7 Little Known Inventors Who Changed The World

For every Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell, there are 25 inventors whom no one has heard of.
7 Little Known Inventors Who Changed The World

Take a look around you. Every object that you see (minus, y'know, stuff that just grew from nature) had to be invented by someone. Things that you have been using every day since you were little didn't exist until someone had an idea and made it into something tangible. 

Most of these inventors' names have not stayed in the public's consciousness, though. For every Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell, there are countless inventors whom no one has heard of, and it's way past time to pay tribute to some of these unsung heroes ... 

Hymen Lipman - Thanks For Helping Us Erase Our Mistakes

Oh dear, that is an unfortunate name. Whatever, we're all going to be mature here because I guarantee that everyone has used the product that gave Hymen Lipman his fortune. On March 30, 1858, Lipman was granted a patent for a pencil with an eraser attached. Much easier to use than a feather plucked from a random bird's ass, pencils had existed before this, but Lipman's design has been the standard ever since. 

Lipman is also noteworthy for being either incredibly savvy when it came to his invention or extremely lucky. In 1862, Lipman sold his pencil patent to Joseph Reckendorf. Reckendorf later learned that other manufacturers were producing pencils with erasers, and when he pursued legal action, the Supreme Court ruled that Lipman's invention was not an original enough idea to warrant a patent. This is why any company can produce a pencil with an eraser.

Pencils with erasers

David Pennington/Unsplash

So, uh, maybe he "invented the pencil" the same way Paris Hilton "invented the selfie." 

In the end, Lipman made a sweet little fortune from selling the patent, and he avoided a life of disappointment when other companies created their own pencils. His name didn't survive the test of time, though, and the picture that's often used to represent him online isn't even of him. He's pretty much been erased from history, which is a Twilight Zone twist of fate.

Joseph Friedman - Thanks For Making Straws Fun

Some people are wired to invent. Ideas come naturally to them, even if not all of them become money-printing successes. Joseph Friedman had several patents to his name, but he would build his fortune around one: the bendy straw.

Friedman's idea came when he watched his daughter using a boring conventional straw at a soda shop. The vertical design of the straw could be improved for more convenient drinking, so Friedman took a screw and dental floss, which are probably always in the pocket of an inventor, to form grooves in the straw. He used these to bend the straw to be easier to drink. Seeing that the idea had potential, he solidified his design and obtained a patent for it on September 28, 1937. It was given the catchy name, the "Drinking Tube."

A pink articulated plastic straw in a drink

Martin Belam

At least he didn't name it something truly dumb, like "bendy straw." 

With his design, Friedman started the Flexible Straw Corporation, also known as Flex-Straw. They're mostly an afterthought today, but when introduced to the public, bendy straws became revolutionary in hospitals. Patients who couldn't sit up struggled to drink from standard straws, so Friedman's flexible straws were lifesavers. (The whole being fun to make crinkly noises with was an added value.)

Seiichi Miyake - Thanks For Helping Us Get Where We're Going

Those little nubs and other raised indicators on sidewalks, in train stations, and around other walkways didn't always exist. In fact, in the U.S., they have only been around for the last three decades or so. These are called tactile blocks or tactile paving indicators, and they were developed in the mid-1960s by Seiichi Miyake. 

Miyake's paving was invented to grant more independence to the blind. The different kinds of indicators are used to serve as guides for walkers, like a sort of walking Braille. They helped warn blind walkers of upcoming stops and indicated pathways. The first tactile paving was added around the Okayama School for the Blind in 1967. It became a quick success, and tactile paving was installed across Japan, most importantly throughout the Japanese rail system.

A set of yellow truncated domes can be seen on the down-ramp in a parking lot.

J.smith/Wiki Commons

That's even more important than their use in scraping dog poop off your soles. 

The United States began adopting Miyake's tactile paving in the 1990s. Today, sidewalks throughout the world feature bumps designed by Seiichi Miyake, and the role these have had in increasing accessibility cannot be overstated. Miyake died in 1982, just 15 years after his invention was first introduced to the world, and while he did not get to see how far his ideas spread, he has certainly left an impression. A raised impression. Before an intersection.

Charles Richard Drew - Thanks For The Blood

Dr. Charles R. Drew did not invent the blood transfusion; those had been done for centuries before he was born. However, Drew did invent the modern blood bank, and his work has saved an incalculable number of lives. 

While studying at Columbia University in 1938, Drew wrote a doctoral thesis about the concept of "banked blood." This idea revolved around separating plasma and refrigerating blood, which allowed donated blood to be stored safely for use much later on. The timing of this was impeccable, as World War II would soon break out, and blood would be needed more than ever before

Portrait of Charles Drew

Associated Photographic Services

His goal was to save lives. He was not, as some have reported, a vampire. 

