This spring, America’s National Inventors’ Hall of Fame will confer its greatest honour on the men and women whose ingenuity has changed our lives.
The creations may be familiar, but how much do we know about the people who gave them to us?
WALTER HUNT: SAFETY PINS
Whether straining to preserve Elizabeth Hurley’s modesty or puncturing the nose of a Mohawk-sporting punk rocker, the safety pin has enjoyed a colourful history.
The idea was born in 1849 when Hunt, a serial-patent-filing inventor from New York, had a “Eureka” moment while twisting a piece of wire in his workshop.
After registering the brainchild, he flogged rights to repay a $15 (Dh55) personal debt, thereby surrendering any chance to cash in on his stroke of genius.
Beatrice Galilee, assistant editor of design magazine Icon, says of the pin:
“Its evolution into an ornament is testament to its enduring practicality, contained sense of danger and intrinsic aesthetic appeal.”
LEWIS WATERMAN: FOUNTAIN PENS
The man who saved the world from the hell of inkwells and dipping pens was born in New York in 1837 and was a teacher, carpenter and book salesman before settling down as an insurance salesman.
One day, as he prepared to meet an important client, his pen leaked ink all over a policy document.
The flurry to clean the contract made him late for the meeting and he lost the client. He vowed there and then to invent something better.
Improving on contemporary designs for a pen that would hold ink inside it, he invented a “nib and feed” mechanism that gave a steady stream of ink.
He founded the Ideal Pen company, which, by the time he died (1901) was selling 1,000 pens a day.
When ballpoints swamped the market after 1945, Waterman pens survived on their reputation as high-quality writing instruments.
RUTH BENERITO: WRINKLE-FREE COTTON
A chemist, Ruth Benerito, was working for the US Department of Agriculture in New Orleans in the 1950s when the idea of wrinkle-free cotton struck her.
Until then, if you didn’t want to spend much of your waking life ironing you wore synthetic drip-dry fabrics – pretty nasty in hot weather.
Benerito discovered a way to treat the surface of cotton, using a chemical process called Esterification, or “crosslinking”, which made the surface resistant to wrinkling.
She pretty much saved the cotton industry from a take-over by easycare nylon and polyester (and the world from a lot of bad body odour).
At 86, Benerito was given a lifetime achievement award by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
MARGARET E KNIGHT: FLAT-BOTTOMED PAPER BAGS
Knight, born into a poor family in Maine, was toiling away in the local paper-bag factory when she realised the bags they were making, which were flat like envelopes, would be far more useful if they had flat bottoms.
She chucked in the day job and founded the Eastern Paper Bag Company in 1870, creating machines that would cut, fold and glue paper into a flat-bottomed bag shape.
The bags were so much better for carrying groceries that Knight’s machine was soon being used worldwide.
The entrepreneurial housewife was a prolific inventor, with 90 inventions and 22 patents to her name.
Her first was lodged when – aged just 12 and working in a textile factory – she invented a safety catch for weaving looms that became a standard feature and is still used today.
But, her propensity for unwisely worded patent applications (often filed late) meant she never achieved the financial success she deserved.
BEULAH HENRY: ICE CREAM MAKERS
Beulah Henry, born in Memphis Tennessee in 1887, earned the nickname “Lady Edison” for her prolific inventing career; by her death in 1973 she had invented 110 items and held 49 patents.
Her first patent was in 1912 for her ice cream freezer (shown above); she went on to invent a bobbin-less sewing machine, an umbrella, a handbag with snap-on cloth covers to match your outfit and soap-filled sponges for children.
She was one of the first and few women to profit from multiple inventions.
She moved to New York early in her success and cut an eccentric figure. She never married and left most of her money to animal charities.
DR ROBERT ADLER: REMOTE CONTROLS
The Austrian-born scientist Dr Adler is responsible for many an expansive posterior.
In the 1950s, he was set the task of coming up with a device that could “tune out annoying TV commercials” by the chief executive officer of the company he worked for, Zenith Radio Corporation (later Zenith Electronics).
He succeeded in 1956 with the Space Command wireless remote control, an improvement on the previous model, the Lazy Bones, which had a long cable.
Adler, who held more than 180 US patents by the time of his death last year, also pioneered “SAW” technology, as used in touch-screens on ticket machines.
HARVEY FIRESTONE: CAR TYRES
Wheels once had wooden rims, then metal ones, both of which ill-protected carts and their contents from bumpy roads.
When the bicycle came along, more comfort was needed for the human posterior, so leather tyres were developed, followed by solid rubber ones.
The pneumatic inner-tube was dreamt up by John Dunlop, a Scottish vet, in 1888.
He chose pneumatics over solid rubber tyres, and made several refinements to ensure the outer rubber shell could withstand wear and tear.
He met Henry Ford in 1895, when the latter was building his first car. They stayed in touch and, in 1905, Ford installed Firestone tyres on all Ford Motor Company cars.
In the next 30 years, Firestone built up one of the largest rubber businesses in the world.
He, Ford and Thomas Edison, the three leaders of US industry, became friends and formed “The Millionaires’ Club”.
CLARENCE BIRDSEYE: FROZEN FOODS
Where would school dinners be without the original Captain Birdseye, a Brooklyn-born inventor whose pioneering work led to the creation of the fish finger?
It was during an expedition to Labrador, Canada, that Birdseye first sussed that keeping food below zero might allow housewives to keep it fresh.
Noting native fishermen would lob their catch straight on to the surface ice, he realised that swiftly chilled nosh keeps much of its flavour without developing ice crystals.
Back home, Birdseye founded a company that sold machinery for fast freezing (he patented “the quick freeze double-plate machine”).
He then decided to branch out into the sale of actual frozen food products.
JOSEPHINE COCHRAN: DISHWASHERS
It was a rich housewife’s nightmare. In 1886, Cochran, the wife of a politician, was hosting a dinner party at her home in Shelbyville, Illinois.
After the dishes from the party were cleared, she heard a medley of tinkling in the servants’ quarters – and found some of her best fine china had been chipped.
Aghast, she resolved to take the task of washing up out of the butterfingers of her household staff.
Working with an engineer friend, Cochran measured her china, made wire holders for it, and devised a method by which the holders were doused with heated water, using a pump, before being allowed to dry.
Cochran marketed her idea to hotels and restaurants at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893.
This did not come until the 1950s, when hot water became available in large quantities at home.
DOUGLAS ENGELBART: THE COMPUTER MOUSE
In his patent application of 1970, Douglas Engelbart described his invention as a “X-Y position indicator for a display system”.
Nearly 40 years on, and now ubiquitous, it is universally known as the mouse.
“On a computer keyboard, there are more than a hundred ways to press the wrong key,” says Darren Graham-Smith, the components editor of PC Pro magazine.
“But with the advent of the mouse, suddenly anyone could sit down and communicate with a computer without needing to learn its special language.”
Speaking in 1970, Engelbart was modest about his invention:
“It was nicknamed the mouse because the tail came out the end.”
Engelbert was awarded the 1997 Lemelson-MIT Prize of $500,000, the world’s largest cash price for invention and innovation, and President Bill Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Technology in 2000. (The Independent)
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