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Whiz Kids: 5 Amazing Young Inventors

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Here are the stories of four young inventors who have already made their mark on the world, and one who hopes to in the years to come.

1. Chester Greenwood: Easy on the Ears

All 15-year old Chester Greenwood wanted to do was ice skate. But the bitter cold of winter in Farmington, Maine, was hard on his exposed ears. He tried covering them with gloved hands, but that made it difficult to skate. He tried wrapping a wool scarf around his head, but his ears were so sensitive to the fabric that it made him itch.

Searching for a solution, Greenwood shaped two pieces of wire into circles to cover his ears, then connected them with a longer wire to form a headband. His grandmother sewed velvet to the inside and beaver fur to the outside of the circles, to block out the winter air. His lightweight, hands-free, itch-free ear protectors became an instant hit with the other kids, who begged him to make more.

Greenwood got a patent for his “ear-mufflers” three years later in 1877, when he was just 18. By 1883, his Farmington factory produced 30,000 earmuffs a year, climbing to 400,000 by his death in 1937.

Today, earmuffs are so commonplace, it’s virtually impossible to say how many pairs are sold every year.

Greenwood became famous for earmuffs, but he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. He received numerous patents during his lifetime, including one for the metal rake we still use to collect fallen leaves every autumn. But nowhere was he as much-loved as his native Maine. To show their appreciation, in 1977, the state declared December 21st “Chester Greenwood Day,” and Farmington held its first earmuff parade, which became an annual event.

2. Louis Braille: Blind Visionary

Blind since he was three, Louis Braille received a scholarship to attend France's Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Children), the first-ever specialized school for the blind, when he was 10. At the time, the Institute taught its students to read by touch, tracing embossed letters on the pages of specially-made books. The letters were large so the student could differentiate them, but that also meant the books were much bigger than usual to accommodate the larger typeface. The books were very expensive to make and often became unwieldy to read, with some weighing as much as 100 pounds. As such, when Braille started school, the Institute had around 100 students, but only 14 books.

In 1821, a French soldier visited the school to introduce “sonography,” a code language read by fingertip so that soldiers could communicate at night without light or making noise. The code was made of cells that could hold 12 tiny, raised dots split into two rows of six, with the number and arrangement of dots in each cell corresponding to a particular phonetic sound. With its smaller typeface, sonography would allow the Institute to reduce the size of its books, but would also give blind students the opportunity to write for the first time with a special grid guide and embossing stylus.

After using sonography for a few years, 15-year old Braille had some ideas to make it better. The main problem was that it required multiple fingers to read because there were so many possible positions for the twelve dots to occupy. So he streamlined the code by using six dots to symbolize only letters and basic punctuation, leaving out complex phonetic sounds entirely. Students learned and read Braille's system much faster than sonography, so it quickly became the standard language at the school, and later, for blind people all over the world.

3. Philo Farnsworth: TV Star

For most farm boys, plowing the family field only inspires boredom. But for 14-year-old electronics prodigy Philo Farnsworth, going up-and-down the rows gave him the idea to project a recorded image by scanning electrons back-and-forth across a glass screen. When he consulted his high school chemistry teacher about the idea, it was so complex he had to draw a diagram on the blackboard, which the teacher promptly copied down to study later. Encouraged by his bewildered mentor, Farnsworth pursued his concept and, in 1927, at the age of 21, he developed and patented the world's first working fully-electronic television.

But like many inventions, there were other people developing related ideas at the same time. One such man, Vladimir Zworykin, had filed a patent for a similar concept in 1923, but couldn’t make it actually work. So Zworykin continued to tweak the design, resubmitting the same patent application again and again, until it was finally approved in 1933. However, due to a technicality, the original filing date read 1923, making his patent four years older than Farnsworth's.

By the time his patent was approved, Zworykin was working for Radio Corporation of America (RCA), who planned to produce televisions using his design. Believing that his 1927 patent trumped the revised 1933 patent, Farnsworth sued for royalties. Of course RCA used the technicality to claim their employee had the patent before Farnsworth, so they refused to pay him a dime.

Farnsworth had an ace up his sleeve – his chemistry teacher. The teacher testified in court and even produced the original sketch of 14-year old Farnsworth's blackboard diagram, proving he had been working on the invention well before Zworykin had even applied for his patent.

Farnsworth received a few royalty payments from RCA during television's infancy, but as America entered World War II, the government suspended production of television sets. Shortly after the ban was lifted, Farnsworth's patent expired, allowing RCA to make televisions royalty-free. This meant that, as television sales exploded in the 1950s and 60s, Farnsworth missed out on the most lucrative years of his own invention.

4. Margaret Knight: Bag Lady

As a young girl, Margaret “Mattie” Knight never played with dolls, preferring to make toys for her brothers instead. In 1849, Knight went to work in a cotton mill where she witnessed a "shuttle," a device that carries thread back and forth across a textile loom, fly off the machine when the thread broke, striking and killing a young boy about her own age.

The 12-year old Knight developed a safety mechanism that made it impossible for a shuttle to leave the loom. The design was so effective, soon virtually every new power loom carried her invention, saving countless workers from injury or death. Being so young, she didn’t bother to patent the device, so she never received royalties.

Knight wouldn't make the same mistake later in life when she invented a machine that could produce flat-bottomed paper bags. Knight had built a miniature wooden prototype in her home, but she needed a metal version to show it could hold up to the rigors of mass production. So she hired Charles Annan to make the full-sized machine for her, only to have him try to claim the patent for himself. When Knight sued, Annan's argument was that the design had to be his, because no woman could possibly understand the complex mechanics involved. Knight proved him wrong when she brought her wooden prototype to court and explained how every gear and lever worked. She won the case in 1871, making her the second woman to hold an American patent (the first was Mary Dixon Kies in 1809). Over a hundred years later, her design is still used as the basis for many modern flat-bottom bag machines.

But that wasn’t the last the world heard of Mattie Knight, “the female Edison.” During her lifetime, she was credited with about 90 inventions and received 26 patents on everything from a rotary engine to a waterproof protector for women’s skirts, becoming one of the most prolific female inventors of the 19th century.

5. Param Jaggi: One to Grow On

Even today, young inventors are working to make the world a better place. If Param Jaggi's invention, the Algae Mobile, continues on its current trajectory, it could very well become as familiar as Farnsworth's television or Greenwood's earmuffs.

Inspiration struck in 2008 when 15-year old Jaggi sat at a stop sign behind the wheel of a driver's ed car in Plano, Texas. Watching the exhaust from the car in front of him bellow up into the air, he got the idea for a small device that plugs into a muffler and can remove about 89% of the carbon dioxide from a car's exhaust. The secret: a live colony of algae that takes in the CO2 from the exhaust, uses it for photosynthesis, and then releases oxygen back into the air.

Jaggi applied for a patent in 2009 and has been continuously improving his design ever since. Over the years he's received awards at numerous competitions, including one in May 2011, when the Environmental Protection Agency recognized his sustainable design at the Intel International Science Fair, beating out 1,500 other applicants. With that kind of validation, and with a cost of only about $30 per unit, there's a good chance you'll one day have an Algae Mobile on your car. And then we'll all be able to breathe just a little bit easier.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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