BACK TO Home Page 50 CONVERSATION TOPICS Inventions and Inventors

Stories you can use to start conversation or to add interest to speeches or presentations

Book Extracts on Inventions and Innovations

Resources for Speakers - Anecdotes About Inventors and Inventions

The Way Things Work

1) Everything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal;

2) Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) Anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

- Douglas Adams

All innovation based on an obscure feature or function.

Unexpected Side Effects of iPhones

Unexpected side effect of iPod - it's killing off the full-service gyms. Once people went to the big gyms for the social side as much as the exercise - they enjoyed the classes and groups. But now, everyone comes along with their own personal bubble provided by their iPods, and don't interact with each other. And they quickly realize that they aren't using the big screen or the music, so they might as well use a barebones gym or stay home and use own treadmill.

The iPhone (and smartphones in general) have negatively impacted the sale of gum because people are more consumed with their phones and are less inclined to impulse buy when waiting to check out at a store.

Many Japanese men seem reject smartphones in favor of a low-tech 2002 Fujitsu cell phone, according to a January Wall Street Journal dispatch--because it can help philanderers keep their affairs from lovers' prying eyes. The phones lack sophisticated tracking features--plus, a buried "privacy" mode gives off only stealth signals when lovers call and leaves no trace of calls, texts, or e-mails. A senior executive for Fujitsu said, "If Tiger Woods had [this phone], he wouldn't have gotten in trouble."

An unnamed "gangland" bomber was killed in March in Dublin, Ireland, when the payload exploded prematurely. The detonation occurred on the morning of March 30th, which marked the daylight-savings time change in Ireland, and police concluded that, most likely, the bomber had forgotten to set the timer ahead that morning, which would have given him up to 60 more minutes to plant the bomb and leave. (In 1999, two Palestinians, operating on West Bank time but carrying bombs to Israeli cities (Haifa and Tiberius) that had already advanced clocks that morning, were blown up--along with only one bystander instead of the dozens or hundreds planned for.)

Psychology of Inventors

When psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied eminent people, he found that they held almost contradictory impulses and qualities within: a desire for solitude but also a need for social stimulation; superior knowledge on a subject but also a childlike naivete. These qualities seemed to fuel their ability to come up with great ideas and their ability to execute them - quite a combination. Exploring the less - prominent parts of your personality could activate the same yinyang nature found in creative geniuses. If you're usually a busy bee, slow down and explore your lazy side. If you're very girly, dress like a tomboy

Who Invented That?

We have an idea that single inventor responsible for a single invention. But in fact many 'multiples': simultaneous discoveries by different people. The telephone (AG Bell and Elisha Gray), thermometer (six different inventors), steamboat (Fulton, Jouffroy, Stephens) and calculus (Newton and Leibniz).

Which inspired statistician Stephen Stigler to come up with Stigler's Law: No scientific discovery is ever named after its original discoverer.

Rocket Inventors and Inventions

An Auckland NZ guy who built a rocket powered engine in his shed ... to cool beer. On the basis that if you were sitting in a tin shed with a rocket engine roaring away and generating a lot of heat, what you really need is ... A cool beer

Olfactory alarm clock

Why wake up to a jarring beep when you can rise to the scent of peppermint - or crisp dollar bills? Guillaume Rolland, 17, of Nantes, France, hatched his idea after learning that hearing-impaired patients at a nursing home where his father works needed nurses to wake them each day. He built an alarm clock equipped with a small filter onto which users can drip a variety of scents. He has worked with perfumers to synthesize the smell of coffee, freshly baked bread, chocolate, and, yes, American dollars. When it's time for the alarm to go off, a small fan at the back of the clock spins, and a tiny door at the top of the clock opens so the fan can blow air through the filter and disseminate it near the sleeper. In pilot tests on nursing home patients, teenagers and adults, Rolland says the menthol scent woke people within 2 minutes 100 percent of the time.

Nudge alarm clock

SnuzNLuz, the alarm clock with a hotline to your bank – it donates to your least favourite charity when you press the snooze button.


For centuries, lighting for most people was a rushlight - a reed soaked in fat. For a little extra lighting you could burn it at both ends, hence the phrase. In 1730's a dinner party was held by Sir Robert Walpole, the then PM. A guest counted 130 candles burning, which would have cost the host £15, the equivalent of £3000 today.


