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History is full of inventions that one person devised but another person parlayed into a personal fortune. Case in point: the thermos.
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Imagine how galling it would be for a prolific inventor to watch someone snatch his idea and use it to create a fortune. Such was the fate of Scottish chemist James Dewar. Working in Cambridge and London, Dewar was a pioneer in the field of cryogenics. He also coinvented the explosive powder cordite and even worked in collaboration with legendary chemist Pierre Curie. But Dewar never patented an innovation that is widely used today: the Dewar flask, more commonly known as the thermos bottle, which he devised in 1892. Necessity was the mother of invention for the chemist, who needed a container that would keep liquids cold for his cryogenics experiments. Dewar used the gadget exclusively for empirical purposes for many years. In 1904 two foresighted German glassblowers saw its commercial potential. As they began selling the product, the Germans held a contest in Munich to come up with a catchier name. The winning entry came from the Greek word therme, which means hot. But though Dewar's name didn't enter the vernacular, there were other honors. The same year that his invention got a new moniker, Dewar was knighted by King Edward VII.


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Last updated: May 1, 2002




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