Inventing a useful product or process is serious business. Turn a great idea into a marketable widget, and you could earn millions of dollars. But that doesn't mean your widget has to be straitlaced and conservative. Maybe it has a quirky name or solves a problem we usually make jokes about (like erectile dysfunction, flatulence or halitosis). Take John Abdo. When he first introduced the AB-DOer midsection aerobic machine in 1994, some investors probably snickered. His product had a wacky name, and he had an unusual pitch. One investor, however, was able to look beyond the funny stuff and see the potential. Now, more than 15 years later, Abdo says he's sold more than 3 million units and helped people all over the world get healthy [source: Abdo].
And that's just one invention. Hundreds of seemingly off-the-wall or laughter-inducing products become big hits for their inventors because they're big hits with consumers. On the following pages, we'll look at 10 such inventions. A few are as modern as the mobile phone. Others are as ancient as Aristotle. All of them have made a significant impact on how we live and work.
The popularity of our first invention certainly stuck after its introduction -- can it be found in your toolbox or kitchen drawer?
Use the right tool for the job, but if that tool isn't available, then the next best thing just might be duct tape. People reach for their handy roll of silver-sided tape for almost everything, from keeping their car's dangling side-view mirrors hanging on to making fashion statements (duct tape shoes, anyone?).
Duct tape began as a serious solution. During World War II, the U.S. military needed a strong, waterproof tape to help keep ammunition cases dry. By modifying medical tape, researchers at the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson came up with a three-ply tape that sandwiched a fabric mesh between a layer of polyethylene on top and a rubber-based adhesive on the bottom. Their take on tape performed better than anyone expected. It was exceedingly strong, yet allowed soldiers to rip it easily into strips. And its ability to repel water became legendary, inspiring admirers to call it "duck" tape because it reminded them of a waterfowl's waxy feathers.
After the war, the housing industry boomed. As soldiers returned home and took jobs on building sites, so the legend goes, they remembered the really strong tape from their military days and recommended it to heating, ventilating and air-conditioning contractors, who needed something to hold ductwork together. Soon, manufacturers started making the tape with a silver-colored polyethylene top so it matched the aluminum ducts. Shortly after that, people began to realize the universal usefulness of duct tape.
In 1998, the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory exposed a variety of sealing materials, including duct tape, to conditions that might be experienced in a real HVAC system. According to those tests, the worst duct sealant solution is duct tape [source: Preuss]. That's kind of funny, too, isn't it?
Nature's call inspired the next humorous creation.
Scatological humor has a long history, so it's no surprise that toilets appear on our list. In fact, the sound of a flushing toilet has served as an instantly recognizable punch line in sitcoms for decades. One reason toilets are funny is that they level the playing field -- kings and queens must share this particular throne with even the lowliest peasants.
Toilets also have funny nicknames, such as "head," "can," "loo" and "privy." The funniest nickname -- crapper -- may be attributed to Thomas Crapper, the device's supposed inventor. In reality, Thomas Crapper didn't invent the toilet. Although he was a plumber and did hold patents, including three for water closets, Crapper can't take credit for the combination of bowl, plumbing and flushing mechanism we recognize today as a toilet. That honor goes to Sir John Harington, an Elizabethan courtier, translator and writer who installed a flush toilet in the palace of Queen Elizabeth in 1591. Harington described his invention in "The Metamorphosis of Ajax," the first book in a saucy trilogy that threw the writer into disgrace.
So, the next time you go to the john, give a bow to Sir John Harington for his contribution to modern sanitation. And if you prefer to use the crapper instead, then take note: The word "crap" isn't derived from Thomas Crapper's name. Some dictionaries trace the origins of the word back to the Dutch krappe, which itself is derived from the Dutch krappen, "to pluck or cut off." We'll let you figure that one out for yourself.
What's more hilarious than creating a profession dedicated to being funny? Head over to the following page to see if you've guessed our next concept.
It's strange to think of comedy being invented, but as a dramatic or literary genre, it had to begin somewhere. That somewhere was ancient Greece, probably around the fifth century B.C. Most scholars believe that comedy arose out of the revels associated with the rites of Dionysus, a god who embodied the fertility of nature. In fact, the word "comedy" comes from the Greek verb komos, meaning "to revel." If you know anything about the Dionysian festivals -- known as Bacchanalia to the Romans -- then you know what took place. Revelers drank a lot, had sex and, in general, participated in all forms of debauchery. Joking and laughing most certainly played important roles in the celebration.
In Greek theater, comedy evolved through three forms -- Old, Middle and New. Old and Middle comedies took aim at myths or practiced political satire. Early comedies, however, could have complicated plots and were not bust-your-gut funny. This gave rise to New Comedy, which focused more on the mundane lives of mere mortals [source: Poundstone]. As such, it tended to be cruder and simpler -- sort of like "Arrested Development" or "Three's Company" with a chorus.
