From the Archives: Daytime Talk and Invention

Jacob Rabinow (1910-1999) and Marion O’Brien Donovan (1917-1998) have three things in common: both were inventors, both have collections in the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center, and both appeared on the talk show, “Not For Women Only.”  “Not for Women Only” started in 1968 in New York City and was syndicated in 1972. The series examined social issues with experts and was one of the first talk-shows to involve the audience. Highly rated and syndicated in markets around the country, “Not for Women Only” was cited by the New York Times as one of the most “provocative shows in the entire early morning schedule.”  Over 1,000 episodes aired and Barbara Walters hosted the show from 1971-1976.

Rabinow and Donovan’s inventive lives intersected in 1975, when they both appeared in two episodes titled “Inventors and Inventions.” Taped over two days, the “Inventors and Inventions” episodes featured inventors Rabinow, Donovan, and Henry Klepp. Each inventor discusses and demonstrates his/her inventions and they have a broader discussion about the United States patenting system, which Rabinow excels at explaining.  In fact, he oozes invention “cool” and tells Barbara Walters that his work is fun. Not surprisingly, Rabinow would later write a book titled Inventing for Fun and Profit, in 1989. Donovan discusses some of her inventions—the Boater, a failed cigarette package, and a dispensing container. The latter, a box of laundry detergent with a dispensing mechanism (US Patent 2,811,281) demonstrates Donovan’s ability to create clever solutions for household needs. With ease, Donovan dispenses laundry detergent from a heavy box, accurately measuring the amount needed.  Today, some laundry detergent is available with a tap dispenser or precision dosing pumps.

Donovan’s inventive career is framed by her invention in 1949 of the “Boater,” a diaper cover (US Patent 2,556,800) made of surplus parachute nylon, and her invention in 1993 of DentaLoop (US Patent 4,523,600), individual precut circles of two-ply dental floss. As an inventor and entrepreneur, Donovan created products that addressed problems in personal health, beauty, and household needs.

Rabinow’s inventive career includes a variety of mechanical, optical, and electrical devices such as mechanisms for the automatic regulation of clocks and watches, an automatic letter-sorting machine, a magnetic particle clutch, magnetic disc memory, and the straight-line phonograph. Rabinow’s work with Optical Character Recognition, or OCR (US Patent 2,933,246), was ground breaking. It allowed machines to examine all kinds of text, regardless of font, and make a series of judgments that determined best matches with standard characters. Rabinow worked at the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) and later founded his own company, RABCO. In 1998, Rabinow received the Lemelson-MIT Life Time Achievement Award for his numerous contributions.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rabinow in 1998. At 88 years old he still oozed invention “cool,” sharing his knowledge and letting me know that his inventive life had been a lot of fun. The “Not for Women Only” episodes form part of the Marion O’Brien Donovan Papers. To learn more about Marion O’Brien Donovan or Jacob Rabinow, visit the Archives Center.