Whacky ideas like Pet Rocks and Beany Babies get a lot of attention in the blogosphere. These flash in the pan inventions ride the fad wave, make a lot of quick money for their inventors, and then disappear into history. But, what about the everyday items that stay in use for decades or even centuries?
Almost everything you come across in an average day is an invention. Many of them are so common, we don't even think about it. Cooking items, writing equipment, office equipment, transportation, construction materials, every piece of "stuff" that makes up our world is an invention. Copied, adapted, added onto, and morphed, these cool invention ideas are the skeleton that built and maintain modern life.
At World Patent Marketing we thought a list of these invention stories might inspire you. Read on to find out about the inventions that you can't live without.
Paper Clip, A Simple Idea Worth Billions
American's use 11 Billion paper clips per year. And most of them are produced in the United States, thanks to a protective tariff. That's a lot of paper clips, amounting to 35 per year for every man, woman and child in the country.
Strangely, the standard wire paper clip that we are all familiar with was never patented. It is known as the "Gem" paper clip and was invented sometime in the 1870s in Britain, by the Gem Manufacturing Company. We have advertisements and editorials about the Gem Paper Clip written by the 1890s in the U.S.
Many people like to claim that the invention idea that became the first paper clip is an American invention that was patented in 1867 by Samuel B. Fay. Fay received U.S. patent 64,088, but it was for a pin to attach paper tickets to fabric, and doesn't look anything like the modern paper clip. Along with 50 other patents that were awarded for paper "clips", before 1899, the Fay Clip was useful, but wasn't a precursor to the mighty Gem, which already existed and eventually conquered the worldwide market.
It's worth noting that while the Gem never received a patent, a machine for making these paper clips was patented in 1899, by William Middlebrook, of Waterubry Connecticut.
The paper clip has had a successful run, dominating the market for 'paper fasteners for more than 120 years. And it shows no signs of going away any time soon.
Drip Coffee Maker, A Housewife Invented the First Filter
What could be more vital to modern business than coffee. Without coffee, business might just grind to a halt. Coffee itself has been a staple of life for hundreds of years. Originally, brewing a cup was a simple process of tossing a handful of beans into boiling water, and letting it cook until it was "done."
Eventually the whole process went gourmet, with a variety of coffee pots showing up on the scene by the 1700s. Many of the early coffee pots were invented to keep the grounds out of the brewed coffee for drinking.
Paper filters were invented in 1908, by housewife Melitta Bentz in Germany. Today, the Melitta company is a worldwide business. In 2014 sales were over 1.5 billion dollars. Yep, Billion with a "B."
The original drip filters were designed for use with a cup, and didn't require a drip specialized coffee maker. That came along in 1954, again thanks to another German, Gottlob Widmann. He patented the first electrical drip coffee maker. It was called the Wigomat. Many other inventors and researchers contributed to the electric drip coffee market. A variety of filters were invented, some of metal, others of plastic, and in different shapes. Carafes, thermoses and hotplates were modified and adapted to different markets. The contributions of hundreds of small inventors eventually created a worldwide industry that catered to the tastes and needs of coffee drinkers on every continent in the world.
Today, following in the footsteps of the original Wigomat, Widmann's early coffee maker invention, the U.S. market for coffee makers tops $1 billion dollars a year.
Spatula, A Scammer Tried to Cash In
If you've ever fried an egg you know the importance of a spatula. And you probably never thought twice about who invented it. Sit back and enjoy this "only in America" story, complete with big bucks lawsuits, swindlers, carnival freak shows, and a love triangle.
The story goes that a restaurant cook in New York, by the name of John Spaduala invented the spatula out of necessity. He worked for a tyrant by the name of Hans Krugar, who drove his kitchen staff beyond endurance. One day Krugar smashed a heavy pot lid onto hapless John's hand, because he wasn't working fast enough, and permanently crippled him. John, couldn't do his job without two hands, so he developed the spatula to help him, creating the flat end for flipping and using a rib bone as a handle. Eventually he found a stick for the handle.
While his wife ran off with Krugar, John continued working, creating new inventions. Supposedly.
In 1888, the New York Spatula Company opened, offering mass-produced metal spatulas. John Spaduala sued the company. The case took seven years, and John lost.
Many folks thought it was a classic case of the well-funded businessmen, beating the little guy. Some of these stories claim that he was a driven inventor, and indeed, after he began his lawsuit he did a file a lot of patents for kitchen utensils, none of which went anywhere. The amusing part is that it was claimed that the horrible scars on his arms were the result of trying to invent a fork with a knife on the end of it, a bit like Edward Scissorhands. His scars were the "wounds" of his drive to invent.
