Some inventions save people's lives; others improve them by lightening or speeding burdensome tasks. Some creations, such as light bulbs, automobiles and space travel, even spark revolutions that forever change human history.
And then there are the ones that play Al Green songs from the mouth of a dancing, plastic fish.
Today, these odd-yet-simple ideas make us ask, "Why didn't I think of that?" Tomorrow, they cause us to wonder, "Why the heck did I buy that?"
Well, if benefit to humankind were the only means of making a profit, there would be no reality TV. As it turns out, the lucre landed by out-of-left-field innovations stacks up just as high and green as that raked in by world-shaking inventions.
In this article, we'll explore the more unusual and perplexing products of human creativity, the kind that made a ton of money. We'll examine how they capitalized on novelty, how profitable they grew and how well (or poorly) some of them have aged.
Who knows? Maybe a gadget from this gallimaufry will inspire your own flash of genius.
Some inventions strike us as weird, others stupid and still others as simply unnecessary. Occasionally, however, something seemingly silly turns out to address a real need.
Take Doggles, the goggle-style sunglasses that aren't just for the pulchritudinous pooch on the go. These rover Ray-Bans do more than protect your pet from the sun's glare: They also keep out dust, debris and wind, block UV rays and assist in relieving ocular medical conditions, such as a rare autoimmune disorder that prevents dogs' eyes from producing tears [source: Metro].
So, who's the Fido behind those Foster Grants? Besides doing their duty (ahem) for hounds at home, Doggles shielded U.S. dogs in uniform from windblown sand in Iraq. We can't say for sure if the helicopter-hopping hound that accompanied SEAL Team Six on its mission to take out Osama bin Laden wore them, but it seems likely. Efforts are also under way to supply the shielding specs to search-and-rescue dogs.
Doggles, LLC has sold millions of pairs to pooches at $19.90 a pop [source: Montgomery]. That's what we call making your bones.
In the next section, we'll examine the merits and pitfalls of solving problems with blanket solutions.
Imagine you're sitting on your couch on a cold December day reading a book. It's chilly, so you decide to use a blanket. But wait! The blanket limits the use of your hands! What are you to do? Well, if you're willing to risk a little embarrassment, you can solve this problem by joining the millions of owners of sleeved blankets like the Snuggie, or its less-popular competitor, the Slanket.
Of course, you could simply wear a robe or a sweater when you get cold, but where's the fun in that?
There's no denying the Snuggie's appeal: More than 20 million Americans purchased a Snuggie between fall 2008 and Christmas 2009, at between $10 and $20 per blanket [source: Heher].
Sales continue to be strong, and Snuggies for kids and pets (yes, pets) have heated up as gift items. They're a common sight on airplanes and at sporting events, and have even inspired "Snuggie pub crawls" in which human blankets trot from bar to bar, their inebriation barely outpacing their mortification.
Are there even stranger inventions to come? Signs point to yes.
"Without a doubt," Albert Carter and Abe Bookman would have needed psychic powers to have predicted the eventual success of their Syco-Seer fortune-telling device. Even then, they would have been "very doubtful" that it would one day take the form of an 8 ball. "It is certain," however, that the spherical soothsayer owes its trademark black-and-white flair -- and, perhaps, its success -- to Chicago's Brunswick Billiards and its promotional interest.
Inspired by Carter's mother, a self-proclaimed Cincinnati clairvoyant, the ball began as a tube containing a thick liquid and a die with predictions printed on it. It was then briefly marketed as a crystal sphere, which caught Brunswick's eye, after which it assumed its sartorial fondness for basic black. Following a few technical advancements, the Magic 8-Ball became what it remains today: A sphere surrounding an alcohol- and dye-filled tube, which contains a 20-sided die stamped with various answers [source: Walsh].
Was its popularity aided by the fortune-telling craze of the 1950s, which also fueled the fame of fortune cookies and diner fortune-telling machines?
