Sporks have been a fixture of school lunchrooms and fast-food restaurants seemingly forever—but if you’ve ever wondered who invented the spork, it turns out that the story is a lot more convoluted than it might seem.
The spork, you see—the hybrid of spoon and fork that, honestly, doesn’t perform particularly well as either utensil—doesn’t have just one inventor. In fact, its history stretches back further than you may have thought—and although there is one fellow who’s often described as the “inventor of the spork,” the true story of the combination eating utensil is more like a mishmash of many existing ideas coagulating over time to become the object we now know and… well, maybe not love, but, uh, tolerate whenever we encounter it.
Here’s a look at how the spork entered our lives, for better or worse.
A Brief History of Hybrid Utensils
As food journalist and historian Bee Wilson, who literally wrote the book on the subject (it’s called Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat), told the New York Times in 2013 that hybrid or combination eating utensils are “not a new idea at all”; in fact, they’ve existed for centuries. Sucket forks, for example, even performed a spork-like function in that they had both the tines of a fork and the bowl of a spoon in one handy tool. The pivotal difference is that sucket forks were double-ended—that is, the tines were located at one end of the utensil and the spoon at the other—but they did enable those eating with them to both spear and spoon their food with a single tool.
Most surviving sucket forks date back to the late 17th century, but there’s evidence that they existed in the medieval period as well: One depiction of the Annunciation, which belongs to the Viennese Gothic church Maria am Gestade and is thought to have been painted circa 1460-1470, includes the image of a sucket fork on the table next to Mary.
Meanwhile, the earliest known patent for a spork-like utensil is dated much later: It was granted to Samuel W. Francis in 1874. A Columbia University and New York University medical school-educated doctor, Francis also dabbled in inventing on the side; in fact, he was responsible for the creation of many other interesting devices, including a matchbox that lit matches from the inside, a “self-opening coffin” (sound familiar?), and a typewriter with piano-like keys that earned it the nickname “the Literary Piano.”
On Jan. 22, 1874, Francis filed a patent application for “improvement in combined knives, forks, and spoons.” His goal was, according to the patent application, “to combine in a convenient manner, in one implement, a knife, fork, and spoon.” The elements of each utensil were “[grouped] closely together, using the bowl of the spoon as the central element”; the knife was placed “on one edge of the spoon-bowl,” while the tines of the fork were “placed at the front end of said bowl.” Meanwhile, the handle was attached to the bowl. The patent was granted just a week and a half later, on Feb. 3, 1874.
However, it’s worth noting that, although Francis’ invention is still usually credited as being the first official spork, other utensils that were actually even more spork-like existed around the same time as well. For example, ice cream forks were incredibly popular in the late 19th century—and, to be perfectly honest, most of them look more like the typical spork than Francis’ invention. (People who regularly eat ice cream with forks, consider yourselves vindicated.)
The Word “Spork” and the Coinage of a Classic
While the spork itself has arguably existed for at least a century and a half, the word itself is a little more recent: According to the Oxford English Dictionary (which, yes, has an entry for “spork”), the first time the word appeared in print was in 1909, when it was included in a newly published supplement to The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia.
The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia—or, as it was sometimes known, simply The Century Dictionary—was originally published in 1889. It was based on The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language, which itself functioned as an expansion of the second edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language—one of lexicographer Noah Webster’s (yes, that Webster) most notable works. An encyclopedic dictionary, The Century Dictionary was similar to the Oxford English Dictionary in that it provided more information for most of its entries than a simple definition.
Numerous editions of The Century Dictionary were published between 1889 and 1912, along with several additional volumes meant to expand the dictionary’s information base. Two of the additional volumes made up the 1909 Supplement—and it’s in the second volume of the Supplement that the word “spork” appeared. It was identified as a noun derived from “spoon” and “fork” and given the definition, “A ‘portmanteau-word’ applied to a long, slender spoon having at the end of the bowl projections resembling the tines of a fork”—a “portmanteau-word” being a word that blends the sounds and combines the meanings for multiple other words.
The word wasn’t trademarked until 1970, though. Van Brode Milling Co. filed an application for the trademark in October of 1969 and was granted it about a year later; “spork” was taken to mean a “combination plastic spoon, fork, and knife.” However, this trademark expired in 1992—and although another company, WOW Plastics, filed for the trademark in 1998, the application was ultimately abandoned.
The Splayd and Other Stories
For all its ubiquity, the spork isn’t the only hybrid eating utensil in use these days that combines the functionality of a fork and spoon. Its closest modern relative, the Australian invention known as the Splayd, was created in 1943 by William McArthur; he was reportedly inspired to build this hybrid utensil after watching people at a party attempt to balance plates of food on their laps while juggling utensils in both hands. (Or, he may have just seen a photograph of this scene; accounts differ.)
McArthur’s wife, Suzanne, used and sold the original version of the utensil in the café she ran in Sydney between 1943 and 1967; additionally, Suzanne sold the design to a tableware manufacturer, Stokes Pty Ltd., in 1960. Stokes redesigned the Splayd and released it into the market in 1962, where it gained rapid popularity; high-quality Splayds made of steel or, in some cases, precious metals even became a commonly encountered wedding gift in the 1960s and ’70s.
The Splayd’s bowl is less rounded than the spork’s, with the overall shape of the utensil more reminiscent of a fork than a spoon. However, the meaning of the word “Splayd” remains something of a mystery: The website Australian Food History Timeline suggests that it’s both derived from the verb “to splay” and “a nice combination of ‘spoon’ and ‘blade,’” but the etymology of Splayd hasn’t yet been adequately traced.
Splayds can still be purchased in Australia, where their manufacturer describes them as “luxury utensils” available in both polished and satin stainless steel that are “perfect for gift-giving and entertainment.” Meanwhile, sporks are still commonly encountered in single-use plastic form at fast-food and casual restaurants and on airplanes; however, many reusable options made of materials like titanium have also hit the market, where they remain particularly popular with hikers, campers, and other outdoorsy folks.