Most of us are lucky if we can make it through life with even one outstanding talent. But some just aren't content with that. Sometimes, celebrities lead second lives as inventors, either because being rich and famous is just too boring, or because inventing stuff doesn't get you laid.
#7. Neil Young Improved the Model Train
Regarded as one of the greatest singers and songwriters of all time (or a high-pitched grandpa who looks like a homeless man, depending on your tastes), Neil Young is up there with Led Zeppelin in terms of influence and prominence in your parents' record collection. But just like all hard rockers, Young needs to take some time now and then to chill out. Unlike most rockers, though, Young's private passions have taken the form of a second, more adorable career.
He nurtures tiny baby birds under that hat.
Young is a model train fanatic, and when he wasn't giving your mother un-Christian thoughts, he was also part owner of Lionel, LLC, a model train development company that sold all of his innovations.
What may be his most prominent invention came about while he was trying to come up with a way for his son Ben to enjoy trains as much as he does. Ben has cerebral palsy, and lacks the motor skills necessary to work the intricate controls on many train sets.
We kinda thought the point of trains was to cackle maniacally and stamp on your minions.
But no son of Neil Young was going to be unable to enjoy model trains. Not on his watch. So Young strapped on his train engineer's hat and invented a whole new remote control system called the Trainmaster Command Control, a programmable system that would reduce complex train maneuvers to something Ben could control with the tap of a button.
Great dad, or best dad?
And, sure, if you're Neil Young's son and you want to follow in your dad's footsteps, you'd probably rather he invent something that makes playing awesome guitar much easier and more accessible instead of improving your ability to screw around with trains, but it's the thought that counts.
#6. Zeppo Marx Invented a Heart Attack Alarm
For those of you growing up in the iPod generation, the only Marx Brother you're likely to recognize is Groucho, and only because his likeness makes possible the world's laziest Halloween costume.
Team with a bed sheet for a more up-to-date look.
But there were four Marx Brothers in the original comedy act, and the youngest, Zeppo, worked as the straight man. Because of this, he never really developed his own comedy persona apart from being "the normal-looking one," and he never became as iconic as his brothers, because you can't really make money selling a normal-looking guy's face as a Halloween mask.
Zeppo didn't find his career in comedy particularly rewarding, at least not compared with his primary love -- engineering. Zeppo was the mechanic of the family, and it was largely his tinkering efforts that kept the family car running. After quitting the Marx Brothers, he formed a company that designed a lot of doodads that wound up making him more money than showbiz ever could.
It looks like a particularly attractive extra has just wandered in from stage left.
One of his most notable products was a device he catchily termed the cardiac pulse rate monitor. Kind of like one of James Bond's high-tech gadgets, if James Bond had a severe cholesterol problem. It had two clock faces, one of which told the actual time, while the other one took note of your heart rate. If your pulse started doing a slapstick routine in your chest, the watch would pick it up and an alarm would sound.
"If no defibrillator is handy, a liberal application of custard pie to the face will serve."
It didn't quite revolutionize the medical industry, but it was perfect for anyone who realized they had a serious medical condition but were content to put their lives in the hands of someone who used to slip on banana peels for a living.
#5. The Creator of Wonder Woman Invented the Lie Detector
Rightfully tired of the sausagefest that was the world of comic books, in 1941, William Marston (with some help from his wife Elizabeth) created Wonder Woman, the Amazonian warrior with an affinity for S&M and a magical weapon called the Lasso of Truth, which forced anyone ensnared by it to tell the truth. In reality, Marston spent his life trying to build a Lasso of Truth of his very own, which led to ...
The lie detector. More specifically, the version of the test that measures blood pressure. The connection between blood pressure and lying had already been explored in some detail in the late 19th century, but Marston was the first person to actually try building a way to measure it. Though, at this stage, the lie detector was not in lasso form.
"Sure, Marston, DC will treat her with the same respect as Superman. Say, why is that thing beeping?"
Marston first built his device in 1915 when he was a graduate student of psychology at Harvard, with the intent of using it to extract confessions from German POWs. However, despite successful results from tests aimed to find out its effectiveness in interrogation, it was never ever used for such purpose. Actually, that was probably for the best -- by the time he'd finished writing up his results to help persuade the government, it was the end of 1917, thus making any information gained useful only to time travelers.
"Where were your troops positioned last October 25?"
But Marston may have had some ulterior motives in designing his lie detector. In the process of refining it, he needed somebody to strap down and hogtie into the thing, a job which frequently went to his wife. Now, we're not saying that the modern lie detector owes its existence to the bizarrely specific sexual fetishes of one man, but considering everything we know about Wonder Woman's early career ... actually, yes, that is exactly what we are saying.
"You're lying. Crack out the spanking stick."
#4. Robert Heinlein Invented the Waterbed
Robert Heinlein is often nicknamed "The Dean of Science Fiction," up there with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke in terms of influence. If you're going to imagine science fiction writers inventing anything, it's probably going to have a lot of lasers attached to it and not be practical for another 200 years. For that reason, you probably never noticed that Heinlein is responsible for something a little more mundane.
The waterbed. For background, Heinlein served in the U.S. Navy until 1934, when he caught pulmonary tuberculosis, which, like any illness with that number of syllables, is something you really don't want to have. So Heinlein found himself lying in a hospital bed for a long period of time with nothing to do but think about how uncomfortable his bed was.
"I need something to stop people sticking needles into me."
So, he started doing exactly what science fiction nerds do while the rest of us are imagining attractive people naked -- he drew up absurdly detailed schematics in his mind for a thing that he wished existed. As Heinlein wrote in 1980:
"I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle '30s; a pump to control water level, side supports to permit one to float rather than simply lying on a not very soft water-filled mattress. Thermostatic control of temperature, safety interfaces to avoid all possibility of electric shock, waterproof box to make a leak no more important than a leaky hot water bottle rather than a domestic disaster, calculation of floor loads (important!), internal rubber mattress and lighting, reading, and eating arrangements -- an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds."
"And lasers to give my eyes the right kind of sexual magnetism."
From then on, waterbeds started appearing in all of Heinlein's stories. They turn up in the novels Beyond This Horizon, Double Star and Stranger in a Strange Land. In fact, his descriptions of them were so detailed and accurate that, when someone actually tried to patent the idea in 1968, he was rejected, since technically, Heinlein owned the rights to the idea.
Either Heinlein's was a mind that simply would not and could not quit, or "inventing waterbeds" is just a crazy specific side effect of pulmonary tuberculosis. Either way, waterbeds rule.
It's the closest we'll ever get to zero-gravity sex.