Today would be the 91st birthday of Marvin P. Middlemark, the inventor of the “rabbit ears” antenna, which graced the top of many a TV set during the pre-cable analog age of television, and numerous other gadgets, including the water-powered automatic potato peeler. Middlemark grew up on Long Island and in New York City, and studied at Cornell University before beginning his eclectic career as a machine tools salesman.
But Middlemark was also a habitual tinkerer as well, and in the 1950s, he finally hit paydirt with the rabbit ears antenna, a variation on the basic dipole antenna invented in Heinrich Rudolph Hertz in 1886, in which the current amplitude decreases uniformly from maximum at the center to zero at the ends. Rabbit ears were an improvement on earlier configurations, because the dipoles were adjustable in length and angle. They found a market among Americans Americans frustrated with the grainy, static-obscured pictures on their black-and-white TV sets. As this 1959 Popular Science article notes, rabbit ears came the closest to matching the reception obtained with a big, unsightly rooftop antenna. Middlemark formed his own company to market rabbit ears, the All Channel Products Corporation. It became such a success that he was able to sell it in the mid-1960s for a then-princely $5 million. Middlemark. a savvy investor, plowed the proceeds into municipal bonds, and grew that fortune even more.
With his wealth, Middlemark retired to a 12-acre estate in Old Westbury, Long Island, where until his death in 1989, he reveled in a lifestyle that was as eccentric as some of his inventions. He kept a pet chimpanzee named Josie, who sometimes answered the door and got drunk at parties. He also owned nine miniature horses and eight miniature donkeys, a dozen statues of Greek gods, stained glass window portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Gandhi and Albert Einstein, and for reasons that remain obscure, 1,000 pairs of woolen gloves.
Middlemark kept inventing, but few of his other brainstorms turned out to have much commercial potential. Some of them were for electronics products, but others were more offbeat. One example: Middlemark’s effort to develop a process for resuscitating dead tennis balls by heating them in a microwave oven and injecting them with air. By the time he gave up on the idea, his estate was littered with hundreds of balls, some of which he disposed of by stuffing them into vinyl tube fencing he installed on his property
And with that, here are the science and technology stories of the day.
Microsoft unveils Internet Explorer 9. With IE losing ground to Firefox and Chrome, Microsoft is aiming for a quantum leap with its upgraded browser. Developers reportedly are excited about IE9′s support for HTML5, which will do animation and video without Flash or other plug-ins. Almost as exciting: The Gorillaz played at the debut bash.