Did You Know Pittsburgh Was the First For These Ten Things

Everyone knows that Pittsburgh is famous for steel, glass and of course sports and medicine. What you may not know is that Pittsburgh has been in the headlines for decades. Here are ten Pittsburgh firsts that changed the lives of some Pittsburghers and in some cases, changed the course of history.

By Tre Harrington

1. WQED in Pittsburgh debuted as the nation’s first “community supported” television station. 

Old Time WQED Logo

Established on April 1, 1954, WQED was the first community-sponsored television station in the U.S. and the country's fifth public television station. “The Children’s Corner” with host Josie Carey and producer, puppeteer and composer Fred Rogers was one of the first regularly scheduled shows on WQED.

A public television station was the brainchild of Pittsburgh mayor David L. Lawrence, who wanted 12 percent of U.S. TV stations licensed for non-commercial educational use. Despite the Federal Communications Commission putting an indefinite freeze on new TV station licenses (due to the number of applications on file), the commission granted Lawrence a license if he could raise money to equip and operate the station. Lawrence, a friend of President Harry S. Truman, recruited Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company attorney Leland Hazard to help get the station off the ground.

WQED quickly became a pioneer in educational programming, producing a variety of shows that catered to both children and adults. One of its most famous productions is "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," hosted by Fred Rogers, which premiered in 1968 and went on to become an iconic and beloved children's program. WQED broadcast the first televised school lessons ever to 13 Allegheny County elementary schools.

Over the years, WQED has continued to serve the Pittsburgh community by providing educational content, cultural programming, and local productions. It has also expanded its reach through collaborations with national networks and educational institutions, contributing to the growth and development of public broadcasting in the United States.

2. The first nighttime World Series game was held in Pittsburgh.

Three Rivers Stadium

The first nighttime World Series game took place on October 13, 1971, during the Major League Baseball (MLB) World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles. The game was held at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Before the 1971 World Series, all World Series games were traditionally played during the daytime. However, with the increasing popularity of night baseball games during the regular season and advancements in stadium lighting technology, MLB decided to schedule a night game for the Fall Classic.

The decision to play a night game in the World Series was not without controversy. Some traditionalists were resistant to the change, arguing that the unique atmosphere of daytime baseball in the World Series should be preserved. Nevertheless, the move to a night game was seen as a way to attract a larger television audience and accommodate fans who couldn't attend daytime games due to work or school.

The first nighttime World Series game in 1971 featured the Pittsburgh Pirates facing the Baltimore Orioles in Game 4 of the series. The Pirates emerged victorious in a close contest, winning the game 4-3. The decision to play night games in the World Series has since become a standard practice, and night games are now a regular part of the Fall Classic schedule. Night games offer a different ambiance, enhanced by the stadium's lighting, and have become a staple of the postseason baseball experience.

Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine in Pittsburgh.

Jonas Salk 

Dr. Jonas Salk, an American medical researcher, did not actually invent the polio vaccine in Pittsburgh, but the development of the polio vaccine is closely associated with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The breakthrough in the development of the polio vaccine occurred in the early 1950s. Dr. Jonas Salk, along with his team at the University of Pittsburgh, played a crucial role in this process. The project was supported by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which is now known as the March of Dimes.

Salk and his team developed a killed-virus vaccine for polio, which was a significant departure from the live-virus vaccines that were being explored at the time. On April 12, 1955, it was announced that the Salk polio vaccine was safe, effective, and potent. The announcement was made on the tenth anniversary of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had suffered from polio.

The success of the vaccine was a major milestone in medical history, and it had a profound impact on public health. Polio, a highly contagious viral disease that can cause paralysis and death, had been a significant public health concern. The Salk vaccine provided an effective means to prevent polio and contributed to the eventual near-eradication of the disease.

While the vaccine was not invented in Pittsburgh, the city and the University of Pittsburgh played a central role in its development and testing. The University of Pittsburgh Medical School, where Salk conducted his research, has been recognized for its contributions to this groundbreaking achievement in medical science.

On Feb. 23, 1954, children at Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh received the first shots of a vaccine against a deadly virus. It would take 25 years and a nationwide effort for polio to be eradicated in the U.S., but a team lead by the University of Pittsburgh’s Jonas Salk took the bold first steps.

4. The Ferris Wheel was invented in Pittsburgh.

Ferris Wheel

Today, the Ferris Wheel is the focal point of just about every summer fair, festival, and amusement park. We owe the Ferris Wheel to George Ferris who created the favorite ride in Pittsburgh in 1892.

