Some families are lucky to have a single relative who invented something famous, like the Egg McMuffin, the fins on Cadillacs, or, more important, the electric fork, which my father used in conjunction with an electric knife to carve a holiday turkey. I consider myself very fortunate to have had three highly enterprising ancestors who invented some of the critical culinary tools that we take for granted today.
Name: Edmund Spork
Invention: The Spork
Most of us take for granted the convenience of grabbing one plastic utensil that can be alternately used to scoop up our mashed potatoes, or hold to down our chicken while we carve off a slice. For that we have to thank the genius of one Edmund Spork, a low-level scientist in the research department at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
While others in the so-called “Fat Fryer” were analyzing the Colonel’s secret ingredients, or looking for ways to produce mashed potatoes without potatoes, a technique that was ultimately perfected, Spork was responding to a memo from the accounting office. It was late December, and the employees at Kentucky Fried Chicken had lost their holiday bonuses, in part due to the high overhead costs associated with running a franchise operation. The memo asked employees to suggest ways in which restaurants could hold down their SKUs and reduce the company’s burgeoning distribution costs.
A light went off in the young inventor’s mind — why not find a way to combine the spoon and the fork into one utensil? That would save on both shipping and counter display space. Spork started with the fork as his default, or control utensil. But after several tests he realized that adding spooning surface area to the fork would be difficult and costly. He determined that it would be far more efficient to begin with a spoon then clip away material to fashion spikes on the end.
Early drawings by the ingenious Spork showed that he toyed with the idea of incorporating a knife into the apparatus. But, judging by notes on his drawings, he eventually realized that people would still need two utensils to carve meat from the bone — one to hold it in place, the other to slice — thereby obviating the critical savings in stock keeping units.
Thanks to Spork’s invention, which saved the company approximately $1.57 gazillion, everyone received a holiday bonus the following year — even though the customer service department was besieged by calls from angry consumers complaining that they choked on plastic spikes that had broken off into their chicken.
Name: Alphonse Spaddle
Invention: The Spaddle
Few of us probably remember the day when the ice cream truck would arrive in the neighborhood, you would buy a cup of vanilla ice cream, but then you’d have to run home to get a spoon to consume it. As a boy, Alphonse Spaddle, whose father had “discovered” the clementine, a cross between a mandarin and sweet orange, often thought this ruined the spontaneity of the ice cream neighborhood delivery experience.
Spaddle put his burgeoning scientific curiosity to work as a teenager. He knew that it wouldn’t be economical to sell a traditional metal spoon with each ice cream cup. Moreover, there would be no avoiding coupling a metal spoon with ice cream in distribution, which would ultimately create an uncomfortable consumer experience, since both would then be served frozen.
What other material could be used to cost-efficiently produce something resembling a spoon? The youngster started experimenting with cheap cuts of wood. For design inspiration, he looked to the paddles that his mother used to produce kitchen confections. The paddle design, he quickly realized, had the added benefit of broadening the marketing appeal of his implement to include people who weren’t sure which end was up.
Spaddle produced his first eponymous implement as a Boy Scout project. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the father of one of the other troopers was a Good Humor executive. He stole the design and never gave Spaddle the credit or money he deserved.
Invention: The Splayd
Little did Spork know that while he was doing his groundbreaking work, a distant relative on the other side of the globe was dreaming up a similar invention. The genesis for Carl Splayd’s idea came from a camping trip — he had caught and prepared fish, heated some baked beans over a camp fire — and realized that he’d left his utensils behind.
Splayd, who packed as little as possible on his expeditions to Australia’s famed Outback, wished that he had one utensil that could do it all — spear, ladle, and cut. As he mulled designs ideas in his head, he realized that the hardest part would be integrated a cutting surface with a utensil that you could also hold.
Fortunately, Australians at the time had relatively callused hands from cutting copious underbrush. Splayd decided they could easily hold the cutting edges of the implement as they spooned beans into their mouth. Unfortunately, the less than ergonomic, some might say dangerous, design of the splayd prevented it from gaining worldwide appeal, though attempts to market the triple-threat device continue today.
The splayd’s fate was sealed after a British monarch announced in the 1970s that she would never eat with such a barbaric implement and that anyone who did was bereft of table manners. Splayd died a pauper. He was found face up in a Sydney gutter one night, clutching a TV dinner in one hand. His other hand, unfortunately, was empty.