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Stupid Inventions That Made Millions

If a bizarre or childish idea turns into a marketable product that sells by the boatload and makes someone rich, is it stupid? 

Of course the answer is a resounding NO. 

That said, at first glance some of the schemes and inventions on this list might seem misguided and downright silly, but without exception they made someone much wealthier than they’d have been otherwise. 

Interested? 

Good, because we’re about to take a closer look at 5 “stupid” inventions that made millions.  

1. Flowbee

A man uses a Flowbee, an electrically powered vacuum cleaner attachment made for cutting hair.
A man uses a Flowbee, an electrically powered vacuum cleaner attachment made for cutting hair. By Gobonobo, is licensed under CC-BY

Widely regarded as one of the world’s most handsome men, in 2020 Hollywood mega star George Clooney admitted that he’d been using a Flowbee to cut his perennially perfect hair for more than two decades. 

Just days later, a Flowbee company executive admitted that their products had completely sold out, and that it’d be a month or more before supply once again caught up with demand. 

So what’s a Flowbee you may be wondering? 

Flowbees are vacuum cleaner attachments that allow penny pinchers to cut their own locks in the comfort of their own home without leaving hair clippings all over themselves and the floor. 

Developed by tinkerer and carpenter Rick Hunts in San Diego in the mid-’80s, the Flowbee was issued a US patent in 1987, and early the following year it was on the market.  

Hunt originally sold his newfangled contraptions out of his garage and word spread mostly by mouth, though he later garnered a wider audience after a live demonstration at a nearby county fair. 

According to Hunt, his unique product could perform more than a hundred different haircut styles with ease, even those that required precision layering typically only available at barbershops and salons.

To achieve these impressive results, users could fit a number of different spacers to the Flowbee’s cutting head. 

Then when moved over the scalp, the underlying hair was pulled up by suction from the vacuum and cut to just the right length, after which the clipped bits were sucked away leaving a surprisingly pristine workspace. 

Hunt even claimed and demonstrated that Flowbees were appropriate for use on long haired dog and cat breeds, and units came with pet attachments and were also available in dedicated pet groomer variants as well. 

Though relatively slow at first, sales increased rapidly over the following years, and Hunt took to the late-night television infomercial circuit with great success, and a little more than a decade later he’d sold two million units. 

Though some Flowbees ended up as gag gifts gathering dust in linen closets and basements all over the country, others proved their worth in remarkable fashion. 

Most notably, one was used by astronauts orbiting the earth, and since the Flowbee sucked up the loose hair that would’ve otherwise floated around the gravity-free cabin, it was a big hit with the crew. 

Flowbees saw multiple upgrades including three cutting head design changes, but there were a few bumps in the road. 

One came during a live infomercial in 2012 when a Flowbee was given poor reviews by hosts, one of which claimed that “the problem seems to be that the Flowbee doesn’t actually cut hair.”

Yeah, it was kind of a problem for hair clippers. 

Nevertheless, Flowbees are still sold through the factory direct website and from various internet retailers, and they’re still made in Texas, not China. 

Over the years Flowbees have enjoyed a number of pop culture appearances and mentions in movies like Wayne’s World, the American comedy series Glee, and on an album by Bloodhound Gang in which a reference was made of using the Flowbee to give yourself a mullet. 

2. Pet Rock 

Like many wacky ideas, Gary Dahl’s revolutionary business concept for a Pet Rock had its origins in a bar.

Apparently alcohol can act as stimulant for budding entrepreneurs, but unlike stupid ideas that don’t earn a dime, Dahl’s netted him millions of dollars. 

While listening to his friends gripe about the rigors and hassles of owning traditional pets like cats, dogs, lizards and birds, he came up with a revolutionary idea – a Pet Rock. 

Of course rocks aren’t really animals at all, and therein lay the brilliance of Dahl’s scheme. 

Think about it…

Rocks with googly eyes
Rocks with googly eyes. By Pet Rock Net, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Rocks don’t shed, bark or meow at night, defecate on the neighbor’s lawn or in a stinky litter box, and they’re never disobedient.

In addition, they don’t bite, procreate or eat pricy food, and they never need to be walked or taken to expensive veterinarians.

But perhaps most importantly, they never die, which means children never have to experience the trauma of losing a beloved pet.  

In other words, in many respects rocks are the world’s most perfect companions. 

Dahl’s barroom buddies may not have taken his idea seriously, but unbeknownst to them, in his spare time he set about turning his vision into a reality, and by 1975 his product was ready to make its debut. 

