One good thing about being imprisoned: It certainly gives you time to pursue your hobbies. Whether that's tattooing your eyeballs, brewing toilet DXM or writing threats to your crook lawyer, the specifics are up to you. But some guys, well, they make a little better use of their time. And some take a break from all the shankings and shower rape to change the damned world. Like...
If you're extra good in prison, you might earn yourself some Spork privileges. No more eating pudding with the folded up lid for you; you've earned the right to use utensils, son! But that's only if you keep your nose clean, stay out of trouble and generally go out of your way to make prison life more bearable for all. So how good do you have to be to earn gun-building rights? You can ask David Marshall Williams that question, he spent most of his prison time building, testing and refining new types of machine guns.
Caledonia State Prison in (you guessed it) North Carolina thought it was a perfectly fine idea to allow a man who ran an illegal whiskey distillery (and who gunned down a deputy sheriff for trying to shut down said whiskey distillery) the tools to manufacture firearms.
We suspect he is responsible for this bottle design.
After several years of generally MacGuyvering shit for his fellow inmates (and sometimes even the guards), the superintendent allowed Williams access to the machine shop where he immediately began experimenting with new kinds of firearm components. Rather than the thorough Taser colonic he would've received if he tried that shit in modern times, Williams was allowed continue and went on to invent the short-stroke piston and the floating chamber. Unless you're a card-carrying member of the NRA, you probably don't know what those are, so let's just say they made rapid-firing guns even better at taking down a whole room full of people at once.
Without Williams, the terrorists might have won.
These were not minor innovations. In fact, they were so important that he used them as leverage to get himself out of prison, whereupon he returned to the military--no small feat considering he had been kicked out twice at that point.
His components became the basis for the M1 carbine. Even if you're not a diehard gun-nut scrolling through this article by manipulating your mouse with the butt of a revolver taped to another, larger revolver, you've probably heard of the M1 carbine. It was basically the first iteration of the modern war rifle, and it absolutely revolutionized the way battles were fought from then on. If you think it's a little scary that convicted murderers are allowed to manufacture and sell weaponry to the military from prison, please realize this was truly the best-case scenario. Because when you hear the phrase "invented a new super-rifle in prison" it's usually followed by the phrases "bloodbath the likes of which the world has never seen" and "vowed revenge on Captain America."
You don't think of old-time prisons as a hygienic place, the bare cement walls lined with equal parts grime, blood and anger-semen. So you wouldn't much expect a prisoner to be a clean freak. So how would you respond if we told you that the toothbrush, the one invention Americans can't live without and perhaps the most popular hygienic tool ever, was built in prison?
William Addis woke up in his cell one morning like any other, looked both ways to make sure there were no oncoming dicks approaching, and headed over to the showers. Just like any other 18th century Englishman, he brushed his teeth with salt and likely soaped himself with fried fish. Don't write that off as ignorant stereotyping entirely: One of those things was actually real. The tooth-cleaning custom at the time was to take a rag, dip it in soot or salt and rub the rag against your teeth. But this time, while rubbing the ass-end of a fireplace into his mouth with what was likely at one point a sex criminal's whack-rag, Will had an epiphany:
Instead of brushing his teeth with a man-batter-catcher, why not use something marginally less disgusting that might also, you know, work? Using what tools he had access to, Addis took the bone from a piece of meat to use as the handle, some bristles he bought from the guard to serve as the head and straight up invented him some toothbrush. If you enjoy having clean teeth, you've got Addis to thank: The inventor of the modern toothbrush who was counter-intuitively both a prisoner and British.
Jesse Hawley was confined to a debtor's prison in 1807, due to "his problems in acquiring reasonably priced transportation." We're not quite sure what that means, but we think that's saying he was in prison for not being able to afford a horse--which seems a bit harsh even for the 1800s when people ate tumbleweeds and sneezing in mixed company was a capital offense. In between sitting in a cement cell and cursing the overpriced used horse industry, Hawley had time to think some things over. You know, typical prison shit like "What am I going to do with my life when I get out?"; "What I would've done differently if I had the chance again"; "How will my kids remember me?; "The flow ratio of dam locks into northern climate lake canals"; "I could kill for some pussy right now."
Wait, what was that second to last one?
Hawley spent his imprisoned time writing 14 exhaustive essays detailing every aspect of a proposed Erie Canal. He single-handedly conceptualized the entire project, from start to finish. And while you might expect complex engineering concepts written by a convict with absolutely no engineering background to be, at best, soaked in urine and full of synonyms for "cunt," they were actually so knowledgeable and insightful that the mayor convinced New York legislature to act on the plans.
So how did a canal change the world? Well, it opened up trade between eastern and western America at a crucial time in our westward expansion. The demand was so great that the canal paid itself off almost immediately: It cost $7 million to make, and by 1870 it was raking in $70 million a year. Without Hawley's work, pioneers would certainly have had a harder time forging the pathway west, and could all very well have broken an axle, died of cholera or tipped over while fording the river and would have to restart from the beginning.