June 1, 1869: Tom Swift and His Electric Thingumajig

With over a thousand inventions, many of which have touched the lives of nearly everyone in the world, Thomas Alva Edison is considered by many to be the greatest inventor of the modern era. But it wasn’t always thus. Al, as he was known, was a lousy student whoserube mother finally decided to home-school him. Edison’s first job was operating a newsstand on a train that ran from Port Huron to Detroit. To make the trips more interesting, he put together a chemistry lab in a boxcar (On the Atchison, Topeka and the Kaboom!). Then working as a telegraph operator, he continued to do scientific experiments in his free time. In 1869, he decided to devote himself full time to inventing.

     His first invention was patented that same year on June 1, a voting machine for use by legislative bodies such as Congress. Having heard that both the Washington, D.C., City Council and the New York State legislature were planning to install electric vote recorders, he stepped up to the plate. Edison’s somewhat Rube-Golbergish system, started with a switch that each legislator could move to either a yes or a no position. The vote would then be transmitted by a signal to a central recorder that listed the names of the legislators in two columns of metal type headed “Yes” and “No.” A recording clerk would then place a sheet of magic paper over the columns of type and move a metallic roller over the paper and type. As an electric current passed through the paper, chemicals in the paper decomposed, leaving the imprint of the name in a manner similar to that of chemical recording automatic telegraphs. Dials on the machine recorded the total number of yeas and nays.

     A fellow telegrapher bought a stake in the invention for $100 and took it to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate it before a Congressional committee. The chairman of the committee, less than enthusiastically, told him that “if there is any invention on earth that we don’t want down here, that is it.” It seemed legislators liked the slow pace of voting which allowed them to lobby or trade votes or do those other fun legislative things. Edison’s vote recorder was never used.

     Edison persevered, resolving never again to invent something that would not sell. His next invention, an improved stock market tickertape machine, earned him a tidy $40,000. And he went on to invent such other clever devices as the electric light bulb.

And today in 1880, another inventor’s bright idea gone awry, the first pay telephone was made available to the public in the New Haven office of the Connecticut Telephone Company. No “deposit ten cents for another ten minutes” here. A proud attendant stood next to the phone collecting those dimes.

December 7, 1970: Cartoonist (A) Draws Invention (B)

He is probably the patron saint of inventors everywhere – or at least their idol – for his uncanny ability to devise an incredibly convoluted method to carry out the simplest tasks. In fact the Merriam-Webster dictionary adopted his name as an adjective in 1931 meaning just that, to accomplish something simple through complex means.

Rube Goldberg died on December 7, 1970, at the age of 87, leaving a legacy for inventors and cartoonists alike. He was a founding member and first president of the National Cartoonists Society and is the namesake of its Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year. In 1948, he won his own Pulitzer Prize for his political cartooning.  And he is the inspiration for many competitions challenging would-be inventors to create machines using his scientific principles.

Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin offers a typical scenario for a Rube Goldberg invention: A soup spoon (A) is raised to the mouth, pulling string (B) and thereby jerking a ladle (C), which throws cracker (D) past parrot (E). Parrot jumps after cracker and perch (F) tilts, upsetting seeds (G) into pail (H). Extra weight in pail pulls cord (I), which opens and lights automatic lighter (J), setting off skyrocket (K), which causes sickle (L) to cut string (M) and allow the pendulum with the attached napkin to swing back and forth, wiping the user’s chin.





October 9, 1900: Soda Sipping Ingenuity

strawJoseph Friedman born on this day in 1900 was one of those inventors who might more correctly be called dabblers, thinking up ideas here and there that usually don’t amount to much (a lighted pencil, for example) although his nephew, a British MP, referred to one particular invention as “arguably the most significant technological achievement of the twentieth century.”

It came about one day in 1937 while Friedman was sitting in his younger brother Albert’s fountain parlor, the Varsity Sweet Shop in San Francisco. Friedman watched his young daughter sitting at the counter as she struggled to drink her soda through a straw that seemed to stay just beyond her reach. He took another paper straw and pushed a screw into it. Then, using dental floss, he wrapped the paper into the screw threads, creating corrugations in the straw. After he removed the screw, the straw would bend easily over the edge of the glass, allowing his daughter to conveniently sip her soda – a  eureka! moment by any standard, the creation of the bendy straw. Friedman hastened to the Patent Office and secured patent #2,094,268 for his invention under the title Drinking Tube. He later filed for two additional U.S. patents and three foreign patents.

His attempts to interest straw manufacturers in his invention were unsuccessful so he eventually produced the straw himself. The Flexible Straw Corporation was incorporated on April 24, 1939, in California. However, war intervened and he didn’t make his first sale until 1947 – to a hospital rather than kids sipping sodas.