Who would have thought that Thomas Edison, Eli Whitney, and Alexander Graham Bell would be on the same list as Eddie Van Halen and Marlon Brando? They are, among other pop culture icons, listed by the United States Patent & Trademark Office as inventors.
Let’s start with musicians. It makes sense that Eddie Van Halen’s (my personal teenage hero) patents are guitar related (US 4,656,917). He patented an instrument support device back in 1987, and has been granted two more guitar related patents since. Harry Connick, Jr. holds a patent for a system that coordinates musical displays for musicians in an orchestra (US 6,348,648), and Prince invented a portable electronic keyboard (US D349,127). Marlon Brando was not known for his musical talent. However, in 2002 he was granted a patent for a device that automatically tunes drumheads (US 6,410,833). Probably the most recognizable invention in the musical category is Michael Jackson’s anti-gravity shoes (US 5,255,452). In the video “Smooth Criminal” he leans forward at gravity defying angles, because he came up with the idea to fit the shoes to the floor with special slots.
Moving on to actors, Gary Burghoff, Radar from M*A*S*H, apparently enjoys fishing. He holds a patent for an electronic fish attractor device (US 5,235,774). In 1987, Jamie Lee Curtis patented a disposable diaper/baby wipe combination system (US 4,753,647). She refused to allow it to be marketed until companies started selling biodegradable diapers, and it expired in 2007. Then there is Julie Newmar, Catwoman from the 1960’s Batman series. The title of her design patent says it all: “Pantyhose With Shaping Band For Cheeky Derriere Relief” (US 3,914,799). One of the most significant inventions to impact the 20th century was held by Hedy Lamarr, a 1940’s film actress. She was born in Austria to Jewish parents and of course hated Hitler. During her time in Austria, she was married to an arms dealer and had learned quite a bit about weaponry. She and her co-inventor, a musical composer, patented a guidance system for torpedoes using “frequency hopping” (US 2,292,387). She knew that a constantly changing frequency could not be jammed. Ms. Lamarr offered it to the U.S. military, but the device was never put to use during World War II. The patent expired and was later “re-discovered” by Sylvania who called it “spread spectrum technology”. Spread spectrum devices make cell phone and internet communication possible today.
Finally, Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. President to hold a patent. He was granted a patent in 1849 (long before he was elected) for a flotation device for the movement of boats in shallow water, but the device was never put into operation (US 6,469).