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Umbrellas for shoes, noodle coolers, dust mop onesies and other quirky inventions through time

iStock_000020669427SmallHere’s a little-known October anniversary in which bean-counters and number-crunchers everywhere may find worth celebrating: The first patent was issued to Dorr Eugene Felt for an adding machine – an ancestor of the modern day calculator – on Oct. 11, 1887.

The original model was made out of a macaroni box and meat skewers!

Known then as a comptometer, the device was revolutionary in that it did not require hand-cranking, which increased the accuracy of the computations.  Over the years, Felt made numerous improvements to the design, never tiring in his quest to create the ideal device for performing repetitive calculations.  This milestone in history inspired me to discover more about modern-day inventions.

I noticed something odd with my first basic internet search for some quirky inventions to highlight. When you search for ’quirky inventions’ you get a lot of hits about Quirky,an online company which accepts invention ideas from the public (its ‘community’). The best submissions are chosen for development, through votes from the community and executive decision, and Quirky rolls out three new products every week. Three a week!   One I found intriguing was ‘Unhampered,’ a sturdy, collapsible hamper with built-in dividers for sorting clothes that folds down to 2 inches wide when not in use.

Quirky has been doing this since 2009, with the mission of helping regular people market great ideas.  The founder, Ben Kaufman, had experienced the frustrating, expensive and hard work of marketing an invention on his own, and wanted to make it easier.  He told an interviewer this year that based on the adage that success is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, Quirky wants to be the perspiration that makes others’ inspirations a reality.

In searching for unique inventions to discuss, I found some doozies – a few that many of us never imagined being real, like the infant onesie that doubles as a dustmop.   Some just seem bizarre, like tiny umbrellas for your shoes, or a tiny fan you can hang off your chopsticks to cool your noodles before eating them (I can’t make this stuff up).   Then there are a few which, odd as they are, do have an obvious appeal.  One example is the see-through toaster – never burn your breakfast again!

But what about the ones which seemed too unusual to make it and are now ubiquitous?  Those Vibram “finger-foot” shoes with separations for each toe, or the Flowbee hair-cutting device (still available today, if you’re wondering).

How do inventors come up with their ideas?  Some are creative thinkers who found a way to turn their gift into a living – think Ron Popeil and his infomercials for the Veg-O-Matic and a line of rotisseries. But wait, there’s more!  Others, like Louis Braille, have been inspired by a need in their own lives. Blind since the age of 3, Braille adapted an existing system of printing and writing for the blind into the simplified method which today bears his name and is used worldwide.  There are also those who made great contributions but go largely unremembered today.  Can you name the man who invented the game of basketball back in 1891?  (It was James Naismith, who also designed the first football helmet.)  And one last category – people who were famous for something other than their inventions.  I had no idea that Zeppo Marx, baby brother of Groucho and Harpo, held patents on a watch that monitored the pulse of heart patients!

The next time you use a device you can’t live without, or find yourself wishing for something to handle a particularly onerous task for you, keep in mind how much life has changed for the better thanks to the creative and industrious minds of inventors through the ages.  Share some of your own bright ideas, or inventions you’re most grateful for in the comments section below.

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Posted in Throwback Thursday.

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