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Interesting facts about inventions

Whether created through purposeful experimentation or as the result of a happy accident, inventions have transformed our world. And they’re a rich source of fascinating facts, too — for example, did you know that the inventor of the stop sign couldn’t drive, or that a dentist helped create the cotton candy machine? Here are some of our greatest invention stories from around the site.

Mark Twain invented bra clasps

The long-term uses for a product do not always materialize during the inventor’s lifetime. Such was the case with Mark Twain — the celebrated writer born Samuel Clemens — who filed a patent for a clothing accessory when he was 35 years old. Twain found wearing suspendersuncomfortable, so he came up with a device he called an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments.” What he envisioned was a versatile two-piece strap — preferably elastic — that fastened with hooks. The hooks were inserted into a series of rows of small holes, chosen depending on how snug (or loose) the wearer wanted their garment. Twain thought this simple, gender-neutral tool could customize the fit of a wearer’s vests, shirts, pantaloons, or stays, a corset-like object that women wore under dresses. However, thanks to changing fashions, his garment straps were not produced for several decades. In 1914, four years after Twain’s death and long after his hard-won patent expired, Mary Phelps Jacob patented the first bra from handkerchiefs and ribbon. When she sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company, they added Twain’s straps to the back to keep the garment in place.  

Chinese food takeout containers were an American idea

In the U.S., plenty of Chinese restaurant fare features produce that doesn’t grow in China, such as broccoli. Thus it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that Americans also took liberties with how Chinese food is packaged. While plastic containers are utilized to hold delivery and takeout dishes in China, diners in the U.S. prefer a folded, six-sided box with a slim wire handle. Chicago inventor Frederick Weeks Wilcox patented this “paper pail” on November 13, 1894. Borrowing from Japanese origami, Wilcox elected to make each pail from a single piece of paper. This decision eventually proved critical in the transportation of Chinese cuisine, lessening the likelihood of leaks and allowing steam from hot foods to escape through the top folds. During the 1970s, a graphic designer at Bloomer Brothers’ successor, the Riegel Paper Corporation, embellished the boxes to include a pagoda and the words “Thank You” and “Enjoy” — all in red, a color that represents luck in China. The Riegel Paper Corporation evolved into Fold-Pak, the world’s top producer of takeout containers, which assembles 300 million cartons per year. Composed of solid-bleached-sulfate paperboard and boasting an interior polycoating, each food carrier expands into a handy plate if you remove the wire handle.

Bubble wrap was invented as wallpaper

ubble Wrap is one of the 20th century’s most versatile — and dare we say most beloved — inventions. The pliable, air-pocketed sheets have been used for decades to insulate pipes, protect fragile items, and even make dresses. And that’s not to mention the fascination some people have with popping the bubbles. But when it was first created in 1957 in New Jersey, inventors Al Fielding and Marc Chavannes had a different vision in mind for their ingenious padding: home decor. The pioneering duo hoped their creation — which trapped air between two shower curtains run through a heat-sealing machine — would serve as a textured wallpaper marketed to a younger generation with “modern” taste. The initial idea was a flop, however, and it took another invention of the time — IBM’s 1401 model computer  — to seal Bubble Wrap’s fate as a packing material.

Under the company name Sealed Air, Fielding and Chavannes approached IBM about using the air-filled plastic in shipping containers, replacing traditional box-fillers like newspaper, straw, and horsehair. After passing the test of transporting delicate electronics, Sealed Air became a shipping industry standard. Over time, Fielding and Chavannes were granted six patents related to Bubble Wrap manufacturing, and Sealed Air continues to create new versions of the remarkable wrap — including a cheaper, unpoppable version that’s popular with cost-minded shippers (but not so much with bubble-popping enthusiasts).

The stop sign’s inventer didn’t know how to drive

Few people have had a larger or more positive impact on the way we drive than William Phelps Eno, sometimes called the “father of traffic safety.” The New York City-born Eno — who invented the stop sign around the dawn of the 20th century — once traced the inspiration for his career to a horse-drawn-carriage traffic jam he experienced as a child in Manhattan in 1867. “There were only about a dozen horses and carriages involved, and all that was needed was a little order to keep the traffic moving,” he later wrote. “Yet nobody knew exactly what to do; neither the drivers nor the police knew anything about the control of traffic.”

