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11 Amazing Things You Didn't Know Were Invented by Kids

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It doesn't take decades of life experience to have a great idea. In fact, you don't even have to be old enough to have a driver's license, as many of these young inventors have proven.

1. BRAILLE

Louis Braille suffered a serious eye injury when he was just 3 years old. Not only did the accident render him blind on that side, the infection spread and blinded the other eye as well. After more than a decade of struggling with the slow system of tracing his finger over raised letters, Braille was 12 when he learned of a method of silent communication originally created for the French military. He simplified it, and in 1824 the Braille language was born.

Teenagers continue to revolutionize the Braille system. In 2014, 12-year-old Shubham Banerjee created a Braille printer from a LEGO Mindstorms set. Named the Braigo, the $200 printer is much more affordable and attainable than the $2000 alternative.

2. CHRISTMAS LIGHTS

Before electric lights were invented, many people decorated Christmas trees with actual candles. What could go wrong with open flames attached to dead branches studded with dry, brittle needles, all located inside your home? However, even when electric lights became available, people were more concerned about electricity burning their houses down rather than the candles.

But by 1917, people were more used to electricity and 15-year-old Albert Sadacca was ready to capitalize on their trust. Prior to that time, those brave enough to try electric Christmas tree lights had to shell out approximately $2000 in today's money for the privilege. Sadacca had the idea to create an affordable set of Christmas lights and had them produced by his parents' novelty lighting company. It's because of him that lights are now a ubiquitous part of the holiday season.

3. TRAMPOLINE

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As a teenage gymnast, George Nissen and his coach created a "bouncing rig" that helped him generate the power and height to do a back somersault. Originally made out of scrap steel and tire inner tubes, the platform was adapted later into a portable version that he called the "trampoline." Fun fact: In the 1950s, gas stations bought trampolines to use as "jump centers," a way for kids to get a little energy out before getting back in the car with their parents.

4. TOY TRUCKS

In 1962, 5-year-old Robert Patch cobbled together a couple of shoe boxes and some bottle caps to create a vehicle that could transform into three different trucks: a dump truck, a flatbed, and a box truck. His patent attorney father saw potential and applied for a patent in his son’s name. Young Robert Patch signed his name with an "X"—he didn’t know how to spell yet. Though Patch turned 6 by the time the patent was granted, it was still young enough to be the youngest patent holder ever at the time.

5. POPSICLES

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A lot of kids are easily distracted—and thanks to the short attention span of 11-year-old Frank Epperson, we now have Popsicles. In 1905, Epperson, a San Francisco native, was stirring powdered drink mix into a cup of water when something else caught his attention. The concoction was forgotten on his porch, and when Epperson rediscovered the drink in the morning, it was a deliciously portable frozen lollipop. After years of making the frozen treats for friends, and eventually his own children, Epperson filed for a patent in 1924.

6. SNOWMOBILE

Quebec native Joseph-Armand Bombardier had always been a tinkerer, and on New Year's Eve in 1922, he surprised his family with his latest creation. He had mounted the engine of a Ford Model T to four runners, with a handmade propeller perched on the back. Steered by Bombardier's younger brother, the contraption traveled more than half a mile across the snow before coming to a stop. The 15-year-old inventor continued perfecting his snowmobile over the years, adding tank-like tracks to it in 1935. By 1959, his tinkering had resulted in the Ski-Doo, the first ultralight snowmobile model.

7. WATER TALKIE

In 1996, fifth-grader Richie Stachowski invented the Water Talkie, a device that allows people to talk to each other underwater. It was a hit, so Stachowski expanded his product line under a company he called Short Stack. The new lineup included the Scuba Scope and the Bumper Jumper Water Pumper. In 1999, at age 13, the pint-sized entrepreneur sold Short Stack to a San Francisco-based toy company for what was speculated to be millions.

8. SUPERMAN

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As a teen, Jerry Siegel was having a hard time sleeping one hot summer night in 1934. Restless, his mind turned to his favorite science fiction stories—and as he looked outside at the moon, he got an idea of his own. Siegel jotted them down, and in the morning, ran to visit his artist friend Joe Shuster, who made some sketches. Four years later, they found a publisher, and today, Superman is one of the most recognizable characters in the world.

9. SWIM FLIPPERS

In the early 1700s, an 11-year-old boy who loved to swim noted that he could cut through the water more easily if he had more surface area to push through it with. He fashioned handheld swimming fins out of oval-shaped planks, making holes in the middle for his hands. He made fins for his feet as well, but wasn’t happy with the clunky design and quickly abandoned them.

The fins were just one of the boy’s many inventions—the kid we know today as Ben Franklin grew up to create a stove, the odometer, a lightning rod, and bifocals, among other things. As an adult, his continued love for swimming earned him a spot in the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

10. EARMUFFS

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It can get pretty chilly in Maine, so it’s no wonder that they have a day honoring Chester Greenwood, who invented earmuffs in 1873 when he was just 15. Greenwood loved to ice skate on frozen ponds during the cold Maine winters, but a wool allergy kept him from donning the warm hats with earflaps that his friends wore. Tired of having to call it quits due to his cold ears, Greenwood asked his grandmother to sew flaps of flannel or beaver fur onto some wires that he could bend around his head. Ten years later, Greenwood was the owner of an earmuff factory that produced 50,000 of them every year.

By the way, should you want to celebrate Greenwood and his cozy contribution to society, Chester Greenwood Day is the first Saturday in December.

11. MAKIN' BACON

You may remember the Makin' Bacon kitchen gadget from the 1990s; you may even still own one. The microwave rack, which cooks bacon strips perfectly while catching the excess grease in a drip pan, was the brainchild of an 8-year-old girl named Abbey Fleck. Abbey was helping her parents with breakfast one morning when they ran out of paper towels to sop up the grease. After wondering why they couldn't just hang the bacon like laundry and let the extra fat drip off, she and her dad fashioned a successful prototype out of plastic hangers and dowel rods. She has since sold 2.7 million Makin' Bacons through Walmart alone.

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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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