It doesn’t take long to rattle off a list of famous inventors: Thomas Edison, Eli Whitney, Ben Franklin. There exists, however, another category: the celebrity inventor. From pop stars to politicians, here is a list of celebrities whose creative talents include a knack for making something new. And frequently useless.
Michael Jackson, Shoe Designer
Michael Jackson fans will recall how, in the video for his 1987 hit Smooth Criminal Jackson and his dancers leaned so far forward, they seemed to defy gravity with near superhuman muscle control. The secret was in their feet. Or, more precisely, in their shoes. Together with his collaborators, the Prince of Pop invented a special shoe with heels that could hook onto holes in the stage floor, allowing dancers to pull off the illusion.
Prior to the King of Pop’s creation, video directors had relied on a pulley system, with dancers hooked up to cables, to achieve similar results. Jackson’s innovative shoes allowed the feat to be performed live onstage for the first time, taking the man’s ability to defy gravity (and lawsuits) one step further.
Abraham Lincoln, Buoy Creator
Before Abraham Lincoln served the people as President of the United States, he served the country’s boats. Or at least, he tried. As a young lawyer in Illinois, Lincoln invented a buoy system meant to keep boats afloat as they set off from the harbor. Although his invention received a patent from the U.S. government, his system was never implemented, and today the patent is part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institute. Unfortunately for posterity, the “Buoy Boats Using Oversized Hats-O-Matic” never made it past the patent board.
Jamie Lee Curtis, Diaper Designer
Although Jaime Lee Curtis is best known for her Hollywood acting career, she is also a blogger and an accomplished children’s book author. Her interest in kids, however, goes beyond books. In 1988, she received a patent for an infant diaper design. The diaper model includes a pocket on the outside, designed to contain baby wipes. As a result, “wipers are always immediately on-the-scene” reads the Curtis patent application, “available for use.” If Jamie Lee Curtis’s sexy strip scene in True Lies hadn’t been ruined by her commercials about yogurt that helps you poop, it certainly is now
Christie Brinkley, Toy Maker
Like Jamie Lee Curtis, super model Christie Brinkley is also a blogger at the Huffington Post who holds a patent related to childcare. In place of specialty diapers, however Brinkley invented “special educational toys,” specifically ones that have the aim of teaching small children the alphabet. Let’s hope her children appreciate it. Of course even though 7-year-olds will believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, as soon as they hear the word “educational” and “toy” they’ll know you are a liar.
Prince, Keytar Maker
Why should anyone have to choose between playing a guitar and playing a piano? That seems to be the logic behind the keytar, that kitschy instrument which is worn like a guitar but played as a keyboard. Remarkably, the patent for the keytar is held by none other than the musical artist Prince. Still more remarkably, in 2007 The Times of London pronounced that the 80′s holdover instrument has launched a comeback. Perhaps that news bodes well for The Artist himself–as long as he doesn’t wear a key tie while playing the keytar and cause the implosion of the universe.
Eddie Van Halen, Guitar Support Creator
Eddie Van Halen takes the tradition of blending guitar and piano playing in a still different direction. Famous for his two-handed tapping technique on the guitar, Van Halen created a support device that would better allow him to use both of his hands by having his guitar positioned like a keyboard. Issued in 1987, Van Halen’s patent is not strictly limited to guitars. His application notes that the support system would also work with “banjos, mandolins, and
Psychobilly Freakout on expert the like.”
Marlin Brando, Drum Tuner
Marlon Brando was an actor with many talents. During his career, Brando was a sex symbol, a godfather, a rambling psychopath, some sort of cross dressing pope and a depraved pervert–though there’s some debate as to just how much “acting” was needed for the last three. But before Marlon Brando became a great American movie star, he lived in Illinois, and played drums in a local band.
Four decades and eight academy award nominations later, Brando remembered his musical roots. In 2002, he invented a drum tuning system, designed to tune drums cheaply and simply. The Hollywood legend died two years later, but his patent, like his films, lives on.
Lawrence Welk, Ash Tray Designer
Big Band Leader Lawrence Welk spent three decades as host of The Lawrence Welk Show, bringing crooners and polka bands to living rooms across mid-century America. It is only fitting, then, that in 1953 he received a patent for an ashtray in the shape of an accordion–intended, no doubt for the very living rooms which screened his shows. Though, based on some of Welk’s performances, it may have had other purposes.
Margaret Thatcher, Ice Cream Maker
Long before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, she was Margaret Atwood and she took a job as a chemist with a company interested in discovering a standard technique for whipping ice cream. Armed with a chemistry degree from Oxford University, Atwood joined a team that would create what we now know as soft ice cream. I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream and regressive tax policies!
Julie Newmar, Pantyhose Designer
As the sexy Cat Woman on the hit 1960′s Batman series, Julie Newmar’s costume required her to wear skintight pantyhose, then a new invention, as pants. Realizing she could improve the design, the enterprising star patented her own version of snug, ultra-sheer pantyhose, an innovation which continues to appeal — even to women who don’t regularly don cat suits or who needed the extra comfort to interact with Adam West.
Zeppo Marx, Clamp Maker
Zeppo Marx may have lacked the comedic chops of his brother Groucho, but the comedian turned businessman made an impact on the world in his own fashion. As founder of the Marman Products Company, he designed clamps and straps intended to hold cargo in place during transport. The company was successful: Zeppo’s Marman Clamp was purchased by the U.S. Government to hold the atomic bombs en route to Hiroshima during World War II. Top scientists have run extensive tests and concluded that there has never been a more blackly humorous coincidence.
Gummo Marx, Box Maker
Like his brother Zeppo, Gummo Marx also held a U.S. Patent, though his invention was intended for more domestic purposes. Gummo designed a four-sided laundry box, which he foresaw as increasing the efficiency of laundry storage. With just four sides, he explained, “laundry would slide into it” while at the same time making the box simpler to store. Gummo credited the inventions failure with the high price of cardboard required to manufacture the boxes and their tendency to collapse on the suits of adorable tramps with outrageous mustaches. Now that cardboard is less pricey: watch out, Ikea.
Harry Houdini, Swimwear Designer
Necessity is the mother of invention, goes the old saying, and the invention of escape artist Harry Houdini certainly seems motivated by his survival instincts – and his empathy for deep sea divers. The world famous magician designed a diving suit which allowed divers to quickly get out of the suit and swim to the surface in case of emergency. The suit was inspired by one of his own acts, in which he wowed audiences by escaping from a straightjacket while underwater. Sometimes, it seems, great magicians do share secrets.
Steve McQueen, Bucket Seat Creator
In the 1960′s, Hollywood action hero Steve McQueen made it good to be bad. Then, just before 1970, he made a bucket seat.
McQueen didn’t get into the seat design game for the money. Even after death, he maintains his status as one of the highest paid celebrities of all time. Like so many other celebrity inventors, he appears to have patented his invention out of the sheer pleasure of creating something. Though McQueen was also known as a wild boy, it’s really hard to believe he was sober when he thought up the idea for a seat that makes it virtually impossible to have sex in a car.
Mark Twain, Scrap Booker
The great American writer is perhaps best known for penning the novels Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Yet not all of Twain’s books were filled with text. In 1872, Twain created the first scrapbook by covering sheets of paper in self-adhesive glue. Cue photo albums conquering the memento market, at least until flickr came along.