You may rely on it.
Chains of paperclips, balls of rubber bands and piles of Post-it notes scattered throughout schools and workplaces everywhere silently attest that fidgety boredom, not necessity, is the mother of invention. Sometimes, though, the mother of invention is a father.
Looking for a ball that his kids could more easily catch, inventor Scott Stillinger tied a few rubber bands together into a sphere of strands surrounding a soft rubber core. Little did he suspect that he had a million-dollar idea on his rubber-reeking hands. His elastic echidna, Koosh, dominated the 1988 Christmas marketplace.
The multicolored dandelion went on to sell millions. After Stillinger was bought out, the company that purchased Koosh was sold to toy giant Hasbro in 1997 for more than $100 million [source: Adams]. Koosh remains on the market today, both in its original form and in branded crossovers, including the Star Wars Episode 1 Sebulba Koosh, which strikes us as neither intimidating nor particularly fit for podracing.
In this next section, we'll see how one inventor made his wish come true by making more wishbones.
Documentaries make a big deal about how great inventors perceive opportunities that others do not, but sometimes there's a good reason those opportunities elude our vision: They're ridiculous.
Who would have guessed that the world was waiting for a revolutionary advance in plastic wishbone technology? Ken Ahroni, founder and inventor of Lucky Break Wishbone Corp., that's who. The idea to manufacture and sell fake wishbones came to the merry thought maven during an argument over who would get the wishbone from his holiday turkey. Now, everyone, even vegans, can have a wishbone all their own -- because that was necessary, apparently.
To his credit, Ahroni had to fracture a lot of furculas to come up with a plastic that would break like bone. After all, most plastics are designed not to break, and the ones that do break tend to shatter into slivers instead of delivering a satisfying snap [source: Matlick].
No, we're not pulling your pulley bone: The company sells millions of these bones of contention at a rate of four for $3.99 or, even, 400 for $195.99.
It just goes to show that, for inventors, it's not over until the fish on the wall sings.
At some point, just about everyone has had an animatronic fish like Big Mouth Billy Bass, Boogie Bass or Rocky Rainbow Trout belt a tune at them from a wall, a grocery store shelf or a white elephant gift box.
The device was originally created by a Texas novelty toy company in the late 1990s, and it was soon reeling in the dough.
Perhaps as a monument to buyers' questionable taste and willingness to annoy family members, by the start of the 2000s, the "singing fish" had become a hugely popular gag gift and stocking stuffer. Stores sold hundreds of singing stripers each hour and struggled to keep them in stock. Sales of the fish topped 1 million in the year 2000 alone [source: Schuessler.
The fish spawned a slew of imitators, including other fish, lobsters and even Christmas trees. But, as the word suggests, novelty items depend strongly on newness. Their popularity eventually tapered off, and while you can still find the fish in many stores, it's not nearly as in demand as it once was.
Up next: from Big Mouth Billy Bass to Billy-Bob Teeth.
It must be a little disheartening for parents to see their progeny pop in a pair of Billy-Bob Teeth. There's nothing like spending thousands of dollars to correct a crossbite or undo an underbite, only to see it undone for $9.99. Call it innocent fun, classism or revenge for months of stabbing wires, tight rubber bands and ludicrous headgear; whatever the motive, parents probably die a little inside.
It's hard to believe that the profits from a set of novelty teeth could pay a dental bill, let alone settle a pair of student loans; but these counterfeit choppers not only dug their developers out of debt, they made them millionaires.
Born of a partnership between a dental student and a struggling ex-college football player, these demented dentures -- and related novelties such as Zombie Feet Sandals and hats with hair -- have sold more than 15 million units since 1994, and as of 1998 had grossed $1.8 million [source: AP]. Chew on that.
By the way, even sporting a pair of Billy-Bob Teeth, you doubtless have a handsomer mug than the creature on the next page.
