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From unknown people came inventions that changed daily life | (KRT) Chances are you've never heard of culturally essential Americans such as Enid Bissett, Orla Watson and Earl C. Tupper.

Their genius will be on display in a new Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition of sketches, patent illustrations and factory drawings for products that shaped the nation in profound but humble ways.

Take the case of Charles Brannock of Syracuse, N.Y., the inventor of the "Brannock Device." The what? You know it as the shoe-store gizmo that measures foot length and width at the same time. Thanks to Brannock, whose family shoe store thrived from the device's use, most shoes fit most people better. Brannock used Erector set parts to build the model for his 1926-7 patent application.

"There is a story behind everything in the world," said Steve Lubar, the curator of the "Doodles, Drafts and Designs" exhibition. "These are the illustrations of those stories."

The complicated drawing that looks like a design for women's armor is the concept of Enid Bissett, owner of a New York dress shop called Enid's Frocks. Bissett thought the flapper-style bandeaux bras of the Twenties could be improved by a more shape-enhancing design.

Working with seamstress Ida Rosenthal, Bissett called her bra Maidenform to emphasize the beauty of the female figure.

Not so durably famous was Bissett's patented contribution to the World War II effort: the pigeon vest. It protected the homing pigeons that paratroopers carried. They released the pigeons to let their base commanders know they'd landed safely.

Earl Tupper, convinced that his destiny was to get rich by inventing, took a long time getting there. He worked as a mail clerk and on a railroad labor crew, and ran a successful landscaping and nursery business before he founded an industrial plastics factory in Leominster, Mass. His plastic hair clips for women found no market. Nor did his pots for paint. Then he came up with an airtight, watertight container-closure system that kept food fresh and prevented spills. "Tupper Seal," he called it. We know it as Tupperware.

Philadelphia-area inventor Everett Huckel Bickley made a decent living with an early invention: a seed-sorting machine that used a photoelectric cell to enable farmers to sort bad seeds from those that would germinate. Bickley's problem was that he couldn't stop inventing.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, he had as many as nine active patent applications in the works, for items such as a nutcracker, a snow shovel, a slide mount, a faucet and a photographic exposure meter.

"Some of them worked; some of them never did," according to Lubar.

Bickley, of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., won his place in the exhibition with an idea that arises on many porches on many summer days: the "Electro-mechanical fly catcher."

His version is etched on graph paper, along with this satisfying narrative:

"1. Flies attracted by the bait light on cylinder.

"2. Cylinder rotates carrying fly inside screen.

"3. Fly eventually falls into kerosene and dies."

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Then there's Orla Watson, a onetime hardware-store clerk whose genius first rolled into Floyd's Supermarket in Kansas City, Mo., in 1947. His innovation was the "telescoping" shopping cart. One fit into another, which fit into another, permitting compact storage. At the same time, customers got big rolling containers that encouraged them to buy more.

Drawings for Watson's invention - and dozens more - will be on display next month at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry. A tour is planned through November 2006, but the other destinations haven't yet been named.


To learn more about the exhibit on the Web, go to

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services