Most of us picture inventors as awkward nerds in lab coats surrounded by test tubes and toiling away with obscure instruments until they birth an entirely new concept from the ether of their genius. But great inventions can come from anywhere. Even the last place you would ever expect ...
#5. The Big Bang Theory Was Invented by a Catholic Priest
Georges Lemaitre was a Belgian Catholic priest and a professor of physics who received a doctorate in mathematics and studied astronomy at Harvard and MIT. And the early 20th century turned out to be a hell of a time for studying astronomy. Scientists had just begun observing distant objects with strange colors, which suggested that they were moving away from us at incredible speeds. What was going on? Were these objects actually much closer than we thought, but somehow tiny? Were they "island universes" (a term that meant "galaxies," which was actually a pretty revolutionary concept at the time)? Had the drunken jerks over in biology been sticking colored gel on the telescope lenses again?
Lemaitre had an idea. And he, unlike most of the others, also had an explanation: The universe has a constant, homogenous mass but is constantly expanding. A little bit later, he refined this theory to say that the universe had always been expanding, ever since its earliest point, when it sprung from a single "primordial atom."
It was the most pregnant thing that ever existed.
Many scientists disagreed: Einstein said the universe was static. ("Your calculations are correct," he told Lemaitre, "but your physical insight is abominable." That's pretty much the nerd equivalent of getting served.) Others were even more dismissive and called Lemaitre, strangely, a religious nut. That's right: As counterintuitive as it seems now, the big bang theory was originally viewed as a religious description of creation.
Think about it: Creationists say that there was originally nothing, but then God created the heavens and the Earth, and light, and BBQ Pringles, and everything else worthwhile. If you squint your brain real hard, it sounds a bit like the modern big bang theory, doesn't it? Science, at the time, said that this was nonsense. The universe had always been and always would be; it had never been created. The idea that one little "atom" started it all at a defined point in history sounded a hell of a lot like a priest spouting pseudo-science to back his own beliefs.
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At least it makes Genesis a little more interesting.
But that was OK, because at least somebody believed in Lemaitre's scientific theory: the Vatican. The Catholic Church elected Lemaitre to its Academy of Sciences in Rome, and he became its president in 1960. And the pope happily declared that the man's big bang discovery was proof of creationism and validated Catholicism, but Lemaitre told him to hold back on this last pronouncement. Lemaitre liked science. Lemaitre liked religion. But he said that, much like the Ghostbusters' streams, you shouldn't ever cross them. Because that would cause total protonic reversal. Or a bunch of pointless arguments. Whichever.
#4. The Super Soaker Was Created by a NASA Rocket Scientist
We assume that the fine folks at NASA spend all day working on warp drives and teleporters and such, because we are woefully ill-informed adult-sized children. But still, we figure they're occupied with important science stuff way above our pay grade. Like engineer Lonnie Johnson: He spent his days working in NASA's jet propulsion lab in Pasadena as part of the team that built Voyager, Galileo, and the Mars Observer spacecraft. He helped test the stealth bomber and developed new systems for nuclear reactors. It's like he was always destined for genius level work: When he was a teenager, he designed his own robot sidekick.
But then you go ahead and check his Wikipedia page. It barely mentions NASA, instead choosing to focus on other, much more important accomplishments, like a really, really effective toy squirt gun.
"He filled it with acid! RUN!"
Johnson's major contribution to society came in 1982 while he was screwing around at home working on something silly and trivial, like a new type of heat pump. Heat pumps normally use Freon gas, but Johnson was trying to make one that worked off of water alone. When he switched on the pump, water fired out and slammed into the shower curtain with way more force than he had expected, and the idea of heat transfer suddenly seemed a whole lot less interesting than shooting some poor son of a bitch right in the face with it.
So Johnson turned his new pumping system into the Super Soaker, and Larami Corporation marketed it with the slogan "Wetter is better" (a suspiciously adult slogan for a children's toy). The product brought in nearly a billion dollars after a decade of sales, and Johnson used that money to do the responsible thing: That one silly invention has helped his research company develop new methods for generating electricity from heat and more efficient ways to store energy in batteries. And, most importantly, he created a device that beeps when your baby pees.
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So you know when to run away from it.
#3. An 11-Year-Old Invented the Popsicle
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Well, of course a little kid invented the Popsicle. Who else even wants a stick of frozen juice? Adults have enough money to afford far superior desserts, like booze, or at least ice cream. But that's not the unexpected bit. This is: 11-year-old Frank Epperson invented the Popsicle back before people had freezers.
Back in the day, the kids were all keen on this newfangled biz called "soda water powder" -- a Kool-Aid-like drink mix that makes carbonated beverages. One night in 1905, Frank accidentally left his drink outside on the porch, because he was a kid, and kids operate in a special timeless universe where consequences happen to their future selves who are entirely different people and not at all their concern. That night just happened to bring record low temperatures, which froze the soda water and left him with a mess most people would consider garbage and throw away. But thanks to the quantum mechanics of children as outlined above, the fallout from licking garbage was Future Frank's problem. So Present Frank went ahead and tried it. He liked it. He showed it to some friends, and they liked it. But, as is the tragic way of the world, he eventually showed it to an adult, probably one with a top hat and a sleazy mustache, and that bastard went away and made millions on the invention, leaving Frank to toil away his life in poverty.
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Forever cowering in a brooding depression until the day he killed himself with a sharpened Popsicle stick.
Or that's how it would have played out in the movies. But Epperson rather cleverly sat on his invention, keeping it secret for 18 years, until he was finally in the position to make something of it. In 1923, he began creating his own versions of the treat, and he called them Epsicles ("Epp's icicles"). His children refused to use that name, since none of them called their father "Epp," so they began calling them "popsicles." The fact that they'd originally been made with home-mixed soda pop was a total coincidence.
Epperson even got a patent for the invention, under the marginally less marketable name "frozen ice on a stick." So when the Popsicle company suddenly discovered that a whole lot of other retailers had the gall to sell cold flavor on a slivery piece of wood, they sued those suckers. And that's how this story ends -- with the clever little kid with the big idea doing just fine and the thieving jerkwads presumably freezing to death on the streets. Probably stickless, because that shit is patented.
And so began the Popsicle bootleg era of the 1920s.