Inventor Sketches: Why Didn’t I Invent That?
It all started nine decades ago, when a college kid began sketching on a scrap of stationery with a pencil and pen. Although the lines are clumsy and the hand that drew them untrained, the image is immediately recognizable as the device found in every American shoe store.
Syracuse student Charles Brannock conceived of this simple, elegant tool, which could simultaneously measure overall foot length, width, and distance from heel to ball of the foot, while working in his father’s upstate New York shoe store. This initial drawing from the early 1920s—the precise date is not known––led to the first working model made with a childhood erector set, then cardboard and wooden prototypes with calibrations, and finally a cast-aluminum production model in 1925. Brannock obtained a patent in 1928. By 1939 he had sold more than 33,000 devices worldwide. The much-copied Brannock Shoe Device still remains the standard in the industry.
This magazine has previously covered Brannock’s discovery (Berry Craig, “Why the Shoe Fits,” Invention & Technology, Summer 2000), but the focus here is on the kind of spontaneous sketch that an inventor or designer makes on a handy piece of paper. On occasion, such scribbles have led to something big: a particular drawing that defines a form so fully and beautifully that it remains virtually unchanged for generations. While the moment when an idea first takes form on paper represents only the first stage in the inventive process, it is often the critical step that sets the process in motion.
On old pieces of stationery—and in the drawings that follow—lie the closest physical evidence of the extraordinary process of invention itself. Remarking on early steamboat images, historian Brooke Hindle once noted, “The mental images of the steamboat builder have to be the historian’s most important quest. He can never reach them directly, but illustrations known to have been used are basic sources, original drawings come very close to mental conceptions, and machinery components embody the concepts.” These images are the bread and butter of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where I work. What can these important documents tell us about the most ill defined of processes?
As the center’s director I gained much time to think about these questions in the case of Brannock. Little was known about Brannock until I received a call from my cousin Sal Leonardi in Syracuse, New York, in the late summer of 1998. A few years before, he had bought the Brannock Device Company from the estate of Charles Brannock, who started the firm in 1927 and ran it until shortly before his death in 1992 at 89. Taking inventory of his recently acquired company, whose last location was in a former auto repair shop in downtown Syracuse, he had come upon a trove of company records stashed away in a garage bay and in other spots scattered around the shop. Reading them, said Sal, was like going back in time. Having heard of the Lemelson Center’s search for inventors’ papers, Sal rang me. (Serendipity is a frequent ally in the manuscript hunt, which is less a science than a kind of informed opportunism.)
Once the material came to the Smithsonian, study began in earnest and continued for several years. This material is now fully described, cataloged, and indexed, and can be viewed at the museum’s Archives Center or online. (See “A Fitting Place for the Brannock Device Company Records,” by Martha Davidson, at invention.smithsonian.org.)
Amid all these historical riches, Brannock’s early pencil sketch stood out. The instrument’s form seems so natural and inevitable—how else would a foot be measured? In its own way, this humble object has insinuated itself into our everyday lives, ubiquitous not only in shoe stores but also in sportswear, clothing, and other shops. Its image is inscribed in our mind’s eye, so much part of the culture that few people realize that someone had to invent it; practically no one knows the name of its self-effacing inventor. In his influential historical study, Mechanization Takes Command (1948), Sigfried Giedion reveled in the splendor of anonymous, mass-produced objects—the stuff of everyday life—and in their power to shape lives and culture. To Giedion’s list of bathtubs, kitchen appliances, reclining chairs, locks, and other common objects, we should add Brannock’s shoe-fitting tool.
Few additional sketches of the shoe-fitting device exist among the collection. Brannock was too meticulous in his record keeping for any drawings to have been lost. I suspect therefore that he simply felt no need to make more, believing that he had nailed the form right away. He seems to have had an intuitive artistic sense for a classic design. As the Stradivarius is for violins, the Brannock device seemed a perfect specimen of its type, hard if not impossible to improve upon. Over the next 70 years, Brannock never deviated from his basic design.
Why did Brannock seem to get it right, when others did not? His insider’s knowledge of the shoe business undoubtedly had much to do with it. Working in the family’s Park-Brannock shoe store since childhood and running it after his father’s death, he had served countless customers. His invention grew out of that vast experience. Over the past 30 years, dozens of patents have been granted for foot-measuring devices ranging from mechanical contraptions of every variety to laser-based devices that take thousands of points of measurement so complicated as to require the trained eye of a radiologist to read them. But the fundamental problem with all such high-tech shoe-fitting instruments is that their precision far exceeds that of mass-produced shoes. Brannock understood that implicitly, understanding how to match his device with the shoes he was selling.
To be sure, CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacture) methods are used in making the devices today. Precision techniques and fine tolerances significantly reduce the costs of materials and assembly. But these changes are not visible to the customer. The Brannock Company today also uses computers in customizing the devices: the design of calibrations, the imprinting of logos, slogans, and monograms, the application of color, and so on. By using simpler manual methods and attaching different plates, Brannock, too, had personalized and customized his devices. The basic form of the instrument, however, remains the same.
