There are thousands of inventions the world could do without: the Snuggie, Pajama Jeans, basically anything seen on late-night infomercials. But every once in a while, a new product comes along that really changes society as a whole, so much in fact that we start to forget that we ever had to live without it.
You no doubt use this invention several times a day without thinking twice about how much worse your life would be without it — at least until the one time it doesn’t flush or you face the unpleasant Porta-Potty. We are so unimpressed by toilets and their flushing mechanisms that many public places have automatic flush systems so our waste just disappears without us giving it a second thought. But just a couple hundred years ago, people didn’t have it so easy. Most people had to use chamber pots, which could probably be compared to the modern-day bedpan, and then they’d throw the contents out the window or into a nearby creek. Thomas Crapper also helped bring the modern-day toilet to popularity, which we should all be very grateful for.
You know an invention has changed lives when people go nuts and tear apart whole rooms in their house every time they lose it. In fact, the first TV remote control was called “Lazy Bones,” because you had to be seriously inactive to refuse to walk five feet to your TV set. Zenith made “Lazy Bones” in 1950; it was connected to the set by a wire. The original idea for a remote control came from Nikola Tesla in 1898, and it was used for a lot of military purposes in World War II, for toys, and for the incredible garage door opener. But it was the application of the device to the television that gave it control over our lives today.
Our entire world seems to be made out of concrete. You’ll find it in roads, buildings, pipes, bridges, and boats. You’ll even find stories about the mafia using it to send someone to “sleep with the fishes.” Joseph Monier made concrete even stronger in the mid-19th century by reinforcing it with steel, a method that is still used today. This allowed architects and civil engineers to build massive structures, like skyscrapers, bridges, and dams, that would last through earthquakes and storms. So the next time you’re complaining about those tiny potholes in the road, remember that without concrete, you could be driving on dirt through a city of small, crumbling buildings.
It keeps your pants up, your underwear inside your suitcase, and the bears outside of your tent (you hope). The zipper is one of those inventions we use constantly, but when you really look at it, it’s hard to figure out exactly how it works. The zipper pull somehow makes the teeth lock and unlock, but we rarely think much further than that, and we certainly don’t think about the guy (or guys) who brought this magical fastener into existence.
Electronic mail was a foreign concept until 30 or 40 years ago. It’s probably still a bizarre idea to some grandparents, but for most Americans, it is a part of your daily, if not hourly, life. Email today is basically inescapable; you get assignment emails from your boss, email newsletters from your favorite band, and annoying chain emails from your crazy aunt. You can get it on any computer, and most people receive it on their cell phones, so it’s hard to picture modern life without it.
It’s amazing that we don’t make a bigger deal out of a machine that gives out money. He also invented the PIN number so that people could verify their identities through easily remembered sequences of numbers, so you have him to blame when you forget yours and can’t get to your money. Without ATMs, we probably would stop using cash altogether — bad news for piggy banks and panhandlers.
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