October 31, 2013
It’s not Halloween until you’ve carved a pumpkin.
But as the clock ticks down to All Hallows Eve—and you scramble to outdo that smug Heisenberg grin your neighbor carefully carved last weekend—you might have stepped back from the kitchen table, cursing the slimy, stringy gourd innards tangled around your hands, and wondered why you were doing this to yourself.
(Or, perhaps, if the money you dropped on that electric pumpkin carving knife was really worth it).
All arrows seem to point to an old Irish legend about a man named Stingy Jack, who convinced the devil not to send him to hell for his sins when he died. The trick was on Jack, though, when he did die later—heaven shut him out, too, for bargaining with the man downstairs, and he was left to wander and haunt the Earth. Irish families began to carve crude, wild faces into turnips or potatoes come Halloween, illuminating them with candles to scare Jack and other wandering spirits away.
When immigrants brought the tradition to America in the 19th century, pumpkins became the vehicle for ghoulish faces. In 2012, Farmers harvested 47,800 acres of pumpkins in 2012, crops worth $149 million, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. This year, the National Retail Federation estimates consumers will spend $6.9 billion on Halloween products, including those handy carving tools and kits.
The genius behind those tools is a group smaller than you might think. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says there have been fewer than 50 (probably closer to 30) patents issued for pumpkin or vegetable carving tools or kits, most of them issued in the past 40 years.
And while today we’ve become obsessed with clever ways to carve a pumpkin (yes, extremepumpkins.com does exist) most inventions stick to the classic Jack-o-Lantern face.
One of the earliest patents relied on simple tools — cords, plates and screws— to allow even the youngest and clumsiest among us to create a scary-looking gourd.
Harry Edwin Graves, from Toledo, Ohio—a state that yields the third highest number pumpkins in the United States each year—earned a patent in 1976 for his invention, which he called simply an “apparatus for forming a jack-o-lantern.”
Graves knew, according to his application, that “It has been a very difficult, if not impossible, task for small children to make their own jack-o-lantern from a pumpkin” because the thick wall of the vegetable can be tough to puncture using kid-sized hands and arms.
His solution: a metal or plastic contraption that surrounded the pumpkin, with small plates in the shapes of a mouth, nose and eyes. By slipping the invention over the pumpkin, children can turn a screw on the front of each facial feature, engaging a blade that cuts through the shell and then retracts.
But threading plates together—or wielding a steak knife—was still for many a cumbersome task.
And so with the 1980s—along with cringe-worthy neon clothing choices, MTV, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince—came a decade bursting with new patents for carving pumpkins.
In 1981, Christopher A. Nauman, of Frederick, Maryland, earned a patent for a method of carving Jack-o-Lanterns that was safer, he said, because it relied on cookie-cutter facial features and not carving objects.
While using cookie cutter shapes wasn’t a new idea, Nauman distinguished his design by contouring the cookie cutters to better fit against the curved surface of the pumpkin. And, when users hit the top edge of each shape, the cookie cutter presses directly through the pumpkin, which means users don’t have to go searching for pins or knives to pry the cookie cutters out of the pumpkin’s face.
Cookie cutter-shapes were also the inspiration for Thomas C. Albanese’s design, but his 1987 patent—which he claimed could “overcome the shortcomings of the prior art”—included a detachable handle. The handle gives enough leverage to push the beveled edge of the shapes, from eyebrows to crooked teeth, through the pumpkin wall; the hollow shapes also hold on to the cut piece of pumpkin as it’s removed from the gourd, so stray hunks of the shell aren’t trapped inside the lantern, though admittedly that last step seems to work better in theory than in practice.
But the real advent of what we know today as pumpkin carving kits came in the late 1980s, thanks to a man named Paul John Bardeen.
Bardeen, according to patent documents, is considered among the first to develop tools that allowed Halloween lovers to carve intricate designs on their pumpkins, instead of crude, block-shaped faces.
He developed new saws and small knives, but more importantly, pattern sheets, which allowed pumpkin carvers to take a lot of the guesswork out of the process.
