Genius of everyday things

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The best inventions are so seamlessly absorbed into our lives that we forget how clever they are.

The Science Museum in London has launched an exhibition devoted to 36 everyday innovations we couldn’t live without. Here’s a selection…

STICKING PLASTER

The plaster was invented in 1920 by Earle Dickson, who worked for the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson in New Jersey in the US.

Dickson was inspired by his wife, Josephine, who often burnt or cut herself in the kitchen.

There had been bandages before, but none with the same adhesive and easy to apply qualities – meaning they had to be put on by someone else.

With the sticking plaster, Mrs Dickson could treat herself.

In 1938, a sterile plaster was patented and by 1942, Johnson & Johnson were shipping millions of their Band-Aids to the medics treating wounded soldiers.

BUBBLE WRAP

Engineers Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes came up the idea for bubble wrap while working on a new type of textured wallpaper in 1957.

By sealing two shower curtains together, they trapped a layer of bubbles. It didn’t work as wallpaper, but Chavannes had something of a eureka moment during a flight when it seemed to him for a moment as though his plane’s descent was being cushioned by clouds.

It planted a seed of an idea that his bubbly wallpaper could be used for something different.

So it was that his shower curtain prototype was refined and marketed instead as protective packaging.

The appealing popping sound made by bursting the air pockets has led to a worldwide Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, which falls on the last Monday in January. The event celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. Pop!

TIN CAN

We have the war-mongering Napoleon Bonaparte to thank for events that led to the invention of the tin can.

In 1809, Napoleon’s troops were embroiled in the Peninsular War in Spain. Anxious about how to feed his army on long campaigns, Napoleon launched a competition to find a solution. French chef Nicolas Appert devised a means of preserving food in glass jars sterilised with boiling water (and won 12 000 francs).

A year later, British manufacturer Peter Durand dreamt up an improved design.

He replaced the breakable glass with thin sheets of iron coated with tin.

The early cans, however, were soldered airtight with lead, which caused lead poisoning.

The most famous example of this came in an 1845 when members of the Arctic expedition team headed by explorer Sir John Franklin developed fatal lead poisoning after three years of eating canned food.

STICKY TAPE

Engineer Richard Drew, from Minnesota, invented sticky tape in 1930, when he worked out a way of giving adhesive qualities to cellophane (itself a new material, which gave its name to Sellotape).

The brilliance of Drew’s adhesive lay in its ability to stick other things together, but not get stuck to itself or leave any residue behind as it came off the roll.

It acquired another name, Scotch Tape, when a customer accused the “stingy Scotch” proprietor of the manufacturer of not putting enough adhesive on the tape.

The company liked the insult, and decorated the tape with a tartan design.

It even came up with a kilted boy, as a brand mascot.

ELASTIC BAND

London businessman Stephen Perry patented the elastic band in 1845, to hold letters together.

His company, Messrs Perry and Co Rubber Manufacturers of London, produced all sorts of goods, but the elastic band was their real money-spinner, formed by slicing a long rubber tube into thousands of wafer-thin loops.

TEA BAG

Until the first teabags were introduced in 1903, tea was sold loose and had to be strained during pouring.

In 1908, Thomas Sullivan, from New York, became the first commercial tea salesman to have the bright idea of putting tea in bags, initially as samples.

His earliest wares were expensively packed in bags made of silk – cheap paper bags weren’t introduced until the 1930s.

Sullivan had intended for the loose tea to be removed from each bag, but his customers made the real breakthrough in convenience themselves.

They took to dunking the unopened packets in hot water to test the quality of each tea shipment – a practice that’s held fast ever since.

LIGHT BULB

Thomas Edison is widely credited with having invented the light bulb in 1880, but it is less well known that Englishman Sir Joseph Swan invented a prototype light bulb in the same year.

Seeing a commercial advantage in joining forces, the two inventors formed the Ediswan company.

The technology is fairly simple: light is produced by heating a metal filament wire until it glows.

While scientists had produced 22 kinds of light bulbs before he did his, Edison’s was far better. It produced a brighter light, had a more powerful vacuum to protect the filament, and lasted longer.

By 1881, the Savoy Theatre in London was lit by Swan light bulbs, making it the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity.

BAR CODE

A mechanical engineer called Norman Woodland patented the bar code in America in 1952.

Inspired by the dots and dashes of Morse code, Woodland, in an inspired piece of lateral thinking, stretched those symbols to produce a more easily readable code.

He sketched out the designs in the sand on a Florida beach, before he applied it, with worldwide success, to supermarket checkouts.

EAR PLUGS

The idea of plugging your ears has been around since time immemorial.

Odysseus asks his men to plug their ears with beeswax in the ancient Greek epic, The Odyssey, to stop them being seduced by the Sirens who lured sailors to jump overboard with their silken voices.

The more practical modern ear plug was created in Germany, in 1907, when Max Negwer set up the company, Ohropax, which mass-produced plugs made of wax and cotton wool.

Vaseline added to the paraffin wax made the plugs soft and flexible, meaning they could be reused, and were ultra-sensitive to the shape of the ear.

ZIP

A Swedish electrical engineer, Gideon Sundback, patented the zip in 1913.

He had been working for the Universal Fastener Company in New Jersey for seven years, perfecting earlier types of zips, when he came up with the “Hookless Fastener No 1” – two rows of teeth clamped together by a sliding piece of metal.

The earliest zippers were used to seal tobacco pouches, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the invention began to appear on clothing after an American campaign lobbied to have zips sewn into children’s clothes to make it easier for them to get dressed without a parent.Men’s magazine Esquire, founded in the 1930s, praised the zip’s potential to do away with “the possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray”. – Daily Mail

** Hidden Heroes: The Genius Of Everyday Things is at the Science Museum, London, until May 30.


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