Nice Try

“To invent,” said Thomas Edison, “you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

Many people took those words to heart when perhaps they shouldn’t have. Below are a few examples.

In 1941, a Mrs. D. M. Ackerman of Hollywood, California designed a Vacuum Beauty Helmet. Also known as the Glamour Bonnet, the Vacuum Beauty Helmet was supposed to improve your complexion by sucking air out of the helmet, resulting in decreased atmospheric pressure and thus glowing skin. (And I assume: fainting ladies.) Shockingly, the Vacuum Beauty Helmet was not a success and was quickly declared a failure. 

"You can't WHAT? I can't hear you with the vacuum running!"

“You can’t WHAT? I can’t hear you with the vacuum running!”

By 1963, people were bone tired of answering their phones. Just think – this was way before caller ID and answering machines. Whoever was on the opposite end of that ringing phone was anybody’s guess. Thus the Phone Answering Robot was invented. How lovely! Or … not really.  Would you want this thing in your home?

No thanks. I'd rather just answer the phone myself.

No thanks. I’d rather answer the phone myself.

Not only was the Phone Answering Robot rather large and downright creepy, it didn’t talk. This left its tasks to nothing more than picking up the phone, and not so much answering the phone. Thus, no one was waiting in lines on Black Friday hoping to purchase the Phone Answering Robot (that really didn’t answer the phone). Everyone had to wait until the 1980s for answering machines to be readily available.

Another dud invention was the Cigarette Umbrella, for all of those cigarette smokers who like their cigarettes dry but didn’t mind getting wet themselves. Because otherwise, wouldn’t they just use a regular umbrella? That way, they would stay dry and so would their cigarette.

I may be soaking wet, but at least my cigarette is nice and dry!

I may be sopping wet, but at least my cigarette is nice and dry.

Perhaps that is the very reason why the Cigarette Umbrella didn’t fly off the shelves and regular umbrellas did.

The last sad invention is on a personal note.  My father had some strange inventions of his own. Or rather, just really bad ideas.

His first invention was a type of chimney cleaner. My parents had recently moved into their home and the only form of heating the house possessed was a wood stove. As my father stood in the living room, surveying the home’s primitive heating system, he realized that cleaning the stovepipe would be wise before its first use. However, that was when common sense stopped. Deep within the recess of my father’s brain a voice told him that hiring a professional chimney cleaning service was unnecessary. The only thing those men would do – he reasoned – would be to clean the stovepipe with a scrub brush. A scrub brush that is similar in shape and form to a … pine tree.

Off my father went, chainsaw in hand, into the patch of woods behind the house and returned with a small pine tree. He proceeded to climb onto the roof and lower the pine tree into the stovepipe. He intended on scrubbing the pipe with the pine tree, but there is a reason professional chimney cleaners don’t use trees to clean chimneys. (Bert in Mary Poppins danced on the London rooftops with a Chimney Brush – not a Blue Spruce.) Tree branches aren’t flexible. Trunks don’t bend.

When my mother returned home from grocery shopping, she found a pine tree suspended from the stovepipe in her ceiling. The tree was stuck. Ash and soot were everywhere. The white curtains she had hung on the living room windows were now a dull gray. My mother put down the grocery bags, summoned me and my brother, and packed us in the car where she proceeded to drive to her sister’s house in Rhode Island. She said it was the only action she could think of to save their marriage.

So I would like to add to Mr. Edison’s famous quote: To invent, you need a good imagination, a pile of junk, and some common sense.

All photographs are property of Google images

And The Award Goes To…

Thomas Edison, Alexander Fleming, George Washington Carver and Eli Whitney are people who are regularly credited for their inventions. Rarely does an adult say, “Who was that guy who invented electricity?” or “This peanut butter sandwich is so darn good! Who invented this stuff?” It seems that we have always known.

Yet, what about the lesser known people who invented things we use everyday? How often do we use an item without having the faintest idea who thought it up? Of course electricity and penicillin are extraordinary creations and I would hate to think of life without them. I would, however, also hate to think of life without my vacuum cleaner and toilet paper. So, without further ado, I present:

The Underground Writer’s Recognition of Little Cared for Inventors

The Pull Tab – You know, that little thingy on top of soda cans (and more recently – soup cans) that we hook our finger through and pull to open? According to the LA Times obituaries from October,1989, Ermal Cleon Fraze of Muncie, Indiana invented these. Ermal, for all of us who have arthritis or a disdain for the can opener – I thank you.

Spatula – Remember licking the bowl after your mom made brownies? That experience would have been far less productive had it not been for Horace Spatula (per an exhaustive 3 minute google search). According to an unreliable web page, Horace originally developed the spatula for use as a fly swatter. The history of the spatula invention is spotty at best, so I am assuming one day Mrs. Spatula was making a double layer chocolate cake when a fly landed on the counter. As she went to smack the fly with Horace’s invention, she paused, looked at it, and said, “Land’s sake! Why am I killing bugs with this thing?” and she promptly started to scrape cake batter out of her mixing bowl. Horace Spatula (and Mrs. Spatula), we salute you!

Doorknobs – Can you imagine life before doorknobs? How did one open a door? With a hearty kick? Very little is known about the inventor of the current day doorknob – except that his name was Osbourn Dorsey, he patented the doorknob in 1878, and he was an African-American. Locksmiths give you a shout out, Osbourn, as well as the rest of us who use your invention constantly throughout the day without giving you any credit. Well done.

Eraser – As someone who struggled through math class, you would think I would have taken the time to thank the inventor of the eraser before now. Pencil erasers and I were well acquainted with one another throughout high school and the mandated math courses I had to take in college. Per another questionable webpage (again, the whole point of this recognition is that we are acknowledging little known inventors), the eraser was developed in 1770 by a scientist named Joseph Priestly. Mr. Priestly, I thank you! (As do my former math teachers.)

Vacuum Cleaner – Many people were involved with the invention of the vacuum cleaner, so I had to take it upon myself to narrow it down. The Underground Writer’s Recognition of Little Cared for Inventors goes to a James Spangler of 1907. Mr. Spangler was a custodian who realized the carpet sweeper he operated as part of his profession was giving him a nagging cough. Using a pillow case to collect dust and the motor from a sewing machine, Mr. Spangler concocted the first portable vacuum cleaner. A round of applause for Mr. Spangler, please!

Toilet Paper – Prior to Joseph Gayetty, various items were used to, well, you know. I will spare you the details of what these apparatuses and methods were, but let’s just say we should all be grateful for Mr. Gayetty who introduced commercial toilet paper in 1857. As if the invention of toilet paper alone wasn’t wonderful enough, each sheet also beared a watermark of his name. While I am sure there were many before Mr. Gayetty who attempted to replace the weird things that were being used in lieu of toilet paper at that time, I think we should all recognize Mr. Gayetty as being the one who brought us our current day Charmin.

 Toggle Light Switch – While Thomas Edison invented electricity, let us not forget the people who made this electrical phenomenon user friendly. Before William Newton and Morris Goldberg, people were stumbling around in the dark trying to find the cord that they had to yank in order to turn the light on. In 1884, the two aforementioned men created the light switch that now adorns the walls of every home. Because of Mr. Newton and Mr. Goldberg, we can say, “Hey! Would you mind flipping the light on for me?” The next time you enter a room and turn on the light (unless, of course, you own a Clapper; then you should thank Lee Boschen), think of these two men. Mr. Newton and Mr. Morris, thanks!

Granted, The Underground Writer’s Recognition of Little Cared for Inventors cannot be equated to the Academy Awards or the Nobel Prize. But given that so very little is known about these inventors to begin with, this recognition will simply have to do.