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Whiz Kids: 5 Amazing Young Inventors

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
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

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

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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