Judge William "Banana Bill" Sheffield has never shied away from his ambitions. After graduating from California State University, Long Beach, with a degree in philosophy, he worked with former classmate Steven Spielberg on a year-long film project, but just didn't see promise in Hollywood.
As a law student at University of California, Berkeley, Sheffield successfully sued Pope Paul VI over a St Bernard puppy that was never delivered to him from a monastery in Switzerland. At one point, he even served as legal counsel for embattled Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. But none of this would compare to an invention he created in the hope of truly changing the world: the banana slicer.
Yes, that banana slicer. The yellow plastic device became a viral meme almost two years ago, when it inspired thousands of hilarious, satirical customer reviews online. But the story behind it goes back nearly 25 years. And as strange as it may sound, Sheffield's story embodies the American dream. Aside from an entrepreneurial spirit, the biggest driver of his innovative spirit is his faith.
During the interview, Sheffield explains how the idea for a banana slicer was not the direct result of fruit-cutting frustration, but rather a vision from God. In 1985, well into his forties, Sheffield converted to Mormonism. This drove him to leave the California Superior Court bench, where he had worked for two years, and travel to Hong Kong to work as general counsel for the Mormon Church in Asia. Sheffield found himself walking through the crowded streets of that city one day, brainstorming potential ways to help the director of a small orphanage in India whom he and his wife had recently met. Sheffield recalls suddenly seeing a crystal-clear vision of a flat, ladder-like, banana-shaped device. He knew it was meant to be. And then he got to work.
In 1989 Sheffield met with a plastics manufacturer in Hong Kong, built and tested a prototype, then secured a patent. (The patent describes the banana slicer as a "tool which has a frame circumscribing an area into which a typical banana readily fits, and a plurality of spaced ribs or blades disposed transversely to the longitudinal axis of the frame and interconnecting opposite sides of the frame".)
But how would he convince every household to buy one? Sheffield purchased a book with the name and address of every grocery store in America. He wrote to CEOs, owners, and managers alike, asking them to stock their shelves with his slicer. He formed a partnership with banana distributer Chiquita by flying to Cincinnati to convince a very sceptical VP (head) of marketing that "a home with a banana slicer would buy more bananas than a home that didn't have one". (Sheffield says that the VP initially declined, responding that Chiquita's "business is bananas, not banana slicers", but he was soon sold on the product after he saw how much his kids loved it.) Inventions don't sell themselves.
The gregarious inventor sent prototypes to political leaders as well. President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush called the invention "special". The Queen's personal chef responded, thanking Sheffield for his "great invention". And Banana Bill's hard work paid off: throughout the early Nineties, he sold nearly 1 million slicers. More than 60 per cent of the proceeds went directly to fund the orphanage in India, now known as Pathway. In the late Seventies, the orphanage supported about 20 disabled children. Thanks in part to Sheffield's banana slicer, Pathway now serves more than 500 people daily and has helped over 22,000.
Now 74 years old, Sheffield no longer makes money from the banana slicer, its patent having expired in 1999. Banana Bill isn't involved with the production of the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, and to his knowledge, the proceeds do not support any charitable efforts. During our phone call, I read him some of the online reviews, including one that claims the banana slicer saved a couple's marriage. He laughs heartily, recounting letters he received from frustrated customers in the past. (One woman claimed that the slicer was defective after it wouldn't cut through the banana's skin.) Commenting on its recent viral internet fame, Sheffield expresses frustration that it didn't take off in the same way back in the early Nineties, lamenting that "maybe it was a little bit ahead of its time". The former judge still regularly uses the device to slice bananas.
Back to those seemingly unbelievable stories from the introduction. In 1969, while working toward a degree in philosophy, Sheffield collaborated with Steven Spielberg – a fellow Long Beach classmate and friend – on a film project titled Who Collects the Garbage?, examining the life philosophies of a diverse range of celebrity subjects. Sheffield and his soon-to-be first wife, April, travelled the world, conducting interviews with Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr, the King of Thailand, and the Beatles' maharishi, among others. (He claims to have chased Pablo Picasso in his car, to no avail.) April wrote an article about their experience in the June 1969 issue of Esquire. After filming each interview, he would send film back to Spielberg, with whom he held weekly telephone conferences. But the film was never completed, and Sheffield moved on, enrolling in law school at UC Berkeley.
William Sheffield's love of the law would lead him down yet another unbelievable path – suing Pope Paul VI over a St Bernard puppy. At some point back in the late Sixties, Sheffield wanted a canine companion, ordering a St Bernard from a monastery in Switzerland. He mailed a down-payment of $60, but the puppy never arrived. He wrote to the monastery (hilariously, to Father Bernard), only to be told that the litter had died, and that the money would not be returned. Then a swaggering second-year law student – he earned his Juris Doctor degree in 1971 – he was feeling bold. After a polite back-and-forth led nowhere, he decided to sue for the lost sum, serving simultaneous depositions to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the Swiss monastery, and Pope Paul VI. Regarding the pontiff, Sheffield laughs, explaining: "I served him a deposition, but he never showed up."
Sheffield, who represented himself, won the case, and the Church was ordered to pay up – which it refused to do. In order to recoup the awarded funds, Sheffield claims police officers seized the offering plates from St Mary's Cathedral one Sunday morning. According to Sheffield, the church responded by arguing that the money was a gift to the pope, and the title of this gift did not transfer to the pontiff until it had been delivered to the Vatican. Having already spent long hours on the case, Sheffield eventually had to choose between yet another hearing or taking the bar, so he let the suit drop. The money was never paid.
The Indira Gandhi chapter of his life is just too much for this article, but trust me, it's equally fascinating.
Sheffield's grandiose stories perfectly mirror his advice on innovation: "If you have the tenacity, the energy, and commitment to do it, it doesn't matter if it is a banana slicer, an automobile, or an iPhone 5. You can sell anything you want as long as you commit to it and you're creative. And don't let anyone tell you it won't work." He will retire from legal mediation in July before embarking on a two-year mission with the Mormon Church, his wife of more than 40 years at his side. Compared with the rest of his life, that's anything but bananas.
This article first appeared on Slate.com
Any way you slice it Amazon reviews
Kirk Cameron's banana slicer
If God does not exist, then how is it that a banana fits so perfectly in this banana slicer? CHECKMATE, ATHEISTS!
Great except for one thing
The Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer is the greatest invention since sliced bread! The only issue I have is that it only works on bananas that curve to the right.
Can someone please send me directions for this product?
This is a great fruit-slicing solution and is long overdue. However, this product is not compatible with Apples. Are they working on an Apple version?
Stephen K. Grubb ****
Boy, is my face red! I purchased the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, mistakenly thinking I was getting the Hustler 571. My husband was in so much pain he couldn't remember the safe word and we spent a really embarrassing night in the ER. While he was healing, I did try it on some bananas, and it worked great for that.
princess luluchild "wanna dance" ****
Don't believe the lie
Description clearly states "Great for cereal". However, my experience subjecting cereal to the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer left me with nothing more than a milk-sodden shirt and bitter remorse.
Do NOT try to lick this thing clean. Just don't.
Janet M. Schaefer *****
Not very a-PEEL-ing
Alas for me! While I imagine this slicer is excellent at slicing the actual fruit of the banana, I have been completely unable to use it because it does not come with a (necessary, in my opinion) peeler attachment.
From A to Zany **
Better than the onion dicer;
Cuter than my cat the micer;
Might work as a circumciser;
Get yourself a nanner slicer.
Mountain man *****
Thanks to all of these great reviews, I now know what I am going to get my in-laws for Christmas this year. I've always been their favourite.