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10 Delightfully Strange Patents

Human ingenuity knows no bounds—as these patents show.

1. REWARD CANDY DISPENSER

Patent: US 5823386 A
Published: 10/20/1998

As any multitasker knows, it can feel impossible to sit at a computer and focus on work that needs to get done. What if something happens on Facebook? How can you focus until you know who’s on the Wikipedia page of left-handed historical figures? To force concentration, many resort to draconian measures like limiting Internet use or (gasp!) going offline altogether. But the inventors of this tool tap into what behavioral scientists and kindergarten motivational speakers have long known: Treats get results.

The Reward Candy Dispenser for Personal Computers is positive reinforcement for desk jockeys. An optical sensor attaches to your screen to keep an eye on what you’re doing. When you achieve your target (say, sending that email or reading all the way through a long news story), a signal is sent to a container on your desk, and, as with a gumball machine, a single piece of candy is released into a chute. Want another? Get more work done! Lab-rat life never tasted so good.

2. LEAF GATHERING TROUSERS

Patent: US 6604245 B1
Published: 8/12/2003

With fall comes the ultimate scourge of lawn work: raking leaves. All of those gorgeous, oxygen-giving trees in your yard become instruments of torture, fiendishly littering their leafy bounty all over the lawn and sidewalk.

According to the inventor of the leaf pants, the leaves aren’t the problem. It’s the rake—that pronged horticultural nightmare that strains backs, blisters hands, and poses a real threat if left lying in tall grass. But a leaf blower isn’t the answer either. Instead, the inventor insists, what humanity needs is a method that is “compatible with the natural body movement of a person.”

Enter leaf chaps, a pair of zip-on flexible tubes that slip over pant legs with a net fastened between the two so you can gather leaves as you stroll. The net corrals the leaves and collects them in front of you, so with just a few extra steps, you’re forming piles that are easily picked up later. Not merely convenient, the chaps also promise to make you more productive. Rather than struggle with bulky tools, do something you’d be doing anyway (walking around your lawn), while getting work done! Sure, that walk is more like a waddle, but that’s the price you pay for innovation.

3. THE DAD SADDLE (AKA, THE DADDLE)

Patent: US 6241136 B1
Published: 6/5/2001

Attention, parents: Are your kids bored with the same old piggyback routine? Are you sick of getting sticky fingers in your hair every time you let them hitch a ride? Try the Dad Saddle. Paul R. Harriss, the inventor of this parental paraphernalia, noticed that while contraptions—from ergonomic backpacks to simple scarves—exist to help parents carry their babies, once the kids grow up, you’re forced to go bareback. Suffer no more! The Dad Saddle’s sturdy harness fastens around the waist and sports two pint-size stirrups for a child’s feet, “virtually eliminating the possibility of back strain.” Adjust the height of the stirrups so your little cowboy or cowgirl can hold steady. Then remind them to tip their hats before they tackle the open range.

4. THE CRISPY CEREAL SERVER

Patent: US 4986433 A
Published: 1/22/1991

From the moment John Harvey Kellogg created the first cornflake, people have been trying to solve the problem of soggy cereal. Turn your back on it for a moment too long, and even the crispiest flakes become a bowl of mush. Cereal makers can treat their products to keep them from absorbing milk, but that only delays the inevitable. But what if the solution were in the bowl itself? The ingenious Crispy Cereal Serving Piece and Method keeps your Froot Loops fresh until the very last minute, guaranteeing “the crispness of the cereal throughout even the most leisurely meal.” A bowl on the table holds just the right amount of milk, while a second bowl, holding the dry cereal, is suspended in the air by a sturdy chute. Send a spoonful down the chute into the milk when you’re ready to take a bite, and relax knowing that the rest of your breakfast is high and dry (literally).

5. THE GREENHOUSE HELMET

Patent: US 4605000 A
Published: 8/12/1986

Everyone knows there’s nothing like a walk outdoors for a breath of fresh air. But in a hectic, urban life, you may be too busy to plan a nature walk—let alone one around the corner. Not to worry: The greenhouse helmet will bring nature to you at a moment’s notice. All you need to do is strap it to your face! A self-enclosed, anti-fog-treated dome sits over the wearer’s head, containing multiple shelves to hold tiny plants inside. As you exhale, the plants soak up the carbon dioxide, supposedly stocking you in return with the purest oxygen money can buy. The helmet even has a two-way intercom system, so you can communicate with friends in the not-so-great outdoors. Now, no matter where you are, the air will always be as fresh as a daisy. Have fun watering your head, though.