Remote control traffic cones (The idea being to avoid human danger setting them out and picking up) - but overlooked few obvious pitfalls, such as drunks/students already steal ordinary ones; just think how tempting computerised ones will be - also temptation to set them dancing with hack program


Patent combined bird trap and cat feeder .....

Bear attacks a concern in some areas. To overcome this a Californian patent suggested a large inflatable doll which could be incorporated into a walking stick and activated when any wild animal threatened. And the inventers suggested optional extras such as foghorns, bangs and smoke.

Bristol Blenheim

Designed in 1934 by the Bristol Aircraft Company, the Bristol Blenheim started life as a small passenger plane. She was commissioned and funded by Lord Rothermere, the wealthy proprietor of the Daily Mail who wanted his journalists to be first on the scene. Rothermere envisaged a feisty, speedy, nimble and useful little aeroplane - that would be one of the best twin-engined monoplanes in the world. When she was tested in 1935 it was discovered that she could fly at over 300 mph - 50 mph faster than any of the British fighter planes then in use.

Nazi Gas

The company that produced Zyklon B for gas chambers during the holocaust, Degesch, is still in business under a different parent company, and still produces the chemical that made up Zyklon B under the name 'Cyanosil'.

Gas Dogs

In US pre-electric lighting, gas company monopolies were so hated that there was a thriving industry hiring out dogs trained to bite anyone who tried to get close enough to meter to read it. Leased out to households in reading period.

GM Food

"I find it surprising that groups that are very supportive of science when it comes to global climate change, or even, for the most part, in the appreciation of the value of vaccination in preventing human disease, yet can be so dismissive of the general views of scientists when it comes to something as important as the world's agricultural future." From WaPo: 107 Nobel laureates sign letter blasting Greenpeace over GMOs.

Inventing a Better Hotels

In the glass-front lobby of Simon Woodroffe's Yotel, at 10th Avenue and 41st Street, a self-service robot named Yobot stands ready to rack guests' luggage into storage bins so they don't have to haul it around town if they've arrived before check-in or want to catch a matinee after checkout.

It's just a robotic arm, not humanoid like Rosey, and it's as much entertainment for passers-by as it is utilitarian. Your bag goes on a slab that Yobot then picks up and slides into one of 133 lockers, usually with a flourish of dipping, twisting and other acrobatics. You get back a bar-coded ticket, which you insert into the system when you want Yobot to return your bags.

And speaking of hotels, if you lose your phone charger, don't buy a new one. Go to a big hotel and say you think you left your charger there. As it's the item most often left behind, every hotel has a big sack full of every charger imaginable.

Inventing Fast Lifts

Five of the 70 elevators planned for One World Trade Center will travel at 23 mph. They will be the fastest in North America; an express ride to the top of the 105-story skyscraper will take one minute. In the U.S., most elevators run between 1 and 6 mph. Taiwan's Taipei 101 financial center is home to the world's fastest lift, which tops out at 38 mph.

Is There Anything It Can't Fix?

Duct tape can remove pesky warts without having to resort to liquid nitrogen to burn them off. Put a bit of tape over the wart and leave it for a month. The wart will suffocate and the dead skin will pull away with the tape.

Life Logging

Microsoft invented SenseCam - takes pic every time it senses a new scene or presence of person or animal. Originally it was intended as reminder for Alzheimers patients (people cope better if can reprocess their day's events). Now being extended as way to create 'Life logs' to archive their entire lives.

Necessity is the Mother of Inventions

Almon B. Strowger, an undertaker in Kansas City, faced unfair competition. The wife of a competing undertaker was an operator at the local (manual) telephone exchange. She re-routed calls to her husband, even when the caller asked for Strowger. In an effort to get rid of her, Strowger invented the first automatic, electromechanical switchboard and, together with his cousin, produced the first model in 1888. He was granted a patent in 1891.

War as the Mother of Inventions

In the early 19th century, dentures made from real teeth sold for high prices. Dental scavengers scoured the battlefield and 52 barrels of dead men's teeth are said to have been shipped to London to be made into 'Waterloo Teeth'. War always produces unintended benefits. The experience of Waterloo led to important advances in battlefield medicine; the London denturemaker Claudius Ash was so sickened by handling dead men's teeth that he perfected and marketed the first porcelain dentures.

