35 Lesser-Known Inventions of Famous Inventors

A photo of inventor Thomas Edison, who was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847.
A photo of inventor Thomas Edison, who was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You've heard of the light bulb and the telephone, but what about Thomas Edison's terrifying talking doll and Alexander Graham Bell's metal detector? Below, in a list adapted from The List Show on YouTube, are just a few other lesser-known inventions of famous inventors.

1. Metal Detector // Alexander Graham Bell

In 1881, after President James Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, doctors struggled to locate the bullet—and spent a lot of time trying to find it by putting their dirty hands directly in Garfield’s body. So Bell made an electromagnetic device with a handle and a telephone receiver that was supposed to alarm when the field was interrupted by metal. He used the device on Garfield twice, but never found the bullet; the fact that Garfield’s mattress contained metal mesh probably didn’t help. In the end, Garfield died not from the bullet wound, but because of an infection likely caused by being operated on by doctors who hadn’t washed their hands. So even if Bell had found the bullet with his metal detector, it might not have made any difference.

2. and 3. Train Bathroom and Air Conditioner // Lewis Latimer

Bell wasn’t the only person involved in the invention of the telephone. Lewis Latimer was a colleague of Bell’s; he drafted the patent that Bell filed for the device. Latimer was also an inventor in his own right: In 1874, he patented a bathroom for a train, and in 1886, he patented an early version of an air conditioner.

4. Hydrodrome Boat // Alexander Graham Bell and Casey Baldwin

Back to Bell: He broke a world record with a boat he’d created with fellow inventor Casey Baldwin. The “hydrodrome” was 60 feet long and traveled at 70mph. Fins under the boat helped it move at that unprecedented pace. Bell hoped it would eventually lead to an aircraft that could lift off from the water.

5. and 6. A Remote-Controlled Boat and A Helicopter Plane // Nikola Tesla

Speaking of boats, in 1898, notable pigeon enthusiast and Tesla coil inventor Nikola Tesla wowed the crowd at an exhibition in Madison Square Garden with a 4-foot-long, battery-powered, remote-controlled boat. Tesla could control its propeller and rudder and even flash its lights using radio signals. At the time, not many people knew about radio waves, and the attendees were astounded. 

Tesla also had hopes of creating an aircraft. The last patent he ever received was for his “helicopter-plane.” It would become airborne the same way as a helicopter, with rotating blades. Once in the sky, the device would shift on its side and the blades would start acting like an airplane propeller. It also had wings like an airplane.

7., 8., and 9. Foot Warmers, a Bread Kneader, and a Device to Keep Trains on the Rails // Maria Beasley

Maria Beasley is best known for her inventions that improved barrel-making and life rafts. (Before her, life rafts were wooden and tended to sink.) But she had a few lesser known inventions: foot warmers, a bread kneader, and a device that prevented trains from derailing.

10. Custom Tools // Henry Ford

Henry Ford was an innovator from a young age. Starting at around 13 years old, he fixed watches for people in his community—and to do so, he invented his own tools. He used nails, knitting needles, and even parts of a corset to make instruments like screwdrivers and tweezers.

11. Soybean Car // Henry Ford and George Washington Carver

Later in life, Ford collaborated with George Washington Carver on the Soybean Car. It was made with 14 panels of plastic that had been created out of soybean and other crops. Ford presented the car in 1941, but World War II interrupted its momentum.

12. Cosmetic Cream // George Washington Carver

Carver also invented a cosmetic cream. He described it in the patent as a “vanishing cream of any desired or usual tint.” It was made of peanuts, contained salicylic acid and perfume, and had powder added for color. By the way, the patent for the cosmetic and the process used to create it was one of just three patents in his name, despite his many inventions and discoveries. The other two were related to producing paints and stains.

13. and 14. Performance Platforms and Huggable Hangers // Joy Mangano

If you’re a Home Shopping Network (or Jennifer Lawrence) fan, you probably know of Joy Mangano, most famous for the Miracle Mop. She also invented Performance Platforms, a type of sneaker with a platform heel that’s supposed to tone leg muscles, and Huggable Hangers, those thin, velvet hangers that fit very closely together.

