Next time you bring out your hot air popcorn popper remember you have Clevelanders to thank for the invention. The idea was born in a basement in Parma, thanks to a lot of burned-out hair dryers! It was eventually made by a Cleveland-area company.
Tony Szpak invented one of the first air-popped popcorn machines--The Wear-Ever Popcorn Pumper. It changed the way we made our movie snack and now dominates corn-making only trailing behind microwave popcorn. In the mid-1970s, Szpak was an engineer Booz Allen Hamilton, a technology consulting company that helped design different products. Wear-Ever Aluminum of Chillicothe approached the company hoping to find a new product. So, Szpak and a team of eight engineers based in Independence started brainstorming.
Fellow employee Tom Limpinski of Bath was about to string popcorn with his family for their Christmas tree. But, he knew how quickly popcorn popped in oil could turn rancid and he was hoping to come up with a different way to do it. He saw how some street vendors used hot air to make fluffly kernels of perfectly popped oil-free corn. The team brainstormed about making a counter top popcorn maker people could use at home. The engineers tried hairdryers and commercial hot air guns while holding cups so the kernels wouldn't fly out and using screens to contain them. They burned. The next step was to try and use tornado type action to keep the kernels moving so they wouldn't be scorched. And, BINGO-- they found their magic solution.
Reportedly, over the next several years, several companies fought in court and before the United States International Trade Commission over patent rights. Other manufacturers reportedly agreed to pay Wear-Ever for each popper they sold.
The team of engineers though didn't see any dollars. They were salaried employees and their work belonged to the client, Wear-Ever. But, they had their paychecks and still have the pride of knowing they helped make a fun, healthy and profitable way for people to pop their popcorn.