First Container Shipping

I have no doubt that the attribution to Malcolm McLean of the shipping container in its modern form (report, Nov 9, and letter, Nov 10) is correct, but the concept is much older. In July 1759 James Brindley was employed by the Duke of Bridgewater to work on a canal to transport the output of his coal mines at Worsley. The system did much more than that. Coal was loaded underground into containers carried on carriages that were pushed along tracks to a subterranean dock. There the containers were transferred to slender boats, “starvationers” as they were called, and at the end of the shift boards that had held back the water were lifted to allow the mine to drain and the boats to be swept out of the tunnel. The containers were then lifted into barges which were towed to Salford, where the containers were lifted by winch to the marketplace above. There the fuel was sold from the very boxes into which it had been loaded when freshly dug. Martin Marix Evans Author, Canals of England

Water Carrier

Hippo roller - large plastic drum with handles - African women can carry four times as much water per trip, and, guys who previously considered toting water to be a woman's job, now found the roller cool enough to help

Bath Tubs

An infamous C19 Parisian prostitute, La Paiva, was one of first to have a tub, as opposed to using small basins for sponge wash. She had 2 bathtubs, one carved out of a block of yellow onyx, the other having three taps, one of which poured champagne.

Cooking Inventions

My Christmas present two years ago was a Spherification kit from a company called Texturas, part owned by Ferran Adria. It had a set of tools to make spheres out of stuff - modernists are big on spheres - and a leaflet of not especially helpful recipes.

Armed with my new kit, I set out to make reverse-spherical mozzarella balls. These are made from a blend of whole mozzarellas, chopped mozzarellas, and mozzarella water mixed with a modernist-favored ingredient called Algin, which instantly gels any material containing calcium. The idea is essentially that you deconstruct mozzarella, then put it back together, and graciously accept the public's applause. The results looked all right. The problem was pointed out by my son, and, once pointed out, was very hard to ignore: the reconstructed reverse-spherical mozzarella had the texture of snot. As for the taste, well, let's just say that it wasn't the opposite of snot - more a cross between snot and mozzarella water. My turn to go fetch the takeout.

Print Your Own Barcode

Web site which lets you print own bar codes. Surprisingly, retailers have a bit of a problem with this.


TaxiWalker offers the newly penniless Japanese salaryman all the nostalgic fun of having enough money to go everywhere in a taxi, but without the driver, the car or the expense. Based on a simple pedometer, the device attaches to an ordinary belt and measures the number of steps taken by its owner and the distance that he or she has walked. The machine is precisely calibrated to reflect the fare scheme charged by an official Tokyo taxicab: Y710 for the first two kilometres and a further Y90 for every additional 280 metres travelled. Night-time surcharges apply. The idea is to offer the growing ranks of embittered pedestrians an accurate sense of how much money they are saving through their daily trudgings.

Tree Streetlights

There is a group working on creating glow in the dark trees. They are working on splicing bioluminescent genes from Jellyfish/Mushrooms/etc. into trees which they could then breed for greater and greater brightness. The goal would be trees that could one day replace streetlights.


Japanese inventor Kenji Kawakami's "New Idea Academy," which features his own innovations and counts among his most successful products a portable washing machine that straps onto the user's leg (swirling the clothes with each step); a travel necktie with room for writing utensils and a calculator; padded booties for cats so they can dust the floor while walking around; and a "solar flashlight" that provides a strong beam of light as long as the sun is shining.

Invention of Parking Meters

When parking meters were introduced in Britain, they were welcomed, but not for long. Coins wrapped in paper or bits of folded matchboxes were commonly used to jam them. Then, in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman's character goes to prison for the crime of knocking the heads off parking meters, and Baker recalls that it caused a wave of copycat meter decapitations.This wasn't the only attempt to disable the machines. The Sussex town of Lewes is known for its tradition of burning a public hate figure on its November 5 bonfire. By the 1990s, residents were giving similar treatment to parking meters, blowing them up with fireworks

