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Remembering Eddie Van Halen, Inventor

Guitarist Eddie Van Halen playing a black guitar onstage in Las Vegas.
An interesting study of the great inventor. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Legendary guitarist and occasional inventor Eddie Van Halen died on Tuesday, leaving behind a legacy of virtuoso guitar work and the single greatest patent illustration ever filed. It’s found in patent No. 4,656,917, awarded to Edward L. Van Halen of Los Angeles, California, on April 14, 1987. When studying scientific progress, it’s important to understand prior art in the field, so to set the stage, here are some illustrations from some of the previous inventions Van Halen cited in his patent application. Check out the illustration from patent No. 1,285,802, a guitar rest patented by Charles J. Russell in 1918:

A drawing of a man playing a guitar, in a boring fashion.
Booooring. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Here’s one from patent No. 1,945,162, a guitar support patented by Peter Rasmussen on Jan. 30, 1934:

A drawing of a woman playing classical guitar.
Boooooring. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Finally, this dulcimer player hails from patent No. 4,213,369, awarded to Robert L. Swartwout on July 20, 1980:

A drawing of a man playing the dulcimer.
Booooooooooooooooooring. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

You’ll notice that the musicians found on pre–Van Halen patent applications all have one thing in common: They look like they absolutely SUCK. Maybe Charles J. Russell’s guitar stylings were good enough for returning World War I veterans looking for peace and quiet after the trenches of Europe. Maybe the economic privations of the Great Depression meant that the lady in Peter Rasmussen’s patent application simply couldn’t afford to rock any harder. As for the dulcimer player, the dates tell the whole story: Godspell closed on Broadway on Sept. 4, 1977, and wasn’t revived until 1981. So there were historical reasons that the field of music-related patent illustration was so staid and stodgy before Eddie Van Halen burst onto the scene. But as Van Halen showed the world, there were reasons, but there weren’t any excuses. Behold the illustration from patent No. 4,656,917:

A drawing of a long-haired guitarist absolutely wailing on a guitar.
Not boring! U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Now that is a drawing of a man who is promoting the progress of science and the useful arts, just like the Founding Fathers envisioned! As Van Halen explained to Popular Mechanics in 2015, he came by his love of tinkering by watching his father Jan Van Halen, also a musician, invent ways to get around his own physical decline. After losing a finger in a drunken attempt to move a U-Haul trailer that was blocking the alley that led to the family garage, Jan Van Halen adapted a saxophone valve cover to allow him to play clarinet with nine fingers; when he began losing his teeth and was having trouble with his mouthpiece, he built a homemade dental bridge out of Teflon. Eddie Van Halen never dabbled in dentistry, but he inherited his father’s faith in tinkering, and heavily modified his own guitars to get the sound he wanted, sanding down the necks and fingerboards, re-fretting, and even coating his pickups with paraffin wax to reduce feedback. His original guitar was nicknamed Frankenstrat because it was pieced together from so many different parts.

Not surprisingly, the musical instrument support wasn’t Van Halen’s only patent: He also invented or helped invent an adjustable string tension control allowing more precise adjustments than a whammy bar, a humbucking pickup, and ornamental designs for guitar pegheads and pickups. None of the illustrations in those patent applications rocks quite as hard as the one in Van Halen’s musical instrument support patent, but his tireless pursuit of improvements in the field of rockin’ out led to a body of work, not just a single breakthrough. So there is no better way to mourn the passing of this great man of science than recalling the words of Arthur J. Palmer’s stirring tribute to Thomas Edison, read at his burial:

He has led no armies into battle—he has conquered no countries—he has enslaved no peoples—yet he wields a power the magnitude of which no warrior ever dreamed. He commands a devotion more sweeping in scope, more world-wide than any other living man—a devotion rooted deep in gratitude, and untinged by bias of race, color, religion, or politics.

And of this man, this super-being who defies classification, what more can be said; what greater tribute paid than this—


And now, some applied science from a man whose commitment to education never wavered.

Rest in peace to humanity’s friend.