Few industrial designers today can do without the computer. Modern computer techniques could conceivably enhance the design and function of the Brannock device. But any such improvement would not be likely to boost sales and in fact, as happened spectacularly with the “New Coke,” might have the opposite effect. Some information age critics contend that drawing on a computer screen, for all its ease, can never equal the effect of drawing by hand. The neurologist Frank Wilson, author of The Hand, even contends that it stunts the creative process. The putting of pen and pencil to paper—our primal analog tool—seems to tap the mind in ways that no computer can. At its most basic level, technology is an encounter with the physical world. The simple act of using the muscles in the hand to draw something can be understood as the first stage of that encounter.
Like Charles Brannock’s foot-measuring device, items such as the telescoping shopping cart, the modern oversized tennis racket, and the Tupperware bowl at some point entered, seemingly anonymously, everyday life in America. They became ubiquitous not by imposing themselves but by seamlessly blending in. Americans tend to take such products for granted, as if no one had to create them. Yet in fact each had an inventor who at some moment chose to put a mental construct down on paper.
These brilliant first impressions can be read as testimony to the power of intuition and visual thinking—a subject of intense interest to engineering historians. Urging fellow historians to be more attentive to nonverbal modes in the invention process, Brooke Hindle pointed out Benjamin Franklin’s emphasis on the art of drawing as critical to the technical education of a young “mechanic.” “All boys,” Franklin wrote, “begin to make Figures of Animals, Ships, Machines, &c., as soon as they can use a pen.” And with “Skill of this kind, the Workman may perfect his own Idea of the Thing to be done, before he begins to work.”
Technology historian Eugene Ferguson, in the belief that engineering is primarily a matter of intuition and nonverbal thinking, picked up the educational theme. More than mathematics and computers, he insisted, students need to understand how to interpret and make drawings. Great engineers from Agostino Ramelli to Thomas Edison relied on drawings—not exact renderings but rather artistic, intuitive expressions about how things work. Such drawings stand at the intersection of art and technology and appeal to us on both levels. Charles Brannock did not have a formal engineering education. But he, like the other inventors and designers presented here, intuitively understood the power of a sketch or drawing. Their potent, evocative images still connect with us in ways far beyond mere verbal or technical description.
Arthur Molella is the director of the The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and a Contributing Editor of this magazine.
Oversized Tennis Racket
Upon first inspection, this pencil drawing of a tennis racket with smudged erasure marks on typewriter paper seems mundane. The only thing remarkable is the seemingly outrageous title “Tennis Racket Invention” scratched below it in cramped handwriting. Yet after inventor and engineer Howard Head made this sketch on a day in late May 1974, his simple concept would revolutionize the sport of tennis, making the sport easier for both average and professional players. The aluminum racket featured a head far fatter than the wooden rackets of the day, enlarging the “sweet spot”—the area on the racket’s face where a ball will hit true—by more than three times.
The 59-year-old Head, already rich and famous from his invention of aluminum skis, had trained his formidable engineering talents on tennis after $5,000 worth of lessons from top pro Don Candy had failed to improve his game. When he hit the ball, Head found that his racket twisted in his hand slightly, more often than not skewing his shots to the right or left. He tried to stabilize the racket by taping bits of lead to the widest part of the rim, but the weight only made the racket heavier and harder to swing. Perplexed, Head diagrammed the problem in January 1973, noting that the sweet spot in a traditional eight-inch-wide and 10-inch-long racket lay on the handle side of its face, not in the center where most of Head’s shots connected.
In April Head experienced a flash of inspiration. “Literally in the middle of the night,” he recalled, “the thought came to me that the idea of adding weights to the rim of the tennis racquet to increase its stability had been an error. The way to go was to leave the weight alone but make the racquet wider.” The solution obeyed a well-known law of physics that he had learned as a Harvard engineering student: the racket’s resistance to an off-center hit would be proportionate to the square of its width. In other words, if he made his racket twice as wide and kept it at its present weight, it would be four times more resistant to twisting. Adding weight, however, would only increase resistance.
In the May sketch, Head enlarged the racket head, used aluminum to keep the frame light, and then, just to make it more aesthetically pleasing, increased the handle length by three inches. Head put a prototype of his aluminum racket to the test, finding that the increased size of the sweet spot gave him a 15 percent improvement over his wooden racket.
In 1975 Head’s company, Prince Manufacturing, distributed prototypes to dubious pros across America. Don Budge, the first-ever Grand Slam winner, praised the Prince racket in 1976, commenting that it had eliminated his tennis elbow condition. While other pros were slower to convert, Head’s oversized aluminum racket eventually took off. Head sold Prince to Chesebrough-Pond’s Inc. in 1982, when its projected profits were $62 million.
ORLA E. WATSON
Telescoping Shopping Cart
At first glance, the pencil sketch on a scrap of paper looks like a bad case of double vision, some kind of wobbly cart rendered in amateurish three dimensions. Kansas City draftsman Orla E. Watson dashed it off on June 3, 1946, his 50th birthday, during a break from the more pressing matters of working on a pump and valve system. But a problem that required a solution had been bothering him for the past several weeks. The idea that jumped from his imagination to the sketch paper would revolutionize Americans’ shopping experience and bring him unimagined wealth.
