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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. 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

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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.  

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted. 

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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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