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10 Technologies We Stole From the Animal Kingdom

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By David Goldenberg and Eric Vance

People have been lifting ideas from Mother Nature for decades. Velcro was inspired by the hooked barbs of thistle, and the first highway reflectors were made to mimic cat eyes. But today, the science of copying nature, a field known as biomimetics, is a billion-dollar industry. Here are some of our favorite technologies that came in from the wild.

1. Sharkskin—The Latest Craze in Catheters

Hospitals are constantly worried about germs. No matter how often doctors and nurses wash their hands, they inadvertently spread bacteria and viruses from one patient to the next. In fact, as many as 100,000 Americans die each year from infections they pick up in hospitals. Sharks, however, have managed to stay squeaky clean for more than 100 million years. And now, thanks to them, infections may go the way of the dinosaur.

Unlike other large marine creatures, sharks don't collect slime, algae, or barnacles on their bodies. That phenomenon intrigued engineer Tony Brennan, who was trying to design a better barnacle-preventative coating for Navy ships when he learned about it in 2003. Investigating the skin further, he discovered that a shark's entire body is covered in miniature, bumpy scales, like a carpet of tiny teeth. Algae and barnacles can't grasp hold, and for that matter, neither can troublesome bacteria such as E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus.

Brennan's research inspired a company called Sharklet, which began exploring how to use the sharkskin concept to make a coating that repels germs. Today, the firm produces a sharkskin-inspired plastic wrap that's currently being tested on hospital surfaces that get touched the most (light switches, monitors, handles). So far, it seems to be successfully fending off germs. The company already has even bigger plans; Sharklet's next project is to create a plastic wrap that covers another common source of infections—the catheter.

2. Holy Bat Cane!

ultracane1It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: A brain expert, a bat biologist, and an engineer walk into a cafeteria. But that's exactly what happened when a casual meeting of the minds at England's Leeds University led to the invention of the Ultracane, a walking stick for the blind that vibrates as it approaches objects.

The cane works using echolocation, the same sensory system that bats use to map out their environments. It lets off 60,000 ultrasonic pulses per second and then listens for them to bounce back. When some return faster than others, that indicates a nearby object, which causes the cane's handle to vibrate. Using this technique, the cane not only "sees" objects on the ground, such as trash cans and fire hydrants, but also senses things above, such as low-hanging signs and tree branches. And because the cane's output and feedback are silent, people using it can still hear everything going on around them. Although the Ultracane hasn't experienced ultra-stellar sales, several companies in the United States and New Zealand are currently trying to figure out how to market similar gadgets using the same bat-inspired technology.

3. Trains Get a Nose Job for the Birds

When the first Japanese Shinkansen Bullet Train was built in 1964, it could zip along at 120 mph. But going that fast had an annoying side effect. Whenever the train exited a tunnel, there was a loud boom, and the passengers would complain of a vague feeling that the train was squeezing together.

That's when engineer and bird enthusiast Eiji Nakatsu stepped in. He discovered that the train was pushing air in front of it, forming a wall of wind. When this wall crashed against the air outside the tunnel, the collision created a loud sound and placed an immense amount of pressure on the train. In analyzing the problem, Nakatsu reasoned that the train needed to slice through the tunnel like an Olympic diver slicing through the water. For inspiration, he turned to a diver bird, the kingfisher. Living on branches high above lakes and rivers, kingfishers plunge into the water below to catch fish. Their bills, which are shaped like knives, cut through the air and barely make a ripple when they penetrate the water.

Nakatsu experimented with different shapes for the front of the train, but he discovered that the best, by far, was nearly identical to the kingfisher's bill. Nowadays, Japan's high-speed trains have long, beak-like noses that help them exit quietly out of tunnels. In fact, the refitted trains are 10 percent faster and 15 percent more fuel-efficient than their predecessors.

