Mental Pivot #67: Invention and Innovation
The story of Ruth Wakefield and the consequences of small things, habit formation and role models, and assessing risk with the micromort.
Wikipedia’s Timeline of Historic Inventions is a favorite resource to visit. It’s a chronicle of important inventions and inventors from the crude stone tools of the Paleolithic up through mRNA vaccines of the present-day.
It rightly celebrates the big, indispensable, world-changing inventions (e.g., the printing press, the internal combustion engine, penicillin, the Haber-Bosch process). But not all inventions are world-changing. Small inventions are worth thinking about too. Small inventions might not generate the same magnitude of impact as the big inventions, but they can still result in enduring changes of their own.
Matt Ridley is a well-regarded observer of invention and innovation. In my summary of his book, How Innovation Works, I note the distinction he makes between the related phenomena:
Invention is the act of discovering an idea; it is merely a beginning, an inception point. Innovation is much more, it is when the invention is taken into the world and made practical. Innovation is the creative reconfiguration of multiple inventions and ideas into something new. Innovation is the act of fully exploring the consequences of that new thing and disseminating and integrating it into society and general use.
Getting to innovation requires an antecedent, an invention. And arriving at an invention, in turn, requires its own unique set of antecedents. Sometimes these antecedents are a confluence of other inventions and technologies. For example, it’s hard to imagine the development of the modern smartphone without the internet, cellular network, improved processing power and energy efficiency, and a host of prior gadgets like the Palm Pilot, iPod, and Game Boy.
Sometimes these antecedents are, in part, the consequence of a good question. Questions are catalysts for new ideas. Questions such as “how can I do this better?”, “how can I do this differently?”, and “why don’t we try doing it this way instead?”
Which brings us to the small invention that lies at the center of today’s post: the invention of the chocolate chip cookie.
It’s a small invention in the grander scheme of things. But don’t let its apparent triviality dissuade you. Its origin story offers a fascinating window into the twin phenomena of invention and innovation. Moreover, it demonstrates that even a modest discovery can cause a ripple in the pond that generates consequences above and beyond what the inventor envisioned.
The story begins with Ruth Wakefield, the inventor of this beloved treat. As you’ll see, like all good inventors, she had a proclivity for bucking conventional wisdom and asking good questions.
In 1930, Ruth Wakefield (a dietician and teacher) and her husband Kenneth (a meatpacking executive) quit their jobs to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions. They purchased an old Cape Cod-style home in Whitman, Massachusetts, situated on an old toll road and opened a teahouse. The establishment served lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and was christened the Toll House Inn.
Success was not a given for the Wakefields. Their relatives were skeptical and attempted to dissuade them from their venture. It didn’t help that they were starting a new business amidst the Great Depression. But the couple were hard-working, financially savvy, honest in their dealings, and always customer-focused. Most importantly, Ruth had a knack for food and cooking.
The Wakefields rejected conventional wisdom from the outset.
Experienced restauranteurs advised them to purchase “cheap, hard chairs so people wouldn’t sit long.” The Wakefields opted instead to acquire comfortable easy chairs for their guests.
Friends urged them to use large soup bowls for meal service. Patrons would fill up on relatively inexpensive soup, and smaller portions could be served for the more expensive main courses and desserts. The Wakefields rejected this tactic. They used small soup bowls and insisted on serving substantial mains and desserts.
To ensure highly attentive service for their patrons, the Wakefields maintained a ratio of one waitress for every two tables. They treated their staff well and turnover was low. When employees fell ill, the Wakefields would check them in at the local hospital under the moniker “Toll House family.”
Another point of differentiation: customers could ask for second helpings for any of the courses, and the Toll House staff would happily oblige. The Wakefield’s rationale was that customers would leave satisfied and rave about the restaurant to their friends. For the entrepreneurial couple, positive word-of-mouth and customer buzz was worth the short-run financial hit incurred by the occasional “big eater.”
