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The Later-Day Lives of 8 Fad Inventors

Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

With every decade comes a few products that go from obscurity to gift list must-haves—seemingly overnight. But what happens to the people who turn a novel idea into a household name? Here are eight cases.

1. RICHARD T. JAMES // THE SLINKY

During World War II, Richard T. James was a naval engineer stationed at a base in Philadelphia. According to legend, he knocked a torsion spring to the floor one day and watched it keep moving, and an idea for a toy was born.

In 1945, James manufactured 400 of what his wife Betty dubbed “the Slinky.” He sold all of them after giving an in-person demonstration at Gimbels department store in Philadelphia during the holiday season. Two years later, Slinkys had become a phenomenon. James moved production to a machine shop in Albany, paid for an advertising campaign, and by 1950 had racked up $1 billion in revenue (in today's dollars).

Then things got weird. The newly wealthy James went through a philandering phase. To repent, he gave away huge amounts of money to evangelical Christian groups, which became sort of an addiction. He continued to donate as the Slinky fell out of fashion and revenue stalled. In 1960, with no forewarning or explanation, he bought a one-way ticket to Bolivia, leaving his wife and six children. Betty James believed he joined a cult in a rural part of the country. She took over the Slinky business and turned it around, thanks in part to plastic and rainbow-colored variations that delighted children of the 1970s. Richard James spent the rest of his life in Bolivia; he died there in 1974.

2. EDWARD CRAVEN WALKER // THE LAVA LAMP

In 1963, Edward Craven Walker, a British war veteran who ran a travel agency, came across an unusual egg timer in a pub. It was a glass cocktail shaker full of oil and water with a light bulb beneath. A chef could time the boiling of an egg by turning it over and watching the oil globules rise to the top, which also cast moving shadows around the room.

Inspired, Walker spent the next 10 years toiling in his backyard, searching for the perfect combination of oil, wax, and water within a halogen lamp to create what was marketed in the UK as the Astro Lamp and known colloquially in the U.S. as the Lava Lamp. The swirling mass of light and colorful globules beneath the bullet-shaped lamp became the ultimate room accessory for a groovier age. Walker’s company, Crestworth (now Mathmos), sold 7 million lamps a year by the late 1960s.

But Walker’s true passion was being an advocate for the nudist lifestyle and philosophy. Even before the Lava Lamp, he came to some renown producing “naturist” films, such as Eves on Skis (1958) and Traveling Light (1960), which featured nude underwater ballet. He founded the Bournemouth, a nudist spot in the coastal resort town of the same name, and District Outdoor Club, a club in Dorset.

Walker turned the company over to younger entrepreneurs during the Lava Lamp’s nostalgia-inspired revival in the late 1980s. He died in 2000 at the age of 82.

3. CHARLES HALL /// THE WATERBED

For his master’s project, San Francisco State University industrial design student Charles Hall was tasked with creating something to improve human comfort. His first idea was a bean bag filled with gelatin and cornstarch. It weighed 300 pounds and was incredibly impractical.

His second idea was better, and well-timed for the Sexual Revolution. In 1968, Hall developed a “waterbed,” a bedframe filled with heated water. He patented it as “Liquid Support for Human Bodies.” Friends who stopped by his apartment/workshop in Haight-Ashbury dubbed the invention a “pleasure pit.” Hall approached some furniture-makers but was turned down, so he started his own manufacturing company, sold the beds via special order, and delivered them himself around San Francisco. Soon, influential people were buying them, including the Smothers Brothers and members of Jefferson Airplane. Hugh Hefner even had one and covered it in Tasmanian possum fur.

But Hall didn’t become a bedding kingpin, even though, by the mid-1980s, one in every five beds sold in the U.S. was a waterbed. Soon after he started selling to rock stars, cheap knockoffs flooded the market. “We were selling a fairly expensive product when the real volume was in the head shops and counterculture,” Hall said. “It was very much youth oriented, but we weren't selling at youth prices.”

A peaceful man who enjoyed tinkering and the great outdoors, Hall ignored friends’ advice to hire a lawyer to sue the first wave of manufacturers. So none of the furniture companies who joined in the trend thought they owed its creator a dime, partially because the concept had been described before Hall’s patent (famously in Robert A. Heinlein’s classic 1961 sci-fi novel, Stranger in a Strange Land). The cheap beds were leaky and uncomfortable, hastening the end of the fad.

