8 Brilliant, Everyday Things Invented by Kids

Children of invention

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Many kids have active imaginations. It’s easy to have a roaming mind, free to think outside of the box when you don’t have adult responsibilities gobbling up mental space. But some kids seem born with a particular mindset that goes beyond imagination — a distinct mix of ingenuity and drive that results in especially inventive thinking. While many of these kids may go on to fulfill the stereotype of the absent-minded old inventor, a special handful of them came up with wonderful inventions before they reached the ripe old age of 20. The following everyday items all sprung from the brilliant minds of kids — and have proven their staying power over time. (Text: Melissa Breyer)

Calculator

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In 1642, French wunderkind Blaise Pascal designed the first counting machine at the age of 18. The contraption, a “device that will eventually perform all four arithmetic operations without relying on human intelligence,” was created for his father, who happened to be a tax collector. Called the “Pascaline,” the machine relied on geared wheels and could add and subtract two numbers directly and multiply and divide by repetition. He made somewhere between 20 and 50 of them, but nobody was interested; 300 years later, the calculator became all the rage. In 1968, the programming language PASCAL was named after him.

Braille

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Louis Braille — who was born in Coupvray, France, in 1809 — lost his sight when he was just 3 years old. While attending the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, he and his classmates yearned for books that were easier to read than those available in the current format. Experimenting with different ways to read through touch, he expanded upon the tactile "Ecriture Nocturne,” a night-reading military code that was designed for reading messages on the battlefield in the dark. In 1824, at the age of 15, he invented Braille; in 1829, he published it. The second revision, published in 1837, is considered the first digital (binary) form of writing.

Earmuffs

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It's a wonder that earmuffs took so long to be invented, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that 15-year-old Chester Greenwood did just that. Tired of cold ears while ice skating in his home state of Maine, Greenwood made a wire loop and asked his grandmother to sew fur onto the ends. He improved the model, and in the early 1870s he obtained a patent for Greenwood's Champion Ear Protectors. He made a fortune keeping U.S. soldiers’ ears warm during during World War I, and he went on to create more than 100 other inventions, including the steel-tooth rake.

Popsicle

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In 1905, an 11-year-old boy named Frank Epperson left a mixture of powdered drink mix, water and a stirring stick in a cup on his porch. Given the frigid temperature overnight, Epperson woke up to find a frozen pop, which he called the “Epsicle.” He continued to make them, and eventually his own kids took to calling them “Pop’s 'sicles.” In 1923, Epperson officially changed the name to “Popcicle,” applied for a patent, sold the rights to the name ... and the rest is frozen-drink-on-a-stick history.

Television

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While the creation of television has been credited to a number of inventors, 15-year-old Philo T. Farnsworth was one of the most important contributors. In 1921, the teen had sketches, diagrams and notes to make an electronic television system; in 1922, he showed his high school chemistry teacher plans for his "image dissector" vacuum tube that would revolutionize television, something few people had heard of at that point. By 21, he had transmitted his first electronic image and had held the first public demonstration of a working television set. By the time he died in 1971, the average TV set included around 100 items that he originally patented.

Waterskiing

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In 1922, an enterprising 18-year-old water-sports enthusiast, Ralph Samuelson, came up with the idea of waterskiing on Lake Pepin in Minnesota. After trying wooden barrel staves and actual snow skis for skis, he ended up with his own design and bindings made of leather. Samuelson is also credited with the first ski jump using a greased ramp. He spent the next 15 years performing shows and promoting his sport, at one point even being pulled by a World War II flying boat to reach a speed of 80 miles per hour, making him the first speed skier. Unfortunately, he never patented his invention.

Superman

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Two 18-year-olds who loved comic books and science fiction, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, began making cartoons and homemade fanzines while they were still in high school. One of their creations was a caped superhero called "the Superman" who appeared in the 1933 short story, “The Reign of the Superman.” After developing the character more, they were met with years of rejection — that is until 1938, when National Allied Publications (the precursor to DC Comics) selected it as the cover story for the company's Action Comics No. 1. In 1939, Siegel and Shuster began the syndicated Superman comic strip; having sold the rights to National, they were never significantly rewarded for their creation.

Trampoline

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In 1930, inspired by the nets used in high-wire circus acts, 16-year-old gymnast George Nissen cobbled together a rectangular steel frame and a canvas sheet in his parents’ garage in an effort to create a bouncy version of the net. He called it a bouncing rig. He perfected it over the years and had his "aha" moment in 1937 after hearing the Spanish word for diving board: el trampolin. He added an “e” and registered “Trampoline” as a trademark, and spent his long life promoting both the apparatus and the sport. In 2000, trampolining was added to the Olympics roster; in the 2008 Summer Olympics, Nessen was given the honor of testing out the equipment before the Games began. He died in 2010 at the age of 96.