They were and are famous anyway, and we usually know them as politicians, entertainers or writers. But what we usually don’t know for them is that they used to be passionate about the scientific world and smart enough to create new inventions. These inventions offer an interesting insight into the inventors’ passions, tragedies or wonderings. From America’s sixteenth president to the world’s most famous aviator, get the facts on seven historical heavyweights who had second careers as inventors.
1. Abraham Lincoln
In 1849, a future president patented an amazing addition to transportation technology. A childhood centered on agriculture suited Lincoln’s curiosity well; he loved the culture of designing and inventing new objects, especially anything that had the potential to improve or refine the efficiency of labor. Before he became the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln, who had a long fascination with how things worked, invented a flotation system for lifting riverboats stuck on sandbars. Abraham Lincoln’s patent is a patent invention to lift boats over shoals and obstructions in a river. It is the only United States patent ever registered to a President of the United States.
The registered patent U.S. Patent No. 6,469 for a device for “Buoying Vessels Over Shoals”, starts:
“Be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, of Springfield, in the county of Sangamon, in the state of Illinois, have invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steamboat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water to be readily lessened to enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes.”
2. Albert Einstein
In 1926 Albert Einstein and his former student Leo Szilárd invented a type of refrigerator today known by the name The Einstein–Szilard or The Einstein refrigerator. The Einstein–Szilard is an absorption refrigerator which has no moving parts, operates at constant pressure, and requires only a heat source to operate. The two were motivated by contemporary newspaper reports of a Berlin family who had been killed when a seal in their refrigerator failed and leaked toxic fumes into their home.
Despite filing more than 45 patent applications in six different countries, none of Einstein and Szilard’s alternative designs for refrigerators ever became a consumer product, although several were licensed, thereby providing a tidy bit of extra income for the scientists over the years. Einstein and Szilard received a patent for their fridge in the US on November 11, 1930 (U.S. Patent 1,781,541).
While it was largely ignored during their lifetimes, recent research suggests that similar coolers might be an eco-friendly alternative to modern refrigerators that use freon.
3. Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine was many things; a writer, revolutionary and political philosopher. Paine was also an inventor and engineer, who made the world’s first smokeless candle. He was also an occasional Londoner and the most interesting, though, is the rarely discussed fact that Tom Paine built bridges. Iron bridges. He was fascinated by bridges, admiring them for their architecture as much as their metaphorical meaning.
Paine drew up plans for a single arch iron bridge that employed a lattice support structure modeled after a spider’s web. He patented the design and tirelessly promoted it on both sides of the Atlantic, but proposed bridges over Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, the Thames in London and the Seine in Paris all failed to materialize. The closest Paine came to getting one built was in 1797, when elements of one of his prototypes were incorporated into a bridge over England’s River Wear.
In one of his writings Paine wrote:
“Whereas His most Excellent Majesty King George the Third, by His Letters Patent under the Great Seal of Great Britain, bearing date the Twenty-sixth day of August, in the Twenty-eighth year of His reign, did give unto me, the said Thomas Paine”.
4. Roald Dahl
Although most physicians know Roald Dahl for the many wonderful child novels as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” , “James and the Giant Peach,” and short stories he wrote, due to a personal tragedy. It is less well known that he is also one of the inventors of the modern design of ventricular catheters and shunt valves.
In December 1960, Roald Dahl’s then five-month-old son Theo was involved in a serious accident that led to him developing a medical condition called hydrocephalus or “water on the brain.” Following the accident, Roald Dahl became heavily involved in Theo’s after-care and determining to ease his child’s suffering, the writer teamed with pediatric neurosurgeon Kenneth Till and toy maker and hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade. Together they created the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve, a type of cerebral shunt that was cheaper, easier to sterilize and less prone to blockages than earlier units. Dahl’s son’s condition had improved by the time the device was put into production in 1962, but the valves were later used to treat some 3,000 children worldwide.
5. Hedy Lamarr
Although better known for her Silver Screen exploits, Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) also became a pioneer in the field of wireless communications following her emigration to the United States.
With the ongoing World War, Lamarr was inspired to contribute to the war effort, designing a jam-proof radio guidance system for torpedoes. With the help of composer George Antheil, they drafted designs for a new frequency hopping, a spread-spectrum technology that they later patented. Frequency-hopping is a way of sending electronic communications that involve switching between multiple sub-frequencies in a pre-determined order.
Lamarr devised her “Secret Communications System” as a potential guidance tool for Allied torpedoes in World War II, but the U.S. Navy ignored the technology after she handed over her patient in 1942. Other inventors later expanded on her groundbreaking ideas, however, and similar “spread-spectrum” systems are now used in everything from communications satellites to cellular phones.
6. Harry Houdini
Harry Houdini was one of the greatest entertainers of all time, escaping impossible situations more than a hundred years ago to titillate the top hat-wearing and petticoat-clad gents and ladies. Impossibly muscular and flexible, Houdini is the master magician behind the “milk can escape” and the “Chinese Water Torture Cell”.
The master escapist created a diving suit which the wearer could easily remove while submerged underwater. The suit’s design includes separate upper and lower sections connected by a lever-operated metallic belt, allowing the diver to more easily escape. Along with allowing the wearer to get into the rig without the help of a second person, the design ensured that they could pull a lever near their waistline, wriggle out of the suit and make a Houdini-esque getaway in the event of any danger.
Houdini was partially inspired to make the suit after a close friend drowned in a diving accident in Australia, but he was also driven by his support for the American military in World War I. After completing the invention he supposedly donated it to the U.S. Navy.
7. Charles Lindbergh
The man who is known as the “Lone Eagle” became an aviation icon after his 1927 solo flight between New York and Paris, but his biography would be incomplete without the story of how the aviator worked to perfect his glass-chambered perfusion pump. Lindbergh became keenly interested in cardiology when his sister-in-law was fighting against what proved to be fatal mitral stenosis in 1930, and he wondered why it was impossible to surgically fix a damaged heart.
Lindbergh’s obsession with the idea led him to strike up a partnership with the Nobel Prize-winning surgeon Alexis Carrel. Together, the two men spent several years perfecting a glass perfusion pump that was capable of circulating a sterile, nutrient-rich fluid through organs to keep them alive outside the body. The device helped pave the way for the creation of the first artificial hearts, and though largely forgotten today, it won the publicity-shy Lindbergh heaps of praise from his contemporaries. Carrel was even quoted as saying that the flier’s medical legacy would be “as illustrious as that in aviation.”