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

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.

Velcro

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."

Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
News
McKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksChristmas comes early for wizard fans
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
filmsOculus Rift offers breathtakingly realistic simulation of zero gravity
News
news
News
peopleCampaign 'to help protect young people across the world'
Life and Style
tech

News
people'When I see people who look totally different, it brings me back to that time in my life'
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

News
i100
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.Net, ASP.Net - Kingston, Sur

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.N...

    Business Focused Business Analyst - Finance and Procurement System Implementation

    £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reading are...

    Helpdesk Support Analyst - South West London - up to £22,000.

    £20000 - £22000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Support Analyst ...

    Datacentre Consultant (Infrastructure Consultant, HyperV) £45k

    £45000 per annum: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Datacentre Consultant (Datacentre,...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker