There are some products in the annals of Things People Thought Of that seem, superficially, to be simple -- but actually underlie a rather complicated process of engineering. Think, perhaps, of the self-balancing unicycle. Seems easy to make a wheel stand up straight, but try it at home and you'll end up cursing yourself -- and science.
The bendy straw is not one of those deceptively simple things. It is, in fact, just plain simple.
A straw that can bend or flex -- and make that familiar upside-down L shape that is so much more fun to drink out of than any straight straw -- is created quite easily. But like many "oh, duh" inventions, don't be fooled: It might just be that its straightforwardness leaves you even more appreciative of how cool it is.
First, let's start with a little background on the straw in general. We don't know who first decided that sucking liquid would add some fun to drinking, but the earliest evidence of straws was found in a Sumerian tomb, dating to around 3000 B.C. [source: Thompson]. People used a huge variety of materials for straws through history -- from paper to gold. It was in the 1880s in Washington, D.C., that Marvin Stone finally got sick of the flaking, flimsy ryegrass straw popular at the time and patented a wax-paper solution.
But it was San Francisco inventor Joseph Friedman who bent the straw to our will. More to the point, he bent it to help out his young daughter, who was having trouble getting her milkshake to her mouth from the soda-fountain counter where they sat in the 1930s. In what may be the most maddeningly practical action that went on to make millions, the father Friedman took his daughter's paper straw and inserted a screw about a third of the way down the neck. He wrapped dental floss -- seriously, this guy was handy -- around the outside, making indentations from the corrugated rings, and then slid the screw out. A neat accordion-like pattern remained in the straw, ready to bend this way or that to reach the lips of the hungry kid. He'd go on to patent and produce his nifty invention.
Yup, it was that easy. But let's take a closer look at how flexible straws -- and all their iterations -- are made today.