Every single blessed day, we live lives of remarkable ease and comfort thanks to the efforts of people who are hardly known, much less celebrated.
So, to celebrate this 4th of July, we assembled this list of a dozen inventions that, while they may never be called the best thing since the loaf-at-a-time bread-slicing machine (invented by Iowa native Otto Frederick Rohwedder in 1928), have forever changed American life for the better.
1. Clothes Hanger
Clothes hangers were invented in the U.S by Albert Parkhouse in 1903. Okay, so what happened prior to then? Everyone wore the one outfit they owned every day? Or people just dropped their clothes on the floor like teenagers?
2. Drinking Straw
In 1888, Marvin Stone was in Washington D.C. drinking a mint julep and found himself “unsatisfied with the mixing of the drink.” So he created the drinking straw and then had the good sense to patent it. This is awesome. Who knew the drinking straw was invented to make Happy Hour better?
3. Earth Inductor Compass
This is one of those little things that led to a big thing. The Earth inductor compass is a device for determining aircraft direction using the magnetic field of the Earth. Invented in 1924 by Morris Titterington (classic inventor name), the compass operates by using electromagnetic induction with the Earth’s magnetic field acting as the induction field for an electric generator, providing a more reliable and accurate way of determining direction than magnetic compasses, which in turn made flight safer and helped make commercial air travel viable.
4. Rolling Luggage
Bags have been around for a long time, wheels probably almost as long. But it wasn’t until 1970, in Massachusetts, that Bernard Sadow had the bright idea of putting the two together. So after you’re done thanking Mr. Titterington for helping your plane arrive at the correct airport, say a small thanks to Mr. Sadow for saving your back on the way out.
5. Flexible Urinary Catheter
Benjamin Franklin invented the flexible urinary catheter way back in 1752, and thank God for him. Before then, catheters were made of wood or stiffened animal skins that were not conducive to navigating the curvature of the human urethra, to put it mildly. When you think about it, those Founding Fathers were really something. This is a terrific country.
6. Swivel Chair
Most the chairs in our office swivel, and we hardly give it a second thought as we spin around to get at the multicolored fine-point Sharpies. But you know who invented the swivel chair? Thomas Jefferson, in 1776. And you know the first thing he did with it? Perched on it while writing the Declaration of Independence. I’m telling you, those Founding Fathers were amazing.
7. Vulcanized Rubber
“Rubber Fever” was all the rage in Boston in the 1830s, with people clamoring for rubber aprons, life preservers, and hats, along with rubber carriage tops and waterproof shoes. Except, in the heat of summer, rubber goods turned into a gooey, sticky, stinking mess; in the winter, they froze stiff. Then came Charles Goodyear, who in 1939 unintentionally discovered that rubber mixed with sulfur and heated just right would make it durable. And now we have tires and shoe soles and hoses and hockey pucks, thanks to trial and error and Mr. Goodyear and a little serendipity.
Do we need an electrical switch that opens and closes under the control of another electrical circuit? We do if we want to be able to turn the lights on and off, or anything else. The relay was invented by the American scientist Joseph Henry, in 1835.
9. Elevator Brake
In 1852, Elisha Graves Otis invented the first safety brake for elevators, preventing elevators from dropping into free fall between floors. And this is a good thing, because not being able to stop a plummeting elevator is terrifying. Thank you, Mr. Otis, for making claustrophobia the number one reason to fear elevators.
10. Toilet Paper
The Chinese were way ahead of everyone else on this. Ancient Greeks used clay and stone (and how exactly did that work?), the Romans used sponges and sea water, aided by their excellent sewer systems. It was in 1857 that New Yorker Joseph Gayetty solved the problem with aloe-infused sheets of manila hemp dispensed from Kleenex-like boxes, which sounds like something you should be able to pick up at Whole Foods this afternoon. But Americans at the time, too clever for Mr. Gayetty’s solution, saw no need to spend money on toilet paper when the Sears Roebuck catalog served the same purpose and was delivered regularly to their homes, and for free. Seriously. Finally, in 1890, Clarence and E. Irvin Scott put TP on a roll, and Americans grudgingly put the Sears Roebuck catalog back on the coffee table.
11. Stop Sign
Take a guess how long it’s been since the current U.S. white-letters-on-red-octogon became the standard. Would you believe just 40 years? Prior to 1975, there were any number of STOP symbols. But the idea itself has only been in use since 1915 when folks in Detroit got tired of watching cars run into each other at intersections. Although, William Phelps Eno (seriously, these names are classic) published a set of traffic laws in Connecticut as far back as 1890. Sometimes it takes a good idea awhile to catch on.
12. Dissolvable Pill
Of course we take pills, and we take them for granted, because they’re easy and ubiquitous. But before 1884, the only option was a capsule, which worked sometimes well and sometimes not, or mixing the active agent into your drink. Then along came William Upjohn, who invented the dissolvable pill, founded the now-big pharma company bearing his name, and gave entrepreneurs the idea that a good idea is worth pursuing and promoting.