In the 1980s, Hall finally changed his mind and tried to get a cut of the profits made from knockoff waterbeds. In 1991, he won $4.8 million in a patent infringement case against one of the makers of higher-end waterbeds, Intex Plastics of Long Beach.

Meanwhile, Hall moved on to the outdoor recreation equipment market. A company he co-founded, Basic Designs, developed the Sun Shower, a solar-heated portable shower in a bag for campers. He also co-founded Advanced Elements, which develops paddleboards and kayaks, including an inflatable boat that can fit in a car trunk.

And, yes, he still sleeps on a waterbed—in fact there is one in each of the three homes he owns. 

4. GARY DAHL /// THE PET ROCK

More than a product, more than a fad, the Pet Rock stands as a practical synonym for a useless idea that makes its creator rich overnight through sheer cultural zeitgeist.

Gary Dahl, an advertising executive, came up with the idea in a bar in Las Gatos, California, listening to his buddies complain about “incontinent dogs, destructive cats, overly fecund gerbils, and vacations foiled because no one could babysit the bird,” in the words of one 2015 obituary for Dahl.

He decided to market a super low-maintenance “pet” as a novelty item. In 1975, he oversaw the production of a series of cardboard pet carrier cases (complete with air holes) that held a single smooth rock, gathered from a Mexican beach, on a bed of straw. It came with a training manual. (A sample: “[P]lace it on some old newspapers. The rock will know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction.”)

According to Paul Niemann's More Invention Mysteries: 52 Little-Known True Stories Behind Well-Known Inventions, newspapers and magazines couldn’t resist the zany story, and Dahl twice appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. That year, he sold more than a million $3.95 Pet Rocks. He told People, “You might say we’ve packaged a sense of humor.”

The fad fizzled after a few months. Dahl tried for another gag hit: He created a Sand Breeding Kit, with “male” and “female” vials of sand. But soon, he retreated back into advertising, running Gary Dahl Creative Services. But don’t think the man who made a fortune selling rocks was just another stuffed shirt. He opened his own pub in Los Gatos called Carry Nation’s, after the temperance crusader, and won a bad fiction writing contest in 2000. (“The heather-encrusted Headlands, veiled in fog as thick as smoke in a crowded pub …” is how his entry began.)

5. ERNŐ RUBIK /// RUBIK’S CUBE

The Rubik’s Cube was invented by just the kind of person you’d expect: Ernő Rubik was a professor of architecture at the Academy of Applied Arts and Design in Budapest who built geometric models as a hobby. One of these became the prototype for the Rubik’s Cube.

He passed it through Hungary’s patent process, and in 1977 the state trading company, Konsumex, began marketing Rubik’s Cubes. The classic cube consists of 26 small cubes, in rows of three, that rotate on a central axis. When the cube is twisted out of its original arrangement, the goal is to return it to its earlier state, with each colored side in alignment, moving through any number of the 43 quintillion possible configurations. The toy became a global sensation in the 1980s. By the middle of the decade, one fifth of the world’s population had played with one.

In the years following the Rubik’s Cube, Rubik opened a studio dedicated to puzzle games and developed several, including Rubik’s Snake, Rubik’s 360, and Rubik’s Magic. He also dabbled in computer games in the 1990s. Despite splattering his name on products, Rubik himself “shied away from the spotlight for 40 years,” according to a biography attached to a traveling exhibit of his work. In 2009, he was a Hungarian ambassador for the European Union’s Year of Creativity and Innovation events. In a profile for the occasion, he wrote that books were his main passion and that he still has homebody hobbies, naming his favorite pastime as “collecting succulents.”

6. JOHN STALBERGER AND MIKE MARSHALL /// THE HACKY SACK

In 1972, 26-year-old Mike Marshall of Oregon City, Oregon, was healing a wounded knee. For his rehab, he used a small sack he’d fill with small objects, such as rice and popcorn, kicking it back and forth to partners. Marshall dubbed the activity “hacking the sack.” His friend John Stalberger, who played baseball recreationally, saw the potential in the game for training the reflexes of athletes.

Kicking around a sack was not new in the 1970s. (In 2597 BCE, Chinese Emperor Hwang Ti had his soldiers kick a leather sack filled with hair to one another as physical training.) But Marshall and Stalberger were the first to apply for a U.S. patent for such an object. They called it Hacky Sack.

