All hail the sticking plaster: The genius of everyday stuff
Impressed by your iPad? Smitten with your sat nav? But what about the brilliance of more ordinary items, asks Alice Jones
Thursday 03 November 2011
A head in the clouds – that's what you need to be an inventor. At least, it helped Al Fielding and Marc Chavannes. In the late 1950s, the pair were working on a new kind of textured wallpaper, fiddling around trapping air bubbles between shower curtains to little avail or commercial impact. Sitting on a flight one day, Chavannes noticed that the clouds seemed to be cushioning his plane as it descended for landing. The experience gave him the idea of using air sealed in plastic for packaging instead. And so in 1957, bubblewrap was born.
The packing material is one of 36 household objects about to go on show at the Science Museum in London in a new exhibition which gives star billing to the "hidden heroes" of daily life, from egg boxes to umbrellas, ring binders to rawl plugs. "It's a celebration of the really mundane," says Dr Susan Mossman, a specialist in material sciences at the Museum. "We don't even think about these objects, because we use them every day. We take them for granted. And yet somebody had to think them up."
Like the objects, so ingrained in the fabric of modern life they have almost disappeared from view, many of their inventors have faded from memory, only to feature occasionally in pub quiz tie-breakers. Who knew, for example, that the coffee filter was the brainwave of a Dresden housewife, Melitta Bentz, who lined a perforated metal cone with blotting paper back in 1908? Or, indeed, that the six-pack carrier was invented by one Ougljesa Jules Poupitch in Illinois in the early 1960s?
All of the objects in the show combine apparent simplicity with seamless functionality, and even beauty, but the tales behind their invention vary wildly. Some are the products of chance. The tea bag apparently came into being when the American tea trader Thomas Sullivan shipped samples in small silk packages to a customer who dipped them in water to test their quality. Others, such as the lines drawn in the sand which inspired Norman J Woodland to invent the barcode, have a classic eureka! quality.
As with bubblewrap, a false start is often the first step on the way to enduring genius. The Post-it Note came out of Spencer Silver's failed attempts to create a super-strong adhesive. When an experiment yielded a super-weak adhesive by mistake, his colleague, Arthur Fry, sick of his markers falling out of his hymnbook during choir practice, spotted its potential and used the discarded batch to create a temporary page-marker. "It's a classic case of turning adversity into an advantage, working out how can you use something differently," says Mossman. "It's not quite the anti-matter of thinking but it's flipping it on its head. It's about having a ready mind."
A ready mind is not always enough. As many a hapless victim of the Dragons' Den knows, a head for business helps. Take the tragic tale of Charles Goodyear and the elastic band. In the 1840s, the American inventor came up with the idea of vulcanising rubber (adding sulphur to rubber to make a more stable product). At the same time, Thomas Hancock was developing similar processes in the UK. Goodyear got there first but failed to patent his idea and Hancock beat him to the paperwork by just eight weeks. A year later, one of Hancock's licensees, Stephen Perry, brought the first rubber band to market and their fortunes were assured.
"Hancock was ready to see the advantages and took the credit," says Mossman. "Poor old Goodyear went bankrupt and died in poverty. It's about being first past the post and having the commercial nous to make a go of it. Sometimes the people who make the fortunes aren't the ones who should. You don't often get entrepreneurial skill combined with inventive skill. Those people are very rare indeed."
Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things, 9 November to 5 June 2012, Science Museum, London sciencemuseum.org.uk
The sticking plaster
In the late 19th century, Citoplast was the universal sticky fix-all – for bleeding fingers and bicycle punctures alike. It was not until 1920 that Earle Dickson, an American employee of Johnson & Johnson, came up with a specific medical plaster when he treated his wife for a minor domestic injury using gauze and fabric layered over a strip of tape. The Band-Aid was born. The manufacturers of Citoplast, Beiersdorf, launched their version, Hansaplast around the same time.
The coat hanger
Arriving late at work on a cold winter day in 1904, Albert J Parkhouse found that all of the hooks on the coat rack were already taken. So he found a piece of wire and bent it into a shape suitable for holding his coat. "Sometimes it's just a matter of serendipity," says Susan Mossman of the Science Museum.
The ring binder
Still an office staple, the ring binder was invented by Friedrich Soennecken in 1886. Increasing paperwork in the age of industrialisation and the spread of typewritten documents meant that old-fashioned ledgers and bound books were no longer practical. Soennecken registered a patentfor his "Papierlocher für Sammelmappen" or hole punch, the same year. Ten years later, Louis Leitz modified the design, adding the all-important finger hole in the spine.
Invented by one man and his dog. Swiss engineer George de Mestral was walking in the mountains when he noticed that the burrs trapped in his dog's fur were covered in tiny hooks. The observation inspired a two-sided fastener made up of stiff hooks on one side and soft loops on the other. The name comes from the French words "velours" (velvet) and "crochet" (hook). "It's biomimetics, or making use of an excellent design that exists in nature," says Susan Mossman. "Mestral was ready to be inspired."
The tin can
An imperial invention, which began life in 1809 when Napoleon announced a competition to come up with a means of storing provisions for his troops. Nicolas Appert won with his airtight glass containers, sealed in boiling water. It took several decades of refinements to get to the tin can we use today. "There were tins of bully beef going out to the Boer war which you couldn't open except with a hammer and chisel," says Susan Mossman. "And then there was a food manufacturer who made giant cans that were too large to preserve the food properly so they built up ghastly gases and exploded. There have been a lot of hits and misses."
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