Thomas Alva Edison was one of the most prolific and influential inventors in American history. Eight decades after his death, he still holds the record for United States patents--1,093. But one thing the "Wizard of Menlo Park" never did was earn a patent on a piece of fruit. The Ruby Red was the first grapefruit to be granted a U.S. patent (1929). What made it so special? To answer that question, we must review its short and interesting history.
The grapefruit was first documented on the island of Barbados in 1750. But the subtropical citrus fruit almost certainly came from Jamaica. We know this because the grapefruit is a hybrid fruit, a cross between a Jamaican orange and an Indonesian pomelo, neither of which grew in Barbados at the time. Decades after they were first reported, botanists visited the island and named them
grapefruit because of the way they grew in clusters, like grapes.
The exotic island fruit was brought to Florida in 1823 by Spanish explorers. But Florida already has its fair share of citrus crops, the most popular of which was the orange. Oranges had been growing in the Sunshine State since the early 16th century. By the time the grapefruit arrived, orchard owners were finally starting to ship and sell them to out of state. The burgeoning orange industry would make Florida world famous for citrus, but the grapefruit was left out in the cold.
Though some fruit lovers considered the grapefruit a delicacy, most were turned off by its sour taste and by the fact that it could not be consumed without utensils. Florida farmers continued to plant grapefruit for it admirers, but never in great quantities. It was considered by many to be a novelty fruit, an exotic food that most people would try once and only once.
When the grapefruit came to Texas in the 19th century, many farmers were interested in the citrus trade. They had followed the rise of the Florida orange industry with envy and wonder, and had thought, "Why not here?" Though they had less available acreage for citrus farming, the growing conditions in South Texas were more or less perfect. The fertile soil and subtropical climate would eventually give birth to an enormous citrus industry. But it would take over
four decades of struggle and failure.
The grapefruit once again received a chilly reception from local fruit lovers. That was until a new variety of the fruit was discovered in a grapefruit orchard in South Texas. This mutation had red flesh instead of pink or white, and it was far sweeter than it forebears. Farmers called the fruit the Ruby Red and began selling it commercially in 1929. The grapefruit soon became a popular breakfast fruit, and the rest, as they say, is history.