Inventors and Inventions

InnoCentive is an "open innovation" company that takes research and development problems in a broad range of domains such as engineering, computer science, math, chemistry, life sciences, physical sciences and business, frames them as "challenge problems", and opens them up for anyone to solve them. It gives cash awards for the best solutions to solvers who meet the challenge criteria. InnoCentive calls the scientists who attempt the problems "solvers" and the companies these problems come from as "seekers". As of 2008 InnoCentive has 64 of these "seekers" (including Procter & Gamble, Dow AgroSciences and Eli Lilly), which have posted more than 800 "challenges" in 40 disciplines, including chemistry, life sciences, business and entrepreneurship, computer science and clean technology. Of these, more than 348 have been solved by over 165,000 "solvers".Solutions have come from United States, Europe, Russia, China, India and Argentina; the cash awards for solving challenge problems are typically in the $10,000 to $100,000 range. To date, over $3 million in awards have been awarded to solvers

Urinal Inventions

Peeing contest built into pub urinals (piss on small waterwheel) longer you piss more lights light up - can connect to display in bar

Henry Cavendish Inventor

Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) was for a time both the richest man in England (he was the grandson of two dukes), and also England's greatest scientist. He identified hydrogen as an element among other discoveries. He was also extremely private. He "probably uttered fewer words in his life than any man, trappist monks not excepted". He had no friends or lovers, and spoke only to Fellows of the Royal Society, and then only on Thursday nights when a select few were invited to dine. He sacked any servant he encountered around the house, and had his meals served via a device which spared him seeing his butler.

Thomas Edison Inventions

Thomas Edison was an avid spokesman for concrete bedroom furniture and had more than 40 patents directly related to concrete.

Nobel Prize Winning Inventors

Marie Curie won a Nobel Prize, she had two children, one of whom also won a Nobel Prize, as well as a husband, Pierre Curie, who claimed a third Nobel Prize for the family.


Digital touring: send everyone emails of yourself on yr 'fabulous' vacation posing in front of various landmarks, all cut and paste

Guy who modified class photos so all heads slightly inclined towards him in centre (and teachers became Gandhi and Marilyn Monroe)

Pet Rock

Story of pet rock craze several unforeseen consequences. Firstly it cost a lot of investors money because it was used to justify other bad ideas ("Pet rock worked and my idea makes more sense than that"). Started with a woman complaining about the cost of pet maintenance, so a friend made up gag about a pet rock. Girl takes the idea to her boss, boss rubbishes it, but tightwad accountant says he'll invest, so boss has second thoughts, invests 10 grand, makes quick million before everyone else cashes in. But because he now had a reputation for spotting success, others brought him their ideas, one of which was musical greeting card (which could patent)

Cheap Microscopes

MICROSCOPES are invaluable tools to identify blood and other cells when screening for diseases like anemia, tuberculosis and malaria. But they are also bulky and expensive. Now an engineer, using software that he developed and about $10 worth of off-the-shelf hardware, has modified cellphones to work like microscopes. The adapted phones may be used for screening in places far from hospitals.They work by a slide holding a finger prick of blood can be inserted over the phone's camera sensor. The sensor detects the slide's contents and sends the information wirelessly to a hospital or regional health center. For instance, the phones can detect the unusual shape of diseased blood cells or other abnormal cells, or detect an increase of white blood cells, a sign of infection. There's no need for lenses in these devices because the magnification can be done electronically. You don't need optics at all. For this electronic system of magnification, cheap light-emitting diodes added to the basic cellphone shine their light on a sample slide placed over the phone's camera chip.

Evolving Inventions

They make detergent powder by pumping very hot chemicals through very small nozzle at high pressure. When it comes out the drop in pressure causes the liquid to turn to powder and gas; gas gets sucked out, powder is detergent. But have problems with lumpiness, so Unilever called in chemists and physicists. But no scientists knew enough about liquid-to-gas transformations to be able to help. So called in a biologist, who simply applied evolutionary principles. First he built 10 nozzles all slightly different, varying nozzle size, grooving etc. Then he picked the design that was slightly better than the rest and made 10 variations of that. Went through 45 'generations' of nozzles and finished up with one which worked many times better than any of original prototypes.

