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11 of America's Most Inspiring Cup Holder Patents

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Imagine this scenario, if you will: You are enjoying a refreshing cup of Mr. Pibb topped with Diet Mountain Dew—an American classic. Ahh, that tastes good, doesn't it? In your other hand is your cell phone, from which you are distributing this story on social media. Life seems almost perfect until, all of a sudden...a frisbee appears in the distance. It's heading right for you, and failure to catch it will make you a laughing stock to the group of tough-looking pre-teens who have just crested over a nearby hill.

You put the phone in your pocket to free one hand so you can catch the frisbee. Phew, that was close—but look out! A Rosie O'Donnell Show-era Koosh ball comes hurdling at your face. You have no choice but to put down your beverage if you want to catch both objects, but how is this possible? You are standing on a gradient and the cup will tip over. Panic grips you...unless this imaginary situation is occurring in America. Because if it is, there is undoubtedly a cup holder nearby to cradle your drink and save the day. And that's no accident—for decades, American inventors have been at the forefront of cup holder technology, building a world where you never have to worry about not having a place to put your Mr. Pibb and Diet Dew. Let's take a look at some of the most inspiring and imaginiative examples of these inventions from files of the U.S. Patent Office.

1. Luggage Cup Holder (Self-Leveling)

Patent registration number: US7510157 B2

Application excerpt: "In the context of modern travel and business, what is needed is a self-leveling cup holder that can be removably affixed to a piece of wheeled luggage in a way that both the fixing and the removal can be accomplished quickly and easily and can be easily stored when not in use."

What makes it great: Travel dehydration is the number one cause of dehydrated travelers. Having a refreshment at the ready is the only way to combat this, but, unfortunately, even the most modern airport terminals and train stations and bus depots lack the 2:1 cup holder-to-human ratio thirst-quenchologists recommend. This invention lets you affix a swaying cup holder on the most sturdy thing in the world: the retractable handle of a rolling carry-on bag.

2. Luggage Cup Holder (Non-Self-Leveling)

Patent registration number: US20130126686 A1

Application excerpt: "Travelers are frequently seen walking through an airport or other location wheeling carry-on luggage with one hand, and personal items or a beverage drink container in the other hand."

What makes it great: It addresses the same problems cup holder number one does, but this invention is geared towards the sedentary, immobile traveler.

3. Crib Cup Holder

Patent registration number: US20140197286 A1

Application excerpt: "In order to allow a toddler's access to a Sippy cup at all times throughout an evening, it is not uncommon for a parent or a caregiver to leave the Sippy cup in a toddler's bedding area. This can however, often lead to soaked sheets from spills from the Sippy cup."

What makes it great: Infants are world-renowned for their hand-eye coordination and ability to responsibly put things back from where they got them. This cup holder is a must for new parents.

4. Body-Mounted Cup Holder

Patent registration number: US6029938 A

Application excerpt: "The invention is a cup holder attached to a person's thigh, so that a person's hands may be kept free for other tasks."

What makes it great: Our thighs are nature's movie theater armrests, and this cup holder finally takes advantage of that fact.

5. Belt Buckle Cup Holder

Patent registration number: US20120298703 A1

Application excerpt: "A primary object of the invention is to provide a belt buckle with a retractable cup-holder that is virtually indistinguishable from a typical ornamental belt buckle, such as the popular western style belt buckle, when the cup-holder feature is not in use, so as to increase the cosmetic appeal of the device."

What makes it great: Belt buckles and cup holders are the Stockton and Malone of groin-level refreshment.

6. Belt-Clip Cup Holder (Non-Retractable)

Patent registration number: US6457616 B2

Application excerpt: "The present invention generally relates to beverage holders. and more particularly, to a free-hanging beverage container holder assembly that easily and conveniently attaches to a person's belt."

What makes it great: The convenience of cup holders meets the high-fashion elegance of cell phone belt clips.

7. Toilet Stall Cup Holder

Patent registration number: US5934637 A

Application excerpt: "Patrons of casinos who play the slot machines often walk around the casino with a cup that holds coins which they use to play the machines and/or have won from the machines. Coat hooks can generally be found in any bathroom stall; however, any other type of holder usually cannot be found within the stall. Furthermore, coin cup holders mounted on the stall wall are unknown."

What makes it great: A Vegas original, this versatile invention can accommodate a cup of liquid or money (or both!) inside of a toilet stall.

8. Urinal Cup Holder

Patent registration number: US20060143822 A1

Application excerpt: "This invention is simply a drink beverage coaster that is specifically meant to attach to the common urinal flush valve top cap...This invention snaps over the top cap allowing for easy removal for maintenance of the flush valve and may be put back on easily to accommodate those who have a beverage in hand at the urinal allowing for hands free operation of said bodily functions at the urinal without losing one's drink."

What makes it great: By having a drink at the ready while using a urinal, you could conceivably create a closed circuit of refreshment, meaning you'd never have to leave. And why would you want to!?

9. Pool noodle cup holder

Patent registration number: US20120068028 A1

Application excerpt: "Pool noodles, commonly 2-4 inches in diameter, are often used by swimmers and boaters to provide recreational flotation while floating in the water. While floating on a pool noodle, a user often holds a beverage in a hand. Combining a pool noodle with a detachable beverage holder frees up a user's hands and provides a convenient location for storing a beverage holder."

What makes it great: Pool noodles are unwieldy pliant foam tubes of unpredictability—meaning they're perfect for balancing drinks upon.

10. Umbrella Cup Holder

Patent registration number: US7275668 B1

Application excerpt: "An umbrella/cup holder device for allowing the user to carry other things while using an umbrella to protect oneself from inclement weather."

What makes it great: Don't let rain scuttle your commute. Just strap on your umbrella vest, tighten the harness, and slide a delicious can of pop into its cup holder. When you get to your destination, just reverse the process and conveniently store the entire sopping wet unit out of sight.

11. Wearable Cup Holder(???)

Patent registration number: US6739933 B2

Application excerpt: "The wearable drink holder apparatus includes an animal-shaped body member having an interior compartment for securely encasing a drink container therewithin. Elongated support straps shaped as grasping animal limbs are utilized to attach the animal-shaped body member to a wearer's body. A protuberance member formed in the shape of an animal face extends from the top of and approximately centrally aligned with the body member. The protuberance member includes an interior cavity through which a drinking conduit extends from the drink container to the exterior of the protuberance member toward the wearer's face."

What makes it great: To be frank, this cup holder is making me mightily uncomfortable. Still, this is a free forum of ideas, and if you want nightmare bear to maul your child with refreshment, no one is stopping you.

PopTech, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
11 African American Inventors Who Changed the World
Dr. Shirley Jackson speaks at a conference in 2011.
Dr. Shirley Jackson speaks at a conference in 2011.
PopTech, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Can you imagine life without blood banks, personal computers, or touch-tone telephones? These innovative creations—and more—wouldn't exist today if it weren't for the brilliant minds of these 11 African American inventors.


A laundry operation circa 1925.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1859) was the first African American person to receive a patent in the U.S., paving the way for future inventors of color to gain exclusive rights to their inventions. Born in 1791, Jennings lived and worked in New York City as a tailor and dry cleaner. He invented an early method of dry cleaning called "dry scouring" and patented it in 1821—four years before Paris tailor Jean Baptiste Jolly refined his own chemical technique and established what many people claim was history’s first dry cleaning business.

People objected to an African American receiving a patent, but Jennings had a loophole: He was a free man. At the time, U.S. patent laws said that the "[slavemaster] is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual"—meaning slaves couldn't legally own their ideas or inventions, but nothing was stopping Jennings. Several decades later, Congress extended patent rights to all African American individuals, both slaves and freedmen.

Jennings used the money from his invention to free the rest of his family and donate to abolitionist causes.


An old IMB personal computer.
Steve Petrucelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you ever owned the original IBM personal computer, you can partially credit its existence to Mark E. Dean (born 1957). The computer scientist/engineer worked for IBM, where he led the team that designed the ISA bus—the hardware interface that allows multiple devices like printers, modems, and keyboards to be plugged into a computer. This innovation helped pave the way for the personal computer's use in office and business settings.

