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INVENTING

Unknown Geniuses Behind 10 Of The Most Useful Inventions
 

Some of the coolest inventors are people you probably don't know. Seemingly simple ideas took a lot of creativity and technological prowess.
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When we hear the word "inventor," we think of people like Thomas Edison or the Wright Brothers.

Some of the coolest inventors, though, are people you probably don't know.  They didn't invent planes or light bulbs; these people created products used so often, you probably didn't even realize they were inventions.

For instance, have you ever wondered how a lollipop ended up on its stick? Or how the straw became bendable? These seemingly simple ideas took a lot of creativity and technological prowess.


1959: A picnic lunch inspired Ernie Fraze to invent the pop top found on soda cans

Whose idea: Ernie Fraze

The inspiration: Fraze, the owner of a successful engineering company, was attending a picnic when he realized he'd forgotten to bring a can opener for the drinks. He ended up prying them open using a car bumper! A few months later, he was having trouble sleeping and thought of the can dilemma. While waiting to get tired, he decided to solve it.

What came of it: Fraze designed a new kind of can, often referred to as a pop top, that could be easily opened with a removable tab. Eventually, his company began manufacturing a system of mass producing these cans to be used by soft drink and brewing companies everywhere. By 1980, Fraze's company was pulling in over $500 million dollars of annual revenue from his brilliant invention. Anytime you open a can of beer or a soft drink, you can thank Ernie Fraze for how easy it is to do.


1937: Joseph Friedman invents the bendable straw so his daughter can more easily drink a milkshake

Whose idea: Joseph Friedman

The inspiration: Friedman was sitting at his brother's soda shop, watching his daughter drink a milkshake. The young girl was struggling to enjoy her beverage through a straight paper straw, whose end she could barely reach. Her father, an inventor, thought of a way to help her out.

What came of it: Friedman inserted a screw into the straw, and wrapped floss around it to create a ribbed texture. When he took the screw out, the straw naturally bent over the rim of the glass and his daughter was able to drink her milkshake with ease. He patented his idea in 1937 and started his own company to produce the straw. The rights to the flexible straw were eventually sold to the Maryland Cup Corporation, which now sells about 500 million of them every year.


1925: Charlie Brannock creates the first accurate way to measure shoe size using toys

Whose idea: Charlie Brannock

The inspiration: The son of a shoemaker, Brannock grew up thinking about feet. As a young man, he became obsessed with figuring out the best way to measure one. The only way to figure out your size at the time was with a wooden block, a method that didn't work very well.

While attending Syracuse University, he set out to solve the problem once and for all. Using a toy construction set, Brannock built a prototype of a device that accurately measured foot sizes.

What came of it: With sales in the millions, the Brannock device has become a staple for shoe stores all over the world. And even though the product is about 85 years old, it remains more or less true to the original model.


1966: James Goodfellow creates ATM pin numbers so people can take money out of the bank after hours

Whose idea: James Goodfellow

The inspiration: The Scottish engineer was tasked with figuring out a way for people to take out money from their banks after hours and on weekends. Eventually, the idea for the ATM was born, and some credit Goodfellow as its inventor. But what Goodfellow undoubtedly created was the Personal Identification Number (PIN).

Goodfellow knew there needed to be a way to confirm the customer's identity at an ATM, but fingerprint scans or voice recognition devices seemed a little too complicated. Then he realized he could link a set of numbers, known only to the account owner, to an encoded card. If the two numbers matched, the person would receive their money.

What came of it: Goodfellow patented the pin number in 1966, and 40 years later received royal honors for his invention. Today, his system can be found in ATMs worldwide, not to mention anywhere debit cards are accepted.


1967: Robert Kearns invents windshield wiper speeds and wins a $30 million lawsuit against auto companies that steal his idea

Whose idea: Robert Kearns

The inspiration: Kearns, an engineer, grew up right near a Ford plant and believed the auto industry was a beacon for innovation. Then, while driving his Ford Galaxie one rainy night, he came up with an idea of how he could contribute to it. In the 1960s, windshield wipers typically had two settings, high and low. So if rain wasn't steady, driving could be extremely difficult. Kearns, who had a bad eye, began to squint to try and see more clearly. Then he wondered, why couldn't windshield wipers blink too? (Note: there is an excellent documentary on Kearns called "Flash of Brilliance").

