It was 1893, and the World’s Fair was coming to Chicago. Although Galesburg native George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was living in Pittsburgh at the time, the challenge proposed by the fair’s organizers to create a monument greater than the Eiffel Tower drew him back to his home state. Ferris’ giant rotating wheel, designed to allow visitors to view the entire exposition, is now a fixture at almost every state fair and amusement parks worldwide.
It was the sort of project that would have made his grandfather proud. George Washington Gale, founder of Knox College, had challenged convention by allowing women and African Americans to attend Knox since its conception; likewise, Ferris had overcome widespread opposition to a device that would take people hundreds of feet into the air.
Although Ferris did not go to Knox, instead attending the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for engineering, his passion for innovation seems to have rubbed off on several generations of Knox alumni. From the zipper to the Center for American Progress, former Knoxians have produced a plethora of inventions and founded organizations that have affected business, politics and academic integrity. While their usefulness and longevity have varied, all have been a testament to their creators’ willingness to get new ideas, however crazy they may seem, off the ground.
John Payson Williston*
Williston contributed significantly to the college from 1844 until 1860, leading to the naming of Williston Hall after him in 1959. He also contributed to the printing industry via his invention of indelible ink, which is waterproof and therefore useful on clothing. Indelible ink has also been used in elections in several countries to mark people who have already voted in an effort to minimize electoral fraud.
*Did not attend Knox
Hylo lamp, motorless flasher
An electrical engineer, William Phelps held 16 patents for lamps and lamp-related devices, as well as a “type-writing machine.” Perhaps his most well known invention was the Hylo lamp, which allowed for the adjusting of the intensity of the lamp’s light. Phelps also invented the motorless flasher, which allows an electrical sign to flash on and off by temporarily breaking the flow of electrical current.
*Attended Knox in the 1880s; graduation year unknown
Fed up with the time it took to fasten his high-buttoned boots, Whitcomb Judson invented a “clasp-locker” that would eventually become the modern zipper. While his first request for a patent was rejected, he would later exhibit his device at the same World’s Fair where the Ferris wheel debuted. Despite encountering obstacles — early zippers tended to break apart easily — Judson’s new fastener eventually appeared on flying suits for the United States Navy and rubber galoshes called Zippers, before taking off across the apparel industry.
*Attended Knox in the 1880s but did not graduate
Earnest Elmo Calkins 1891
The modern advertising agency
An 1891 Knox graduate, Earnest Calkins knew he wanted to go into printing from a very young age. He was also completely deaf by age 14, which led to a difficult academic career, but he found extracurricular success at Knox as the editor-in-chief of the college’s newspaper, then called Coup d’État. Calkins immersed himself in the advertising world after graduation, but he quickly realized that the industry was focusing too much on text and not enough on visual presentation. He founded his own agency in 1902, Calkins and Holden, which became one of the first agencies to use artwork in advertisements. Today, Calkins is referred to in the ad world as the “Dean of Advertising Men” for his efforts to revolutionize modern advertising.
Allen Green 1903
Although 1903 Knox graduate Allen Green is best remembered for his poetry and photography, he also dabbled in inventing. While working as the official photographer for the CB&Q Railroad, Green investigated ways to get around the problem of capturing speeding trains with a camera, eventually developing a camera that would be triggered by the train itself and snap a picture. Other photography-related inventions would follow — as well as seemingly random ones, including a machine to pump up tennis balls. Negatives from Green’s train-triggered camera are stored in the Knox College Special Collections and Archives.
Thomas Eugene Kurtz ’50
BASIC computer language
A 1950 graduate, Thomas Kurtz entered the workforce just as computers were beginning to emerge and quickly jumped on the bandwagon. He and fellow Dartmouth professor John Kemeny developed the Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, or BASIC programming language, in order to simplify computer usage for non-computer science students. At the time, nearly all computer usage required writing custom software; with BASIC, Kurtz and Kemeny made computers more widely accessible through the use of logical commands such as if-then-else, which instructs a computer on how to respond to specific data inputs. Today, the BASIC language is the basis for Microsoft’s Visual Basic, one of the most widely used programming languages in the world.
Ismat Kittani ’51
One-time President of the United Nations General Assembly Ismat Kittani ’51 got his start in leadership at Knox. After six students were suspended for cheating in 1950, Kittani and fellow student Glenn LeFevre ’50 championed an Honor System that would shift responsibility for maintaining academic honesty from faculty and administrators to students through the creation of the Honor Board and the Honor Code. Sixty years later, Kittani’s system remains a major foundation of Knox’s educational system; Kittani himself worked in various capacities for the U.N. until his death in 2001.
John Podesta ’71
Center for American Progress
While at Knox in the late 1960s and early 1970s, John Podesta was well known for his involvement in progressive politics, something he continued as President Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff from 1998-2001 and as co-chairman of President Barack Obama’s transition to office. Most recently, Podesta founded the Center for American Progress, a major progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. that develops and critiques policies surrounding “21st-century challenges,” according to its website. Since its creation in 2003, CAP has emerged as one of the major liberal policy organizations in the D.C. area and has also opened a branch in Los Angeles.