After his father’s death in 1898 left him with a multimillion-dollar inheritance, Eno devoted himself to creating a field that didn’t otherwise exist: traffic management. He developed the first traffic plans for New York, Paris, and London. In 1921, he founded the Washington, D.C.-based Eno Center for Transportation, a research foundation on multimodal transportation issues that still exists. One thing Eno didn’t do, however, is learn how to drive. Perhaps because he had such extensive knowledge of them, Eno distrusted automobiles and preferred riding horses. He died in Connecticut at the age of 86 in 1945 having never driven a car.

Love seats were designed for women’s dresses, not couples

The two-seater upholstered benches we associate with cozy couples were initially crafted with another duo in mind: a woman and her dress. Fashionable attire in 18th-century Europe had reached voluminous proportions — panniers (a type of hooped undergarment) were all the rage, creating a wide-hipped silhouette that occasionally required wearers to pass through doors sideways. Upper-class women with funds to spare on trending styles adopted billowing silhouettes that often caused an exhausting situation: the inability to sit down comfortably (or at all). Ever astute, furniture makers of the period caught on to the need for upsized seats that would allow women with such large gowns a moment of respite during social calls.

As the 1800s rolled around, so did new dress trends. Women began shedding heavy layers of hoops and skirts for a slimmed-down silhouette that suddenly made small settees spacious. The midsize seats could now fit a conversation companion. When sweethearts began sitting side by side, the bench seats were renamed “love seats,” indicative of how courting couples could sit together for a (relatively) private conversation in public. The seat’s new use rocketed it to popularity, with some featuring frames that physically divided young paramours. While the small sofas no longer act as upholstered chaperones, love seats are just as popular today — but mostly because they fit well in small homes and apartments.

Canned food predates the can opener

On January 5, 1858, Ezra J. Warner of Connecticut invented the can opener. The device was a long time coming: Frenchman Nicolas Appert had developed the canning process in the early 1800s in response to a 12,000-franc prize the French government offered to anyone who could come up with a practical method of preserving food for Napoleon’s army. Appert devised a process for sterilizing food by half-cooking it, storing it in glass bottles, and immersing the bottles in boiling water, and he claimed the award in 1810. Later the same year, Englishman Peter Durand received the first patent for preserving food in actual tin cans — which is to say, canned food predates the can opener by nearly half a century.

Before Warner’s invention, cans were opened with a hammer and chisel — a far more time-consuming approach than the gadgets we’re used to. Warner’s tool (employed by soldiers during the Civil War) wasn’t a perfect replacement, however: It used a series of blades to puncture and then saw off the top of a can, leaving a dangerously jagged edge. As for the hand-crank can opener most commonly used today, that wasn’t invented until 1925.

Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod

In Benjamin Franklin’s time — and for centuries before — lightning was a fear-inspiring phenomenon, known for starting fires, destroying buildings, and injuring people and livestock. Because little was known about how lightning worked, some people undertook unusual preventative measures against it, like ringing church bells to avert lightning strikes (even though that sent bell ringers dangerously high into steeples during storms). Perhaps that was why Franklin, the prolific inventor and founding father, was so captivated by lightning and devoted much of his scientific studies to experimenting with electricity. In 1752, Franklin undertook his now-storied kite exercise during a storm, correctly surmising that lightning must be electricity and that the mysterious energy was attracted to metal (though some historians have questioned whether the experiment actually ever happened).

With this concept in mind, Franklin designed the Franklin Rod, crafted from a pointed, iron stake. Heralded as a new, lifesaving invention that could guide the electrical currents from lightning into the ground, lightning rods sprung atop roofs and church steeples throughout the American colonies and Britain, and some were even anchored to ship masts to prevent lightning strikes at sea. Initially, some clergy were unwelcoming of the protective devices, believing lightning rods interfered with the will of the heavens; Franklin brushed off the criticism and continued his exploration of electricity, even developing some of the language — like the word “battery” — we use to talk about the force today.

