5 Awesome Things Invented by the Last People You'd Expect
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
So you know when to run away from it.
An 11-Year-Old Invented the Popsicle
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.
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.
The Pill Was Invented by a Devout Catholic
In 1930, the pope threw all his little popelings a bone (tee hee) and said that, while couples shouldn't wrap themselves in rubber to stop having children, those who sexed it up while unable to conceive weren't sinning. He was talking mainly about infertile folks and the elderly (gross, pope -- come on), but Catholics soon realized that they could sinlessly avoid pregnancy by reserving sex for those days when the menstrual cycle made them less fertile.
John Rock, a devout Catholic, jumped at the opportunity and opened a clinic to teach this newly approved "rhythm method." Nowadays, the idea of a legitimate medical clinic devoted exclusively to the rhythm method is fairly laughable, but you know what they say: "Careful boning is a gateway to science."
"Guys, that's not what I meant by ... you know what, just keep doing what you're doing."
Rock eventually worked on that famously anti-Catholic tool, the birth control pill. Scientists had been tinkering about with hormones for decades, and in the '50s, Rock and his team successfully squeezed synthetic hormones into a tablet that prevented ovulation. But through everything, Rock still considered himself a religious man, and he argued that the church should accept his new inventions. They didn't, obviously, and in 1968 they officially condemned the birth control pill.
Devout Catholics, who were all too happy when Rock was teaching them about the safest week to screw to avoid having their 17th child, turned on him and called him a heretic. "You should be afraid to meet your maker," said one angry woman.
And then she immediately had six babies out of sheer spite.
"My dear madam," he replied, "when my time comes, there will be no need for introductions." He meant that "God is with us always," or something equally beneficent. But it came across more like "God already knows my name, honey." He stopped just short of clarifying "His girlfriend's got it tattooed on her ass."
A Pizza Delivery Guy Invented the Bulletproof Vest
We've had the loose concept of "clothes that try not to let your vital chest pieces get dead" kicking around forever, but the bulletproof vest that we all know and love today -- made from synthetic fiber instead of plates and fully concealed under your clothes -- was brought to us not by a police officer, a reformed criminal, or a military think tank. It was a pizza delivery guy.
Well, all right, let's be clear: Yes, this pizza guy was also a Marine. But that's neither here nor there, because Richard Davis' years in active duty on the battlefield had nothing to do with designing the Kevlar vest. An active war didn't teach him the value of keeping your guts in one handy place. No, to learn that lesson, he had to do something much more dangerous: deliver Italian food in Detroit.
Dude wasn't fucking around when he said "no mushrooms."
Davis was delivering a pizza on July 15, 1969, when he realized that the call had directed him to a dark alley occupied by three armed men. Davis had a gun of his own and fired on his attackers, escaping with his life. But just barely -- he'd been hit twice. Shit, that's barely enough to get the night off for a Detroit pizza deliveryman. Still, the experience left Davis shaken, and he started looking into how other people in that sort of situation could protect themselves from gunfire. Police wore rigid armor. The military used flexible nylon armor, and it could stop grenade fragments as well as small bullets, but it was bulky. All available options were just too heavy and thick for people to wear comfortably. And as Davis would later tell people, for day-to-day use, comfort is more important than stopping power, because if the armor isn't comfortable, people won't wear it, and armor is totally useless to you bundled away in the closet with the NordicTrack.
So Davis carved out his own vest, one smaller and lighter than anything the military had, by cutting the design down to a couple of rectangles joined together by loose Velcro. He made it out of Kevlar, which was stronger than military nylon. To test the result, Davis put a phone book behind a prototype and opened fire. The book got through unscathed, but still nobody was biting. Davis realized that some people needed a slightly more dramatic display, so in the early days he would meet up with prospective buyers, put the shaky prototype vest on, aim a pistol at his life-bits, and pull the trigger.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a salesman.
Wait, no, that's the wrong word. "Maniac" was the word we were looking for. That's called a maniac.
Related Reading: Comic books are responsible for some pretty incredible inventions too. Did you know Donald Duck invented Minecraft? Oh, and by the way, Neil Young helped improve the model train. If you're interested in the most violent game ever invented, take a look at the mesoamerican ball game.