When you picture an inventor, you probably picture an old man in a lab coat with wily white hair, working tirelessly in his basement to create a world-changing technology. And yes, we realize we just described Doc from Back to the Future, but admit it: When we said “inventor,” you thought about Christopher Lloyd, too.
22 Oct, 1938, Christopher Lloyd (76) was born, famous for playing Dr. Emmett Brown in the Back to the Future movies pic.twitter.com/YzTJfenobC
— On This Day In Film (@onthisdayinfilm) October 22, 2014
“When people think about successful inventions, they think they need a highly complex, technical idea, like a flux capacitor or something,” patent attorney John Rizvi tells Urbo. We swear we didn’t tell him to bring up Back to the Future.
In April 2018, Rizvi gave a TED talk dispelling the notion that world-changing inventions only come from the minds of genius scientists. The vast majority of inventors aren’t brilliant engineers (we’re looking at you, Nikola Tesla) or scheming pragmatists (we’re looking at you, Thomas Edison). They’re normal people.
“That’s the impression of invention; people think it’s people who spend all day and night working on their inventions,” Rizvi says. “People don’t think of the normal, everyday Joe; he’s not a rocket scientist. He didn’t invent time travel. He just happened upon a simple idea—he found something that annoyed him and came up with a solution. Then, we all take that solution for granted.”
Some of those quick solutions have changed the world in profound ways. Unfortunately, most of us didn’t really notice those changes. We took a look at the strange stories behind a few world-changing inventions—some of which you’ve probably used today.
Coffee Cup Sleeves
Head down to your local coffee shop and order a latte, and you’ll notice something when the barista hands you your drink: Your fingers aren’t in searing pain.
We can thank the coffee cup sleeve for that small comfort. Inventor Jay Sorensen thought of the concept in 1989 after grabbing some coffee at a drive-thru. A few drops of the scalding hot liquid hit his fingers, causing him to drop the entire drink in his lap.
Instead of quietly cursing his luck or suing the coffee company, Sorensen started designing an insulated coffee cup. That didn’t really work—it wasn’t practical for coffee shops, which tended to use cheap paper cups.
Soon, he’d found the solution: the “Java Jacket.” The catchy name might have helped propel the product’s early success; he gained 500 clients in his first year. Today, his company sells about a billion coffee cup sleeves every year.
“Everybody around me … was shocked [at the Java Jacket’s success],” Sorensen told Smithsonian. “I wasn’t.”
In 1953, a woman named Ethel Gant had a problem: Her garter belt was incredibly uncomfortable. She was pregnant, and she couldn’t find a suitable replacement. Going without a garter belt wasn’t an option—at the time, there was simply no other way to keep your stockings from falling down.
Her husband, Allen, designed a nylon stocking that also functioned as underpants: the pantyhose.
Of course, it took a number of other inventors to perfect the product. Seamless pantyhose weren’t introduced until 1965, and in 1977, legendary actress Julie Newmar won a patent for another key improvement.
“I have two drawers of pantyhose, but I don’t like what they do for my backside … [Pantyhose] make your derriere look like an apple instead of a ham sandwich,” Newmar told People in 1977, shortly after getting her patent. “It’s a simple improvement. I just gathered the back seam. But it gives a woman the firm fanny of a 12-year-old.”
Uh, yeah. As is the case with many inventors, Newmar simply identified a problem and came up with an easy solution.
Some inventions are complete accidents—and sometimes, it takes a while to catch on.
In 1942, a man named Harry Coover tried to create new plastic sights for Allied soldiers to use in World War II. Coover failed miserably; his formula created a gunky mess that stuck to everything.
About nine years later, Coover was working at Eastman Kodak, trying to create a heat-resistant substance for use in aerospace applications. He shared the recipe for his failed plastic sights with his coworker, Fred Joyner—apparently, Coover couldn’t get the sticky stuff out of his head, figuratively speaking—and Joyner immediately whipped up a batch. The two men discovered that the substance could bond to pretty much anything in the lab.
In 1958, Eastman Kodak brought “Eastman #910” to market. They eventually renamed it “Super Glue.”