A dentist helped invent the cotton candy machine

When folks learn that one of cotton candy’s creators cleaned teeth for a living, jaws inevitably drop. Born in 1860, dentist William J. Morrison became president of the Tennessee State Dental Association in 1894. But Morrison was something of a polymath and a dabbler, and his varied interests also included writing children’s books and designing scientific processes: He patented methods for both turning cottonseed oil into a lard substitute and purifying Nashville’s public drinking water. In 1897, Morrison and his fellow Nashvillian — confectioner John C. Wharton — collaborated on an “electric candy machine,” which received a patent within two years. Their device melted sugar into a whirling central chamber and then used air to push the sugar through a screen into a metal bowl, where wisps of the treat accumulated. Morrison and Wharton debuted their snack, “fairy floss,” at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 (better known as the St. Louis World’s Fair). Over the seven-month event, at least 65,000 people purchased a wooden box of the stuff, netting Morrison and Wharton the modern equivalent of more than $500,000.

Cool Whip, Pop Rocks and Tang were invented by the same person

Growing up in Minnesota, William A. Mitchell spent his teenage years as a farmhand and carpenter, working to fund his college tuition. It took a few years for the future inventor to venture into food production after graduation, chemistry degree in hand; he first worked at Eastman Kodak creating chemical developers for color film, as well as at an agricultural lab. He then went to work at General Foods in 1941, contributing to the war effort by creating a tapioca substitute for soldier rations. In 1956, his quest to create a self-carbonating soda led to the accidental invention of Pop Rocks. A year later, he developed Tang Flavor Crystals, which skyrocketed to popularity after NASA used the powder in space to remedy astronauts’ metallic-tasting water. And by the time he’d retired from General Foods in 1976, Mitchell had also developed a quick-set gelatin, powdered egg whites, and a whipped cream alternative — the beloved Cool Whip that now dominates grocery store freezers.

Kevlar was originally developed for car tires

In the mid-1960s, chemist Stephanie Kwolekwas working in a Wilmington, Delaware, research lab for the textile division of the chemical company Dupont, which had invented another “miracle” fiber called nylon 30 years earlier. Fearing a looming gas shortage — one that arrived in earnest in 1973 — Dupont was searching for a synthetic material that could make tires lighter and stronger, replacing some of their steel and improving overall fuel efficiency. One day, Kwolek noticed that a particular batch of dissolved polyamides (a type of synthetic polymer) had formed a cloudy, runny consistency rather than the usual clear, syrup-like concoction. Although colleagues told Kwolek to toss it out, she persisted in investigating this strange mixture closely, discovering that it could be spun to create fibers of an unusual stiffness. Kevlar was born. Dupont introduced the “wonder fiber” in 1971, and the material began undergoing tests in ballistic vests almost immediately. By one estimate, it has saved at least 3,000 police officers from bullet wounds in the years since. Despite its myriad applications, Kevlar still delivers on its original purpose as an automotive component, whether baked into engine belts, brake pads, or yes, even tires.

Alcohol was invented before the wheel

he wheel is credited as one of humankind’s most important inventions: It allowed people to travel farther on land than ever before, irrigate crops, and spin fibers, among other key benefits. Today, we often consider the wheel to be the ultimate civilization game-changer, but it turns out, creating the multipurpose apparatus wasn’t really on humanity’s immediate to-do list. Our ancient ancestors worked on other ideas first: boats, musical instruments, glue, and even alcohol. The oldest evidence of booze comes from China, where archaeologists have unearthed 9,000-year-old pottery coated with beer residue; in contrast, early wheels didn’t appear until around 3500 BCE, in what is now Iraq. But even when humans began using wheels, they had a different application — rudimentary versions were commonly used as potter’s wheels, a necessity for mass-producing vessels that could store batches of brew (among other things).

