The 10 Best Houston Inventions

Keep Houston Press Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Houston and help keep the future of Houston Press free.

Ever since mankind figured out that prehistoric beasts die easier when you poke them with a pointy stick rather than beating them in the head with a far less pointy stick, humanity has lauded and celebrated invention. We like things, and one way or another we've crawled from the caves into magics like the Internet, dialysis, and the inflatable grill. If only our ancestors could see us now I'd bet they'd...

Well, probably poke us with the pointy stick out of a combination of magosophobia and "No one likes a show off, smartass". Progress is hard, OK?

Houston has contributed nicely to the world's collections of do-hickies, and today we celebrate ten things you love that were made possible by H-Town inventors.

Screwpull Corkscrew Fun fact, the cork was invented before the corkscrew. It wasn't until an English gunsmith in the 18th century used a device used to get shot out of muzzle-loaders than anyone came up with a way to easily get the wine out of a sealed bottle.

Somewhat easier, I mean, and the process still needed improving. Enter Houston's Herbert Allen in the 20th century, who liked inventing things for jet engines and the petroleum industry but loved wine. He had one of the finest cellars in Houston, and when his wife complained that she had a hard time with corkscrews Allen went to work inventing a lever-based mechanism that would do the job for her with a fraction of the effort.

Roller Cone Drillbit One of the reasons gas prices aren't higher than they are right now is because two men changed the game when it came to drill bits in oil drilling. Walter Benona Sharp and Howard Hughes, Sr. teamed-up and invented the first roller cone bits that revolutionized the industry and opened up drilling into places it had never been before. The two formed a tool company that went on to build a fortune. At the turn of the century, nearly half of all the drill bits being used in oil drilling belonged to the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company. This helped paved the way for...

Underwire Bra Hughes son, Howard Hughes, Jr. would himself go on to be a famous inventor, aviator, and filmmaker thanks to the opportunities open to him bu his father's innovation. While making the film The Outlaw he noticed two things about Jane Russell that you probably enjoyed very much in the picture above. Intent on displaying his star's breasts in the best possible light, Hughes perfected the first really workable underwire bra.

Previous models had been developed, but they had never really taken off. Russell herself was unimpressed with the invention, claiming it hurt so bad that she secretly took it off and did her scenes with tissues stuffed in her regular brassiere. The publicity around Hughes' bra and the end of metal rationing after World War II helped launch the underwire as a popular undergarment.

Hughes also invented some planes and stuff, apparently.

Condensed Milk Back in the olden days the lack of refrigeration meant that transporting food any real distance was a delicious recipe for food poisoning. This troubled New Yorker turned Texan Gail Borden, Jr. and he did something about it.

Borden is probably the most fascinating Texan you've never heard of. He came to the state to start a newspaper, pioneering a level of objectivity and non-partisanship in journalism worthy of the utmost respect. It was Borden who published the list of names of those who fought and died at the Alamo, and helped send that battle into Texas history. He was a personal friend of Sam Houston, and would help co-plot out the city that would bear the name.

After his wife died from yellow fever, Borden decided to fight disease by improving refrigeration. It didn't really work out mechanically, but he did invent both waterless milk and beef biscuits that could be stored at room temperature and not spoil. His condensed milk made him a millionaire, and was in great demand when he began producing it for troops in the Civil War.

Terraqueous Machine In fact Borden was so awesome he gets two mentions. His sail-powered wagon that instantly converted to a boat did not turn out well, and there aren't any pictures of it to go with this entry unfortunately. Well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I think a hundred words from Farm Collector's Same Moore will do nicely...

His first [invention], which may actually have been his brother Tom's idea, was a "terraqueous machine," a common, although waterproofed, wagon with a mast, sail and some unspecified means of steering. Borden invited a group of men and women to go for a ride on the beach, although one of them said: "We may all end up in eternity." The wind was brisk and the wagon rolled along swiftly; Borden, without warning his passengers, steered the thing into the water, the ladies screamed and everyone rushed to the land side, capsizing the wagon and leaving everyone to wade ashore, wet and angry. That was the end of the terraqueous machine.

Seriously, this guy was so awesome.

This story continues on the next page.

Chopped and Screwed Music I strongly hope that I have no need of explaining what chopped and screwed music is to the people of Houston, or that the man behind it was DJ Screw. Screw changed the game and the entire direction of southern hip hop in ways that are still being felt in mainstream music. I would go so far as to say Screw pioneered not only a music technique, but the last great American regional music movement. May he rest in a most mellow peace.

Ammonia-free hair color Farouk Shami came to Houston from Palestine after growing up helping his mother make dyes and color from a very young age. When he arrived in the country, he went into the business of hair products. The problem was, he developed a severe allergy to ammonia, which is a common product in hair colors. Undeterred, he invented the first Ammonia-free hair color, and his company now rakes in $1 billion a year and services celebrities like Courtney Cox and Madonna.

Ventricular-Assist Device (VAD) The one and only Dr. Michael DeBakey looked at NASA space shuttle technology and said, "That. I shall shove that in a human heart" before presumably driving away in a Thunderbird on two wheels. Embellishment aside, DeBakey took the dangers of heart failure in patients waiting for heart donors very seriously. So he used NASA fuel pump innovations to cobble together a device capable of keeping a weakened heart going for months while a donor is sought. For this, DeBakey was given the 2001 NASA Commercial Invention of the Year award.

Eggies Every year Betsy Kaufman would make hard-boiled eggs for Passover Seder, and every year she would ruin a couple getting them out of the shell. There's got to be a better way, and Kaufman was inspired to find that way after seeing an invitation to log onto Edison Nation on her Bed, Bath, & Beyond receipt. Kaufman developed Eggies, heat resistant plastic cups you could crack eggs into then twist the finished egg out of when they'd finished boiling. A successful infomercial later and you can find them on the As Seen on TV shelf wherever such things are sold.

Weed Eater George Ballas was a man that never let a ridiculous-looking idea get him down. During a yard work session he took a break to go wash his car. At the car wash the rotary brushes gave him an idea. Returning home he used a tin can and some fishing line attached to an edge trimmer and the Weed Eater was born. Initially, no one thought the invention worth anything, but after sinking his own money into the project Ballas eventually ended up selling his company for $80 million in 1977. After making his fortune, Ballas went back to his love of dancing. No, really. He owned a dance studio, and his grandson is Mark Ballas on Dancing With the Stars. Just goes to show you, in Houston it takes all kinds.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.