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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.