Another First Recognized for the City of Firsts

08/03/2016

The famous list of "Kokomo Firsts," part of city and county lore since 1947, is getting a facelift from the Historical Society. The original list came about as part of a radio contest on Cincinnati's WLW, whose program "Builder of Destiny" asked listeners to send in reasons why their city should be known as a city of firsts. Gertrude McQuiston of Kokomo won the contest and the list was born. The Kokomo Chamber of Commerce established a "City of Firsts" committee in 1948, appropriating the slogan, and WIOU Radio broadcast a series of programs dramatizing the firsts in 1950. Over the years, people started looking to the historical society for answers to questions about inventions on the list and suggestions for additions. We started looking for answers.
One of the claims made in early years maintained that Kokomo was home to the "First Dirilyte Golden-Hued Tableware". While it is true that Dirilyte was, for a time, manufactured in Kokomo, it doesn't qualify for inclusion in our list of firsts. Dirilyte was invented by Carl Molin in 1914 in Orebor, Sweden, and originally manufactured there. He began selling it through a Minneapolis company in 1924 and in 1926 decided to move manufacturing to the United States. He incorporated in Delaware, found factory space in the recently closed Haynes Auto body plant on Home Avenue in Kokomo, and brought six of his employees and their families from Sweden to Howard County.

One of the claims not made in the early years involved a new machine and system for the manufacture of automobile tires. Before Bill Swern began his inventing in Kokomo, tires were built one at a time, with the fabric and rubber laid up by hand. The materials and equipment were heavy, the workers exhausted, the plants filthy, and supply couldn't keep up with demand. Swern came up with devices to streamline the assembly line and earned three patents for his inventions. The first was filed in 1923 for a "tire forming machine". The following year, he submitted a patent for a "process of forming drum tires" and improved on the techniques and equipment he developed with his first invention. In 1926, he filed for his third patent - for an improved "tire building drum". Swern's work changed the tire industry and helped make motorcars more practical and affordable.

The first update to the "List of Firsts" in this century will remove Dirilyte, in the interest of historical accuracy, and replace it with the first tire-forming machine, invented by Bill Swern. He'll join Elwood Haynes, William Powell, and others on the list of innovators who lived and worked in Howard County.

Research on the list of "Kokomo Firsts" will continue at the historical society. The list may change as new information comes to light, with some items falling off and others added, but there remains no doubt that Kokomo and Howard County have a remarkable history of innovation going back to the Indiana Gas Boom of the late 1800's. Learn more about the gas boom and how it created modern-day Kokomo at the Howard County Museum in the Seiberling Mansion, 1200 W. Sycamore St., in Kokomo.