Ten teenage achievements that may have done more harm than good.
1. James Bonsack. At eighteen, he invents a cigarette-rolling machine (1879 or 1880). Bonsack’s invention could roll as many cigarettes in one day as 48 workers could make by hand. In the first year of use, the device allowed James B. Duke’s tobacco factory to make 10 million cigarettes, according to Focus on Smoking and Health Research (J.H. Owing, editor, 2005). Five years later, the machines cranked out 1 billion cigarettes. The Bonsack machine resulted in a four-fold increase in U.S. smoking from 1885 to 1900. How’s that for a puff daddy?
2. Samuel Colt. At sixteen, he makes a model of his Colt 45, which he will patent six years later (1830). They used to say that “God made man, Colt made them equal,” referring to the revolving pistol he invented that gave anyone with a sharp eye and a six-shooter a fighting chance in one-on-one combat. Meaning even wimps with quick fingers could be mass murderers. Colt’s invention was said to have “won the West,” meaning a lot of American Indians got killed very quickly by Colt 45s.
3. Erasmus Jacobs. At fifteen, he finds a “pretty pebble” that launches the African diamond industry (1867). All Jacobs did is scoop up a “pretty pebble,” as he called it, from the bank of a river near his hometown in Hopetown, South Africa, and give it to his little sister. Turns out, the little rock was a 21.25-carat diamond. That launched Africa’s diamond industry, which hasn’t always been the happiest or healthiest commerce. “Blood” or “conflict” diamonds are illegally traded to fund fighting in war-torn areas of the continent. In Sierra Leone and other nations, slaves are used to extract diamonds.
4. Philo Farnsworth. At fourteen, he arrives at the key concept in the invention of television (1921). Farnsworth supposedly experienced the Eureka! moment in TV’s creation while plowing an Idaho hayfield. Generally recognized as the primary inventor of television, he lived long enough (he died in 1971) to see “My Mother the Car,” “Petticoat Junction,” and other garbage on the tube. When asked if his invention was painful on “What’s My Line?” in 1957 he said, “Yes, it’s sometimes most painful.”
5. Nadia Comaneci. At fourteen, gymnast records the first perfect 10s (1976). Nicknamed “Little Miss Perfect,” Comaneci was indeed little (4 foot 11, 86 pounds) and frequently flawless at the Montreal Olympic Games — seven times she received perfect 10s. In the process, the Romanian introduced what she called “a new power and body type that would change the face of gymnastics forever.” Encouraged by Comaneci’s example, many parents and coaches damaged very young girls in misguided efforts to create “the next Nadia.”
6. George Nissen. At seventeen, he invents the first trampoline (1931). Many parents curse the day Nissen created what he originally called a “rebound tumbling” device. Trampolines can provide hours of bouncy fun, but they also account for more than 100,000 injures a year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Review. Most trampoline-related accidents result in fractures to the lower arm or lower leg. About 12 percent of the accidents end with head injuries. Unsafe or unsupervised backyard trampolines are blamed for most trampoline mishaps.
7. Bertha Soucaret. At eighteen, she wins what may have been the first beauty pageant (1888). A Creole from the West Indies, Soucaret beat out 349 other contestants to take first prize in what Patrick Robertson (Robertson’s Book of Firsts) has called the first beauty pageant. The event, held in Belgium, launched more than a century’s worth of pageants that exalt feminine beauty. Is this bad? Maybe not, but there’s little to admire about all those bathing-suit and evening-wear competitions.
8. Jamie Lee Curtis. At nineteen, she stars as Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978). The first big-money slasher film, Halloween was a pretty good flick. Most reviewers liked the movie and Curtis, the lead actress. One critic called Halloween a “tour de force.” He also called it “perhaps the most widely imitated film of the 70s,” and there’s the rub. A rampage of bad slasher films followed, including nine Halloween sequels. Shriek!
9. E.O. Wilson. At thirteen, he discovers and documents the first known colony of fire ants in the U.S. (1942). This is strictly guilt by association. Wilson didn’t create or even encourage (as far as we know) the proliferation of U.S. fire ants. He just happened to find the vicious little bugs near the docks of Mobile, Alabama. “The ants from hell,” as they’re called down South, sting 20 million Americans each year. “Every kid has a bug period,” Wilson has said. “I never grew out of mine.”
10. Candy Cummings. At eighteen, he throws what is considered to be the first curve ball in a baseball game (1867). What’s so bad about the curve ball Cummings introduced as an amateur hurler? Nothing, if you’re a pitcher. Thousands of hurlers have benefited from throwing the pitch that has been called a “bender,” a “hook,” “Uncle Charlie,” and more. For hitters, the sharp-breaking pitch can seem like something Satan, the ultimate fireball pitcher, cooked up.