7 Epic Stories About the Creative Process

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Where did that idea for the Crystal Palace come from? How was Vaseline developed? What prompted Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island? As the following stories illustrate, inspiration can come at any time and in any form.


Watch the Birdie

Walter Lantz & Woody Woodpecker

Walter Lantz & Woody Woodpecker

On August 29,1940 cartoonist Walter Lantz and his bride had just settled into an idyllic cottage at Sherwood Lake, California, for their honeymoon when a woodpecker began to stir up an ungodly racket, trying to hammer his way through the roof. He refused to be scared away.

The Lantzes named the persistent feathered intruder Woody Woodpecker and later tried to convince dubious executives at Universal Studios that a new star had been born. “They told me I ought to have my head examined.” Walter later recalled. “They said he’s noisy, raucous, obnoxious; he’ll never go.” But Walter won the argument, put his pencils to work, and soon Woody appeared on the big screen. Woody Woodpecker cartoons have since been shown in the movie theaters of at least 83 countries. The cartoons are dubbed for the foreign market, but Woody’s five-note wacky laugh, done for more than 35 years by Grace Lantz, remains unchanged.

Nature Study

The famous Crystal Palace, featured at the Hyde Park Great Exhibition of 1851

The famous Crystal Palace, featured at the Hyde Park Great Exhibition of 1851

In 1849 gardener Joseph Paxton acquired a water lily seedling from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. He put it in a tank and bathed it in constantly moving warm water.

In six months Paxton had gained a monster with eleven six-foot-wide leaves which, floating, could support the weight of his seven-year-old daughter. Soon his lily produced such a great number of leaves that it twice outgrew its tank.

Paxton built for his plant an elegant glass house of his design, based on the wonderfully engineered understructure of the lily leaf. The following year, architects were asked to submit designs for the huge hall that was to be the centerpiece of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. Paxton presented a daring plan for a gigantic tiered variation on the lily house. It set London’s imagination on fire and his design won.

The Crystal Palace was completed within six months. The largest prefabricated modular building ever built, it was bolted together floor by floor. Though the building was lacy and airy, it had the incredible strength of the leaf that served as its model, and lasted 85 years, succumbing to fire in 1936.

Shape of the Future

R. Buckminster Fuller. Geodesic Dome. 1952

R. Buckminster Fuller. Geodesic Dome. 1952

In kindergarten, R. Buckminster Fuller was farsighted and cross-eyed. The U.s. inventor remembers: “My teacher brought us some toothpicks and semidried peas and told us to make structures. The other children, who had good eyes, were familiar with houses and barns; with my bad sight, seeing only bulks, I had no feeling at all about structural lines. The others made rectangular structures that seemed to stand up because the peas held them in shape. Because I wasn’t able to see, I had to use my other senses.

“Pushing and pulling, I found that a triangle held its shape when nothing else did. The teacher called the others to look at my work, and I remember being surprised that they were surprised.”

Many years later his belief that the triangle was nature’s most stable shape would manifest itself in the geodesics dome, now Fuller’s trademark. “The Taj Mahal” of Fuller’s geodesics was the American Pavilion built in Montreal for Expo ’67. The giant bubble, made of thousands of hexagonal struts, was 250 feet across and as tall as a 20-story building.

Master-Stroke

Francis Barraud's original painting of Nipper looking into an Edison Bell cylinder phonograph

Francis Barraud’s original painting of Nipper looking into an Edison Bell cylinder phonograph

In London one day in the mid-1880’s, artist Francis Barraud put a cylinder on his “talking machine”. As the music came out of the machine’s morning-glory trumpet, his fox terrier Nipper quizzically cocked his head to listen. Barraud decided to paint the heart-catching sight after Nipper died age 11 in 1895, calling the painting “His Master’s Voice”.

The Gramophone Company bought the painting and its copyright for £100. The original painting was highly prized. Company fireman had orders to take it down from the wall of the director’s board room and carry it out in case of fire. Since then Nipper’s likeness has been reproduced in the millions, not only on records but also on objects such as pens, ashtrays, T-shirts, ties and posters. Nipper was used as the official trademark of the Gramophone Company.

Stick-to-Itiveness

A diagram from George de Mestral's original patent for VELCRO, US patent 3,009,235

A diagram from George de Mestral’s original patent for VELCRO, US patent 3,009,235

One day in 1948, Swiss inventor Georges de Mestral went hunting. With him and his dog. Both brushed against burdocks, getting burs in the dog’s fur and on de Mestral’s wool trousers.

Back home, wondering why the burs clung with such tenacity, de Mestral examined them under a microscope. He saw hundreds of tiny hooks that snagged into the flat mat of wool and fur. It occurred to him that as a fastener the bur was without equal. Eventually, de Mestral’s idea of a mass of hooks engaging a mass of loops became Velcro, the jam-proof, non-rusting, lightweight, washable nylon fastener. It’s numerous uses include clothing, draperies and upholstery, medical applications (blood pressure cuffs, cervical collars, artificial hearts) and in aircraft and automobiles. Astronauts use Velcro to attach food packets to the walls of space vehicles and to keep their boots adhering to the floor.

Lucky Strike

An image from Vaseline company archives.

An image from Vaseline company archives.

In 1859 Robert Chesebrough, a 22-year-old chemist from Brooklyn, traveled to America’s newly discovered oil fields in Pennsylvania. There he heard the oilmen complain about “rod wax” a paraffin-like residue that had often to be cleaned from the steel rods of the pumps. Despite their complaints, the workers admitted that the troublesome substance was a soothing, healing salve for burns and cuts. Intrigued, Chesebrough collected samples of the rod wax and took them home with him.

For 11 years he worked at refining and purifying the residue. At that time most ointments were made from animal greases and vegetable oils and spoiled if kept for too long. Chesebrough reasoned that his non-rancid petroleum-base ointment would become a product in demand. To test its effectiveness he cut, scratched and burned his own body.

When his work was completed in 1870 Chesebrough set up his first manufacturing plant for the new balm which he named Vaseline. Today Vaseline petroleum jelly, with its familiar blue-and-white label, is marketed in 140 countries. Consumers have found thousands of uses for it. Fisherman put globs of it on their hooks as bait. Woman use it to remove eye makeup. Swimmers coat their bodies with it before jumping into icy waters. Car owners dab it on battery terminals to stop corrosion.

Robert Chesebrough who died in 1933 age 96 would not have been surprised. When he was ill, he smothered himself from head to toe with the balm – and said that his long life was directly attributable to Vaseline.

Unexpected Treasure

The original map of Treasure Island

The original map of Treasure Island

On a rainy day in 1881, trying to entertain his 13-year-old stepson, Robert Louis Stevenson painted a watercolor map of an imaginary island. That map generated one of Stevenson’s most famous books. He later recalled: “The shape of it took my fancy beyond expression. As I pored over my map, the future characters of Treasure Island began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods, fighting and hunting treasure. The next thing I knew I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters.”