Mary Poppins used it as a mode of transportation, Gene Kelly sang and danced with it in the rain, and just last week, Britney Spears attacked a paparazzo's car with one. The umbrella: classic, simple, and, clearly, versatile. Not, however, the sturdiest of gadgets.
Parodied in films and cartoons for its flimsiness, the umbrella has an uncanny knack for turning itself inside out or refusing to close, or worse, refusing to open when needed.
But now a Dutch company, Senz Technologies, is reinventing this timeless contraption. Eschewing traditional designs, materials and capabilities, Senz Umbrellas claims to have created "the first game-changing innovations in umbrella design." But how exactly does one reconstruct a gadget that has remained largely the same since its inception more than 4,000 years ago?
For starters, the Senz Umbrella does not look like any other one out there. Aerodynamically styled to "slice its way through all winds," the Senz Umbrella resembles a cross between a hang-glider and a spaceship. Complete with an oval-shaped shaft, a stylish handle, and extra reinforcing ribs in the frame, this Dutch doohickey is the escalade of umbrellas.
"It all started out of frustration," said Philip Hess, Senz Umbrellas' co-founder and commercial director. "We said we have all the technology in the world. We can go to the moon and beyond, but we can't create a functional umbrella?!"
Hess and his partners, Gerwin Hoogendoorn, the creative brain behind the umbrella, and Gerard Kool, managing director of Senz Umbrellas, began working on the umbrella's design more than two years ago at Delft University. Although the umbrella's new design was a collaborative effort, Hess credited Hoogendoorn's thesis as the real catalyst behind their design.
"Basically, we tried to eliminate all annoyances of your typical umbrella," Hess said. "Our shape is different. The circular shape is the worst shape for an umbrella -- so ours is asymmetrical. We have a new patented construction that better distributes pressure throughout the device so it won't break. And we've added what we call, eye-savers, so there'll be no more nasty eye poking."
What makes it even more interesting is the fact that this contraption can withstand gale-force winds without breaking, turning inside out or poking someone in the eye. Gale-force winds, you scoff. You'd better believe it.
Senz Umbrella specialists tested the gadget's durability in Delft University's wind tunnel -- the same wind tunnel used by leading aerodynamics experts for testing the world's fastest airplane wings, Olympic speed-skating outfits, and the solar car, "Nuna." After hours of testing, the umbrella emerged victorious, holding up under level 10 force winds.
John Sullivan a professor at Purdue University's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a member of NASA's advisory council, doesn't believe the Senz design is odd at all. "If you look at the contours, it looks like an airfoil [an airplane wing]. The Wright brothers had a very similar airfoil section on their first plane," he said. What makes this device unique, Sullivan said, is that "because of its shape, it is going to point into the wind -- depending on your walking speed and the wind speed, the umbrella will want to change its orientation to make it easier to deflect the wind."
Released in October 2006, Senz Umbrellas, which come in both a full-size and mini version, sold 10,000 units in just nine days. "The response from the media and buyers is beyond our wildest dreams," said Hess.
Needless to say, the Senz gizmo is a hit. "Our umbrella appeals to so many different segments of the market," Hess said. "People who are into fashion like the look. People who love gadgets like the design aspect, technology-minded people are drawn to the new features, and it even appeals to people who just want something different, something that will stand out in a crowd."
It makes sense that in a part of the world known for its gusty winds and rain showers, a sturdy umbrella is a must-have. And at $67 a pop, it's a relative bargain. For now at least, interested consumers will have to order them on the Internet.
Although their umbrella has succeeded in raking in revenue, Senz Technologies hopes to eventually expand its arsenal of reinvented items. Calling itself the "recompany," Senz Technologies' mission is to "redefine, rearrange and rejuvenate everyday products to provide a better and easier everyday life," for people, or at least those who can afford them, across the globe. "In the next five years, we've got lots of umbrella-related products lined up," said Hess. "We are just focusing on doing one thing well."
For now, Senz Technologies is sticking with its cash cow. With claims that it turns "rain into liquid sunshine," this odd-looking contraption is leading the 4,000-year-old umbrella into the 21st century.