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Brooklyn Museum

5 Inventions That Enhanced Laziness

Brooklyn Museum
Brooklyn Museum

Although it's hard to fathom why people bothered to go on living, there was once a time when folks had no choice but to sit up straight in their chairs, fiddle with buttons and zippers, climb stairs, hike to the outhouse, and add numbers with pencil and paper. Below, a paean to the inventions that made it easier to enjoy the simple pleasures of sinful idleness.

1. The Escalator

In 1891, Jesse Reno patented the first moving staircase, paving the way for today's world, in which we choose not to use staircases, just StairMasters. Reno's invention was more of an inclined ramp than the escalator we know today; passengers hooked into cleats on the belt and scooted up the ramp at a 25-degree angle. Fairly soon after, he built a spiral escalator—the mere thought nauseates us—in London, but it was never used by the public. Reno's first escalator, however, was widely used, albeit not practically. In a testament to how utterly unamusing amusement parks were in the 1890s, 75,000 people rode Reno's "inclined elevator" during a two-week exhibition at Coney Island in 1896. Let's be clear: The escalator was not the means by which one traveled to a ride. It was the ride itself.

2. La-Z-Boy

la-z-boy.jpgIn 1928, when he was a mere lad of 21, Edwin Shoemaker forever blurred the distinction between sitting up and lying down by developing the world's first reclining chair. His initial model, a wood-slat chair intended for porches, was fashioned out of orange crates and designed to fit the contours of the back at any angle. It took an early customer, appreciative of the concept but rather unexcited about the prospect of lying down on bare slats of wood, to suggest upholstering the chair. Shoemaker and his partner (and cousin) Edward Knabusch then held a contest to name the invention. "La-Z-Boy" beat out suggestions like "Sit 'n Snooze" and "The Slack Back." The next time someone tells you an active lifestyle is the key to long life, reply with this tidbit: The man who invented the recliner lazed his way up to the ripe old age of 91.

3. Velcro

a.velcro2.jpgIsaac Newton beneath the apple tree. Archimedes shouting "Eureka!" in the bathtub. And Georges de Mestral going for a walk in the woods. The greatest discoveries often stem from mundane observations, and while gravity (Newton) and measurable density (Archimedes) are cool and everything, nothing beats the sweet music of parting Velcro. Mestral, a Swiss engineer, returned home after a walk in 1948 to find cockleburs stuck to his coat. After examining one under a microscope, he noted that cockleburs attach to clothes and fur via thin hooks. Eureka! It took Mestral eight years to develop his product. But in the end, the twin nylon strips worked precisely like a cocklebur on a coat—one strip features burr-like hooks and the other thousands of small loops to which they attach, forming an unusually strong bond.

4. The Calculator

29-Calculator-Jumbo.jpgAh, the calculator—a handy device that makes 55378008 look like a naughty word when you turn it upside down. Oh, and it also makes math class a whole lot easier. Oddly enough, it was a 19-year-old boy named Blaise Pascal (yes, that Pascal) who invented the first mechanical adding machine. But Pascal's device was cumbersome and couldn't record results, so the vast majority of people continued calculating by hand until 1892, when William Seward Burroughs patented the first commercially viable adding machine. Although Burroughs died before reaping much profit from his invention, his grandson (also William Seward Burroughs) was one sure beneficiary. The younger Burroughs became famous for writing Naked Lunch, a book that would likely have been impossible if Burroughs hadn't had all that inherited calculator money to waste on heroin.

5. The Toilet

toilet.jpgContrary to popular belief, we do not have Thomas Crapper to thank for the conveniences of the flushing toilet (more on him in a moment). Toilets with drainage systems date to 2500 BCE, but Sir John Harrington invented the first "water closet" around 1596 (it was also used by his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I). However, toilets never caught on until Alexander Cummings invented the "Strap," which featured a sliding valve between the bowl and the sewage trap. As for Mr. Crapper (1837-1910), he was a plumber who sold, but did not invent, a popular type of toilet, although he did hold several plumbing-related patents. Not surprisingly, Crapper has been unfairly linked to the less-than-pleasant word "crap." The two, however, are unrelated. In 1846, the first time "crap" is recorded as having been used in English, little Tommy-poo was just nine years of age.

This article was excerpted from Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits. You can pick up a copy in the mental_floss store.

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10 of Benjamin Franklin’s Lesser-Known Feats of Awesomeness
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We all know about Benjamin Franklin’s kite-flyin’, library-establishin’, Declaration-signin’, newspaper-printin’, lady-killin’ ways. But let’s celebrate some of his lesser-known but very cool contributions to society, on what would be his 312th birthday.

1. HE SWAM WITH THE FISHES.

As a youngster, Ben learned to swim in Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River and became somewhat of an expert. On a Thames River boating trip with friends, a 19-year-old Franklin jumped into the river and swam from Chelsea to Blackfriars (around 3.5 miles), performing all sorts of water tricks along the way or, as he described it, “…many feats of activity, both upon and under the water, that surprised and pleased those to whom they were novelties.” Franklin’s Phelpsian feats earned him an honorary induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968.

