Thursday, May 25, 2023

A Review of Summertime Inventions

Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of Summer. As we start preparing for picnics and barbeques, outdoor concerts, trips to the beach or days at the pool, I thought it would be fun to review some interesting inventions and innovations that often evoke childhood memories of summers past. In this prior post from December 2021, I took a nostalgic look at some of the toys and games we grew up with and examined the patents behind those innovations, including U.S. Patent No. 3,359,678, issued on December 26, 1967, for Wham-O Manufacturing Co.’s “Flying Saucer,” modelled after pie tins manufactured by the Frisbie Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Wham-O’s flying discs, of course, are known as Frisbees, which are perfect for a nice summer day at the park.

As I examined various inventions for this post, I found that many of our summertime traditions have interesting histories and are often rooted in developments from centuries ago. For example, fireworks, so integrally connected with the Fourth of July, were believed to have been developed in Liuyang, China around 200 BC. The first “firecrackers” comprised bamboo stalks. When thrown into a fire, the bamboo would explode with a loud bang as hollow air pockets would overheat. August Hummel received U.S. Patent No. 2,063,601 on December 8, 1936 for his “Sparkler”. The invention of the sparkler, or handheld firework, is believed to date back to Greek architect Callinicus of Heliopolis, who in 670 AD developed a firework weapon designed to shoot flames toward approaching enemy ships. A more modern version of the sparkler, comprising wire dipped in gunpowder, dates to around 1850 in Germany. Hummel’s innovation improved the coating material of the conventional sparkler, with an aim towards a sparkler “which may be ignited with greater facility than conventional sparklers, which burns with enhanced brilliance without increasing in the least the hazard to the user, and the added utility of which is attained without the slightest danger of dripping, sputtering or evolution of noxious gases or fumes in use.”

A popular summertime activity is playing the game of cornhole, whether as an amateur or professional (yes, you can become a professional cornhole player), which involves tossing small bags at a target consisting of an inclined wooden platform with a hole. The invention of the game dates to the 14th Century, when Matthias Kuepermann, a Bavarian cabinetmaker, observed children tossing rocks into a groundhog’s burrow. He built the first cornhole set using leftover cabinet parts and filled small canvas sacks with corn kernels, hence the name “cornhole”, which he thought would be safer to throw around than stones. Variations on the equipment for the game have been developed and even patented over the years since, including designs directed at portable targets making it easy to set-up a new game of cornhole anywhere, as shown in U.S. Patent No. 7,607,666 for “Corn Toss Game” and U.S. Patent No. 9,550,101 for “Combination Game Throw Target and Chair and Method of Assembly.”

Most summertime memories are associated with playing in the water on a hot summer day. In 1871, Joseph Lessler received U.S. Patent No. 121,949, for an “Ornamental Lawn Sprinkler”. The development of the lawn sprinkler, aimed at watering crops and grass, created an easy way for kids to cool down. In May 1961, Robert Carrier received U.S. Patent No. 2,982,547 for “Aquatic Play Equipment”, more popularly known as the Slip N Slide, which facilitated body planing on a slippery surface. U.S. Patent No. 5,074,437 was awarded on December 24, 1991 (just in time for Christmas) for “Pinch Trigger Pump Water Gun,” also known as the Super Soaker. The invention of the Super Soaker has its origins at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as its inventor, Lonnie Johnson, was trying to develop a new type of heat pump that would use water as a working fluid instead of freon. The United States Patent Office recently posted an interview with Mr. Johnson about his revolutionary invention.

Summertime for kids also often means hours in the pool. The Pool Noodle is believed to sell almost 8 million units a year. However, Steve Hartman did not patent his invention because it was unsuccessful for well over a year and he didn’t see the point to protecting the concept. Hartman’s business, Industrial Thermal Polymers, supplied foam backer rods for use in any construction project involving expansion joints, including roads, bridges, ramps and high-rises. The foam backer rods, typically provided in 9-foot-long gray foam tubes, were used to seal the joints. Hartman’s business often had these foam tubes lying around in the warehouse. When employees would take breaks in the summer to go swimming, they would grab some of the tubes and use them to float in the water. Hartman decided to make them in smaller lengths and brighter colors and tried to sell them to pool supply stores with little initial success. It wasn’t until Canadian Tire decided to sell them at a low price that the pool noodle took off and became ubiquitous with a day at the pool.

German Bernhard Markwitz invented floaties, patented in 1967 in German Patent No. DE1,245,788, after his 3-year-old daughter almost drowned in a pond. He developed his improvement to floating devices, which at that time generally comprised a swimming ring or “inflatable wings” designed to go around the swimmer’s torso, by focusing on inflatable devices that could go on the swimmer’s arms and be usable as a swimming aid. His schwimmflügel, which translates to “swimming wings”, proved to be highly successful for water safety.

Lastly, what would be summer without a cook-out. How many times have you been asked at a cook-out if you wanted a hamburger or a hot dog? It is difficult to have both because there usually isn’t enough room on the plate. In 2004, Australian Mark Murray came up with a unique solution when he invented the "hamdog" comprising a hamburger split in half to allow a hot dog to be placed in between. He even received U.S. Design Patent No. D584,478 for his unique bun design, which could accommodate his hamdog along with all the usual fixings. I’m not sure this invention has taken off as he would have hoped.

So, think about some of these innovations of summer as you’re floating in the pool on your noodle or playing a game of cornhole while waiting for your hamdog to be ready.

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