Grasping At Straws
Elsewhere in this issue can be found a “Postfix” about the flexible drinking straw and its inventor, Joseph B. Friedman. In the course of researching that article, we went through more than a century of American straw patents. In so doing, we found that certain irresistible themes have occurred over and over to straw inventors through the ages.
One persistent dream of straw inventors is a beverage container with a straw already inside it. Open the can and a straw pops up, ready for you to drink from. Who could resist that? The problem is that when the container is closed, the straw has to be shorter than the container, but afterward, it has to be taller. So inventors have come up with a striking profusion of spring-loaded devices, expandable straws, telescoping straws, straws that lie coiled like a snake, and many other ingenious solutions.
The only trouble with all these inventions is that nobody needs them, since it takes about two seconds to stick a straw into the container yourself. Nonetheless, the world is full of inventors who believe that if only they can find the perfect straw-in-container solution, our nation will reclaim the thousands of hours of productivity that are currently wasted every year in unwrapping straws and inserting them into soda cans by hand.
Other pointless but repeatedly attempted inventions include straws that let multiple people drink from one container; straws that let one person drink from multiple containers; straws combined with stirring implements; straws combined with toothbrushes; straws that make music; lighted straws; and straws that add a flavoring agent. The inventor of each one of these no doubt saw himself or herself as another Joseph Friedman, bringing the world an indispensable device that it never knew it needed.
Alongside all these clever solutions to nonexistent problems are repeated and dauntless attempts to solve an impossible problem: getting kids to drink their milk. Or as a 1933 patent by Sonia Tycko, of Los Angeles, puts it, “To interest the child to the extent that it will voluntarily sip the entire contents of the vessel, this being of particular benefit to mothers who are continuously confronted with the feeding problem of their offspring, and compelled by stratagem and force to get them to take or consume the proper quantity of nourishment, such as milk, fruit juices, water, etc., required.”
That patent involved a floating duck, which was supposed to enchant a young child. Through the decades all sorts of novelty features have been tried—animals, spirals, pinwheels, noisemakers, smiling-face disks (no prizes for guessing which decade that one was invented in)—all with the goal of solving an eternal human problem that remains as real today as it was in 1936, when Arthur P. Gildersleeve, of Denver, Colorado, explained the need for his twistable straw as follows: “It frequently happens that children, whether well or sick, refuse obstinately to drink certain liquids, such as fruit juices, milk and the like, which are necessary in a balanced diet.”
In 1951 Alfred G. Butsch, of Erie, Pennsylvania, justified his zigzag straw thus: “Most children at one time or another refuse to drink certain liquids essential to their health. The reason behind such refusal may be a mere whim or the suggestion from another child’s refusal to drink. . . .” In 1980, when Joe H. Nickell, of West Liberty, Kentucky, patented a “magic drinking straw” in which milk makes a picture appear, he wrote: “An object of my present invention is to encourage children to drink milk.” Nathan Cohen, of Queens, New York, said in 1986 that his loop-the-loop straw would provide “an incentive for children, invalids, and others to consume liquids.” That same year Don S. Karterman, of Anchorage, Alaska, called his spinning-disk attachment “a means for encouraging children to drink nourishing fluids.” And in 1988 Tom Pinney, of Kansas City, Kansas, predicted that his animal figure would “present an ornamental, unique appearance to the drinking straw in order to encourage children to drink liquids, e.g., milk, from a drinking glass.”
Not that gimmicks like this have ever worked, if the children our staff is familiar with are any indication. “Stratagem and force” are much more effective, especially the latter. So in his 1991 patent, Kenneth Gandy of Indianapolis abandoned the kiddie angle and appealed instead to historical anthropology to justify his novelty straw. Gandy’s invention is a device that “to the surprise and perhaps dismay of an unwary supposed drinker, instead of affording a comforting sip, directs pressurized liquid to squirt the supposed drinker in the face or otherwise.” What need does this invention fill?
He explains: “We humans have been caught up with playing practical jokes on one another for centuries. For example, whether it be tying one another’s shoelaces together or the use of the old standby squirting flower, practical jokes have provided useful entertainment for some time. Despite the existence of these and other prior novelty devices and practical jokes, there exists an ever constant demand and need for improved and varying practical jokes to sate the sense of we human beings, especially in a world which some would say grows more technical and complicated, and less humorous, by the day.” That’s a tall order for a squirting straw to fill, but just as Friedman’s invention made life a little better for millions of people each day, we suppose it’s possible that a practical joke with a properly chosen victim can, in its own way, make a small but significant contribution to world peace and harmony.