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R. Stanton Avery. Courtesy of Avery Dennison Corporation.

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Avery, R. Stanton (13 January 1907–12 December 1997), inventor and entrepreneur, was born Ray Stanton Avery in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the son of Oliver Perry Avery, a Congregationalist minister, and Emma Dickinson Avery. Avery's early life was largely shaped by his family's religious and humanitarian interests. (Avery's mother was the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, and his brother became a minister.) Although “Stan” rebelled against the family profession, he continued to be drawn to its secular message. As a student at Pomona College from 1926 to 1932, he worked at a Los Angeles skid row mission. During a year-long trip to China (1929–1930), he spent several months at a missionary-run famine relief center. In 1932 he graduated from Pomona and took a job with the Los Angeles County Department of Charities. In later years he always insisted on the highest ethical standards in business relationships....

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Birdseye, Clarence (09 December 1886–07 October 1956), inventor and entrepreneur, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Clarence Frank Birdseye, an attorney and legal scholar, and Ada Underwood. When Birdseye was in his teens, his family moved to Montclair, New Jersey, where he completed his high school education. Interested in both food and natural history from an early age, he signed up for a cooking course in high school and trained himself to be a more than competent taxidermist, attempting for a time to earn some income by training others in that skill. Birdseye attended Amherst College on a sporadic basis between 1908 and 1910, but he left before graduating because of financial problems. In an attempt to pay his college bills, he had collected frogs to sell to the Bronx Zoo for feeding their snake population and caught rats in a butcher shop for a Columbia University faculty member who was conducting breeding experiments. Following his departure from Amherst in 1910, he worked as an office boy for an insurance agency in New York, and then briefly as a snow checker for the city’s street cleaning department....

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Burden, Henry (22 April 1791–19 January 1871), inventor and ironmaster, was born in Dunblane, Stirlingshire, Scotland, the son of Peter Burden and Elizabeth Abercrombie, farmers. Burden discovered his talent for invention as a youth on his family’s modest farm, where with few tools and no models he constructed a threshing machine, several gristmills, and various farm implements. Encouraged by these successes he enrolled in a course of drawing, engineering, and mathematics at the University of Edinburgh (he received no degree)....

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Couch, Harvey Crowley (21 August 1877–30 July 1941), entrepreneur, was born in Calhoun, Arkansas, the son of Thomas Gratham Couch, a preacher and farmer, and Manie Heard. The Couches were of Welsh extraction. Harvey Couch grew up in rural poverty with little formal schooling until the illness of his father led the family to give up farming and move to Magnolia, Arkansas, where at age seventeen Couch completed his education at the Magnolia Academy. He credited his education to a teacher, Pat Neff, later a governor of Texas....

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Dreyfus, Camille Edouard (11 November 1878–27 September 1956), industrial chemist and entrepreneur, was born in Basel, Switzerland, the son of Abraham Dreyfus, a banker, and Henrietta Wahl. Camille and his younger brother, Henri (later Americanized to Henry), both received their education at the University of Basel, being awarded their Ph.D.s in chemistry in 1902 and 1905, respectively. Camille also pursued postgraduate study at the Sorbonne in Paris until 1906. After working several years in Basel to gain industrial experience, Camille and his brother established a chemical laboratory in their home town. Seeking a product that the public would readily buy, they developed a synthetic indigo. Although they made some money in this venture, it quickly became clear that synthetic indigo did not have a sufficient market. Consequently the Dreyfus brothers focused their attention on celluloid, which at that time was produced only in a flammable form. They recognized that a large potential market existed for nonflammable celluloid, if it could be developed. They focused on cellulose acetate and were shortly producing one to two tons per day. Half of their output went to the motion picture industry for film, with the other half going into the production of toilet articles....

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Eads, James Buchanan (23 May 1820–08 March 1887), civil engineer and entrepreneur, was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, the son of Thomas Clark Eads, a businessman, and Ann Buchanan. Eads was named after his mother’s cousin, James Buchanan, a Pennsylvania congressman who later became the fifteenth president of the United States. Eads had little formal schooling. When his family moved to St. Louis in 1833, he went to work doing chores and running errands for a wealthy dry-goods merchant and spent his spare time reading in his employer’s private library. When Eads was nineteen, he joined his family in Iowa, where they had moved in 1837. There he took a job as a second clerk on the river steamer ...

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Thomas Alva Edison Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-98066).

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Edison, Thomas Alva (11 February 1847–18 October 1931), inventor and business entrepreneur, was born in Milan, Ohio, the son of Samuel Edison, a shingle maker, land speculator, and shopkeeper, and Nancy Elliott, a schoolteacher. Of Dutch and American heritage, his father escaped from Canada during the rebellion of 1837–1838 and, with his wife and children, settled in Milan, a burgeoning wheat port on a canal near Lake Erie, midway between Cleveland and Detroit. “Al,” as his family called him, received devoted attention from his oldest sister Marion and his mother. The arrival of the railroad in a nearby town sharply diminished the canal business in Milan and prompted the family to move to Port Huron, Michigan, in 1854. Al attended both public and private schools for short periods but studied extensively with his mother at home, where he also read books from the library of his politically radical father....