Bardeen died in 1983, but his children, wanting to continue his legacy, formed a company now known as Pumpkin Masters to sell the kits and continue to dream up ways to simplify or improve the carving process.
Bardeen apparently never filed a patent of his own, but his son, John P. Bardeen, used his father’s design to earn his own patent on a pumpkin carving kit in 1989, taking the kit to the mass market for the first time. The kit packaged slightly more sophisticated saws and drills with a number of pattern sheets, decorated with a series of holes in the shapes of facial features and other designs. Carvers used a corsage pin to poke holes through the surface of the pumpkin, and after removing the sheets, connected the dots with cutting tools to form faces or drawings of cats and bats. A bonus: the kit also included an instruction book that detailed which tools to use when carving some of the kit’s designs.
Bardeen’s kit got traction in the late 1980s when he appeared on “Monday Night Football” with a pumpkin carved to show the likeness of the show’s hosts; he reportedly (did he or didn’t he? We can’t confirm?) went on a “pumpkin tour” in the years that followed, carving pumpkins for “Seinfeld” and the “Today Show,” among other stars, and perhaps sparking new imagination behind the lanterns people put out on their porches.
But even after etching words, animals and celebrity faces into pumpkins became all the rage, the market for new pumpkin tools kept chugging to the tune of “Pumpkin Carving for Dummies”- or, more recently, avoiding the actual act of carving all together.
In 2000, John P. Bardeen’s former wife, Kea Bardeen, developed a kit that included transfer sheets so consumers could literally “slap and go.” Some sheets are pre-made, already stamped with bright colors, while others are drawn without color or blank, so they can be decorated and embellished with markers and paints. The designs are pressed and transferred onto the surface of the pumpkin with a transfer sheet and paste, water solvent or glue.
The beauty of this design, for those who despise the thought of spending days picking stray pumpkin seeds off the floor, is choosing how much work to put into your pumpkin. It would be especially useful for young children, as the kit is essentially a giant coloring book (that makes, compared to paper and crayons, just a bit more of a mess). But going this route—which more or less makes your creation irrelevant after dark—is technically just pumpkin painting, an activity most of us preferred to put behind us come kindergarten.
Enter the lazy man (or woman)’s way to carve.
In 2001, Michael A. Lani developed carving plates that poke holes into a pumpkin’s surface, but unlike Bardeen’s design, this invention does the hard work for you. The design involves a flexible plastic plate with pins arranged in the shape of a Jack-O-Lantern face, which lets you poke the design into a pumpkin with just a simple push of the plate — much faster than working through dozens of holes with a single corsage pin.
And for those of us for whom pins are too much work — or really need to let out some of that anger from the office— the Halloween pumpkin punch out kit might be the best option. The 2008 design by Laraine and Randy Reffert of Ohio includes metal facial features that you quite literally punch through the surface of the pumpkin, usually with a hammer.
But even pumpkin carving has had to eventually join the electronics age.
In 2009, a group of inventors from Ohio patented an electric knife with a blade adapted to cut through the shell and pulp of a pumpkin—but, thankfully, “not readily cut the skin and flesh of humans.”
The knife, though plastic, allows for “faster, more precise carving of pumpkins with less physical force being required.” The knife, powered by batteries, is turned on or off with a push button on the front of the handle so you can stop and go as needed.
Now, everyone from Martha Stewart to the Boston Red Sox have printable templates on their site — and there are even ways you can carve any picture into the front of a pumpkin, too.
It seems the bar for Jack-O-Lanterns is climbing each year, and if you want to keep up it could be time to call in the big guns. A Google search for electric pumpkin carving knives didn’t yield any products from Emerald Innovations, LCC, to whom the patent is licensed, but similar products are available for anywhere from $4 to $34 — which could just be the price of having the best pumpkin on the block.
