Who invented what?

By Samantha Luiz
01 January 2016

They’re everyday things we take for granted – but someone had to think of them in the first place. Here are the brains behind the inventions.

A world without a TV remote or a microwave oven? No salad in a bag, potato chips or bubble gum? Unthinkable! There are so many inventions we rely on today that didn’t exist a century or so ago. Now they’ve become such a part of our lives that we can’t imagine what it would be like to live without them. We look at a few invention facts.

Bread clips

You either love or hate this nifty little plastic clip that keeps bread fresh, but no matter what your feelings you have to acknowledge it does what it sets out to. Bread clips were invented by American Floyd Paxton in the ’50s, but he was never awarded a patent. During a flight Paxton, founder of the Kwik Lok Company, had no way of closing an open bag of peanuts and, using his pen knife, fashioned a clip from an expired credit card with which he sealed the bag. He died in 1975 at the age of 57.

The TV remote

He might as well have been called Father Of The Couch Potato because of what his invention led to. Eugene Polley of Illinois in the US invented the wireless remote in 1955, creating a generation of people who didn’t have to get off the sofa to change the channel. The company he worked for, Zenith Radio Corporation, had already created something called The Lazy Bone, which could change channels and turn the TV on and off. But it had a clunky cable connecting it to the TV set, which caused many viewers to trip. Polley’s invention, called the Flash-Matic, was wireless and changed the way people watched TV. He was particularly proud of his device and in 2002, a decade before he died at the age of 96, he told an interviewer it was of vital importance to human society. “The flush toilet may have been the most civilised invention ever devised,” he said. “But the remote control is the next most important.

Salad packs

Prepackaged salad is a convenience we’ve got used to given how much time and trouble it saves. But who came up with the idea to put prepared salad leaves in a bag? An American company called Earthbound claims it was the first company to wash, pack and sell salad leaves in 1986 but other companies have since said they were doing it then too.

The microwave

Before microwave ovens were around, a trivial task such as heating milk required a lot of effort and patience. This changed in 1946 when American engineer Dr Percy Spencer invented the first microwave. Dr Spencer’s expertise was a radar tube (or magnetron) design and he worked for a company called Raytheon Corporation, which supplied goods to the US department of defence. He was working in his lab one day when he noticed microwaves generated by a magnetron had melted the chocolate in his pocket. He tested more items and was astonished to find that a raw egg he’d left in his lab had been cooked. He also inadvertently made the first microwave popcorn after leaving corn kernels in there. Seeking a way to trap the microwave energy, he attached a high-density electromagnetic field generator to an enclosed metal box. When food was placed in the box its temperature rose rapidly – and thus the microwave was born. He died at 76 in 1970.

Bubblegum

The first bubble gum was made by American confectioner Frank Fleer of Fleer Chewing Gum Company in Philadelphia in 1906. But it wasn’t a commercial hit – the gum was too sticky to be chewed. In 1928 the first gum that resembles the stuff we can blow bubbles with today was invented by Walter Diemer, an accountant at the company who loved experimenting with gum ingredients in his free time. The gum he created was less sticky and stretchy than the original. Diemer added pink colouring to his product and Fleer sold it under the name Dubble Bubble.

Potato chips

Like most great inventions this one came about by accident. In 1853 George Crum, a New York chef, accidentally created potato chips when a patron kept sending his chips back to the kitchen because they were soggy and too thick. In an attempt to teach the customer a lesson, Crum sliced them extra thin, fried them to a crisp and drowned them in salt. To his surprise the complaining customer liked them, signalling the birth of a much-loved snack.

The Duckworth-Lewis Method

Cricket World Cup fans would have seen this system in action. It’s used when one-day cricket matches are interrupted because of rain, poor light or floodlight failure. When the match begins, the teams start with the same number of overs and wickets. Both are recalculated if a match has to be shortened. This reduced or enlarged target is calculated using the D/L Method. It was invented by statistician Frank Duckworth (75) and mathematician Anthony Lewis (73), both of Lancashire, England, in the mid-1990s.

Post-Its

In 1968 Dr Spencer Silver, an American chemist working for 3M – a company specialising in adhesives – accidentally created a “low-tack” adhesive he found was just strong enough to hold paper to a surface but weak enough that it wouldn’t tear upon removal. This invention, which would later become the glue on Post-It notes, didn’t really impress Silver’s colleagues. Only later when one of them, Arthur Fry, used it to anchor his bookmark in a hymnbook did they find “a problem” for the “solution” Silver (73) had created. Fry (83) is now often credited as the co-creator of the modern Post-It note, which was first released by 3M as Press ’n Peel in 1977.

Lipstick

Lip colour was first used about 5 500 years ago in Mesopotamia. The first modern commercial lipstick was launched in 1884 in Paris. It was made of castor oil and beeswax among other things and wrapped in silk paper. It came in liquid form and had to be applied with a brush. In the early 20th century actresses wore black lipstick in black and white silent films, which helped to popularise this beauty product. The first push-up tube lipsticks were also introduced around this time. In the ’30s American manufacturers started producing a variety of colours, from light pink to dark red.

Egg cartons

Canadian newspaper publisher Joseph Coyle invented the egg box made out of paper in 1911. He’d heard a chicken farmer and hotelier arguing near his office about eggs being broken when they were carried in a basket – then the only mode of transporting them – and decided to think of a solution. He came up with the idea to create individual slots for the eggs using paper at his newspaper company and the design used today largely resembles his first efforts. Coyle, who died aged 100 in 1972, also invented a cigar cutter and a vehicle anti-theft device, the Globe and Mail reports.

Selfie stick

Popular with the young and young at heart, this seemingly ubiquitous device was created by Canadian inventor Wayne Fromm. The 60-year-old patented the idea in 2005 but several subsequent imitations have left him seething. His original Quik Pod device was copied by unscrupulous manufacturers and is now sold in reputable stores, he says. The selfie stick was listed as one of Time magazine’s 25 best inventions of 2014.

Corn flakes

The breakfast staple was invented by accident in 1894 by medical doctor John Harvey Kellogg and his brother, Will Keith, seeking to develop food suitable for vegetarian patients. Food manufacturer Will left some boiled wheat outside and it went stale by the time he returned. Rather than throw it away, they sent it through rollers, hoping to make long sheets of dough, but got flakes instead. The toasted flakes were a big hit with hospital patients. The brothers experimented with other grains, including corn, and in 1906, Will created the Kellogg’s company too.

Sources: list25.com, dailytelegraph.com, the book of firsts, science.howstuffworks.com, inventors.about.com, nytimes.com, gourmet.com, whoinvented.org, readwrite.com, globe and mail, cricinfo.com, intelligentmag.com

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