4. The Secret Power of Flippers

One scientist thinks he's found part of the solution to our energy crisis deep in the ocean. Frank Fish, a fluid dynamics expert and marine biologist at Pennsylvania's West Chester University, noticed something that seemed impossible about the flippers of humpback whales. Humpbacks have softball-size bumps on the forward edge of their limbs, which cut through the water and allow whales to glide through the ocean with great ease. But according to the rules of hydrodynamics, these bumps should put drag on the flippers, ruining the way they work.

Professor Fish decided to investigate. He put a 12-foot model of a flipper in a wind tunnel and witnessed it defy our understanding of physics.

The bumps, called tubercles, made the flipper even more aerodynamic. It turns out that they were positioned in such a way that they actually broke the air passing over the flipper into pieces, like the bristles of a brush running through hair. Fish's discovery, now called the "tubercle effect," not only applies to fins and flippers in the water, but also to wings and fan blades in the air.

Based on his research, Fish designed bumpy-edge blades for fans, which cut through air about 20 percent more efficiently than standard ones. He launched a company called Whalepower to manufacture them and will soon begin licensing its energy-efficient technology to improve fans in industrial plants and office buildings around the world. But Fish's big fish is wind energy. He believes that adding just a few bumps to the blades of wind turbines will revolutionize the industry, making wind more valuable than ever.

5. What Would Robotic Jesus Christ Lizard Do?

There's a reason the basilisk lizard is often referred to as the Jesus Christ lizard: It walks on water. More accurately, it runs. Many insects perform a similar trick, but they do it by being light enough not to break the surface tension of the water. The much larger basilisk lizard stays afloat by bicycling its feet at just the right angle so that its body rises out of the water and rushes forward.

lizard

In 2003, Carnegie Mellon robotics professor Metin Sitti was teaching an undergraduate robotics class that focused on studying the mechanics present in the natural world. When he used the lizard as an example of strange biomechanics, he was suddenly inspired to see if he could build a robot to perform the same trick.

It wasn't easy. Not only would the motors have to be extremely light, but the legs would have to touch down on the water perfectly each time, over and over again. After months of work, Sitti and his students were able to create the first robot that could walk on water.

Sitti's design needs some work, though. The mechanical miracle still rolls over and sinks occasionally. But once he irons out the kinks, there could be a bright future ahead for a machine that runs on land and sea. It could be used to monitor the quality of water in reservoirs or even help rescue people during floods.

6. Puff the Magic Sea Sponge

puffThe orange puffball sponge isn't much to look at; it's basically a Nerf ball resting on the ocean floor. It has no appendages, no organs, no digestive system, and no circulatory system. It just sits all day, filtering water. And yet, this unassuming creature might be the catalyst for the next technological revolution.

The "skeleton" of the puffball sponge is a series of calcium and silicon lattices. Actually, it's similar to the material we use to make solar panels, microchips, and batteries—except that when humans make them, we use tons of energy and all manner of toxic chemicals. Sponges do it better. They simply release special enzymes into the water that pull out the calcium and silicon and then arrange the chemicals into precise shapes.

Daniel Morse, a professor of biotechnology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studied the sponge's enzyme technique and successfully copied it in 2006. He's already made a number of electrodes using clean, efficient sponge technology. And now, several companies are forming a multimillion-dollar alliance to commercialize similar products. In a few years, when solar panels are suddenly on every rooftop in America and microchips are sold for a pittance, don't forget to thank the little orange puffballs that started it all.

7. Wasps—They Know the Drill

Don't be scared of the two giant, whip-like needles on the end of a horntail wasp. They're not stingers; they're drill bits. Horntails use these needles (which can be longer than their entire bodies!) to drill into trees, where they deposit their young.

For years, biologists couldn't understand how the horntail drill worked. Unlike traditional drills, which require additional force (think of a construction worker bearing down on a jackhammer), the horntail can drill from any angle with little effort and little body weight. After years of studying the tiny insects, scientists finally figured out that the two needles inch their way into wood, pushing off and reinforcing each other like a zipper.

