Jacuzzi

On this date in 1941, Italian immigrant Candido Jacuzzi and his wife, Inez, were preparing for the arrival of their fourth child. Living the upwardly mobile California dream, they would give their youngest kid a name that shouted out assimilation: Kenneth Anthony.

Little Kenny arrived nine days after Easter and hit the ground running. He walked early, talked early, and was racing around the house by the time he was 9 months old. Just before he turned 2, however, he contracted strep throat. Strep is routinely treated with antibiotics today, but that was not the case then and the infection spread. It became rheumatic fever, and one doctor told the family the boy would be unlikely to reach his third birthday.

The infection did not kill Kenny Jacuzzi, but it did turn into a debilitating case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors didn’t have much to offer in the way of treatment then, so they suggested hydrotherapy — soaking in a spa of warm, moving water. Few hospitals were equipped with the large stainless-steel whirlpool baths then in use, and the U.S. was fighting World War II, so visits to seek such treatment were, by necessity, infrequent.

After noticing that they eased the pain in her young son’s joints, Inez asked Candido if he could build a bathtub pump that could replicate the experience. Her husband was an inventor and a self-taught engineer and the short answer was yes, he could devise such a pump. Judging by his last name, you can probably guess what happened next.

Soaking worn-out muscles or sore joints in hot water has been considered therapeutic, not to mention mentally relaxing, for thousands of years. The early Romans made it into an art form, seeking out natural hot springs in the far corners of their empire (literally, in Bath, England) or creating public baths in the heart of Rome. It was a custom borrowed from ancient Greece, and it existed in China and Egypt as well.

But the Jacuzzi family originally gravitated toward the sky, not the water.

Candido Jacuzzi was one of 13 siblings brought to the United States by Giovanni and Teresa Jacuzzi in the early days of the 20th century. The family came from a small village in Northern Italy named Casarsa della Delizia. The oldest was Rachele, and he was sent here first. Giovanni seems to have been motivated by a desire to not have his sons sacrificed on the killing fields of World War I.

The entire family eventually made it to Northern California, a place even more picturesque than their home town. The Jacuzzi boys became tinkerers, inventors, and innovators.

Rachele, who was considered the most creative of them, was drawn to the new field of aeronautics. He teamed up with aviation pioneer James Smith McDonnell, building a better kind of propeller for McDonnell and then designing his own planes.

“Rachele wanted to fly,” his nephew Ken once told an interviewer. “That was his dream.”

With six of his brothers working out of a machine shop in Berkeley, the family enterprise produced the “Jacuzzi J-7,” the first airplane with an enclosed cockpit and cabin. Seeking a contract with the federal government to deliver the mail, the Jacuzzi J-7 was flown across the San Francisco Bay in a rainstorm and from there across the Sierra Mountains to Reno, which was considered a tricky, if not outright dangerous, route. To demonstrate their plane was capable of showing tourists the wonders of Yosemite National Park from the air, a crew of four flew from San Francisco to Yosemite, landing in a grass field in the shadow of El Capitan. On the return journey, however, a side trip to Modesto turned into tragedy.

Something went wrong as they descended into that valley town. Was it wind shear? Pilot error? Did the pilot try a stunt the plane couldn’t handle? No one knows, but the wings ripped off the plane and it crashed, killing the crew. Among them was one of Rachele and Candido’s brothers, Giocondo.

Their father had brought his family to America to save his boys, and now in April of 1921, one of them was gone. There would be no more flying for them. But California’s economy was booming in all sorts of areas in those pre-war years. One of the biggest was agriculture, which meant, as it still does in the West today, irrigation. Flight may have been Rachele Jacuzzi’s first passion, but inventing was his talent and he next applied it to building better pumps for the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. Among those who worked in his shop was Candido, who paid close attention.

When his own youngest son took ill two decades later, Candido essentially invented what we know today as the Jacuzzi. It caught on big-time in California in the 1960s and 1970s, eventually becoming such a huge business that the family built manufacturing plants around the world, including one in Italy, the country that gave us this talented family in the first place.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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