Robert Fulton is widely acclaimed as the inventor of the steamboat. Some argue that it was John Fitch, who demonstrated a steam powered boat in which steam propelled oars on the Delaware River in 1787. Among the spectators were delegates to the American Constitutional Convention. But both Fitch and Fulton were late to the science of using steam engines for navigation. It had been accomplished in France on the Doubs River over a decade earlier than Fitch’s demonstration. The first successful steamboat used oars to propel it across the water, and was the brainchild of Claude de Jouffrey. Four years before Fitch’s demonstration, de Jouffrey successfully operated another steamboat, using paddle wheels, on the Saone.
Fulton spent more than two decades in Europe and was well aware of the work of de Jouffrey. While in France Fulton built the first submarine operated by human muscle, the Nautilus, for the French government under Bonaparte. He also met Robert Livingstone, then American minister to France. In 1807 Fulton and Livingstone started the first scheduled commercial steamboat operation in America, on the Hudson River between New York and Albany, using a vessel of Fulton’s design, the North River Steamboat, later renamed Clermont. Fulton did not invent the steamboat, but his commercialization of it led to his becoming its inventor in the minds of the American public.
Marconi has long been accepted as the inventor of radio, though as with many inventions radio developed over time, advanced by many contributors. In the last decade of the nineteenth century Marconi conducted experiments using materials and techniques developed by another inventor, Nikola Tesla. It was Tesla who first discovered that he could use tesla coils – his own invention – to transmit and receive messages over relatively long distances. He patented the discovery in 1900. It was from Tesla’s research and patents that Marconi developed radio broadcasting, and Tesla sued over patent infringement.
Tesla had not been able to generate interest in his development of radio, and he lacked the funds to pursue its development with the same fervor as Marconi. In the late 1890s he built a radio remote control boat, which he operated for public demonstrations around Manhattan, but failed to generate interest in his invention. Marconi died in 1937, renowned world-wide as the inventor of radio. Tesla died in 1943, firmly convinced that he had invented radio prior to Marconi. After Tesla’s death the United States Supreme Court agreed with his assertion. Still Marconi’s reputation as the inventor of radio remains widespread, though it is less than accurate.
Elias Howe is credited with being the inventor of a practical sewing machine. He patented the machine in 1846, the first United States patent for a lockstitch sewing machine. Almost immediately other inventors claimed to have built the first sewing machine using a lockstitch pattern, and Isaac Singer began making a competing machine, leading to a long court fight between Howe and Singer. Singer enlisted Walter Hunt, who had been making his own machines for over a decade. Hunt had never applied for a patent on his machine, though he did patent one of his later inventions, the safety pin, in 1849.
Hunt and Singer lost the court fight over patents, though the machine which the former invented in 1833 was remarkably similar to that which was patented by Howe. During the patent dispute between Howe and Singer several other inventors claiming to have developed the sewing machine and Howe spent much of his time in court cases protecting his patent. Though Hunt could point to machines which he had built and sold well before Howe produced his, it was found that the earlier versions did not address the technical issues resolved by Howe’s machine.
5. Charles Francis Jenkins and the motion picture projector
Thomas Edison claimed to have invented the motion picture projector, though he did not. Francis Jenkins invented a projector for films which he called the Phantoscope, described to the press as a “motion picture projecting box” in 1894. With his partner, Thomas Armat, he improved and patented the device in 1897. Armat and Jenkins soon found themselves at odds over credit for the Phantoscope and their partnership fell apart. Jenkins sold his interest in the Phantoscope and his patents to his former partner. Armat then took the Phantoscope and the patents to a potential financial and technical backer, Thomas Edison.
Armat joined Edison’s company and sold the patents for the Phantoscope to his new employer. With some modifications and improvements made by Armat, Edison released the motion picture projector to the world as an invention of his, called the Vitascope. Jenkins manufactured automobiles for a time before moving into the new technology of television in the 1920s. Edison entered into the movie business, using the former Phantoscope to display films in vaudeville theaters before paying audiences. His company also began producing films in New Jersey, as well as selling Vitascope projectors to customers, to whom Edison would then rent the films.
