iPads, smartphones and fancy coffee machines are all well and good, but what about the smaller things in life? Dozens of handy, useful and life-changing inventions have been taken for granted for years, but no longer. Here’s a list of life’s 10 most underrated inventions, finally giving them the recognition they deserve…
Maybe it’s just us, but the best view from any window is the window itself. It may be unassuming and invisible, but the humble window is made from one of the most remarkable materials around – glass.
Prehistoric hunter-gatherers used obsidian (a natural glass formed by volcanoes) for the tips of their spears. The Ancient Egyptians used glass in decorative beads. The Romans were the first to manufacture colourless glass, but guarded the secret so closely that it was not until the middle ages that it spread through Europe and the Arab world.
It’s strong, clear and, unlike any other packaging material, glass is infinitely recyclable. That’s right – glass can be recycled again and again without ever losing quality, strength or functionality. Amazing.
Like glass, ink is an invention that helps us to see the world. Cave paintings provide a glimpse into the lives of our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. The chronicles of history were painstakingly written in pen and ink by storytellers and commentators, preserving a legacy of advice and insight for generations. Our rights were enshrined in laws written in ink on parchment.
In the internet age, it’s far too easy to overlook this astonishing invention.
The English word salary comes from the Roman ‘salarium‘, meaning the money given to a soldier for the purchase of salt. This gives you an idea of just how important salt has been throughout history. It’s not just a seasoning, it’s a preservative and an important material in the production of paper, dyes and soap. The only problem was that its production was limited and its price was high.
The development of industrial evaporation and mining operations around the world fuelled production, making salt cheaper and more accessible.
Electricity is the life-blood of our daily lives. Without batteries, we’d have no mobile phones, laptops, cars or trains, and that’s just the start. Transport and communication would be thrown back 200 years. Not-so-coincidentally, batteries were gradually brought into use after Faraday’s experiments of the 1830s.
Whilst we consider solar technology to be relatively new, batteries have actually been ahead of the curve for decades. Efficient solar cell batteries were invented in 1954 by Gerald Pearson and his team of researchers, funded by the USA’s Bell Laboratories.
Now we’re into real underrated territory. Often reduced to a mere instrument of vanity, the invention of the ‘silvered glass mirror’ (the form we know today) opened up all kinds of avenues of technological advancement.
Mirrors reflect, direct and concentrate light in all sorts of ways that are vital for instruments from telescopes and periscopes to lasers, televisions and photography. Few inventions are so essential to such a range of instruments used in scientific, artistic and political endeavour.
It’s hard to believe, but toilet paper as we know it today was only introduced in 1857. Before then, people used all manner of things from leaves and hay to woollen cloth and water to cleanse themselves. According to French poet Francois Rabelais, however, the best cleanser of bottoms was “the neck of a goose that is well downed”. The prospect of wrestling a goose every time nature calls makes us appreciate loo roll all the more.
Before the advent of modern tailoring, the human race was forced to rely on butlers to carry their possessions. Well, not quite, but pockets were still a revolutionary invention.
Of course, early pockets weren’t that great either. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, women’s dresses had pockets worn under their petticoats, with small slits in the outer layers for access. It was only later that the built-in pouches we know today became common.
They may be the nemesis of butlers the world over, but we couldn’t live without modern day pockets.
Plumbing is another word whose Roman origins are especially enlightening.Plumbum is the Roman word for lead, the poisonous heavy metal they once used for water pipes.
This worrying etymology is a reminder of the trials societies have gone through to perfect the supply of clean, safe water into the homes of their citizens. And it’s not just for us to drink, it’s how we stay clean too.
Yet somehow, 768 million people in the world live without access to safe water – that’s why tap water is something we will never take for granted.
Imagine being able to eat sweets without putting on weight or go shopping without spending a penny. Removing the consequences of life’s little pleasures is so amazing that it sounds impossible, but sun cream has pulled it off, turning the dangerous fiery ball in the sky into a pleasure for all.
One of the most recent of our essential inventions, sun cream was developed by Franz Greiter in 1938 and the protective properties honed since then have given us progressively greater defences against the sun’s harmful rays. That means no painful burns and less risk of serious illness.
Despite being invented at the beginning of the twentieth century, the use of smoke alarms only really became widespread a century later. The percentage of UK households with a working smoke alarm jumped from just 8% in 1988 to 86% in 2008, and it is no coincidence that fire-related fatalities have fallen drastically over the same time period.
The reason this invention is particularly worth highlighting, however, is that although such a high proportion of households have a smoke alarm, statistics show they failed to work in 1 out of 8 house fires. The reason? The owners had forgotten to change the batteries.
So, the next time you replace your windows, put your phone in your pocket or write with a fountain pen, think about how amazing the tools you’re using really are.
What do you think is the most underrated invention? Let us know in the comments!