Since 1790 there have been more than eight million patents issued in the U.S. Some of them have been given to great inventors. Thomas Edison received more than 1,000. Many have been given to ordinary people who thought of a better way of doing things. And a few have been given to people you wouldn’t think of as the lone inventor toiling in a garage, hoping to change the world. Meet the movie stars, pop singers, and even a boxing champion and their inventions.
In the video for his 1987 song “Smooth Criminal,” Michael Jackson leans forward at an impossible gravity-defying angle. This was done with cables hooked up to a harness Jackson wore around his waist. However, he couldn’t do this onstage, since it would require stagehands to hook and unhook him. Jackson invented a system whereby a hitch could come up through the stage floor that he would then catch with a slot in the heel of his shoe. Jackson patented this method with Michael Bush and Dennis Tompkins in 1993.
Florence Lawrence was the first movie star. She began in movies in 1906, and soon she was working at Biograph Studios with director D.W. Griffith. Films often did not have credits, but Lawrence became a favorite with audiences, who knew her as “the Biograph girl” and later as “the IMP girl,” when she switched studios. In 1914 she invented a turn signal for automobiles. “I have invented an ‘auto-signaling arm,’ ” she said, “which, when placed on the back of the fender, can be raised or lowered by electrical push buttons. The one indicating ‘stop’ works automatically whenever the foot brake is pressed.” She was not the first to invent such a device, and she did not patent it. Her mother, Charlotte Bridgwood, invented and patented the electric windshield wiper in 1917.
Toward the end of his life, Marlon Brando, who had been an avid drummer, worked on patenting a new conga drum that, instead of being tuned by five or six screws at the top, could be tuned by only a single crank at the bottom. Beginning in 2002, Brando received four patents for his drum-tuning system. However, he died in 2004 before he could achieve his dream of seeing his invention actually enter production. In 2011 drummer Poncho Sanchez actually played one of the Brando drums. “It sounded pretty good,” he said, but, when asked about its practicality, “It’d be too expensive to make and people would be sending it back all the time.…But it was a cool idea.”
About the time he changed his name to a symbol and became “the artist formerly known as Prince,” the Purple One designed a keytar that, with its swooping curves and arrows, resembled his new name. Prince never played the instrument—dubbed the Purpleaxxe—himself, and it was his keyboardist Tommy Barbarella who wielded the new invention. Prince received his patent as “Prince R. Nelson” in 1994.
In September 1940 a German U-Boat sank the British freighter City of Benares; 262 died, including 87 children who were being evacuated to Canada. Hedy Lamarr, one of the top stars in Hollywood, began wondering how to make a remote-controlled torpedo that could attack a submarine. However, how could the torpedo avoid having its control signal jammed? During her disastrous marriage to Austrian arms dealer Fritz Mandl, whom she fled to arrive in Hollywood in 1937, she had learned much about armaments, especially torpedoes and radio jamming. She devised a system that she worked out with her friend, avant-garde composer George Antheil, in which a piano roll could switch the control signal among 88 different frequencies. They received a patent in 1942, but the U.S. Navy was unenthusiastic. Lamarr and Antheil’s patent expired in 1959, but their method, now known as spread-spectrum technology, became widespread in wireless technology like Wi-Fi. In the late 1990s Lamarr finally received recognition for her invention. Since her death in 2000, she has become equally well known as an actress and an inventor.
At the height of racial segregation in 1908, Jack Johnson was the first black man to become the world heavyweight champion in boxing. In 1912 Johnson was arrested under the Mann Act for taking his white girlfriend Lucille Cameron, whom he later married, across state lines “for immoral purposes.” He was sentenced to one year in prison, but he and Lucille fled to Europe. Johnson returned to America in 1920 and served his sentence in Leavenworth, Kansas. While in prison, Johnson invented an improved wrench that could be easily taken apart for cleaning and repair. He received his patent for it in 1922.
Eddie Van Halen
The lead guitarist of Van Halen, in addition to being a metal god, has received three patents for his inventions. Fresh from the success of the 1984 album, in 1985 Eddie Van Halen devised the most rocking of his inventions, a “musical instrument support,” U.S. patent 4656917A, in which a guitar rests hands-free on a support attached to the player’s waist, “thus allowing the player to create new techniques and sounds previously unknown to any player.”