According to Josh Chetwynd’s book The Secret History of Balls (yes, that is the actual title), the two tried various fillings (rice, beans, plastic buttons) and skins (leather, pigskin, denim). A few years after Marshall died of a sudden heart attack, Stalberger received a patent. After some success hawking it independently, he sold the concept to the toy company Wham-O in 1983.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Hacky Sack was unavoidable in college quads, summer camps, and concert tailgates. According to one estimate in Chetwynd’s book, 250 million “foot bags”—both Hacky Sacks and generic competitors—have been sold.

Stalberger went on to live a pretty square life for a guy who popularized an item that’s ubiquitous in the parking lots of Phish concerts. Staying in Oregon City, he founded a construction company and worked as a business consultant and real estate agent while raising a family. He mostly avoided the events for hardcore Hacky Sack competitors, but he reemerged in 2009 to help organize the 29th annual U.S. Open Footbag Freestyle Championships in Vancouver, Washington.

7. DENNIS COLONELLO /// THE ABDOMINIZER

If you had insomnia in the ’80s, the name Dennis Colonello might sound familiar. The Canadian chiropractor made a few cameos in the infomercials for his 1984 invention, a three-foot piece of blue thermoformed plastic with handles called the Abdominizer, which assisted in a curl-like exercise. The infomercials that blared across television screens during the late-night hours invited viewers to “rock, rock, rock [their] way to a firmer stomach!”—promising a tighter tummy for just $19.95, plus shipping and handling.

Colonello invented the device for the farmers he saw at his practice in a small town in Northern Ontario—people who needed to develop core strength without taxing their backs. It went on to sell 6 million units, some of which were used as sleds after users got bored of them.

Although the Abdominizer is no longer manufactured, Colonello rode the invention a long way and is no longer adjusting the vertebrae of dairy farmers. The website for his company, Peak Wellness, claims he “is well known throughout the industry as being the go-to guy for any celebrity in pain or discomfort,” and the practice has offices in the super-tony zip codes of Beverly Hills, California, and Greenwich, Connecticut. He has also worked with the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat, Oakland Raiders, and the Canadian Olympic women’s basketball team.

8. STUART ANDERS /// SLAP BRACELETS

Stuart Anders was fooling around with steel ribbons in his father’s workshop in 1983 when he came up with an invention that would eventually become a staple accessory for teenage girls in the 1990s. About to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville with a bachelor of science and a certificate in education (if his LinkedIn profile is accurate), Anders went on to stints as an Army helicopter pilot, a high school shop teacher, and a fashion designer, but he never forgot his idea of a bracelet that stands straight until “slapped” against the wearer’s wrist. He even built a prototype.

In 1989, he met toy designer Philip Bart and showed him the bracelet. “I grabbed his hand and slapped it on his wrist,” Anders recalled. “His eyes got really big.” They partnered with Main Street Toys and introduced the “Slap Wrap” at the 1990 Toy Fair.

As soon as the Slap Wrap hit store shelves, countless knockoff bracelets joined it. Anders has estimated that he and his partners sold 6 million bracelets to the 20 or 30 million generic ones sold. And, like Hall’s, the reputation of Anders’ product was sullied by the inexpensive copycats. Kids suffered cuts when the metal ripped through the cheaper fabric, leading parents to become alarmed about the bracelets and school districts to ban them. Between that and a dispute with Main Street Toys that froze him out of royalties for several years, slap bracelets did not provide Anders the financial windfall one would expect for such a popular fad.

During and after the bracelet craze, Anders continued to design swim, beach, and workout wear for a company he owned, Southern Exposure Sportsware. In 1994, he founded Allied Industries, a design and manufacturing firm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and is still the head of it.

In 2011, an elementary school in Florida gave students slap bracelets as a fundraising reward and discovered, after doling them out to the kids, the Chinese manufacturer had sent ones featuring drawings of nude women. Anders sent 200 of his brand-name Slap Wraps to the school and an encouraging note telling the kids, “Everyone has the ability to make new things that no one has ever seen before.”

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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.

1. THOMAS L. JENNINGS

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.

2. MARK E. DEAN

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.

3. MADAM C.J. WALKER

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.

4. DR. SHIRLEY JACKSON

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.
NICHOLAS KAMM, AFP/Getty Images

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.

5. CHARLES RICHARD DREW

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.

6. MARIE VAN BRITTAN BROWN

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.

7. GEORGE CARRUTHERS

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.

8. DR. PATRICIA BATH

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.

9. JAN ERNST MATZELIGER

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.

10. ALEXANDER MILES

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.

11. GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER

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.

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Steak-umm
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Food
A Juicy History of Steak-Umm
Steak-umm
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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