The Fascinating Stories Behind 5 Inventions You Use All the Time

How did someone think up the bendable straw, intermittent windshield wipers, the pop-top soda can, and other everyday inventions?

straw patent
Source Images: Courtesy U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Bendable Straw
Sitting in his brother’s soda shop, Joseph Friedman observed his daughter as she struggled to drink a milk shake through a straight paper straw. An inventor, he thought of a way to help her out and fix this drinking conundrum for good. Friedman decided to insert a screw into the straw and wrap it with floss to create a ribbed texture. When he removed the screw, the straw bent over the rim of the glass, and his daughter was able to drink her milk shake with ease. Friedman patented his idea in 1937 and founded the Flexible Straw Corporation (which was later renamed the Flex-Straw Company) in 1939. He sold the patent rights to the Maryland Cup Corporation, which now sells about 500 million of the straws every year.

Upright Paper Bag
In the 1860s, Margaret Knight was working in a paper-bag factory when she noticed how difficult it was to pack things into the flimsy, shapeless sacks. So she decided to invent a handy machine that folded and glued paper to make a flat-bottomed bag. Unfortunately, Knight couldn’t obtain a patent until she made her very own prototype of the device out of iron. Meanwhile, Charles Annan—an employee who worked at the shop building Knight’s prototype—copied her idea and got a patent for it. Knight sued Annan for copyright infringement. Annan had argued that because Knight was a woman, she couldn’t have been the true inventor. But Knight’s sketches won her the case. To protect her ideas, she made her own paper-bag company.

shoe scale patent
Source Images: Courtesy U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Shoe Scale
The son of a shoemaker, Charlie Brannock wanted to figure out the best way to measure feet and, in turn, help his father’s business. The only way to determine shoe sizes in the early 1900s was by using an inaccurate wooden block. While attending Syracuse University, Brannock used a toy construction set to build a prototype of a device that accurately measured foot size. The Brannock device has since become a staple for shoe stores all over.

Intermittent Wipers
On a rainy night in 1963, engineer Robert Kearns tried to squint through the sporadic showers that blurred his windshield. In the 1960s, windshield wipers typically had two settings, high and low. If rain wasn’t steady, driving could be extremely difficult. Kearns wondered why windshield wipers couldn’t react like blinking human eyes and respond to all kinds of precipitation. He built a model of his idea, patented it in 1967, and sent it to the major American car companies, but none bit. However, they suddenly started to use his wipers in their cars without asking for his approval. After battling Ford, Chrysler, and other manufacturers, Kearns won more than $30 million.

can opener patent
Source Images: Courtesy U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Pop-Top Soda Can
Ernie Fraze, the owner of a machine tool company, was attending a picnic in 1959 when he realized he didn’t bring a can opener, a tool necessary to open the fully sealed flat-top soft drinks that were popular in the 1950s. The result: He had to pry them open using a car bumper. Later that year, he designed a pop-top can that could be opened with a removable tab. Eventually, his company began mass-producing these cans for soft drink and brewing companies. By 1980, Fraze’s company was making more than $500 million in annual revenue from his invention.

Business Insider (March 3, 2011), Copyright © 2014 by Business Insider Inc., www.businessinsider.com.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest