Brilliant Ideas Inspired by Mundane Tasks

If you haven't had your big breakthrough yet, try one of these simple strategies:

1. CRACK OPEN A CAN OF BEER

Toolmaker Ermal Fraze was on a picnic in 1959 when he realized he had no way to open his beverage. At the time, drinking from a can required a triangular tool called a "church key" to punch two holes in the top. Because no one had thought to bring one, Fraze tried to use a car bumper to pierce the container. The result was a foamy mess.

Several nights later, while suffering from insomnia, Fraze went down to his workshop. By the next morning, he'd developed a built-in, tear-off opener for cans. Over time, Fraze refined the idea, and by 1965, 75 percent of American brewers were using Fraze's ring-pull design for their beer.

2. SHAVE YOUR STUBBLE

Although he'd written extensively about the evils of capitalism, King Camp Gillette still dreamed of getting rich.

As a traveling salesman, he understood that the key to financial success was to create something that people would have to buy over and over again. But his big idea didn't hit him until he started shaving one morning in 1895.

At the time, Gillette was using a traditional safety razor, which had to be sharpened after almost every use. So, Gillette imagined a blade that could simply be thrown away when it became dull. By putting a sharp edge on a thin piece of sheet steel, he created the first disposable razor. It took him eight years to get the invention to market, but once it hit stores, Gillette quickly became a millionaire.


Gillette's razor patent, dated November 15, 1904

In 1913, he retired to California to grow fruit and pursue his utopian dream of founding a city called Metropolis, where everyone would live in perfect harmony. Let's just say the shaving venture went more smoothly.

3. TAKE A COLD SHOWER

In 1958, Jean Hoerni was one of eight engineers at the Fairchild Semiconductor company racing to build a better high-speed transistor. At the time, transistors were easily disrupted by dust or moisture, which is, you know, everywhere.

One morning, Hoerni was taking a shower when he noticed the way the water flowed over his hands, and it gave him an idea. If the transistors could be coated in the right substance, then dust and moisture would just flow right over them. He then thought of silicon dioxide, the perfect material for the job. His solution eventually led to the integrated circuit, the silicon chip, and almost everything else to come out of Silicon Valley. (Photo: Fairchild Semiconductor)

4. WALK THE DOG

One evening in 1948, George de Mestral was getting ready to go out to dinner when his wife asked him to zip up the back of her dress. As he struggled with the jammed zipper, he longed for a better way to fasten cloth.

A few weeks later, he was walking his dog in the woods when he noticed that his pants were covered in burrs. When he got home, he examined one of the burrs under his microscope and noticed that it was covered with tiny hooks that stuck to the small loops of thread in his clothes.

By replicating the idea using little hooks and loops made of nylon, de Mestral developed Velcro. He eventually sold the rights to the patent and made millions in royalties, never to deal with zippers again. (Photo: Francoise and Charles de Mestral)

5. DREAM A LITTLE DREAM

In the late 1830s, Elias Howe Jr. was working as a machinist's apprentice when he overheard someone say that the first person to invent a small automatic sewing machine would make a fortune. Howe decided to take on the challenge, but it proved harder than he thought.

Then one night, he awoke from a nightmare about being captured by cannibals and stuffed into a stew-pot. The dream nagged at him until he realized that the cannibals had each carried a spear with a hole in the tip. This was the breakthrough that Howe needed.

Traditional sewing needle were designed so that the hole carrying the thread went through the fabric last. For Howe's machine to work, he needed the hole to go through first. He patented his sewing machine in 1846, but other manufacturers, including Isaac Singer, stole his design. After a lengthy court battle, Howe was finally awarded royalties on all sewing machine sales until both he and his patent expired in 1867.

The article above, written by Ashley Larsen, is reprinted with permission from Scatterbrained section of the Jul/Aug 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!


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I recall them coming into fashion in the sixties. In very little time the beaches were festooned in them and walking barefoot on a sandy strand became a real hazard. Hence the invention of the "stays on the can" pop top.
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My favourite inventor story goes like this...in 1907 or so, a gentleman was rowing across a lake to fetch an ice cream for his girlfriend on a hot summer day. By the time he got it to her, it had melted.

His name? Ole Evinrude, and he invented the outboard motor.
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De Mestral appears to be a reincarnation of Howe. Am I the only one that sees a striking resemblance? It Looks like De Mestral posed for the engraving of Howe.
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I only had the joy of being shaved with a straight razor once in my life. It was the best shave I've ever gotten but at the same time I was *really* nervous that the barber would slip when he went over my jugular ... Better not piss off your barber beforehand!
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Dan: My barber shaves my neck and sideburns with a straight razor, and it's not a noticeably better shave than one gets with a standard safety razor, assuming the shaver knows how to use a safety razor properly. The hot lather treatment feels great, though.
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