When I was 12 years old, I invented the mini Pringles can. No lie. Aside from some theatrical embellishments, this is A True Story.
In seventh grade, I had to write a business letter to a company as a homework assignment. I could write to any company, and the letter could be for a variety of reasons: to complain, to show thanks, to offer a suggestion, etc. We had a list of guidelines for business letters in our language arts textbook: headings, salutations, date, body, closing, and so on. The exercise was to teach the techniques of proper correspondence.
I was watching TV one afternoon before the business letter was due, and a commercial for Pringles–the chips–came on. As you know, Pringles are sold in tubular canisters that are about a foot long; the commercial was hailing the genius of such packing. Pringles, according to this commercial, did not get smashed up in the bag like other chips. You didn’t get your hands greasy reaching into the bag for them. And the kids on the playground were more likely to talk to you if you had Pringles than if you had another kind of chips.
Being the star skeptic that I already was, I easily dismissed the second two claims of the commercial. It didn’t take a feat of rocket science to reach in a bag of chips without getting your hands covered in grease, and kids on the playground were unlikely to care what chips you had. But the first claim bothered me. Pringles was clearly targeting school kids in this commercial–none of the adults I knew sought validation from kids on playgrounds–and in that case, the commercial had one enormous flaw in its logic.
The brilliance of the idea struck me then–star-spangled and sparkly, like all brilliant ideas are. I grabbed some paper and began jotting down my idea. In proper business-letter form (but I’ll spare you that).
Dear Sir or Madam:
I am writing regarding your recent commercial on T.V. about Pringles. The commercial says that Pringles will not crumble like other chips because they come in a can and not in a bag. I think this is very true, except it does not make sense for school children. We carry lunch boxes or lunch bags, and the Pringles can will not fit in a lunch box or bag, so we have to put the Pringles in a baggie. I would like to suggest the idea of making a Pringles can that could fit inside lunch boxes and bags so that the chips would not crumble.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
I looked over the letter with approval.
“Nicole,” my mom called from the dining room. “Don’t you need to finish your homework?”
“All done,” I asserted triumphantly. There is no triumph quite like that of a perfectly timed honest answer.
I showed her the letter, asked for a stamp, addressed the envelope, and put the whole thing in my Lisa Franks Trapper Keeper. The next day I turned the assignment in; it was mailed it (with aplomb, I hope), and I promptly forgot all about it.
Several weeks later, my mother handed me a letter from Proctor & Gamble. It was a kindly-written response to my brilliant idea, asserting that my idea may indeed be something they were interested in, and it included a patent form.
“You’ll be rich!” my brother cried.
I looked over the patent form. It was a seventh-grader’s nightmare: form-field after form-field, question after question. Words that I didn’t understand swirled around lines that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. I wasn’t so much intimidated as perplexed. All of this just for smaller Pringles cans? Surely it was disproportionate. (My deep-seated distrust of bureaucracy may or may not have begun at that moment.) I tucked Proctor & Gamble’s letter back into the envelope.
“It’s okay,” I told my brother with a peaceful shrug. “They can have my idea for free. I’m not going to fill out the patent form.”
“WHAT?!” he cried, wide-eyed in dismay. “You could be a millionaire.”
“I don’t think they pay you that much,” I said doubtfully.
“I bet they’d give you,” he paused for dramatic effect, “Five Hundred Dollars.” Enough to live on forever.
“It’s okay. This is for the greater good,” I said, humbled and inspired by my own noblesse oblige. Doubtless, I would now have to work for a living, but there are some things that must be sacrificed for the sake of humanity.
A few years later, I came home from school and was greeted by my hyperventilating younger brothers:
“They did it! They made it! We saw it today!”
“What are you talking about?” I scowled and threw my backpack on the sofa, brushing past them irritably. Hell hath no fury like a teenage girl.
But no one cares less about that than younger siblings.
“The little Pringles cans! They made them! We saw them!”
“Wait, really?” I shrieked in delight, hell’s fury forgotten. “Today? Where?”
One of my brothers ran back to the kitchen and grabbed the can he had bought to show me–and there it was: a short Pringles tube. The perfect size for lunch boxes.
The solution to all our problems.
We all gazed at it in awe for several minutes.
“I can’t believe you didn’t fill out that patent form,” one of the wise men rebuked.
“You would have been famous,” the second one sighed.
“And rich,” the third added. They lowered their heads respectfully. My future as an millionaire faded before my eyes.