Part of the problem with living in the age of iPads, stem cell transplants and Spanx is that we tend to take innovation for granted. We're impressed by new gizmos, sure, but we tend to forget that even the most obvious, basic concepts had to be invented at some point. And some of them were shockingly recent.
Oh, come on! Doorknobs? They probably had doorknobs in Jesus' time, right? How the hell else are you supposed to open your door? They even had them in Middle-earth.
We're certainly not going to try to claim that, say, Abe Lincoln lived and died having never seen one. Right?
Hold onto your ass, baby!
Doorknobs Weren't Actually Around Until ...
1878. Check this out:
187-freakin'-8 is when the doorknob was patented. That is, a knob that actually turned and made a little metal thing retract and allow the door to open, the way they do now.
Before knobs, doors were opened and closed through latches like this. It wasn't until 1878 that inventor Osbourn Dorsey filed a patent for the doorknob mechanism we know and love, and along with it the first internal door-latching mechanism.
And shortly thereafter, the fish-door.
But then it took a long time for the doorknob to become a common fixture around the world -- we can only guess because it took a few generations to master that difficult simultaneous turning and pulling motion you have to make to get it to work. Watch a dog try to do it -- it's hilarious.
#4. Time Zones
If tomorrow all of the time keeping devices on the planet vanished, things would devolve into absolute chaos by sundown. We'd all be able to agree that it's "morning" or "afternoon" or "evening," but figuring out exactly when your plane leaves, or exactly when you have to be at work? Sheeeeit. There'd be riots in the streets.
Yet, for most people, this is exactly the way it worked until very recently.
Standardized Time Wasn't Actually Around Until ...
For centuries, checking the time meant checking the sun. Or, to save your eyeballs from frying, checking the neighborhood sundial (assuming the day wasn't overcast and it actually cast a shadow). Even after mechanical clocks became all the rage, those clocks were still set to solar time, which meant that your clock would still be different from the clock of your friend a few towns away. You could get away with it because there was no real-time communication via phones or whatever. Everybody was hours apart, so what difference did it make?
"Wonder what time it is ..."
"Why? Do you have a freaking hair appointment, Jedediah?"
But the trains changed everything. By the time the trains were up and running, every damn town in the country was keeping on its own sweet time. So the people in charge of the trains didn't just need to concern themselves with the local time; they also had to worry about what time it was at the terminus, plus each railroad junction. Which was why the main station in Philadelphia once had six clocks up showing six different times.
And for a while, it just seemed like this was the way it had to be. Solar time was as natural as the sun rising and setting. It's not like after thousands and thousands of years you could make people forget that noon was exactly when the sun was highest overhead. No train schedule was going to change that.
OR WOULD IT? On Dec. 1, 1847, the British tested fate by using Greenwich Mean Time to institute time zones to keep their trains running on schedule. But it wasn't until 1880 that standardized time zones were made the law in Great Britain, and in 1883, zones based on GMT became the law in the U.S. By 1929, most other countries around the world had also adopted the hourly time zone system. So there are probably still people alive today who didn't have to abide by "the man's time."
Time zones are just another agent of the Machine, yo.
#3. Grocery Stores
When you think "grocery shopping," a very specific image comes to mind: a cart, an over-lit, overstocked store full of garishly colored packaging, and you with a list. And before those modern grocery stores existed, it was just the same thing, except in an Old West general store, right? And before that, you'd wander around a farmers market and pluck out your onions or apples or pickled hens from a basket.
That shopping experience has pretty much been the same since, what, ancient Rome?
Self-Service Shopping Wasn't Actually Around Until ...
Try 1916. That's when store owner Clarence Saunders was getting someone her daily order of jaunty ragtime sheet music when he thought, Why the hell doesn't she get it herself? Voila! The modern supermarket was born! In his "Piggly Wiggly" store, the customers would do something never allowed before: They would get their own groceries off the shelf.
That's the part that was new. A hundred years ago, a person hoping to make a pig lard pie would write everything she needed down on a list, then hand that list over to a store clerk, and wait. And then the clerk would shuffle around the back, filling the order as he felt like it. You didn't get to pick through the bananas to get the ones that weren't already black. You took what they damned well gave you.
No getting drunk and going on 11 p.m. shopping cart joyrides for the kids of 1915.
If the shopper was lucky, there were a lot of clerks on staff and a short line ahead of her. If she was unlucky, it was Pig Lard Pie Day and she had something embarrassing like Lysol Douche on her list.
This new setup had all kinds of advantages. The store could lower prices because grocery shopping wasn't as labor-intensive (it was making the customer do all the work, after all -- something we don't even think about today while we're shoving around a cart for an hour). It could also accommodate more customers at one time, since they weren't waiting on a clerk to free up.
Also, you didn't have to ask this woman to fetch you some condoms and a tube of IcyHot.
And shoppers loved it. Within 10 years, the grocery store chain was a fixture across North America, and the American love affair with cheap food and obesity was born.