The genius of mundane objects

New exhibition at the Science Museum reveals the ingenuity behind run-of-the-mill objects from pencils to coat hangers and bubble wrap

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The Independent Culture

Good design renders everyday objects invisible. Nonetheless, certain functional items are so fundamental that considering life without them is baffling. Can you imagine a world free of paperclips, tea bags or milk cartons? Consider for a moment, if it is relevant, the ingenuity behind the elegant fork which might be helpfully shovelling food into your mouth as you read this.

The genius of such run-of-the-mill objects is the basis of a new exhibition at the Science Museum which opens next week. From the humble pencil to the world-changing light bulb, the stories of invention which led a host of ubiquitous household items into being will be told via the original sketches, patents and advertising.

Most of us will never have bothered to meditate on the shape of the egg boxes containing our next omelette. Who knew that ‘vulcanisation’ is not something out of Star Trek but in fact the process which brought rubber bands into the world in 1845? Rummaging in your wardrobe the name Albert J. Parkhouse is unlikely to spring mind as the inventor of a coat hanger – the yarn goes that on a cold winter day, finding that all the hooks on the coat rack were already taken, he spontaneously bent a piece of wire into the famous coat hanger shape.

That a descending aeroplane is, in part, the inspiration for bubble wrap, or that Napoleon was indirectly responsible for the tin can, are among the unusual tales the exhibition tells.  Many of the featured objects have remained unaltered for many years.  All are still in constant use.

In some cases, the success of each product reflects changes in cultural and industrial history: the pencil suggests the spread of education and writing; the tin can illustrates the industrialisation of food production; and Post-it Notes have proliferated in tandem with computers, staging a final stand for scribbled communication in a digital age; condoms signify sexual liberation and responsibility.

Dr Susan Mossman, materials science specialist at the Science Museum, said, “At a time when celebrity is king, it gives all of us at the Science Museum enormous satisfaction to celebrate the truly uncelebrated and shine a light on a group of outstanding inventions and inventors, revealing the supposedly mundane to be nothing short of remarkable.”

The image gallery (above) is a picture preview of some of the stories and designs being exhibited.

Hidden Heroes – The Genius of Everyday Things is at the Science Museum, London from 6 November 2011-5 June 2012,