Ever since it was founded on April 17, 1817, Tompkins County has developed a innovative reputation for itself that far exceeds its relatively small size. Institutions such as Cornell University and Ithaca College, and a destination in the Finger Lakes, attract creative minds from around the world, many of whom leave their mark in positive contributions to various industries. While Ithaca Gun, silent films, chicken nuggets, and the ice cream sundae are known to many, there are numerous innovations developed in the area that are of equal or more significance, but with time their fame has diminished.
Below is a selection of some of these innovations and innovators from Ithaca and Tompkins County that illustrate the area’s pioneering culture. Information is courtesy of the Historic Center in Tompkins County, unless otherwise noted.
Groton Iron Bridge Company
As Groton town historian Rosemarie Palmer Tucker details in her 2009 book Groton, Charles and Lyman Perrigo formed the Charles Perrigo and Company as early as 1849. The firm served as a foundry and machine shop until 1877, when it began manufacturing iron bridges and was incorporated as the Groton Iron Bridge Company. Over the next decade, the company thrived, supplying wrought iron bridges across the United States. In 1887, the Groton Iron Bridge Company merged to become the Groton Bridge and Manufacturing Company, and in addition to bridges, manufactured traction engines, feed mills, spoke planing machinery, separators, and plows, among other products. In 1900, along with 22 other leading bridge companies, the Groton Bridge and Manufacturing Company was bought by the American Bridge Company and financier J.P. Morgan, who wanted control of the national industry. Although the Groton Bridge and Manufacturing Company was bought back by the family of its previous ownership, but failed to regain the prominence it once had. The company underwent a steady decline, and was eventually sold back to American Bridge in 1920. However, some bridges are still in use or preserved today.
Morse Chain Company
Established in Trumansburg in 1880 as the Morse Equalizing Spring Company, the Morse Chain Company patented many inventions under founder Everett Fleet Morse, eventually opening a sprawling factory on South Hill in Ithaca (now destined for residential redevelopment). Among those were roller and rocker joints for bicycle chains and horse-drawn carts, and chains for bicycles and automobiles once the company moved to Ithaca in 1906. Divisions were eventually established within the company, which manufactured items such as adding machines and battery-operated electric clocks. One division, the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation, created a compact and agile fighter plane called the “Tommy” Scout which was used for WWI pilot training. In 1929, the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Corporation was bought by Consolidated Aircraft, and the Morse Chain Company merged with BorgWarner in 1929. Today, BorgWarner Morse Systems manufactures vehicle parts and systems as a large employer in Tompkins County.
From late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, Tompkins County was home to a prominent typewriter industry. In Groton, inventor Lucian Crandall and his Crandall Machine company produced typewriters (in addition to bicycles) from the late 1880s until 1904, and received a medal from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago for the Universal Crandall Model #3. In nearby Cortland County, the Smith Corona Company’s typewriter operations lasted from 1924 to the 1980s.
R. Appel, Inc.
Called the “pocketbook factory” by Ithaca residents, R. Appel, Inc. opened in 1934. The company produced handbags for customers throughout the United States and Canada for 25 years until its closure in 1959. At its peak production, R. Appel, Inc. manufactured nearly 1,800 handbags a day.
The Moog Synthesizer
The instrument that has appeared on classic tracks such as the Doors’ “Strange Days,” the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” can be traced back to Tompkins County. According to The Cornell Chronicle, Cornell University engineering physics Ph.D. Bob Moog opened R.A. Moog Company in downtown Trumansburg in 1963 to sell his electronic music systems. After its debut in 1964, the Moog synthesizer’s popularity grew exponentially, prompting Moog to rename his business Moog Music, Inc., and relocate his now world-famous brand.
To learn about more innovations of Ithaca and Tompkins County, contact the History Center in Tompkins County.