The great minds behind 50 common household items
The great minds behind 50 common household items
We owe a lot of the comforts in our lives to inventors. Think about it: cooking involves neither killing animals nor chopping wood. Dark becomes light with the flick of a switch. At the turn of a handle, clean and drinkable water flows at any temperature you like. Cleaning our clothes takes minimal effort, as does cleaning our homes, our pets, and our bodies. We can zap food to the optimal temperature in a few seconds, control the climate by individual room, and shuttle to and from work in vehicles that become more like rolling lounges with every new model.
All of that, however, wouldn't be possible without the work of bold and brilliant men and women who used their wits, perseverance, and technical know-how to turn their visions into reality. Some were experts in their fields. Some were regular folks who obsessed over solutions to problems they encountered. Others were pursuing something completely different and developed world-changing inventions by accident.
Read on to learn about the coolest things many of us use every day and how they came to be. Some inventors profiled here embarked on extraordinary adventures that spanned industries and continents, while others were regular people who lived otherwise ordinary lives. Some were prolific tinkerers who accumulated hundreds of patents over remarkable careers. Others solved a single problem. No matter the backstory, all of them have one thing in common: the marks they made endure today in virtually every aspect of our lives.
You might also like: Do you know what was invented first?
Mary Anderson: windshield wiper blades
In 1902, an Alabama woman named Mary Anderson visited New York City in a snowstorm and noticed that her streetcar driver had to continuously stop, get out, and wipe off the windshield. Upon returning home, Anderson got to work developing a solution. It was called the Window Cleaning Device, the name listed on patent No. 743,801, which she received on Nov. 10, 1903.
Ralph Baer: video game consoles
By the 1960s, televisions were in millions of U.S. households, a phenomenon not lost on engineer Ralph Baer. By the late '60s, Baer and two colleagues were experimenting with the concept of using TVs to play games. In 1972, Magnavox released the Odyssey, the world's first multiprogram, multiplayer game console, which was based on a prototype Baer developed called the Brown Box. Baer's early devices and associated notes and designs are now on display at the Smithsonian Institution—and video games are a nearly $138 billion industry.
Harry Coover: super glue
Harry Coover accumulated nearly 460 patents in his lifetime, but he was best known for "super" invention. While working for Eastman Kodak, Coover discovered a remarkably resilient and long-lasting family of adhesives called cyanoacrylates, known informally today as super glues. Although the substance was initially rejected by researchers—because it "stuck to everything"—the persistent Coover finally brought his invention to market in 1958.
Philip H. Diehl: ceiling fans
In 1882, as electricity was beginning to change the world, German immigrant Philip H. Diehl developed something we now take for granted as a common household amenity: the ceiling fan. A new and improved version of belt-driven fans, Diehl's invention made households immeasurably more comfortable. Before that, people relied on remedies like paper fans and public baths to seek relief from stifling heat.
Benjamin Franklin: bifocals
Benjamin Franklin was not just a revolutionary inventor, but a diplomat, publisher, scientist, humorist, activist, and Founding Father. He developed one of his most enduring inventions not for the betterment of humankind, but for himself. Franklin suffered from the common vision disorder presbyopia, which compelled him to develop what he called "double spectacles." Now called bifocals, his invention allowed him—and anyone else with the disorder—to clearly see both near and distant objects using one pair of glasses.
Lloyd Groff Copeman: electric stoves
Lloyd Groff Copeman was such a prolific inventor that some of his ideas didn't receive patents until after he died in 1956. Among the most important of the Michigan native's nearly 700 patents was the electric stove. Before the proliferation of natural gas, electric stoves modernized kitchens across the United States by removing the need to buy, store, and burn coal, wood, or other fuels.
Hubert Cecil Booth: vacuum cleaners
In 1901, Hubert Cecil Booth incorporated the concept of vacuums to a device that generated suction to remove dirt from carpets and floors. It's the same principle that drives vacuum cleaners today. He based his idea on a device he saw displayed years before—a massive, gasoline-powered machine that reversed the vacuum to clean by blasting air out, much like today's leaf blowers.
