It was February of 2020. Bernie Sanders was asking for our financial support, the internet was hating on the Ice Age baby and this “coronavirus” thing seemed no more pressing than the swine flu. As for me, I was deep in a rabbit hole, trying to crack the mystery of who invented the ribbed condom. It wasn’t going well. I’d consulted the Museum of Sex and several authors who had written about the history of condoms, but no matter how deep I dug into their bumpy past, no one seemed to know where they came from or when they first became “ribbed for her pleasure.”
All I had to go off of was a pair of names. After several days of digging through old books, court documents and various patents, I eventually determined that the first ribbed condom was patented in 1972 by Akwell Industries and that L. Povlacs and W. Crawley were cited as the inventors. Apparently, Povlacs had a number of patents to his name and died in 2014, but I found no further information on Crawley. Things went dark for over a year… then someone reached out to me claiming to be his son.
“Hi, Brian,” began the DM to my Instagram account. “My name is Matthew Crawley. This is completely random, but I ran across an article you wrote about the history of the ribbed condom. The connection here for me stems from my dad telling me throughout my youth that he was behind this invention. His name is William Brantley Crawley. I’m reaching out to you with the hope of ultimately helping bring some more truths to light.”
When I call him later, Matthew explains that when he was about 10 years old, his dad told him about how he’d worked in the latex industry in the early 1970s. “Very casually he told me, ‘I invented the ribbed condom,’” Matthew says. “I don’t think I had much of a reaction at the time, but it stuck in my head. Years later when I had the internet, I googled it but nothing came up, so I figured he must have been yanking my chain. Then I checked again recently and your piece came up.”
Today, Bill Crawley is 76 and lives in Georgia. He remembers his days at Akwell Industries fondly. “I was an industrial design graduate from Auburn University,” Bill tells me in his calm, Southern drawl. “I went to an interview on campus with the plant manager of Akwell Industries, who made balloons and surgical gloves and, of course, condoms. I was hired for a meager sum and I moved to Dothan, Alabama.”
It was 1970, and it was his first job out of college. He spent his early days at Akwell learning how latex products are made, a process he refers to as both an art and a science. To put it simply, latex products like condoms and medical gloves are created by glass molds that are dipped in liquid latex and then baked until they harden. Condoms are then tested, rolled up and put in a package for sale. While the video below shows a Trojan factory, it gives you a pretty decent idea of how it works.
“Akwell products were sold everywhere — from hospitals to condom vending machines in women’s restrooms,” Crawley continues. “Marketing was handled by a team in New York, and every so often, they’d come to Alabama looking for ideas and innovations. On one of their trips, they asked if anyone had any ideas, so I asked them, ‘Can we make a ribbed condom?’ That caught their attention so they said, ‘Let’s give it a try!’”
Curious as to what gave Crawley the idea, I ask him where he got such an inspiration. “I was a young man, and I was full of testosterone,” he answers. “I wanted to do something fun.”
After the marketing guys greenlit the ribbed condom idea, it was up to Crawley and another engineer, Larry Povlacs, to figure out how to make it. “[Povlacs] was a top-notch engineer,” Crawley says. “He’d followed in his father’s footsteps into the latex industry. His father was instrumental in creating the ambidextrous exam glove.” Crawley and Povlacs, however, ran into problems when it came time to create the mold for the ribbed condom, as all the little bumps had to be smooth. After some trial and error, they turned to Pittsburgh-based sandblasting outfit James H. Matthews & Company to help create a mold with little uniform grooves that were sandblasted in. The grooved mold was then replicated and put on the assembly line at Akwell to be dipped in the latex solution.
Once they got the mold figured out, the product had to be field-tested, a task Crawley took upon himself. “I was among the first to test it out,” he tells me. The product worked, but he wasn’t too impressed with how it felt. “It really wasn’t all that great,” he admits. “Honestly, I think it was a novelty more than anything else.”
Crawley is far from the only one to feel this way. While those ridges were supposedly meant exclusively for a woman’s pleasure, there are tons of reviews online citing how they don’t feel like anything at all. In a piece for Women’s Health, sexologist Gigi Engle described ribs as a “fun add-on” but qualified that by adding, “This won’t feel like much for everyone, but it can add some nice texture.” Meanwhile, a reviewer of Trojan’s Ultra Ribbed condoms on CVS’ website said that they “couldn’t even feel the ribs,” and that the material was “really thick.” Then there are the Reddit threads dedicated to how they do nothing but scrape the vagina in completely pointless ways. “I fucking hate them,” writes one female redditor on r/AskWomen.
That said, they were — and still are — very successful. Before long, Akwell began selling ribbed condoms — originally dubbed “Stimula” condoms — under their “Lifestyles” brand. They also sold ribbed condoms under the brand “PRIME,” which originated the slogan “Ribbed for Her Pleasure” sometime in the 1980s.
Within a few years, other companies followed suit. Trojan has had ribbed condoms of their own since the 1970s, and today, nearly 50 years after their inception, ribbed condoms continue to be widely available in stores and online. Most tellingly, the slogan “Ribbed for Her Pleasure” is still part of the zeitgeist (Wayne’s World probably has a lot to do with that.)
As for Crawley, he left Akwell after a few years and began working for Michelin, where, on occasion, he found opportunities to mention his claim to fame to others. “It depended on how much beer I had to drink,” he tells me, “but I did tell a lot of people that I invented the ribbed condom.”
Not that he ever used them all that much: “I wasn’t a big fan of how it felt so I never became a regular customer. Bareback is better.”