Roller coasters

Duh! The first roller coasters were built on Coney Is c.1900. They were originally designed with a section of track missing - cars were supposed to use momentum to jump gap. Unfortunately on windy days they missed

Clockwork Radio

Trevor Bayliss came up with the basic idea of a wind-up radio (30 sec winding gave 14 minutes of power as a coiled thick spring which slowly unwound - system of gears drove generator) aimed at Africa but 'lo-fi' cool and more than 1 million sold to Western consumers

Rant Line

Vent-line in Boston - guy charges you $2 min to listen to you rant and rave

Toll Calls

In Texas operator-assisted toll calls, the operator has to ask "Which carrier do you want" and most people say "I don't care" or "You choose" so a smart phone company registered 40 variations of these apathetic responses (and charged 60% higher rates)

Malaysia rumour spread that cd contact dead by dialing 999-999 but simply connected to emergency service (999) when operator answered, callers thought they'd got thru to spirit world so started incantations etc


Cell ph tracker - meant to be for when stolen, but main market turns out to be suspicious partners

Real Dolls

Among the best-selling and most controversial toys of this past holiday season were the $39.95 Mattel "Gotta Go" Doll and the $59.95 Hasbro Baby Alive, both because of their interactive features, especially their digestion/excretion functions. The latter doll comes with its own food ("green beans," bananas") and a warning ("May stain some surfaces"). The Gotta Go includes a toilet and brings the flushing process to life for the child. An industry insider told the Washington Post that next season's toys would be even more realistic.

Unusual Inventions

Toothpaste that glows in the dark
Portable pedestrian crossing
Alibi radio stations (play selected sound effects when you're calling from a bar)
airtight underwear, complete with flatulence filter


Dave Barry article on leafblowers ("the ideal guy tool: it as a loud motor, looks like a ray gun and you can blast debris around without actually picking it up") ("I bet that somewhere in America there's a guy who's cleaned his house with one")
Anyway, this is the situation: Guy A blew all his leaves next door. Guy B then had a range of choices, and if you think he took one of those options, you are, with respect, a woman. He did what 175% of the guys reading this column would have done. Finally a deputy sheriff was despached to the scene. After carefully listening to both sides, he shot both of them in the head to improve the gene pool (well actually he couldn't decide so he just yelled at them both). I'm sure that both guys have learnt a lesson from this about how things can escalate, and they will have thought about it and decided .... to get bigger leafblowers

Old Stuff

The Japanese throw away last year's appliances - leave on footpath, whereas India and Vietnam they recycle everything - rows of footpath stalls where guys rebuild electronics and household equipment

Creative Inventors and Inventions

Wired: What makes squatter cities so important? Stewart Brand: That's where vast numbers of humans - slum dwellers - are doing urban stuff in new and amazing ways. And hell's bells, there are a billion of them! People are trying desperately to get out of poverty, so there's a lot of creativity; they collaborate in ways that we've completely forgotten how to do in regular cities. And there's a transition: People come in from the countryside, enter the rickshaw economy, and work for almost nothing. But after a while, they move uptown, into the formal economy. The United Nations did extensive field research and flipped from seeing squatter cities as the world's great problem to realizing these slums are actually the world's great solution to poverty.

Creative Uses

TV-B-Gone single button remote which can turn off any brand of TV - sends out 200+ OFF signals of every brand of TV so can turn off tvs in public places that piss you off

Cell Phones

Big Brother may not be watching you, but your cellphone carrier is. Mark Spitz, a German Green Party politician and privacy advocate, was curious about exactly what his cellphone company, Deutsche Telekom, knew about his whereabouts, so he took them to court. The results were eye-opening: During a six-month period, from August 31, 2009, to February 28, 2010, the company had recorded and saved his longitude and latitude coordinates a whopping 35,000 times, tracing his every move. Experts say Spitz has provided an unprecedented look into how cellphone companies track their users. About every seven seconds, your cellphone company will determine the nearest cell tower to efficiently route calls, and then, for billing purposes, track your location and how long the call lasted. In the U.S., telecommunications companies don't have to report the material they collect, and both the FBI and DEA often use cellphone records to pinpoint suspects. "I want to show the political message that this kind of data retention is really, really big and you can really look into the life of people for six months and see what they are doing where they are," said Spitz.

Some Lighter Conversation Starters About Inventors and Inventions

athiest dial-a-prayer - no-one answers
if it wasn't for Thomas Edison we'd all be watching TV by candlelight
if it wasn't for venetians it'd be curtains for all of us
if you understand it its obsolete