Celebrity Inventors

Celebrity Inventors

by Heleigh Bostwick, July 2011

Some celebrities are larger than life, whether known for their wild antics or their superior talent, and sometimes celebrities are…well, more than just celebrities. Take Jamie Lee Curtis, for instance. The child of two famous actors, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, Curtis made a name for herself, beginning as the protagonist in the 1978 horror film Halloween (not to mention her 1977 role as “Waitress” in an episode of Columbo titled “The Sky-High I.Q. Murder Case”) and continuing with a string of hit movies through the present day. You might also know that Curtis is a wife and mother of two children. But did you know she's also the inventor of a disposable infant garment and held US Patent No. 4753647 for that invention? Curtis hasn't cashed in on her idea yet, because she refuses to license the garment until diaper companies start making their products biodegradable (in the meantime, her patent has expired). Like Curtis, other celebrities—both past and present—have also “played the part” of inventors in real life.

1. Kevin Costner

The film Waterworld may have been a bad decision, but Kevin Costner has certainly made amends with the sea lately. Inspired by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Alaska, he purchased technology originally developed with help from Department of Energy scientists and then teamed up with a team of scientists (including his brother) to put the finishing touches on the “Ocean Therapy” machine that that separates oil and water at a speed of 200 gallons per minute. The machines have since been purchased by BP (British Petroleum) in the aftermath of the most recent gulf spill.

2. Marlon Brando

He may have been the original bad boy, but Brando—known around the world for his performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and as Vito Corleone in The Godfather—was also an inventor. Near the end of his life (at the age of 78) Brando applied for a patent on a “Drumhead tensioning device and method” (leading one to wonder if Brando was also a musician). Although Brando filed his application on July 25, 2002, US Patent No. 6812392 was not issued until November 2, 2004, four months after the actor's death. The patent is now held by Penny Poke Farms, Ltd.

3. Christie Brinkley

Christie Brinkley's face and figure hung on the walls of countless teenage boys in the 1980s. She later became known as Mrs. Billy Joel. And, on March 12, 1991, the former supermodel was issued US Patent No. 4998883 for an educational toy she invented. According to the patent description it is an “educational toy for teaching construction and recognition of predetermined individual forms [such as letters of the alphabet].” This should lay to rest for good any preconceptions that anyone may hold about the mental acuity of supermodels.

4. Herbert Manfred "Zeppo" Marx

The youngest of the five slapstick-comedian Marx Brothers, Zeppo Marx left the business to pursue a career manufacturing useful, everyday items. Then, in 1969, at the age of 68, he and Albert Dale Herman invented an important medical device called the “cardiac pulse rate monitor” that “provides an audible and vibratory warning to advise persons who have cardiac impairment, of extreme variations in the pulse rate.” In fact, along with his even lesser-known brother Gummo, Marx patented four inventions during his life. As a member of another slapstick group might say: “Oh, a wiseguy, eh?”  Sure seems like it.

5. Michael Jackson

Last but not least is the self-proclaimed “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, whose “anti-gravity lean” technique—as made famous in his video for Smooth Criminal—is actually the result of some clever shoe engineering, not fancy footwork. “Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion”—yes, that's the official description—actually refers to a shoe with a special heel slot that allows you to anchor onto something and lean forward farther than gravity would otherwise allow. US Patent No. 5255452 was granted to Jackson, Michael L. Bush and Dennis Tompkins on October 26, 1993. The patent is now listed as belonging to Triumph International, Inc., a clothing company—perhaps unsurprising, since both Bush and Tompkins were longtime wardrobe designers for Jackson. The patent expires soon, but for the next couple of years, if anyone tries to copy Jackson's patented illusion, Triumph can tell them to “Beat It.”