Sea Monkeys, Sex Toys, and Gatorade

The Longform guide to modern inventions.

Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome, speaks at Google’s annual developer conference in 2012. A 2011 Fast Company article explains why Google built its revolutionary browser.

Photo by Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/GettyImages

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

The Shocking True Tale of the Mad Genius Who Invented Sea Monkeys
Evan Hughes • The Awl  • June 2011

The strange man who invented X-ray specs, sea monkeys, Balderdash, and more.


“How did we fall for von Braunhut’s [ad] copy, even as children? It’s hard to remember a prior state of innocence once you’ve come to understand what salesmanship is. When it came to X-Ray Specs, if you were savvy enough to be suspicious, you were also savvy enough to understand that there were naughty secrets your parents didn’t want you to know—maybe this was one of them? Hey, maybe it was worth a buck to find out.”


Can a Better Vibrator Inspire an Age of Great American Sex?
Andy Isaacson • Atlantic • May 2012

Engineer Ethan Imboden’s drive to make sex toys beautiful and mainstream.

“At dinner parties in San Francisco, where he lives, Imboden found that mentioning sex toys unleashed conversations that appeared to have been only awaiting permission. ‘Suddenly I was at the nexus of everybody’s thoughts and aspirations of sexuality,’ he said. ‘Suddenly it was OK for anyone to talk to me about it.’ It occurred to Imboden that the people who buy sex toys are not some other group of people. They are among the half of all Americans who, according to a recent Indiana University study, report having used a vibrator. They are people, like those waiting outside Apple stores for the newest iPhone model, who typically surround themselves with brands that reinforce a self-concept. They spend money on quality products, and care about the safety of those products. Yet, for the very products they use most intimately—arguably the ones whose quality and safety people should care most about—they were buying gimmicky items of questionable integrity. It’s just that people had never come to expect or demand anything different—silenced by society’s ‘shame tax on sexuality,’ as one sex toy retailer put it to me. And few alternatives existed.”


The Televisionary
Malcolm Gladwell • The New Yorker • May 2002

It’s easy to call corporations evil, but what if they actually spur innovation by supporting inventors?

“In April, 1931, Sarnoff showed up at the Green Street laboratory to review Farnsworth’s work. This was, by any measure, an extraordinary event. Farnsworth was twenty-four, and working out of a ramshackle building. Sarnoff was one of the leading industrialists of his day. It was as if Bill Gates were to get in his private jet and visit a software startup in a garage across the country. But Farnsworth wasn’t there. He was in New York, trapped there by a court order resulting from a frivolous lawsuit filed by a shady would-be investor. Stashower calls this one of the great missed opportunities of Farnsworth’s career, because he almost certainly would have awed Sarnoff with his passion and brilliance, winning a lucrative licensing deal. Instead, an unimpressed Sarnoff made a token offer of a hundred thousand dollars for Farnsworth’s patents, and Farnsworth dismissed the offer out of hand. This, too, is a reason that inventors ought to work for big corporations: big corporations have legal departments to protect their employees against being kept away from their laboratories by frivolous lawsuits. A genius is a terrible thing to waste.”


7 Ways Larry Page Is Defining Google’s Future
Farhad Manjoo • Fast Company • April 2011

A rundown of innovation at Google, just as current CEO Larry Page took over.

“So if you’ve ever wondered why Google needed its own web browser, called Chrome, here’s why: It needed Chrome to goad Microsoft, Apple, and other browser makers into reigniting innovation in what had become a moribund market. Everyone’s efforts collectively improve the web as a whole, which is good for Google and its ad business. Even if its rivals merely copied Chrome’s advancements—superfast, stable, and, thus far, impossible to hack—Google saw that it could achieve its larger goals. About 10% of web surfers now use Chrome, which is respectable, but not as important as pushing Microsoft to retire the decrepit IE 6 browser in favor of new versions with a string of great improvements.


The Bloody Patent Battle Over a Healing Machine
Ken Otterbourgh • Fortune • October 2010

The bureaucratic and financial problems behind a simple, ubiquitous, wound-closing technology.

“Dr. Louis Argenta says he invented the VAC, and he has the patents to prove it. He’s a plastic surgeon at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., but is quick to point out that he isn’t that kind of plastic surgeon. He deals with messy and nasty injuries that often can’t or won’t heal on their own. One night in the late 1980s, he was lying in bed and unable to sleep. He was reading The Gulag Archipelago and was worried about a patient who was slowly dying from an infected wound that couldn’t be closed with surgery because the stitches would make things worse. ‘And, just suddenly,’ he would say later, ‘the concept of just using a giant vacuum—we had played with vacuums in the laboratory a little bit, but this was the concept of using a giant vacuum to pull this whole thing together.’ He sketched a rough drawing in the margins of his book, and his wife told him to go back to sleep.”

The Bottle and the Babe
Gilbert Rogin • Sports Illustrated • July 1968

On the origins of Gatorade and its prolific inventor, Robert Cade.

“However, Gatorade won’t work unless the athletes are willing to drink it, and unflavored Gatorade tastes like salt water. Indeed, when it was first served in a game (Florida vs. LSU in 1965), Guard Larry Gagner said, memorably, ‘This water tastes like ****,’ and poured it over his head.”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.