Seven Inventions for a Safer Fourth of July

From fireworks shields to seat belts, these inventions throughout history have made summer fun less risky

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According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's annual fireworks report, there were about 5,600 fireworks-related injuries between June 22 and July 22 of last year. Anna Owen/EyeEm/Getty Images

The 4th of July is not all watermelons and fireworks. It’s also America’s most dangerous holiday, associated with some 600 deaths and more than 64,000 injuries each year. Most of these are car-related and many involve alcohol (please, please don’t drink and drive). Others are caused by summer-specific fun: swimming, sparklers and spoiled potato salad. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's annual fireworks report, there were about 5,600 fireworks-related injuries between June 22 and July 22 of last year.

But inventors are here to help! Here are seven historical patents plucked from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office archives for inventions intended to make classic Independence Day activities a bit safer.

Sparkler Shield

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(USPTO)

We’re not sure this 1941 patent for a “shielded fireworks holder” would meet contemporary safety standards. The illustration shows a small boy blithely holding a lit Roman candle, his hand “protected” by the shield’s metal disk. The shield will presumably keep the sparks from burning the child’s hand (though his head and the rest of his body are still exposed to any fiery showers). It’s a nice thought, Warren P. Hunnicutt of St. Petersburg, Florida. But perhaps keeping kids away from fireworks altogether is a better idea.

Fireworks Safety Sleeve

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(USPTO)

Fireworks have two kinds of charges—a lift charge and an effect charge. The lift charge sends the shell into the sky, then the effect charge explodes it into thousands of glittery stars. But users sometimes accidentally put fireworks shells upside-down in the launcher, which can cause the effect charge to erupt too close to the ground, injuring workers and spectators. This 2013 patent is for a polyethylene sleeve that would contain such explosions.

Spoiled Food Warning System

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(USPTO)

Before you throw those shrimp on the barbie, make sure they’re fresh. This 1953 patent from Wilfred Hand for a “seafood spoilage indicating system” is one of a number of mid-century patents meant to warn consumers of spoiled food via indicators embedded in the packaging. The indicators change color to red or brilliant purple with the presence of the byproducts of putrefaction. Detecting food spoilage is something modern science is still working on; new inventions include indicators that can tell your smartphone when you’re food’s going bad.   

Pet Anti-Anxiety Shirt

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(USPTO)

Many dogs are terrified of the noise of fireworks and will do anything to try to get away, even jumping through closed windows. July is the number one month for pet disappearances. Experts recommend keeping sensitive dogs indoors, using a TV or white noise machine to dampen the sounds, and implanting pets with ID chips in case they do run away. You can also try pressure garments that “hug” dogs to stimulate a natural calming reflex. This 2012 patent is for the Thundershirt, a popular brand.

Automatic Pool Gate

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(USPTO)

Water wings, pool noodles and inflatable unicorns are fun, but they’re not safety devices. When it comes to kids and water, there’s no substitute for constant adult vigilance. And all home pools should be surrounded with a fence at least 60 inches high with a self-closing and self-latching gate, says the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. This 1997 patent shows such a gate.  

Fire Extinguisher

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(USPTO)

Grilling? Using sparklers? Keep a bucket of water and a fire extinguisher handy. This 1880 patent is for an early version of the fire extinguisher known as a “bottle breaking” extinguisher. The user would smash the glass into a fire to release flame-smothering chemicals. Luckily we’ve advanced since then, and today’s extinguishers are solid metal canisters with tubes to release foam, liquid or gas firefighting materials, no glass shards necessary.

3-Point Seat Belt

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(USPTO)

Most 4th of July deaths and serious injuries aren’t from dramatic fireworks accidents. They’re a result of car crashes, many of them alcohol-related. And the best protection isn’t some madcap Rube Goldberg device. It’s the most ordinary, everyday invention: the seatbelt (and not drinking and driving, obviously). Buckling up in the front seat of a car reduces your risk of death or serious injury by 45 percent. But early cars had no seat belts at all. By the 1950s, some cars offered simple lap belts, though they were not very effective. In 1962, Swedish Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin received a patent for something quietly revolutionary: the modern 3-point safety harness, which restrains both the upper and lower body. Even more revolutionary: Volvo made the patent free to other auto manufacturers. It knew the device was too important to keep to itself for the sake of profit. More than a million people have their lives because of it.