ETCETERA / Design Dinosaurs: 13 The electric toothbrush

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The Independent Culture
'YOU brush with an ordinary toothbrush, but you BRRRUSH with a Brossette' ran one of the most celebrated TV commercials of late Fifties America. For a full 50 seconds the viewer had nothing to watch but a toothbrush laboriously scrubbing the left-hand side of the split screen. In the ad's last few seconds, a whirring electric toothbrush appeared on the opposite side and accomplished the same rite in seconds.

More brushing in less time: this latest labour-saver was not about oral hygiene, but gratuitous gadgetry. The arrival of the electric toothbrush in Britain, imported by the Ronson Corporation in 1961, was part of the second wave of the electrical appliance revolution. The first began after the First World War, with marvels like the toaster and the food-mixer. Eventually no activity was deemed too easy to escape electrification: not knife-sharpening, can- opening, shoe-polishing, carving the weekly joint. Not even brushing your teeth.

The electric toothbrush offered no clinical advantage over its manual counterpart, properly used (the latter only appeared in its modern plastic-handled, nylon-bristled form in 1940 - made by Addis under the brand-name Wisdom). Possibly its new-toy appeal encouraged gizmophiles and recalcitrant children to attend to a tedious daily chore. But - like new toys - early models suffered from the short life of their dry cell batteries (mains, of course, being forbidden in the bathroom). As often as not they sat lifeless and useless on their wall-racks.

Today's versions have addressed this problem with nickel-cadmium cells (the Boots Rechargeable, for example, at pounds 29.95, or the Braun Dental d3 at around pounds 35). There have been other improvements, too: circular rather than up-and- down brushing motion to help protect the gums; some have sophisticated contra-rotating heads. They are more efficient and convenient than the Ronson original. But they are still gimmicks.