Innovations That Must Be Very Old, But Actually Aren’t
Some inventions and ideas appear to be so important they are timeless. Even the most integral things, though, must have been invented at some point in time. Here follows six innovations that are so recognizable we can hardly imagine life without them. All of these things have only been around for little more than 200 years. This may seem like a long time, until you compare it to the ten thousand years or more of human history. 200 years is nothing!
Every morning, and many times throughout the day, we are faced with our own reflection. Many surfaces offer us a glimpse at ourselves, from still pools of water to the cold, industrial reflection of a shiny toaster. But no surface is better at reflecting than the modern mirror. It shows us as we are, without misrepresentation or distortion.
Our appearance is a large part of our identity. Whether we are pretty or ugly, have a big nose or a small one, and even what color our eyes are play a role in how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. We have all heard that people with long noses are liars, or that people with blonde hair and blue eyes might be more inclined to be a Nazi. But physical appearance has not been so ingrained in our self-perception for as long as you might think. The importance of the way we appear to ourselves is only as old as a reliable reflection.
Humans have been making mirrors since at least the seventh century, B.C. Yes, this was a very long time ago, but those mirrors were also very bad. They were made out of shiny volcanic bits of stone, like obsidian.
Better mirrors made from metal appeared in the Old World, but they were tiny and still didn’t provide a very good reflection. For a long time mirrors were used primarily for decoration, like the mirrors in a bird cage that keep the your parakeet distracted with flashes of light.
Mirrors remained in the realm of decorative trinkets for another thousand years. By the Medieval period, new processes and alloys had been developed, allowing for fairly reflective surfaces that were large enough to be useful. These were still very expensive, and not likely to be found in the bathroom of the average person.
The process of tin-coating glass to create consistently shiny mirrors was a state secret in Medieval Venice, where it was discovered. They had a lucrative monopoly on reflection, but eventually the secret got out to French and German glassmakers, increasing the number of decent mirrors in the world. But the real innovation didn’t come until the early 19th century. A German chemist stumbled across a process to coat glass with silver, creating the mirror as we know it today.
The glass surface is sprayed with a mixture of diamine silver (H3N-Ag-NH3) and sugar. The two chemicals react, causing the release of metallic silver. It clings to the glass tightly. Once a uniform coat has formed, the mirror is ready. The layer of silver is very thin, so the mirror can be made cheaply
Average people have only been able to see their own clear reflections for the last 178 years This seems like a long time, until you consider the millions of people who lived and died without ever really knowing what they looked like.
2. The Fork
We all need to eat to survive. In order to eat, we need a utensil. Something to get the food from the world and into our mouths. The first eating utensils were provided by God.
Today, finger food is a novelty dish reserved for fun parties and sad, lonely afternoons. In the past, everything was eaten with the hands. This was also before the invention of hand washing as a regular habit. People usually just rubbed their hands in dirt to get the dirt off.
Pitchforks and shovels had been around for a long time. How do you farm without a pitchfork, or make new bathrooms without a shovel? Just like today, it was cool to take popular technology and make it smaller. Soon the shovel-mini, or the spoon, appeared on tables around the world of antiquity. It took a lot more R&D to create the mini pitchfork.
The ancient Chinese developed a solution for the problem of eating food with dirty hands. They invented a tool that could stab bits of food and carry it to the mouth without ever having to touch it. However, it was short lived, and soon replaced with a pair of sticks that are easy enough to use, but impossible to master.
The fork finally made its European debut in the Renaissance period. The new eating utensil was a status symbol, often made from gold and carried around in a fancy little case. Everyone who mattered carried their own fork with them, not because they were crazy, but because they were rich.
Despite its appeal to the upper classes, the fork still had a difficult time catching on. People, mostly men, were wary of the little tools. They were afraid eating with a dainty little thing might make them appear feminine, or worse, androgynous. Historian Carolyn Young mentions a medieval story about a land of weird hermaphrodites,
characterized by theatricality, artifice, and falsehood. Sure enough, the hermaphrodites eat with forks…Young traces the “unsettlingly effeminate aura” of the fork all the way through 1897, when British sailors are still eating without forks, considering them to be unmanly.
In 1633 Charles I of England said, “It is decent to use a fork.” This less-than-glowing endorsement helped the fork establish itself on our tables and in our restaurants, but it was at least another hundred years before they were a common sight.
