They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright Brothers. And they laughed at Kligerman — who eventually laughed all the way to the bank.
Alan Kligerman gave the world Beano — a dietary supplement that helps folks who suffer from flatulence.
Beano can now be found in virtually every pharmacy. But when it hit the market in 1990, Kligerman was the butt of countless jokes. The media hailed him, among other things, as "The Vanquisher of Vapor."
"That's the way people deal with embarrassing subjects. So why not?" said Kligerman. "They laughed. But we got the word out."
Since then, Beano has relieved thousands of gas pain sufferers — not to mention their close friends, co-workers and spouses. Kligerman sold his interest in the product for more than $10 million. Talk about the sweet smell of success.
Today, Kligerman is focusing on other products — CurTail, a Beano product for gaseous pets, and CatSip, a milk product for lactose intolerant cats. Laugh now, but Kligerman will probably be laughing later.
Of course, not all innovators enjoy such vindication. Many remain laughingstocks, others just obscure.
You might have to prove your contribution to humanity to win a Nobel Prize. But if you just bring a smile to the world with a seemingly crazy, novel innovation, you could win the highly coveted Ig Nobel Prize — awarded annually at Harvard University, by students and the Annals of Improbable Research, a science humor magazine.
In addition to Kligerman, past winners include: Peter Barss of McGill University, author of the medical report "Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts," George and Charlotte Blonsky, who invented a device to help women give birth by spinning them at high speed; the British Standards Institution, for publishing a six-page specification of the proper way to make a cup of tea; and Don Featherstone, the designer of the plastic pink flamingo.
If you scoff at coconut research, you probably don't live in Papua New Guinea, where the tropical trees grow more than 100 feet high and the coconuts fall with a force of up to 1 metric ton or more, Barss noted.
In the doctor's four-year study at one hospital, 2.5 percent of the trauma admissions were coconut-related. "Obviously, over there, it's no laughing matter," said Mark Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research.
Of course, most of the Ig Nobel attendees don't come from the tropics. They're happy to make coconut jokes, and so is Barss.
'We're Not Insulted'
Amazingly, Ig Nobel winners fly into Boston each year from all over the world — and they pay their own way.
A guy like Kligerman was obviously leveraging laughter to boost Beano sales. But other "honorees" are scientists who count on their professional reputation to secure grants. Why do they show up?
Some are undoubtedly out to prove they're not stuffy academics. Others come to defend research that — on the face of it — seems coconuts.
A few years ago, three Scottish researchers flew in to Boston to be honored for their report "The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow," examining the physical collapse of toilets after people sat on them.
"We're not insulted," Jonathan Wyatt said. "Between us, we've published more than 70 research papers. This is the only one that's given us any publicity at all."
This year's event, on Oct. 3, will be the second to be broadcast over the Internet (www.improbable.com). These days, the festivities draw a crowd of 1,200 people, including many notables. But the show still aspires to be a small, prankish party. The audience can and will throw paper airplanes to express themselves.
As for this year's Ig Nobel winners, Abrahams says that's a closely guarded secret.
"Every year a theme or trend emerges, and this year we're all going to find out some interesting things about the intimate relationship between humans and animals," Abrahams said.
With the 12th Ig Nobel festivities beginning, The Wolf Files took a look at past honorees. Here are some of the notables and their innovations. Notable Ig Nobels
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION The Self-Perfuming Suit (1999) — When you work all day, party all night, and have a limited number of outfits, you might need a $400, self-perfuming suit, made of a special scratch-and-sniff fabric. The South Korean manufacturer, Hyuk-ho Kwon of Kolon, offers peppermint-scented attire can be repeatedly dry cleaned without losing its special feature. Just rub the sleeves, and your B.O. disappears.
PSYCHOLOGY Pigeons Learn Fine Art (1995) — When a pigeon leaves poo on a statue, is that a form of artistic criticism? Three Japanese psychologists at Keio University, were honored for training pigeons to discriminate between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet.
BIOLOGY Airtight Underwear (2001) — If there's a market for Beano, there might also be one for Under-Ease, airtight underwear with a charcoal flatulence filter. Buck Weimer, a psychotherapist from Pueblo, Colo., says he was inspired six years ago, after a huge Thanksgiving dinner, when his bedroom got a little gassy. "I don't mind the jokes," Weimer says, but folks like his wife, who suffers from inflammatory bowel syndrome, can really benefit from Under-Ease.
PUBLIC HEALTH Nose Picking (2001) — If you are searching for a highfalutin word for "compulsive nose-picking," it's rhinotillexomania. B.S. Srihari and another researcher at India's National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, received honors for their probing medical discovery last year that nose-picking is a common activity among adolescents.
"Some people poke their nose into other people's business," said Srihari, at his Ig Nobel induction. "I make it my business to poke my business into other people's noses."
PUBLIC HEALTH Inflatable Doll Advisory (1996) — Most grown men don't play with dolls. But a few guys apparently play very intimately with the inflatable kind. However, before you get a little too familiar with "Rubber Rhonda," you might want to read a cautionary medical report from Ellen Kleist of Greenland and Harald Moi of Norway, "Transmission of Gonorrhea Through an Inflatable Doll," published in Genitourinary Medicine.
MEDICINE Intimate Zipper Injuries (1993) Three doctors at a Navy Hospital in San Diego received their Ig Nobel for a 1990 research report, "Acute Management of the Zipper-Entrapped Penis." Unless you've had such an injury, you'll never know the importance of such research. Moreover, our boys in the Navy deserve all the protection we can afford.
MANAGED HEALTH CARE The Spinning Birthing Table (1999) — How can you ease labor pains? How about strapping a woman into a circular table and spinning her at high speed. Then you can pop out the newborn with centrifugal force. The late George and Charlotte Blonsky of New York City thought of this while observing elephants at the Bronx Zoo. Apparently, pachyderms spin when they're in labor. The Blonskys even patented their idea.
TECHNOLOGY The Wheel (2001) — Maybe you've heard of the wheel. Well, last year, John Keogh of Australia patented it. Actually, he patented the "Circular Transportation Device" to demonstrate that, perhaps, there are some problems with patent laws.
Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.