6. REALLY COOL SHOES

Patent: US 5375430 A
Published: 12/27/1994

Late summer’s swelter is the perfect excuse for wannabe exhibitionists to strip down to fashion’s bare minimum, from top to toe. But for those whose tootsies are less than sandal-ready, one ingenious inventor came up with a solution: air conditioned shoes. As you step, a series of chambers in the heel contract like mini-bellows, exerting force on a set of coolant-filled coils that turn the ambient heat into chilled air. That air is then expelled through a pad running under the foot, literally cooling your heels. And with a quick switcheroo, the cooling chambers reverse their function, becoming a foot warmer for winter months. Finally, a shoe for all seasons.

7. THE AUTOMATIC PET PETTER

Patent: US 20060207518 A1
Published: 9/21/2006

As any kid with a puppy knows, pets are a lot of work. They need food, exercise, grooming, poop scooping, and hardest of all: nonstop physical affection. Thankfully, inventor Anthony Steffen created a machine to make life easier. The automatic dog petter not only strokes your pup (or feline) with a mechanical hand; it also plays audio so you can provide your furry friend with a comforting pep talk or their preferred cover of “Hound Dog.” Fido need only stand on a motion-sensor platform, and it’s just like you’re there with him. As Patent 20,060,207,518 reminds us, “It is a fact of modern life that most people work away from their homes. If they have pets, these pets will often be alone for many hours.” This may be a fact of modern life, but so are robots, and both you and Fido will be better for it.

8. SLED-FREE SLEDDING/SLED PANTS

Patent: US 5573256 A
Published: 11/12/1996

Little is more exhilarating than zipping down a snow-covered hill. And little is more humbling that trudging back to the top, toboggan in tow. That breathless, awkward, sweaty climb is the conundrum that Patent 5,573,256 seeks to solve. “Until now, a sled capable of being attached to the body of the user and worn before, during, and after a downhill sled run has not been invented,” writes inventor Brent Farley. Fortunately for us, he fixed that. His liberating contraption allows you to simply strap sled chaps to your snow pants and enjoy ride after unencumbered ride.

9. THE BANANA SUITCASE

Patent: US 6612440 B1
Published: 2003

It’s snack o’clock and your banana got horribly bruised in your bag on the way to work. What now? Stale party mix from the break-room vending machine again? Thick skins notwithstanding, bananas are subject to all manner of abuse, but the Banana Suitcase keeps your favorite fruit safe and fresh as it travels in this perforated, foam-lined case that hinges shut. That is, as long as it fits into this one-size-only carrying case! No wonder the invention didn’t exactly peel off.

10. THE GERBIL VEST

Patent: US 5901666 A
Published: 5/11/1999

Thanks to this clever invention, you can make your guinea pig live up to its name. Or you can take your hamster grocery shopping, bring your chinchilla on a morning jog, or sign that bank loan with your gerbil’s moral support. The technology is simple: “A vest or belt is integrally formed with tubular, pet-receiving passageways that extend around the wearer’s body and terminate in pocket-like chambers,” the patent says. “Outer wall portions of the passageway are transparent so that a pet moving along the passageways can be seen by a spectator.” The pet display vest is not available in all, or frankly any, stores.

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

man-shaped tea infuser
Amazon

That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

Buy on Amazon.

2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

Buy on Amazon.

3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

Buy on ThinkGeek.

4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

Buy on Amazon.

5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

Buy on Amazon.

6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

Buy on Amazon.

7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

Buy at Cost Plus World Market.

8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

Buy on Amazon.

9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

cracked egg tea infuser
Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

Buy on Amazon.

10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

Buy on Amazon.

11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

Buy on Amazon.

12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

Buy on Amazon.

13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

Buy on Amazon.

14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

Buy on Amazon.

15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

Buy on Amazon.

16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

Buy on Amazon.

17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

Buy on Live Infused.

18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

Buy on Amazon.

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