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Getty / iStock

11 Lesser-Known Inventions by Famous Inventors

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Getty / iStock

With their visionary thinking and innovative approach to solving problems, inventors have the power to save lives, increase productivity, and change the course of history. But most inventors don't achieve success with every creation they devise. For every telephone, Miracle Mop, or automobile, there’s an induction balance device or a car made out of soybeans. Take a look at these 11 lesser-known inventions by famous inventors.


Sometime around 1500, Leonardo da Vinci invented an unusual solution to a military problem. The Ottoman Empire’s naval attacks of Venice were decimating the republic, so Leonardo designed a special scuba suit that would allow members of the Venetian navy to swim underwater and sneak attack the Ottoman Empire’s ships. Made of leather, the "scuba" suit (although technically more like a diving suit) had a mask, goggles, and even a pouch to pee in. Two tubes connected to the suit allowed the diver to breathe air from above the water’s surface or from a small container of air. The Venetian navy opted against adopting the suit (seen here in all its scary-looking glory), and modern scuba diving didn’t become possible until the mid-20th century.


French musician and glass armonica expert Thomas Bloch shows his instrument to journalists prior to a rehearsal at the Los Angeles Music Center in 2014. JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Franklin most famously invented bifocals, but he also dreamed up an unusual musical instrument. In 1761, while in London, Franklin heard strange sounds created as a member of the Royal Society rubbed his wet fingers around the rims of wine glasses. Inspired to make his own instrument, Franklin arranged 37 glass bowls horizontally on a rod and connected the rod to a wheel and foot pedal. Pressing the foot pedal made the bowls spin, and touching the bowls with wet fingers produced vibrations of sound. In 1762, a musician named Marianne Davies learned to play the glass armonica and went on tour, exposing audiences across Europe to its ethereal sounds. The glass armonica became so popular that Beethoven and Mozart wrote compositions for the instrument, and over 5000 glass armonicas were built. But because Franklin’s instrument was relatively quiet, it lost popularity in the 1800s as louder, amplified instruments became the norm (and the instrument itself developed a still-debated reputation for causing insanity).


Beloved by TSA agents and treasure hunters alike, metal detectors play a vital role in keeping people safe and locating hidden items. While most people remember him for inventing the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell also created the first practical metal detector (probably inspired by the earlier work of Gustave Trouvé). In early July 1881, President James Garfield was slowly dying after being shot twice by Charles Guiteau. Doctors couldn’t find the bullet in Garfield’s body, so Bell got to work on a device that could find the bullet and save the president’s life. Bell called his machine—which consisted of a battery, condenser, handle, and telephone receiver to listen for clicking—an induction balance device. As Garfield became sicker, his doctor agreed to let Bell try the device on the president in late July and again in early August. Unfortunately, Bell couldn’t find the bullet—perhaps he didn’t assemble the machine properly, the bullet was buried too deep to be detected, or the president's metal mattress coils interfered with the device—and Garfield died on September 19, 1881.


Most people remember actress Hedy Lamarr for her beauty and brains. She co-invented a device that manipulated radio frequencies, making it harder for wartime enemies to jam radio-controlled torpedoes. Although she patented the device in August of 1942, hoping that the U.S. would use it to fight the Nazis, it was never used. Decades later, people realized that modern wireless technology relied on the ideas in her patent. But besides inventing an antecedent to Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth, Lamarr also invented an effervescent tablet that transformed flat water into a carbonated drink. Although the tablet worked—dissolving the tablet in the water did create fizz—the product didn’t taste good and was too similar to Alka-Seltzer. Not every invention can pave the way for Wi-Fi.


After Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, he tackled his next big project: the talking doll. Patented in 1890, Edison’s talking dolls were almost 2 feet tall, had wooden limbs, and contained mini phonographs stuffed inside the children’s toys. Although not the first talking doll, Edison realized that by using the phonograph he could produce far more complicated words and phrases than the competition. Because of the technological limitations of the time, each sound recording was one-of-a-kind and featured women speaking the words to lullabies and nursery rhymes such as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Jack and Jill." To Edison’s disappointment, kids and their parents didn’t like the dolls because they were expensive, fragile, creepy, and had poor sound quality. The talking doll turned out to be one of Edison’s many failures—or, as he would phrase it, just another one of his 10,000 things that didn’t work.



In the 1920s, entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye invented a method of flash freezing, packaging, and distributing seafood and other products. Although he’s known as the father of the frozen foods industry (his company Birds Eye still sells frozen veggies today), Birdseye also invented a mechanical harpoon gun to tag whales. Interested in learning more about fish and marine mammals, he built and patented a contraption to mark whales. Made of aluminum and rubber, the handheld harpoon didn’t recoil after shooting, providing a more pleasant tagging experience. Although Birdseye used his harpoon to tag dozens of finback whales, his invention was more for personal enjoyment than commercial use—or at least that's the official story. Some have accused Birdseye of using his device for whaling.


As an 11-year-old, Franklin loved swimming and wanted to swim faster. To increase his aquatic speed, he decided to wear a pair of wooden paddles around his wrists. Using round planks of wood, Franklin drilled holes to fit his thumbs through and grip the planks. Although the paddles helped him swim faster, the extra weight made his wrists tired. Franklin obviously moved on to bigger and better things, but his lifelong support of swimming as a healthy activity earned him an honorary spot in the International Swimming Hall of Fame.



Best known for inventing the Miracle Mop (Jennifer Lawrence portrayed her in the 2015 movie Joy), Joy Mangano also invented a type of elevated shoe. Called Performance Platforms, the sneakers have a rubber platform heel with Get Fit (TM) technology that can tone a wearer's hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. Launched in 2010, the platform shoes claim to help users multitask by firming their muscles while they go about their daily business. Not bad for a sneaker.


Although most famous for producing a better light bulb, Edison also invented an early form of vacuum-sealed packaging. But rather than focus on preserving meat, Edison and the inventors he worked with concentrated on fruit. In October 1881, he patented his method to preserve fruit, which involved putting a fruit or vegetable into a glass vessel, pumping the air out, and sealing the vessel with heat. To read Edison’s own words about the science behind the process (and check out his elaborate diagram of the contraption), take a look at his patent [PDF].


George Washington Carver and Henry Ford. via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1934, the inventors George Washington Carver and Henry Ford became pen pals, exchanging information and sharing their knowledge about agriculture and automobiles, respectively. Hoping to discover an alternative source of fuel to replace gasoline, Ford investigated the properties of peanuts and other crops with which Carver worked. In 1937, Carver visited Ford in Michigan so the two inventors could experiment with crops together. Ford's interest in chemurgy (making industrial products from agricultural products) culminated in a soybean car, a lightweight automobile made with plastic derived from a soybean mixture (and possibly other plants like hemp, flax and wheat—the formula was lost). In 1941, Ford debuted the soybean car at a summer festival in Michigan, but the vehicle never caught on.


Leonardo’s artistic skills came in handy when he sketched intricate diagrams of his ideas for inventions, which ranged from a more accurate clock to a flying machine. But he also sketched an invention for a self-propelled cart and a suit of armor that could sit down and wave its arms. Although Leonardo may have never built his robotic knight suit, his drawings of it indicate that a system of gears, wheels, and cables would allow the coat of arms to open its mouth, wave its arms, sit down, and stand up on its own. Scholars speculate that he devised the robotic knight as a way for monarchs to entertain and impress guests in their royal courts.

The Ohio State University Archives
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.


As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."


From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]


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