Astronomers at the University of Bath in England think the wasp's drill will come in handy in space. Scientists have long known that in order to find life on Mars, they might have to dig for it. But without much gravity, they weren't sure how they'd find the pressure to drill down on the planet's hard surface. Inspired by the insects, researchers have designed a saw with extra blades at the end that push against each other like the needles of the wasp. Theoretically, the device could even work on the surface of a meteor, where there's no gravity at all.

8. Consider the Lobster Eye

There's a reason X-ray machines are large and clunky. Unlike visible light, X-rays don't like to bend, so they're difficult to manipulate. The only way we can scan bags at airports and people at the doctor's office is by bombarding the subjects with a torrent of radiation all at once—which requires a huge device.

But lobsters, living in murky water 300 feet below the surface of the ocean, have "X-ray vision" far better than any of our machines. Unlike the human eye, which views refracted images that have to be interpreted by the brain, lobsters see direct reflections that can be focused to a single point, where they are gathered together to form an image. Scientists have figured out how to copy this trick to make new X-ray machines.

The Lobster Eye X-ray Imaging Device (LEXID) is a handheld "flashlight" that can see through 3-inch-thick steel walls.

The device shoots a small stream of low-power X-rays through an object, and a few come bouncing back off whatever is on the other side. Just as in the lobster eye, the returning signals are funneled through tiny tubes to create an image. The Department of Homeland Security has already invested $1 million in LEXID designs, which it hopes will be useful in finding contraband.

9. Playing Dead, Saving Lives

When the going gets tough, the tough play dead. That's the motto of two of nature's most durable creatures—the resurrection plant and the water bear. Together, their amazing biochemical tricks may show scientists how to save millions of lives in the developing world.

Resurrection plants refer to a group of desert mosses that shrivel up during dry spells and appear dead for years, or even decades. But once it rains, the plants become lush and green again, as if nothing happened. The water bear has a similar trick for playing dead. The microscopic animal can essentially shut down and, during that time, endure some of the most brutal environments known to man. It can survive temperatures near absolute zero and above 300°F, go a decade without water, withstand 1,000 times more radiation than any other animal on Earth, and even stay alive in the vacuum of space. Under normal circumstances, the water bear looks like a sleeping bag with chubby legs, but when it encounters extreme conditions, the bag shrivels up. If conditions go back to normal, the little fellow only needs a little water to become itself again.

The secret to the survival of both organisms is intense hibernation. They replace all of the water in their bodies with a sugar that hardens into glass. The result is a state of suspended animation. And while the process won't work to preserve people (replacing the water in our blood with sugar would kill us), it does work to preserve vaccines.

The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million children die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Because vaccines hold living materials that die quickly in tropical heat, transporting them safely to those in need can be difficult. That's why a British company has taken a page from water bears and resurrection plants. They've created a sugar preservative that hardens the living material inside vaccines into microscopic glass beads, allowing the vaccines to last for more than a week in sweltering climates.

10. Picking Up the Bill

char_toucansamThe bill of the toucan is so large and thick that it should weigh the bird down. But as any Froot Loops aficionado can tell you, Toucan Sam gets around. That's because his bill is a marvel of engineering. It's hard enough to chew through the toughest fruit shells and sturdy enough to be a weapon against other birds, and yet, the toucan bill is only as dense as a Styrofoam cup.

Marc Meyers, a professor of engineering at the University of California at San Diego, has started to understand how the bill can be so light. At first glance, it appears to be foam surrounded by a hard shell, kind of like a bike helmet. But Meyers discovered that the foam is actually a complicated network of tiny scaffolds and thin membranes. The scaffolds themselves are made of heavy bone, but they are spaced apart in such a way that the entire bill is only one-tenth the density of water. Meyers thinks that by copying the toucan bill, we can create car panels that are stronger, lighter, and safer. Toucan Sam was right; today we're all following his nose.

This story originally appeared in a 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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John Ueland
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History
How a Single Mom Created a Plastic Food-Storage Empire
John Ueland
John Ueland

On an unseasonably warm day in April 1954, hundreds of women in cowboy hats gathered outside Tupperware’s Florida headquarters to dig for buried treasure. There, in a nearby swampy area dubbed the “Forest of Spades,” 600 shovels stood at the ready. The excitement was palpable. At the appointed signal, the women raced for the roped-off soil, grabbed shovels, and began to hunt frantically for loot.

