Exhibit honors obscure American inventors

Traveling display shows plans, patent illustrations

December 14, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Chances are, you've never heard of culturally essential Americans such as Enid Bissett, Orla Watson and Earl C. Tupper.

Their genius will be on display in a new traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibition of sketches, patent illustrations and factory drawings for products that shaped the nation in profound but humble ways.

Take Charles Brannock of Syracuse, N.Y., the inventor of the Brannock Device. You know it as the shoe-store gizmo that measures foot length and width. Brannock, whose family shoe store thrived from the device's use, built the model for his 1926-1927 patent application with Erector set parts.

"There is a story behind everything in the world," said Steve Lubar, the curator of the Doodles, Drafts and Designs exhibition. "These are the illustrations of those stories."

The complicated drawing that looks like a design for women's armor is the concept of Enid Bissett, owner of the New York dress shop Enid's Frocks. Bissett thought the flapper-style bandeaux bras of the 1920s could be improved by a more shape-enhancing design.

Working with seamstress Ida Rosenthal, Bissett called her bra Maidenform to emphasize the beauty of the female figure.

Not so durably famous was Bissett's patented contribution to the World War II effort, the pigeon vest. It protected the homing pigeons carried by paratroopers. They released the pigeons to let their base commanders know they had landed safely.

Airtight containers

Earl C. Tupper was convinced that his destiny was to get rich by inventing, and he took a long time getting there. He was a mail clerk and worked on a railroad labor crew, and ran a successful landscaping and nursery business before he founded an industrial plastics factory in Leominster, Mass.

His plastic hair clips for women found no market. Nor did his pots for paint. Then he came up with airtight, watertight containers that kept food fresh and prevented spills. "Tupper Seal," he called it. We know it as Tupperware.

Philadelphia-area entrepreneur Everett Huckel Bickley made a decent living with an early invention, a seed-sorting machine with a photoelectric cell that enabled farmers to sort bad seeds from those that would germinate.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Bickley had as many as nine active patent applications in the works.

"Some of them worked; some of them never did," Lubar said.

Bickley, who lived in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., won his place in the Smithsonian exhibition with an idea that finds its place on many porches during the summer: the "Electro-mechanical fly catcher."

His version is etched on graph paper, along with this narrative:

"1. Flies attracted by the bait light on cylinder.

"2. Cylinder rotates carrying fly inside screen.

"3. Fly eventually falls into kerosene and dies."

Telescoping cart

Then there's Orla Watson, a one-time hardware-store clerk whose genius first rolled into Floyd's Supermarket in Kansas City, Mo., in 1947. His innovation was the "telescoping" shopping cart. One fit into another, which fit into another, permitting compact storage. At the same time, customers got big rolling containers that encouraged them to buy more.

Drawings for Watson's invention and dozens more will be on display next month at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry.

A national tour is planned through November 2006, but the other destinations haven't been announced.

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