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

We set the record straight on some popular inventor myths          By Paul Niemann

[NOV. 30, 2006]  I was surprised when I read that St. Patrick was not born in Ireland. What are they going to say next -- that the 100 Years War really lasted 116 years? Or that Walt Disney was afraid of mice? Or that the word "gullible" is not in the dictionary, as my assistant claims?

I wondered if many inventors were involved in similar myths or misunderstandings. It turns out that quite a few stories about well-known inventors have been misreported. We set the record straight on a few of them.

For example, we grew up learning that Galileo Galilei invented the telescope, right? Well, it turns out that it wasn't Galileo, but rather an optician named Hans Lippershey who invented it in 1608, while Galileo invented his own version a year later. He did invent the thermometer, though.

Regular readers of this column know that Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) recorded his inventions and discoveries backward in his notebooks, writing from right to left. The common misconception is that he did this to prevent people from copying his ideas (patents were not yet available to protect his inventions). Since mirrors had already been in use in the mid-1400s, his writings could easily be deciphered. The real reason for writing backward has never been revealed.

Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. Instead, he created the mass production system that allowed him to make cars affordable to the average working man. There were many others who invented earlier versions of cars, including Karl Benz and brothers Charles and Frank Duryea in the late 1800s.

Similarly, it wasn't Charles Goodyear who founded the tire company that bears his name. While he did invent the process of vulcanizing rubber, it was Frank Seiberling who founded the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in 1898 -- which was 38 years after Charles Goodyear died. Ironically, he died broke. Seiberling named the company Goodyear as a tribute to Charles Goodyear.

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Staying on the same track as Ford's automobile and Goodyear's tires, many people do not realize that NASCAR traces its roots back to bootleggers outrunning the law. In the South during Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, the bootleggers would modify their cars to allow them to avoid the police. Later, they wanted something more challenging than outrunning the law, so they raced their souped-up cars against each other. Ironically, NASCAR does not allow sponsors to advertise hard liquor on the race cars or to sponsor any NASCAR races.

In other news, Xerox, Monopoly and Pepsi are all considered failures. At least that was the initial diagnosis on each one. Chester Carlson's Xerox was rejected by more than 20 companies in the 1940s and 1950s, including IBM, Kodak and General Electric. Meanwhile, Parker Brothers rejected Monopoly in a big way in 1904, citing 52 fundamental flaws. The Loft Candy Company purchased the Pepsi brand in 1931, then watched it struggle just like its founder Caleb Bradham did. When Coca-Cola was offered a chance to buy the nearly bankrupt company, it rejected it without even making a bid.

By the way, the 100 Years War really did last 116 years (1337-1453); Walt Disney really was afraid of mice; and in case you're wondering if the word "gullible" is in the dictionary, trust me: It is. I looked it up myself.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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