Arguably, the most notable practitioner of New Comedy was Menander, a prolific Greek playwright who lived from about 342 to 291 B.C. Menander may have been the first insult comic [source: Poundstone]. His influence has been strongly felt throughout the centuries. Even the shock comics of more recent times, from George Carlin and Sam Kinison to Denis Leary, owe a small debt to their ancient peer Menander and to the invention -- comedy -- he helped to refine.
Sexual health certainly improved with the introduction of the invention on the following page.
Condoms can induce giggles in just about any crowd. What other object can be used either to make balloon animals or to prevent pregnancy? And name one other invention that looks as simple to use, yet seems so mystifying when it's removed from its package? No wonder teenagers experience fits of nervous laughter when they learn about condoms in their sex ed classes. Often, kids are too embarrassed to buy them, and many need some lessons or practice before they can use them effectively. Did you know that condoms have a shelf life? Or that the worst place to carry a condom is in your back pocket or your wallet?
Phew, so many things to worry about.
Luckily, there is good news. For starters, modern lovers aren't the first to fret over condoms. The Egyptians used them 3,000 years ago, albeit in a slightly different form [source: Usborne]. Those ancient condoms were constructed from animal gut or fish membrane. By the 1840s, they were made of vulcanized rubber and could be washed and reused. Then came latex and the disposable condom. In fact, modern condoms should be removed immediately after ejaculation and disposed of properly, which means not in the toilet.
The real good news, however, is related to the efficacy of condoms in protecting against sexually transmitted infections and preventing pregnancy -- the pregnancy rate when the male condom is used perfectly is just 3 percent over 12 months [source: WHO]. So, condoms may make you giggle, but if you're sexually active, they can really, ahem, keep you covered.
Think you know the cell phone's roots? Head over to chuckle at our next choice.
The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X Phone
Ah, the 1980s. Who can forget the advent of MTV, big hair bands, parachute pants, leg warmers and "greed-is-good" Gordon Gekko, taking a stroll down the beach while he speaks to hero Bud Fox on a monster-sized mobile phone? That telecommunications device could be one of the funniest machines ever built. Start with the DynaTAC moniker, which stands for "Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage." Huh? Maybe Motorola figured the unwieldy name would distract people from the fact that the world's first commercial hand-held mobile phone was barely mobile at all. It measured 13 by 1.75 by 3.5 inches (330 by 44 by 89 millimeters) and weighed 28 ounces (793 grams). Compare that to an Apple iPhone 4, which is just 4.5 inches (115.2 millimeters) high and tips the scale at 4.8 ounces (137 grams).
But the DynaTAC's size wasn't its most amusing feature. That honor belonged to the rubber-sheathed whip antenna, long enough to take out an eye if the caller wasn't careful. The phone's battery life was just as silly. You could only talk for 30 to 60 minutes until it was time to recharge, which could take 10 hours unless you wanted to pay extra for a fast charger. Paying extra, however, wasn't a palatable option for most users, especially when you consider the cost of the phone itself -- almost $4,000 in 1983 dollars. You did get enough memory to store 30 contacts and a cool LED display showing red numbers, so maybe it was all worth it.
But here's the big question. Will, say, Motorola's RAZR make us laugh as hard 30 years from now as the DynaTAC makes us chuckle today? Only time will tell.
Head to the next page to learn how an intoxicating beverage left its mark on humanity.
Beer not only makes things more humorous to those consuming it, but its creation is also comical -- even thousands of years ago, people still added an extra punch to their feasts and gatherings with intoxicating beverages. As archaeologists continue to piece together where and how the first brew was crafted, one thing's for sure: this intoxicating beverage changed the way people lived and had fun. Physical evidence of fermented beverages dates as far back as 9,000 years ago, experts say, with beer entering the scene at least 5,000 years ago [sources: McGovern et al.; Rudolph et al.].
But beer isn't the first thing to come to mind when you want to tie modern societies to ancient civilizations. Even so, the beverage likely played a role in determining which crops to harvest, and potentially, where large groups of people chose to settle. Intoxication may have fostered cultural activities, including artistic expression, medicine and spiritual rituals [source: Tucker].
Fast-forward to today, the beer industry still takes pride in its humor and ability to jump-start a good time -- you'd be hard-pressed to watch an average beer commercial without a laugh.
Need something to eat with your beverage? We'll get you some frozen turkey, peas and potatoes next.
The idea of the television affecting humans' diets may seem silly, but take the case of the TV dinner. The popularity of the TV during the mid-20th century carried into dinnertime for the average American family. To make tube-viewing more convenient during mealtime, companies created ways to prepackage foods for easy consumption.
TV dinner meals popped up in a variety of forms -- some more humorous and palatable than others (Is that meat or potato in that compartment?). Inspired by packaged airplane meals, the TV dinner hit markets in the late 1940s. Meals would be processed at factories and purchased at the grocer to store in the freezer at home. They could be heated up by oven (or later, microwave) at the person's convenience. It's contested who invented the dinner TV, but when the company Swanson started marketing its frozen meals in the mid-1950s, the foods' popularity sky-rocketed [source: The Library of Congress].
