Many inventions are intended to solve problems–like the bendy straw.
The now-ubiquitous drinking tool was patented on this day in 1937 by an inventor named Joseph Friedman. It took an existing invention, colloquially known as the “soda straw” and made it accessible to people who couldn’t sit up at a tall counter and bend their heads to just the angle required to drink out of a straight straw.
Friedman wrote in the patent documents that his invention related to “that type of drinking tube known in the trade as a ‘soda straw.’” While these straws were sometimes actual pieces of straw, he writes, they were more usually “wound or otherwise formed from oiled paper, paraffin paper, Cellophane, or the like.”
The first drinking straw of this type–made of coiled paper dipped in paraffin wax–dates back to the 1880s, writes Derek Thompson for The Atlantic, when it was invented and patented by a man named Marvin Chester Stone. While it was a popular invention, Friedman experienced a problem with it firsthand at some point in the 1930s, writes Thompson. According to the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Friedman was seated at the Varsity Sweet Shop in San Francisco with his young daughter Judith. After watching her struggle to drink a milkshake out of a too-tall straw, he had an idea. The center writes:
Friedman, an inventor with a natural curiosity and a creative instinct, took the straw and inserted a screw. He then wrapped dental floss around the paper into the screw threads, creating corrugations. After he removed the screw, the altered paper straw would bend conveniently over the edge of the glass, allowing a small child to better reach the beverage.
Friedman couldn’t make his daughter taller or make the counter shorter, so he designed a straw that would adapt to the situation. His patent acknowledged that he wasn’t the first to think of bending a straw, but he was the first to design a purpose-built bendy straw that could bend without creating a crease that blocked the flow of liquid.
It took some time to create the machinery necessary to make bendy straws on an industrial scale, but Friedman’s company Flex-Straw made its first sale in 1947, to a hospital, according to the Lemelson Center. “Solving the ‘Judith problem’ had created a multi-million dollar business,” writes Thompson.
Friedman held a number of other patents, Marianne Riley writes for the National Museum of American History. His first, for a fountain pen that showed the amount of ink left before it needed to be refilled, demonstrated the same talent for making small but crucial improvements to existing products. In the case of the bendy straw, his best-known invention, he looked at something and saw how it could be improved to make it accessible for more people–like his children and hospital patients or anyone else who had trouble bending their head to the exact angle required by a straight straw. Because of this, the straw is cited as a case study for "universal design," a mode of thinking that tries to make products accessible to as many people as possible.