Julius Fromm: condoms
Shortly after World War I, an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases spread across Europe through soldiers who acquired STDs during wartime. Julius Fromm invented condoms—and created a brilliant and hugely successful network of vending machines that distributed them. As a Jewish-Polish immigrant to Germany, however, Fromm—and his massively successful business—quickly found himself in the crosshairs of the Nazis. He was the target of a smear campaign in anti-Semitic newspapers, was forced into exile, and then had to turn over his business to a Nazi sympathizer.
Norm Larsen: WD-40
In the 2008 movie "Gran Torino," Clint Eastwood's character says to a young neighbor enamored of his tool collection: "WD-40, vise grips, and some duct tape—any man worth his salt can do half the household chores with just those three things.” If Eastwood's character was exaggerating, it wasn't by much. The universal degreaser and lubricant known as WD-40 is a foundational must-have for any DIYer, and it's all thanks to Norm Larsen, a chemist who finally perfected the water-displacing formula on his 40th try.
William Cullen: refrigerators
Scottish medical school professor William Cullen died in 1790 at the age of 80, but he left something behind that would forever change the course of human history. In 1748, Cullen used a pump to create a partial vacuum inside a container of diethyl ether, which lowered its boiling temperature by transferring heat from the vacuum to the diethyl ether. He demonstrated the principle at a University of Glasgow laboratory, paving the way for future innovations in refrigeration.
Whitcomb Judson: zippers
Before he died in 1909, Whitcomb Judson achieved 30 patents, mostly related to the street railway industry, over the course of his 17-year career. The most famous of all of the Chicago native's developments, however, was what he called a "chain-lock fastener." You know this groundbreaking 1893 patent as the zipper, and it remains virtually unchanged to this day.
Richard Gurley Drew: tape
If you've ever patched something with Scotch tape or used masking tape in a craft or school project, you have Richard Gurley Drew to thank. While working for a sandpaper manufacturer in the early 1920s, the college dropout experimented with butcher's paper fixed with adhesive to get a better stick. Masking tape was born, and by 1930, he applied his technique to transparent cellulose, which became Scotch brand tape.
Eugen Baumann: PVC
If your house has indoor plumbing, you use PVC plastic every day whether you realize it or not. Polyvinyl chloride is one of the most widely produced plastic polymers on Earth, and it's used for far more applications than just piping. German chemist Eugen Baumann "discovered" PVC in 1872, but the invention actually improved upon a discovery made by a French physicist named Henri Victor Regnault more than 30 years earlier in 1838.
Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick: contact lenses
German physician and biologist Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick was working as an optometrist in Switzerland in 1886 when he developed the world's first contact lenses. Made of thin glass and big enough to cover the entire eye, Fick fitted his first lenses on rabbits. He developed them by taking casts of eyeballs from human cadavers.
George Ballas: string trimmers
In 1971, a regular guy named George Ballas had an epiphany while watching the spinning soapy brushes do their work at a car wash. He wondered if the same idea could be applied to a device that would allow him to navigate among the more than 200 trees in his way while mowing his yard. After threading fishing line through a tin can and attaching it to a simple motor, his Weed Eater (later to be given the generic name of weed whacker) was born.
George William Manby: fire extinguishers
Fire extinguishers are one of the most basic and critical components of any car or home safety kit. Originally called the Extincteur when it was patented in 1813, the device was invented by English author and inventor George William Manby. The original fire extinguisher contained three gallons of water in a copper tube, which could be blasted by compressed air in the direction of the blaze.
Benjamin Eisenstadt: sugar packets and Sweet'N Low
Lower East Side Manhattan native Benjamin Eisenstadt made life a little sweeter for the world not once, but twice. First, shortly after World War II, he invented the concept of sugar packets when he realized the granulated sweetener could be injected into paper packets using the same process that puts tea into tea bags. Before that, sugar was spooned out of open bowls or poured from heavy glass containers. Later, he experimented with combining the low-calorie sweetener saccharine with dextrose to make a low-calorie sugar substitute. Sweet'N Low would make Eisenstadt one of the most successful men in the world thanks to the fitness craze of the 1960s.
Charles Macintosh: raincoats
Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh made rainy days a little less foreboding when in 1823 he fused two pieces of cloth together using rubber dissolved in coal-tar naphtha. Although it likely wouldn't pass today's environmental standards, it was the first truly waterproof cloth ever invented and raincoats would soon start appearing in stores around the world.