Dean also helped develop the first color computer monitor, and in 1999 he led the team of programmers that created the world's first gigahertz chip. Today, the computer scientist holds three of the company's original nine patents, and more than 20 overall.

Dean was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997. He's currently a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee.


Madam C.J. Walker beauty products.
Craig Barritt, Getty Images for Essence

Madam C. J. Walker is often referred to as America’s first self-made female millionaire—a far cry from her roots as the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers. The entrepreneur was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, and her early life was filled with hardships: By the age of 20, she was both an orphan and a widow.

Breedlove's fortunes changed after she moved to St. Louis, where her brothers worked as barbers. She suffered from hair loss, and experimented with various products, including hair care recipes developed by an African American businesswoman named Annie Malone.

Breedlove became a sales representative for Malone and relocated to Denver, where she also married her husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a St. Louis newspaperman. Soon after, she began selling her own hair-growing formula developed specifically for African American women.

Breedlove renamed herself "Madam C.J. Walker," heavily promoted her products, and established beauty schools, salons, and training facilities across America. She died a famous millionaire and is today considered to be one of the founders of the African American hair-care and cosmetics industry.


President Barack Obama presents Dr. Shirley Jackson with the National Medal of Science in May 2016.
President Barack Obama presents Dr. Shirley Jackson with the National Medal of Science in May 2016.

Dr. Shirley Jackson is a theoretical physicist who currently serves as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. While working at the former AT&T Bell Laboratories, she helped develop technologies that led to the invention of the portable fax, touch-tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology enabling caller ID and call waiting. Jackson was also the first black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. from M.I.T., and the first to be named chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


Portrait of Charles Richard Drew
Associated Photographic Services, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Countless individuals owe their lives to Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950), the physician responsible for America’s first major blood banks. Drew attended McGill University College of Medicine in Montreal, where he specialized in surgery. During a post-graduate internship and residency, the young doctor studied transfusion medicine—and later, while studying at Columbia University on fellowship, he refined key methods of collecting, processing, and storing plasma.

In 1940, World War II was in full swing, and Drew was put in charge of a project called "Blood for Britain." He helped collect thousands of pints of plasma from New York hospitals, and shipped them overseas to treat European soldiers. Drew is also responsible for introducing the use of “bloodmobiles”—refrigerated trucks that transport blood.

The following year, Drew developed another blood bank for military personnel, under the American Red Cross—an effort that grew into the American Red Cross Blood Donor Service. Eventually, he resigned in protest after he learned that the military separated blood donations according to race.

Drew spent the remainder of his life working as a surgeon and a professor, and in 1943, he became the first African American doctor to be chosen as a member of the American Board of Surgery.


A CCTV camera outside a home.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

Homeowners can rest a little easier thanks to Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999), a nurse and inventor who invented a precursor to the modern home TV security system. The crime rate was high in Brown's New York City neighborhood, and the local police didn't always respond to emergencies. To feel safer, Brown and her husband developed a way for a motorized camera to peer through a set of peepholes and project images onto a TV monitor. The device also included a two-way microphone to speak with a person outside, and an emergency alarm button to notify the police.

The Browns filed a patent for their closed circuit television security system in 1966, and it was approved on December 2, 1969.


President Barack Obama presents George Carruthers with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in February 2013.
President Barack Obama presents George Carruthers with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in February 2013.
Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images

George Carruthers (born in 1939) is an astrophysicist who spent much of his career working with the Space Science Division of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. He’s most famous for creating the ultraviolet camera/spectograph, which NASA used when it launched Apollo 16 in 1972. It helped prove that molecular hydrogen existed in interstellar space, and in 1974 space scientists used a new model version of the camera to observe Halley’s Comet and other celestial phenomena on the U.S.’s first space station, Skylab.

Carruthers was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2003.


Dr. Patricia Bath of Laserphaco in 2012.
Jemal Countess, Getty Images

Dr. Patricia Bath (born 1942) revolutionized the field of ophthalmology when she invented a device that refined laser cataract surgery, called the Laserphaco Probe. She patented the invention in 1988, and today she’s recognized as the first African American woman doctor to receive a medical patent.