How many people prodded along in their existence without experiencing the satisfaction of stabbing food one last time with a fork before consuming it? The world will never know.
Pre-industrial societies did not have the same measure of time that we so enjoy today. Every hour was not specified to be for working or resting or whatever else. Sundials, water clocks, tally sticks, and many other methods of time management were available, but operated in a, “close enough,” type of way.
Early mechanical clocks didn’t even have pendulums, and were not made to get people to work on time. These clocks didn’t have dials, and they didn’t have hands. The apparent lack of functionality of these clocks actually served a specific purpose. They were made by monks and housed in the bell-tower of monasteries to ensure everyone was praying when they were supposed to.
The first really accurate clocks weren’t even created to measure time. They were built for astronomers to track the movement of stars, and for navigators on the open sea. The first pendulum clock was invented by Astronomer Christian Huygens in 1656.
But it would take a least a century more before clocks became important to the average person. Methods of mass producing clocks were invented at the same time as and Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The mass production of clocks, as well as an economic system that required people to, “clock in and clock out,” shot timekeeping to the forefront of societal importance, and changed the way we view time forever. Not as a fabric we are steadily moving through, but a collection of hours, minutes, and seconds that are constantly tick tick ticking away.
Our way of viewing time is a little over two-hundred years old, three at the most. Many people lived their whole lives without ever being, “on time,” for anything.
4. Fitted Shoes, Zippers, and Pockets
While today is appears obvious that a left foot needs a left shoe, and a right foot needs a right show, most cobblers in the past only made a single shape of shoe, called a “straight.” It took years of breaking in to get shoes that actually conformed to the wearer’s feet. It wasn’t until the mid nineteenth century that shoemakers developed different templates for left and right shoes.
The zipper is an invention that is almost as obvious as left and right shoes. its just a set of metal teeth that are guided and secured together by a pull-tab. However, people were satisfied with long series of buttons and straps until the first attempt at a zipper-like-fastener in 1891. It took nearly twenty years and a series of inventors for the zipper we know and love today to be invented in 1912.
Your great grandparents probably had nimble fingers, for all the buttons they had to fasten.
And the greatest of clothing innovations, the pocket, comes from humble origins. Pockets used to be pretty much indistinguishable from purses, the only difference being a pocket was a small bag that was kept under the clothing instead of over it. Throughout the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, these unattached pockets/purses were mainly for women, although men’s coats often had pockets attached to them. There were no pants pockets for men. But men seemed to like tights more than regular pants back then anyway.
The pocket as we know it today, sewn into the clothing and easily accessible, was not widely used until the middle of the nineteenth century.
5. Toilet Paper
Toilet paper is an every day necessity. The Emperor of China had special paper made specifically for his butt, and kings and queens all around the world spared no expense in what they rubbed on their backside. While Emperors and Monarchs may have had access to nice wiping materials the masses had no such luxury. For most of history, paper was a valuable commodity. If you used it up on poor behinds, there wouldn’t be any left for important things like legal documents and books.
The first pre-packaged toilet paper for mass consumption didn’t come around until 1857. Until then, people were stuck using old magazines, their hands (which they also used for eating), pinecones, or whatever else happened to be laying around.
Toilet Paper was invented by Joseph C. Gayetty of New York. These early sheets were even pre-moistened, medicated with aloe, and had Gayetty’s name printed on every square.
How’s that for name-recognition?
6. Can Opener
Canned food forever changed the way we produce and consume old vegetables and weird meats. The tin can was invented in 1810, in London. By 1846, new factories had sprung up with machines that could shove food into cans faster than any person.
The can opener wasn’t invented until nearly fifty years after the first can. A can opener that was actually easy to use wasn’t invented for another seventy.
In order to get at the tasty morsels inside, though, one had to be quite handy. The instructions on the can read, “cut around on the top near to outer edge with a chisel and hammer.” This skill was and is beyond the ability of many otherwise capable people.
In the late 1850’s the can opener was invented, although there is some contention as to who invented it first. Still, the new tools weren’t widely used until at least 1865, when they were given away as part of a promotion to get rid of old beef. People didn’t want the things, they had to be given away.The American Civil War ended at the same time as the can opener finding its place.
The can opener we know today, with the wheel and gears, was invented in 1925. For 90 years it has been ruining the lunches of left-handed people.