Today, doughnuts and priority. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The question I'm most often
asked is, "Who first invented this or that
machine?" The problem is that no one was first to
invent anything, ever. Invention always builds upon
antecedents. That's why patent law deals with
ownership more than invention.
That said, let's ask who invented the
doughnut. I've just discovered a short
article that attributes it to Maine sea captain
Hanson Gregory. Gregory's ship was named
Frypan, and he fed his sailors "fried
cakes," made according to his mother's recipe.
A problem with those otherwise delicious cakes was
that their centers were seldom fully cooked. In
1847, Gregory punched out the center of a cake. Now
all the dough lay near the cooked surface, and he
got a far more uniformly cooked doughnut. That
story is often told with embroidery about eating
doughnuts during storms at sea, about punching the
hole with a belaying pin, and so on.
Massachusetts rose to Maine's challenge. They
claimed to've produced the first doughnut much
earlier. Some Indians found a Cape Cod Pilgrim
woman deep-frying cakes in an outdoor pot. They
decided to frighten her off by firing an arrow so
it would noisily strike the pot. Then they could
steal the cakes. But the shooter's aim was high.
Just as the woman reached over to put another cake
in the pot, the arrow drilled a hole through it.
The woman screamed and fled. When she did, she
dropped the cake into the oil, and the first
doughnut was cooked. But that was in Massachusetts.
According to Vermonters, their native son Shadrach
Gowallapus Hooper invented the doughnut.
If one expects a patent to resolve the question,
one gets John Blondell's 1872 patent for a wooden
doughnut-cutter -- very late in the game. A tin
cutter was patented seventeen years later.
Naturally, when one looks closely, one finds
European antecedents. And, from time immemorial,
India has prepared a deep-fried doughnut whose
dough is made from lentils. It's called a
vada. Another solution to the problem of
cooking a cake uniformly is far cleverer than the
doughnut, and very old. The New Orleans beignet and
India's poori are only two examples of cakes
hollowed out from the inside rather than
drilled through. In both cases, steam pressure
created within the dough inflates it like a
All this grows more pointed as the Wright Brothers'
Centennial puts priority back under a spotlight.
New Zealand is making an energetic counterclaim. So
too are Connecticut, Great Britain, California --
even Texas. I remain content to say that the Wright
Brothers were first to fly -- as long as we saddle
their claim with enough adjectives. They made the
first, powered, heavier-than-air, controlled,
But naming the first mousetrap, automobile,
electric light, or airplane ... It all makes about
as much sense as trying to name the first doughnut
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The Inventive Yankee: From rockets to roller
skates, 200 years of Yankee inventors &
inventions. (Andrea Chesman, ed.) Doublin, NH:
Yankee Books, 1989, pp. 84-85.
For some of the doughnut legends, see:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.