He was such an excellent swimmer, one of the careers he considered (and seemingly one of the few he did not choose) was running a swimming school of his own. Of course, he also invented his own swim fins.

2. HE PRINTED BENJAMINS, BEFORE THEY WERE BENJAMINS.

Many people know that Ben Franklin owned a printing company and the Pennsylvania Gazette. But it may be new knowledge that his company also printed all of the paper money for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Beginning in 1929, his face would grace the front of the $100 bill and people would call them “Benjamins” in his honor.

3. HE DEVELOPED AN ELECTRIC VOCABULARY.

Because the things Franklin was doing in his experiments with electricity were so new, he had to make words up for them as he went along. One scholar suggests that Franklin may have been the first to use as many as 25 electrical terms including battery, brushed, charged, conductor, and even electrician.

4. HE WAS NO DEBTOR.

Franklin was terrified of debt and viewed it as similar to slavery because he believed that, through the acquisition of debt, man essentially sold his own freedom. He was so anti-debt that he often spoke (seriously) about forming an international organization called The Society of the Free and Easy for virtuous individuals who, among other things, were free of debt and, therefore, easy in spirit.

5. HE WAS ALWAYS PUTTING OUT FIRES.

In addition to being a famously calming voice of reason and a frequent mediator at the Constitutional Convention, Franklin organized the first volunteer fire company in 1736: The Union Fire Company (nicknamed Benjamin Franklin’s Bucket Brigade). Among his many writings are articles on fire prevention, stressing that an "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” He was more eloquent than Smokey Bear.

6. HE INVENTED A TON OF COOL STUFF, INCLUDING THE ROCKING CHAIR AND THE ODOMETER.

Of course, you probably know that Franklin is responsible for the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and the Franklin stove. But in 1761, Franklin also invented the glass harmonica (or "armonica," as he called it). It became quite popular during Franklin’s time and armonica-specific pieces were composed by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Handel.

Some of Franklin’s other inventions include:
• The library stepstool, a chair whose seat could be lifted and folded down to make a short ladder.
• A mechanical arm for reaching books on high shelves. (Book retrieval—clearly a focus of Franklinian innovation.)
• The rocking chair—a chair that rocks.
• The writing chair—a chair with an arm on one side to provide a writing surface. (Activities one can do while seated were also a focus.)
• The odometer—used in Franklin’s time to measure distance along colonial roads used by the postal service.
• A pulley system that enabled him to lock and unlock his bedroom door from his bed.
• The flexible urinary catheter.

7. HE WAS PARTIALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF AMERICA'S FIRST HOSPITAL.

Established in 1751 by Ben and Dr. Thomas Bond, Pennsylvania Hospital was built “… to care for the sick-poor and insane who were wandering the streets of Philadelphia” (those sound like some wild streets). While the hospital was Bond’s brainchild, Franklin’s support and advocacy got the project off the ground. He galvanized the Pennsylvania Assembly and helped raise the necessary funds. It appears that Franklin was more proud of this accomplishment than most (even all those outrageous swimming tricks); he said later of the hospital’s establishment, “I do not remember any of my political maneuvers, the success of which gave me at the time more pleasure.”

8. HE HAD SEVERAL PSEUDONYMS.

Franklin was prolifically pseudonymous and his pseudonyms were pretty wonderful:

• Richard Saunders. Richard Saunders is Franklin’s most well-known pseudonym; it’s the one he used for his wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanac, which ran annually from 1732 to 1758. Poor Richard was partially based on one of Jonathan Swift’s pseudonyms, Isaac Bickerstaff – Saunders and Bickerstaff shared a love of learning and astrology. The Richard character brought a comic frame to what was otherwise a serious resource in the almanac and, over the years of publication, the fun but likely unnecessary character gradually disappeared.

• Silence Dogood. When Ben was 16 years old, he desperately wanted to write for his brother James’s newspaper, The New England Courant, but James was something of a bully and wouldn’t allow it. So, Ben contributed to the paper as a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood whose witty and satirical letters covered a range of topics from courtship to education. A total of 15 Dogood letters were published, resulting in the amusement of Courant readers, several marriage proposals for the pretend Mrs. Dogood, and, ultimately, a rise in the ire of James Franklin.

• Anthony Afterwit. Mr. Afterwit, a gentleman, wrote humorous letters about married life that appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s own Pennsylvania Gazette.

• Polly Baker. Polly Baker was a pseudonym Franklin used to examine colonial society’s unequal treatment of women. She was pretend punished by society for having pretend children out of pretend wedlock while the fathers of the pretend children went pretend unpunished.

• Alice Addertongue. Alice is another middle-aged widow who wrote what amounts to a gossip column for Franklin’s Gazette in the form of scandalous stories about prominent members of society.