Antonio Meucci was an Italian immigrant living on Staten Island when he developed a communication system which allowed his invalid wife to communicate from her second floor bedroom with his laboratory in the basement. Meucci studied the principles of electromagnetic reproduction of sound, and used them to construct a type of voice communication system, drawings of which he later sent to the American District Telegraph Company of New York, asking to test the device over long distances using the company’s telegraph lines. After they failed to respond for two years he asked for the drawings’ return, only to be told they were lost.
In 1976 as part of the 100th anniversary of the invention of the telephone, long credited to Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, the Smithsonian Institution honored Meucci as one of the eight most important inventors of what became the telephone. Meucci called his device a teletrofono, and in his patent caveat, which expired in 1874, he referred to it in English as a “sound telegraph”. Meucci has a long list of inventions credited to his name in diverse fields, including electrotherapy, candle making, the development of coffee filters, electroplating, and many more, but the invention of the telephone, though his clearly preceded Bell’s, is not among them.
In the late 1940s, Buckminster Fuller was a teacher at Black Mountain College during the summer sessions. With the support of some of his students, as well as other faculty members Fuller began, in 1948, experiments in design and material which led to the creation of the geodesic dome. His goal was the creation of a structure which could fully support its own weight, and early prototypes proved popular due to their futuristic appearance. They also benefited from the growing belief in UFOs which appeared as flying saucers, a shape which some of his domes shared. Eventually Fuller was awarded more than two dozen US patents, and gained international renown as the inventor of the geodesic dome.
In fact, he was not its inventor. That distinction belongs to Walther Bauersfeld, a German builder and engineer who designed and built planetariums. Bauersfeld built the Zeiss I Planetarium in Jena, Germany, completing the structure in 1923. It was the first geodesic dome built in the shape of the icosahedron, later popularized and patented by Fuller. More than two and a half decades later Fuller appropriated the design, claimed it for himself, and patented it. In 1954 Fuller was awarded US patent number 2,682,235 for his design of the Geodesic Dome, though later analysis indicated that the design is the same as Bauersfeld’s, and that Fuller did not acknowledge his predecessor’s work.
8. Fuller also claimed the invention of words which were created by others
A significant aspect of Fuller’s work with domes were the concepts of Dynamic Maximum Tension, which he labelled dymaxion. Fuller claimed that the word was a portmanteau of his creation to describe the goal of his research in geodesic dome construction, namely, “maximum gain of advantage from minimal energy input”. An example of a structure built using the principles stands in the Ford Museum, known as the Dymaxion House. Fuller used the term repeatedly and freely, as the name of a car he designed, housing units, a map of the world, and even to describe his habit of sleeping in only short naps, rather than eight hour periods. He called it dymaxion sleep, and abandoned the habit after only two years.
He did not invent the term. When one of his designs was scheduled for display as a house of the future at Chicago’s Marshall Fields, the store hired a local advertising professional to arrive at a catchy and modern sounding name. His name was Waldo Warren. Warren spent several hours with Fuller, listening to his often amusing and unusual use of words, and arrived at the idea of dymaxion as a description of the house. Fuller was impressed and agreed to the use of the term. He was so impressed, in fact, that he used it as the title of one of his journals when he prepared it for publication, titling it the Dymaxion Chronofile.
Many Americans have long believed that the chocolate bar was an invention of Milton Hershey in what became the company town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, famous for its streetlights shaped like Hershey Kisses. He did not, nor did he invent the milk chocolate bar, though his has from time to time over its long history been the most popular candy bar in America. The chocolate bar was born in England in 1847, when a confectioner named Joseph Fry developed a paste of cocoa and sugar, pressed into a bar. Two years later he was joined by John Cadbury, a fortuitous pairing if there ever was one. Their chocolate bar was what would today be called semi-sweet.
Milk chocolate was invented by Henry Nestle, whose profession was the preparation of baby formula. Working with Frenchman Daniel Peter, Nestle combined milk with chocolate in 1875, and the partners created the Nestle Company four years later. The Hershey Milk Chocolate bar did not reach the hands of consumers until 1900. Hershey’s Kisses appeared seven years later. They have been manufactured ever since, though in 1942 production was temporarily suspended due to a shortage of the foil needed to wrap them. In 1924 Hershey was awarded a US patent for the paper plume which is present in the wrapping of the milk chocolate candies, but not for the candies themselves.