The restaurant was only open for business for ten months of the year. During the other two months, the Wakefields travelled the world. They toured extensively, visiting Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the South Pacific. Modern trans-Atlantic commercial air travel didn’t become a thing until the post-war period, so the couple journeyed via freighter (they eschewed luxury liners). For the Wakefields, travel was not only recreation, but also an important means of learning and research. New recipes and ingredients they encountered abroad were incorporated into their menu back in Massachusetts.
In a 1938 three-part newspaper series for on the Toll House Inn, Scripps-Howard journalist Ernie Pyle had this to say about Ruth Wakefield: “Ruth Wakefield can cook ‘by ear.’ Or by taste, I suppose you’d call it. She can eat a strange dish, and come home and re-create it with every ingredient in proportion.” As an example of how traveling influenced her, Pyle notes that, “one winter in a Paris basement, they picked up an onion soup they liked. That onion soup alone made them enough money to pay for their next winter’s trip to Europe.”
Under their savvy leadership, the Toll House flourished. By the time Pyle’s news report was published, the Toll House Inn had 100 employees, served 1000-2000 diners each day, and had lines out the door. Restaurant critic Duncan Hines declared the establishment one of the finest restaurants in the United States.
It’s against this backdrop that Wakefield’s greatest contribution to American culinary culture unfolded when, in 1938, Ruth Wakefield invented the chocolate chip cookie.
Even before its invention, the Toll House Inn was known for its desserts. Customer favorites included lemon meringue, baba au rhum, Boston cream pie (a favorite of restaurant regular, Joseph Kennedy Sr.) and Indian pudding (which Duncan Hines declared one of his favorite dishes in the entire country).
In 1937, while traveling home after a trip to Egypt, Ruth started thinking about ways that she could change the dough in another recipe served at the Toll House. “We had been serving a thin butterscotch nut cookie with ice cream,” she told the Boston Herald-American in a 1974 interview, “everybody seemed to love it, but I was trying to give them something different.”
One day, she experimented with the butterscotch cookie, adding chocolate to the recipe. She originally planned to use Baker’s brand chocolate, but didn’t have any on hand. She did, however, have some Nestlé’s Semi-Sweet Economy Bars in her pantry, and used them instead. The standard technique for working with chocolate at the time was to melt the chocolate and incorporate it into the dough. Ruth omitted this step, but recognized that, in lieu of melting, she’d need to process the chocolate somehow. Tossing a whole chocolate bar into cookie dough was a non-starter. To solve this problem, she found an ice pick and broke each bar into smaller “pea sized” nuggets. She then incorporated those fragments into the dough and baked her cookies. Whether she expected the chocolate to completely melt into the dough or retain some of its shape is unclear, but when she tasted what came out of the oven, she was amazed with the finished product. The treat was delightfully new and different; she realized she was onto something.
After iterating and improving the recipe, she coined her new creation the “Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie” and started serving it as an accompaniment to ice cream (it wouldn’t be known as the chocolate chip cookie until later). Despite her fondness for her invention, she still saw it as little more than a complement for ice cream.
It was only when customers began clamoring specifically for the cookies and asking for the recipe that Ruth realized her new creation might have legs.
Ruth had published a cookbook in 1936, Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes. The cookbook was a hit with her patrons and so, in 1938, she issued a new edition that included the first published recipe of her new cookie. In addition to the book, she printed single-sheet copies of her recipe and shared those with customers.
At this point, her creation achieved a kind of pre-internet virality that was astonishing. Radio and newspapers—the dominant media of the time—played a big role. So too did key media personalities (the influencers of the day).
As the popularity of the cookies exploded, so too did demand for Nestlé’s semi-sweet bars, the chocolate specified in the recipe. According to food historian Carolyn Wyman, Nestlé executives took notice when formerly tepid sales for their product increased by 500% in southern New England. Once they discovered the source of the sales boom, they moved quickly to capitalize on it. Nestlé contacted Ruth and obtained an agreement that granted the company the rights to her recipe and the Toll House name. The terms, never fully disclosed, were allegedly for $1 and a lifetime supply of chocolate.