October 24, 2013
Walter Hunt (1785-1859), a 19th century engineer and machinist, was only a bit player in the history of the sewing machine but he was a prolific “Yankee mechanical genius” who had a penchant for invention and innovation. Unfortunately for him, he was also a Yankee business dunce. Well, that’s not entirely fair. He was reportedly a benevolent man who believed in helping others over making a profit. But his business acumen was lacking and he rarely had the capability to do more than sell the rights to his designs for much less than they were worth. Hunt’s hundreds of inventions include a saw, a steamer, ink stands, a nail-making machine, a rifle, a revolver, bullets, bicycles, a shirt collar, a boot heel, and a ceiling-walking circus device. Some of these items are still in use today and though Hunt’s name is not well known, his creations are.
Hunt designed the safety pin (top image) in three hours to settle a $15 debt to one of the many draftsman he tasked with drawing up his patents. Similar pins had existed for ages but nothing so efficient, made from just a single piece of wire. The draftsman, J.R. Chapin, later paid Hunt $400 for all the rights to every variation of twisted wire than Hunt could think up.
Hunt also played an early but critical role in the successful development of the American Arms industry. His 1849 design for a “Volitional Repeater” rifle made clever use of several other recent discoveries in repeating mechanisms, breech loading and bullets. While it was a brilliant display of innovation, it was also prone to failure. In characteristic fashion, Hunt sold his design to entrepreneur George Arrowsmith. Soon after, the design went into production by the Robins and Lawrence Arms Company, where three men worked on improvements to the firing mechanism: Benjamin Tyler Henry, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson. Thanks to Hunt’s faulty design, the partnership of Smith & Wesson was born. In 1855, an arms conglomerate directed by Oliver F. Winchester bought out Smith & Wesson’s company among other purchases, eventually forming the New Haven Arms Company, which produced one of the most fearsome weapons of the Civil War: the Henry repeating rifle. None of it would have happened without Walter Hunt’s volitional repeater.
Hunt is sometimes called the man who gave away a fortune — an appellation that could apply for a number of reasons. The images included in this post are only a very few of Hunt’s many designs. There’s little doubt that he was not a particularly gifted businessman who was constantly in debt, spending all his money on patents and other costs related to his almost compulsive inventiveness. Nonetheless, he seems to have truly been a man who enjoyed the process of creation over reward and riches, though he ultimately did okay for himself thanks to his various designs for bullets and casings. Hunt could’ve been another Edison, but he didn’t have the discipline. Instead, he spent his life in the shadow of men like Oliver Winchester and Elias Howe. And sadly, that is how he spends his death as well. I haven’t been out to pay a visit to Hunt’s grave yet, but according to the comprehensive sewing history website Sewalot, Hunt’s grave, which is not entirely immodest, can be found in the shadow of the much larger burial monument of Elias Howe.
October 16, 2013
In the early years of the 19th century, the invention of the sewing machine was all but inevitable. Factories were filling with seamstresses and tailors, and savvy inventors and entrepreneurs around the world saw the stitching on the trousers. There were an incredible number of machine designs, patents, and — some things never change — patent lawsuits.
Here’s a brief overview describing some of the greatest hits (and misses) to illustrate the heady mix of industrialism, politics and revolutionary rhetoric that surrounded the development of the sewing machine.
The design of the first sewing machine actually dates back to the late 18th century, when an English cabinetmaker by the name of Thomas Saint drew up plans for a machine that could stitch leather. He patented the design as “An Entire New Method of Making and Completing Shoes, Boots, Spatterdashes, Clogs, and Other Articles, by Means of Tools and Machines also Invented by Me for that Purpose, and of Certain Compositions of the Nature of Japan or Varnish, which will be very advantageous in many useful Appliances.”
The rather prolix title partly explains why the patented was eventually lost – it was filed under apparel. It’s not known if Saint actually built any of his designs before he died, but a functioning replica was built 84 years later by William Newton Wilson. Though it’s not exactly practical, the hand-cranked machine worked after a few slight modifications.
In the first half of the 19th century there was an explosion of sewing machine patents – and patent infringement cases. In 1814, Viennese tailor Josef Madersperger was granted a patent on a design for a sewing machine he had been developing for nearly a decade. Madersperger built several machines. The first was apparently designed to sew only straight lines while later machines may have been specially made to create embroidery, capable of stitching small circles and ovals. The designs were well received by the Viennese public but the inventor wasn’t happy with the reliability of his machines and he never made one commercially available. Madersperger would spend the rest of his life trying to perfect his design, a pursuit that would exhaust his last penny and send him to the poorhouse – literally; he died in a poorhouse.
