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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.


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.


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. 


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.)


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.



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.


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. 


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.


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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iStock // vuk8691
Creating a Water-Powered Hammer Using Stone Age Tools
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iStock // vuk8691

A "Monjolo" is a water-powered hammer made from a log and some sticks. It relies on flowing water from a stream to do its work.

In the video below, the anonymous laborer who goes by Primitive Technology on YouTube creates his own Monjolo from scratch. It's effectively a hollowed-out log placed in the path of a stream, supported by a structure of skinny beams. As the log fills up with water, it rises, then the water drains out the back and it comes crashing down again. When it crashes down, that's an opportunity for a hammer head on the end to do something useful—like crushing charcoal or grain.

The creator of Primitive Technology writes:

This is the first machine I’ve built using primitive technology that produces work without human effort. Falling water replaces human calories to perform a repetitive task. A permanent set up usually has a shed protecting the hammer and materials from the weather while the trough end sits outside under the spout. This type of hammer is used to pulverise grain into flour and I thought I might use one to mill dry cassava chips into flour when the garden matures. ...

Like all the Primitive Technology videos, this is done entirely without spoken or written language, and it's DIY paradise. Tune in for a look into what one man alone in the bush can create:

This Just In
Typewriter Sold at Flea Market Turns Out to Be Rare World War II Enigma Machine

An antique typewriter sold at a Romanian flea market for $114 turned out to be a rare piece of wartime history: a German Wehrmacht Enigma I machine worth tens of thousands of dollars, Reuters reports.

To the uninitiated, the rare electromechanical cipher machine—which was first developed in Germany in the 1920s, and was used to encode and decode Nazi military messages during World War II—resembles a writing machine. But when a cryptography professor spotted it, he knew the device’s true worth. He purchased the relic and later put it up for auction at the Bucharest auction house Artmark.

Artmark employee Vlad Georgescu told CNN that the machine was made in Germany in 1941. It was in near-perfect condition thanks to its owner, who cleaned and repaired it, and “took great care of it,” Georgescu said.

The Enigma I’s starting price was $10,300. On Tuesday, July 11, an online bidder purchased it for more than $51,000. "These machines are very rare, especially entirely functional ones," Georgescu said. Historians, however, say that Romania may still be home to more unidentified Engima I machines, as the country was once allied with Nazi Germany before joining forces with the Allies in 1944.

During World War II, Alan Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park, Britain's central codebreaking site, built a giant computer called the Bombe to calculate solutions that solved the Enigma’s supposedly unbreakable code. Some military historians believe that their efforts shortened the war by at least two years.

[h/t BBC News]


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