Celebrity inventors
November 17, 2010

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” This statement, attributed to 19th-century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, is a metaphor for the power of innovation. A clever invention can revolutionize a field of endeavour and change the way we live our lives. It can also thrust an inventor into the public eye. Alexander Graham Bell, Wilbur Wright and Jonas Salk are but three examples of inventors who became famous for their inventions — namely for the telephone, the airplane and the polio vaccine respectively. In other words, they represent the pattern of fame following invention.

But is it also possible for the opposite to occur — that is, for invention to follow fame? A bit of digging through patent databases reveals that the answer is yes: celebrities who are famous for reasons unrelated to invention are, in some cases, also inventors. A number of interesting examples of this phenomenon are set forth below.

Abraham Lincoln — On at least one occasion during his youth, Abraham Lincoln apparently experienced difficulties in freeing a boat that had become caught on a sand bar. He subsequently invented a device that could raise boats over such obstructions. His invention, titled “Buoying Vessels Over Shoals,” was the subject of U.S. Patent No. 6,469, issued on May 22, 1849 (excerpt shown below). His model for the patent, carved from wood, is still on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Mr. Lincoln is believed to be the only U.S. president to ever have held a patent.



Harry Houdini
— In addition to being perhaps the most famous escape artist of all time, Harry Houdini was also an inventor. On March 21, 1921, he was awarded a U.S. Patent, Serial No. 1,370,316, for an underwater diving suit. The patented diving suit appears to relate to his calling: one of its objects is to “permit the diver, in case of danger for any cause whatever, to quickly divest himself of the suit while being submerged and to safely escape and reach the surface of the water.”

Eddie Van Halen — Eddie Van Halen, co-founder of the rock band Van Halen, had good reason to develop his invention titled “Music Instrument Support”: he wanted his hands to be free to explore new methods of playing his electric guitar. Eddie patented a device for holding a guitar perpendicularly to the player’s body so that the guitar could be played with both hands like a keyboard (U.S. Patent No. 4,656,917) as illustrated in the below-excerpted figure from the issued patent.


The Marx Brothers
— Few people are aware that the Marx Brothers, who were famous for their comedic vaudeville acts and motion pictures during the first half of the 20th century, had not one but two inventors among them. Gummo Marx was the inventor of a rack used for packaging items (U.S. Patent No. 1,320,335), while Zeppo Marx, the youngest Marx Brother, held three patents — two for a cardiac pulse-rate monitor (U.S. Patent Nos. 3,426,747 and 3,473,526) and one for a vapour delivery pad for distributing moist heat (U.S. Patent No. 2,590,026).

Hedy Lemarr — Likely the most intriguing invention by an actor is that of Hedy Lemarr, a glamorous Austrian-born movie star of the 1940s who was clearly not just a pretty face. During World War II, Ms. Lemarr (whose married name was Markey) co-invented a frequency-hopping system for preventing detection and jamming of remote-controlled torpedoes (U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387). Though the system was implemented using physical records as used in player pianos, the innovation ultimately formed the basis for modern spread-spectrum communications technology.

Jamie Lee Curtis — Actress Jamie Lee Curtis invented a baby diaper with a pocket for holding moist clean-up wipes as described in her U.S. Patent No. 4,753,647. It is perhaps no surprise that, in addition to being a Hollywood star, Ms. Curtis is also a mother.

Marlon Brando
— Actor Marlon Brando is well-known for his iconic roles in the films On the Waterfront and The Godfather. Towards the end of his life, he patented a device and method for tensioning drum heads, U.S. Patent No. 6,812,392, for making a tuneable drum.

Christie Brinkley — Former supermodel Christie Brinkley holds a patent for an educational toy for young children (U.S. Patent No. 4,998,883). The toy is made up of elements of different shapes, sizes and colours that can be used to create letters of the alphabet.

Mark Twain
— Who would have guessed that in addition to being a renowned writer, Mark Twain was also responsible for advances in the field of scrapbooking? Under his less commonly known birth name of Samuel Clemens, Twain developed a method for improving scrapbooking by creating a book out of self-adhesive pages. He was awarded a U.S. patent for his invention, Serial No. 140,245, on June 24, 1873.

Michael Jackson — In 1988, singer Michael Jackson released a music video for the song Smooth Criminal in which he was shown, with other dancers, slowly leaning forward beyond his center of gravity without falling. The mystery of his so-called “anti-gravity lean” appears to be solved by U.S. Patent No. 5,255,452, titled “Method and Means for Creating Anti-Gravity Illusion,” which names Jackson himself as an inventor. The patent describes a shoe with a heel slot that hitches onto a retractable stage projection. The shoe allows its wearer to surreptitiously anchor himself to the stage and, while so anchored, to lean farther forward than would otherwise be possible without toppling over.

Peter A. Elyjiw and Rebecca Rodal, Toronto 


Our articles and newsletters are informational only, and do not constitute legal or professional advice. To obtain such advice, please communicate with our offices directly.

web design toronto Rebel Trail