Many Americans are fascinated with the concept of the "million-dollar idea." They dream that one day they will become self-made millionaires with the help of a special idea developed in their basements or garages.
Many of the big million-dollar (or billion-dollar) ideas of this generation are related to technology, from Apple and Microsoft to Google, from MySpace and YouTube to Facebook.
Still, this doesn't rule out simple hands-on ingenuity for becoming a self-made millionaire. Here's a small sampling of million-dollar ideas, past and present.
Great Depression Basic: Spic and Span The problem with economic hard times is that even if an inventor comes up with a million-dollar idea, who's going to buy it? A foursome in Saginaw, Mich., addressed this dilemma during the beginning of the Great Depression in 1930. They realized that no matter how dire poverty may become, families still needed to clean their houses.
Harold and Naomi Stenglein, together with Glenn and Elizabeth McDonald, wondered how they possibly could make ends meet. One day the women were talking about the drudgery of washing walls. The first pass with soapy water imparted scum. The second pass of clear hot water produced streaks, so yet a third dry wipe was required.
Elizabeth McDonald noticed that a relative had melted some paste glue into the wash water. This produced clean results, except the whole house stank. The two couples started experimenting with various combinations until they came up with a no-rinse, no-wipe mix of three elements: sodium phosphate for deep cleaning; powdered glue to absorb the scum; and sodium carbonate to prevent the glue from hardening, and to remove the odor.
Door-to-door peddling in Saginaw evolved into local, regional and eventually nationwide sales. According to Public Libraries of Saginaw archives, the Stengleins and the McDonalds in 1945 sold Spic and Span to Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati for $1.9 million.
Baby Boomer Toy: Slinky Richard James of Philadelphia was doing his World War II duty on the home front in 1943 as a Navy tool worker in Philadelphia. He observed a torsion spring coil fall from a workshop table and take several "steps" before coming to a stop.
Normally, this would have been simply another moment in time, but James apparently was a child at heart, because he immediately saw the idea for a toy. He spent two years testing various gauges of steel, according to the Lemelson-MIT Program Web site, striving to find the ideal material and length that would cause his coil to march down one stairway step to the next.
His wife, Betty, came up with the term "Slinky," Swedish for sleek and sinuous. The couple produced 400 units and took them to a Gimbel's department store to sell for $1 each during the postwar Christmas season of 1945. The stock was gone within 90 minutes. More than 250 million units later, everyone still knows the Slinky.
Infomercial Innovator: Ron Popiel
Scores of inventors have capitalized their million-dollar ideas via the TV infomercial, and the pioneer is Ron Popeil of the ubiquitous Ronco Inc.
Ron Popiel's father, Samuel Popiel, was marketing the Chop-O-Matic (forerunner of the Veg-O-Matic) door-to-door in New York City during the 1950s. However, salesmen had trouble carrying enough veggies for demonstrations, so charismatic young Ron Popeil hosted a videotape demonstration. Through telemarketing, Chop/Veg-O-Matic went on to sell millions at an original price of $3.98.
Ron Popeil wasn't a man with just one million-dollar idea. Through the years came products such as the Pocket Fisherman ("biggest fishing invention since the hook"), Mr. Microphone, the Smokeless Ash Tray, and finally, the Showtime Rotisserie ("set it and forget it").
Not all of his ideas were hits. GLH-9 Hair in a Can Spray didn't get far; neither did the container-opening Cap Snaffler. Nonetheless, Ron Popeil was already a multimillionaire four years ago when he sold Ronco for another cool $55 million.
Green Invention: Java Log
Rod Sprules of Ottawa, Ontario, was a thirty-something mechanical engineer during the mid-1990s when he spotted a short magazine article about coffee, according to NationalGeographic.com. The article explained how ground coffee beans burn with surprisingly intense heat. The topic was preparation of great-tasting coffee, not home heating, but Sprules jotted a note in his "idea book."
Months later, Sprules felt inspired to mix dried, recycled coffee grounds with some wax, and he lit the mixture. Viola! This sparked his idea for what eventually became the Java Log, a one-of-a-kind artificial fireplace log. Sprules' Java Log not only produces a larger flame than comparable products, but it emits 85 percent less harmful carbon dioxide than firewood, according to reports from sources ranging from The New York Times to Entrepreneur Magazine.
Sprules started by selling his product to family and friends, and never looked back. Profits first exceeded $1 million in 2003, and sales of Java Logs still are catching fire.