However, there's more. As a young man, it seems that John Spaduala traveled with circuses, displaying his deformed right handand scars. On the road as a traveling circus freak, he conned people out of thousands of dollars. The similarity of Spaduala and Spatula, had simply presented him an opportunity to claim to be the inventor.
The latter is probably closer to the truth, as the spatula already existed in kitchens, paint shops, and mason sites around the world, long before John Spaduala ever entered a kitchen.
The Barbecue, an All-American Invention
Cooking meat over an open flame is as old mankind itself. The first barbecue, judged by this standard, is definitely pre-historical. But what about the good old backyard barbecue? Where did that come from?
It shouldn't be any surprise to know that this is indeed a quintessentially American cooking invention. The charcoal briquette was invented by E.G. Kingsford, who was a related to Henry Ford. Kingsford noticed that Ford's Model T plant was creating a lot of woods scraps that were just being wasted. He suggested that they build a charcoal manufacturing plant right there, to make use of all the wood scraps. Originally the briquettes were sold under the Ford name, but when the company was sold, it was changed to Kingsford, in honor of the man who "invented" it.
The kettle barbecue was invented by George Stephen, who worked at Weber Metal Works. He was tired of having his ashes blow out of the existing barbecue and he was also tired of the flame blowing out. For his invention prototype, he took a metal bouy and cut it in half to make the concave bottom. He cut another piece for the top and the classic kettle barbecue was invented. It worked great. What we call the kettle, was first named by Stephen, in a joking manner, "The Sputnik," after the first man-made orbiting satellite, launched by the Soviets.
The gas grill came along next, some time in the early 1950s. It was created by Don McGlaughlin, who owned the Chicago Combustion Corporation. Today it is known as LazyMan. His first model was called the BROILBURGER. He described it as an "open-fire charcoal-type gas broiler," with lava rock that he described as "permanent coals." He used the term broiler, because back then most people weren't familiar with the barbecues.
In 1954 McGaughlin released the first portable barbecue, with a 20 gallon propane cylinder attached. Before this time, these propane cylinders had only been used by plumbers for welding.
The outdoor grill market is now worth $1.5 billion per year in the United States.
Beer in a Can, How Did They Survive Before?
Yep, there was a time when canned Beer was a revolutionary idea.
In 1935, the American Can Company and Gottfried Kreuger Brewing Company created a partnership to offer beer in cans. Their first batch of post prohibition-strength (a weak 3.2 percent) beer consisted of 4,000 cans of three different varieties. It was a hit and canned beer was launched onto the American scene.
Now canning had been invented back in 1813. So why did it take so long to get around to canning beer?
Because beer is carbonated, the cans had to be stronger than for regular food tins. The American Canning Company finally solved that problem in the early 30s. Also, they created a new way to coat the inside of the cans, to keep the beer from taking on a metallic taste. Once these two improvements had been accomplished, the wait was over.
Potato Chips, Bagged Chips Were Invented by a Woman Entrepreneur
There is a lot of myth and legend surrounding the invention of the Potato Chip, or Potato Crisp as it is known in the U.K. A favorite American story is that George Crum, chef at Moon's Lake House was trying to appease an unhappy customer, allegedly a Vanderbilt, when he cut potatoes razor-thin and fried them crisp.
It's a fine story, and may even be true. Except that it wasn't the "invention" of the potato chip, since basic recipes had been recorded in cookbooks since the early 1800s. Actually, potatos are such an important food crop, making them into chips is probably as old as cultivation of the potato itself, right alongside baked, mashed, stewed, and casseroled potatoes.
It wasn't the recipe that made the potato chip America's favorite snack food and the leader of a $46 billion dollar industry in the U.S.
It was the bag.
The important factor was the packaging. In the early part of the 20th century, potato chips were sold in barrels. Store merchants displayed the open barrels and scooped out what was ordered. This led to a lot of soggy and broken potato chips at the bottom.
This problem was solved by Laura Scudder, a Philly native who had moved to Monterey Park, CA. She opened a food company in 1926. Frustrated with the methods for packaging potato chips currently available, she had her employees experiment with wax paper bags. From this small idea, the packaged snack food market came into being.
Laura's bags kept the chips fresh and crisp. She also pioneered dating her bags for freshness. Today chips are typically sold in cellophane bags, which are then filled with nitrogen to keep them fresh and prevent breakage.
Laura sold her company in 1957, when it held a 50% share of the California chip market. She had been offered She had initially been offered $9 million, but turned it down because the buyer would not guarantee to keep her current staff on the payroll. Eventually she settled for $6 million and a guarantee that none of her employees would be fired.