As demand grew, so too did product innovation. The original semi-sweet bar used in the recipe was a solid piece of chocolate with a dozen sections that could be broken off for eating. Recognizing that bakers needed to “chip” the chocolate into smaller pieces, Nestlé released a new version of their bar that was scored into 160 smaller pieces. A short time later, Nestlé, realizing they could save customers the trouble of breaking apart the chocolate bar, introduced bags of small teardrop-shaped chocolate morsels (what we today know as a “chocolate chip”). Nestlé also experimented with boxed cookie mixes during this period. It was a nod to bakers wanting something more convenient and a precursor to refrigerated tubes of raw cookie dough.
Competitors wanted in on the action too and soon advertisements from companies like Baker’s Chocolate, Gold Medal Flour and Pillsbury ran in newspapers and magazines, encouraging consumers to try this wonderful new treat.
Ruth and Kenneth Wakefield retired and sold the Toll House in 1967, after running the business for 37 years (the Toll House sadly burned down in 1984 and was never rebuilt). She passed away in 1977 at the age of 73, but she left behind an indelible mark on the culinary landscape in America.
Today, the chocolate chip cookie is as popular and ubiquitous as ever. A search for “chocolate chip cookie recipe” on Google returns a staggering number of results. A 2018 article from Quartz states that Americans consume more than 7 billion chocolate chip cookies annually (half that number are homemade) and 90 billion individual chocolate chips were sold annually by Nestlé’s Toll House brand. The popular store-bought brand, Chips Ahoy! (introduced by Nabisco in 1963), generates over $600 million in annual sales.
I can walk into my local supermarket and find chocolate chip cookie products in multiple sections of the store: a dozen or more bagged chocolate chip products in the baking aisle (prepackaged cookies like Tate’s, Chips Ahoy!, and Pepperidge Farms), cookies in the snack food section, ready-to-bake tubes and flats of dough in the refrigerated foods section, chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and Chipwiches in the frozen food aisle (both products not possible without Ruth Wakefield’s invention), and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in the bakery section. Patrons of Starbucks (or any other coffee shop or café for that matter) can purchase a chocolate chip cookie to go along with their favorite espresso drink. Ruth’s invention inspired the creation of national cookie chains like Famous Amos and Mrs. Field’s. And popular fast food chains like McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Subway all offer chocolate chip cookies as de rigueur menu items.
It’s easy to dismiss Ruth Wakefield’s invention as trivial or even as a happy accident. But this misses the point and downplays her cumulative efforts, talents, and backstory. Hers was the quintessential entrepreneurial journey: a unique combination of experiences, habits, decisions, and efforts (and yes, even some good fortune) that led to her discovery and eventual success. She was a lifelong learner who constantly sought out new food combinations and recipes. She was also a savvy marketer who helped ignite the marketing blitz that was eventually taken up by forces beyond her control. Her invention spawned entirely new product categories, inspired new businesses, and became an essential part of the American cultural fabric. And setting those facts aside, it’s hard to quantify just how much joy and happiness chocolate chip cookies have delivered in their relatively short history.
The pattern of invention and innovation that Matt Ridley writes about is true not only for the big inventions, but the little ones as well. Invention is a necessary starting point, but the innovation that follows are equally important. Without the right combination of events, it’s entirely plausible that Ruth’s small invention could have fallen into obscurity. But thankfully it didn’t. A sequence of fortunate events carried the chocolate cookie out of the Toll House Kitchen and into homes, stores, and restaurants throughout a nation.
Something small turned into something big.
Which is why the chocolate chip cookie is not only my all-time favorite dessert, it’s also a sweet story.
Notes: Much of the source material for this article comes from archival newspaper articles sources from Newspapers.com and Google Books. In particular, Ernie Pyle’s 1938 syndicated series for Scripps-Howard on the Toll House Inn was especially illuminating. Food writer Carolyn Wyman’s “The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book” (2014) is the definitive history of the treat and was a valuable resource in writing this article.
Now onto this week's recommendations…
Atomic Habits of Desire: Luke Burgis (Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire) looks at an important, but sometimes overlooked aspect of habit formation: the role models that influence us. In particular, he’s interested in the taxonomy of influences cited in James Clear’s Atomic Habits. It consists of three models that can have both positive and negative influence on us: “the close” (i.e., family and friends), “the many” (i.e., the majority opinion, groupthink), and “the powerful” (i.e., the successful).