What came of it: Kearns patented his idea in 1967 and sent it around to the major American car companies, but none bit. However, they eventually all began using his intermittent wipers in their cars. Kearns spent most of the rest of his life battling Ford, Chrysler and other car companies. He eventually won over $30 million, but he lost his wife and his mind in the process. Kearns died in 2005 of complications to brain cancer caused by Alzheimer's disease, shortly after winning the legal battle.


1912: Candy maker Sam Born invents a machine that inserts sticks into lollipops and receives a key to San Francisco

Whose idea: Sam Born

The inspiration: A Russian immigrant, Born was already trained in the art of candy making by the time he came to the United States in 1910. A frugal man, Born wanted to make every part of the candy making process as efficient as possible. In 1912, he introduced the Born Sucker Machine, which quickly and mechanically inserts sticks into lollipops.

What came of it: The automatic lollipop maker helped make the candy, and Born's company, into a huge success. He was awarded the key to San Fransisco in 1916. Today, Just Born serves 35 countries and is known worldwide for being the makers of Peeps.


1858: Hymen Lipman creates the modern pencil by attaching an eraser at the end of it

Whose idea: Hymen Lipman

The inspiration: In 1858, there were lead pencils and there were erasers. But until Lipman, no one had ever combined the two. Lipman received his patent on May 30th, and even thought to make it so that the eraser, not just the lead, could be sharpened.

What came of it: Lipman sold his patent for $100,000, which was a fortune in the mid-19th century. Today, you'd be hard pressed to find a pencil in a classroom without an eraser on the end of it.


1986: Twenty-somethings Scott Jones and Greg Carr bring voicemail to people everywhere

Whose idea: Scott Jones and Greg Carr

The inspiration: In 1986, Jones, an MIT researcher and Greg Carr, a Harvard grad student, decided to enter the telecommunications business together. They started their own company, Boston Technologies, and began working. Their first project was a system where you could dial a number and find out stock information, but Jones, the techie of the two, realized they had a much bigger idea in their hands.

The pair sensed that this was the opportunity to provide people everywhere with voicemail, but until 1988, all phone companies besides AT&T were legally banned from the service. When the ruling was finally reversed, the pair approached several telecom companies and got financial backing. Within 3 months, their ideas were realized.

What came of it: Voicemail, although dwindling in popularity with the advent of text messaging, is a staple of the telecommunications industry. As for Jones and Carr, they're both multi-millionaires.


1985: Jack Clements designs a spill-free way to drink coffee on the go

Whose idea: Jack Clements

The inspiration: The Solo Cup Company tasked Clements to design a better way to drink coffee on the go. Clements drew up a domed lid, the first of its kind, that would rest comfortably between the mouth and the nose during sips. The dome helped prevent spilling and, by chance, accommodated the foam on lattes and cappuccinos.

What came of it: The Solo Traveler Lid quickly became an industry standard and has helped the company rake in $2 billion of annual revenue.


1858: Margaret Knight fought a sexist employee to claim her rightful title as the inventor of the flat-bottomed paper bag

Whose idea: Margaret Knight

The inspiration: Knight was working in paper bag factory when she noticed how difficult it was to pack things into the flimsy, shapeless sacks. So, she decided to invent a machine that folded and glued paper to make a flat-bottomed bag.

What came of it: Knight spent late nights drawing up plans before creating a wooden prototype. She couldn't, however, obtain a patent until she made one out of iron.

While it was being produced at machine shop, an employee named Charles Annan copied her idea and got a patent for it. Knight sued Annan for copyright infringement. Annan argued that, because she was a woman, she couldn't have been the true inventor.  Still, Knight's sketches and detailed plans won her the case. She ended up establishing her own paper bag company and received large sums of royalties for her invention.

Last updated: Mar 24, 2011




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