“Man built most nobly when limitations were at their greatest.”
- Frank Lloyd Wright
We all associate recessions with negative things. Unemployment, slowdowns, and lost profits dominate the headlines and color most every recession-themed discussion. But this is only part of the story. Desperation breeds creativity, as many know. And as a testament to this timeless axiom, a number of the world’s foremost innovations came about during recessionary times. From increased convenience and food products, to formidable technological advances, the following represent some of the most noteworthy recession-borne innovations.
Self-Service Grocery Stores
Prior to 1916, the grocery store of today did not exist. Instead, consumers visited small neighborhood drug stores, where assistants and clerks fetched the needed items from the stock room or behind the counter. All of that changed when Clarence Saunders opened the first known self-service grocery store in Memphis. So innovative was this new store that Saunders was granted a number of patents on the methods he employed there. However, it wasn’t until the Great Depression was in full swing that Saunders-style grocery stores expanded to more communities. According to Ryan Matthews’ Special Report: Social Change & the Supermarket, consumers became so price-sensitive that established retailing behemoths like Safeway were forced to adopt the supermarket model in order to compete. The end result: entrepreneurs realized if they could have the customers fetching their own goods, then they could service more customers, at the same time, and at lower prices.
One might assume that the Great Depression put the brakes on GE’s innovations and progress in bringing electric refrigerators to American households. But in fact, the data suggests just the opposite. The eye-opening blog Innovate On Purpose cites a study that reports, “…the sale of refrigerators, considered an innovative product at the time, grew by 30% from 1929 to 1933.” Seeking to explain this somewhat puzzling trend, the article continues: “You can chart this to the desire to be the first on the block with a refrigerator, or the fact that over time refrigerators save money by keeping food fresher, or a number of other attributes.” Whatever the case, it’s clear that economic turmoil was not enough to derail this life-changing innovation.
When papers needs adhering and the stapler isn’t handy, scotch tape is the first thing reached for. But it comes as a surprise to many that scotch tape was invented in 1930 (the onset of the Great Depression) by 3M engineer Richard Drew. According to About.com, Drew conceived of the tape when he noticed that auto painters at a local body shop “were having a hard time making clean dividing lines on two-color paint jobs.” Comprised of a transparent adhesive, oils, resins, rubber, and coated cellophane, Scotch tape stands tall as one of the most noteworthy products to come out of a recessionary period. 3M’s website also notes that Scotch tape was used by grocers and bakers to seal food during the Depression, an important benefit given that waste could not be tolerated during such harsh economic times. Perhaps the greatest testament to its staying power is a recent Fool.com article on how to profit during recessions noting that “companies are unlikely to put off buying Scotch tape…” when the economy tanks.
Conventional wisdom holds that economic slowdowns aren’t the best times to introduce new products, but that didn’t stop Coca Cola from launching Diet Coke in 1982. With the markets reeling from the disastrous economic policies of Jimmy Carter, Diet Coke was released to an excellent public reception, overtaking Tab as the top-selling diet soft drink in short order. Diet Coke has never lost its popularity, and was recently publicized in SmartMoney’s 2008 article “6 Stocks That Are Resisting Recession.”
Like Scotch tape, nylon is such a staple of day to day life that most of us can scarcely imagine doing without it. Yet this, too, is another invention spawned from the unlikely seed of recession. Invented in 1935 by DuPont chemist Wallace Carothers, nylon was the culmination of years of research in the DuPont labs. According to PBS, the now-ubiquitous material “hit the markets in 1939 and was an instant hit, especially as a replacement for silk in hosiery.” Without the pressure of the Depression, however, nylon might not have been created at all. According to NylonHistory.org, nylon was only produced following a takeover by “management that wanted less theoretically based research and more research that was directed toward the commercial interests of the company.” Ostensibly, this shift in focus was driven by the increased constraints of the economic collapse. PBS goes on to remark that Carothers’ creation was “exactly what Du Pont had hoped for” as an outcome of their lab experiments.
At a time when companies could ill afford to waste man hours on repetitive tasks, the photocopier provided a sorely-needed boost in efficiency. Indeed, it was precisely the annoyance of copying documents by hand that drove patent analyzer Chester Carlson to invent the photocopier in 1938, in the heart of the Great Depression. According to InventHelp, Carlson was so maddened by the tediousness of hand copying patent applications that he set to work developing a way to automate the process. He secured a patent for his “electrostatic copying method” in 1942, and in 1959, Carlson’s concept came to life in the form of a mammoth 2,000 pound copy machine.
It was only 1929 when Bell Telephone Company gave the first-ever public demonstration of color television, according to The Great Depression in America. The book further states that “engineers strove mightily to make television a reality for American consumers” and that by 1936, in front of 200 people atop the Empire State Building, NBC television went on the air for the first time. In 1937, the TV viewing public (a limited one at the time) was treated to a live broadcast of the Broadway play Susan and Gold. Needless to say, color TV has flourished ever since, and competing cable/satellite providers are advertising more heavily during the current recession than perhaps ever before.
Sold at every gas station, convenience store, and grocery retailer in America, the Twinkie was invented by Jimmy Dewar in 1930 as an inexpensive treat for cash-strapped consumers. Working as a baker for the Continental Baking Company, Dewar decided to put the company’s strawberry shortcake baking machines to use when strawberry season ended by making banana creme filled snack cakes. According to KitchenProject.com, Dewar “charged a nickel for a package of two”, and Mahalo.com reports that over 500,000,000 Twinkies are now sold every year.
At a time when money (or at least the lack of it) was on everyone’s minds, Charles B. Darrow invented the board game Monopoly in 1935. It almost didn’t happen; Adena.com tells the story of how Parker Brothers rejected the game in its earliest version and Darrow had to produce the first few sets on his own. Once he got some traction selling the game himself, Parker Brothers realized what a blunder they had made and cut a deal with Darrow after all. The game was an instant hit, and by mid-February 1985 was selling to the tune of 20,000 sets per week. No doubt the Depression-long nervousness about money helped fuel this game’s runaway success.
According to The Great Depression in America, radio became a mainstay during the Great Depression because “unlike movies and print media, it gave the illusion of being free.” The book goes on to note that “most Americans considered radio a necessity” and that “even during the worst of the Depression, very few people defaulted on their receiver payments.” One specific innovation to arise from radio’s great popularity was the car radio. First offered for sale in 1927, The Great Depression in America reports that fewer than 1% of all cars had a car radio in 1930 but that more than 2 million did by 1935, and more than 7 million (nearly a quarter of all cars on the road) did by the decade’s end.