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11 Lesser-Known Inventions by Famous Inventors

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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.

1. SCUBA SUIT // LEONARDO DA VINCI

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.

2. GLASS ARMONICA // BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

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).

3. METAL DETECTOR // ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL

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.

4. EFFERVESCENT TABLET // HEDY LAMARR

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.

5. TALKING DOLL // THOMAS EDISON

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.

6. HARPOON GUN // CLARENCE BIRDSEYE

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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.

7. WOODEN SWIMMING PADDLES // BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

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.

8. TONING PLATFORM SHOES // JOY MANGANO

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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.

9. VACUUM-SEALED PACKAGING // THOMAS EDISON

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].

10. SOYBEAN CAR // HENRY FORD

George Washington Carver and Henry Ford. bluephi.net 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.

11. EARLY ROBOT // LEONARDO DA VINCI

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.

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Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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