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Pittsburgh: 250 years of firsts

By Allison Keene
On October 13, 2011

  • Pittsburgh hosted the first professional football game between the Allegheny Athletic Association and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club almost 30 years before the formation of the National Football League in 1920. The game took place in Recreation Park on the North Shore, which has since been annexed by the city. The roster included William “Pudge” Heffelfinger who, with a playing fee of $500, became the first player. Mike Lastig/ For The Duquesne Duke
  • George Ferris, inventor of the Ferris Wheel, lived on Archer Street in the West Commons. He developed the Ferris Wheel as the centerpiece for the 1892 Colombian Exposition world fair in Chicago. Mike Lastig/For The Duquesne Duke

"[People] think of Pittsburgh as the Steel City," says Anne Madarasz, the Heinz History Center's division director. "They don't think about the long history that this city has had in shaping the region and also the world."

To get a sense of this history, just look for the bronze, blue, and gold plaques. Both the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks foundation have honored Pittsburgh's history by placing plaques at its most important historical sights.

Through its focal display, the Innovators Exhibit, the Heinz History Center educates the public about many of the locations honored by those plaques and the importance of Pittsburgh's contributions to the nation over the past 250 years, said Madarasz, one of the exhibit's curators.

"We wanted to surprise people with the range of innovations that this region has had," Madarasz said. "It was a story that needed to be told."

The history center believes that learning about these regional accomplishments is important so that the city's future can be even more successful, Schano said.

For Madarasz, the fact that many national "firsts" occurred in Pittsburgh are not well known does not affect the importance of those events to regional and national history.

"It's the little things like that that nobody thinks about [that] drastically change the way we live our lives," Madarasz said.

Lewis and Clark expedition, Fort LaFayette, Aug. 31,1803

The expedition that mapped much of the country's unexplored Western territory launched from Pittsburgh under the direction of Captain Meriwether Lewis.

According to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission's plaque, the crew embarked on a three-year trek to the West coast and back that opened up Westward expansion for European settlers.

"This really is the gateway to the West and the stepping-off point for the Lewis and Clark Expedition," Madarasz said.

In this way, Pittsburgh was essential for the Westward expansion of the nation, said Frank Stroker, administrative staff assistant for the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

The city's location was also instrumental to "opening up the western part of the state, using all the rivers," Stroker said. "The Monongahela was the most prominent river in opening up the West."

According to the plaque, the launch site is located one block north of the 10th Street Bypass and Waterfront Drive intersection in the Cultural District. It was approximately 100 yards downriver from Fort LaFayette.

First professional football game, Recreation Park on North Shore, Nov. 12, 1892

Pittsburgh hosted the first professional football game between the Allegheny Athletic Association and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club almost 30 years before the formation of the National Football League in 1920. The game took place in Recreation Park on the North Shore, which has since been annexed by the city.

The roster included William "Pudge" Heffelfinger who, with a playing fee of $500, became the first player to be paid to participate in a game, according to the commemorative plaque.

This match was important for the formation of the modern NFL because it introduced the concept of paid players, Madarasz said.

"[Football] certainly traces its roots [here]," Madarasz said.

Inventor of the Ferris Wheel, West Commons, 1886-1896

George Ferris, inventor of the Ferris Wheel, lived on Archer Street in the West Commons. He developed the Ferris Wheel as the centerpiece for the 1892 Colombian Exposition world fair in Chicago.

Born in Illinois in 1859, Ferris moved to the North Shore after graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1881 and opened the GWG Ferris and Company in Pittsburgh as a bridge inspector, according to Explore PA history, a database of historical markers.

Ferris would become a famous Pittsburgh innovator after his invention of the Ferris Wheel, Madarasz said.

"There was a desire to have a large, defining centerpiece for that world fair," Madarasz said.

The wheel carried 2,000 people at a time and stood 2.5 stories tall. The ride consisted of two full rotations and lasted 20 minutes, Madarasz said.

"One of the things we take for granted now is the ability to get up above the landscape and look down," Madarasz said. "For the average person to go up 2.5 stories and be able to look down, it was hugely popular."

Schano believes the Ferris Wheel is one of the numerous important innovations that developed from Pittsburgh innovators.

"There's such an interesting mix of inventions from this region," Schano said. "That's part of the Heinz History Center's mission, to highlight how those inventions changed not only the region but also the world."

Ferris died of Typhoid Fever at Mercy Hospital in 1896.

First drive-in gas station, East Liberty, Dec. 1913

The first drive-in gas station in the country was built at the intersection of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in 1913 by Gulf Refining Company. It provided gasoline, oils and lubricants for motorists and launched the construction of thousands of subsequent stations across the country.

This achievement is recorded in the history center's Innovators Exhibit as one of the necessary developments in the wake of the invention of the automobile.

"This is not just a center of development for the automobile industry, but also for safety and for the refining of oil," Madarasz said.

After the gas station's construction, Pittsburgh continued to be instrumental in developing new technology for motorists, including the traffic light and oil refinement, Madarasz said.

First commercial radio station, KDKA headquarters in East Pittsburgh, Nov. 2, 1920.

The radio station KDKA aired the world's first commercial broadcast, which revealed the results of the 1920 Presidential election.

It was the first scheduled, sponsored broadcast that was targeted at a certain audience, Madarasz said. There is no way to measure how many people tuned in to hear the election results at that time, but Madarasz said the broadcast was most likely successful.

"The success is there's interest, and they continued to develop and became one of the most successful radio stations," she said.

According to the plaque, KDKA radio expanded to include music, sports, talk shows and special events shortly after its creation, and it still broadcasts today from Foster Drive near the Washington Crossing bridge.

Westinghouse atom smasher, Westinghouse Research Labs, East Pittsburgh, 1937

Westinghouse Research Labs' experiments with atomic energy led to the development of the world's first industrial generator in 1937.

The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks foundation marked the site of this large pear-shaped structure and accompanying two story building with a plaque to commemorate the achievement.

The atom smasher was important "because of its unique form and function," Stroker said.

The Westinghouse company continued to be instrumental in the development of nuclear power as and alternative energy source, though it was originally intended as an energy supplier for the military and submarines, Madarasz said.

"It gave us a clean energy source that didn't rely on mining or refining of fossil fuels," she said.

First polio vaccine, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland, 1955

Between 1948 and 1955, Jonas Salk led a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh to develop the world's first Polio vaccine.

Both the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum commission awarded Salk Hall on the University of Pittsburgh's campus in Oakland a historical landmark plaque.

"[Salk's] main office would have been located in there," Stroker said. It was also the site of his laboratory and the first trials of the vaccine, he said.

The vaccine, which was administered to schoolchildren, practically eradicated the disease worldwide, Madarasz said.

"We forget how deadly Polio was," Madarasz said. "In the early 1950s, in the deadliest year, we lost 50,000 children, and that's not counting the ones who were crippled."


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