It was the pinnacle of the inaugural Tupperware Jubilee, a five-day, gold-rush-themed affair celebrating all things Tupperware. No expense was spared: To give the event a Western feel, frontier-style buildings with false fronts had been erected and bulls and horses were trucked in. The women, and a smattering of men, had traveled from all across the country to participate. A collection of Tupperware dealers, distributors, and sales managers, they made the pilgrimage for the motivational speeches, sales instruction, and especially for the bizarre bonding rituals.

For five hours that day, they prospected for mink stoles and freezer units, gold watches and diamond rings. One of them, Fay Maccalupo of Buffalo, New York, dug up a toy car. When she saw the real Ford it represented, she planted her face against the hood and began to weep, repeating, “I love everybody.” Four women fainted and had to be revived with smelling salts. It was understandable, considering that the total cash value of all the prizes buried in the Florida dirt was $75,000.

Presiding over the treasure hunt was the general sales manager of the Tupperware Home Parties division, a 40-year-old woman named Brownie Wise. For hours, she cheered on the ladies from a loudspeaker with an air of royalty. As she watched them hop on shovels and unearth the rewards of their labors, she couldn’t help but feel proud. Wise took satisfaction in seeing her hard work pay off—once again. The jubilee, which she had organized, had all the pizzazz and spirit expected of an official Tupperware event. The media agreed: Network news was there to cover it, and Life magazine ran a photo essay highlighting the excitement and glamour.

Clearly, there’s more to Tupperware than leftovers. The story of the ubiquitous plastic container is a story of innovation and reinvention: how a new kind of plastic, made from an industrial waste material, ended up a symbol of female empowerment. The product ushered women into the workforce, encouraging them to make their own money, better their families, and win accolades and prizes without fear of being branded that 1950s anathema, “the career woman.”

Digging in the dirt for a gold watch may not mesh with today’s concept of a successful working woman, but at the time, the near-religious fervor seen at the jubilees and other Tupperware gatherings demonstrated just how ground-breaking the company’s sales plan was—the product became a multimillion dollar success not by exploiting women, but by embracing and boosting them. All of this was because of Brownie Wise. The story of Tupperware is her story.

Brownie Wise, named for her big, brown eyes, was born in rural Georgia. Her parents divorced when she was young, and as a teen she traveled with her mother, who organized union rallies. While touring the Deep South, Brownie started giving speeches at her mother’s rallies and soon proved to be a gifted and motivating orator. She “awed people,” writes Bob Kealing in his biography Tupperware Unsealed. “[They] were surprised that someone so young could deliver a speech like a pastor.”

Wise was married briefly, but by 27, she was a divorced single mom in suburban Detroit. During World War II, she worked as a secretary at Bendix Aviation, a company that made parts for navy torpedo planes. It was a decent but unfulfilling job. On the side, Wise penned an advice column for the Detroit News, writing under the alter ego “Hibiscus.” A housewife who led an idyllic life with her child and husband in a home called “Lovehaven,” Hibiscus had everything Wise did not. But what Wise did possess was an endless fountain of determination. As she wrote in a journal at that time, “I wanted to be a successful human being.”

It all started with a bad door-to-door salesman. When a Stanley Home Products salesman knocked on her door and proceeded to deliver a terrible sales pitch for cleaning supplies, Wise scoffed that she could do better. At the time, Stanley was experimenting with a peculiar sales model: home parties. A New Hampshire mop salesman had watched his numbers fly through the roof after he invited a bunch of women over for a party that included a mop demonstration. The company encouraged other salesmen to try the strategy, but many of them delegated the party-hosting to their wives. Thinking it’d be a fun job on the side, Wise started selling Stanley products at parties too. Before long, she was making enough money to quit her job at Bendix.

