100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview
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Measuring Cup, Tablespoon,
and Teaspoon
Year of Invention: 1879

What Is It? Standardized measuring devices to make cooking recipes precise
and repeatable.

Who Invented It? Fannie Farmer (in Boston)

Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

All modern cooking, as well as our understanding of food’s nutritional content, is based on precise, standardized scientific measurements using cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons—measures that Fannie Farmer created.

Fannie Farmer created the first precise cooking recipes, brought the scientific revolution into the home, and changed housework into “home science” and “home economics.” She revolutionized the mindset of American family cooking.

History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

There were no measurements available for cooking. Cooks improvised as best they could. They measured flour in “fists.” Sticky ingredients (like butter) were measured in lumps—sometimes with a modifier such as “a lump the size of an egg,” or “a lump the size of a walnut.” Many recipes listed the quantity of ingredients as “some,” “a bit,” “a pinch,” or “a little.”

Most recipes directed the cook to bake until done,” or simply “cook until done.” No one had thought to put a thermometer inside a stove. The temperature of wood-fired stoves tended to vary from minute to minute.

How Were Recipe Measures Invented?

Fannie Farmer contracted polio at age 16. It left her with a limp. By the standards of the day she wasn’t eligible for college, and the limp that meant she wasn’t attractive enough for marriage. She had to work to support herself and, in early 1879 at the age of 22, she took a job as a “mother’s helper” in Boston. Cooking for the Shaw family was her primary job.


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