Dead Folks 2011: Inventors, Entrepreneurs, & Trailblazers
Levine started hawking silly mail-order products (fake shrunken heads, potato guns, plastic soldiers) just after WWII, when toys were reported to be in short supply. By the mid 1950s, his successful company was in Hollywood, at which time Levine happened upon an idea for a new item. According to the story—possibly marketing apocrypha—during a July 4 picnic Levine noticed an anthill, recalled collecting ants as a boy, and decided that a mail-order “ant farm” was the educational toy American youth were craving.
Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm, in its first inception, was a 6″x9,” one-inch-thick plastic “antarium” filled with sand (later white volcanic ash) topped by a three-dimensional plastic farm scene. There were no ants in the kit; the customer mailed in a coupon after which a vial of ants arrived in the mail weeks later. They were red harvester ants, gathered by “rustlers” in the Mojave Desert. Almost instantly, once the tiny insects were carefully dropped into the farm, they began building a network of tunnels, storing food, and even burying their dead.
Uncle Milton Industries, as it is now known, was officially established in 1965. The ant farm was expanded in size at that time, and the company began to also create and market other nature-focused educational items for kids. Some twenty million Uncle Milton’s Ant Farms have been sold since 1957. Last June, according to the Los Angeles Times, Transom Capitol Group purchased Uncle Milton Industries, which was valued in the $30 million to $40 million range. (97, natural causes) —DP’
Rev. David Wilkerson
Street preachers became fashionable in the 1960s, but David Wilkerson was one of the first—and he was square enough to be portrayed by Pat Boone in the movies. Wilkerson was pastoring in small towns when he felt called to Times Square after reading a Life magazine article about New York City’s troubled youth. He arrived in the city in 1958, and launched youth ministries that still survive in NYC. He then became a national figure after publishing his story in The Cross and the Switchblade. The best-selling book was turned into a Hollywood production in 1970, with Boone as Wilkerson and Erik Estrada as Nicky Cruz—who was a real-life former gang member who continues to work as a preacher today. Wilkerson would later divide his time between New York and Texas, where he began a worldwide gospel organization. He also began to get regular visits from God that warned of various end-of-the-world scenarios. Wilkerson remained uniquely inclusive in his preaching, though, and dedicated a lot of his teachings to the importance of supporting Israel. Sadly, he didn’t believe too much in wearing a seat belt while driving through East Texas. (79, car crash) —JRT
While working at Eastman Kodak Laboratories during WWII, creating new plastic optical materials for gunsights, Coover and fellow chemist Fred Joyner determined that their early experiments with cyanoacrylates just weren’t working out. The stuff stuck to everything, including itself—and usually forever. Later, during the early 1950s, similar experiments at Kodak under Coover’s supervision yielded similar results, but by then the chemist recognized that, with a few minor tweaks, C5H5NO2 would make a dandy adhesive for almost any application. Thus was applied patent number 2,768,109, also known as Super Glue.
The glue was marketed as a wonder product, most famously with television ads depicting an automobile attached to a crane hoist with a single drop of Super Glue. A decade later new products made from various types of cyanoacrylates were on the market, Instant Krazy Glue being the forerunner with its own iconic marketing image: the construction worker dangling from a beam onto which his hardhat is attached with a drop of Krazy Glue.
Coover, a Cornell graduate with a Ph.D. in science, didn’t make his fortune from any of these sticky items; his wealth resulted instead from some 460 other patents under his name, most having to do with innovations in research management policies and systems. (94, natural causes) —DP
Gym owner Jack LaLanne became a TV pioneer when he purchased time on a San Francisco station to host a morning exercise program. The show became popular enough to be picked up by the ABC network in 1959. LaLanne’s simple exercise show—emphasizing work-outs using household items—would stay on the air until 1989, with LaLanne also building a national chain of gyms and promoting electric juicers and exercise equipment. His long stint as a pop-culture figure would make him one of the few celebrities able to spoof himself on both the original “Batman” TV series and an episode of “The Simpsons.”
LaLanne was already in his mid-30s when he began his TV show, and he made good use of his age for marketing purposes. He retired from public stunts after marking his 70th birthday by towing rowboats for a mile at sea. LaLanne still always found some way to stay in the public eye. He kept looking good enough to be the best advertisement for his businesses. He also knew death was the ultimate bad marketing move. Fortunately, his wife Elaine—who was working out with Jack back in the ’50s—is still around and looks ready to live forever. (96, pneumonia) —JRT
As the developer of Doritos corn chips, Arch West no doubt would be one of the first inductees into the Junk Food Hall of Fame. Currently Frito-Lay’s second-best seller (behind Lay’s Potato Chips), West’s original notion was to create a Southwestern-inspired alternative to traditional salted potato and corn chips. Doritos were first produced in 1964 using corn tortillas cut into triangles with cheese and chili flavorings added. West’s wife of 69 years died last year. When the couple’s ashes were buried together, mourners were allowed to toss Doritos into the burial site. (97) —ER
Wilson Greatbatch’s genius for tinkering (he held patents on more than 325 inventions) led to extended, normal lives for millions through his invention of the heart pacemaker. The invention was an accident of sorts. In 1956, Greatbatch was working on a heart rhythm recording device and grabbed the wrong-size resistor to complete the circuitry. The circuit it produced discharged intermittent electrical pulses. He immediately associated it with the timing and rhythm of a heartbeat and thought about the electrical activity of the heart. At that time, it was not believed that electronics could be packed into a stimulator for continuous functioning, much less in a tiny, reliable apparatus. Doctors demonstrated in 1958 that Greatbatch’s device—which he developed in his barn—could take control of a dog’s heartbeat. The first human implants were made in 1960. (92) —ER
As an engineer who created a vital component at the heart of a government-sponsored advanced communications network called the Arpanet, Paul Baran tried to interest AT&T in the project. AT&T said no thanks, refusing to believe that the project would amount to anything. The Arpanet eventually evolved into the Internet. (84, lung cancer) —ER
In 1955, a high school teacher named Charles Laufer was so dismayed that his students had nothing entertaining to read that he started a publication called Coaster for teen and pre-teen girls. Coaster soon became Teen, which Laufer sold in 1957. He printed a one-time only magazine of Beatles photos in 1965 that sold 750,000 copies in two days, inspiring the creation of a teen fanzine called Tiger Beat. Featuring The Monkees on the cover, Tiger Beat hit the big time as the band became a colossal sensation. In addition to an over-abundance of exclamation marks, Tiger Beat was packed with glossy pictures, fold-out posters, and innocuous facts about the personal lives of everyone from the Beatles to Donny Osmond to Bob Dylan to David Cassidy. The magazine’s slogan was “Guys in their 20s singing La La songs to 13-year-old girls.” (87, heart failure) —ER
In 1916, Murray Handwerker’s father, Nathan, borrowed a few hundred dollars from entertainers Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante to establish a hot dog stand near Coney Island called Nathan’s Famous. Thirty years later, after returning from military service, Murray finally joined the family business. His first idea: expansion, because Murray figured Nathan’s Famous wasn’t nearly famous enough.
Expanding the business meant expanding the menu, so Handwerker added clams, shrimp, and several deli items, all the while dreaming up publicity stunts to attract customers to the Coney Island stand. By the 1960s, Nathan’s Famous had three full-scale restaurants in operation. In 1968, Handwerker took Nathan’s public, ultimately expanding by the following decade to ten franchises, more than three dozen restaurants, and a line of products sold in supermarkets. (89) —DP