Dahl had already sourced attractive, smooth, multi-colored stones from a beach in Mexico where they were a dime a dozen – literally – because he purportedly only paid about 1 cent for each. 

In fact, the project’s biggest expenses were marketing, packaging and printing the instruction manual.

When ordered, each Pet Rock was shipped in a cardboard container similar to the ones in which live animals were transported, complete with slits and breathing holes which added a much needed air of legitimacy. 

Pet Rocks also came with 32-page instruction manuals, which was perhaps overkill for an inanimate object that required no care whatsoever, but again, by throwing traditional thinking out the window, Dahl succeeded in making the experience as “real” as possible. 

Titled, “The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock,” the manual ensured that each Pet Rock would provide years of enjoyment, and to that end they were chock full of helpful tips and commands, nearly all of which required help from the trainer.  

All told the Pet Rock fad lasted about six months, and after a flurry of purchases in the Christmas season of ‘75 sales tanked, but not before Dahl and sold more than 1 million Pet Rocks for about $4 each making him a millionaire almost overnight. 

Dahl continued to work in advertising and opened a bar in Los Gatos, California, but shunned the public spotlight because he was bombarded by negative attention from disgruntled customers and other “wackos,” as he called them. 

By mid-’76 sales had dropped off dramatically and Pet Rocks were discontinued altogether.

However, they’re once again available from online retailers, but though the packaging and product descriptions claim they’re originals, many reviewers say they’re just cheap imitations. 

3. Chia Pet

“Ch-ch-ch-chia!”

“Watch it grow!”

For millions of Americans growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, these annoying but catchy slogans were commonly heard on daytime infomercials between reruns of Welcome Back Kotter and Taxi.

chia pet dog
chia dog. By andydr, is licensed under CC-BY

Chia Pets are terracotta figurines with porous bodies, that when slathered with pasty seed mixtures and watered religiously sprout tiny chia plants that resemble animal fur, or sometimes human hair.

The aforementioned advertisements also featured time lapse footage showing potential buyers just how quickly and fully the sprouts grew.

The Chia Pet craze began in the mid-’70s when Californian Joe Pedott attended a housewares expo in Chicago and was impressed with a number of Mexican terracotta imports that included chia seeds which were applied to and grew right on the pottery itself. 

Years before he’d experienced something similar on a trip south of the border when he’d seen Mexican artists using sprouted chias in their artwork. 

Though items similar to Chia Pets were already available, Pedott figured that with a little marketing and product improvement he could take things to the next level and make a few bucks in the process, and in early September of 1977 he filed a trademark registration with the US Patent Office.  

Marketed by Pedott’s company Joseph Enterprises in San Francisco, orders didn’t exactly flood in early on, but there were signs that things were improving and by the early ‘80s they were all the rave. 

Chia Pets were originally available in limited options, the first of which was a ram.

Later however, a full range of animals became available including unicorns, gremlins, kittens, frogs, hippos and hedgehogs. 

In addition, the company added movie, television and cartoon characters like Garfield, Scooby-Doo, Homer Simpson, SpongeBob Squarepants and Shrek, as well as real live humans ranging from former president Barack Obama and lovable fitness icon Richard Simmons, to television artist Bob Ross and spoof singer Weird Al Yankovic, the last three of which had frizzy heads of hair that actually resembled masses of chia sprouts. 

Originally manufactured in Mexico, Chia Pets are now produced in China, and they’re available from the company’s website, online retailers like Amazon, and at department and novelty stores all over the country. 

Joseph Enterprises also sells other catchy products like the Claw Broom and The Clapper, which turns electrical devices and lights on and off with a clap of the hands. 

According to CNBC approximately 500,000 Chia Pets are sold annually, most around the holiday season. 

4. The Million Dollar Homepage

In mid-August of 2005, a 21-year-old English student named Alex Tew was about to begin a multi-year business course at the University of Nottingham, the debt from which would take him years to repay after graduating and finding a good job, assuming he did both. 

To raise money to finance his education, Tew created the Million Dollar Homepage.

The idea was to create a website and sell millions of pixels for the paltry sum of just 1 USD each. 

Because individual pixels are too small to be seen, Tew bundled the pixels into 100-unit “blocks” measuring 10 × 10 pixels, and he set the price at $100. 

million dollar homepage
million dollar homepage. By charlene mcbride, is licensed under CC-BY

Buyers could then use their cheap pixels to promote their logos or as advertising including a link to their website. 

Though he lived in England, Tew figured that most of his customers would come from the US, and he knew that most people in foreign countries were more familiar with dollars and tended to shy away from doing currency conversions, so he sold pixels in dollars rather than pounds. 