Bath is a trailblazer in other areas, too: She was the first African American to finish a residency in ophthalmology; the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the U.S.; and she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. If that weren't enough, Bath's research on health disparities between African American patients and other patients gave birth to a new discipline, "community ophthalmology," in which volunteer eye workers offer primary care and treatment to underserved populations.


Postage stamp featuring Jan Ernst Matzeliger
John Flannery, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The average 19th-century person couldn't afford shoes. This changed thanks to Jan Ernst Matzeliger, an immigrant from Dutch Guiana (today called Surinam) who worked as an apprentice in a Massachusetts shoe factory. Matzeliger invented an automated shoemaking machine that attached a shoe’s upper part to its sole. Once it was refined, the device could make 700 pairs of shoes each day—a far cry from the 50 per day that the average worker once sewed by hand. Matzeliger's creation led to lower shoe prices, making them finally within financial reach for the average person.


Portrait of Alexander Miles
Duluth Public Library archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not too much is known about Alexander Miles’s life (1830s–1918), but we do know that the inventor was living in Duluth, Minnesota, when he designed an important safety feature for elevators: their automatic doors. During the 19th century, passengers had to manually open—and close—doors to both the elevator and its shaft. If a rider forgot to close the shaft door, other people risked accidentally falling down the long, vertical hole. Miles’s design—which he patented in 1867—allowed both of these doors to close at once, preventing unfortunate accidents in the making. Today's elevators still employ a similar technology.


Portrait of George Washington Carver
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

George Washington Carver (1860s-1943) was born into slavery in Missouri. The Civil War ended when he was a boy, allowing the young man the chance to receive an education. Higher education opportunities for African Americans were limited at the time, but Carver eventually received his undergraduate and master's degrees in botany at Iowa State Agricultural College.

After graduation, Carver was hired by Booker T. Washington to run the Tuskegee Institute’s agricultural department, in southeastern Alabama. He helped poor agrarians by teaching them about fertilization and crop rotation—and since the region's primary crop was cotton, which drains nutrients from the soil, the scientist conducted studies to determine which crops naturally thrived in the region. Legumes and sweet potatoes enriched the fields, but there wasn't much of a demand for either. So Carver used the humble peanut to create more than 300 products, ranging from laundry soaps to plastics and diesel fuel. By 1940 it was the South's second-largest cash crop.

A Juicy History of Steak-Umm

Eugene Gagliardi, patriarch of the Gagliardi meatpacking business, raised the 22-ounce frozen log of beef byproducts that would shortly become known as Steak-umm and sent it careening into his son’s ankle.

“Nobody is ever going to buy this sh*t!” he screamed, storming off.

"My dad was not supportive," Gene Gagliardi, whose Achilles tendon had been targeted, tells Mental Floss. "I decided to work on it at night."

The elder Gagliardi was not a man given to flights of fancy in the meat business, and now was not the time to try his patience with an experiment. It was the mid-1960s and his company was floundering, having lost some valuable accounts in recent months. What the younger Gagliardi had perceived to be a possible solution was, to his father, a joke. To Gene, it seemed like nothing could be done to please his father—not even his idea to revolutionize the frozen beef business by collecting scraps of unwanted meat and pressing it into a loaf.

The younger Gagliardi would eventually sell Steak-umm to Heinz for $20 million. He was one of the few who saw the potential for thinly-sliced steaks and refused to abandon the idea, even as his ankle throbbed.

Steak-umm Meats via YouTube

When Gagliardi was 6 years old, his father seated him on a pear crate, put a knife in his hand, and told him to start cutting. Chopping beef and poultry was the family business, and the Gagliardi clan—Eugene and his three sons, with Gene the middle child—were prominent meat merchants in the West Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania. There was no time to waste.

In the 1950s, the Gagliardis found success selling portion-controlled meat cuts long before commercial food manufacturers started peddling smaller serving sizes for dieters. They also curated premium slabs of beef and sold them to high-end clientele. When the fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s began to proliferate, the Gagliardis earned their business, too.