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, nor the assembly line, nor the use of interchangeable parts in manufacturing of products. The question of who did invent the automobile is one which is answered with several different names, depending on the opinion of the person to whom the question is addressed. But if one uses the issuance of a patent as the standard of measurement for the question the answer is clear. The first American to be awarded an automobile patent was Oliver Evans. He was also the first to patent the continuous production line used for manufacturing, in 1784. Evans designed mills in which the transition of grain into flour was both continuous and automatic, powered by steam or water.
Ford’s greatest innovation, one for which there was no patent but which changed the world forever, was making the automobile affordable, and paying wages which allowed his employees greater purchasing power. Like Evans before him, the first vehicles he built were powered by steam, which Ford came to consider dangerous due to the risk of boiler explosions. Evans had built a massive steam powered vehicle in 1805 that Ford considered in his designs, before deciding that steam was an unsuitable source of automotive power. When Ford introduced his Model T in 1908, one of the features of the car was its steering wheel being on the left, which other manufacturers in America quickly copied.
11. Henry Ford invented corporate spying on employees
Henry Ford was rightly credited for the innovations of the $5 per day wage, which more than doubled the average pay of his workers, and the five day work week. Ford did not raise wages to allow his employees to purchase his cars, he did it to alleviate the high rate of turnover in his plants, which threatened his bottom line. In 1913, over 50,000 men were hired by Ford, though his workforce averaged about 14,000 for the year. The rest left their Ford jobs for others, a business cost that Henry found unsustainable. But the $5 per day rate was offered with a cost for workers, which had to be met for them to qualify for the higher wage.
Workers were required to comply with the mandates of the Social Department, which enforced regulations which affected the worker’s personal lives. Gambling, drinking, and smoking were all vices which Ford found repugnant, and which were banned. Investigators from Ford visited employees’ homes to ensure that his rules were followed. Single women were not offered the higher wage, unless they were supporting a family on their own, and married men whose wife worked outside the home – a practice Ford frowned upon – were also ineligible for the higher pay rate. Eventually the Social Department employed investigators which ensured Ford’s personal standards were complied with throughout the company, and those not in compliance were subject to lower pay rates.
12. Monopoly, Parker Brothers, Charles Darrow, and Elizabeth Magie
The game of Monopoly focuses on the acquisition of property, with the winner being the player who acquires the most. Since its first presentation nationally, as a board game marketed by Parker Brothers in 1935, its origins have been shrouded in myth and folklore. Parker Brothers was part of the creation of that myth, claiming the game had been invented by Charles Darrow. There were in fact several property acquisition games marketed in the 1920s and 1930s with similarities to Monopoly, and Parker Brothers acquired the patents from Darrow along with affidavits in which he claimed that he was the game’s sole inventor. Later that same year, 1935, Parker Brothers president, Robert Barton, learned that Darrow’s claims were not true.
Darrow had copied much of the game he claimed to have invented from another game, known as The Landlord’s Game, which had been developed by Elizabeth Magie and patented in 1903. Variations of the game were created subsequently. In its original form it was a tool to demonstrate that the paying of rent impoverished the renters while enriching property owners. Parker Brothers had at least twice rejected the game as too political during the 1920s. Parker Brothers continued to trumpet Darrow as the inventor of Monopoly, as well as other games which the company presented, through the 1950s. It also marketed editions of The Landlord’s Game, with considerably less success.
Edison’s supposed invention of the light bulb has long been disputed, and he is generally considered to have been one of many who studied the problem of using electricity as a viable source for lighting. At least twenty patents existed for electric lightbulbs before Edison and his laboratory began considering the problem of a workable electric light. So while Edison did not invent the light bulb, it can be argued that it was he who perfected it, though even that is disputed. His work coincided in time with that of Joseph Swan, who perfected a similar bulb using the same materials at roughly the same time. Edison and Swan later entered business together in England.
Edison became known as the inventor of the light bulb, as well as several other items which he did not invent, because of his abilities as a public relations specialist. He was a showman to the general public, creating interest in the inventions which came out of his factories and laboratories, which in turn helped to attract investors. His true greatest invention was the art of industrial research by assigned teams, which he created at Menlo Park. It was the teams which labored over what became known as his inventions, while he invented his image as the Wizard of Menlo Park, an image which he still retains today.