Don’t think zippers are a big deal? Consider this: Without them, we’d all be wearing button-fly jeans.
The story of everyone’s favorite fly-fastener dates back to 1893, when inventor Whitcomb L. Judson wowed fair-goers at the World’s Columbian Exposition with a “chain-lock” fastener. Well, maybe “wowed” is too strong a word. In fact, even “liked” might be too strong a word.
According to an account in the Chicago Tribune, the chain-locks refused to chain or lock. The device was a failure, but the concept was released into the world, and it wouldn’t be long before another wizard of the zip would come along to nudge the invention over the finish line.
On March 20, 1917, Swedish immigrant and inventor Gideon Sundback received Patent No. 1,219,881 for a “separable fastener” we’d recognize as a zipper today. The fastener took off. B.F. Goodrich used it on their boots in the 1920s. Noting the sound the device made during use, the folks at Goodrich started calling it a “zipper,” and the rest was history. Unlike most history, though, this one keeps us all decent.
Today, most high-quality zippers are made by Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha, a Japanese company. Of course, they can’t fit “Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha” onto a zipper, so they just put their initials: YKK. Go ahead and check your zipper right now, and you’ll probably find those initials (just make sure your coworkers don’t see you staring intently at your fly).
In the 1950s, a quiet revolution in shipping ushered in the modern era of global trade. The secret? A box.
Yep, just a big metal box, or, in other words, shipping containers. You’ve seen them. They sit on the back of semi trucks or train cars or stacked high and deep on enormous container ships. They’ve become a global standard of trade—but things weren’t always so organized.
In the first half of the 20th century, products crossed the seas bouncing around in a ship’s hold. Loading and unloading each discrete item took forever. Then, a North Carolina trucker named Malcolm McClean got the bright idea to create trailers that could go from truck to ship to train and back again without unloading at every step along the way. The shipping container was born.
McClean invested in a container ship—the world’s first. Following its early voyages, he calculated the cost to load. Before the container, ships cost about $5.83 per ton to load. With McClean’s new invention, that price plummeted to $0.16 per ton.
For good or for ill, cheap shipping built the global economy we inhabit today. And it all started with a box.
Let’s say you’ve invented something revolutionary. What do you do?
Rizvi recommends keeping your idea to yourself—at least until you’re able to speak with a patent attorney.
“A critical first step is to not reveal the idea to anybody,” he says. “One of the downsides of all of this new technology available to us is that it’s also very easy to give away an idea. When you think you have a solution to a good problem, there’s a temptation to see if other people feel your pain—you go on [social media] and post, ‘Hey, does anyone else hate it when…?’ You type that online, and that never goes away.”
In 2013, the United States patent system went through a major overhaul. Prior to the changes, the first person to invent something was entitled to the patent; today, the first person to file for the patent will get it.
“The changes benefit big businesses,” Rizvi explains. “Obviously, when you go to a first-to-file system, [companies] like Google, Amazon, and Apple have an inherent advantage. Many of these companies have several patent attorneys on staff, so they file in-house. They have a huge, huge advantage.”
If you’ve got a truly innovative idea, you need to protect it—regardless of whether you’ve actually worked out the kinks.
“You want to see a patent attorney as early as possible. A lot of times, you see inventors who work on perfecting their prototype,” Rizvi says. “However, the patent office doesn’t require prototypes.”
“People think that you can’t get a patent without a functional prototype, but that hasn’t been the case for over 100 years. As long as you can describe how it’s made or how it works, you can probably get a patent.”
Of course, attorneys aren’t cheap, but Rizvi says they’re well worth the expense. We ask him how much a typical patent costs.
“The range varies depending on the complexity of the idea,” he says. “But it could be as low as $2,500 for a design patent, which protects the look of a concept. A utility patent, which protects the function of a new concept, can vary from $3,000 to $12,000. It’s not a tiny amount of money, but people might spend more than that on a honeymoon or a vacation.”
And if you’re lucky enough to come with something like a coffee cup sleeve, a few thousand dollars will seem like chump change once your product catches on.