Regardless of inventor (see "History of TV Dinners" for more details), frozen meals have changed how humans think about and consume food. Recent estimates show these prepackaged frozen foods flourish in a $4.5 billion market [source: Bortner]. TV dinners and today's frozen meals save people time as well as lengthen how long people can store food. During the meals' growth, however, some argued it made TV -- not socializing with family -- the focus of mealtime.
Our next invention brings the funniest and shocking aspects of "real life" into your living room.
With reality TV, you never know what ridiculous scene you'll stumble upon by changing the channel. Some shows place the spotlight on people's raw interactions with each other, while others seem so far-fetched that the thought of labeling them as "reality" is laugh-inducing. As one expert puts it, reality TV incites a type of voyeurism for those watching -- much like peering into your neighbor's kitchen or bedroom window without them knowing [source: Slocum].
"Candid Camera," a 1948 show where unknowing people reacted to staged situations on camera, was broadcast as one of the earliest forms of reality TV. Public Broadcasting Service's series "An American Family" popularized applying documentary tactics for mass appeal. Still, we've come a long way from those early reality experiments.
These low-cost projects have now become what many viewers have come to expect from large networks. Where would MTV be without "The Real World" or the fist-pumping pandemonium of "Jersey Shore"? Could we peruse our own home videos without browsing for moments worthy of "America's Funniest Home Videos" to laugh at? The answers probably vary, but ratings and network offerings show that reality TV remains the most popular genre as of 2010 [source: Carter].
Even if you're not a regular reality junkie, who doesn't find some auditions on "American Idol" the tiniest bit funny? After all, the most outrageous attempts for fame may resemble our own musical moments in front of the mirror or in the shower.
Up next: How a piece of underwear changed the world.
Underwear can make even the most serious of us giggle. Why? Because these garments cover the private parts of a person's body. Let's just say what people don under their clothes can be the most revealing fashion statement.
Bras in particular hold a greater significance. Though women sported bra-like garments in ancient times, they didn't really pick up until the debut of Mary Phelps Jacob's "backless brassiere" in the early 1900s [source: MIT]. Her version of this undergarment redefined how women showcased or contained their breasts, depending on trends and time period. Phelps Jacob eventually sold her invention's patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company, where the bra surpassed the corset in popularity, partially because corsets used valuable metal that needed to be used toward World War I. The bra obtained its characteristic cups later on -- Phelps Jacob's original invention intended to flatten the chest, not lift it up.
As women wore a greater diversity of bras, the device became linked to sex appeal, social class and style. Yet from the perspective of the growing U.S. feminist movement in the '60s, the bra symbolized viewing women as sexual objects. This is why groups planned to burn the undergarments outside the 1968 Miss American pageant. Such "bra-burning" came to typify the feminist movement, even though police didn't allow the protesters to actually set them on fire [source: Duron].
Our next invention brings the funniest ideas to life, sort of.
Where would we be without cartoons? Would we look at pictures poking fun at political leaders the same way? Would the idea of slipping on a banana still be funny?
Throughout history, illustrations have communicated ideas with wit. For instance, political cartoons printed in early periodicals satirized people and issues, providing both a good laugh and food for thought.
With the rise of illustration and animation, cartoons carried a more familiar meaning to TV viewers. Mickey Mouse and company charmed their way into our hearts, doing things too ridiculous to happen offscreen. Superheroes inspired comic readers and viewers to courageously pursue justice, even though their animated worlds were chock-full of fiction (and flying protagonists in spandex).
In addition to entertaining or advancing ideas, TV cartoons have also carved out a large market for commercial advertisers targeting younger demographics [source: Butler]. In recent years, animated shows such as "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and "South Park" have gained die-hard adult fans, too.
Interested in learning more about these knee-slapping inventions? Find out more on the next page.
The best stories of the week from HowStuffWorks.
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- Bortner, David. "Pittsburgh Freezers." Penn State University Libraries. 2010. (Dec. 27, 2011) http://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/Frozen.html
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- MIT. "Mary Phelps Jacob: Brassiere." Inventor of the Week. November 2001. (Dec. 27, 2011) http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/jacob.html
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- Preuss, Paul. "Sealing HVAC Ducts: Use Anything But Duct Tape." Lawrence Berkeley Lab Research News. Aug. 17, 1998. (Jan. 5, 2011) http://www.lbl.gov/Science-Articles/Archive/duct-tape-HVAC.html
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- Tucker, Abigail. "The Beer Archaeologist." Smithsonian Magazine. August, 2011. (Dec. 27, 2011) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/The-Beer-Archaeologist.html?c=y&page=1
- Usborne, Simon. "101 gadgets that changed the world." The Independent. Nov. 3, 2007 (Jan. 5, 2011) http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/101-gadgets-that-changed-the-world-398535.html
- World Health Organization (WHO). "Effectiveness of male latex condoms in protecting against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections." Media Centre Fact Sheet No. 243.