Detroit gets a lot of press for being the “Motor City,” but Detroit has an illustrious history of innovation and invention outside of cars and car parts.

Once you make it through this historic list that’s a sampling of some things that are fun and some that are important to mankind, you might change your mind that the only thing that Detroit can do is put things on four wheels.

Detroit is creative and has provided amazing contributions to America in so many ways.

Medicated throat discs

1. The Standardization Of Medicine

Ever hear of Parke Davis, the pharmaceutical company (it’s now a part of Pfizer)? That’s a company straight out of Detroit. Their old headquarters still stands and is now a hotel; some of the factory buildings are now residential spaces. They brought the standardization of medicine dosages in packaging. It seems simple now, but imagine if every time you needed cough medicine, your pharmacist mixed the drug right there and then? Errors were much more common before this with disastrous health consequences. This formula-driven, consistent approach helped with safety and making sure patients got the right dose, every time.


2. Home-based Sales (A.k.a The Tupperware Party)

You might have gotten notification on Facebook for a Tupperware party from your Cousin Edna, but the roots for this sales method of combined at-home presentations with a part-time sales force came from Detroiter Brownie Wise.

The Potato Pingree bank along with a Pingree Pipe at the Detroit Historic Museum - Daily Detroit Photo
The Pingree bank shaped like a potato along with a Pingree Pipe at the Detroit Historic Museum – Daily Detroit Photo

3. Public Works Programs

Hazen Pingree may just be the greatest mayor in the history of Detroit, and he’s responsible for one of America’s first public works programs that was then modeled after by future American leaders. During the 1893 depression, he did something that should sound familiar to Detroiters today – he arranged for the city’s vacant land to be used for farming. This was a time where the government did not have public assistance programs like they do today. Pingree then arranged for the unemployed and poor residents to get seeds and tools so they could feed themselves. The program was then copied by other cities around the country. He ended up getting the nickname “Potato Patch Pingree.”

Detroit Athletic Club, 1915

4. The Hummer And The Last Word Cocktails

Detroiters love our drinks, and that comes out in different ways. One of those ways is through two cocktails that have strong Detroit roots. The Hummer – basically Bacardi, Kahlua, Ice cream, ice cubes, blended – was created at the Bayview Yacht Club on the east side in 1968. The other in our list is the “Last Word,” and that’s out of the Detroit Athletic Club from the 1920s. That’s a green number with one parts each gin, lime juice, Chartreuse and maraschino liqueur and was brought back to popularity thanks to a rediscovery in of all places, Seattle.

The staff of 8mk detroit radio now wwj testing equipment

5. Play By Play Sports & Scheduled News Broadcasts

If you tune into the evening news at six, or 11, or at any regular time, you have Detroit to thank. Detroit’s media scene, at one point, was almost unrivaled in the country and full of innovation. Although there is debate around what was thee nation’s first radio station, Detroit’s 8MK (now WWJ) was founded in 1920 and claims to be the first radio station to broadcast regularly scheduled news reports, religious broadcasts and .. play-by-play sports reports. It was a boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Billy Miske in 1920. Detroit is still a great sports town to this day.


6. The Kahn System

It might sound like something out of the “Wrath of Kahn” Star Trek movie, but without it, you couldn’t lust after that hot open floor-plan loft you always wanted as it would be tough to build. This innovation by Julius Kahn, after being hired by his brother that you probably know – Albert Kahn – is simple but at the time revolutionary. The idea was reinforcing concrete beams with special steel trusses with wings, or, “The Kahn System.” Previous reinforced concrete had steel beams that would slip inside the structure; the addition of the wings and trusses made sure that it did not. This allowed for large, open floorplan factories and other buildings that let large amounts of light in and provided lots of space for workers without as many pesky columns in the middle of everything. Some of the first uses are the Engineering Library at the University of Michigan and the Packard Plant Building number 10.

Motown Museum. Daily Detroit Photo.
Motown Museum. Daily Detroit Photo.

7. The Motown Sound

The Motown Sound isn’t just about a label (though that is at the heart of it), it is also a genre. Some of the hallmarks are the use of tambourine along with drums, bass instrumentation, a distinctive melody and chord structure, and a “call and response” singing style originating in gospel music that shared the heart and soul of Detroit with America. Whether it’s “Please Mr. Postman” with the Marvelettes, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, or an iconic Stevie Wonder song like “Superstition,” Berry Gordy and his label created “The sound that changed America.”


8. Paint By Numbers

Anyone remember those coloring books or painting kits? The commercial concept of “paint by numbers” was invented by Dan Robbins who created a kit that allowed aspiring artists and non-artists to make paintings after being asked by the owner of the Palmer Paint Company to encourage people to buy paint. At one point in the 1970s nearly 12 million kits a year were sold.

Local Artist Gaby at Movement. Daily Detroit File Photo.
Local Artist Gabi at Movement. Daily Detroit File Photo.

9. Electronic Music

The roots of what you hear in mainstream electronic music today were firmly planted in Detroit and techno (which is still celebrated every year at the Movement Festival). “The Belleville Three,” high school friends Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson shaped the foundation of the genre, along with others. Techno is one of the heartbeats of Detroit, and has grown and mixed in a variety of genres and styles – with some hometown artists like Griz or Gabi taking it to new directions – but every time you feel that unmistakable beat, know it’s from Detroit.


10. Vernors

We couldn’t leave this one of the list. It’s sitting right next to the computer as this post is being typed. There has been a ton written about this history of this drink (including a book). The bubbly drink, first introduced in 1866, has become a permanent chapter in Detroit’s book of lore and is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

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