Celebrity Is The Mother Of Invention
HEDY LAMARR AND George Antheil were among the more prominent celebrity inventors, but the entertainment world has had many other stars who were inventive off-stage as well as on. The magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, for example, was issued patent 1,370,316 in 1921 for a diver’s suit. In 1952 the comedian Danny Kaye received design patent 166,807 for a “Blowout Toy or the Like,” based on those rolled-up snakelike paper toys that children blow into at birthday parties. Kaye advanced the art by attaching three such snakes to a single mouthpiece. The singer and actress Lillian Russell, after three decades of intermittent touring, received patent 1,014,853 in 1912 for a trunk that folded into a dresser, complete with mirrors and electric lights for the application of makeup. The actor Cliff (“Ukulele Ike”) Edwards, most familiar as the voice of Jiminy Cricket, received patent 2,908,429 in 1959 for a hanger that could accommodate a coat and trousers at the same time.
In 1944 the bandleader Lawrence Welk was granted design patent 137,469 for a standup card with a picture of a rooster, to be used by restaurants serving a brand of chicken that Welk endorsed. Three years earlier the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen had received design patent 129,255 for a doll’s head that looked like a fish wearing lipstick. Somewhat more ambitiously, another ventriloquist, Paul Winchell, received patent 3,097,366 in 1963 for an artificial heart. The device was driven by an external electric motor strapped to the patient’s chest, with a drive shaft extending into the body. A Winchelldesigned heart once kept a transplant patient alive for sixty-five hours until a donor could be found. A further showbusiness contribution to heart medicine came in 1969, when Zeppo Marx, the least talented of the Marx Brothers, received patent 3,426,747 for a special wristwatch for cardiac patients. It had two dials, one driven by the wearer’s pulse and one operating at a rate corresponding to a normal heartbeat. If the pulse-driven watch started running fast, the patient would know to slow down.
The sports world has also seen its share of inventors. John Arthur (“Jack”) Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, was granted patent 1,413,121 in 1922 for an adjustable wrench. Max (“Scoops”) Carey, the long-time Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder who stole 738 bases and was elected to the Hall of Fame, received patent 2,119,040 in 1938 for a Nehru-type jacket combined with a shirt front and collar.
Other athletes have patented devices related to their sports: a golf ball with convex dimples, by Walter Hagen in 1928 (1,666,699); a football shoulder protector, by the coach Glenn (“Pop”) Warner in 1932 (1,887,473); a combination paddle and float for use by swimmers, patented in 1933 by Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel (1,911,129); a device that could be attached to a baseball, for teaching pitchers to throw breaking pitches, by the pitcher Johnny Sain in 1964 (3,152,803); and a putting trainer, by the golfer Lee Trevino in 1975 (design patent 234,434).
PERHAPS THE MOST FAMOUS amateur inventor in American history was Abraham Lincoln. In 1849, with his lone term in the House of Representatives just expired, the future President received patent 6,469 , for a “Manner of Buoying Vessels.” The invention amounted to a set of collapsible air chambers to be attached to the sides of a steamboat. When the boat ran aground or approached shallow water, the chambers could be expanded, filling them with air and increasing the vessel’s buoyancy. Lincoln got the idea from watching empty barrels and boxes used for similar purposes along the Mississippi. He never made any money from the invention, probably because the weight of the contraptions would have negated any advantage they might have produced.
Ten years later a young cavalry lieutenant named J. E. B. Stuart received ; patent 25,684 for an “Improved Method of Attaching Sabers to Belts.” Five years of frontier duty had acquainted him with the inadequacies of traditional military gear, and he was so enthusiastic about his saber belt (as well; as another invention, an easily detached halter for horses) that he took a leave of absence to try to sell them to the War Department. Soon afterward Stuart became the Confederacy’s most daring cavalry officer. After the Civil War, in 1869, another Rebel general, P. G. T. Beauregard, received patent 97,343 for a cable railway system. The historian: George Hilton calls it one of the key inventions in the development of cable cars. Beauregard had served as an engineering officer in the U.S. Army before the war and afterward was a railroad president and the commissioner of public works in New Orleans.
Lincoln was not the only government figure to take out a patent. Sen. John Ruggles of Maine, who wrote the 1836 bill to reorganize the Patent Office, was rewarded with patent number 1 for a new type of locomotive traction wheel. William Gibbs McAdoo, the former Secretary of the Treasury and future senator from California, received patent 1,648,992 in 1927 for a portable drink dispenser with nested cups. In 1932 Harold Ickes, future Secretary of the Interior, received plant patent 19 for an improved dahlia. Two years later, before the start of his thirty-four-year Senate career, George Aiken of Vermont received plant patent 112 for an improved strawberry. In 1950 Lewis Strauss, future chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, received patent 2,526,781 for a device “whereby insects may be harvested for subsequent treatment to recover valuable components.” Those valuable components were the protein that makes up most of their bodies, which Strauss thought could be used for animal feed. And in 1968, after his sixth losing campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Harold Stassen received patent 3,414,986 for an elementary teaching aid in which blocks could be put together and taken apart to demonstrate addition and subtraction.
Mark Twain was issued three patents. The first, in 1871, was for an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments.” It was never commercially produced. In 1873 he was issued patent 140,245 for a scrapbook with adhesive-coated pages, to which clippings could be attached by moistening the desired spot. It was marketed as “Mark Twain’s Patent Scrapbook” and became a moderate success, with the inventor himself supplying advertising copy. And in 1885 he received patent 324,535 for a complicated game designed to help children remember historical dates. A latterday author, John Dos Passos, received patent 2,882,643 in 1959 for a toy bubble pistol.
Not even those of noble blood are immune from the inventing bug. It is unsurprising perhaps that Louis Mountbatten, the British earl and naval commander, received U.S. patent 1,993,334 in 1931 for a polo stick. But why did Prince Heinrich of Prussia patent an “Appliance for Cleaning Wind-shields on Motor-Vehicles” (1,095,468) in 1914? A childhood bout with polio led Lord Snowdon, the brother-in-law of Queen Elizabeth, to patent a “Self-Propelled Cart for Invalids” (design patents 227,813 and 227,814) in 1973.
From princes to Presidents, from golfers to generals, the rich and famous have pinned their hopes on patents through the years just like millions of unsung basement tinkerers. Their mixed record of success is a reminder that the road from patent to profitability is a long and arduous one, regardless of who the inventor is.