Inventive Thinking and Creativity

Stories about Great Thinkers and Famous Inventors

A man catching a frisbee
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The following stories about great thinkers and inventors will help to motivate your students and enhance their appreciation of the contributions of inventors.

As students read these stories, they will also realize the "inventors" are male, female, old, young, minority, and majority. They are ordinary people who follow through with their creative ideas to make their dreams a reality.

FRISBEE ®

The term FRISBEE did not always refer to the familiar plastic disks we visualize flying through the air.

Over 100 years ago, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, William Russell Frisbie owned the Frisbie Pie Company and delivered his pies locally. All of his pies were baked in the same type of 10" round tin with a raised edge, wide brim, six small holes in the bottom, and "Frisbie Pies" on the bottom. Playing catch with the tins soon became a popular local sport. However, the tins were slightly dangerous when a toss was missed. It became the Yale custom to yell "Frisbie" when throwing a pie tin. In the 40's when plastic emerged, the pie-tin game was recognized as a manufacturable and marketable product. Note: FRISBEE ® is a registered trademark of Wham-O Mfg. Co.

Earmuffs "Baby, It's Cold Outside"

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" may have been the song running through 13-year-old Chester Greenwood's head one cold December day in 1873. To protect his ears while ice skating, he found a piece of wire, and with his grandmother's help, padded the ends.

In the beginning, his friends laughed at him. However, when they realized that he was able to stay outside skating long after they had gone inside freezing, they stopped laughing. Instead, they began to ask Chester to make ear covers for them, too. At age 17 Chester applied for a patent. For the next 60 years, Chester's factory made earmuffs, and earmuffs made Chester rich.

BAND-AID ®

At the turn of the century, Mrs. Earl Dickson, an inexperienced cook, often burned and cut herself. Mr. Dickson, a Johnson and Johnson employee, got plenty of practice in hand bandaging. Out of concern for his wife's safety, he began to prepare bandages ahead of time so that his wife could apply them by herself. By combining a piece of surgical tape and a piece of gauze, he fashioned the first crude adhesive strip bandage.

LIFE-SAVERS ®

Candy During the hot summer of 1913, Clarence Crane, a chocolate candy manufacturer, found himself facing a dilemma. When he tried to ship his chocolates to candy shops in other cities they melted into gooey blobs. To avoid dealing with the "mess," his customers were deferring their orders until cool weather. In order to retain his customers, Mr. Crane needed to find a substitute for the melted chocolates. He experimented with hard candy which wouldn't melt during shipment. Using a machine designed for making medicine pills, Crane produced small, circular candies with a hole in the middle. The birth of LIFE SAVERS!

Note on Trademarks

® is the symbol for a registered trademark. The trademarks on this page are words used to name the inventions.

Thomas Alva Edison

If I were to tell you that Thomas Alva Edison had shown signs of inventive genius at an early age, you probably would not be surprised.

Mr. Edison achieved enormous fame with his lifelong contributions of volumes of inventive technology. He received the first of his 1,093 U.S. patents by age 22. In the book, Fire of Genius, Ernest Heyn reported on a remarkable resourceful young Edison, though some of his earliest tinkering clearly lacked merit.

Age 6

By the age of six, Thomas Edison's experiments with fire were said to have cost his father a barn. Soon after that, it is reported that young Edison tried to launch the first human balloon by persuading another youth to swallow large quantities of effervescing powders to inflate himself with gas. Of course, the experiments brought quite unexpected results!

Chemistry and electricity held great fascination for this child, Thomas Edison. By his early teens, he had designed and perfected his first real invention, an electrical cockroach control system.

He glued parallel strips of tinfoil to a wall and wired the strips to the poles of a powerful battery, a deadly shock for the unsuspecting insect.

As a dynamo of creativity, Mr. Edison stood as decidedly unique; but as a child with a curious, problem-solving nature, he was not alone. Here are some more "inventive children" to know and appreciate.

Age 14

At age 14, one schoolboy invented a rotary brush device to remove husks from wheat in the flour mill run by his friend's father. The young inventor's name? Alexander Graham Bell.

Age 16

At 16, another of our junior achievers saved pennies to buy materials for his chemistry experiments. While still a teenager, he set his mind on developing a commercially viable aluminum refining process. By age 25, Charles Hall received a patent on his revolutionary electrolytic process.

Age 19

While only 19 years old, another imaginative young person designed and built his first helicopter. In the summer of 1909, it very nearly flew. Years later, Igor Sikorsky perfected his design and saw his early dreams change aviation history. Silorsky was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1987.

The are more childhood problem-solvers that we can mention. Perhaps you've heard about:

  • Samuel Colt's childhood experience with underwater explosives;
  • Fourteen-year-old Robert Fulton's manually operated paddlewheel; and
  • Guglielmo Marconi's early mechanical/electrical tinkering.
  • Even television tinker, Philo T. Farnsworth, conceived his optical scanning idea at the tender age of 14.

Inventions

Inventions tell something about the inventor's place in the society in which they live, a closeness to certain kinds of problems, and possession of certain skills. It is not surprising that up until the mid 20th Century, women's inventions were often related to childcare, housework, and healthcare, all traditional female occupations. In recent years, with access to specialized training and broader job opportunities, women are applying their creativity to many new kinds of problems, including those requiring high technology.

While women have frequently come up with new ways to make their work easier, they have not always received credit for their ideas. Some stories about early women inventors show that women often recognized that they were entering "a man's world," and shielded their work from the public eye by allowing men to patent their inventions.

