27 Patent-Holding Celebrity Inventors

Olivier Le Moal/iStock via Getty Images
Olivier Le Moal/iStock via Getty Images

When we think of inventors, the image that comes to mind is usually that of a frazzled scientist toiling away in a lab, not celebrities pulled from the pages of Us Weekly. However, a number of well-known public figures hold patents for various innovations. Some are related to the work that made them famous, while others are offshoots of hobbies or just a single great idea. Here are a few of our favorite celebrity inventors.

1. EDDIE VAN HALEN

Part of guitar wizard Eddie Van Halen's signature sound was his two-handed tapping technique, but letting all ten fingers fly while simultaneously holding up the guitar's neck could get a bit tricky. Van Halen came up with a novel way to get around this problem, though; he invented a support (top) that could flip out of the back of his axe's body to raise and stabilize the fretboard so he could tap out searing songs like "Eruption." While Van Halen was obviously interested in improving his guitar work, the patent application he filed in 1985 notes that the device would work with any stringed instrument. Want to tap out a scorching mandolin solo? Find someone selling Eddie's device.

2. James Cameron

It’s probably not surprising that Cameron—who designed a submersible to take him to the deepest known part of the ocean—will often invent technology to make his films if what he needs doesn’t exist. He holds a number of patents, including US Patent No. 4996938, “apparatus for propelling a user in an underwater environment,” that he and his brother, Michael, created to film The Abyss and patented in 1989. The device is basically an underwater dolly equipped with propellers that makes it easy for a camera operator to maneuver in the water—and allowed Cameron to capture the shots he wanted for the 1989 film, part of which was filmed in an abandoned nuclear reactor.

3. ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Lincoln wasn't just splitting rails and winning debates before he moved into the White House. He held quite a few jobs before becoming a politician, and in one of these capacities he helped float a boatload of goods down the Mississippi River. At one point, the boat got stuck in a shallow spot, and it took quite a bit of effort to wrench it free. Lincoln thought that there must have been a better way to keep ships off of shoals, so he invented a convoluted device that involved putting a set of bellows on the bottom of a boat. Lincoln's reasoning was that if the boat got in a sticky situation, sailors could fill the bellows with air to make the ship more buoyant.

Lincoln received Patent Number 6469 for this invention in 1849, but unfortunately, Abe's creation never made it into stores. It turned out that all of the extra weight associated with adding the bellows device to a ship actually made it more likely that the boat would get stuck.

4. STEVE MCQUEEN

McQueen's driving abilities extended far beyond his legendary racing scenes in The Great Escape and Bullitt. In fact, he was a pretty serious motorcycle and car racer who toyed with the idea of someday becoming a professional racer. He even competed in some big-name races, like the prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring. McQueen didn't just drive his cars, though; he also liked to tinker with them. In 1969, he filed a design patent for an improved bucket seat, and that's how he became the proud owner of patent number D219584.

5. Bill Nye

He's not just the science guy—Bill Nye is also the inventor of a better ballet toe shoe. The design and materials of the traditional pointe shoe have remained unchanged for centuries, Nye points out in the patent application, and can cause a dancer discomfort and even pain. Nye's design takes into account the forces exerted upon a dancer's body when dancing en pointe and provides additional support via a "toe box" located "in the toe of the toe shoe, an upper and an outer sole. Support structure within the toe shoe includes a longitudinal support member, a foot encirculating tubular sleeve, and/or a toe ridge."   

6. JAMIE LEE CURTIS

In 1987 Curtis designed and patented a disposable diaper that included a waterproof pocket that held baby wipes. She hasn't profited from her idea yet, though, since she refuses to license the patent until diaper companies make biodegradable products.

7. George Lucas

If you’ve ever played with a Star Wars toy, chances are George Lucas owns a patent on it. This Boba Fett action figure, which Lucas holds a patent on with co-inventors Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie, was the first of 11 the director would come to hold; it was filed in 1979 and granted in 1982.

8. HEDY LAMARR

Lamarr's name may not be so familiar now, but in the 1930s and 1940s, the Austrian-born MGM actress was one of the hottest things on the silver screen. She was quite the scientist, too. In 1942 Lamarr and composer George Antheil received a patent for a "secret communication system" that could use carrier waves of different frequencies to remotely control devices like zeppelins and torpedoes. Unfortunately, mechanical engineering wasn't quite ready for Lamarr's major breakthrough, and the technology didn't come into use for over 20 years, at which point Lamarr's patent had expired.

9. Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola is a renaissance man. He directs and produces movies. He owns a winery and a restaurant. He's also dabbled in fashion, and holds a patent for a t-shirt with a turtle on it that has its shell divided into numbered regions. The purpose is to "permit the wearer to identify for a third party a particular location on the wearer's body" in the event of something like an unreachable itch. The patent describes the scenario in detail: 

It can be especially difficult for a person to scratch his or her own itch when the location of the itch is in a hard-to-reach spot such as the back. ... [A]bsent a device such as a scratching stick, a person with an itch in a hard-to-reach location must ask a second party to scratch the itch. This, in turn, requires orienting the second-party-scratcher by using a series of directions, which are often being misunderstood by the second party. ... “Could you scratch lower? To the left . . . No, the other left. Now, down lower. To the right. No, no . . . Too far! Back to the left.”  ... [T]here is a need for an object that assists a person in precisely identifying a location on the person's own body for a second party.

It's brilliant, but what else would you expect from the director of The Godfather?

10. PRINCE

Even the man in purple has a patent to call his own. In 1992 Prince got the thumbs-up for a design patent for a "portable keyboard instrument." Yup, it's a keytar. This one's a curvy purple design with two pitchfork-type spikes on the end. In other words, it's something that could only have come out of Prince's noggin.