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Fisher, Avery Robert (04 March 1906–26 February 1994), entrepreneur, graphic designer, and audio engineer, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of six children of Charles Fisher and Mary Byrach Fisher, both Russian immigrants. Young Avery was captivated by his father's extensive record collection and this began his lifelong love of classical music. He entered New York University (NYU) in 1924, majoring in biology and English. After graduating in 1929 he joined an advertising agency and came into contact with several publishing companies who were his clients. He got a job as a graphic designer with G. P. Putnam's Sons and then joined Dodd, Mead & Company in 1933, where he worked for the next ten years. He recalled his work in graphic design with great pride and claimed that designing books was his first love. He said that a beautiful typographic design was as pleasing to the eye as listening to music was pleasing to the ear. In 1941 he married Janet Cane; the couple had three children....

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Robert Fulton. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-102509).

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Fulton, Robert (14 November 1765–23 February 1815), artist, engineer, and entrepreneur, was born on a farm in Little Britain (later Fulton) Township, south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the son of Robert Fulton, a Scotch-Irish tailor and tradesman, and Mary Smith. Fulton’s father had left the prosperous market town of Lancaster to establish his family on the land, but like so many others with the same goal, he failed. The farm and the dwelling were sold at sheriff’s sale in 1772, and he took his family back to Lancaster. He died two years later....

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Lear, William Powell (26 June 1902–15 May 1978), electrical engineer and aeronautical entrepreneur, was born in Hannibal, Missouri, the son of Reuben Lear, a carpenter and teamster, and Gertrude Powell. His parents separated when Lear was six, and his mother married a plasterer in Chicago. The family’s meager income represented a lifelong goad to Lear to become financially secure. After finishing the eighth grade, he left school and found work as a mechanic. At age sixteen Lear decided to leave home and enter military service. Lying about his age, he signed up in 1918 with the navy and was posted to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, where he was trained in radio technology. After the armistice, he found employment with a succession of electrical and radio businesses and developed several technical improvements while gaining valuable experience in a rapidly developing industry. During the early 1920s he built and patented the first practical radio for autos but lacked financial support to go into production and sold the design to Motorola in 1924....

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Nichols, William Henry (09 January 1852–21 February 1930), industrial chemist and entrepreneur, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of George Henry Nichols and Sarah Elizabeth Harris, a Quaker. He attended the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn from 1865 to 1868, when it was still effectively a preparatory school and where he was first exposed to and fascinated by the study of chemistry. After several months at Cornell University, he was asked to leave when he refused to reveal the names of his cohorts in allegedly placing a team of horses and a cart on a dormitory roof. Nichols moved in 1869 to New York University, where ...

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Noyce, Robert Norton (12 December 1927–03 June 1990), applied physicist and entrepreneur, was born in Burlington, Iowa, the son of the Reverend Ralph Noyce, a Congregational minister, and Harriet Norton. After serving in several parishes, in 1937 Rev. Noyce was appointed assistant superintendent of the Iowa Conference of Congregational Churches, whose offices were located on the campus of Grinnell College. The family lived on campus, and three of the four Noyce boys later attended the college. Noyce became valedictorian of his class at Grinnell High School. Known as the “Quiz Kid” for his ability to answer any question put to him, the precocious teenager took part in activities ranging from band and chorus, the Latin and science clubs, and drama to the High School Civil Air Patrol....

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Parker, John P. (1827–30 January 1900), African-American abolitionist and entrepreneur, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of a slave mother and white father, whose names are unknown. At the age of eight, Parker was sold as a slave to an agent in Richmond, where he in turn was purchased by a physician from Mobile, Alabama. While employed as a house servant for the physician, Parker learned to read and write. In Mobile he was apprenticed to work in furnaces and iron manufactures as well as for a plasterer. Beaten by the plasterer, Parker attempted to escape, only to be captured aboard a northbound riverboat....

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Pendleton, Edmund Monroe (19 March 1815–26 January 1884), physician, entrepreneur, and educator, was born in Eatonton, Georgia, the son of Coleman Pendleton and Martha Gilbert. When his formal education in local private schools ended after only a few years because of his family’s financial reverses, Pendleton entered the business world. He shared the ownership of a jewelry store in Columbus, Georgia, and later ran a similar business with a cousin, W. B. Johnston, in Macon, Georgia. While working in the latter location Pendleton came across a chemistry textbook, which served as his introduction to science. He soon developed an interest in medicine and studied the subject independently and in the office of a local doctor. Determined to learn as much as possible on the subject, he also served an apprenticeship with a local pharmacist. Pendleton entered the newly founded (1833) Medical College of South Carolina in Charleston and graduated in 1837. While attending lectures at the college he also studied in the medical office of the college’s founder, ...

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Smalley, Richard (Rick) (6 June 1943–28 Oct. 2005), chemist, entrepreneur, and Nobel laureate, was born Richard Errett Smalley in Akron, Ohio to Frank Dudley Smalley, Jr. and Esther Virginia Rhoads. His parents were from Kansas City, and moved the family back when Smalley was three. When Smalley was fourteen, Sputnik was launched, leading to reforms in American science education which encouraged Smalley and many of his generation to become scientists. He also claimed inspiration from a maternal aunt, Sara Jane Rhoads, a chemistry professor at the University of Wyoming....

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Sperry, Elmer Ambrose (12 October 1860–16 June 1930), engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur, was born in Cortland, New York, the son of Stephen Sperry, a farmer and carpenter, and Mary Burst, who died giving birth to him. Elmer was precocious mechanically and eagerly studied math and science at Cortland Normal School. His growing fascination for electrical technology and a visit to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 helped ignite a lifelong drive to invent that would emphasize feedback control systems....

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Sprague, Frank Julian (25 July 1857–25 October 1934), inventor and entrepreneur, was born in Milford, Connecticut, the son of David Sprague and Frances King. After finishing preparatory school, he was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy. The excellent science faculty there included Albert Michelson...