Wise was blessed with the gift of gab, and her special blend of folksy real talk and motherly encouragement helped her rise through Stanley’s ranks. Soon she was in management and hoping to ascend even higher. But those illusions were quashed at a meeting with Stanley head Frank Beveridge, who told Wise she’d never become an executive. Its halls were “no place for a woman,” he said. Wise returned home furious. The rejection lit a fire in her—she vowed that someday, somehow, she would prove Beveridge wrong.

She didn’t know that the key to fulfilling this dream would be in plastic food-storage containers. Wise first glimpsed Tupperware at a sales meeting. One of her coworkers had seen the products gathering dust in a department store and decided to bring them in. At first, Wise didn’t think they were anything special. But when she accidentally knocked a Tupperware bowl off the table, she realized its full potential: Instead of breaking, it bounced.

It seemed like magic. Tupperware was unlike any home product she’d seen before. It was attractive, coming in pastel colors and flexible shapes, almost like art. More importantly, it was functional—no other competing product even came close. Convinced of its potential, Wise traded in her Stanley brooms in 1949 and started throwing parties to sell Tupperware. What she didn’t intend, exactly, was to kindle a revolution.

AP

The most amazing thing about Tupperware wasn’t that it extended the life of leftovers and a family’s budget, although it did both remarkably well. It was, above all, a career maker. When women came to one of Wise’s parties, they were more than just convinced to buy the product— Wise was such a charming host that she persuaded many buyers to also become Tupperware salespeople. The more parties Wise hosted, the more tricks she learned to convert women into Tupperware faithful. Putting people on waiting lists, for instance, made them more eager to buy, so she signed them up regardless of whether the product was available. She also discovered that throwing containers full of liquid across the room made customers reach straight for their checkbooks. Amassing more and more saleswomen, Wise encouraged her followers to do the same. By October 1949, she had 19 recruits, enough to move her supplies out of her house and into a larger warehouse. Driven by the idea of making money simply by throwing parties for friends and neighbors, the women in Wise’s workforce ballooned in number. Soon, other Tupperware parties were taking place across the country. Wise’s team in Detroit was selling more Tupperware than most department stores. This soon attracted the attention of the no-nonsense founder of the Tupperware Corporation, Earl Silas Tupper.

Tupperware, true to its name, was Tupper’s masterpiece, and he was counting on it to make his dreams come true. Having grown up in a poor Massachusetts farm family, he had vowed to make a million dollars by the time he was 30. He hadn’t. He did have a host of esoteric inventions—among them, a fish-powered boat and no-drip ice cream cone—under his belt. But with a wife and family to support, he’d concentrated on a practical career in plastics, first at DuPont and then at a company of his own, which made parts for Jeeps and gas masks during World War II. When the war ended, Tupper decided to buy cheap surpluses left over from wartime manufacturing. He figured he’d be able to do something with them.

That’s how he ended up with a glob of greasy black polyethylene, a smelly waste product left behind when metal is created from ore. Tupper took it and, after months of trial and error, wrangled the slag into submission, creating a light-weight plastic that refused to break. Tupper dubbed it “Poly-T,” and, taking inspiration from the way paint cans sealed, created a flexible container with a noiseless lid that snapped on. He called the box Tupperware. He patented the seal in 1949 and rolled out 14 products he called the “Millionaire Line.” The only problem? He couldn’t get anyone to buy it.

At least not until Wise came along. Her sales record was remarkable—in 1949, she’d rung up $150,000 in orders and was offered a promotion: distribution rights to the entire state of Florida. In the spring of 1950, she moved south with her son, Jerry, and her mother. She found a store space, and by May she’d opened her business and was scouting for new salespeople.

Still, not everything was going smoothly. Along with disputes over turf with other distributors, she was constantly contending with botched orders, shipping delays, and product shortages. In March of 1951, Wise had had enough. She called Tupper in a fury. It was the first time they’d spoken, but she was too livid for niceties; she ripped into him immediately. This was hurting not just her bottom line, but also his. Did he not understand how crucial it was that the problems be fixed immediately? Tupper assured her that he’d fix any issues and then asked a favor: He wanted to hear her sales secrets.

