5 Inventions We Got From Men Acting Like Sitcom Dads
The other day, we were telling you about how fettuccine alfredo came about because a chef’s wife was pregnant. Alfredo di Lelio needed to cook something that wouldn’t set off his wife’s morning sickness, and he found that buttery parmesan pasta did the trick. So, if we ever get a movie about the fettuccine alfredo story, it won’t be about an inventor furiously writing notes by candlelight or fighting competitors in court. It’ll be some guy seeing his wife’s head in the toilet, smelling the sour scent of vomit and muttering, “Hmm. That gives me an idea.”
Many inventions start out in wacky ways like that. For example...
The Murphy Bed
You might not know the name “Murphy bed,” but you know the bit of furniture it refers to. It’s that kind of bed that swings up and hides away vertically in the wall when you’re not using it. A very useful design trick if you’re short on room, the Murphy bed might be most famous thanks to old movies, where the unsecured bed provided much slapstick fun.
William Murphy invented the bed at the end of the 19th century. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, so his “Murphy” bed saved on space, but there was more to it than that. Murphy wanted to have a woman over. It would be inappropriate for a woman to enter a man’s bedroom — inviting her to his bedroom meant sex, and he was trying to woo this opera singer in a more traditional, slow manner. However, it was considered fine for a woman to visit a man’s parlor. By tucking his bed away, Murphy transformed his studio into a bedless zone, where no visitor need fear sexual advances.
Now, when this opera singer did come over, did the hidden bed suddenly plop down at a most embarrassing time, forcing her to revise her thoughts about the man’s intentions? We can’t say for sure, but Murphy and the singer ended up getting married, and he patented the bed the same year, so make whatever conclusions you will.
The Telephone Exchange
Once upon a time, all telephone calls were connected by human operators working at switchboards. It’s obvious now why automatic calls are easier. But the very first step toward automatic connections came earlier than you might think, and the inventor had a reason besides saving time or money.
An undertaker named Almon Strowger invented the first automated phone exchange. He said he did it because, back in the 1880s, he had one main rival in the funeral business in Kansas City, and this rival of his had a wife who worked as a telephone operator. Every time someone phoned the exchange and asked to connect to Strowger, this wife would send the call to her own husband instead. Strowger built an automated exchange so his calls would go through without being diverted.
That’s the story of why Strowger invented his telephone exchange, and it’s a story we’ve told you before. Funny thing, though. We only had Strowger’s word that anyone was waylaying his calls. He was convinced that malicious “girls at the switchboard” were behind his woes, but we don’t know if they really were.
According to another man in the phone business, whom Strowger later tried to enlist as a business partner, operators who sent calls his way couldn’t get through, and that’s why they sent callers to some other undertaker instead. The reason they couldn’t get through? Strowger’s funeral home had two metal placards with the name of the place engraved on them, and sometimes, the wind would blow one sign into the telephone wire and set off a short circuit. His phone wouldn’t work until someone opened the building’s door again and another gust of wind pushed the sign out of the way — and he had no idea what the issue was until later, after he’d invented his telephone switch to spite his imaginary enemies.
The Snakes-in-a-Can Gag
The ol’ snake-in-the-can gag (otherwise known as a “snake nut can,” since the can is traditionally labeled as “mixed nuts” for some reason) is not a complex invention. A squashed up toy snake, with a spring in it, is compressed into a can. You prank someone by having them open the can, and then you laugh at them for getting scared by the snake popping out. The straight, vertical eruption never registered to them as a snake, as it all happened too quickly; they were just startled by the sudden movement. You laugh at them anyway, because life is short, and you take whatever laughs you can get.
The only question you should ask yourself is just what was this inventor’s situation, that it was normal for him to hand a can to a friend and have them unscrew it. That’s not how most people offer snacks to someone. Actually, hold on, cans don’t even have screw lids, do they? Jars have screw lids, but jars are usually see-through, which would make the prank impossible.
Inventor Soren Adams came up with the snake nut can to prank his wife. She’d been nagging him for not closing jam jars properly. So, he developed this gag, where he’d hand her a jar (it was originally a “snake jam jar”) for inspection, and then the coiled toy snake would pop out and surprise her. You might assume that few other people would be in the position to pull off the same prank — or at least that you’d definitely only be able to try it on someone with whom you’re sharing a kitchen — but you’d be wrong.
Besides the snake nut can, Adams would later be credited for also inventing two other famous prank devices that now look achingly retro: the joy buzzer and the whoopee cushion. We have to admit the possibility that in all these cases, he started by choosing a name that sounded sexual and worked backward from there.
Snowboarding was probably independently invented by various anonymous people across history. But we tend to credit it to Sherman Poppen, who invented his version of the board on Christmas Day in 1965. He called it the Snurfer, combining the words “snow” and “surfer.” Then someone must have realized that makes no sense, since “surfer” refers to the person, not the thing they ride, and everyone switched to “snowboard” after that.
Poppen invented the snurfer so his kids would have something to play with. Fine, that’s a decent reason to invent something, and none of us needed any other information than that. However, Poppen also revealed that he specifically invented it on Christmas to get rid of his kids, who kept sticking close to his wife.
This raises several questions. First, had Poppen not already gotten his kids any presents that Christmas? And second, why was he so resistant to spending time with his own children on Christmas, a day for togetherness? It was because he needed some alone time with his wife to give her her “present,” wasn’t it?
The Hot-Air Balloon
Listen, we’re not going to stereotype every single guy inventor by mocking them as obsessed with sex. We’re also going to mock inventors for not thinking about sex.
In 1782, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier was watching his wife’s underwear dry over a fire. Some men, if handling their partner’s undergarments as part of their chores, would only stop and stare for an extended length of time if struck by thoughts of a salacious nature. Not Montgolfier. He watched the underwear billow when the fire heated the air, and his mind went to the science of propulsion. If hot air can lift intimate apparel, he reasoned, surely it can life other fabric as well. He went on to build the first manned hot-air balloon.
Sticking with the theme of sitcom humor, we might speculate on the size of Montgolfier’s wife, and wonder whether he used an actual pair of her underwear to build that first balloon. That would make no sense, however. A sitcom wife isn’t fat. The sitcom husband is fat — that is the law.
Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.