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

What did these inventors do for a living before they became household names?

By Paul Niemann

[SEPT. 14, 2006]  A couple years ago, there was a TV show called "Where are they now?" which focused on the current lives of former celebrities. We take the opposite approach in this article by revealing the jobs that five inventors held before they became famous. Some of their backgrounds make perfect sense as inventors, while others may surprise you. We also include the story of one person who didn't invent anything, yet his name is synonymous with a certain type of invention.

Levi Strauss (1829-1902)

Twenty-four-year-old Levi Strauss left New York for San Francisco in 1853 to open a dry goods store with his sister and brother-in-law. They sold supplies to miners and other products to the people of San Francisco during the Gold Rush days. One of the customers had a method of making jeans with metal rivets and, unable to afford the cost of a patent, he asked Strauss to pay for the patent and go into business together. In May of 1873, the first official blue jeans were made. I think you know how that turned out.

Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956)
The name of Birdseye is synonymous with frozen foods, yet many people do not know that there was a person named Birdseye behind it all. Clarence Birdseye's job prior to becoming an inventor is what led him to become an inventor. As a biology major in college, he went to work as a naturalist for the U.S. government and was assigned to the Arctic. There he observed firsthand the ways of the Eskimos who lived there. Birdseye saw how the combination of ice, wind and temperature froze the fish that had just been caught. He also noticed that the fish retained most of their taste when they were cooked and eaten. When he returned home to New York in 1924, he founded Birdseye Seafoods Inc.

King Camp Gillette (1855-1932)

The work of Gillette's parents laid the groundwork for him to become an inventor. For a while, his father worked as a patent agent and part-time tinkerer, and his mother created a cookbook in 1887 that remained in print for 100 years. Gillette became a traveling salesman at age 17, and he often made improvements to the products that he sold. He learned the importance that disposable items had on sales and used this concept for his idea for improving the safety razor blade. Production began in 1903, and 100 years later, the company that bears his name rings up nearly $10 billion a year in sales in more than 200 countries. Despite his first name and the success that he had, King Gillette opposed capitalism, and he wrote books in which he declared competition to be the root of all evil.

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Ron Popeil (born 1935; still inventing)

Born in 1935, Ron Popeil is famous for demonstrating his inventions on TV. His product line includes the Ronco Spray Gun, Dial-O-Matic, Veg-O-Matic, Mince-O-Matic, Popeil Pasta Maker, Pocket Fisherman and the Showtime Rotisserie Oven. What did this master pitchman do before he began selling his inventions on TV? He pitched his dad's inventions on the streets of Chicago in the 1950s, as it was his dad who taught him the basics of salesmanship and showmanship. Popeil's inventions have rung up more than $2 billion in sales, and counting.

Rube Goldberg (1883-1970)

The term "Rube Goldberg invention" has led millions of Americans to believe that Goldberg was an inventor. You won't find his name on any patents or store shelves, though, because ol' Rube never invented anything. After graduating with an engineering degree, he worked as an engineer for a short time but hated the job, so he began doing what he loved most -- drawing. Goldberg won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his cartoons depicting elaborate schemes that took 10 or more steps to accomplish a simple task. Goldberg is probably the only "inventor" to be honored with both a postage stamp and an adjective named for him, as in "our Rube Goldberg tax system."

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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