Catherine Greene

Although Eli Whitney received a patent for a cotton gin, Catherine Greene is said to have posed both the problem and the basic idea to Whitney. Furthermore, according to Matilda Gage, (, 1883), his first model, fitted with wooden teeth, did not do the work well, and Whitney was about to throw the work aside when Mrs. Greene proposed the substitution of wire to catch the cotton seeds.

Margaret Knight

Margaret Knight, remembered as "the female Edison," received some 26 patents for such diverse items as a window frame and sash, machinery for cutting shoe soles, and improvements to internal combustion engines. Her most significant patent was for machinery that would automatically fold and glue paper bags to create square bottoms, an invention which dramatically changed shopping habits. Workmen reportedly refused her advice when first installing the equipment because, "after all, what does a woman know about machines?" More about Margaret Knight

Sarah Breedlove Walker

Sarah Breedlove Walker, the daughter of former slaves, was orphaned at seven and widowed by 20. Madame Walker is credited with inventing hair lotions, creams, and an improved hair styling hot comb. But her greatest achievement may be the development of the Walker System, which included a broad offering of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, and Walker Schools, which offered meaningful employment and personal growth to thousands of Walker Agents, mostly Black women. Sarah Walker was the first American woman self-made millionaire. More about Sarah Breedlove Walker

Bette Graham

Bette Graham hoped to be an artist, but circumstances led her into secretarial work. Bette, however, was not an accurate typist. Fortunately, she recalled that artists could correct their mistakes by painting over them with gesso, so she invented a quick drying "paint" to cover her typing mistakes. Bette first prepared the secret formula in her kitchen using a hand mixer, and her young son helped to pour the mixture into little bottles. In 1980, the Liquid Paper Corporation, which Bette Graham built, was sold for over $47 million. More about  Bette GRaham

Ann Moore

Ann Moore, a Peace Corps volunteer, saw how African women carried babies on their backs by tying cloth around their bodies, leaving both hands free for other work. When she returned to the United States, she designed a carrier which became the popular SNUGLI. Recently Ms. Moore received another patent for a carrier to conveniently transport oxygen cylinders. People needing oxygen for breathing assistance, who were previously confined to stationary oxygen tanks, can now move about more freely. Her company now sells several versions including lightweight backpacks, handbags, shoulder bags, and wheelchair/walker carriers for portable cylinders.

Stephanie Kwolek

Stephanie Kwolek, one of Dupont's leading chemists, discovered the "miracle fiber," Kevlar, which has five times the strength of steel by weight. Uses for Kevlar are seemingly endless, including ropes and cables for oil drilling rigs, canoe hulls, boat sails, automobile bodies and tires, and military and motorcycle helmets. Many Viet Nam veterans and police officers are alive today because of protection provided by bullet-proof vests made from Kevlar. Because of its strength and lightness, Kevlar was chosen as the material for the Gossamer Albatross, a pedal airplane flown across the English Channel. Kwolek was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995. More on Stephanie Kwolek

Gertrude B. Elion

Gertrude B. Elion, 1988 Nobel laureate in Medicine, and Scientist Emeritus with Burroughs Wellcome Company, is credited with the synthesis of two of the first successful drugs for Leukemia, as well as Imuron, an agent to prevent the rejection of kidney transplants, and Zovirax, the first selective antiviral agent against herpes virus infections. Researchers who discovered AZT, a breakthrough treatment for AIDS, used Elion's protocols. Elion was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1991, the first woman inductee. More on Gertrude B. Elion

Did you Know That..

  • windshield wipers were patented by Mary Anderson in 1903?
  • dandruff shampoo was patented by Josie Stuart in 1903?
  • a dishwasher was patented by Josephine Cochrane in 1914?
  • the first disposable diaper was patented by Marion Donovan in 1951?
  • a compact portable hair dryer was patented by Harriet J. Stern in 1962?
  • a dough product for frozen pizza was patented by Rose Totino in 1979?
  • the Melitta Automatic Drip Coffee Maker was patented by Melitta Benz in Germany in 1908?

Between 1863 and 1913, approximately 1,200 inventions were patented by minority inventors. Many more were unidentified because they hid their race to avoid discrimination or sold their inventions to others. The following stories are about a few of the great minority inventors.

Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy earned about 50 patents, however, his most famous one was for a metal or glass cup that fed oil to bearings through a small-bore tube. Elijah McCoy was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1843, the son of slaves who had fled Kentucky. He died in Michigan in 1929. More about Elijah McCoy

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker created the first striking clock made of wood in America. He became known as the "Afro-American Astronomer." He published an almanac and with his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, he assisted in the surveying and planning of the new city of Washington, D.C. More about Benjamin Banneker

Granville Woods

Granville Woods had more than 60 patents. Known as the "Black Edison," he improved Bell's telegraph and created an electrical motor that made the underground subway possible. He also improved the airbrake. More about Granville Woods

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan invented an improved traffic signal. He also invented a safety hood for firefighters. More about Garrett Morgan

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver aided the Southern states with his many inventions. He discovered over 300 different products made from the peanut which, until Carver, was considered a lowly food fit for hogs. He dedicated himself to teaching others, learning and working with nature. He created over 125 new products with the sweet potato and taught poor farmers how to rotate crops to improve their soil and their cotton. George Washington Carver was a great scientist and inventor who learned to be a careful observer and who was honored throughout the world for his creation of new things. More about George Washington Carver