Cai Lun: paper
Personal computers were supposed to create a paperless society. They did not, and Cai Lun's world-changing invention endures. A eunuch servant of the Chinese Imperial Court, Cai Lun invented paper during the Han Dynasty in 105 A.D. at the height of the golden age of Chinese civilization. His invention makes him one of the most important people in the history of human civilization.
Edward Lowe: kitty litter
Cat litter is a $2 billion industry that consumes five billion pounds of mined clay every year in the United States alone. After returning from World War II, Edward Lowe took a job selling sand, clay, and sawdust to companies that used the materials to soak up oil spills. One day Lowe received a sample shipment of a new kind of clay that didn't work for heavy industry, but he realized right away would be perfect for the emerging pet supplies industry. Before Lowe, most people used sand for cat litter or simply brought in dirt from outside.
Melitta Bentz: coffee filters
In 1908, German coffee lover Melitta Bentz went from housewife to entrepreneur when she invented the modern coffee filter. Bentz loved coffee, but hated sipping the grounds that so often floated into the brew. The curious and persistent connoisseur tried several materials that might keep grounds out without changing the coffee's flavor. She settled on a sheet of blotter paper from her son's notebook, which she inserted into an old tin pot. The rest is history.
George de Mestral: velcro
Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral was a prolific inventor who filed for his first patent at age 12, but one of his ideas stuck better than the rest. On a hunting trip in 1941, he noticed burs sticking to his clothing, so he took some home and studied them under a microscope. He saw that each bur contained thousands of tiny hooks that bonded to nearly any fabric, and he was inspired to invent the hook-and-loop fastening system. He named it a combination of the words "velvet" and "crochet"—shortened to vel-cro—for the French translation of "velvet hook."
John Landis Mason: Mason jars
Mason jars can be found in home pantries as containers, in bars to serve beverages, and just about everywhere in between. When John Landis Mason invented the sealable glass vessels on Nov. 30, 1858, however, they were an important breakthrough in food storage and safety. Mason held 40 patents over the course of his life, but this one was embroiled in several long-running controversies and accusations of trademark infringement and intellectual theft.
Jacques E. Brandenberger: cellophane
You know cellophane as the stuff you use to wrap leftovers before you put them in the fridge. It's composed of a thin film made from regenerated cellulose, a natural polymer found in things like cotton linter and wood pulp. It was well known to scientists, some of whom patented developments related to cellophane, before 1908. But that year, Swiss chemist Jacques E. Brandenberger invented a machine that could spin cellophane into a strong, transparent, and continuous film.
Arthur Fry: Post-It Notes
In 1974, a man named Art Fry was working as a new product developer for 3M. His own frustrations sent him searching for a bookmark that could stick to books without damaging them, be removed, and later reattached elsewhere. After experimenting with a newly developed adhesive that was intentionally weak, Fry unveiled what would come to be known as the Post-It Note, one of the most ubiquitous office supplies on Earth.
Josephine Cochrane: dishwashers
If you've ever washed your entire family's dishes for the day without scrubbing, rinsing, and then drying them yourself, you have Josephine Cochrane to thank. Born in Shelbyville, Ill., in 1839, Cochrane came from a long line of engineers and inventors. After agonizing over the repeated chipping of her china thanks to rough handling by her servants, Cochrane went to work in her shed banging together what would become the world's first commercially available dishwasher. In 1893, she unveiled her device at the Chicago World's Fair, where it won an award for durability and design.
Jules Montenier: deodorant
Before the close of the 1940s, most antiperspirants were made from aluminum salts, just as they are today. But back then they came in cream or liquid form, which tended to irritate the skin. After a series of failed experiments, cosmetic industry chemist Jules Montenier turned to polyethylene, a material that contained the formula in an aerosol spray and didn't require the user to rub aluminum salts directly on the skin.
Stephen Perry: rubber bands
By 1845, rubber was a critical commodity widely used in manufacturing. On March 17 that year, Stephen Perry, an employee with the rubber company Messers Perry and Co., patented strips of vulcanized rubber used for binding papers and envelopes. The rubber band was born.
Martin Cooper: mobile phones
That little glowing rectangle many of us spend much of our day staring into was born on April 3, 1973, when Martin Cooper made the world's first mobile phone call from Sixth Avenue in New York City. His 2.5-pound prototype was the precursor to the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, which wouldn't become available to consumers for another decade—at a price of $3,995. Cooper's efforts were inspired by his fascination with the “Star Trek” television series.