Drew's blood bank innovation became central to the Blood for Britain project, which supplied thousands of pints of plasma during the early years of the war. He then directed the first American Red Cross Blood Bank in 1941, which helped save the lives of countless troops. Unfortunately, the ignorance of the time was stronger than his discoveries. Dr. Drew, a Black man, advocated for Black Americans to be able to donate blood, but this was fought against. When policy finally changed, Black blood was kept separate, leading to Drew stepping down from his position.

Bonus history is filled with trash people fact: Due to racist membership standards, Dr. Drew died without being accepted into the American Medical Association or the American College of Surgeons.

Ole Kirk Christiansen - Thanks For The Best Toy Ever

In the small, unremarkable town of Billund, Denmark, Ole Kirk Christiansen was a woodworker who made ironing boards, stools, and ladders. His life took several turns for the worse during the Great Depression, which included his home and workshop burning down and his wife dying. But Christiansen overcame the tragedies and shifted markets. He began producing toys and changed the name of his company to something catchy, LEGO, short for the phrase "leg godt" or "play well."


Xavi Cabrera/Unsplash

Or "Oh god, my leg!"

Today, LEGO is known for its iconic bricks, but Christiansen's earliest iteration of LEGO produced a wide range of toys. He made things like yo-yos and wooden ducks, and each of his products carried the sort of quality one might expect from a seasoned woodworker. His big break would come in 1949, with a new plastic toy known as the Automatic Binding Bricks. These classic bricks are similar in design to modern LEGO, and this became the basis for the company's future success.

LEGO continued to grow, and they truly hit their stride in 1958 with the launch of their System of Play. This was a fully-realized universal LEGO brick system, where all bricks were designed to connect to any other bricks. This was designed by Christiansen's son, Godfrey, and even though Christiansen died in the same year, System of Play became a massive success that launched LEGO into the brand it is today … and the reason bare feet live in a constant state of terror.

Ermal Fraze - Thanks For Making Drinks Easier To Open

Next time you reach for your canned beverage of choice (Room temp Clamato, yum!), think of Ermal "Ernie" Fraze, the man who made sure that we never have to carry a tool to open cans. Fraze spent the 1940s and 1950s manufacturing tools in Ohio. His fortune would come in 1959, however, when his game-changing dream came became a reality. 

According to Fraze, he got the idea of working on a can that could be opened without a tool while at a picnic. He had forgotten his can opener, which meant that he had to improvise to open his drinks.

Chrome plated front bumper on a 1958 Ford Taunus

Yeti.bigfoot/Wiki Commons

He opened his beer using his car bumper

His first design for a self-opening can was ... unnecessarily dangerous. The lever used to pop a drink open also left sharp edges, which completely negated the convenience of not needing a tool. 

And so, Fraze went back to the drawing board and revised his product. The result was the ring-pull tab, the can design that dominates the market today. Fraze got a patent for his design in 1963, and while most people don't know his name, he made quite a fortune for himself and inadvertently created one of the more bizarre school fundraiser ideas.

Otto Wichterle - Thanks For Comfortable Eyes

Contact lenses have existed in some form for centuries. Inventors probably got tired of being called four eyes, and correcting vision without noticeable frames was an ongoing endeavor. It was not until the early 1960s that Czech chemist Otto Wichterle invented the modern soft contact lenses that gave nerds worldwide the ability to live hidden among us without the optical discomfort.

In 1633, Rene Descarte proposed placing tubes of water directly on the eyes to improve vision. Besides probably looking completely ridiculous, this solution meant that a wearer could not blink, making these highly impractical. Wearable contacts that fit the eye and were made of glass were introduced in the late 19th century. These did correct vision, but they were heavy, and because they weren't breathable, they were too uncomfortable to be a viable solution. Finally, in 1961, Otto Wichterle developed a soft contact lens that was comfortable and could be worn for longer periods

A pair of contact lenses, positioned with the concave side facing upward

via Wiki Commons

In an alternate timeline, these never got invented till 2013, and that felt about right. 

Wichterle's soft lenses were made of hydrophilic gels that could absorb some water. This meant that the eyes would not dry out by having these lenses in them. Companies like Bausch & Lomb obtained rights to produce soft contact lenses based on Wichterle's design, and modern lenses are based on improvements to the original 1961 gel lenses. Unfortunately for Otto Wichterle, he was unable to secure a fortune from his invention, but his ingenuity lives on today in every person who puts contacts on their eyeballs to see, cosplay, and alter their eye color for bank robberies.

Top Image: Xavi Cabrera/Unsplash

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