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The Humble Inventor

The Humble Inventor

There are so many gadgets we just take for granted. We all know the famous inventors, but what about pencils and scissors, and - let's not forget - Lego? Who invented them? Hayley Birch goes in search of answers.

Some of the world's greatest innovators are people you've never heard of.  Everyone knows about Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone), Edward Jenner (vaccination) and the like. But there are a whole host of less obvious inventions that probably never even entered your invention radar - if you have such a thing.

Take toasters for example.  Not quite as glamorous as TVs or telephones in the invention stakes, but important household appliances nonetheless.  All hail the man who thought up a way to speed-cook two sides of piece of bread at the same time!  And his name is Charles P. Strite.  Ever heard of him?  Precisely.

Quite comically, Charles was often reprimanded as a child for stealing loaves of bread from the school kitchen. But as I think you'll agree, he's repaid his debt to society in a very appropriate way.

Buttons then. The fastening of choice among European aristocracy during the Renaissance. And a true gem of an invention - simple to produce, functional and highly underrated as fashion accessories. Plus, if you lose a button, you'll always be able to root around and find another one sewn into the same item of clothing somewhere. Where are they going to hide a whole spare zip in your shirt, eh?

But who invented buttons? Nobody knows is the answer to that. Why?  Because whoever put together the definitive list of history's best inventions was a toffee nosed button-hating bastard. Either that, or he was Amish.

Now one of my favourite ever inventions has got to be Lego. It's an institution for God's sake. So let's give some credit to Ole Kirk Christiansen, master carpenter and creator of the coloured bricks that provide 5 billion hours worth of building fun every year.  Now that's what I call an invention.

Perhaps it would be a good idea if all new inventions were named after their designers. Then at the very least you would know that whoever invented buttons was called Mr Button, or Mrs Button for that matter. Or looking at it another way, Lego would be Christiansen bricks. Hmmm, let's shelve that idea.

Just finally, I'd like to mention a pair of inventors. Introducing Monsieurs Jacques and Joseph Montgolfier, the brains behind one of the most important inventions ever known to man - the balloon. Without balloons, every party ever thrown would have been sadly bereft, partly because of the lack of colourful bouncy things to play games with, but mainly for another reason - how would anyone ever find the right house without the obligatory (slightly indecent) arrangement of inflatables to guide the way?

And if that wasn't justification enough, balloons have been particularly influential in the world of science. Chemistry teachers and lecturers the world over have delighted for years in deafening their students by igniting hydrogen filled balloons in class. Whether this has actually inspired anyone to take up chemistry as a career, or simply resulted in several generations of hearing impaired chemistry graduates, I don't know, but it's certainly made an impact.

So here's to the Montgolfier brothers and all those anonymous inventors who could never quite aspire to the dizzy heights of fame attained by Bell, Jenner and the rest. On behalf of a world that doesn't know how lost it would be without buttons or toasters or balloons, not to mention Lego, we salute you.

To read more from Hayley
click here.

Here are a few extra inventions to muse over:

Invension Year Inventor Country
 Alarm clock
1787  Hutchins US 
 Bicycle 1885  Starley  English
 Contact lens
 1887  Frick  US
 Frozen foods
 1924  Birdseye  US
 Laughing gas
 1800  Davy  English
 Lie detector
 1921 Larsen   Danish
 Margarine  1868 Mege-Mouries   French
 Parachute  1785  Blanchard  French
 Ballpoint pen
 1938  Biro  Hungarian
 Vulcanised rubber
 1839  Goodyear  US
 Sewing machine
 1846  Howe  US
 Soap  1928  Bertsch  German
 Tupperware  1945  Tupper  US
 Barbed wire
 1874  Haisn  US

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24 May 2011
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