I've seen this interesting little brief from the New York Times in a couple places: the modest origins of spray paint cans:
Ed Seymour, the proprietor of a Sycamore, Ill., paint company, was in search of an easy way to demonstrate his aluminum coating for painting radiators. His wife suggested a makeshift spray gun, like those used for deodorizers. And so, in 1949, Seymour mixed paint and aerosol in a can with a spray head. As it turned out, compressing paint in a can made for a nice finish.
So that's why so many Chicago radiators have that odd aluminum coating. Anyway, Ed Seymour's company is still around and still in Sycamore.
But Seymour basically made spray paint portable; two men, both working in Chicago just before the turn of the century, are given credit for inventing spray paint:
* Joseph Binks, as described by Mark Clark in Body Shop Business:
In 1887, Binks was a maintenance supervisor for Marshall Field's Department store in Chicago. Marshall Field's had miles of basement walls that needed to be whitewashed regularly, and when Binks sent a crew down there with brushes and buckets, it was weeks before they finished the walls on a single level of the multi-level basement. In an effort to speed the task, Binks combined a hand-operated pump, a vessel to hold the liquid under pressure and a wand with a nozzle on the end – much like the pump-up garden sprayer you currently use. The whitewash was strained into the tank, pumped under pressure by the hand pump and propelled out the end of the wand.
Collision Repair and Refinishing: A Foundation Course for Technicians has a handy diagram of Binks's invention. As with Ed Seymour, Binks turned his invention into a company, and his company is still in Glendale Heights.
* Francis David Millet, decorations director for the Columbian Exposition. Well, so says Wikipedia. And HowStuffWorks; here's a diagram from the World's Fair showing spray painters at work. But Clark (and others) claim that the white of the White City can be traced to Binks's invention:
But with just days to go before opening, 90 percent of the buildings housing the exhibits were still unpainted. Enter Joe Binks' Paint & Whitewash Spraying Machine. All buildings were sparkling white by the show's opening, and the exposition was referred to admiringly as "The White City" in the press.
* But Railway and Locomotive Engineering called BS on all of this back in 1897:
We have recently seen an article spray painting with compressed air attributed the origin of this process Mr T.G. Turner of New York City, and said that it was first used in buildings at the World's Fair in Chicago. This is far from being true. The method of painting by spraying with air originated on the Southern Railway and the process was first described in Locomotive Engineering seven or eight years ago. It had been use then for six or seven years. It wonderful how many inventors of a successful process turn up long after process has been put into use.
* While we're talking atomized paint history: the airbrush has its origins in Rockford and Chicago.
Update: I would be remiss, while we are giving thanks for airbrushes, not to mention their greatest automotive use in the history of mankind. I was late for a meeting because of this truck. Yes, that's a special "King Ranch" edition.
Photograph: ZERØ (CC by 2.0)