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Product Development


Inspiration for Innovators: A New Collection of Patent Art

November 12, 2013

Creativity is one of our greatest joys and highest values at UncommonGoods. It makes us so happy when we come across or develop an imaginative, original design, artwork, or product that will bring something special into our customers’ lives. We’re in awe of the creative geniuses throughout history whose ideas, experiments, innovations and inventions have transformed life altogether.

Actress Susan Cabot as a chemist inventor Janice Starlin in the 1959 Roger Corman film, The Wasp WomanActress Susan Cabot as a chemist/inventor Janice Starlin in the 1959 Roger Corman film, The Wasp Woman

Learning about how great inventors and product designers have pursued their ideas from dream to reality, persisting through the grueling effort of iterative failures and breakthroughs, is incredibly inspiring. Our Product Development team wanted to create a new wall art collection that would link the often quiet presence of innovation in our daily lives to the grand and sometimes dramatic history of invention.

Thomas Edison with lightbulbThomas Edison looking stern while holding a light bulb

Thinking about history led them to the National Archives online collection. Then they had their light bulb moment. What’s a more universally-recognized symbol of inspiration than… the incandescent light bulb itself? What more prolific inventor has there been than Thomas Edison, with his 1,093 patents? And how cool is it that the National Archives collection includes some great-looking documents that were central to Edison’s most transformative inventions? (Answers: None, None, and Very.)

Edison Illuminated Art | UncommonGoods

Edison Illuminated Art (Electric-Lamp. U.S. Patent #223,898, 1880, by Thomas Edison)

The team fell in love with the patent application drawings that skilled draftsmen (yup, all men back then–though not all white men) created of the light bulb and other inventions. Their historical value is bottomless. But our team was also struck by their simple beauty, and the profound inspiration they recall and radiate. They decided to create a collection that would spotlight the elegant loveliness of these hand-drawn, hand-written documents.

Replica of Edison's Menlo Park LaboratoryReplica of Edison’s  Menlo Park Laboratory, site of the invention of the light bulb. (GNU Free Documentation License. Photo: Swampyank, Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

It was determined that a Product Development team field trip to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ, where “the wizard of Menlo Park” lived and laboratoried [Ed. note: We “innovated” that word] was a mandatory step in their creative process. [Ed. note: Uh-huh.]

Their trip to the wizard’s workshop wasn’t only inspiring; it was humbling. You know that famous Edison quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”? He wasn’t kidding. “The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments,” Edison wrote. “Before I got through, I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material.” (There was no electrical system for people to plug light bulbs into, so, no problemo, Edison invented a power distribution system, too.)

Edison bulb used in Menlo Park demo, 1879Edison bulb used in Menlo Park electric lamp demo, Christmas week, 1879. Unlike today’s bulbs, the early ones were created by artisans, of hand-blown glass. Photo: Sergio Caltagirone.


Edison 1877 cylinder phonograph - photo. Photo Library of CongressEdison’s 1877 cylinder phonograph

Edison’s 1879 light bulb – perhaps the most iconic patent ever – wasn’t actually the earliest; but it was the first efficient, long-lasting, practical, and commercially viable one. His 1877 cylinder phonograph, however, was an original. Even he was amazed when the first words he said into it – “Mary had a little lamb” – were played back to him by his machine.  (The little pocket device injecting music straight into your brain has Mary and her little lamb in its DNA. Even if you’re playing death metal.) [Ed. note: Whether or not you were fleeced is another issue. Har. Har.]

The patent applications for these inventions, antique as they are, still powerfully communicate passion for innovating, pushing forward, solving problems, imagining and designing the future. But there’s also an appealing quaintness to them. They seem to embody honest simplicity, even a kind of innocence.

Edison lightbulb quasi-ad
Edison the marketer: Electric light “warning,” 1878

Though we know these became some of the most successful products of all time (in part because Edison was a brilliant and aggressive marketer), because they’re purely technical, they seem to exist on a higher plane than mere marketing. There’s no slick, trendy styling; no scantily-clad ladies holding these objects; and no breathless ad copy. Invented before the onset of “planned obsolescence,” which created the problems of waste and resource depletion we have today, these products were designed to simply perform their functions well.