In France, the first mechanical sewing machine was patented in 1830 by tailor Barthélemy Thimonnier, whose machine used a hooked or barbed needle to produce a chain stitch. Unlike his predecessors, Thimonnier actually put his machine into production and was awarded a contract to produce uniforms for the French army. Unfortunately, also like his predecessors, he met with disaster. A mob of torch-waving tailors worried about losing their livelihood stormed his factory, destroying all 80 of his machines. Thimonnier narrowly escaped, picked himself up by his mechanically-assembled bootstraps, and designed an even better machine. The unruly tailors struck again, destroying every machine save one, with which Thimonnier was able to escape. He attempted to start over in England but his efforts were for naught. In 185,7 Barthélemy Thimonnier also died in a poorhouse.
So things didn’t turn out well for three of the more prominent early enablers of prêt-à-porter apparel in Europe. But what was going on across the pond? What was going on in that upstart nation of go-getters, problem solvers, and destiny manifesters? Well that’s where things get really interesting.
Walter Hunt was a prolific inventor and was described by Smithsonian curator Grace Rogers Cooper in her 1968 paper, The Invention of the Sewing Machine, as a “Yankee mechanical genius.” He designed a nail-making machine, a plow, a bullet, a bicycle and the safety pin, which was designed in three hours to settle a $15 debt. A clever man who was attuned to the tenor of the times, Hunt understood the value of a machine that could sew and set out to built one in 1832. He designed a simple machine that used two needles, one with an eye in its point, to produce a straight “lock stitch” seam and encouraged his daughter to open a business producing corsets. But Hunt had second thoughts. He was dismayed by the prospect that his invention might put seamstresses and tailors out of work, so he abandoned his machine in 1838 having never filed for a patent. But that same year, a poor tailor’s apprentice in Boston named Elias Howe began working a very similar idea.
After failing to build a machine that reproduced his wife’s hand motions, Howe scrapped the design and started again; this time, he inadvertently invented a hand-cranked machine almost identical to Hunt’s. He earned a patent for his design in 1846 and staged a man-vs-machine challenge, beating five seamstresses with work that was faster and in every way superior. Yet the machine was still seen as somewhat scandalous, and Howe failed to attract any buyers or investors. Undeterred, he continued to improve his machine.
A series of unfortunate business decisions, treacherous partners, and a trip oversees left Howe destitute in London. What’s more, his wife’s health was failing and he had no means to get back to her in America. He was very close to suffering the same fate that befell Thimonnier, becoming just another dead inventor in the poorhouse. After pawning his machines and patent papers to pay for steerage back to the States in 1849, the distraught Howe returned to his wife just in time to stand by her bedside as she died. Adding insult to injury, he learned that the sewing machine had proliferated in his absence – some designs were almost copies of his original invention while others were based on ideas he patented in 1846. Howe had received no royalties for any of the machines- royalties that likely could have saved his wife’s life. Destitute and alone, he pursued his infringers fiercely, with the single-minded dedication of a bitter man with nothing left to lose. Many paid him his due immediately but others fought Howe in court. He won every single case.
Soon after the conclusion of his last court case, Howe was approached with a unique offer. An machinist by the name of Isaac Singer had invented his own sewing machine that was different in almost every way than Howe’s; every way except one – its eye-pointed needle. That little needle cost Singer thousands of dollars in royalties, all paid to Howe, but inspired the country’s first patent pool. Singer gathered together seven manufactures –all of whom had likely lost to Howe in court– to share their patents. They needed Howe’s patents as well and agreed to all his terms: every single manufacturer in the United States would pay Howe $25 for every machine sold. Eventually, the royalty was reduced to $5 but it was still enough to ensure that by the time Elias Howe died in 1867, he was a very, very rich man, having earned millions from patent rights and royalties. Singer didn’t do too bad for himself either. He had a penchant for promotion and, according to American Science and Invention earned the dubious recognition of becoming the first man to spend more than $1 million dollars a year on advertising. It worked though. The world hardly remembers Elias Howe, Walter Hunt, Barthélemy Thimonnier, Josef Madersperger, and Thomas Saint, but Singer is practically synonymous with sewing machine.