Edwin Beard Budding: lawnmowers
On Aug. 31, 1830, textile mill mechanic Edwin Beard Budding received a patent for "a new combination and application of machinery for the purpose of cropping or shearing the vegetable surface of lawns, grass-plats, and pleasure grounds." The more marketable name became the lawnmower, a device that Budding tested at night to avoid arousing suspicion and ridicule from his neighbors.
Bette Nesmith Graham: Liquid Paper
Liquid Paper has been giving mulligans to careless scribes since 1954, the year the little brush-in-bottle home and office staple was invented. Bette Nesmith Graham created the white, mistake-hiding goop at home in her blender out of pure necessity. A divorced single mother and a mediocre secretary, Graham was barely getting by and making so many mistakes at work she feared she'd soon be fired. Her concoction became Liquid Paper, and by 1975, she was selling 25 million bottles a year.
László Bíró: ballpoint pens
László Bíró was a Hungarian journalist who noticed that newspaper ink dried quickly without smudging, but when he tried to fill his own pen with some, he realized it was too thick to flow from the pen's nib. In 1938, Bíró designed a new pen with a tiny ball bearing embedded in the nib that deposited ink onto the paper and then replenished itself with new ink as the ball bearing rolled along. The pen was such a hit that it ignited a war among penmakers and competitors to improve upon, market, and sell the new device as their own.
Thor Bjørklund: cheese slicers
People have been pulling cheese slicers out of the back of their silverware drawers to impress company since the device came about in 1925. The man who invented the cheese slicer was Norwegian cabinet maker Thor Bjørklund, who based his device on the carpenter's planes he used for his work. Bjørklund designed his original cheese slicer specifically to contend with the difficult-to-slice Jarlsberg, gouda, and other hard cheeses popular in Norway.
Edwin G. Seibels: filing cabinets
For more than a century, the vertical filing cabinet has remained virtually unchanged. Designed for businesses, but widely used in homes to store and secure paper clutter, the filing cabinet was born in 1898 when Edwin G. Seibels changed the way people managed documents. Before the Seibels revolution, people and businesses stored paper in bundles of envelopes, which had to be located and opened individually.
Felix Hoffmann: aspirin
German chemist Felix Hoffmann is known for synthesizing two revolutionary drugs: heroin and aspirin. While the former is widely viewed as something science wishes it could un-invent, the latter is perhaps the single most important over-the-counter medication ever developed. In the summer of 1897, Hoffmann began experimenting with a series of complicated chemical compounds known to reduce fevers and dull pain. While working for the Bayer Corporation, he created acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin, the world's most popular drug—100 billion tablets are made and consumed every year.
Christopher Polhem: padlocks
Born in 1661, Sweden native Christopher Polhem would be knighted in 1716 and live to age 90. He is best known as the inventor of the modern padlock, called the Polhem lock back then. Polhem is credited with several important innovations and inventions, most dealing with clocks and locks, but the padlock is the one that has endured. That's hundreds of years of history hanging on your shed, your basement doors, and your kid's school locker.
Roy Plunkett: Teflon
Like so many great inventions, Teflon was discovered by accident. DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett created the nonstick surface in 1938 while experimenting with new refrigerants that were less toxic than the ones widely in use at the time. When he subjected tetrafluoroethylene gas to dry ice freezing, it transformed into a white powder that was resistant to heat and that resisted adhesion with most substances. Although Teflon has many uses, you most likely know it from the nonstick coating on your frying pans.
Chester Greenwood: earmuffs
The state of Maine still holds native son Chester Greenwood in such high regard that the first day of winter there is officially called "Chester Greenwood Day." Greenwood loved ice skating as a boy, but he was allergic to the wool most hats were made out of and his ears kept getting frostbitten. While still a minor in 1873, Greenwood asked his grandmother to sew some beaver fur or flannel pads over the circular rings on the end of a wire, which he then wore over his head. His friends teased him at first but soon began asking him for pairs of their own—within a decade Greenwood opened a factory that was turning out 50,000 pairs of earmuffs a year.