The Zipper, It Took 50 Years to Develop
Early zippers came onto the scene in the mid-1800's. But the first zipper that you would recognize as such, with interlocking teeth attached to a coil, was invented in 1913. Gideon Sundback, who worked at the Universal Fastener Company in New Jersy, created it and received a patent for it in 1917.
Sundback called his invention a "Separable Fastener." The name zipper was created by B.F.Goodrich company. They had used the separable fastener on rubber boots, and decided to call the new fastener a zipper. Since then, we have known of Sundback's invention as the zipper.
The Ballpoint Pen Changed the Way We Write
The first ballpoint pen was created for writing on leather. John Loud invented it in 1888. The common writing instruments at the time, like fountain pens, didn't work well on leather, wood, or other coarse surfaces. The main feature of a ballpoint pen is the ball at the end of the point, that regulates the ink flow. Loud's ballpoint never made it into common use for writing on paper, because it wasn't refined enough to replace the fountain pen.
It wasn't until the 1930's that a ballpoint was invented that was a successful writing instrument. The inventor was Lazlo Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor. As an editor, he was annoyed with the amount of time he wasted filling up fountain pens.
He and his brother set to work inventing a new functional ballpoint pen. Fortunately, Biro's brother was a chemist. One of the most critical elements in a ballpoint pen is the ink. It requires a precise viscosity, to allow just enough ink to coat the ball, and to dry quickly on the paper, but not inside the pen.
They eventually created a pen that worked and obtained a British patent in 1938. But with World War II approaching, they fled to Argentina. Biro filed a new patent in 1943. In Argentina and many other countries, the ballpoint pen is still called a Biro.
By 1945, Milton Reynolds debuted a version of the ballpoint pen at Gimbel's Department Store in Manhatten. They sold out at the modern day equivalent of 165 bucks a pop. The Reynolds Rocket was the first commercially successful ballpoint pen.
Marcel Bich brought the Lazlo brother's Argentine ballpoints to the United States, under the brandname Bic in the 1950's. They got off to a slow start and didn't enjoy much success until they hit on the marketing tagline, "Writes The First Time, Every Time!" The pens are now sold worldwide, the company employs more than 10,000 people, and grossed over $2 Billion in 2015.
Time Clock, An Invention that Affected Every Worker
Employees around the world can thank Willard Bundy for the invention of the Time Clock. It also goes by the name of clock card machine, punch clock, or time recorder. These days, most "time clocks" are computerized and digital. But for more than a hundred years, the punch style time clock ruled the workplace.
Bundy's time clock allowed a card to be inserted and stamped with the time. He was a jeweler in Auburn, New York. His brother, Harlow, mass-produced the machines that were eventually found in almost every workplace in America.
Microwave Ovens, the Result of a Melted Candy Bar
You probably thought that Microwave ovens were a fairly recent invention. They didn't become common in American households until the late 1970s. But the Microwave oven actually goes way back, to 1945.
Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, was working on a radar set and noticed that the microwaves coming off of the set melted the candy bar in his pocket. He built a metal box, that he could beam the microwaves into and experimented with cooking different foods. His first experiment? Popcorn.
Raytheon patented microwave cooking in 1945. They built the Speedy-Weeny vending machine, which cooked hot dogs, and put it in Grand Central Station in 1947.
For the next 20 years, microwave ranges and ovens were produced exclusively for commercial use. This is because the machines were huge, more than 5 feet tall, and power hogs as well. The nuclear-powered passenger/cargo ship NS Savannah, still has an early microwave in its galley.
In the 1960s, a variety of microwave ovens were tried and tested in the United States consumer market. At prices of $11,000 or more in today's dollars, the ovens were not a commercial success. One of the largest patent companies known for licensing inventions, the Litton company refined the microwave, changed its shape and adapted it to home use as a countertop appliance. By 1975 there were one million microwaves in homes across America. Today, 95% of American homes have a microwave.
Copy Machine, The Invention that Gave Us Modern Bureaucracy
The photocopy machine was invented by patent attorney, Chester Carlson. He filed his patent application in 1938.
As is so often the case, his invention grew out of necessity. He worked at the patent office in New York at the time. He had arthritis, but was required to make lots of copies of documents. This work was incredibly painful for him. So he set about creating the first photocopier.
He conducted his experiments in his own kitchen. The very first photocopy was made with a zinc plate and sulfur. He wrote "10-22-38 Astoria" on a microscope slide, put it on the sulfur, and exposed it to bright light. And it worked, though the image was reversed.
