Researcher collects Baltimore's 'firsts'

September 01, 1997|By Jamie Smith | Jamie Smith,SUN STAFF

When Helen Der began looking for things that first happened in Baltimore, she wondered if there would be all that much.

Three-hundred ninety-five factoids later, she knows the answer.

After more than a year of research, Der has compiled an impressive list of inventions, events, buildings and honors, all of which occurred here before the same thing happened anywhere else. Except for a handful of items contributed by co-workers, Der has found or verified each and every one.

She might well be called the first expert on Baltimore "firsts."

"A lot of people said, 'How can you do all that? It sounds like an impossible task,' " the Hamilton resident remembered. "But when I started, I said, 'Wow, this is really interesting.' "

Der -- an unpaid, one-woman research team for the Baltimore Bicentennial Celebration -- has thrown herself into the project with a passion.

She's read so many books since she started, she can't begin to estimate the number. During her vacation last summer, it wasn't unusual for her to spend 9- and 10-hour days on the project.

"I'd get up in the middle of the night, I'd go to the books, and I'd find more facts," said Der. "Once you get on a roll, you'd say, 'I can't stop. I've got to find another one.' It was really addictive."

First photograph of Earth from space. First practical submarine in the country. First Ouija board.

The big, the small; the important, the quirky: All factoids to make Baltimore proud, all meticulously checked and double-checked by Der. Finding a "first" in one book or magazine isn't good enough for her. It has to be in at least two. Some of her facts were verified five times over.

By all accounts, she's perfect for the job. Baltimore born and bred, she majored in history at Towson University. Armed with a master's degree in instructional technology, she's worked as a librarian for 25 years. For the past eight, Der has been Polytechnic Institute's media specialist.

It's an understatement to say she knows how to do research.

"She was an ideal person," said Joshua Waldorf, executive director of Baltimore Bicentennial Celebration Inc., a nonprofit organization that has coordinated the festivities associated with the city's 200th birthday. "She put a lot of effort into it."

She's put a lot of paper into it, too. At first, she used regular-sized sheets -- but they grew into piles that took over her bedroom. Then she tried 3-by-5 index cards -- but she filled a box to the breaking point. Now the "firsts" are in three computer databases. It took about an hour to print them all out last time she checked.

Of course, the other place she's stored the "firsts" is in her head. And sometimes, she just has to tell somebody at least one of them.

"I think I was driving my friends crazy," she said.

In the beginning -- back in June 1996 -- the research was pretty easy, Der said. She'd look up one fact and find three others.

But as the months went by, her job became less about finding the "firsts" than verifying them. In response to the Baltimore Bicentennial Celebration's request, people were sending in "firsts" they thought were true -- and it was up to Der to make sure.

A few continue to stump her.

About 15 toughies are stuck in a folder labeled "Hard to Do," including one submission that claims Baltimore had the first female band in the country.

She enjoys the work. It's more than just getting the information that goes into a one-line factoid (First portable electric drill with PTC pistol grip, Black & Decker, 1916). There's a story behind every one.

And she knows them all, just in case anyone wants to hear.

Take, for instance, "First use of rubber gloves for surgery, by Dr. William S. Halsted (1894)." Necessity may be the mother of invention, but love is the girlfriend: Halsted's sweetie, a nurse, couldn't stand it when harsh antiseptics got on her hands, so he came up with something to protect them.

And she's still looking for "firsts" -- until the end of December. Then, like the Bicentennial year, it'll be over. No more long days at the Library of Congress. No more sleepless nights at home. The only research she'll be doing will be at her library at Polytechnic (First publicly financed vocational school in the country).

The big "firsts" of Baltimore:

First electric refrigerator (invented by Thomas Moore, 1803).

First telegraph line in the country (1844).

First shopping center (Roland Park marketplace, 1896).

First typesetting machine (invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler, 1884).

First fort built by the U.S. government (Fort McHenry, 1798).

First Shock Trauma Unit in the country (at University of Maryland Hospital, 1961).

First Methodist church in the country (established at the Lovely Lane Meeting House, 1784).

First U.S. Archbishop (John Carroll, 1808).

First African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court (Thurgood Marshall, 1967).

First post office system in the country (1774).

And the quirky ones:

First time Duck Pin bowling introduced (at Diamond Bowling Alleys, 1900).

First bottle caps with crown cork in the country (by Crown Cork & Seal, 1892).

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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