October 11, 2013
Today, we collapse space and time without even thinking about it. With a touch of our fingers, we can instantly extend ourselves into the ether and around the world from the backseat of a station wagon. We have become a culture of conjurers and time lords. Ok, that might be overstating things a bit, but you get the idea.
The wondrous information and communication technologies that define our age have their origins in some of the most basic of scientific principles and were first manifest in the 18th century electric telegraph. But that too had a precedent. Originally, the word “telegraph” –literally “to write at a distance”– referred to a relay communication system developed in 18th-century France by the Brothers Chappe. The Chappe semaphore telegraph consisted of a series of towers topped with three rotating arms or panels that could be moved into nearly 200 standard positions, each assigned a unique value or meaning. Messages could be relayed across vast distances by transmitting from one tower or hill (hence, “Telegraph Hill”) to another up to 15 miles away; operators used telescopes to observe and decode the message before doing the hard work of cranking their own semaphore panels into place to relay the message further down the line.
It was the fastest way to send messengers and in the early 19th century a young but battle-weary American government offered $30,000 (roughly $440,000 today) to anyone who could build a semaphore telegraph system spanning 1,000 miles. It seemed an impossible task. The challenge was largely ignored and promptly forgotten – but never rescinded. Years later, in 1837, Samuel Morse would hear of the offer and approach Congress with an invention that must have seemed like magic or some sort of hoax.
Though best known today for the coded system of dots and dashes that (perhaps unjustly) bears his name, Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) started out as a promising painter. By 1815, the young Morse was making a solid living as a portraitist. As is wont to happen for young artists (not to mention young countries), Morse’s fortunes rose and fell dramatically for the next few years as he traveled back and forth between America and Europe, eventually painting The Louvre, which he hoped would be a masterpiece of the caliber never seen by American audiences. In 1832, Morse boarded The Sully and set sail for his return to America, but during the month-long voyage, his life would change course dramatically.
Aboard the Sully, Morse had a conversation with a fellow passenger about recent experiments in electromagnetism. Although he was completely ignorant of the scientific principles behind the discovery, he became fascinated by the possibility of sending coded messages over a wire. Morse made a few impossible sketches describing a system of an electromagnet and basic stylus to transcribe a primitive code and left the ship determined to realize his invention, reportedly telling the captain as he departed, “If you ever hear of the ‘telegraph’ as one of the wonders of the world, remember that it was invented on the Sully.”
Over the next five years, Morse would slowly develop his idea while continuing to paint, teach at New York Univeristy, and flirt with poverty. Unsurprising given Morse’s complete naiveté reading electricity, there was a lot of trial and error in the early development of the telegraph and, although popular histories tend to perpetuate the myth of the individual genius who single-handedly changes the world, there were many other people were critical in the development of the telegraph.
Leonard Gale, a chemistry instructor at NYU, taught a struggling Morse how to make a basic electromagnet and helped him assemble a primitive apparatus that could send a signal of 1,000 feet. Joseph Henry, a pioneer in electromagnetics, developed the electric relays that made it possible for telegraph signals to travel great distances (and later became the first Secretary of the Smithsonian.) Some the greatest contributions came from Alfred Vail, Morse’s assistant and the son of one of his benefactors, who was largely responsible for developing the coded system of dots and dashes that would ultimately bear Morse’s’ name.
By 1837 Morse had completed a prototype of the device he first sketched aboard the Sully. Built from one of his easels, it was far too large and incredibly rudimentary, but it worked.
