Don’t Change a Thing: 8 Inventions That Never Needed Updating

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If someone presented you with an original 1868 Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer, and told you to write your senior thesis using it, you’d be in for a world of pain. The speed you type with on your close-set keys would be gone, and most of your fingers would be too weak to give the keys the sharp strike they required. Plus, you couldn’t even see the paper, and what was the pedal thing for? The machine you use to type today, even if it’s not a computer, has been so greatly improved over the original invention that they are no longer the same device.

Constant improvement is what we do. So how amazing is it that there exist a handful of objects that, though they be 100 years old or more, are still perfect? Sure, there may have been aesthetic changes over time; maybe you can buy a version made of plastic or enhanced with new manufacturing technology. But if you were given the original product, you’d still be able to use it for the job it was made for. Here are eight inventions done so well the first time that they never needed improving.  

1. Barbed Wire

So, you want to keep your cows out of your corn in 1880s Oklahoma, do you? You’ll need to build a fence. Good luck with that, Cowboy. You live in grasslands, so there aren’t enough trees to do it. And if you try to fence off your 16 miles of ranch land with stone or brick, you will die from either a strain-induced aneurysm or old age first. What to do? The design of a fence (usually still made of wood) with spiky metal points had been popping up in random patent offices around the world since the 1860s, but nothing much came of it. It took four guys—Joseph Glidden, Jacob Haish, Charles Francis Washburn, and Isaac L. Ellwood—scuffling and fighting and collaborating until a cheap and easy way to make barbed wire was ready to be sold by the late 1870s. Women have been getting scratched up while trying to find a private place to pee on road trips ever since. 

2. Bubble Wrap

In the late 1950s, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes had a brilliant idea, perfectly suited to the aesthetic of Space Age design: plastic, three-dimensional, tactile wallpaper! For only the heppest of cats to decorate their swinging pads with! Sadly, sealing together two plastic shower curtains with air trapped inside just didn’t have the trendsetting effect they were hoping for. So, like many good innovators, they turned their bust into brilliance by simply changing their goal. Forget wallpaper. In 1964 they patented their "Method for Making Laminated Cushioning Material." Thus bubble wrap became a way to keep your rare Tasha Yar figurines safe during shipping, and also the cheapest form of repetitive therapy to soothe the pain of knowing she’ll never love you. 

3. Rocking Chairs

Rocking chairs are not as old as you may think. They are an American invention, though probably not invented by Ben Franklin, as some people say. They started showing up in the early 18th century, and were popular with people suffering maladies, like bad backs or a toucha the rheumatiz. It wasn’t just the soothing rocking motion that made people feel better. Rocking chairs automatically adjust their center of balance to whoever sits in them, bringing each sitter to a uniquely comfortable position. Not only that, they make surprisingly compelling roadside attractions.

4. The Paper Clip

The advent of easily manipulated wire blessed the world with enough prospective paperclip designs to create a new hieroglyphic language. The designs that flooded the patent office at the end of the 19th century included swirls, wings, triangles, pretzels and every imaginable shape you can think of.  All of them were patented, except the one we’ve been using for 100 years. The standard oblong “Gem” design, of arguable provenance, was the one that took hold, banishing all other designs to the junk drawer of history.

5. The Teapot

Archeologists think teapots were developed during the Yuan Dynasty, which started in 1279. They were made of clay and likely evolved as a kind of drinking multi-tool. You could heat, brew, keep warm and drink the tea with the same object. (It’s thought that original teapots were single serving, with the drinker sipping directly from the spout.) Today you can buy a teapot made of paper (don’t) or titanium, but that simple, perfect design of handle, lid, and spout has remained unchanged.

6. Fly Swatter

A stick. A mesh square. A brain-damaged fly who has hit its head on the window so many times it is now slow enough that you can actually hit it. Perfection. The “Fly Killer” was patented in 1900 by Robert Montgomery, but he didn’t do much with it. It was a public health worker, Dr. Samuel Crumbine, who popularized it in 1905. He was trying to encourage people in Kansas to kill flies whenever possible to stop the spread of disease. So he borrowed the Topeka softball team’s “swat the ball!” chant and changed it to “swat the fly!” No poorly-made bug sucker gun or gross fly paper strip has ever rivaled the popularity of the flyswatter. Because people never outgrow the thrill of smacking things with a stick. 

7. The Mouse Trap

I am a woman made of stern stuff. But show me a squashed mouse inside a spring-loaded trap and I will fall to pieces, flapping my hands and making mewling noises that linger somewhere between pity and disgust. There was a time that the luxury of freaking out over a mouse didn’t exist. They were vermin: a threat to health, children and food supplies. William C. Hooker’s invention of the spring-loaded mousetrap in 1894 was a blessing upon all of civilized man, superior even to a housecat because no chase or chance was involved. In 1903, John Mast improved on Hooker’s design by making it safer to load and less finger-fracturing. It’s his design we still use today.

8. Lego

Yes, you can buy hundred dollar sets to construct impossible machines like this Ferrari F1 1:9, or go freestyle to design horrifying modern art. But the first Lego bricks you had as a child—those simple, brilliant interlocking blocks—still exist and still work. Toymaker Ole Kirk Christiansen began producing his newfangled “Automatic Binding Bricks” in 1949. He used the plastic of the day (expensive, fragile, likely radioactive), and the blocks weren’t that popular with parents who believed “real” toys were made of wood and metal. His son Godtfred eventually worked the kinks out of the manufacturing and material processes, and patented the modern Lego in 1958. Pieces made from that year can still be used with modern Lego bricks.  

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April 15, 2013 - 12:05am
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