15. Giving to Charity Over Text // Marian Croak

Marian Croak is currently best known for being a VP of Engineering at Google. She has over 100 patents related to voice-over Internet protocol, which is what allows us to Skype. Beyond that, she has 100 other patents, one of which is the process that gets used when someone donates to charity over text message.

16. Harpoon Gun // Clarence Birdseye

Clarence Birdseye is best known for creating the processes that allow for the entire frozen foods industry to exist. But he filed hundreds of patents in his lifetime. One was for a harpoon gun, and what set it apart from other harpoon guns was that it didn’t recoil after you shot it, which didn’t do much except for make shooting a little less annoying.

17., 18., and 19. A Robe Clasp, A Numbering Machine, and a "Dress Shield" // Margaret Knight

While working at a paper bag company during the 19th century, Margaret Knight invented a device that mechanized the bag cutting and folding process. It also gave the bags square bottoms, a unique feature at the time. A year before she died, The New York Times declared that “at the age of seventy [Margaret] is working twenty hours a day on her eighty-ninth invention” having already created a robe clasp, a numbering machine, and a “dress shield” to keep things from staining clothes.

20. and 21. Wooden Paddles and the Armonica // Benjamin Franklin

Like Ford, Benjamin Franklin started young. When he was 11, he made 10-inch wooden paddles to attach to his wrists, which he hoped would make him swim faster. They worked, but they were too heavy, so they tired him out.

In the mid-1700s, Franklin saw someone playing what were basically wine glasses with their fingers. So he created an instrument out of the concept: the armonica. It had 37 glass bowls, painted different colors for each note. You played it by pressing a foot pedal; that spun the bowls, which you’d touch with wet fingers. The armonica became quite popular—Marie Antoinette learned to play, and Mozart and Beethoven both composed music for the instrument. But the armonica’s popularity didn't last. Its rise coincided with a fear that music, of all things, could cause headaches, hysteria, and death, especially for performers. The armonica in particular became a scapegoat.

22. Mock Trial Card Game // Elizabeth Magie

Elizabeth Magie famously invented Monopoly as an anti-capitalist game known as The Landlord’s Game, before Charles Darrow stole the idea and sold it to Parker Brothers. But she’d actually previously worked with Parker Brothers: They had published her lesser-known lighthearted card game Mock Trial in 1910.

23., 24., and 25. A Diving Suit, a Giant Crossbow, and a Robotic Knight // Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci designed a few inventions that he didn’t create in real life, like the scuba suit. He hoped it would help with naval attacks. (In fact, he kept it an extremely closely guarded secret because he thought it had so much military potential.) The suit itself would be made out of leather and have tubes for air. And, naturally, there was a place for the wearer to pee.

Also for the military, Leonardo da Vinci designed a crossbow with a width of about 80 feet. It would fire large objects like bombs, but the main goal was to freak out your enemies.

Leonardo sketched a robotic knight, filled with gears and wheels, in 1495. Winding a crank would make its arms and mouth move. He also designed it to sit and stand. In the early 2000s, engineer Mark Rosheim used the artist’s design to create a small robot.

26. A Copier // James Watt

The Scottish inventor James Watt is best known for his work on the steam engine, but he also patented a copier in 1780. The technique involved two pages. You’d write on the top page, then use the device to press it against a thinner, see-through page. The ink would get transferred to the second page in reverse, which is why you wanted it to be translucent: You could read it from the other side.

27. An Innovative Air Conditioner // Maria Telkes

Maria Telkes immigrated to the U.S. during the 1920s, after getting her Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Budapest. She went on to become an important solar energy power innovator during the 1940s at MIT. But, in the 1970s, she also had a part in another innovation: a type of air conditioner that used salts to essentially store cool air at night. This would then keep a place cooler during the warm part of the next day, which conserved power.

28. An Ophthalmoscope // Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage was a major early computer pioneer. He also suffered from double vision. So, he invented the first ophthalmoscope, which involved using a mirror to reflect light into a patient’s eye. The device also had an opening that a doctor could look through to see the inner eye. Babbage ended up abandoning the idea because the doctor he was working with wasn’t convinced the device worked and didn’t see the value in it. As a student, the doctor had been caught up in the Burke and Hare murders, which apparently made the doctor, quote, “temperamentally resistant to innovation,” according to The Lancet. Eventually, Hermann Helmholtz designed an ophthalmoscope independently.