The next month, the two met at a conference on Long Island and Wise explained her selling technique. It was pointless, she explained, to think that people would see Tupperware on store shelves or in catalogs and want to buy it. Instead, people had to touch it, squeeze it, drop it, seal it. They had to experience Tupperware from a trusted friend or neighbor. She gave a bold prescription for saving Tupper’s business: Ditch department stores altogether and focus entirely on throwing home parties.

Tupper took the advice to heart. So much, in fact, that the day after their meeting, he created a new division just for home parties and asked Wise to be the general manager. Wise had reached her goal: She had become an executive. It was a perfect fit, too. She had a stellar track record—she was selling more Tupperware than anyone anywhere—and Tupper was bowled over by her charm. “You talk a lot and everybody listens,” he said.

“She was the yin to Tupper’s yang,” Kealing writes. “Where he was fussy and reclusive, Wise lived to mingle with and inspire the dealer workforce.” They were a match made in sales heaven. Or so it seemed.

AP

In 1952, the first full year of Wise’s watch, Tupperware sales rocketed. Wholesale orders exceeded $2 million. During the last half of the year, sales tripled. Tupperware parties did exactly what Wise promised they would, and she became the company’s shining star. That year, Tupper gave her a salary of $20,933.33, more than she had ever made. For her birthday in 1953, he presented her with a gold-dyed palomino horse. Even more remarkably, he gave her the freedom to do practically whatever she wanted. So Wise traveled the country recruiting, presiding over sales conferences, and announcing contests and doling out prizes for incentive—including, sometimes, her own clothes.

By the looks of it, most of Wise’s Tupperware recruits fit neatly into the stereotypical role of a proper housewife. But, in reality, they surreptitiously represented a new kind of female empowerment. During World War II, many women had no choice but to enter the workforce. At its end, many of them had no choice but to leave it. Suddenly, selling Tupperware at parties allowed women to straddle both worlds. They were employed, yet they didn’t appear to challenge their husbands' authority or the status quo. This pioneering entrepreneurial model allowed them to inhabit a workforce outside of the one the hustling salesman inhabited, and, in many cases, to do even better than he did. And that power relied specifically on a network of female friends and neighbors.

The parties weren’t just a way for women to keep occupied—it was a way they could contribute to their family’s bottom line. Most women who worked outside the home had low-paying jobs in fields like light manufacturing, retail, clerical work, and health and education. The money—committed dealers could bring in $100 or more per week—was a revelation. The opportunity for success was so great that the husbands of some Tupperware ladies left their own jobs to work with their wives.

Wise was something of an early Oprah, giving away fantastic prizes, operating in a grass-roots, word-of-mouth fashion and showing rather than telling other women how to succeed in the comfort of their own homes. The fact that she made many women understand the benefits of becoming salespeople, building the brand further, simply made her a fantastic executive.

Wise embraced the spirit of female entrepreneurship wholeheartedly. In her prime, she wrote a morale-boosting newsletter called Tupperware Sparks, published a primer called Tupperware Know-How, and had a 52-minute film, A Tupperware Home Party, made as a training tool. She even convinced Tupper to move the company headquarters to Florida. When Tupper bought property in Kissimmee, Wise turned it into a Mecca-like pilgrimage site for Tupperware devotees.

Part of the power of Wise’s sales technique, which at times seemed more faith than business, was that it gave the impression that the sky was the limit, and it relied on collective power. This wasn’t just the traditional salesperson’s dog-eat-dog world: Instead, the group was a “family” that helped one another climb to the top. Women who had previously only had their names in print upon birth or marriage were being recognized for their success, with their names, photographs, and accomplishments appearing in Wise’s newsletters. Along with making their own money, they received rewards—top distributors got cars—and the chance to collaborate with other women in a friendly but competitive environment. Wise increased the fervor with her annual jubilees, which had their own rituals, like candlelit graduation ceremonies and group sing-alongs featuring choruses of “I’ve got that Tupper feeling deep in my heart.”

