Some people just have a gift. They may already be talented musicians, actors, artists, or mathematicians, but some prolific thinkers have minds that work in overdrive in multiple different areas. Many of our world’s greatest minds were multi-taskers—musicians and mathematicians, theologians and writers, or artists and inventors. Some very famous inventors originated items that we still use every day, and even those who didn’t fill sketchbooks full of ideas sometimes had a flash of brilliance that resulted in a product that has lasted until our modern age.
What did novelist Mark Twain, née Samuel Langhorne Clemens, have in common with 21st century moms and craft aficionados? He had an avid scrapbooking habit. Twain kept scrapbooks detailing his journeys and travels, and he filled them with notes and pictures from along the way. Back in the mid-1800s, though, scrapbooks required regular glue to keep the items on their pages, a process that Twain found messy and irritating. He had the idea of covering each page with a thin strip of glue to make adding items and changing them around much easier. He took out a patent for his “self-pasting” scrapbook in 1872, and it was immediately successful. In fact, it was his only invention that ever made money. Even today, photo albums and scrapbooks use self-pasting pages.
One of our country’s most beloved founders and diplomats, Benjamin Franklin was also a prolific inventor who had a lifelong fascination with medicine. Besides such items as the Franklin stove and bifocal lenses, he also invented the flexible urine catheter. Rudimentary urethral catheters had been in use since 1,000 B.C., but they were rigid tubes, and caused patients great pain. Franklin’s favorite brother John suffered from chronic kidney stones and bladder obstructions, and Franklin decided to create a catheter that would be more comfortable. In 1752, he had a silversmith piece together the device, which was made out of flexible silver wire and covered with animal stomach casings.
Isaac Newton may be best known for formulating the laws of gravity and thermodynamics and singlehandedly developing calculus, but he was also an animal lover, and many sources credit him with inventing the first cat door. Supposedly, when Newton was studying the physical properties of light, his cat often tried to get into the room to be with him. Nudging the door open, though, allowed in extra daylight and ruined the experiments. Newton, who liked having his feline companion nearby, cut a hole in the door and covered it with felt, so that kitty could come and go without disturbing his laboratory. When the cat had kittens, he even cut tiny flaps into the wood for them to use.
This onetime MGM contract player and major Hollywood star may be the only woman to have the designation of “actress-slash-scientist.” Her first husband, an Austrian arms manufacturer, prevented her from pursuing her entertainment career and instead forced her to attend meetings about military technology and defense. Lamarr was a highly intelligent woman who apparently listened at those meetings, and once she divorced the husband, she and a friend patented a system of frequency hopping which was designed to guide torpedoes and help them evade radar detection. In 1942, their spread-spectrum invention was ahead of its time and out of the reach of the current military technology, and it wasn’t used until 1962, when technology caught up with the idea. By then the patent had run out, and neither Lamarr nor her associate made any money off the invention, despite the fact that it’s still used in cellular phones and wireless networks.
In the 1950s, a wave of butter-phobia swept the United States. Because butter contains saturated fat that can lead to heart disease, consumers turned en masse to margarine. Few people today know that margarine owes its existence to Napoleon III. The Emperor (and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) wanted to keep the French army hale and hearty, but butter spoiled too quickly. He therefore offered a prize for anyone who could come up with a fat that could be substituted for butter. Margarine, sometimes called oleomargarine or oleo, was created in the 1860s by a chemist named Hippolyte Mege-Mouries, who used beef fat, water, and milk fat to make the first imitation butter. Although Napoleon III himself didn’t invent the product, his devotion to the French army’s culinary requirements is what made it possible.
It hardly seems fair that one person could be a famous actress as well as a brilliant scientist, at least to the rest of us who struggle to find even one thing to be known for, much less the many accomplishments these people can claim. They didn’t make their living by inventing nifty gadgets, but although we may be thankful for the fruits of their moonlighting, we’re still glad they kept their day jobs.