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Innovation and Invention

From famous firsts to creative solutions for everyday hassles, Atlantic City’s innovators and inventors were at the front of their fields.

Among the items invented and innovated in Atlantic City is saltwater taffy. A popular story relates that an ocean wave washed over a candy vendor’s cart one night. When he arrived to work the next morning and discovered the mishap, he thought his merchandise was ruined. A young lady stopped and asked for a piece of candy and he sheepishly told her the tale. However, she persuaded him to give her a piece and declared that that "saltwater" taffy was wonderful.  

Meanwhile, on the beach, sand artists and sand sculptors used their talents to sketch passerby and to sculpt magnificent sandcastles and likenesses. Some of the sculptors used concrete to solidify their favorite creations, burying them nightly and uncovering them the next morning. However, this practice was banned in the 1940s, due to the public danger from having buried concrete in the sand. 

Before the era of radio and television advertising, companies would advertise their wares and services where the people were. And what better location to catch crowds than on the Boardwalk? From cutting-edge kitchen implements to office products, hundreds of thousands of people strolling the boards were guaranteed to see the latest and greatest products. Companies competed by creating elaborate designs, incentives, and staging demonstrations and competitions. The Giant Underwood Typewriter is one example of innovative advertising. Weighing 14 tons and standing 18 feet high, the typewriter was a working model of the company’s popular machine and was displayed from 1916 to the early 1930s on Garden Pier. 

A real estate company employed another gigantic advertising effort to attract buyers to South Atlantic City, now known as Margate. Lucy the Elephant, now a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1881 by a land developer, James V. Lafferty, Jr. 

Sara Spencer Washington, an Atlantic City businesswoman and inventor, created a beauty products industry starting in the 1910s. Her Apex Hair Co. expanded with beauty colleges in 12 states and internationally. Locally, the company owned a factory and chemical laboratories to produce the products.  In addition to her line of hair and beauty products, Madame Washington, as she was known, established a nursing home and a golf course and was an active member of various social and business organizations. 

The timeless board game Monopoly was adapted from The Landlord’s Game in the 1930s by Charles Darrow, a Philadelphia salesman and inventor who vacationed in Atlantic City. He used the well-known Atlantic City street names for his version of the game, thereby making it possible to own a hotel on the Boardwalk, at least for the duration of the game!  

Two words with Atlantic City origins were “airport” and “birdie”. The name "airport" was coined in Atlantic City to designate its airfield, Edward L. Bader Field, which was accessible from both air and water. No actual record exists for who is responsible for the name, but several stories exist. Henry Woodhouse, one of the owners of the field is said to have come up with the name when it opened on May 10, 1919. A second story tells of a newspaperman, William B. Dill, editor of The Press of Atlantic City, first using the term. What is known is that immediately following the 1910 Atlantic City Aero Show, in which the airplanes took off from the beach, famous air-traveler Augustus Post wrote an article entitled "Atlantic City, the New Air Port". The golf term “birdie” was first used at the Atlantic City Country Club in 1903 to describe a score of one under par at the 12th hole of the course. 

Other Atlantic City inventions and innovations include:

  • the first boardwalk in the United States (1870)
  • the first Miss America Pageant (1921)
  • the first ship-to-shore phonecall (1929)
  • the first indoor football bowl game (1930)
  • the first legalized casino gambling east of the Mississippi (1976)

Did we miss any? Please let us know.

Is it a first? The first? 

Over the years, many claims of “firsts” have been made. These types of claims are very hard for historians to validate. For example, one of Atlantic City’s claims to fame is that it is the site of the first boardwalk. However, is it? In order to prove or disprove this, a historian would need to examine all waterfront communities worldwide to determine if and when their boardwalks existed. Given that research of that detail is difficult at best, often a “first” must be qualified - was it the first in the state or the first in the world? - until further research can be conducted. 

One such case is the picture postcard. Previously, Atlantic City boasted that it was the first to be depicted. However, recent research shows that the first picture postcards in the United States appeared at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. These were sold in a vending machine in sets of 10. Carl Voelker, Sr., publisher of a local newspaper, introduced the first Atlantic City picture postcards in 1893 or 1896. His wife brought the idea home to Atlantic City after a visit to Germany. The Voelkers printed cards with scenes of Atlantic City in color. Many early Atlantic City postcards were printed in Germany.