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was indeed the inventor of the Ferris wheel. Born on February 14, 1859, in Galesburg, Illinois, Ferris was an American civil engineer. He designed the Ferris wheel as a response to a challenge to create a structure to rival the Eiffel Tower, which had been a centerpiece at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

The Ferris wheel made its debut at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas. Ferris proposed a massive, rotating wheel with passenger cars that could carry people high above the grounds, providing them with a panoramic view of the exposition.

Constructed between November 1892 and June 1893, the Ferris wheel designed by George Ferris stood 264 feet tall and had a diameter of 250 feet. It was an engineering marvel of its time. The wheel had 36 cars, each capable of holding up to 60 people, bringing the total capacity to over 2,000 passengers. The entire structure weighed about 2.6 million pounds.

Despite initial skepticism from some quarters about the feasibility and safety of such a large structure, Ferris's creation proved to be a massive success. It quickly became one of the most popular attractions at the exposition, providing visitors with an awe-inspiring and unprecedented view of the fairgrounds and the city.

After the exposition, Ferris's wheel was dismantled and relocated to other fairs and events before eventually meeting its demise in 1906. However, the concept of the Ferris wheel endured, and variations of it continue to be popular amusement park rides worldwide. George Ferris's creation left a lasting legacy in the world of engineering and entertainment.

5. Pittsburghers enjoyed the first motion picture theater in the United States.

Nickelodeon

The first motion picture theater in the United States is widely considered to be the Nickelodeon, which opened its doors in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1905. The term "Nickelodeon" was a combination of the admission cost (five cents, a nickel) and the Greek word for theater or place of entertainment, "odeion."

The Nickelodeon concept emerged during the early days of cinema when short films, or "nickelodeons," became a popular form of entertainment. These short films were often shown in venues such as storefronts, arcades, or converted storefronts. The idea of creating a dedicated space for showing these films, with a small admission fee, marked the birth of the Nickelodeon theater.

The first dedicated Nickelodeon theater is credited to Harry Davis and John P. Harris, who opened their theater on June 19, 1905, in Pittsburgh. The storefront theater had a simple setup with a screen, a projector, and rows of seats. It became an instant success, drawing large crowds eager to experience the novelty of moving pictures.

The success of the Pittsburgh Nickelodeon led to the rapid proliferation of similar theaters across the country. Nickelodeons became a cultural phenomenon, transforming the film industry and laying the groundwork for the development of more sophisticated movie theaters in the years to come.

It's important to note that while the Pittsburgh Nickelodeon is often considered the first in the United States, other venues were also experimenting with showing motion pictures around the same time. However, the Pittsburgh Nickelodeon holds a significant place in history as an early and influential example of a dedicated motion picture theater.

6. The first "drive-in" gas station opened in Pittsburgh.

Drive-In Gas Station

The concept of the drive-in gas station is often attributed to Gulf Refining Company's facility in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which opened in 1913. The station is credited as one of the first instances where customers could drive their automobiles directly to a pump for refueling.

Before the introduction of drive-in gas stations, motorists typically purchased gasoline from general stores, which stored fuel in barrels. The Gulf station in Pittsburgh changed this by offering a more convenient and efficient way for drivers to fill up their tanks. The station had a dedicated area where cars could pull in, and attendants would pump gasoline directly into the vehicles.

This drive-in service quickly gained popularity due to its convenience and time-saving benefits. It set a precedent for the design and layout of future gas stations, influencing the industry's direction. The drive-in concept not only improved the customer experience but also facilitated quicker turnover at the pumps.

While the Gulf station in Pittsburgh is often recognized as a pioneer in this regard, it's worth noting that the history of early gas stations is complex, with various locations experimenting with different service models around the same time. However, the Pittsburgh Gulf station remains notable for its impact on the evolution of gas stations and the automotive service industry as a whole.

7. Pittsburghers ate the first McDonald’s first Big Macs, invented by a fellow Pittsburgher.

Big Mac Inventor

The Big Mac, one of the most iconic burgers in the world, was invented by Jim Delligatti, a McDonald's franchisee. Delligatti owned several McDonald's restaurants in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area. He created the Big Mac in 1967 to offer customers a larger and more satisfying burger.

The Big Mac is known for its distinctive three-part bun, two beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions. Delligatti developed the burger to address a demand for a more substantial sandwich on the McDonald's menu. He believed that customers were looking for a burger with more flavor and a larger size.

The unique combination of ingredients and the special sauce set the Big Mac apart from other fast-food burgers at the time. The Big Mac was initially introduced on a limited basis in Delligatti's Pittsburgh restaurants in 1967. After its success and positive customer response, McDonald's decided to roll out the Big Mac nationwide in 1968.

