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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

Who needs the Grammys or Emmys when you have the inventor awards?

By Paul Niemann

[May 17, 2007]  One of the hallmarks of greatness is having an award named after you. A number of well-known inventors have achieved this honor. Three famous people whose names are synonymous with inventions each have an interesting bit of irony attached to their awards.

Thomas Edison and the Edison Medal

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in Croatia, which was then part of Yugoslavia. Tesla was a genius in two brand-new industries -- radio and electricity -- and inventing seemed to run in his family, as his mother invented household appliances.

Tesla went to work for Thomas Edison for a year in 1883, but he and Edison had a long-running feud over which type of electrical current was superior -- Edison's DC (direct current) or Tesla's AC (alternating current). Edison had invested heavily in his DC current, and he did his best to discredit Tesla's work. He even went so far as electrocuting animals -- ranging in size from a dog to an elephant -- to try to convince the public that Tesla's AC electricity was more dangerous than his own DC power.

Tesla's AC eventually won out over Edison's DC, and he was awarded the prestigious Edison Medal in 1917. Despite winning this award, he never received the proper recognition or respect during his lifetime. He did have an award named for him, though. The Nikola Tesla Award has been presented by the Institute of Electrical Engineers annually since 1976.

Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Peace Prize

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist and inventor born in 1833, the same year that his father went bankrupt. His father, also an inventor, left home to escape debtor's prison. After one of Alfred's factories blew up in 1864, killing five people, including his younger brother, he was tagged with the unfortunate nickname of "The Merchant of Death." Another factory blew up two years later.

The irony of Nobel's story is that the invention that funded the Nobel Prizes that Alfred had established was… dynamite. Alfred, who never married, was a pacifist who didn't want a legacy associated with death. After he died in 1896, nearly all of his wealth went to the establishment of the five Nobel Prizes.

Nobel was able to secure a positive legacy for himself with the establishment of the awards that bear his name. The awards are divided into five classifications: physics; chemistry; physiology and medicine; literature; and peace.

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Rube Goldberg and the Reuben Award

Rube Goldberg went to college to fulfill his father's ambition of his son becoming an engineer. When Rube realized that an engineering career wasn't what he wanted, he turned to what he really loved doing -- drawing. He put his engineering background to good use in his new career, as the drawings of his fictional character, Professor Lucifer Butts, made him a celebrity and helped assure his place in history. Goldberg earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1948.

The irony of the story is that Rube, whose name is synonymous with inventions, never invented anything himself. Then what is a "Rube Goldberg invention"?

It's a drawing of an elaborate scheme that shows 10 or more steps to accomplish a simple task, and the award named in Rube Goldberg's honor is the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award. Goldberg was the society's first president, and the award is given out annually to the year's top cartoonist. Past winners of the Reuben Award include the cartoonists behind Dilbert, Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, Peanuts, Blondie, Hagar the Horrible, and Beetle Bailey.

There are also a number of Rube Goldberg machine contests that are conducted each year, usually among engineering students, in which the challenge is to design a machine that uses the most complex process to complete a simple task.

The images of Edison, Tesla, Nobel and Goldberg have all appeared on postage stamps, although Edison's first stamp could not contain his image because of the U.S. Postal Service's policy of not showing living people on stamps.

[Text from file received from Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2007

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