John Bennett's Bend

John Bennett of East Peoria, Ill., has patented a humble but versatile device which can pound a nail or scramble an egg.

Olympic downhill racer Andy Mill skis with it.

Catcher Johnny Bench once swung it and belted a Major League home run.

So protean is the invention that Bennett says he is ''bent on changing the world.''

What's his angle? A simple 19 degrees.

The device is an ovaloid handle, angled at a comfortable but scientific 19 degrees. It can be adapted to anything from frying pans to tennis racquets. The principle behind ''Bennett's bend'' is elementary: Instead of bending your wrist , bend the handle.

The ew grip, claims its designer, means fives times more grasping strength and a 25 percent increase in tool head speed. For baseball players that translates into, say, three times the home runs; for golfers, perhaps a half dozen strokes OO heir handicaps; and for short-order cooks, who knows how many more heaps of hash they could sling? What the crooked handle lacks in symmetry (''It's a little funny-looking at first,'' confesses Bennett) it compensates for in stability and comfort. The bent handle, claims Bennett, not only improves accuracy while cutting down on arm fatigue and injuries, but it also has the extraordinary capacity to make the most oafish athlete or workman more agile - even ambidextrous.

''Bennett's device is the most significant improvement in hand tools since cavemen put a stick on a rock and called it a hammer,'' proclaimed Dr. Joseph Emanuel, chairman of Bradley University's industrial engineering department. ''I'm now convinced,'' he added, ''that practically anything with a handle, whether it's a suitcase or a pool cue, would be better off with a bent handle.''

As we all know, talk is cheap when it comes to building better mousetraps. The proof is in the pudding, and to his credit Bennett has tool and sporting goods manufacturers eating out of his hand. Chowing down, to be more precise.

A year ago Hillerich & Bradsby, owner of Louisville Slugger, put on the market an aluminum ''Big Bend'' baseball bat with Bennett's 19 degree bent handle. Easco Corporation in the Midwest followed close behind with claw hammers and a dozen other hand tools equipped with Bennett's bend. Now Handlelite, in Chicago, is putting bent handles on its tennis racquets, squash racquets, and table tennis paddles, while across town, Chicago Cutlery is turning out bent-handle knives. The Mirro Aluminum Company in Manitowoc, Wis., is working on pots and pans. Any day now, crooked ballpoint pens will be rolling off the assembly lines at Ritepoint in St. Louis.

The inventor of the bend is a whiskered fullback of a man with a gravelly Burl Ives brogue. He grew up in East PeoriaVP xOed at Bradley University in ''Wood Technology,'' and taught at an aircraft mechanics school in the Air Force. A tinkerer since childhood, Bennett has always had an insatiably inquisitive mind, ''the kind that was taking things apart and putting them back together,'' his mother always said. He worked his way from grade school designs for wooden toy guns to the nuclear jet plane design he offered the Air Force in the early 1950s. Eventually, Bennett returned to his hometown and went to work for Couch & Heyle, an industrial tool distribution company that had been in his family for four generations. Started by his great-grandfather in 1877 when East Peoria was a booming riverboat town, Couch & Heyle was everyman's general store, selling the usual mops, pocket knives, rifles, floor wax, and even belts for farmers.

In 1972 a strike in the Malaysian timber industry triggered a sudden shortage of push-broom handles in the United States. The customers of Couch & Heyle might have gone broomless had Bennett not decided to design his own aluminum handle. While sweeping the floor with one of the new prototypes, however, he was struck by the discomfort and inefficiency of the straight broom handle, which forced him to twist his wrist and wrench his knuckles toward the floor. ''Why shouldn't I bend the handle instead of my wrist?'' puzzled the tools salesman. Were Bennett a cartoon-strip character, a light bulb would have flashed over his head that day. And so, thanks to a labor dispute halfway around the world, ''Bennett's bend'' was born in East Peoria.

While Bennett was warned his idea was too elementary to patent, in 1978 he did obtain a patent (No. 4038719) for his double ellipse bent handle. Now he also has patents in Britain, Hong Kong, Canada, and one pending in Japan. When Bennett obtained his US patent, he stepped down from the presidency of Couch & Heyle to devote more time to preach crooked handles.

''Everyone thinks I'm nuts,'' Bennett said, ''because the handles look so funny. They laugh until they put one in their hand. After that they become my best salesmen. As for making people ambidextrous, I go to hardware shows all the time and people tell me 'I can't drive a nail with my left hand.' I assure them they can and then offer to hold the nail for them. In all these years I don't think I've been hit twice. . . .

''You probably think I sound like a carnival barker,'' said Bennett, who relishes a good tangle with the skeptics. ''This is no gimmick, unless you want to call the human hand a gimmick. All I did was patent the hole that is formed when you close your hand. And I certainly don't pretend to be the first man or woman ever to sit Cnd look at his hand.''

Bennett is right. He is not the first person to bend his mind and come up with crooked tools. As recently as 20 years ago Edwin Tichauer, in the Department of Biomechanics at New York University, collaborated with Western Electric's Fred Damon in Kansas City to design a pair of bent needle-nose pliers. According to Emanuel, the pliers reduced fatigue and job injuries, as the two predicted, but for some reason Western Electric was underwhelmed and never widely distributed the tool.

Some four years ago Bennett approached Louisville Slugger. ''He came in here with a funny-looking hand-hewn bat,'' recalled Rex Bradley, one of the company's vice-presidents. ''We took a couple up to Cincinnati to try out on (Reds catcher) Johnny Bench and (former Reds outfielder) George Foster before their game with the (San Diego) Padres. George wouldn't touch the bat, but during batting practice Bench hit his third pitch over the fence.''