Thomas Edison is credited with the invention of the phonograph, a device which he first patented in 1878. It was not the first device which was capable of recording sound, though it was the first which could faithfully reproduce the sound in the form of playback. Earlier devices recorded sound and could reproduce it visually rather than audibly. Although Edison had a reputation as an innovator in the telegraph industry prior to the invention, it was the phonograph which first placed him in the public mind as the greatest inventor in America. Using foil as the medium upon which the sound was recorded, Edison did not at first aggressively market the invention.
Nor did he and his team acknowledge the work of an earlier inventor, a Frenchman named Edouard-Leon Scot de Martinville. In 1857 de Martinville was awarded a French patent for his invention of a device which he called the phonautograph. The phonautograph mimicked the human ear in design and recorded sound by converting it to visual images, by vibrating a reed over inked paper or glass plates. De Martinville failed to create a market for his device. Though Edison and his team used a similar approach to etch sound vibrations on tinfoil, they never credited de Martinville’s invention or work as contributing to the invention of the phonograph.
15. Louis le Prince and the invention of motion pictures
Louis le Prince was the first to record moving pictures using a single lens camera, with the images captured on paper. In 1888 he received an American patent for a camera which served as both the recorder and projector of the images. By 1889 le Prince was prepared to demonstrate his invention in the United States for the benefit of potential investors and he moved to New York City with his family. He scheduled a public demonstration of his device for September, 1890. A trip to England to obtain patents there and a brief trip to France preceded his scheduled demonstration of motion pictures, using a system patented before Edison’s.
He disappeared without a trace while traveling by train in France. Neither his body nor his luggage were ever found though some claim parts of his luggage turned up in Paris. In 1898 the American Mutoscope Company was involved in a patent infringement case with Edison, who by then claimed to have invented the motion picture camera. Mutoscope was the company formed to market the device invented by le Prince, and his son Adolphe, who had long assisted his father, was called to testify. Edison prevailed in the case which was heard in American courts, and two years later Adolphe was killed in a shooting accident on Fire Island in New York.
16. Did Thomas Edison invent the pirating of film?
In 1902 French filmmaker Georges Melies produced A Trip to the Moon, which became a classic and is considered the first science fiction film in history. It was a sensation in France and England, and Thomas Edison, determined to monopolize the motion picture market in all of its aspects, not only the manufacturing of cameras and projectors, took steps to ensure Melies would not profit from the film in the United States. Edison paid a projectionist in England to deliver a copy of the film to him, from which he made multiple copies and distributed them across America. The film was presented in America as an Edison production and the royalties went into Edison’s pockets. Melies never received so much as a dime.
Edison’s actions effectively eliminated Melies from the lucrative American film market, but that was not the limit of Edison’s actions regarding film piracy. At the same time he employed enforcers to ensure that films produced by his studios were protected from unscrupulous theater owners, in effect suppressing the very acts of piracy he also practiced. Edison’s domineering hand on the film industry led to many producers, who initially clustered around New York and New Jersey, moving to the west, including outside of Los Angeles.
17. Benjamin Franklin did not invent streetlamps, but he did improve them
Before electric lights municipalities provided light on their streets through the use of streetlamps, which Benjamin Franklin observed in London. He found the London design to be inefficient, the round lamps did not allow smoke to exit. The smoke obstructed the light, and the oily soot left behind obstructed it further. Cleaning was problematic. It was time consuming, and it was lamp globe consuming; the globes were fragile and easily broken when being removed for cleaning. Thus London was burning expensive whale oil to provide light which was of little benefit for its citizens.
It was Franklin who proposed replacing the round globes with rectangular panes of glass, sloped outward as they rose to the top of the lamp, which included a central chimney which efficiently allowed the smoke to exhaust. The outward slope of the panes helped to keep the lamps dry. They were also easier to clean, as the panels were thicker and thus less fragile than the round globes previously used. For this, Franklin is often credited with the invention of streetlamps but, as with Edison more than a century later, Franklin actually developed an improvement to an existing light source. Franklin copied a design which he had seen in use in the house of a friend, with adjustments to the lamp’s wick as well as the chimney.
