8 Things Invented by Famous Writers

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We might not often think of writers as having a creative life outside of the page, but that sells some of our more celebrated authors short. In addition to penning some amazing literature, these 8 writers also came up with innovative inventions.

1. THE SELF-PASTING SCRAPBOOK // MARK TWAIN

One of history’s greatest humorists, Twain found nothing funny about the laborious process of creating and maintaining personal scrapbooks. The glues and pastes were messy, hard to dispense, and sometimes resulted in torn mementos from his travels. Instead, he developed a scrapbook with the adhesive pre-applied to pages; the user would only need to moisten the glue in order to make the page functional. The idea was patented in 1873. In 1885, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article reported that sales of the scrapbook had netted Twain $50,000 in profit.

2. THE WATERBED // ROBERT HEINLEIN

Heinlein’s career as a science-fiction author allowed him to prognosticate about a number of potential inventions, but it was his time spent as a tuberculosis patient in the 1930s that provided him with inspiration for a more comfortable bed. Convalescing during his illness, Heinlein conceived of a bed that used water instead of springs. The notion was first described by the author in 1942 and later used in many of his novels, including Stranger in a Strange Land. When inventor Charles Hall tried to patent a similar idea, it was denied on the grounds that Heinlein (who never pursued a real-world application for it) came up with it first. 

3. THE PRINGLES CHIP MACHINE // GENE WOLFE

Prior to beginning his contributions to the science fiction genre with The Fifth Head of Cerberus in 1972, Wolfe was a mechanical engineering major who accepted a job with Procter & Gamble. During his employment, Wolfe devised a way for the unique, shingle-shaped Pringles chips to be fried and then dumped into their cylindrical packaging. (Despite his resemblance to Mr. Pringle, there is no evidence the chip mascot was based on him.)

4. GEOSTATIONARY SATELLITE // ARTHUR C. CLARKE

Though Clarke is not directly credited with the development and execution of satellites used to broadcast communication waves, he's widely acknowledged as the guy who got people thinking about it. The sci-fi author wrote a paper in 1945 proposing that in addition to satellites being used as refill stations for spacecraft, they could also be used to emit “world-wide ultra high-frequency radio services, including television.” Telstar, the first satellite to take advantage of the idea, came into service just 17 years later. The geostationary orbit—the distance at which a satellite can remain stationary during the Earth’s 24-hour rotation—later became known as the Clarke belt.

5. A CEREBRAL SHUNT // ROALD DAHL

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Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG have brought considerable happiness to children, but his biggest contribution to a kid's well-being may have been to his own five-month-old son, Theo. When the boy was hospitalized after a car accident in 1960, Dahl worked with researchers to conceive of a valve that could drain fluid build-up from the brain. Known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, it went on to be used in thousands of cranial surgeries.

6. THE BACKLESS BRASSIERE // CARESSE CROSBY

Not overly fond of wearing a corset, Mary Phelps Jacob decided to tweak the concept by patenting a design in 1914 that involved tying two handkerchiefs together for anatomical support. Jacob, a socialite who later changed her name to Caresse Crosby and wrote poetry and erotica, sold the patent for $1500. 

7. POSTAGE CASE // LEWIS CARROLL

When he wasn’t occupied with Alice’s exploits in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll busied himself with a better way to organize and display the many denominations of postage stamps used by the British post office in the late 1800s. Carroll’s 1889 postage case was made up of several pockets separating the amounts and labeled so Carroll could reach for the right ones in a hurry. He dressed the case with an illustration of Alice on the front flap and the Cheshire Cat on the back. A first edition sold for over $8000 at a Christie’s auction in 1998.

8. LONG-DISTANCE AUTOGRAPH PEN (LONGPEN) // MARGARET ATWOOD

Canadian novelist Atwood had been drained by lengthy book tours when she struck upon the idea of “appearing” in bookstores remotely. Atwood’s “LongPen” allowed her to remain at home while readers approached a table and greeted her via a videoconferencing system; after settling on a personalized message, Atwood wrote the inscription on an LCD screen that was shortly communicated to a robotic arm in the bookstore—the arm carried out the signature with a pen. After its debut in 2006, Atwood’s invention had some hiccups: Visitors to a Manhattan signing experienced technical malfunctions and had to wait for signed books to be mailed to them. The invention is currently being examined for applications in banking and security.

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February 2, 2016 - 8:00pm
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