Phonograph Patent Art (U.S. Patent #227,679; 1880, by Thomas Edison)

We dig that. The team didn’t want to mess with perfection, so the artworks in our new collection consist of un-altered reproductions of the original patent applications, printed on 100% archival enhanced matte paper. Each goes a thought-provoking (and fun) step further by subtly incorporating functionality and form, to illustrate how these inventions have evolved. The Phonograph, for example, incorporates a vintage vinyl LP, and the Light Bulb is illuminated by an LED.

US Patent Office New Wing, 1891US Patent Office then-new wing, 1891

As Morgan Tanner, UncommonGoods Product Development Production Manager, put it, “These patents point to the origins of these commonplace items, but by no means represent the ‘last word’ on them. Innovation breathes life into the products we rely on and interact with every day. Reinvention brings timelessness.”

See Saw patent 116,502, 1871Sometimes inspiration means seeing things from a new angle. Seesaw Patent art (U.S. Patent #116,502, by Mrs. S. E. Saul, 1871)

The team hoped to dream up a collection of inspiring art for our customers that would honor creativity as an immensely powerful energy flowing through each and every of us–and they succeeded! The iconic, historical aura of these documents beams undimmed through the decades, motivating us each to explore our own, individual genius in whatever direction it takes us…even if it takes a while to get where we’re going, as it did for a certain young patent clerk at the beginning of the 20th century who couldn’t get a promotion and felt he was going nowhere at the speed of light.

Albert Einstein, patent clerk third class, Bern, Switzerland, c. 1903. He didn’t write the series of papers which revolutionized physics until 1905.


From a 1901 letter from Einstein’s father, Hermann, to Professor Wilhelm Ostwald at the University of Leipzig, Germany:
“I shall start by telling you that my son Albert is 22 years old, that … he feels profoundly unhappy with his present lack of position, and his idea that he has gone off the tracks with his career & is now out of touch gets more and more entrenched each day. In addition, he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means…..” (Professor Ostwald never responded.)

The Uncommon Life

Uncommon Personalities: Meet Carolyn Topp

September 30, 2013
UncommonGoods Director of New Business and Product Development Carolyn Topp
Carolyn Topp, UncommonGoods Director of New Business and Product Development
My hometown is…
I grew up in Ardsley, NY, also home of the late great ice cream magnate Tom Carvel.

My favorite product we’ve developed at UncommonGoods is…
Always something new that will soon be in our assortment; this month it is “My Life Story – So Far.”

I’m inspired by…

My guilty pleasure is…
I don’t believe in guilt.

An uncommon fact about me…
I was a cellist in Harry Alshin’s junior string orchestra (Westchester County, NY). We performed a concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC (in the early 1970s) and each member of the orchestra was listed in the Congressional Record.

My favorite place to eat in New York City is (was)…
Florent– it represents a time and a place in NYC that no longer exists.

My style is…
My personal style is urban practical and classic.
My decorating style is eclectic – a mix of old and new, colorful, and comfortable for people and pets.

Working at UncommonGoods, I’ve learned…
Something new each day.

Would you rather… Spend a day on the set of Mad Men OR get front row seats and backstage passes at a Bruce Springsteen concert?
“You cannot be serious” (to quote John McEnroe) with this question. Bruce.

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: How to Make Music by Playing Wine Glasses

September 27, 2013
Major Scale Musical Wine Glasses | UncommonGoods

As a developer of the Major Scale Musical Wine Glasses™, my knowledge of the product is quite comprehensive, but this was my first chance to test a random unit straight off the production floor. In developing these musical glasses, we looked for a glass that would allow for a full A major scale, allowing for more versatile music-making. We used a high-quality lead-free crystal glass here to ensure the best resonance we could achieve.

I’m not a big wine drinker, but you’ll find me sneaking a swig of water every now and again – so I’m conducting this experiment with water as an alternative. I try to keep practice on my violin, but I’m much more likely to produce something resembling music with my finger on these glasses than with my bow on strings – so I’m looking forward to the chance to actually hit the right notes for a change.

