Innovative Spirit

Keeping you current

The Teenager Who Patented Earmuffs Kept His Town Employed for 60 Years

Chester Greenwood became an earmuff tycoon whose factory kept his hometown in business

These two diagrams appear in Chester Greenwood's patent for hinged earmuffs. (USPTO)
smithsonian.com

This isn't a story about Chester Greenwood. It's a story about the myth of Chester Greenwood.

On this day in 1877, this young man from Farmington, Maine, patented his simple invention: earmuffs. Greenwood, who first had the idea for this “improvement in ear-mufflers,” as the patent documents describe it, at the age of 15, turned chilly ears into a business.

Like most inventors, Greenwood was trying to solve a problem, writes Don Lipman for The Washington Post. He loved to skate outdoors on the frozen ponds of his town, but he couldn’t stay on the ice for very long, Lipman writes. “He was allergic to the protective wool caps with ear covers that were, at the time, typically used as ear protectors.” 

As the story goes, motivated by his sore ears, Greenwood devised a solution. He asked his grandmother to sew either pads of beaver fur or flannel onto a wire headband with two hoops on the ends, writes Lipman. Which it was is disputed, he notes, but no word on how either beaver fur or wool flannel was less itchy than knitted wool. 

In any case, Greenwood’s idea was clearly one whose time had come. Although his friends initially mocked him, Lipsman writes, the earmuff caught on quickly. Its popularity led Greenwood to make further improvements, such as replacing the wire with a band and hinging the pads. The factory he built near his hometown employed numerous Farmington residents and eventually became the seat of his earmuff empire, writes Matt Hongoltz-Hetling for CentralMaine.com.

It’s a cute story, but, Hongoltz-Hetling writes, Greenwood didn't exactly invent earmuffs. “It wasn’t the first earmuff. It was an improved earmuff,” patent agent Dennis Haszko told him.  

Greenwood’s true innovation, and the reason he got a patent, was a v-shaved swivel hinge that kept earmuffs tight to the ear, Haszko said. Still, his patent and factory put Farmington on the map and kept locals employed, writes Tony Long for Wired. In its best year, 1936, the earmuff factory produced over 400,000 pairs.

Buoyed by his early success, Greenwood kept inventing, eventually accruing over 100 patents. Farmington still celebrates its most inventive son each year in December on Chester Greenwood Day.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Read more from this author |
Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus