Beyond Google

Posted on August 23rd, 2012 by

A blog post by Historian Deb Weiner.

I’m inspired by Marvin’s blog post on Google’s Sergey Brin to write about two other famous Maryland Jewish innovators. Actually they are not so famous. Also they are not so Jewish, since one probably had a non-Jewish mother and the other attended a nondenominational church. But so what. They are both definitely from Maryland and their innovations revolutionized their respective fields.

William Fuld’s achievement was arguably more important than Brin’s. Instead of merely giving us access to the world at our fingertips, he gave us access to the world beyond, also at our fingertips. Yes, he created the Ouija Board. In July 1892 he took out a patent for alterations to improve the “Wonderful Talking Board” invented by his mentor Col. Washington Bowie. Apparently Fuld greatly increased the communicating abilities of the board, because it became wildly popular after he and his brother Isaac began manufacturing it at their factory on High Street in East Baltimore, and marketing it as the Ouija Board.

If this is sounding familiar to you it might be because I blogged about Fuld about a year ago. But he certainly deserves repeated mention, don’t you think?

Moving on, my most recent discovery is Harry Lobe Straus, “The Man Who Gave America the Tote,” according to biographer John C. Schmidt. I’m not talking about a bag you carry around with you. The “totalisator,” or “Tote Board,” was an electronic system that “printed and issued betting tickets at racetracks, automatically computed the bets and odds, and displayed them on a large board,” according to the Hagley Museum, which holds Straus’s papers.

A City College and Hopkins engineering graduate from a prominent Baltimore German Jewish family, Straus created the system after a 1927 incident at Pimlico, when a horse he bet on at 12:1 won, but paid off at only 4:1. The Tote brought fairness, speed, and accuracy to horserace gambling, making modern, large-scale racetrack betting possible. Portions of the system were first installed at Pimlico in 1930, though Chicago’s Arlington Park hosted the first complete system in 1933. The Tote then spread, Google-like, to racetracks around the world.

Of course I used Brin’s search engine to discover much of this information. And to bring the story full circle, it should be noted that Straus was one of the first entrepreneurs to recognize the potential of the computer. In 1948 he convinced the directors of his company, American Totalisator, to invest in a struggling young computer firm called EMCC. Amtote received 40 percent of EMCC’s stock, Straus became head of its board, and the firm used the infusion of cash to finish developing the UNIVAC, the first commercial computer sold in America. (According, of course, to Wikipedia.)

Unfortunately Straus did not live to see the UNIVAC rise to fame in the 1950s. He was killed in 1949 when his private plane crashed en route to Baltimore. As it happens, Fuld’s life also came to a sudden end: he fell off the roof of his factory while overseeing the replacement of a flagpole. The year was 1927, the same year that Straus was cheated at Pimlico, leading him to invent the Tote. Coincidence? Perhaps we should use Fuld’s creation to ask them.  Or maybe just Google it.

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