Writing systems were independently invented at least 4 times

Much human innovation is a collective effort — scientists, innovators, and artisans building off the work of predecessors to develop some groundbreaking technology over the course of many years. But in the case of writing systems, scholars believe humans may have independently invented them four separate times. That’s because none of these writing systems show significant influence from previously existing systems, or similarities among one another. Experts generally agree that the first writing system appeared in the Mesopotamian society of Sumer in what is now Iraq. Early pictorial signs appeared some 5,500 years ago, and slowly evolved into complex characters representing the sounds of the Sumerian language. Today, this ancient writing system is known as cuneiform.

However, cuneiform wasn’t a one-off innovation. Writing systems then evolved in ancient Egypt, in the form of hieroglyphs, around 3200 BCE — only an estimated 250 years after the first examples of cuneiform. The next place that writing developed was China, where the Shang dynasty set up shop along the Yellow River and wrote early Chinese characters on animal bones during divination rituals around 1300 BCE. Finally, in Mesoamerica, writing began to take shape around 900 BCE, and influenced ancient civilizations like the Zapotecs, Olmecs, Aztecs, and Maya. Sadly, little is known about the history of many Mesoamerican languages, as Catholic priests and Spanish conquistadorsdestroyed a lot of the surviving documentation.

Parachutes were invented before airplanes

While most grade school students can tell you that the first airplane was flown by Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903, the origins of the parachute go back further — significantly further, depending on your criteria. The Shiji, composed by Chinese historian Sima Qian, describes how as a young man the legendary third-century BCE Emperor Shun jumped from the roof of a burning building, using bamboo hats as a makeshift parachute. Leonardo da Vinci famously sketched a design for a pyramid-shaped parachute made from linen around 1485. Approximately 130 years later, Venetian Bishop Fausto Veranzio unveiled his own design in his Machinae Novae, and allegedly even tested the contraption himself.

But the first modern parachutist is generally considered to be France's Louis-Sebastien Lenormand. Along with actually coining the term "parachute," Lenormand initially tested gravity by leaping from a tree with two umbrellas, before flinging himself from the Montpellier Observatory with a 14-foot parachute in December 1783. Fourteen years later, another Frenchman, André-Jacques Garnerin, delivered the first truly death-defying parachute exhibition when he plunged from a hydrogen balloon some 3,200 feet above Paris, and rode out the bumpy descent with his 23-foot silk net to a safe landing.

Bagpipes were invented in the Middle East, not Scotland

While most grade school students can tell you that the first airplane was flown by Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903, the origins of the parachute go back further — significantly further, depending on your criteria. The Shiji, composed by Chinese historian Sima Qian, describes how as a young man the legendary third-century BCE Emperor Shun jumped from the roof of a burning building, using bamboo hats as a makeshift parachute. Leonardo da Vinci famously sketched a design for a pyramid-shaped parachute made from linen around 1485. Approximately 130 years later, Venetian Bishop Fausto Veranzio unveiled his own design in his Machinae Novae, and allegedly even tested the contraption himself.

But the first modern parachutist is generally considered to be France's Louis-Sebastien Lenormand. Along with actually coining the term "parachute," Lenormand initially tested gravity by leaping from a tree with two umbrellas, before flinging himself from the Montpellier Observatory with a 14-foot parachute in December 1783. Fourteen years later, another Frenchman, André-Jacques Garnerin, delivered the first truly death-defying parachute exhibition when he plunged from a hydrogen balloon some 3,200 feet above Paris, and rode out the bumpy descent with his 23-foot silk net to a safe landing.

Chocolate chips came after the cookies

Ruth Wakefield was no cookie-cutter baker. In fact, she is widely credited with developing the world’s first recipe for chocolate chip cookies. In 1937, Wakefield and her husband, Kenneth, owned the popular Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. While mulling new desserts to serve at the inn’s restaurant, she decided to make a batch of Butter Drop Do pecan cookies (a thin butterscotch treat) with an alteration, using semisweet chocolate instead of baker’s chocolate. Rather than melting in the baker’s chocolate, she used an ice pick to cut the semisweet chocolate into tiny pieces. Upon removing the cookies from the oven, Wakefield found that the semisweet chocolate had held its shape much better than baker’s chocolate, which tended to spread throughout the dough during baking to create a chocolate-flavored cookie. These cookies, instead, had sweet little nuggets of chocolate studded throughout. The recipe for the treats — known as Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies — was included in a late 1930s edition of her cookbook, Ruth Wakefield’s Tried and True Recipes.