Once he filed his patent, Carlson shopped his invention idea around to over 20 companies known for manufacturing inventions over the next five years. He even approached IBM and General Electric. They turned him down, because they beleived there was no "market" for photocopiers.
Eventually the Haloid company obtained a license to develop and market the copier. The first thing they did was change the name, since electrophotography was too much of a mouthful and didn't inspire much excitement. In 1949, they released the first "Xerox" machine. In 2015, the Xerox corporation grossed over $4 billion dollars.
Carlson earned about $150 million dollars from his invention, but he gave almost all of it away. He generously supported philanthropic interests throughout his life. He wrote that his goal was "to die a poor man." He didn't die destitute, but he did indeed give almost all of his fortune away to charity.
Nails, The Invention of Mass Produced Nails Changed Building
Have you ever wondered where the common nail came from? They're so common today, we buy them by the pound, but back in the day, every nail was tediously handmade. At one time, nails were regarded as so valuable, that old houses and barns would be burned down, in order to scavenge the nails.
By 1590 in England, the process of mass-producing nails began to slowly evolve. The slitting mill allowed nails to be made in larger quantities. They were cut from bars of wrought iron. These nails were square in shape.
It wasn't until about 1800 that true manufacturing of nails came into being. The nails were still cut from bars of wrought iron, so they still had the square shape, but the process was automated. They could be produced far more quickly and easily. The cut-nail process was patented in America in 1795 by Jacob Perkins and in England by Joseph Dyer. For more than a century, until WW I, cut nails were common.
The wire nail was invented in France. It made nail production muuch faster than the cut nail method. The wire is extruded to size, cut at the tip, and pressure is used to form the head. Other dies can be used to form grooves or heads. The wire process was being used by the 1860s. By 1913, 90% of nails were made with the wire process.
Headphones, From the Telephone Operator to Everyone
Headpones and earbuds are found in almost every home these days for listening to music or watching movies. But, the first headphones were created for telephone switchboard operators.
In the early days of electrical audio communication, before amplifiers were developed, headphones were essential. The first successful headphone set was developed in 1910 by Nathaniel Baldwin, who made them in his kitchen and sold them to the U.S. Navy. By 1919, Brandes company was manufacturing headphones for radio workers, as well as telephone and telegraph operators.
A jazz musician from Milwaukee, John C. Koss, made the first stereo headphones in 1943. Over time, headphones and earpieces have been released in a variety of shapes and sizes, for all different purposes.
In 1997, Bluetooth was invented by the Dutchman, Jaap Haartsen. Bluetooth lets headpones and speakers operate wirelessly. Haartsen named his technology Bluetooth after a tenth century King of Denmark. In 1999,the company Ericsson launched Bluetooth commercially.
Top Ramen, The Best Invention of the 20th Century
When Top Ramen was first launched, back in 1958, it was a luxury item. That's right, the college student's survival food was originally a high-priced luxury item that cost six times as much as regular fresh noodles in the grocery store. How things change...
In any case, Top Ramen was invented by a Momofuku Ando in Japan. He created a system of flash frying the noodles before drying them, so that the notorious bricks would have a very long shelf life. The first product was marketed under the name "Chikin Ramen", a pre-seasoned quick-cooking noodle pack.
In 1971 he introduced the Nissin Cup of Noodles, which is largely the same product, in a handy cup. Both products did spectacularly well. As a matter of fact, in a poll conducted in 2000, the Japanese named instant noodles as the best invention of the 20th century. 96 billion servings of instant noodles are eaten worldwide every year.
Coca Cola, The Invention of a Worldwide Empire
John Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-Cola was a pharmacist. He invented a number of pharmaceutical drugs and treatments, but none of them took off. In 1886 he came up with the Coca Cola formula, but really had no idea how to market it.
Business partner Frank Robinson came to Pemberton's rescue. The first thing he did was patent the formula and create a tagline, "The pause that refreshes." But sales stilll languished. And Pemberton died, never knowing that his product would be a worldwide success story.
Asa Griggs Candler came on the scene shortly after, and became the sole owner of Coca Cola in 1891. He marketed the product aggressively, sending salesmen into the street with coupons for free Cokes, He also initiated splashing the Coke logo on anything and everything, putting it on calendars, place mats, window signs, and more.
Candler also made claims that Coke was a "medicine" that would lift spirits and mood and cure headaches. He continued to market it more as a refreshing tonic than as a beverage until 1898, when the United States began taxing medicines. From that point the product was marketed exclusively as a beverage.
In 2015, Coca cola brought in $44 billion. Not bad for a soft drink.