When you get to the end of your days, the last thing you want to hear is the solemn proclamation that you were responsible for nothing. You would likely defend yourself against such a charge and gladly accept the assistance of anyone who would advocate on your behalf.
Unless you are Hanson Gregory. He was the focus of the solemn debate where the best thing any of his supporters could say about him was that he invented nothing.
The venue for the great debate was New York City’s Astor Hotel. It was November 1941, just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. A distinguished panel of celebrity judges was summoned to weigh the evidence. They included Clifton Fadiman, Franklin P. Adams, and Elsa Maxwell. Advocating for the position that Hanson Gregory invented nothing was his cousin, Fred E. Crockett of Camden, Maine. Opposing him was distinguished Cape Cod attorney Henry Ellis.
Crockett began by recounting the notable career of his client. Those facts, at least, were indisputable. Gregory was born November 20, 1831, in Camden County, Maine. He went to sea at the age of 13. By the time he was 19 years old, he was in command of his own ship, becoming one of the youngest sea captains of his time. His heroic rescue of the crew of a sinking Spanish ship earned him an award from Queen Isabella.
Although there was no dispute about his exploits at sea, there was some controversy about what he did — or didn’t do — on June 22, 1847. It was on that day that the fifteen-year-old Gregory claimed to have invented nothing.
Crockett produced letters and affidavits attesting to his cousin’s invention of nothing. Attorney Ellis disputed the evidence, saying that a Nauset Indian was far more likely to have made nothing with the use of his bow and arrow.
Dismissing Ellis’ case as “just crazy stories,” Crockett appealed to the judges to bring the controversy to an end by delivering a verdict in favor of his client. When it comes to making nothing, he argued, no one did it better than Hanson Gregory.
The judges agreed. They delivered their unanimous verdict in favor of Hanson Gregory. Although some still question the sufficiency of the evidence, it was enough to convince the Smithsonian Institution. It joins with the judges in declaring what Hanson Gregory insisted until his dying day that he contributed nothing to history.
Gregory did not take full credit for his contribution of nothingness. He said he was inspired by his mother. He remembers how she used to cook Dutch olykoeks or “oily cakes.” The sweetened balls of dough, fried in hog fat were a delicacy. In 1809, Washington Irving dubbed them “dough nuts” because of their shape. Gregory’s mother prepared them in different shapes, but the name “dough nut” stuck. Eventually, it become the single word “doughnut.” It was his contribution of nothingness to the doughnut that earned Gregory immortality.
He recalled the moment of inspiration — a flash of genius on par with Isaac Newton’s insight upon seeing a falling apple — in an interview with Carl Wilmore in the Boston Post:
“It was way back—oh, I don’t know just what year—let me see— born in ‘31, shipped when I was 13—well, I guess it was about ‘47, when I was 16, [Editor’s Note: He wouldn’t have turned 16 until November of that year, so he was actually 15 years old at the time.] that I was aboard ship and discovered the hole….”
“I first shipped aboard the Isaac Achorn, three-masted schooner, Captain Rhodes, in the lime-trade. Later I joined other crews and other captains, and it was on one of these cruises that I was making doughnuts.
“Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted. I don’t think we called them doughnuts then—they was just ‘fried cakes’ and ‘twisters.’
“Well, sir they used to fry all right around the edges, but when you had the edges done the insides was all raw dough. And the twisters used to sop up all the grease just where they bent, and they were tough on the digestion.”
“Pretty d—d tough, too?” profanely agreed one of the dozen old pipe-smoking fellows who were all eyes and ears, taking in their comrade’s interview by the Post reporter.
With a glance at the perfervid interrupter, the discoverer continued:
“Well, I says to myself, ‘Why wouldn’t a space inside solve the difficulty?’ I thought at first I’d take one of the strips and roll it round, then I got an inspiration, a great inspiration—”
“I took the cover off the ship’s tin pepper-box, and—I cut into the the middle of that doughnut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes!”
“Were you pleased?”
“Was Columbus pleased? Well, sir, them doughnuts was the finest I ever tasted. No more indigestion—no more greasy sinkers—but just well-done, fried-through doughnuts.
“That cruise over, I went home to my old mother and father in Camden, Maine, where I was born. My father, Hanson Gregor, Sr., lived to be 93, and my mother lived to be 79. She was a pretty old lady then. I saw her making doughnuts in the kitchen—I can see her now, and as fine a woman as ever lived was my mother.
“I says to her, ‘Let me make some doughnuts for you.’ She says all right, so I made her one or two and then showed her how. She then made several panfuls and sent them down to Rockland, just outside Camden. Everybody was delighted, and they never made doughnuts, and they never made doughnuts and other way except the way I showed my mother.
“Well, I never took out a patent on it: I don’t suppose anyone can patent anything he discovers; I don’t suppose Peary could patent the north pole or Columbus patent America. But I thought I’d get out a doughnut-cutter—but somebody got in ahead of me.
“Of course, a hole ain’t so much; but it’s the best part of the doughnut—you’d think so if you had ever tasted the doughnuts we used to eat in ‘31.”“The Inventor of the Hole in the Donut.” Our Paper. Vol. 32. Massachusetts Reformatory. 1916.
Today, the hole in the middle of the doughnut is iconic. It is hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t there. There is always someone who is the first to do something. In this case, the something was nothing, and it was Hanson Gregory who did it.
Gregory died in 1921. Twenty-six years later, on the 100th anniversary of his impulsive innovation, his hometown erected a bronze plaque in his honor. The nearby town of Camden still has doughnut festivals celebrating his legacy. June 22 has been designated as National Donut Day to commemorate the world-changing innovation that occurred on that date in 1847.
For more information, read The Donut Book by Sally Levitt Steinberg
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