Musical Wine Glass Packaging | Uncommon Goods

Due to variations in glass we knew absolute, orchestral perfection was a bit too aspirational, but we have been pleased to find that the fill lines correspond quite nicely to the note indicated. My hypothesis is that I’ll have a pretty happy match today.

Fill ‘er up! I poured to the first note – an ‘A,’ moistened my finger in another glass to allow for smooth movement around the rim, and round my finger went firmly in a circular motion. As I draw my finger around the rim, the alternating slipping and sticking creates a vibration pattern in the glass. The speed of vibration, meanwhile, is affected by the volume of liquid in the glass, and different vibrations will produce different notes. The results of my first attempt?

Playing Music on Wine Glasses

A lovely ‘A’ note resonates through the dining room, accompanied by a hypnotic ripple along the surface of the wine. As you can see…a successful ‘A’!

'A' Note

I toast to a successful first pour and continue on my journey through the A Major scale.

I poured a taller glass and around I went again.

Major Scale Musical Wine Glass | UncommonGoods

Crosschecking with another tuner – a direct hit! SuccEss with a capital ‘E’.

'E' Note


Though slight variations in glass will yield somewhat different performance, a random test proved more than satisfactory to my unprofessional, yet music-appreciating ears. Very content and ready to wet my whistle, I toast to beautiful music with my fiancée and Franklin Broccoli, our almost-real pet bulldog.

Musical Wine Glass Toast

To see and hear these uncommon instruments make music with your own eyes and ears, check out this video of me playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

The Uncommon Life

Uncommon Personalities: Meet Morgan Tanner

September 19, 2013
Morgan Tanner UncommonGoods Production Manager
Morgan Tanner, UncommonGoods Product Development Production Manager

My favorite product that I helped develop is…
It’s a toss-up – either the Major Scale Musical Wine Glasses or the My Life Story–So Far journal. Though both are appreciably different in what they represent – one is a thoughtful look back on one’s life and the other a fun way to spend a meal and/or drinks – they both took a great deal of consideration and care in terms of execution.

I’m inspired by…
Those who have the conviction to think for themselves and make the right decisions.

My guilty pleasure is…
Everything artisanal (chocolate and coffee, specifically) that I consume – generally inefficient production but entirely worth it!

An uncommon fact about me…
I love durian. I hear this is uncommon.

My favorite place to eat in New York City is…
Singular is unfair. If I had to decide – brunch at Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens is a definite go-to.

When I’m not working I’m probably…
Listening to Freakonomics podcasts, reading up on articles, and driving north along the Hudson River (not simultaneously!).

Working at UncommonGoods I’ve learned…
Giving people a sense of ownership can inspire pride and effort like nothing else. That a company with a great mission can attract a lot of really smart, creative, and conscientious individuals.

If you could teleport to another location for 24 hours with no limitations, where would you go and what would you do?
Ticket for one? Probably wherever my fiancée is. We’d hang. For two? I’m transporting to North Shore Oahu. In addition to teleporting I’m also going to change the position of the Earth, make it winter there for extra big surf, eat spam musubi and observe.

The Uncommon Life

Mixtape Mixed Drinks: Manhattan Cocktail Recipe

September 11, 2013

The Manhattan is a classic New York cocktail, so of course it inspired a playlist of classic New York songs. The Manhattan’s a sophisticated drink that evokes images of the city it’s named after during the Mad Men era. (Don Draper typically drinks an old fashioned, but we could see him drinking this as well.)

The drink can be made with Bourbon or Rye–my Manhattan is made with Bourbon.

Manhattan Cocktail Recipe | UncommonGoods

Sipping a Mahattan in a Mixtape Glass can put you in a New York state of mind, no matter your location.

The Drink:
2 parts bourbon to 1 part sweet vermouth
1-2 Dash bitters
Maraschino cherry (optional)

Place ice in a cocktail shaker and then add bourbon, sweet vermouth and bitters. Shake and pour (strained) into a chilled glass or pour over ice. Top with a cherry (optional).

The Playlist:
1. Incident on 57th Street-Bruce Springsteen
2. Spanish Harlem-Ben E. King
3. Positively 4th Street-Bob Dylan
4. Take the A Train-Duke Ellington
5. New York State of Mind-Billy Joel
6. New York City Serenade-Bruce Springsteen