The cookies were a huge success, and Nestlé hired Wakefield as a recipe consultant in 1939, the same year they bought the rights to print her recipe on packages of their semisweet chocolate bars. To help customers create their own bits of chocolate, the bars came pre-scored in 160 segments, with an enclosed cutting tool. Around 1940 — three years after that first batch of chocolate chip cookies appeared fresh out of the oven — Nestlé began selling bags of Toll House Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels, which some dubbed “chocolate chips.” By 1941, “chocolate chip cookies” was the universally recognized name for the delicious treat. An updated version of Wakefield’s recipe, called Original Nestlé Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies, still appears on every bag of morsels. For her contributions to Nestlé, Wakefield reportedly received a lifetime supply of chocolate.

Popsicles were invented by an 11-year-old boy

A dessert accidentally created by a California kid has managed to stick around for over a century. One frigid night in the San Francisco Bay Area, young Frank Epperson took a glass of water and mixed in a sweet powdered flavoring using a wooden stirrer. He left the concoction on his family’s back porch overnight, and by morning, the contents had frozen solid. Epperson ran hot water over the glass and used the stirrer as a handle to free his new creation. He immediately knew he’d stumbled on something special, and called his treat an Epsicle, a portmanteau of his last name and “icicle.” Throughout his life, Epperson claimed that this experiment occurred in 1905, when he was 11 years old. While most publications agree, the San Francisco Chronicle’s website counters that local temperatures never reached freezing in 1905; they did, however, in nearby Oakland, where the Epperson family moved around 1907, meaning the fateful event may have happened a few years later.

In 1922, Epperson brought his frozen treat — which had since become beloved by friends and neighbors — to the Fireman’s Ball at Neptune Beach amusement park. It was a hit. Within two years, he had patented his ice pop on a wooden stick. Around the same time he began referring to his desserts as “popsicles” (a play on his children’s term for their father’s creation, “pop’s sicle”), but the word was absent from his patent, and a Popsicle Corporationquickly established itself elsewhere. “I should have protected the name,” Epperson later lamented. Although he briefly set up a royalty arrangement with the Popsicle Corporation, by 1925 he sold his patent rights to the Joe Lowe Company, which became the exclusive sales agent for the Popsicle Corporation. Over the decades, Epperson’s naming oversight cost him considerable profits.

PEZ was created to help people stop smoking

Decades before doctors began to publicize the harmful effects of cigarettes, a 30-year-old Austrian executive decided to invent a refreshing alternative. In 1927, Eduard Haas III was managing his family’s baking goods business — the Ed. Haas Company — when he expanded the product line to include round, peppermint-flavored treats known as PEZ Drops. The German word for peppermint is pfefferminz, and Haas found the name for his new candies by combining the first, middle, and last letters of the German term. Clever advertising built national demand for the candy, which adopted its iconic brick shape in the 1930s and eventually nixed the “Drops.” PEZ were packaged in foil paper or metal tins until Haas hired engineer Oscar Uxa to devise a convenient way of extracting a tablet single-handedly. Uxa’s innovation — a plastic dispenser with a cap that tilted backward as springs pushed the candy forward — debuted at the 1949 Vienna Trade Fair.

A U.S. patent for the dispenser was obtained in 1952, but Americans of the day showed little interest in giving up smoking. So PEZ replaced the mint pellets with fruity ones and targeted a new demographic: children. In 1957, after experimenting with pricey dispensers shaped like robots, Santa Claus, and space guns, PEZ released a Halloween dispenser that featured a three-dimensional witch’s head atop a rectangular case. A Popeye version was licensed in 1958, and since then PEZ has gone on to produce some 1,500 different novelty-topped dispensers. An Austrian original that was revolutionized in America, PEZ is now enjoyed in more than 80 countries — and it’s still owned by the Ed. Haas Company.


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