11. PENN JILLETTE

In 1999 everyone's favorite funnyman illusionist received a patent for a "hydro-therapeutic stimulator." What exactly does that mean? According to the application, it's "a spa of a type including a tub for holding water and a user, in particular, a female user." The spa's jets are strategically located to make the experience a bit more, ah, enjoyable for female bathers.

12. Paula Abdul

Most mic stands are flat-bottomed, and meant to stay in one position on the stage, which requires a performer to be close to the microphone in order to be heard—or to drag the heavy mic stand along the stage. That just didn't work for Paula Abdul, who in 2009 patented her own mic stand, a "dynamic microphone support apparatus." Her device has a concave base filled with cement and a cover on the base that "is positioned over the base and covers the compartment such that weight of a user positioned on the base cover applied in a direction causes the base to tilt with respect to the surface in the direction; and a rod member." The resulting invention looks like a cross between a workout apparatus, a mic stand, and a death trap, but because the base is weighted, the singer can stand on top and move around without fear of falling over.

13. MARLON BRANDO

To say Brando got a bit eccentric in his golden years is something of an understatement, but the aging actor also started to get innovative. Brando's inventiveness focused on the drums, and in 2002 he received a patent for a "drumhead tensioning device and method," one of several patents he held for drum devices.

14. Andy Warhol

Not content with just one watch face, Andy Warhol created a watch with five, which was patented by the American Watch Company after the artist's death.

15. LAWRENCE WELK

Your grandma's favorite accordionist and bandleader was also an inventor. In 1953, Welk received a design patent for a new type of ashtray that looked like (what else?) an accordion. Not a huge breakthrough for humanity, but it went nicely with Welk's other patent; ten years earlier he had received a design patent for a menu card that looked like a singing chicken.

16. ZEPPO MARX

Zeppo may not have had the same comedic chops as Groucho, but he was handy with inventions. In 1969 Zeppo was part of a team that received a patent for a cardiac pulse rate monitor that was designed to let people with heart problems know if their pulse was shifting into a danger zone.

17. CHRISTIE BRINKLEY

The supermodel received a patent for an educational toy she designed in 1991 that seems to mostly be useful for helping kids learn the alphabet.

18. MICHAEL JACKSON

How did Michael Jackson seemingly lean in defiance of gravity in the video for "Smooth Criminal"? He wore a pair of specially designed shoes that could hitch into a device hidden beneath the stage. Jackson and two co-inventors patented this "method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion" in 1993.

19. GARY BURGHOFF

The man who played Radar on M*A*S*H also invented a device he calls "Chum Magic," a floating apparatus that fishermen can fill with chum to lure fish to their boats. He received a patent for the device in 1992.

20. Albert Einstein

It's probably not surprising that this Nobel-award winning scientist holds 50 patents for things like hearing devices, refrigerators, and compasses. But one of his patents is not like the others: In 1936, Einstein patented a design for "a new, original, and ornamental" blouse: "The design is characterized by the side openings A-A (Fig. 2) which also serve as arm holes; a central back panel extends from the yoke to the waistband as indicated at B." Smart and fashionable, that Einstein.

21. Mark Twain

The writer formerly known as Samuel Clemens loved to scrapbook—but he hated the standard scrapbooking process. So in 1872, he invented a better scrapbook:

The nature of my invention consists in a selfpasting scrap-book ... The leaves of which the Book A ... are entirely covered, on one or both sides, with mucilage or other suitable adhesive substance, while the leaves of which the book B is composed have the mucilage or adhesive substance applied only at intervals ... It is only necessary to moisten so much of the leaf as will contain the piece to be pasted in, and place such piece thereon, when it will stick to the leaf.

According to PBS, by 1901 there were 57 different types of his new scrapbook available. Twain also patented an "improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments" in 1871, which was referenced in a 1999 patent for a bra arrangement.

22. Steven Spielberg

The man behind Jaws holds a patent for a dolly switch, filed in 1999, as well as a patent for "Method and apparatus for annotating a document," filed in 2011. It allows those editing a digital document—a script, say—to do so from anywhere; it also allows them to add verbal annotations to the document. Spielberg has also filed a patent for a holodeck. 

23. JULIE Newmar

In 1974, the actress better known as Catwoman patented the delightfully named "pantyhose with shaping band for cheeky derriere relief." What makes it so much better than regular pantyhose? According to the patent, "An elastic shaping band is attached to the rear panty portion and is connected from the vicinity of the crotch to the vicinity of the waist band and fits between the wearer's buttocks to delineate the wearer's derriere in cheeky relief." Okay then.

24. Neil Young

You know him as a rock legend, but Neil Young also loves trains—so much that he owns a stake in a model train manufacturing company and has an extensive collection. He also holds seven patents related to model trains, including Patent No. US5441223, "Model train controller using electromagnetic field between track and ground."

25. Kurt Vonnegut Sr.

In 1946, the father of author and Saab dealership manager Kurt Vonnegut Jr. patented an easy-clean tobacco pipe "which may be cleaned without disturbing the burning tobacco in the bowl" and also without dirtying the fingers. 

26. Charles Fleischer

The voice behind the title character (among others) in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? patented a toy egg "adapted for pulling, stretching, and bouncing which includes two intertwined helically cut shells" in 1979.

27. Jamie Hyneman

He's held a number of jobs—boat captain, dive master, and pet shop owner among them—but as head of special effects company M5, MythBusters star Jamie Hyneman patented a "Remote control device with gyroscopic stabilization and directional control" in 2000.

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

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