Percy Spencer: microwave oven
The speed and accessibility of microwave ovens have made the glowing boxes a mainstay in 90% of U.S. households, but like so many great inventions, the microwave oven was invented by accident. Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer was experimenting with a military-grade magnetron when his snack—probably a peanut cluster bar—melted before his eyes. The year was 1946, and just one year later the world's first microwave oven—a 750-pound behemoth—hit the market.
John W. Hammes: garbage disposal
In 1927, kitchens got a little less stinky thanks to an invention developed by John W. Hammes, who was actually an architect by trade. Hammes began tinkering at home in 1916 with a device that he hoped would make his wife's life easier. The result was the world's first garbage disposal, which uses centrifugal force to grind and shred solid food waste. He was granted a patent in 1935 and the early models were marketed as "electric pigs."
Lee Newman: magic markers
Sidney Rosenthal developed the first so-called magic marker—given the name because it could write on virtually any surface—in 1953. Along with Sharpie pens, highlighters, and dry-erase markers, it can be traced back even earlier to 1910, when Lee Newman invented the world's first felt-tip marking pen.
Sir John Harrington: toilets
The modern toilet transformed human hygiene and human history, and it dates back to 1584, when Sir John Harrington was exiled to Bath by Queen Elizabeth I. While in exile, Harrington built a house that contained a device that was the genesis of all modern toilets—a flushable lavatory that he named Ajax. Nearly 200 years later, Londoner Alexander Cummings developed the first widely used toilet, called the Cummings Water Closet, which he patented in 1775.
Edward Knabusch and Edwin Shoemaker: reclining chairs
Until 1928, most furniture was upright and formal, but all that changed when cousins Edward Knabusch and Edwin Shoemaker started a woodworking business. The pair began designing novelty furniture, including a chair that followed the contours of the human body both while sitting up and leaning back. It was the world's first recliner and the origin of the La-Z-Boy corporation, which would soon sell its recliners in huge quantities to the TV generation.
Nils Bohlin: seat belts
With the exception of major vaccines, it's hard to imagine an invention that has saved more lives or become more widely used than the three-point seat belt, which is now standard in every production-line vehicle. Nils Bohlin, the head of safety for Volvo, began working on the three-point belt in the early 1950s, although inferior seat belts had been around since the 1940s. His invention reduced serious automobile injuries by 90% and saved millions of lives.
Alan MacMasters: electric toasters
Many inventions have claimed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but Alan MacMasters might have a genuine lock on that cliché. In 1893, the Scottish inventor developed the world's first device that used electricity to toast bread by exposing it to heated wiring. Unfortunately, MacMasters' toaster did not catch on right away for two reasons. First, most people in Scotland didn't have electricity at the time, and second, the device—which he called the Eclipse Toaster—was prone to starting fires.
George H. Heilmeir: LCD
In the 1960s, an electrical engineer named George H. Heilmeir developed a technology that would change the way people viewed media through the present day. While working for RCA, Heilmeir developed a system that projected images using tiny liquid crystals. Aptly named liquid crystal display, or LCD, the technology now gives stunning clarity to everything from flat-screen TVs and digital watches to computer monitors and phones.
S.W. Atherton: extension cords
If you wanted to plug something in before 1904, that device had to be next to an outlet. That year, however, inventor and electrical engineer S.W. Atherton solved that problem with one of the simplest, yet most useful inventions in history: the extension cord.
Kazuo Hashimoto: caller ID
For most of the history of the telephone, a ring alerted you to an incoming call, but who was on the other end of the receiver was anybody's guess. Several inventors on at least three continents experimented with what we now know as caller ID around the same time. In 1976, however, Japanese inventor Kazuo Hashimoto, who would also go on to invent the answering machine, created the first true caller ID receiver. The era of call screening had begun.
Francis Robbins Upton: smoke detectors
Smoke detectors are now standard in virtually every home and business, and experts estimate the shrill, shrieking devices have reduced fire fatalities by 50%. Although they were introduced to the public in 1975, Francis Robbins Upton developed and patented the world's first smoke detector nearly a century earlier in 1890.
James King: washing machines
For millennia, human beings washed their clothes by rubbing them against abrasive surfaces like large rocks in local bodies of water, often in conjunction with some sort of fat-based soap. At the end of the 18th century, the first washboards emerged, and in 1851, the game changed when James King developed the first device resembling modern washing machines. Although it was powered by hand, King's machine used the familiar drum design to get dirty clothes clean.