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Did you know? The Ferris wheel, commercial radio and movie theaters all have Pittsburgh origins

Take a trip into history to learn about these *iconic* inventions' local roots.

Ferris wheels have Pittsburgh origins. (Pexels/Tim Gouw)
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The Steel City has more than 400 bridges, has produced a handful of top-notch NFL quarterbacks, and is the only place you can buy a Pittsburgh salad.

It’s also been the birthplace of many inventions that people all over the world enjoy, from the emoticon to the banana split.

Here at we know that you can’t always find time to read every single newsletter we put out. Still, we don’t want to leave you out of the loop, so if you missed an edition of Tech Throwback Tuesday from recent emails, now you know:

Here are a few inventions that wouldn’t exist without a Pittsburgher’s touch.

Ferris wheels

Did you know the Ferris wheel was invented in Pittsburgh? Yes, Chicago can claim being the carnival fixture’s birthplace, thanks to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. But George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. is a Pittsburgh transplant whose lightbulb moment happened right here.

Ferris used his own money to pay for the blueprints, and then he formed a joint stock company in order to attract the investors needed to get the ball rolling. Around 100,000 parts went into the initial build, which consisted of two engines, a 20,000-pound sprocket chain, and at its core, a 90,000-pound axle. The first Ferris wheel was measured at 264 feet tall and held more than 2,000 passengers who were either highly adventurous or had a lot of faith in Ferris’ abilities.

Movie theaters

Show some love for Smithfield Street. Why? Because it was the location of the very first movie theater. Circa 1908, John P. Harris, a Pittsburgh businessman and politician, opened up a cinema where he’d charged attendees one nickel upon entering. For that reason, the theater, which drew inspiration from the Greeks, was dubbed the Nickelodeon.

Although you can’t see a movie for a nickel anymore, clearly Harris’s idea caught on. To this day, Harris is honored for his creation in many ways, one of which includes the Harris Theatre on Liberty Ave. Not only that but Point Park University’s cinema club is named in Harris’s honor.

Commercial radio

We also have Pittsburgh to thank for the first commercial radio station. Back in 1920, KDKA began broadcasting in the Steel City with help from Westinghouse. (Not the high school, the company.) As a leading radio manufacturer in the 1920s, the company was keen to sell more radios but unsure of how to make it happen.

Previously the radio was used as a form of communication, however, Westinghouse VP Harry P. Davis felt the device held limitless potential and believed offering commercial programming could be the ticket to more sales. So, the company reached out to electrical engineer Frank Conrad for some assistance, as Conrad was known for playing records on the radio to entertain his friends.

Under Conrad’s guidance, the company was able to set up a transmitting station in Pittsburgh. On Nov. 2, 1920 — Election Day — KDKA made the nation’s first commercial broadcast (a term invented by Conrad). Conrad and Westinghouse both made a lasting first impression by broadcasting the results of the Harding-Cox presidential race before journalists were able to report it to the papers. The rest, as they say, is history.

Each Tuesday, publishes an innovation history lesson like this in our newsletter. Subscribe here to receive Tech Throwback Tuesday notes right to your inbox.

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.

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