35 Lesser-Known Inventions of Famous Inventors

Henry Ford’s car made of soybeans and Thomas Edison’s ghost-detecting telephone are just two little-known creations of history’s most famous inventors.
Thomas Edison, awaiting a ghostly phone call.
Thomas Edison, awaiting a ghostly phone call. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

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. (That, and the fact that Garfield’s doctor directed Bell to search in the wrong place, according to Candice Millard’s book Destiny of the Republic.) 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 70 mph. 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

Drawing of Nikola Tesla wearing a lightbulb apparatus on his head
Nikola Tesla, experimenting on himself. / Fototeca Storica Nazionale./GettyImages

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 patents for buoyant life rafts using metal floats. (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

George Washington Carver in his laboratory.
George Washington Carver in his laboratory. / Historical/GettyImages

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. 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.

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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 70 [Knight] is working 20 hours a day on her 89th 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

Illustration of Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rods
Benjamin Franklin's lightning rods, one of his better-known inventions. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

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 to spin 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 didnt 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, helpfully, 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

James Watt as a young man, c1769. Artist: James Scott
James Watt in his laboratory, circa 1769, by artist James Scott. / Print Collector/GettyImages

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 functioned 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 “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

Wright Flyer on Demonstration Flight
The Wright brothers’ airplane designs were partly based on their bicycles. / Museum of Flight Foundation/GettyImages

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 // Flossie Wong-Staal

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal was the first person to clone and 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 // Thomas Edison

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 vote-recording machine that he wanted to incorporate into legislative voting processes. 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.

Finally, Edison released a terrifying talking doll in 1890 that would give Chucky a run for his money. Each Edison Talking Doll was 2 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 more than $500 today.

The dolls were a huge failure, and Edison yanked them from stores after they’d been out for just a few weeks.

A version of this story was published in 2020; it has been updated for 2024.