The prototype was really just a proof-of-concept used to get Morse the $30,000 offered by the government long ago. Congress begrudgingly funded the project and in 1844 the famous first telegraph message traveled almost instantaneously across the 40 miles between Baltimore and Washington D.C.: “What Hath God Wrought.” America had entered the information Age. The telegraph exploded. Within the next 10 years, 23,000 miles of telegraph wire crossed the country and the made a significant impact on westward development. New business emerged and new jobs were created to install and maintain the system of wires.
Though Morse’s name ended up on all the patents, it was the inventive and unaccredited Vail who came up with the familiar telegraph key and was responsible for miniaturizing the machine to make it practical. Over the course of their collaboration, Morse and Vail developed several other designs for a telegraph and spent a lot of time in court, defending their patents from infringement.
Other inventors and designers always found ways around Morse’s patents, creating improved, or at the very least, idiosyncratic, versions of the telegraph.
Various machines were developed and abandoned, operating companies were formed and disbanded, and lines were built and broken, but the telegraph lived on, slowly connecting the country and significantly aiding westward expansion. By the 1860s, most of these patents had been bought by the upstart Western Union Telegraph Company, who combined the best aspects of every telegraph design and gave order to the now transcontinental telegraph network. For the first time, space and time collapsed in 19th century America and suddenly great distances didn’t seem so great.
October 8, 2013
Founded in 1897, Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is the country’s only museum dedicated solely to historic and contemporary design. As part of their mission to educate the public on all things design-related and spread awareness of the many ways design can enhance our lives, each year the museum organizes the National Design Awards. As the name suggests, the awards are given to U.S.-based designers “in recognition of excellence, innovation, and enhancement of the quality of life,” with categories in architecture, fashion, interaction design, product design and more. Awards are determined by a diverse jury of prestigious design professionals that this year includes, among others, Jury Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design at The Art Institute of Chicago Zoë Ryan, architect Tom Mayne, of Morphosis, Kickstarter design director Charles Adler, and you. Yes, you.
Cooper-Hewitt wants to know what you think makes for good design and one prize, The People’s Design Award, is determined by a public vote. For once, we’re not talking about designing the vote, but voting for design. Until this Friday, October 11, you can choose your favorite life-changing design innovation from among twenty potential candidates representing all the above mentioned categories.
Nominees include a hand crank to charge your gadgets, portable medical equipment, an artful video game designed to be played but not won, a mobilized telepresence device that reminds me of an episode of the Big Bang Theory, a device that transforms your hands and fingers into the ultimate computer peripheral, an emergency cell phone that runs on a single AA battery, a snap-together circuit boards that offers to do for engineering what Legos did for architecture, slick-looking technological handlebars with built-in with lights, navigation, and speedometer, a bike helmet vending machine for the urban bike-sharer, and of course, a few apps.
I only have experience with a couple of these, so I’ll keep my opinions brief:
The iOS app Mailbox has completely changed the way I handle email and has helped keep achieve –and maintain!– the once-mythical state of “inbox zero”. Mailbox’s major innovation is a method of archiving email that seems so obvious it’s surprising that it wasn’t widely adopted by other services long ago. Instead of letting messages pile up in your inbox or filing them into folders to be forgotten, Mailbox lets you reschedule an email to respond at a more convenient time. It’s like a snooze button for email that keeps unnecessary messages out of your inbox. A super-clean user-interface and shallow learning curve only make the app better.
Medium is a blogging platform and publishing network founded by two of the minds that brought you twitter. They call it a place to “share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends.” There are a few things that make the platform standout from similar services: its clean design, it’s promise to help writers find an audience “through a combination of algorithmic and editorial curation,” and a unique comment system that doesn’t relegate reader input to the bottom of an article, but alongside it, like annotations. Thus, commenters become collaborators rather than a collection of people yelling in vain from a soapbox at the end of an alley. Right now the service is still in beta, so only a few invited writers can use Medium (but you can request an invite on the site).
All these products and services that have been nominated offer something new. But which design matters the most to you? Which design has the potential to change lives around the world? Which one offers an elegant solution to a problem? Which one will improve your everyday routine? However you decide whats important, cast your vote before this Friday, October 11, to help decided the winner of the People’s Design Award. The winner be be announced at the National Design Awards gala and online on October 17.