18. Igor Sikorsky and the invention of the helicopter
Igor Sikorsky is credited as the inventor of the helicopter. Though the first commercially and militarily viable helicopter in the United States was his design, (the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300), he did not invent the propulsion of aircraft via the use of rotors. His first helicopter design was the H-1, which he produced in 1909. The word itself (helicopter) was coined in 1861, when a French inventor and designer built a version using a steam engine as the power source, which proved to be too heavy to be lifted off the ground. By the end of the decade Frenchman Alphonse Penaud built rotary helicopter models and produced them as toys. Some of these were purchased by an American minister as gifts for his sons. His name was Milton Wright.
In 1908 Thomas Edison patented a helicopter design, but the aircraft never advanced beyond the modeling stage, and never flew. By then several other helicopters had, some manned and some tethered. In short, no one man or woman can be credited as the sole inventor of the helicopter, with working models or drawings of proposed rotor powered aircraft going back to ancient China. Leonardo da Vinci proposed a design, which he called an “aerial screw”. Da Vinci built models and according to his notes flew them, but they would have been unsuitable for manned flight as the entire device rotated in the air to achieve lift.
The American master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe was a writer and literary critic who is widely believed to have created the fiction genre of the mystery novel. Mysteries as a form of written entertainment did not emerge until the early 19th century, in part because formal police departments, with investigators who examined crimes, did not exist. Poe wrote mysteries, including his Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), and was an early contributor to the detective story. Poe is credited with the creation of the detective story through his character C. Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in the above mentioned short story. He was the basis for subsequent fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
But detective fiction is merely a branch of the genre which includes the mystery novel, and while Poe was an early contributor he did not invent it. Zadig, an eighteenth century novella written by Voltaire presented a mystery as its central story, and was likely an influence on Poe nearly a century later. In 1819 E. T. A. Hoffman produced the novella Mademoiselle de Scuderi, in which the eponymous character attempts to solve a mystery by deciphering clues and making corresponding deductions, though often erroneous. Edgar Allan Poe is nonetheless usually cited as the inventor of the mystery/detective story, and an annual award, the Edgars, are presented to the best in several crime writing categories by the Mystery Writers of America.
The first commercial electrical telegraph system was not that invented by Samuel Morse in 1838. Morse’s system was instead an improvement over systems which used a series of separate wires to stimulate needles on a receiver. The needles then pointed to corresponding letters and numbers on a grid, allowing words to be spelled. The Cooke and Wheatstone electrical telegraph system was in use in England for over a year before the Morse system was introduced, and remained as a competitive alternative for years later, offering what was seen by some operators as an advantage. Its operators were not required to master a new code.
Morse invented a single wire system which was simpler in design and contained far fewer components, making it cheaper to manufacture and maintain. But its operation required the use of a special code, which Morse invented, known to history and still in use as Morse code. By the time of the American Civil War the Morse system was the standard in Europe and the United States, but the Cooke and Wheatstone system was the first patented electrical telegraph system to be put into commercial use, making Morse’s reputation as the inventor of the electrical telegraph dubious. And Modern International Morse Code was created not by Morse but by Friedrich Gerke, replacing Morse’s original code and with some changes remains the form of Morse code used internationally today.
A myth provably false but presenting a stubborn resistance to dying out is that the beheading machine known as the guillotine was invented by French doctor Joseph Guillotin. Some versions of the tale include the additional tidbit – also false – that Guillotin died by being executed on the machine. There were in fact several machines developed for the purpose of quickly removing the head from the human body over the centuries, but that which most resembles the guillotine of France was developed by a German, Tobias Schmidt, working with the Frenchman Louis Antoine. Their model featured the angled blade, which severed the head more cleanly. Guillotin did nothing more than propose the use of the machine in French executions.
Joseph Guillotin was a physician and politician who was an early opponent of capital punishment. Recognizing that the form of punishment was unlikely to be banned in France, he proposed beheading as the universal means of execution, replacing the various systems in use (which including the rack and other tortures) with a mercifully quick death. He lobbied for the machine to be used and his support was so vocal that it became known in France as Guillotin’s machine, which quickly became simplified as the guillotine. During the French Revolution its use was enthusiastically embraced. Guillotin did not meet his end on the guillotine however, he died in Paris in 1814, of natural causes.