Filled with optimism—as were most Americans after the hard-won but decisive victory over Germany and Japan in World War II—Watson had quit his job at an engineering company that year, determined to invent full time. In May, his mind no doubt wrapped around his pump system, he visited his friend Fred Taylor’s grocery store on East 24th Street in Kansas City, Missouri, and noted with dismay the anarchy ruling the parking lot: unattended carts rolled this way and that, threatening to dent the shapely panels of Nash 600s, Dodge Deluxes, and Hudson Convertibles. An idea sprang to mind: carts with sides that narrowed could fit inside one another, enabling grocers to store them in neat, efficient rows.
His rough sketch would fundamentally challenge the reigning 1937 supermarket cart design of Sylvan Goldman: a rectangular wheeled cart with two baskets, which grocers had to remove and stack before folding up the body for storage. Even on that smudged paper, Watson’s solution is elegant.
He started a company dedicated to making carts that “taper slightly from back to front and telescope together as smoothly and compactly as a package of Dixie cups.” Later that year he rolled out a prototype to 10 Kansas City merchants; today, 30 to 35 million telescoping carts are in use throughout the United States.
MATT CAPOZZI & NATHAN CONNOLLY
This January 1996 drawing, carefully sketched on paper with a colored drafting pencil, shows a dummy seated on a reclining chair: the first concept design of an “accessible snowboard” for paraplegic athletes. Its author, 21-year-old Matt Capozzi, a junior at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, had responded to a challenge from assistive technology professor Colin Twitchell, who questioned why quality sports equipment existed for disabled skiers but not for snowboarders.
Along with friend Nathan Connolly, also an avid snowboarder, Capozzi built a first crude prototype from two-inch PVC piping, a discarded camp chair, and glue. A trial run on Mount Snow, Vermont, however, found that the unstable board glided far too rapidly. The snowboarder’s heels also dragged in the snow, triggering wild pivots and crashes. Capozzi and Connolly went back to the drawing board, intent on formulating a design that could give its rider the complete independence, speed, positioning, and mobility of an able-bodied snowboarder.
The young inventors worked through several prototypes, introducing shock absorption and a more stable frame, but the seating system still presented problems. In early 1997 they suddenly realized that the solution sat right under their noses. To the right of the original concept drawing, Capozzi had sketched a snowboarder in a kneeling position. It turns out that this intuitive sketch was the right one all along. This breakthrough approach “simplified the seating design as well as keeping [the prototype] light,” wrote Capozzi in April 1997. It also prevented the problems with heel dragging. From then on the team’s improvements came more swiftly: a backrest to provide torso support, a lever to raise the seat to the height of a ski-lift chair, and a pommel support on the seat to prevent the rider’s weight from crushing legs.
The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center sponsored Capozzi and Connolly’s patenting process for the accessible snowboard, supplying the legal and filing fees for their provisional application filed March 7, 1997. Capozzi now works for Nike, Inc., while Connolly runs his own custom home construction business in Bend, Oregon. More than a dozen Hampshire students have added to their initial design. In the meantime, the inventors remain hopeful that the accessible snowboard will be on the market soon.
EARL S. TUPPER
Simplicity and utility meet so flawlessly in Earl S. Tupper’s patent drawing for a plastic household bowl with an air- and watertight sealing mechanism that it’s easy to dismiss the brilliance behind the concept. Yet the idea that would fundamentally change kitchens across America—by replacing heavy, expensive, and easily breakable glass bowls with virtually indestructible, inexpensive alternatives with lids that also kept food fresh and prevented leaks—came from a serial doodler, drafter, brainstormer, and inventor who filled notebooks with ideas on improving everyday household objects. His rough sketches, scrawled with a fountain pen over rapidly yellowing notebook paper, include an eyebrow shield to allow more precise penciling; adjustable glasses; hair pins that wouldn’t fall out; and garter hooks that remained fastened. “My purpose in life [is] to take each thing as I find it and . . . see how I can improve it,” he wrote.
Genuine innovation eluded Tupper, however, until 1945, after nine years working in the early plastics industry at the Doyle Works of the DuPont Viscoloid Company. One day Tupper took home a hunk of polyethylene slag, a waste product from the oil refining process. By heating the brittle, greasy, waxy substance to a liquid state, injecting it into a tight mold, and carefully controlling the pressure of the molding process, he transformed it into the lightweight, nontoxic, odorless, and resilient plastic used today. Before that, polyethylene, which had first been synthesized for industrial purposes by the British Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. in 1933, had been used mainly to coat electric cables.
Tupper’s passion for improving everyday products soon found a use for polyethylene in a bowl with a sealing lid that was modeled on paint can lids. After Tupper hired marketing mastermind Brownie Wise in 1951, thrilled homemakers lined up to host Tupperware parties. The networking scheme transformed Tupperware into a multimillion-dollar business, and this year Fortune magazine ranked Tupperware Brands Corporation as the second-most admired company in the entire household products industry.