The success of the Big Mac led to its permanent place on the McDonald's menu, and it has become one of the most recognizable and enduring symbols of the fast-food industry. The Big Mac's "two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun" jingle and catchy slogan helped cement its place in pop culture.

Jim Delligatti's inventive spirit and willingness to experiment with the menu led to the creation of a burger that has stood the test of time. The Big Mac has become a global phenomenon and remains a popular menu item at McDonald's restaurants around the world.

8. KDKA went on the air, becoming the United States’ first commercial radio station.

Old Time KDKA Logo 

KDKA, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is widely recognized as the first commercially licensed radio station in the United States. Its historic inaugural broadcast on November 2, 1920, marked the beginning of commercial radio broadcasting.

The decision to establish KDKA as a commercial radio station was influenced by a combination of technological advancements, regulatory developments, and business considerations.

The development of radio technology had progressed significantly in the years leading up to KDKA's launch. World War I played a crucial role in advancing radio technology, and after the war, there was a surplus of radio equipment and skilled operators. This created an environment conducive to the growth of radio broadcasting.

The U.S. government began to recognize the need for regulation as radio broadcasting gained popularity. In 1912, the Radio Act was enacted to address issues related to interference and frequency allocation. The government decided to issue licenses for radio stations to help manage the growing number of broadcasters. In 1920, the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, based in Pittsburgh, applied for a commercial radio license.

Westinghouse, led by executives such as Frank Conrad, saw the potential of radio as a means of communication and entertainment. The company recognized the opportunity to use radio for commercial purposes, including advertising. The decision to operate a commercial station allowed Westinghouse to explore the revenue-generating potential of radio broadcasting.

KDKA was originally established as an experimental station, with the call sign 8XK, by Frank Conrad, an engineer at Westinghouse, who had been broadcasting music and news to entertain his colleagues. The station later received the commercial license with the call sign KDKA. On November 2, 1920, KDKA made history by broadcasting the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election, providing listeners with the first-ever commercial radio news broadcast.

9. Opening pop and beer cans became easier thanks to Alcoa in Pittsburgh.

Aluminum Can Tops

Alcoa, short for the Aluminum Company of America, is credited with inventing the pull-top or ring-pull for beverage cans. The innovation revolutionized the way people opened canned beverages, providing a more convenient and accessible method compared to traditional can openers.

The pull-top design was patented by Alcoa engineer Ermal Fraze in 1963. Fraze's invention involved a tab that could be pulled to easily open the can, eliminating the need for a separate opener. This innovation was particularly significant for the beverage industry, as it simplified the process of accessing canned drinks.

Iron City, a Pittsburgh-based brewery known for its Iron City Beer, is often cited as one of the first companies to adopt and use the pull-top technology on a large scale. In 1962, prior to the official patent of the pull-top, Iron City started using a similar pull-tab system on its beer cans. The brewery quickly embraced the convenience and marketability of the new design.

The pull-top revolutionized the beverage industry, making canned drinks more convenient and portable. Over time, the pull-top evolved into the stay-on-tab design that is commonly used today, which addresses concerns about litter and environmental impact. The innovation brought about by Alcoa and the early adoption by companies like Iron City contributed to a significant shift in the way people consume canned beverages.

10. The Pittsburgh Steelers earned acclaim as the first team to win six Super Bowls.

Pittsburgh Super Bowl Trophies

The Pittsburgh Steelers have won six Super Bowls, making them one of the most successful franchises in NFL history. The Steelers achieved this remarkable feat with victories in Super Bowls IX, X, XIII, XIV, XL, and XLIII. Here's a brief overview of each of those victories:

Super Bowl IX (1974 season): The Steelers won their first championship on January 12, 1975, defeating the Minnesota Vikings 16-6. The game took place at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.

Super Bowl X (1975 season): On January 18, 1976, the Steelers won their second Super Bowl, defeating the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 at the Orange Bowl in Miami.

Super Bowl XIII (1978 season): The Steelers secured their third title on January 21, 1979, by defeating the Dallas Cowboys again, this time with a score of 35-31. The game was played at the Orange Bowl.

Super Bowl XIV (1979 season): Pittsburgh won their fourth Super Bowl on January 20, 1980, beating the Los Angeles Rams 31-19 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

Super Bowl XL (2005 season): The Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl on February 5, 2006, by defeating the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 at Ford Field in Detroit.

Super Bowl XLIII (2008 season): Pittsburgh secured their sixth Super Bowl title on February 1, 2009, with a thrilling 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

These victories were accomplished under the leadership of notable coaches like Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, and with legendary players including Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Troy Polamalu, and Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers' success in the Super Bowl has solidified their place as one of the most successful and storied franchises in NFL history.

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