From the reliable, humble zipper to modern minty-fresh toothpaste, find out about five everyday inventions without which modern life wouldn't be the same.
What could be the best thing since sliced bread? Sliced toast, of course. Tostum is the Latin word for scorching or burning, and the Romans used to toast bread to preserve it. The first electric toaster was invented in 1893 in Britain by Crompton and Co., headed by Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton. The toaster was reinvented in the United States in 1909, though it only toasted one side and required someone to stand around waiting to switch it off when the toast was done. The first pop-up toaster with an automatic timer, the direct descendant of the toaster we use today, was patented by American inventor Charles Strite in 1919.
The Romans used sponges on sticks, and early in the Victorian era, anything from mail catalogues to newspapers made perfectly adequate loo paper. However, the beginning of paper being used for toilet hygiene actually dates back to China in the 6th century AD. It wasn’t until the inventor Joseph Gayetty got his hands on it in 1857 that it became commercially popular. Each sheet was made of pure Manila hemp paper and was watermarked with the brand J C Gayetty N Y. Originally, toilet paper did not take off; it contained aloe as a lubricant and was marketed as an anti-haemorrhoid medical product.
In the United States in 1851, Elias Howe received a patent for what was called the ‘Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure’. This early version of the zipper had no slider but, instead, a series of clasps slid together to join the two ends together. The modern zipper was engineered through a series of incremental improvements over the next twenty years. In 1891, Whitcomb L. Judson of Chicago patented the ‘clasp locker’ used primarily on boots. It consisted of hooks and eyes, and was operated by a slider, but it was commercial failure because the design was unreliable and it rusted easily. In 1914, Gideon Sundback developed the ‘Hookless Fastener No. 2’, creating the first version of the zipper to exist without any major design flaws; it was almost identical to modern-day zippers.
If you were driving a car around 1902, your method of being able to see through the rain was probably to stick your head out the window. Mary Anderson, from Alabama, decided this had to stop, so she invented the world’s first windscreen wipers, which could be controlled from inside the car. Though we all know how popular they became, car manufacturers at first turned down the invention for its impracticality, believing the blades would distract drivers and cause accidents.
In four AD, the Egyptians created a cleaning powder made of crushed rock salt, mint, dried iris flowers and pepper to clean their teeth. Even though it was quite effective, it did make the gums bleed terribly. Over the years, crushed bones, oyster shells, burnt bread, chalk, soap and pulverised brick were used by a number of cultures as a way to clean one’s teeth. However, it wasn’t until 1673 that Colgate began selling commercially produced toothpaste in a jar, which also smelled good. In 1892, toothpaste was first put into a collapsible tube, and this version of toothpaste is similar to that which we use today.
Which remarkable inventions did we forget? Is there an everyday invention without which your life wouldn’t be the same?
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