29. Airplane Wing De-Icer // Katharine Burr Blodgett

Katharine Burr Blodgett’s most famous invention was non-reflective glass, which helps prevent glare and distortion. It was first used during the 1930s in the film industry, but then went on to change cars, eyeglasses, and even submarines forever. But Blodgett also came up with a way to de-ice airplane wings, which was hugely important during World War II.

30. Bicycles // The Wright Brothers

In addition to being airplane innovators, the Wright Brothers were bicycle innovators. They created bicycles called the St. Clair and the Van Cleve. In the early 20th century, they took a St. Clair and added wing-like parts so they could experiment with airplane wings.

31. A Molecular Knife // Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal was the first person to clone then genetically map HIV, an accomplishment that led to successful HIV testing. In her work with the virus, she also invented a “molecular knife”—an enzyme that could cut through the genetic information in cells.

32., 33., 34., and 35. A Voting Machine, An Electric Pen, A Ghost Detector, and a Talking Doll

As Thomas Edison once said, “I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.” So let’s finish up with few lesser-known Thomas Edison inventions that were not as successful as the light bulb.

Edison’s first-ever patent was for a voting machine that he wanted to incorporate into the D.C. and Massachusetts State Legislature voting process. Legislators would each be given a switch which they could flip to “yes” or “no.” Each switch was electrically connected to a recorder that tallied the votes. But politicians didn’t like the idea—it would have sped up the process too much and prevented things like certain filibustering techniques.

Edison also made an electric pen that, when held over paper, would punch holes (so it was really more like a stencil), and that allowed it to make multiple copies of text at once. It was successful for a bit and eventually fell out of favor. But Samuel F. O’Reilly used it as his inspiration when he invented the electric tattoo needle.

During the 1920s, Edison created a device that was supposed to use light to distinguish tiny particles that came from deceased individuals. He didn’t believe in ghosts, but he did think there was still evidence of people’s personalities hanging around in the air after they died.

Finally, Edison released a terrifying talking doll in 1890 that would give Chucky a run for his money. Each Edison Talking Doll was two feet tall, weighed four pounds, and was equipped with a miniature version of Edison’s phonograph technology. On each cylinder were nursery rhymes, and a child got the doll to “speak” through a speaker in its chest by winding a crank on its back. But the dolls broke easily and definitely looked like they came to life at night. Plus, they cost up to $20 each, which would be about $575 today.

The dolls were a huge failure, and Edison yanked them from stores after they’d been out for just a few weeks. But audio of the dolls still exists, so you can take a listen here. Sweet dreams!

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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7 People Killed by Musical Instruments

On occasion, a piano has been a literal instrument of death.
On occasion, a piano has been a literal instrument of death.
Pixabay, Pexels // Public Domain

We’re used to taking it figuratively. One “slays” on guitar, is a “killer” pianist, or wants to “die” listening to a miraculous piece of music. History, though, is surprisingly rich with examples of people actually killed by musical instruments. Some were bludgeoned and some crushed; others were snuffed out by the sheer effort of performing or while an instrument was devilishly played to cover up the crime. Below are seven people who met their end thanks to a musical instrument.

1. Elizabeth Jackson // Struck with a Flute

A German flute.The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments (1889), Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

David Mills was practicing his flute the night of March 25, 1751, when he got into a heated argument with fellow servant Elizabeth Jackson. A woman “given to passion,” she threw a candlestick at Mills after he said something rude. He retaliated by striking her left temple with his flute before the porter and the footman pulled them apart. Jackson lived for another four hours, able to walk but not make sensible speech. Her fellow servants decided to bleed her, a sadly ineffective treatment for skull fractures. “Her s[k]ull was remarkably thin,” the surgeon testified at Mills’s trial.

2. Louis Vierne // Exhausted by an Organ Recital

Louis Vierne plays the organ of St.-Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris, France.Source: gallica.bnf.fr, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

Reputed to be the king of instruments, the organ requires a performer with an athletic endurance—more than 67-year-old Louis Vierne had to give during a recital at Notre Dame cathedral on June 2, 1937. He collapsed (likely of a heart attack) after playing the last chord of a piece. With a Gallic appreciation for tragedy, one concertgoer noted the piece “bears a title which, given the circumstance, seems like fate and takes on an oddly disturbing meaning: ‘Tombstone for a dead child’!” As Vierne’s lifeless feet fell upon the pedalboard “a low whimper was heard from the admirable instrument, which seemed to weep for its master,” the concertgoer wrote.