George Washington Carver has long been called the inventor of a ubiquitous product in American life, peanut butter. Carver was an agricultural scientist of note, contributing innovations in crop rotations and the reduction of soil erosion. He did produce more than 100 recipes for food items using peanuts, which he distributed to farmers through what he called his practical bulletins. He also researched the use of peanuts in other products, none of which brought financial success. From 1915 to 1923, while at Tuskegee Institute, his experimentation into alternative uses for several foods included soybeans, pecans and other tree nuts, sweet potatoes, and legumes. But he did not invent peanut butter.
Although evidence of grinding nuts into a paste dates to the ancient Aztecs in the Americas, it was a Canadian, Marcellus Edson, who obtained the first American patent for milling roasted peanuts into a paste, which he mixed with sugar. Cereal magnate John Kellogg patented a form of peanut butter (made from boiled peanuts) in 1898. Several Kellogg employees developed recipes of their own and marketed them under differing names after leaving the cereal company. By the 1930s nationally known brands emerged, including Peter Pan (1928) and Skippy (1932). Today, the United States Peanut Butter Board includes a statement on their website which reads, “Contrary to popular belief, George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter”.
As a farmer George Washington was an innovator, converting his Mount Vernon farms to grow alternative crops when tobacco depleted the soil. From the new crops, chiefly grains, he created new products, including beers, whiskey, and flours ground in his own mills. He once recorded an entry in his farm diary in which he referred to a seed drill of his own design, which “answered very well in the field in the lower pasture”. From this reference came the belief that George Washington invented what he called a “Drill Plow”, and while his shops fabricated the device “of my own invention” his reference was to the design, rather than the farming implement decades old known as the seed drill.
Washington was familiar with seed drills, through his extensive research and correspondence with other farmers, in Europe and America. A horse drawn seed drill which planted seeds in rows in a manner similar to that described by Washington was invented in England by an agriculturist of the name Jethro Tull. The seed drill allowed seeds to be planted at the correct depth and distance, and was far more efficient than simply tossing them by hand (broadcasting) or hand digging and planting individual seeds. By 1760 Washington was an avid practitioner of the theories and methods espoused by Jethro Tull, including the use of implements invented earlier in the century by the Englishman.
The swivel chair is not the invention of a furniture maker, nor a lazy boss, nor a publican providing barstools for his patrons. It was devised by Thomas Jefferson while he was in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress which produced the Declaration of Independence. Whether Jefferson used the chair while writing the drafts of that document is disputed; it may not have been ready in time. What is known is that Jefferson provided a Philadelphia furniture maker with the specifications for the chair. Jefferson took the chair to Monticello when he returned, and in his workshops there modified it exceedingly, an indication that he was not fully pleased with the product delivered in Philadelphia.
It was one of many inventions by Jefferson, which include his famous copying desk, and a pasta machine, to make the macaroni which he grew to love while in Paris and Italy. He is often credited with bringing ice cream to American, and developing an ice cream freezer, neither of which is true. There are written recipes in his own hand for several flavors of ice cream, which he provided to confectioners in Philadelphia, along with pastries to be served with it, but ice cream recipes appeared in American food books many decades before Jefferson became acquainted with them.
The story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball was deliberately created in 1908, by a group known as the Mills Commission, in order to separate the American game from the ancient British game of rounders. The commission was chaired by Abraham Mills, at the time president of the National League, and supported by American league president Albert Spaulding. The official story endorsed by the Mills Commission was that Doubleday invented the game and the rules in 1839, and the first game played under the rules took place in Cooperstown, New York, that year. The National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame officially recognizes Doubleday as the inventor of baseball, but to date has not inducted him into the Hall.
Whether baseball was derived from rounders or grew out of its own remains a disputed aspect of the game and American history. References in documents from American towns mention baseball by that name, as well as rounders, being played long before 1839. Spalding worked tirelessly to perpetuate the myth. In his book America’s National Game he pointed out the invention of America’s game by a man who had been a hero during the Civil War (including at Gettysburg) was highly appropriate. So while the preponderance of evidence is that baseball evolved over time (and continues to do so today) Abner Doubleday continues to be officially credited with its invention.
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