5 Surprising Pittsburgh Innovations

Pittsburgh is a city that prides itself on its esteemed tradition of innovation. For more than 250 years, the people of this region have found new ways to solve problems and make life a little sweeter for their neighbors. From sports and entertainment to healthcare and technology, Pittsburghers continually innovate for a better tomorrow.

Read on to discover five surprising innovations with Pittsburgh roots.

The banana split was created in a Latrobe, Pa. pharmacy in 1904.
The banana split was created in a Latrobe, Pa. pharmacy in 1904.

In 1904, pharmacist David Strickler concocted a tasty treat to attract customers to Tassel Pharmacy in Latrobe, Pa. He cut a banana lengthwise and smothered it with ice cream, marshmallow, pineapple slices, crushed nuts, and sweet syrups, then added a cherry on top to create the banana split. It quickly became the quintessential American dessert in soda shops and ice cream parlors across the country.

The next time you add a smiley face to set the tone of a text or email, remember that it was born right here in Pittsburgh. In 1982, Scott Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University invented the emoticon by typing a colon, dash, and right parentheses to form a smiley face. These simple keystrokes revolutionized digital communications by adding a human touch. 🙂

Nickelodeon movie projector on display in the History Center’s Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation exhibition. Gift of Eugene Lemoyne Connelly. Photo by Annie O'Neill.
Nickelodeon movie projector on display in the History Center’s Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation exhibition. Gift of Eugene Lemoyne Connelly. Photo by Annie O’Neill.

Smithfield Street in downtown Pittsburgh was home to the very first movie theater. In 1905, entertainment entrepreneur John P. Harris opened a makeshift cinema dubbed a “nickelodeon” – a combination of the admission price (a nickel) and the Greek word for theatre (Odeon). It had a 96-seat capacity and featured short reels of film 15 to 20 minutes in length. Soon nickelodeons popped up across the country featuring movies like “The Baffled Burglar,” “Poor but Honest,” and “Great Train Robbery.”

"Pudge" Heffelfinger became the first professional football player in 1892. Photo courtesy the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Pudge” Heffelfinger became the first professional football player in 1892. Photo courtesy the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It’s no secret that Pittsburgh is a sports city, but did you know that professional football got its start on the city’s North Side? William “Pudge” Heffelfinger became the first professional football player when the Allegheny Athletic Association paid him $500 to play in a game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club in 1892. This local contest forever changed the game as athletic clubs across the country began paying players in an attempt to field winning teams.

Pittsburgh engineer George Ferris invented the Ferris Wheel.
Pittsburgh engineer George Ferris invented the Ferris Wheel.

Pittsburgh engineer George Ferris came up with the idea for a giant revolving wheel that would take riders 250 feet into the air – an attraction sure to wow visitors to the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Fairgoers paid 50 cents to enjoy a 20-minute ride aboard the Ferris Wheel, which was dubbed the “mechanical wonder of the fair.” More than a century later, Ferris Wheels continue to delight and amaze riders throughout the world.

To learn more about the region’s impact on the world, visit the Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation exhibition at the Heinz History Center.

Kim Roberts is the communcations manager at the Heinz History Center.

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