• Caelia Shortface and Martha Careful. These pseudonyms were used by Franklin to settle a personal dispute; they wrote letters mocking Franklin’s former employer, Samuel Keimer, who had stolen some of Franklin’s publishing ideas. Shortface and Careful’s letters were published in The American Weekly Mercury, a publication by a Keimer rival.

Busy Body. Also published in The American Weekly Mercury, Miss Body’s letters were basically gossip stories about local businessmen.

• Benevolous. Benevolous wrote letters to British newspapers while Franklin was in London. The primary focus of the letters was to correct negative statements made about Americans in the British press.

9. HE WAS A TRAVELING FOOL.

During Franklin’s life, the average person never traveled more than 20 miles from their home. Franklin, on the other hand, crossed the Atlantic Ocean eight times (the first time at age 18 and the last time at age 79) and spent 27 years of his life overseas.

10. HE THOUGHT GETTING TOGETHER WITH HIS BUDDIES TO DRINK BEER AND CHAT WAS A FANTASTIC WAY TO IGNITE SOCIAL ACTION (AS IT TURNS OUT, HE WAS RIGHT).

Franklin formed a group that he called the Junto. The group’s purpose was to gather and debate philosophical questions on topics from ethics to business. Initially composed of 12 members, the group brought together people from different backgrounds (among the originals were printers, surveyors, a cabinetmaker, a clerk, a glazier, a cobbler, and a bartender) and gathered in a tavern on Friday nights. In his autobiography, Franklin described the group as a “…club for mutual improvement.” But the group discussions resulted in not only self-improvement, but societal improvement: The Junto has been credited as the breeding ground for some of Franklin’s greatest achievements, including the establishment of the first library, the first volunteer fire departments, the first public hospital, and even the University of Pennsylvania. Makes your Friday night pub trivia team seem like a bunch of underachievers, doesn’t it?

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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15 Things You Didn't Know About Betty White
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Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Happy birthday, Betty White! In honor of the ever-sassy star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls's 96th birthday, let's celebrate with a collection of fun facts about her life and legacy. 

1. HER NAME IS BETTY, NOT ELIZABETH

On January 17th, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White explained her parents named her "Betty" specifically because they didn't like many of the nicknames derived from "Elizabeth." Forget your Beths, your Lizas, your Ellies. She's Betty.

2. SHE'S A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER.

In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years (and counting) in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they'd be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.

3. HER FIRST TELEVISION APPEARANCE IS LOST TO HISTORY.

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Even White can't remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness Book of World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'" 

4. WHITE'S RISE TO STARDOM WAS DERAILED BY WORLD WAR II.

Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything." 

5. HER FIRST SITCOM HIT WAS IN THE EARLY 1950S.

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Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life With Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who'd go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis The Menace, Leave It To Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first Emmy nomination of 21 (so far). Of these, she's won five times.

6. WHITE LOVES A PARADE.

From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza's Lorne Greene. But that's not all. For 20 years (1956-1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, "On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade."

7. SHE HAS BEEN MARRIED THREE TIMES.


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White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker's rural Ohio chicken farm, White fled back to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show biz. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.

8. HER MEET-CUTE WITH HUSBAND #3 HAPPENED ON PASSWORD.

Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden's engagement ring (he wore it around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame sit side-by-side.

9. WHITE ORIGINALLY AUDITIONED FOR THE ROLE OF BLANCHE ON THE GOLDEN GIRLS.

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Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble's promiscuous party girl because she'd long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles in the audition. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.

10. IF SHE HADN'T BEEN AN ACTOR, SHE'D HAVE BEEN A ZOOKEEPER.

"Hands down," she confessed in a 2014 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White's reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only does she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she may travel, but also she's a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who has donated "tens of thousands of dollars" over the past 40 years. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.

11. SHE DIDN'T DO AS GOOD AS IT GETS BECAUSE OF AN ANIMAL CRUELTY SCENE.

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White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt, in the Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson's curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. On The Joy Behar Show White explained, "All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there's a dog in the building that's barking or they don't like—boom! They do it." She complained to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.

12. A FACEBOOK CAMPAIGN MADE WHITE THE OLDEST SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE HOST EVER.

In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (nearly a million) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show's female alums returned, also won rave reviews, and gave the show's highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.

13. SHE IS THE OLDEST PERSON TO EARN AN EMMY NOMINATION.


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In 2014, White earned her 21st Emmy nod—and her third in a row for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program—for the senior citizen-centric prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She was 92. She also holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations, between her first (1951) and last (so far).  

14. SHE LOVES JUNK FOOD.

The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White is concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White's snacking habits, "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred, "She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries." 

15. SHE WANTS ROBERT REDFORD.

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White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.'” Though she has more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White has never worked with the Out of Africa star, who is 14 years her junior.

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