Beware What Sounds Insightful: Keen insights from Cedric Chin on consuming content with a critical eye: “The arms race for our attention has led to an arms race in writing. The best online writers are able to make something sound insightful—regardless of whether it’s true, or whether it’s useful.”
Theory of Constraints Principles Simplified: “Identify the bottleneck in the system—the weakest link—and you make it stronger by increasing its capacity and smoothing the flow of operations.”
We Need a Standard Unit of Measure for Risk: Steven Johnson (host of the “American Innovations” podcast) advocates for the broad adoption of the “micromort”, a unit of risk defined as a one-in-a-million chance of death. For instance, the risk of skydiving is 8 micromorts per jump whereas climbing Mt. Everest is 37,932 per ascent. Having such a measure might help overcome our general weakness at properly assessing situational risks and improving decision-making.
Ghosts of Ukraine: Moving piece by Dean Bakopoulos, who recounts the plight of his Ukrainian grandparents who fled Stalin during World War II only to be captured by Nazis. They eventually made it to the United States and settled in Detroit alongside a community of displaced Ukrainians.
How Big Technology Systems Are Slowing Innovation: “Dominant firms are employing large-scale information systems to outflank their competitors, including innovative startups. They are using proprietary software to better manage complexity and differentiate themselves from rival firms.” Case in point: Walmart’s inventory management and logistics software, which enables the retailer to carry a broader selection of products at lower cost and respond to consumer demand and emerging products faster than their competitors.
It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart: Jennifer Senior’s lengthy meditation on the nature of friendship and the reasons why so many seem to unravel or fade away over the course of a lifetime.
The Scientific Methods of J. Kenji López-Alt: This interview with the popular chef and food writer covers a range of interesting topics: new techniques that upend conventional wisdom, authority and authenticity, the context around what it means for something to be considered “the best”, self-reflection and managing the ego, and responsible social media engagement.
The Ugly Truth of How Movie Scores Are Made: “The streaming revolution is changing the way film composers get paid and exposing the flaws of a system where big names farm their scores out to uncredited “ghost composers.” Now, the artists actually writing the music are demanding recognition—and a fair share of the profits.”
Odds & Ends:
The Longevity FAQ: A beginner’s guide to longevity research is a helpful resource maintained by Laura Deming (founder of the Longevity Fund). The FAQ covers essential topics in longevity such as caloric restriction, insulin, cellular senescence, and autophagy. The extensive bibliographic citations are a great springboard into deeper inquiry.
All the Stories Nominated for the 2022 National Magazine Awards is a roundup of articles selected by the American Society of Magazine Editors. The list is a boon to readers and covers a wide range of categories including Public Interest, Essays, Lifestyle Journalism, Design, and much more.
Push to Kindle lets readers conveniently send online articles to their Kindle readers. Instead of reading on a laptop, you can read the article on your Kindle (and add annotations and highlights too). It’s a tool that I’ve highlighted in earlier issues of the newsletter, but given the wealth of content in the link immediately above, I’d be remiss not to mention it to recent newsletter subscribers. The tool is available as an extension for most popular web browsers and as a mobile app for iOS and Android. It’s one of my favorite tools and is an essential part of my newsletter writing workflow (I read most of the articles I recommend on my Kindle).
The longer I write this newsletter, the more enamored I am with old archival newspapers and magazines. They chronicle so many forgotten stories. Premium services like Newspapers.com are fantastic (I’m a happy subscriber) as well as the archives of magazines like Harpers and Time. But if you’re looking for free archives, Google Books includes “full view” scans of print news and magazines. The available titles are limited, but there are gems like Life and Popular Science in the magazine archive. And the newspaper archive has hundreds of long-defunct publications to peruse. Here’s the magazine archive list and the newspaper archive list.
Refind is a content discovery tool that sends curated articles to your email inbox or via mobile app (iOS and Android). Focus your attention on what’s really relevant to you.
The Sample: A newsletter discovery tool. Based on your interests and feedback, The Sample sends a new newsletter recommendation to your inbox on a daily or weekly basis.
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