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5.5 Obscure Inventions and the People Who Made Them

Today would’ve marked the 150th birthday of Henry Ford. Like with the automobile, Ford wasn’t the originator of his last name, but by the time he passed away in 1947, he had made both into icons of industry.

Today would’ve marked the 150th birthday of Henry Ford. Like with the automobile, Ford wasn’t the originator of his last name, but by the time he passed away in 1947, he had made both into icons of industry. From mostly humble beginnings, his fascination for how things work took him to Detroit where he labored as an engineer for Edison Electric Illuminating Company. While there, a different kind of bulb turned on for him: He would try his hand at building a horseless carriage. Though his endeavor would eventually prove triumphant, it didn’t come without some bumps in the road. After building two successful car models, it would take just as many failed companies to eventually stumble upon the one we know now: the Ford Motor Company.

Ford Motor would become the world’s biggest car company, but not without its owner’s undying vision of efficiency, innovation―and some would argue―cruelty. Even with his flaws, however, Henry Ford remains an important figure in American history, automotive legacy, and late-night drive-thrus.

To commemorate Ford’s 150th birthday, we’ve chosen a group of inventors who’ve also given us life-changing inventions but unlike Ford, have flown under our collective radar. Here are their inventions and the stories of their lives. (Also included is a bonus invention, the .5 in the equation: a contraption that never quite took off).

1. THOMAS YOUNG – Contact Lenses

With a name far less cooler than that of Leonardo da Vinci, Archimedes, or Nikola Tesla, Thomas Young is a forgotten father of invention. But his life was far from being coma-inducing.

At the age of two, Young could already read, with the ability to handle a complicated language like Latin by the tender age of six. His spirited smarts allowed him to take Rene Descartes’ rudimentary template for contact lenses―glass tubes that would extend from a person’s cornea―and transform them into liquid-filled contraptions that would simply cup the eye.

When not designing a precursor to the modern-day contact lens, Young was busy serving the world in countless ways. He helped reference 400 languages and their grammar systems, devised a mathematical function to describe an object’s elasticity, and came up with the wave theory of light.

Calling him a genius might have been an understatement to a man of his intellect.

2. MARGARET E. KNIGHT – The Foldable Paper Bag

In Margaret E. Knight’s era, most American women were seen as little more than textile workers. Knight herself faced some of that prejudice, but she never let it keep her from putting her analytical mind to good use.

From a modest background, Knight spent a good portion of her life working alongside other factory girls. But whenever there was a need for improvement in a factory’s machinery, she would look for ways to address the problem with a handy invention. While working at a paper bag manufacturer, she designed a machine that would fold and glue together the bags in a way that would make them foldable.

Needless to say, a trip to the grocery store would never be the same—neither would Knight’s trip to Boston—where she was to have her prototype cast into iron. While there, a stranger stole her patent and filed it before she could. Luckily, the courts would eventually side with her.

3. JOSEPH GAYETTY – Commercial Toilet Paper

There was a time in the world when only one country had access to toilet paper. And that country was China. (Everywhere else was a slightly more miserable place.) Then Joseph Gayetty came into the picture.

Instead of having people continue to use mail catalogs, sponges on sticks (as the Romans did), or even stones to “wipe the slate clean,” Gayetty invented commercial toilet paper. Though, Gayetty was somewhat of an able business man, and the toilet paper he came up with was a little different than what we use today, he promoted the product in the wrong way. Selling it in a bulk of 500 sheets, Gayetty marketed the innovation as a medical treatment for hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoids just didn’t have the advertising pull he expected, so his business was ultimately a failure…but thankfully, toilet paper lives on.

4. CLARENCE BIRDSEYE – Frozen Food

It’s fairly obvious that Clarence Birdseye had no hand in inventing freezing. But the resourceful Brooklynite conjured up every other facet of the frozen food industry, including frozen peas. Without the cool techniques Birdseye developed, people wouldn’t have flocked to urban areas like they’ve had since his invention.

Unlike most inventors, Birdseye spent most of his early life outside in remote parts of the globe. It was when spending time with the Inuit people in Newfoundland that he realized that freezing food could instantly revolutionize the way humans eat. Birdseye went through some flops before he could convince the American people to buy, and buy into, frozen commodities. But once they did, their waistlines never looked back.

5. MARY ANDERSON – Windshield Wipers

If driving in inclement weather while sticking your head out the window seems like a bad idea, it’s because it is. Mary Anderson saw the danger in this and decided that cars needed a way to clear windshields from the inside.

Though a brilliant idea, major automotive companies turned it down for its impracticality. At the time, most cars could not go fast enough to even require a windshield, and there was a concern that the blades would distract drivers and cause accidents. Not a commercial success, her version of the windshield wiper would be forgotten until after her patent expired. Once that happened, owners of entrenched car companies descended on her idea like vultures.

5.5. BUCKMINSTER FULLER – Dymaxion Concept Car

As the second president of Mensa, it’s quite an understatement to say that Buckminster Fuller was a smart man. Apart from inventor, he was also an author, designer, systems theorist, and―so we’ve heard―an all-around cool dude.

Many of his good-intentioned inventions, including the Dymaxion Car, ultimately proved to be bad realities. The Dymaxion was supposed to be an early form of a green car, making Fuller one of the first environmentalists. Its teardrop frame could seat upwards of 11 people, it was able to run on 30 miles to the gallon, and fancifully, was made to double as a flying machine to conserve building materials. The design for the Dymaxion was so impressive it would influence manufactures like Fiat. But, when in operation, it proved to be too bulky and dangerous to be a worthy invention.

Fuller ultimately proved to be a very influential man, though, considering his ideas for sustainable design permeate to this day. He would also turn out being a survivor of World War I, which drove the onset of many personal demons, including the turmoil caused by his daughter’s premature death. All of these challenges, however, were factors that led him to pursue the expanse of his mind. And the world is better for it.