Ig Nobels Celebrate Weird Science

Albert Einstein gets all the attention, but the great mind that would-be inventors ultimately compare themselves to is Otto Rohwedder — at least if they think they've invented the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Up until 1928, the idea of selling pre-sliced bread was preposterous. After all, the bread would quickly grow stale. Then Rohwedder came along.

After 13 years of tinkering, the inventor from Iowa introduced a 10-foot-long contraption that sliced and stuffed loaves of bread into wax paper wrapping. The world changed.

By 1933, 80 percent of the bread sold in the United States was pre-sliced, leaving hungry Americans standing before their toasters wondering, "What was the greatest thing before sliced bread?"

Last week, Interstate Bakeries, the makers of Wonder Bread, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Call it Rohwedder's revenge. He sold the patent for his bread-slicing machine shortly before Wonder Bread became a uniquely American sensation.

I'm reminded of Rohwedder as Harvard University prepares to announce the 2004 Ig Nobel Award winners — handed out since 1991 for research that "cannot or should not be reproduced."

Last year's winners included the scientists who performed "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces" and the authors of the report "Politicians' Uniquely Simple Personalities."

The ceremony, which will be held this Thursday, has become an Ivy League tradition, with Nobel Prize winners on hand to salute the winners. And even though the Ig Nobel is not exactly a prestigious award, winners travel from all over the world to collect their trophies.

The proceedings will be broadcast live over the Internet by the Annals of Improbable Research, a science humor journal, at www.improbable.com.

"We're not insulted," said Jonathan Wyatt, a Scottish researcher at the University of Glasgow who was honored with two other colleagues a few years ago for a report titled "The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow."

"Between us, we've published more than 70 research papers," he said. "This is the only one that's given us any publicity at all."

If nothing else, the Ig Nobels demonstrates a form of courage, and you need courage if you intend to be an innovator.

This week, The Wolf Files salutes inventors who have changed American culture with gizmos that might be even greater than sliced bread — especially if you're on a low-carb diet.

Some of the following inventors are even former Ig Nobel winners, and you can be sure, they're the ones laughing now.

1. The Pink Flamingo (1957): Thanks to Donald Featherstone, a lawn ornament industry legend, you'll find plastic pink flamingos outside homes in virtually every American community. Inspired by a picture in National Geographic, he sculpted his first flamingo mold, and, to date, more than 20 million have been sold.

Featherstone, now 68, was fresh out of art school when he was commissioned by Union Products, a Massachusetts company, to sculpt a figurine that would jazz up the American lawn. He went on to create more than 650 lawn ornament designs. Plastic penguins and frosty blue snowmen never caught on, but the flamingos paid the bills. The company still sells more than 250,000 synthetic tropical birds each year.

Lawn ornaments might not be your idea of high art. But up until Featherstone retired a few years ago, after winning his Ig Nobel in 1996, each pink flamingo bore his signature. Remember, it's not trash. It's a Featherstone!

2. Pet Rock (1975): When you contemplate the invention of the Pet Rock, you might assume alcohol was involved, and indeed, it was.

In August of 1975, Gary Dahl of California was drinking with some buddies when the conversation turned toward pets. The advertising executive bragged that he had a pet that didn't need any care at all.

Thus, a moderately funny joke became the get-rich-quick scheme of a lifetime. Dahl wrote a care-and-feeding manual, and by late October, he was shipping out 10,000 Pet Rocks a day. Each Pet Rock arrived in a cardboard "nesting box" with air holes and a bed of wood shavings for the little critter, at a cost of $3.95.

By Christmas, Dahl had sold more than a million. He later introduced the less successful "Sand Breeding Kits" and a few years ago wrote Advertising for Dummies.

3. Karaoke Machine (1975): Daisuke Inoue is hardly a great political leader. Still, he did give the common man a voice by inventing the world's first Karaoke machine, and that's probably why he joined the likes of the Dalai Lama and Pol Pot on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential Asians of the 20th century.

In the early 1970s, Inoue was a drummer in Kobe, Japan, and his band routinely let pub-goers sing with them. One night, they were double-booked, so Inoue rigged up a microphone and amplifier to let patrons sing their hearts out behind pre-recorded backing music. Thus began Karaoke, what eventually became a $7 billion-a-year business.

Unfortunately, by the time Inoue thought of patenting Karaoke — which literally means "empty orchestra" — it was too late. Now 65, he's an insecticide salesman who admits that he's one of those people who should never sing in public.

4. Beano (1990): People laughed in 1990 when Alan Klingerman introduced Beano — the world's first dietary supplement for folks who suffer gas pains. The media hailed him as "The Vanquisher of Vapor." But Klingerman found a fortune in flatulence.

Beano can now be found in virtually every pharmacy. And Klingerman, another Ig Nobel winner, sold his interest in the product for more than $10 million to focus on CurTail — a Beano product for gaseous pets.

5. Post-It Note (1970): We have God to thank for the Post-it Note. Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M, was failing miserably in his assignment to develop the world's strongest glue. Then came divine intervention: Silver had a klutzy colleague named Arthur Fry who kept dropping his hymn book.

Whenever Fry got up to sing in church, the little slips of papers he used to mark his prayer book came flying out. But with Silvers' experimental glue, which wasn't particularly sticky and left no residue behind, Fry's prayers were answered. Within 10 years, American offices would be wallpapered in yellow sticky squares of paper.

6. The Bikini (1946): War gave rise to the bikini. To defeat the Nazis, the Allies regulated the amount of fabric for high fashion. Designer Louis Reard responded by simply removing the midriff from woman's swimwear.

In 1946, a year after Germany's defeat, the couturier celebrated at a fashion show in Paris with some of the most provocative swimwear the world had ever seen.

Reard's creation was named in honor of Bikini, the Pacific island where some of the first atomic bombs were tested, and it's been having a similar effect on men ever since.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to be notified when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.