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Inventors' quirks lead to the pursuit of worthless trivia     Send a link to a friend

By Paul Niemann         

[OCT. 14, 2004]  A common myth about inventors is that they stay up all hours of the night working in their garages. Another myth is that they are eccentric and have frazzled hair. While these aren't very accurate descriptions, a number of inventors had quirks that made them very interesting. Maybe even peculiar; you be the judge.

Some of the following nuggets of trivia have appeared in previous articles, so think of this story as a highlight film. Or, better yet, a bloopers reel. Best of all, it's better than anything a person could make up.

We begin with some aviation trivia, such as…

  • The inventors of the first manned airplane, Wilbur and Orville Wright, never received their pilots' licenses.
  • The inventor of the modern folding parachute, Capt. Tom Baldwin, was assigned pilot's license No. 7. In case you're wondering, Glenn Curtiss was assigned pilot's license No. 1.
  • The "black box" flight recorders found in commercial airplanes are actually orange.

Even the most well-known inventors can't hide from their quirks…

  • Even though Walt Disney "invented" Mickey Mouse, he was afraid of… mice!
  • One of the greatest visionaries and inventors of all time, left-handed Leonardo da Vinci, recorded his inventions and discoveries in his notebooks by writing backward, from right to left. Some people believe that he did this in order to prevent others from copying his ideas, but that's probably not true, because his writings could easily be deciphered with a mirror.
  • A teacher sent little 6-year-old Tommy Edison home from school one day with a note stating, "He is too stupid to learn." At the age of 16, he created his first invention, an "automatic repeater," which transmitted telegraph signals between unmanned telegraph stations.
  • Magician Harry Houdini, who invented and patented a diver's suit in 1921, was claustrophobic. Who'd've thunk it? Actually, this makes sense when you realize that his diver's suit invention was intended to allow a deep-sea diver to remove the suit by himself if he was in danger.
  • Alexander Graham Bell fought off more than 600 lawsuits over his telephone patent. He won all but two of them, and they were both over minor issues.

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Since no bloopers story would be complete without government officials, we honor…

  • Former patent commissioner Charles Duell, who in 1899 remarked that "Everything that can be invented -- has already been invented."
  • Thomas Jefferson, our nation's most accomplished presidential inventor, did not patent any of his own inventions. He incorrectly believed that patents deprived people of the benefits that come with new inventions.
  • Jefferson apparently changed his mind about patents, because he later helped establish the U.S. patent office and became its first patent commissioner.
  • The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, could have patented it and probably become the wealthiest man alive (I'll try to resist the urge to make an Al Gore comment here). Instead he chose not to patent it so that the Web could reach its full potential. If he had patented the Web, he probably would have faced 600 lawsuits from imposters claiming that they invented it. See Alexander Graham Bell above.

Finally, there's even some trivia about people whose invention-related roles were misunderstood or just plain unknown throughout history …

  • Rube Goldberg's claim to fame resulted from his cartoons depicting 10 or more steps to achieve a simple task. Yet this man, whose name is synonymous with inventions, never invented anything in his life.
  • Alfred Nobel, the man who created the five Nobel Peace Prizes, is also the inventor of… dynamite.

In case you haven't had enough worthless trivia yet, here's one more for you: The orange black box flight recorders mentioned earlier were invented in Australia. Now you've had enough.

[Paul Niemann]

Invention Mysteries is written each week by Paul Niemann. He can be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

© Copyright Paul Niemann 2004

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