Crane, ended up making a literal mint. Crane left Portage County for Cleveland, where he died in 1931.

(Crane happens to be the father of acclaimed poet Hart Crane, who was born during the elder Crane’s Garrettsville period. A troubled man who penned the 1930 masterpiece The Bridge, Hart Crane was euphemistically “lost at sea” on April 27, 1932. The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that he actually jumped from the cruise ship on which he was traveling and drowned in the Caribbean Sea.

Hart Crane’s body was never recovered, but his father’s gravestone in Garrettsville’s Park Cemetery bears the inscription “Harold Hart Crane 1899-1932 Lost at Sea,” as his son doesn’t have his own gravestone.)

Anyone who’s ever sipped soda, water or juice from a straw can thank Rootstown native Marvin Chester Stone.

Marvin Chester Stone

At one point, drinking straws were made of natural rye grass, which added a taste that did not improve whatever was in the glass or bottle. Stone, an alum of Oberlin College, made a new straw.

Stone didn’t start out aiming for drinking straws. After having been injured while fighting in the Civil War, Stone returned to Oberlin, and then became a newspaper correspondent in the nation’s capital.

There, he started making paper cigarette holders by rolling paper around pencils and gluing them shut. Turns out that when coated with wax, they worked as drinking straws, too — and were a decided improvement on the natural rye grass straws people had been using.

Stone’s artificial straw was patented in 1897, but he wasn’t new to the innovations game. From 1884 to 1887, he’d patented a spring for umbrellas that both rendered the ribs more flexible and allowed the devices to open up more easily. In 1882, he’d been awarded a patent for improving the ink reservoirs for fountain pens, relieving writers of the constant need to dip their pens into inkwells.

A full baby is a happy baby. Frank E. Boston of Mantua was a lab technician at Pyramid Rubber in Ravenna, where in 1953 he was president of the city’s junior Chamber of Commerce. He developed a better baby bottle: strong, durable, leakproof and easy to assemble. The bottles were glass, but incorporated disposable plastic inserts that had to make parents happy.

Boston’s first version, which he called a nurser, was patented in 1953. His disposable nurser followed in 1964.

John F. Byers, a prominent Ravenna industrialist and inventor, founded Byers Machine in 1874 in that same city. The company repaired all types of machinery, and Byers designed large and small steam engines that were used to supply power to factories and farms. He also came up with a line of steam shovels, drag lines, steam-powered electric generators and a machine for distributing powdered materials. Byers eventually amassed more than a dozen patents.

On Dec. 10, 1878, he gained a patent for an oatmeal machine, which literally cut oats to a desired thickness. Byers sold his invention to Ravenna’s Quaker Mills Co., later to become the Quaker Oats Co., for $5,000. (So, it’s true: Quaker Oats did get its start in Ravenna, and, in an era when there was no government agency to assure food safety, adopted the smiling Quaker man on its product to assure people its product was pure.)

In 1905, Byers’ family chose a site just south of Ravenna to build a large Queen Anne style home that still stands today. Byer, however, never lived in it. He died in 1905 after having contracted tetanus from stepping on a nail at the building site.

Two local men, one of them named George Washington Newton Yost, came up with advances in communications.

Yost was originally from New York, but he called Portage County home for a short time, so we’ll claim him.

Yost invented a typewriting machine in 1884. He couldn’t call it a typewriter because Remington had already laid claim to that name. Yost started the New American Writing Machine Co., which produced a “caligraph” and then better-aligned Yost typewriters, even if he couldn’t call them that. “Shift” key technology hadn’t been invented yet, so all the letters on the keyboard were capitals.

Engraving machine tables had already been invented, but in 1877, Augustus E. Ellinwood of Garrettsville came up with a better one. It used elastic bands to keep the plates from moving around, making the engraver’s job both easier and more accurate. Census data shows Ellinwood living in Hiram in 1870, when he listed his occupation as machinist. He was living in Akron by 1889.

Few of these men, or any inventors anywhere, got wealthy from their inventions, because it turns out inventing something is only part of the plan. Finding someone to produce and market the invention is key, so the inventors may sell their patents, and that’s that.

Also, and this remains true today, if a person is an employee of a company, and invents something using company resources on company time, the company owns both the patent and any profits that might accrue.

Thanks to Barb Petroski, president of the Portage County chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society, and Kevin Gray, vice president and curator of the Portage County Historical Society, for providing the information about these inventors. Gray provided the intel about John F. Byers.

If anyone knows of any other inventors, please pass the information along and we might publish your findings. The only rules are that the person must have some connection to Portage County, and that his or her name must appear on the patent.

Future articles in this series will review the county’s contributions to vehicles, travel, safety and fencing.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.