Quick! What has fur, corgi ears and a bird beak, and can supposedly learn English? If you didn't guess the Furby, well, no one would hold it against you. The hottest toy on the market in the late 1990s is today little more than a faded memory, the subject of Internet snark and Urban Dictionary entries.
Released in 1998 by Tiger Electronics, Furby stood 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) tall, was covered in colorful fur, and could play games and wiggle its body. Tiger marketed the computerized critter as one of the first widely available "artificial intelligence" toys.
One of Furby's tricks was to "learn" English (thereby easing relations with those few owners not fluent in Furbish); actually, it was simply programmed to speak less of its gibberish language over time, replacing it with English. When one Furby was brought together with another, the two would engage in gibberish conversations, much the way some humans do.
The hideous, hirsute critters debuted with a $40 price tag, but in the proud tradition of holiday fad toys, soon saw demand drive their prices into the hundreds. In just three years, more than 40 million freakish furballs flew off the shelves, in a menagerie of shapes, sizes and themes, including a Christmas Furby, Halloween Furby and even a 2000 Presidential Election Furby [source:AdoptAFurby.com].
Perhaps inevitably, the Furby's popularity faded. They remain available on the Internet, but are scarce in stores.
Coming up next: Another artificial pet -- one that could fit in your pocket.
Like the Furby, this '90s relic simulated owning a pet -- a pet more prone to dying than a carnival goldfish during Rush Week.
If you've ever dreamed of cleaning up the virtual excrement of a chirping, battery-powered, egg-shaped key chain, then rejoice: You're clearly not alone, because these electronic "virtual pets" sold like hotcakes.
Japanese toymaker Bandai first unveiled "Tamagotchi" -- a portmanteau of the Japanese word for "egg" and the English word "watch" -- in 1996. It worked like this: You turned the Tamagotchi on, gave it a name and then used the buttons on the device to feed it, play games with it, put it to bed or, yes, clean up its waste. Over time, the creature on the black-and-white LCD screen would grow and change into different versions -- if you took good enough care of it, that is.
The earliest Tamagotchi required near-constant attention or they would "die," mandating a reset of the device so the process could start over. This made them unpopular with parents and teachers, who noticed their kids sometimes cared for the toys at the expense of chores and homework.
At one time, Bandai estimated it was selling a Tamagotchi per second. More than 70 million have been sold since then, spawning a slew of imitators [source: Takahashi]. The virtual varmints are still available, and elementary school kids can still be seen toting them on their backpacks, though not in the numbers they once did.
Now, for the final item on our list of the ludicrous and lucrative: It's not electronic, but it's probably the original virtual pet -- and it made its inventor a millionaire almost overnight.
What is arguably the weirdest invention of all time to make millions of dollars wasn't really an invention at all: The Pet Rock.
In case you don't recall this rocky fiasco, Gary Dahl, an advertising executive from California, figured out a way to decorate and market rocks as pets. It might not sound like much, but it spawned a fad that swept the U.S. like a runaway rockslide.
Dahl purchased ordinary gray pebbles from a construction supplier and sold them as pets. Some models sported painted faces, while others bore glued-on googly eyes on their stony countenances.
In a testament to marketing, and to P.T. Barnum, Dahl billed the pet rock as the perfect pet, one that never needed to be fed or cleaned up after. As outlined in a humorous manual included with the "pet," owners could talk to it, name it or teach it to do simple tricks. Many owners painted them or found other ways to personalize their rocks.
The Pet Rock debuted in 1975 at $3.95 -- about $16 in the current economy. In just six months, Dahl sold more than 5 million pet rocks, raking in a profit equivalent to $56 million in 2011 dollars, in large part because of his lack of overhead: Buying the rocks and delivering them probably cost only 95 cents apiece [source: PetsDo].
Pet Rocks have staged a comeback on the Internet in recent years. You can still buy them online, though many are fancier than Dahl's originals.
Does that qualify as progress?
See our other countdowns of groundbreaking inventions throughout history.