At the time Bench was in a serious batting slump and desperately took the bent bat into the game in hopes of altering his fortunes. His first time at bat, Bench drilled a double off the outfield wall. Second time up, he singled. A few days later, when the Reds went on the road, Bench belted a home run with ''Bennett's bend.''

It was a one of those shots heard 'round the league. ''The next day,'' recalled Bradley, ''I'got a call from (former Oakland A's owner) Charlie Finley who wanted one of those bats for each of his players. We got lots of other orders, but finally the (major leagues' Official Playing) Rules Committee asked us not to make any more.''

While the big leagues never officially outlawed the bat, college baseball did. Last year the bat was banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. But all was not lost in Mudville. The nation's two largest softball organizations, the American Softball Association (ASA) and the United States Slow-pitch Softball Association (USSSA) OK'd the bat. Louisville Slugger is working for approval in Little League. (''The 'Big Bend' is great for kids not strong enough to get the bat around and who are always hitting to right field,'' said Bennett.)

The ''Big Bend'' is probably the first baseball bat ever sold with instructions. It comes with a label that reads ''This Side Up.'' Jan Louden, an electrician who plays left field for Sister Courage, a women's softball team in Oakland, Calif., used a bent bat during last summer's season. Like Johnny Bench she, too, was ''in a batting slump and willing to try anything. I went out and bought one of those crooked bats for our team but found it was too heavy and the grip too big. It didn't really help my hitting.''

The ''crooked bat'' has the effect of straightening out a batter's swing, preventing what ballplayers call the ''chicken wing'' motion. One of Louden's teammates reported the bat leveled her pop-ups into line drives. ''It sounds funny,'' Louden recalled, ''but another woman on the team went to the plate with the bat backward because she forgot to put the label right side up.'' When Bradley heard a description of Louden's experience with the bent bat, he came to a different conclusion: ''Either the label was on the wrong side or she batted an entire season with 'Big Bend' upside down. It might have been her teammate who was batting 'backward' who had it right all alongn''

Not long ago Bennett got a call from a carpenter in Edwardsville, Ill. He had a severe wrist injury, was told surgery was his only hope, and he would miss six months of work. Bennett sent him a couple bent-handle hammers and within days he was back on the job. Word got around the carpenter trade about these newfangled hammers, and last year Bennett was made an honorary member of the Illinois chapter of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Bennett's folk-hero status among certain carpenters and softball players is apparent. Explaining why the principle of his 19-degree bend is so revolutionary , however, demands the expertise of someone like Bradley University's Professor Emanuel. Emanuel, now a friend of Bennett's, is a specialist in ''human factors, '' the study of adapting tools and the workplace to laborers. He believes the new bent handles are no less than ''the first concerted effort to design a handle that fits the human hand.''

His reasoning goes something like this: If the wrist is held in a relaxed position during work or impact (when pounding a nail or hitting a tennis ball), it serves as a natural shock absorber and doesn't transfer strain to the elbow or shoulder. The ideal design for a handle, Bennett said, maintains a straight line from the forearm through the middle finger.

In addition to choosing 19 degrees as the optimal angle, Bennett noticed that , when you close your hand, an ellipse is formed by the bottom of the hand and the knuckles of the closed fingers. The double ellipse handle grip is the second significant feature in his design.

When you swing a conventional hammer, centrifugal force tends to pull it out of your hand. The natural response of the user is to tighten his grip, which leads to fatigue and injury. With Bennett's grip, you needn't hang on for dear life. A standard hammer is gripped between the fingertips and the palm of your hand; you can grip Bennett's handle with only the middle joints of your second and third fingers against the butt of your thumb. Thus, the grip is looser, more comfortable.

What's more, the head speed of the tool is increased, and those two fingers have five times the closing strength of four fingers on a conventional handle, according to Bennett. A heavy manufacturer in the Midwest tested Bennett's handles on its sledgehammers for two years and found it could cut the weight of the sledge heads from 10 to 8 pounds without reducing performance.

The reason Bennett's bend increases accuracy and promotes ambidexterity is that the index finger remains free. In hand-eye coordination, the rule of thumb (or finger, in this case) is: If you can point at something with your index finger you can probably hit it, whether using your right or left hand. With Bennett's bent handle, the forefinger stretches comfortably alongside the handle and is free to point at its target, be it nail or squash ball.

As a footnote, Emanuel underscores that ''Bennett's bend'' is more warp than bend. ''Until you see thE bend,'' he said, ''the tendency is to think that it is a weird tool with a 90-degree hook on the end. The angle is so small that it looks warped, and in most cases when you're swinging a bat or hammer, nobody around you can tell anything is different.

What's different about Bennett's success so far is that he attributes it less to genius than to ''bullheadedness.'' He waxes philosophical: ''As Disney always said, an inventor needs that ''stick-to-it-ivity. It's not all that pure light and blinding inspiration you dream about. An inventor is nothing more than someone who gathers knowledge he has been exposed to and then uses it to solve a problem. Inventing just means finding an easier way to Ho something. Why, you are probably inventing every day. The difference between you and me is that I patent it.''

What's Bennett got up his sleeve these days? ''I'm looking into bucket handles at the moment. And just this morning alady came up to me and suggested I angle lipstick holders, so women won't get their hands in the way when they look in the mirror. Who knows where all this will go, especially when it goes overseas? I mean, if you can put a bent handle on a baseball bat or hockey stick , why not a cricket bat?'' Bennett paused. ''Hmmm, a cricket bat . . . '' he sighed as if something had just flipped his switch. Another lightbulb was flashing overhead in East Peoria.

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