But by the 1960s, the laundry list of accounts had begun to dry up. Cheaper suppliers were becoming more abundant, and the personalized touch of Gagliardi Brothers was becoming less of a buying influence. With business slowing down, Gene Gagliardi would stay up late at night and think about how to bring his family’s finances back from the brink. That way, maybe his father would allow him to pursue his dream of being a park ranger in Montana.

One of those nights, the then-30-year-old identified a problem with the well-known Philly-style cheesesteaks. The chewy steak cuts were tough to handle for both children and senior citizens, and posed a bit of a choking risk across the board. Gagliardi thought a tender source of the beef would broaden the appeal of the cheesesteak and open it up to a larger market.

"It was tough cow meat back then," he says. "You had to be real careful about feeding it to kids because the meat would drag out of the sandwich. I thought, well, if you can homogenize milk, you should be able to homogenize meat."

Gagliardi thought he could soften up the meat by running it repeatedly through a meat grinder. "I did that about five times, extracting the protein out, and it became a solid mass. I couldn't slice it, so I froze it and then put it back in the fridge for four days to temperate it, then sliced it." Gagliardi had created a tender meat product that could be sold frozen and virtually eliminated the choking hazards of conventional Philly cheesesteaks.

(In a 2012 federal court ruling, a judge would articulate exactly what Gagliardi had done. "[The Steak-umm was] from chopped and formed emulsified meat product that is comprised of beef trimmings left over after an animal is slaughtered and all of the primary cuts, such as tenderloin, filet, and rib eye, are removed,” Judge Lawrence Stengel wrote. “The emulsified meat is pressed into a loaf and sliced, frozen, and packaged.")

Because the beef was so flat, it took only 30 seconds to cook each side. Gagliardi tasted it, found it delicious, and thought he’d solved his family’s problems.

His father was not a fan. After berating his son for even contemplating the idea, he begrudgingly allowed him to peddle it to supermarkets. Gagliardi offered to sell it below cost so stores would carry it. Marketed under the Gagliardi's frozen brand of Table Treats, the frozen meat slices debuted in 1969.

"We actually sold it to school lunch programs," Gagliardi says. "Kids ate it, loved it, then went home and asked for it."

Its eye-raising origins aside, shoppers seemed to embrace the product. It was quick to make—some college students even cooked the slices by wrapping them in foil and ironing them—tasty, and easy to chew. The company even distributed it with frozen rolls for a complete Philly cheesesteak experience. By 1975, Gagliardi was distributing them under the name Steak-umm after a friend suggested it during a quail hunting expedition. By 1980, he says, it was the best-selling frozen meat product in retailer freezers: "Competitors would try to pay off inspectors to find out how we did it."

While the Steak-umm name was trademarked, Gagliardi was unsuccessful in obtaining a patent for the process used to make them. He blamed confusion in filing the papers. "My brother was Mr. Thrifty and went to an attorney who had never filed for a patent before," he says.

Whatever the case, Steak-umm knock-offs became pervasive. When Heinz approached the brothers in 1980 with an offer of $20 million for the rights, it was an easy decision.

The marketing muscle of Heinz further endeared the Steak-umm brand to consumers. Heinz (via their Ore-Ida division) owned Steak-umm through 1994 before selling it back to Gagliardi and his newest venture, Designer Foods. All along, the butcher had been treating his kitchen like a lab, finding new ways to trim meats to maximize profitability for distributors. He wound up patenting several novel methods, including what would become KFC’s Popcorn Chicken in 1992.

Steak-umm changed hands once more in 2006, when Quaker Maid Meats purchased the company. In 2008, they entered into lengthy litigation with Steak ‘Em Up, a Philadelphia-based eatery that Quaker alleged was guilty of consumer confusion. A 2012 federal ruling was in favor of the defendant, who serves authentic Philly cheesesteaks and “thought it was a joke” that anyone could confuse them for the frozen alternative.

At 86, Gagliardi still toils at the butcher’s block, working on food innovation for his company, Creativators. Despite his numerous contributions to food service, he still feels slighted by his father, who passed away in 1991 and apparently never acknowledged his son’s success.

"I never got a compliment," he says.


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