For the Al: Joseph Friedman


For your consideration… According to a British member of Parliament, Joseph Friedman invented “arguably the most significant technological achievement of the twentieth century.” Granted that MP was Friedman’s great-nephew, but still… Friedman’s invention has been an enormous contribution to improving the human condition and is worthy of his receiving The Al. What did he invent? The bendy straw.

Friedman who was a serial inventor, seller of real estate and insurance, and general wheeler-dealer came upon the idea of the bendy straw while dining with his young daughter. He saw her struggling to get a straight straw into her mouth given that its end was higher than her mouth. He used a screw on the straw to create ridges that allowed the straw to bend and meet his daughter’s mouth at the right height.

How, you might ask, is the bendy straw arguably the most significant technological achievement of the 20th century? Well, as it turns out, many of us have physical difficulties that make navigating the world challenging. We might be born with permanent physical challenges that make drinking from a glass impossible and reaching a straight straw with our mouth impractical. Even if we aren’t born with such challenges, almost all of us have had or will have physical difficulties at some point in our lives. When we are young we may be too small or lack dexterity. When we are old, we may lose strength or dexterity. The same is true when we are injured. As the disability activist, Judy Heumann, notes, in some sense there is not a clear distinction between what we think of as people with disabilities and everyone else since everyone can reasonably expect that at some point physical limitations may make it challenging to navigate the world and thrive.

This is why technology that helps people succeed despite their physical challenges is so important. There are many such technologies, but one of the most important is the bendy straw. We all need to drink and the bendy straw is incredibly helpful in getting that liquid into our mouths despite our limitations. In fact, when Joseph Friedman founded the Flexible Straw Corporation (later Flex-Straw Co.), many of his original large customers were hospitals.

Advertisement for flexible drinking straws

Of course, flexible straws are also just fun. If that encourages children (or some of us grown-ups) to drink their milk, that’s also a plus. Bendy straws also work pretty well with a strawberry daiquiri — another point in their favor.

Throwback Thursday: A brief history of the drinking straw |

But some Higgy-wanna-be’s decided that plastic straws were one of the world’s greatest dangers and must be banned in the US and Europe, regardless of the consequences for those with physical challenges or who want to have fun with milk or daiquiris. Never mind that “more than half of the world’s marine plastic pollution entered the ocean from just five countries: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.” And never mind that, “globally, straws only make up around 0.00002 per cent of all marine plastic pollution (in terms of weight).” The Earth (or something) demands we put an end to Big Straw.

Unlike these Higgy-wanna-be’s, I give a higher priority to improving the human condition and love bendy straws. They are so great that their inventor, Joseph Friedman should be recognized with The Al.

2 Responses to For the Al: Joseph Friedman

  1. Greg Forster says:

    A worthy nominee! Among the more remote ramifications of this invention is this outstanding XKCD entry:

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Of course, the actual inventor of the bendy straw was Norville Barnes.

    “You know! For the kids!”

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