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?
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.