3. James “Jimmy the Beard” Ferrozzo // Crushed by a Piano

The exterior of the Condor Club in 1973.Michael Holley, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Getting crushed by a piano is usually the stuff of cartoons, but what happened to James Ferrozzo is somehow even stranger than a cartoon. “A nude, screaming dancer found trapped under a man’s crushed body on a trick piano pinned against a nightclub ceiling was too drunk to remember how she got there,” the AP reported the day after the 1983 incident. The dancer was a new employee at San Francisco’s Condor Club (said to be one of the first, if not the first, topless bar). The man was her boyfriend, the club’s bouncer. And the trick piano was part of topless-dancing pioneer Carol Doda’s act—a white baby grand that lowered her from the second floor. During Ferrozzo’s assignation with the dancer, the piano’s switch was somehow activated, lifting him partway to heaven before deadly contact with the ceiling sent him the rest of the way.

4. Linos // Killed with a Lyre

A student and his music teacher, holding a lyre—potentially Herakles and Linos.Petit Palais, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

One of the greatest music teachers of mythic Ancient Greece, Linos took on Herakles as a pupil. According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, the demi-god “was unable to appreciate what was taught him because of his sluggishness of soul,” and so after a harsh reprimand he flew into a rage and beat Linos to death with his lyre. Herakles dubiously used a sort of ancient stand-your-ground law as a defense during trial and was exonerated. Poor Linos: an honest man beaten by a lyre.

5. Sophia Rasch // Suffocated While a Piano Muffled her Screams

Pixabay, Pexels

No one better proves George Bernard Shaw’s quip that “hell is full of musical amateurs” than Susannah Koczula. “I have seen Susannah trying to play the piano several times—she could not play,” 10-year-old Carl Rasch testified at Koczula’s 1894 trial. Susannah, the Rasch’s caregiver, distracted little Carl, sister Clara, and their neighborhood friend Woolf with an impromptu performance while a gruesome scene unfolded upstairs: Koczula’s husband tied and suffocated Carl and Clara’s mother, Sophia Rasch, before making off with her jewelry. “She banged the piano,” explained Woolf. “I heard no halloaing.”

6. Marianne Kirchgessner // A Nervous Disorder Acquired Playing the Glass Armonica

According to one doctor, Ben Franklin's instrument caused "a great degree of nervous weakness."Ji-Elle, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Benjamin Franklin invented the glass harmonica, or armonica, in 1761, unleashing a deadly scourge upon the musical world. “It was forbidden in several countries by the police,” wrote music historian Karl Pohl in 1862, while Karl Leopold Röllig warned in 1787 that “It’s not just the gentle waves of air that fill the ear, but the charming vibrations and constant strain of the bowls upon the already delicate nerves of the fingers that combine to produce diseases which are terrible, maybe even fatal.” In 1808, when Marianne Kirchgessner, Europe’s premiere glass armonica virtuoso, died at the age of 39, many suspected nervousness brought on by playing the instrument.

7. Charles Ratherbee // Lung Disease Possibly Caused by Playing the Trumpet

A valve trumpet made by Elbridge G. Wright, circa 1845.Purchase, Robert Alonzo Lehman Bequest (2002), Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

One summer day in 1845, Charles Ratherbee, a trumpeter, got into a fight with Joseph Harvey, who rented space in a garden from Ratherbee and was sowing seeds where the trumpeter had planned to plant potatoes. When confronted, Harvey became upset and knocked Ratherbee to the ground with his elbow. Two weeks and five days later, Ratherbee was dead.

Harvey was arrested for Ratherbee’s death, but a doctor pinpointed another killer: An undiagnosed lung disease made worse by his musical career. “The blowing of a trumpet would decidedly increase [the disease],” the surgeon testified at Harvey’s manslaughter trial. When asked if he was “in a fit state to blow a trumpet” the surgeon replied bluntly, “No.” Harvey was acquitted and given a suspended sentence for assault. The trumpet was never charged.