“No woman got praised for scrubbing floors,” Elsie Mortland, who became Tupperware’s Home Kitchen Demonstrator, told Kealing in an interview in 2005. “But when they got praised for selling Tupperware, they had something to be proud of.”

Wise was the head of the household, and the Tupperware ladies all wanted to be a part of her extended family. Success was limited only by how hard a person was willing to work, a belief that Wise preached passionately. Unfortunately, she had been duped into thinking her boss shared that opinion.

Alamy

As Wise became the face of Tupperware, sales and press continued to skyrocket. In 1954, she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week. But as glowing as the magazine’s profile was, it contained warning signs about the future of her partnership with Tupper. The piece credited Wise and her sales technique with Tupperware’s estimated $25 million in retail sales and seemed to downplay Tupper’s role as president of the company he had created.

Tupper had never craved the spotlight; in fact, he was known to use the back door of his office to avoid attracting attention. But he was keen to ensure that his product, not an employee, received the lion’s share of any attention. And somewhere along the way, Wise had started to upstage the plastic containers she helped make famous. After the Business Week article, Tupper wrote a note to Wise that contained a glimmer of the storm that was to come: “However, good executive as you are, I still like best the pictures ... with TUPPERWARE!”

The good press continued but, in 1955, after several powerful distributors left the company, sales began to lag. Hard times strained Wise and Tupper’s relationship. By 1956, angry letters were flying back and forth between them, and at one point, Tupper stopped taking Wise’s calls. Her complaints and frank criticisms, previously helpful, had become jabs he couldn’t endure. He also started to believe that she was costing him money, irked that she had her own side business selling self-help books at company events. More to the point, he started to suspect that if he tried selling the company—which he was planning to do—having a female executive would get in the way.

Finally, in 1958, Tupper flew to Florida and fired Wise. After a heated legal battle, she received only $30,000 as a settlement. She didn’t own her house and was ordered to vacate. She had no stocks in the company; she didn’t even own many of the clothes she wore. The man she’d helped make a millionaire didn’t seem to care: Tupper ordered her name expunged from the company history and buried the 600 remaining copies of her book in an unmarked pit behind Tupperware’s Florida headquarters. Later that year, he sold the company to Rexall Drug for $16 million, divorced his wife, and bought an island in Central America. He died in Costa Rica in 1983. Wise, on the other hand, tried starting new companies but never achieved the same success she had with Tupperware. She led a quiet life with her horses, pottery, and her son until she died at her home in Kissimmee in 1992.

Her influence, however, has not waned. Today, according to the PBS American Experience documentary Tupperware!, the product is sold in about 100 countries, while “every 2.5 seconds, a Tupperware party is held somewhere in the world.” In this respect, the Golden Age of Tupperware hasn’t ended so much as it has solidified. When was the last time you stored food in a plastic container with a sealing mechanism? Tupperware is so much a part of our food culture that we don’t even think about its continuing influence, and yet we still rely on it daily.

This story is one of reinvention too: a useless plastic reimagined into something needed, of food being stored in wholly new ways, of women emerging from their kitchens to showcase their worth and proclaim their identities, of sales techniques evolving to embrace the customer, and of the singular character of Brownie Wise, who changed what it meant to be a woman in the workforce. Because of that, as Houston Post writer Napoleon Hill wrote in 1956, “It has been estimated that Brownie Wise has helped more women to financial success than any other single living person.”

Early in Wise’s tenure at the company, Tupper presented her with a piece of the raw polyethylene he’d used to make Tupperware. She saw it as poetic proof of his vision: He had created something beautiful from this unappealing glob of plastic, using nothing but imagination and persistence. It was “the best sales story I have ever heard in all my life,” she wrote. She considered “Poly,” as Tupper called it, a prized possession and would have her women touch it for good luck, telling them, “Just get your fingers on it, wish for what you want. Know it’s going to come true, and then get out and work like everything ... and it will!”

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