Tew’s total startup costs were allegedly less than $100, which covered the costs of registering his domain name and an entry-level web-hosting package. 

Then at the end of August the website went live. 

Featuring an attractive banner, the site’s name and a counter displaying real-time stats on how many pixels had been sold, one of Tew’s selling points was a promise that he’d keep the site open for at least five years, or until late August of 2010. 

At first Tew heard little more than proverbial crickets. 

In fact it wasn’t until three days after opening that the first sales were made, and they weren’t  organic buys, but ones from friends and family members. of Tew’s friends. 

The outlook was bleak, though things were about to change.  

Originally marketed by word of mouth only, things began picking up, and eventually legitimate sales topped 1,000 USD, and then Tew caught a break when a relatively obscure press release was picked up by the BBC and ended up in front of tens or hundreds of thousands of viewers. 

Fast forward another few weeks and sales topped a quarter of a million US dollars, and unique daily visitors weren’t measured in the single digits or dozens, but in the tens of thousands. 

By November more than 500,000 pixels had been sold to nearly 1,500 customers, and by Christmas Tew reported that the site regularly had more than 20,000 visitors per hour.  

In early 2006 with just 1,000 available pixels remaining, Tew held an online auction on eBay and received hundreds of bids, the highest of which topped 150,000 USD, though many were later determined to be fraudulent hoaxes. 

Nonetheless, the winning bid was nearly 40,000 US dollars purchased by a diet and weight loss website. 

All told, Tew’s Million Dollar Homepage gamble netted more than 1 million USD, of which he purportedly pocked northward of 600,000 USD after taxes and a sizable donation to a local charity. 

After founding the Million Dollar Homepage, Tew moved to San Francisco and co-founded a number of businesses including an app called Calm that uses meditation and relaxation techniques to promote better sleep, stress management and all around wellness. 

5. Whoopee cushion

Since the dawn of time, mankind – mostly men – have delighted in flatulence related humor, or more crudely put, fart jokes and pranks. 

These days air filled rubber bladders that produce raucous effusions are collectively referred to as Whoopee Cushions, but over the years they’ve been called everything from Razzberry and Poo-Poo Cushions and Joy Buzzers and Windy Blasters.  

But whatever you choose to call them, Whoopee Cushions aren’t modern inventions. 

In fact, they’ve been around for millennia. 

Similar laugh-inducing props were used at least as far back as the third century AD, when Rome’s mischievous teenage emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius used them at official functions and dinner parties to humiliate everyone from servants and family members to pompous politicians. 

 Exploded Whoopee Cushion - caused by overinflation.
Exploded Whoopee Cushion – caused by overinflation. By Thegreenadvocado, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The resulting sounds, awkward moments and red faces delighted audiences of all stripes, but it wouldn’t be until the 1920s that the modern rubber version became available commercially, thanks to the JEM Rubber Co. of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

At the time JEM employees were tinkering with new concepts to add to the company’s lineup of gag products, but owner Samuel Sorenson Adams apparently thought the idea was a bit too vulgar, and would therefore never sell.  

However, the idea was sold to another company which developed and marketed it with moderate success, after which JEM made their own version they dubbed the Razzberry Cushion. 

During research and development, test subjects were asked to rate various sounds from different prototypes, and a few universal truths emerged. 

First, that longer sounds were funnier than shorter ones, and second, that both deep and high-pitched sounds were more appealing than those that fell in the middle. 

Armed with this groundbreaking info, JEM began selling their product in the early ‘30s, and each of their early Razzberry Cushions was adorned with an image of a happy-go-lucky boy carrying a rifle and wearing a Scottish kilt, cowboy boots and spurs.

Though the imagery is suspect and at least a little disturbing, JEM’s cushions were big moneymakers. 

Early prank air bladders were poorly made and often split when sat on repeatedly, especially by rotund folks . 

Now they’re manufactured by numerous companies and come in a number of colors, sizes and models including manual and self-inflating varieties.  

Though total sales numbers are nonexistent, it’s likely that millions have been sold over the years, and they’re still available everywhere from online retailers like Alibaba and Amazon to brick and mortar stores like Walmart. 

Before signing off, we’ll leave you with a few fascinating Whoopee Cushion factoids – 

  • Research suggests that Europeans tend to find them funnier than Americans
  • The older you get, the less funny Whoopee Cushions are
  • And perhaps most surprisingly, women and girls find Whoopee Cushion sounds even funnier than men and boys

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