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If you ask Ben Ikenson about the essence of his new book, Patents: Ingenious Inventions—How They Work and How They Came to Be, he’ll point you to Page 206, precisely—an entry on that most indispensable of modern conveniences, the flush toilet:
“The flush toilet is an indoor sanitation device for removing human waste,” Ikenson writes. “It also serves many people as a quiet place to enjoy reading material, such as the book you are now reading.”
Calling his book “toilet literature” is hardly an affront to Ikenson. “It’s not Russian literature, that’s for sure,” he says. Patents is the kind of easily digestible yet engrossing read that’s perfect for the ceramic throne. It is also the first title Ikenson’s penned for Black Dog & Leventhal, a New York publishing house specializing in lavishly packaged nonfiction gift books, perfect for curious kids and, er, preoccupied adults.
By day, Ikenson, a 32-year-old Adams Morgan resident, works in the public-affairs section of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, but for the past few years, he’s made a side career out of writing supplementary material—illustrations, captions, sidebars—for such Black Dog titles as How to Stay Alive in the Woods, The Great American Cookout, and How Things Work.
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Last year, the publisher asked Ikenson if he’d be interested in penning his own book, on famous patents. “I said, ‘Absolutely,’” he says. “I thought it was a good opportunity to do a book….I know that doesn’t sound very glorious, but that’s how it happens.” Now, after four months of research and writing, Ikenson has a lavatory-ready reference of his own.
By logging on to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s online database, Ikenson researched more than 100 patents, from such world-changing items as the airplane to such seemingly mundane gadgets as the bottle cap. Each entry in the book features information on a patent’s origin and function; the entries are interspersed with tidbits on famous inventors and noteworthy trends. The book is covered in bubble wrap, one of the inventions it examines.
One patent allowed Ikenson, who grew up in Potomac, a connection with family history. “When I was a kid, my mom would often talk about her grandfather, who was this eccentric guy who had a patent for a screwdriver handle,” he says.
The drawings for Emile Belanger’s “Handle Guide” (Patent No. 2,377,745) indeed closely resemble the ergonomically ridged handles of most modern screwdrivers. But Ikenson says his great-grandfather never cashed in on his invention. “We’re not sure what happened to it,” Ikenson says. “He probably let it expire and Sears or somebody made a ton of money off of it.”
Not just any patent could make the book, Ikenson found out. The publisher axed the Whoopee Cushion and the fart machine, and frowned upon sexual items. “I think they wanted to keep it clean,” he says. (An exception was made for Viagra; “Pyrazolopyrimidinodes which inhibit Type 5 Cyclic Cuanosine” are apparently esoteric enough not to corrupt younger readers.)
With his grand opus now in stores, Ikenson has already completed his next project, The Daredevil’s Manual, which Barnes & Noble will publish in September. He describes it as “a humorous book about how people swallow swords and crazy shit like that.”
In the course of his research, Ikenson interviewed, among dozens of others, a Carlsbad, N.M., fireman who can shoot pasta out of his nose. “I have to admit,” he says, “this was much more fun than the patents book.” —Mike DeBonis