6 Good Ideas It Took Humanity Way Too Long To Come Up With
We invented the wheel before we invented the cart, and we invented the horse way before both of those things. Invention is a linear concept: You come up with the base idea, and then improve it incrementally over years, decades, or even centuries. But sometimes innovation occurs backwards, sideways, and inside out. And we end up with ...
The Can Opener Was Invented 45 Years After The Can
There's some controversy over the matter, but it's generally safe to say that canned food as we know it was invented sometime in the late 1700s -- possibly as some kind of lateral thinking exercise, because no method for getting inside the cans existed for almost another half-century. It's like the people who stumbled upon a way to seal food for preservation were so excited by the discovery that getting the food back out simply never occurred to them.
When canned food first appeared, soldiers were forced to crudely stab the cans open with bayonets. If the average non-bayonet-wielding consumer wanted to open an early can, they had stand in front of a mirror, expose their genitals, and give fucking themselves a fair and even shot. The word "can" itself is shortened from "canister," which brings to mind a vision of what early food cans actually were: iron canisters sealed with lead, so bulky that they commonly weighed more than the food inside them.
"Look for the cans that are bloated and fat. That's how you know it's good."
Getting inside these early cans was more of a victory than a routine. In fact, food cans were often reused as cooking pots, and sometimes came with handles for that purpose.
Eventually, in the 1850s, specialized tools known as "can openers" started to appear on the market. Even then, they generally weren't sold to the public, because they were typically considered too dangerous for them to be trusted with. Grocers would use them to open canned goods upon purchase, which kind of defeats the purpose of buying canned goods in the first place.
"Sorry, Timmy. You can't be trusted with this dangerous can opener. Now get on back down the coal mine."
The can opener we know today was invented by William Lyman in the 1870s, and was only released to the market when we as a society decided that we could probably operate a simple hand-cranked machine without severing our own arteries.
The Screwdriver Wasn't Invented Until Three Centuries After The Screw
Human beings have been attaching stuff to other stuff for millennia. For thousands of years we favored the brutal efficiency of nails, but eventually someone came along and invented the nail's more sophisticated cousin, the screw. The first screws were turned with a wrench, but modern screws with a slot in the top were created around the 1500s. Slotted screws are, of course, turned by screwdrivers, which were invented in ... uh, the 1800s.
"We were inspired to screw things with a long hard tool after observing your mom."
Of course, people were using them somehow -- it's just that for three centuries, people had to MacGyver ways to turn their screws. That's a ridiculous length of time to go before someone decided that maybe there should be an official way to do this. According to a guy who wrote an entire book on the history of the screw (because, look, somebody had to), the first time that screwdrivers appeared on the scene was around 1812. For about a century before that, carpenters used a flat bit on their carpenters' brace. Before that? Uh ... witchcraft? Who knows?
The Fax Machine Beats The Invention Of The Telephone
Before email, if you wanted somebody to have a picture of your ass ASAP, you had to use a fax machine. Most people assume that fax machines came about sometime around the middle of the 20th century, because you don't really hear about them before the modern office became a thing. At the very least, you'd need a phone line to transmit the data, right? Actually, the fax machine predates the telephone by 33 years. Inventor Alexander Bain (who even sounds like an off-brand Alexander Bell) first managed to make a working fax machine in 1842. Although "working" is kind of a subjective opinion, Bain put together a machine that could scan text, project the information across telegraph lines, and print the text on the other side.
"Ah yesh, I have devised a mosht ingenious telecommunicationsh device."
The idea for the telephone had been around for some time, but nobody could get the damn thing to work. People were trying to transmit sound over wires as far back as the 1830s, but they only got a lot of buzzing and increasingly angry shouts of "Can you hear me now?"
In 1849, an eccentric inventor named Innocenzo Manzetti had a good crack at telephone technology, but he didn't take the obvious (read: "not insane" route). Instead, he used it to make his creepy-ass pet robot talk.
"Kiiiill ... meeeee ..."
Despite a hundred years of failed attempts, it wasn't until 1876 that Alexander Graham Bell successfully ... uh, "invented" the telephone. By that time, people had already been throwing faxes directly in the trash for over 30 years.
It Took 30,000 Years to Figure Out How to Slice Bread Properly
The phrase "the best thing since sliced bread" seems to suggest that something is the coolest thing to happen for quite a long time. But in truth, saying that something is the best thing since sliced bread isn't that big a deal. At best, you're saying it's the best thing to come around for, say, 90 years or so. That's because bread that is sold pre-sliced didn't appear until 1928.
Before that, bread was eaten by feeding the whole loaf into your mouth at once, like a wood chipper.
That's surprising, considering how bread itself is up there with fire and the wheel as one of the first things humans invented. But the ability to slice it on a commercial scale wasn't invented until 1928, by an American. Because when you want technology whose chief goal is petty laziness, you know where to turn.
It was Iowa resident Otto Frederick Rohwedder who built the first commercial-scale bread slicer in 1927 and sold it to baking companies for Scrooge McDuck profits.
"I call it the Rohwedderator!"
"No, we're not."
It was the invention America didn't even know it wanted until it hit the shelves, and it was so incredibly and instantly popular that the federal government had to ban sliced bread because the increased demand was straining America's wheat production. The ban only lasted a few months, because once you save an American a small amount of effort, they will never, ever be okay with exerting that effort again.
Friction Matches Weren't Invented Until The Victorian Era
Humans have depended on fire forever, so you'd think we'd have a quick and reliable way to light it sometime in the first, say, 10 millennia of our existence. But no: Matches didn't exist until as recently as 1826.
"Better hope that fireplace doesn't go out, because it's your turn to take a log up to the roof and wait for lightning."
So how did people create fire before that? Good old flint and steel and effort and swearing and crying and praying and eventually giving up and just sitting angry in the cold. Some Chinese inventors from as early as 950 AD noticed that you could light fires by dipping a stick in sulfur and scraping it on something. And in 1680, British scientist Robert Boyle accidentally invented something like the modern match when he scraped a stick treated with sulfur against some paper coated in phosphorus. But in those days, phosphorus was incredibly rare and expensive, so the discovery was basically used only as a party gag by the 17th century's One Percent.
The concept was forgotten for over 100 years, before English chemist John Walker accidentally stumbled onto it again by stirring a chemical concoction with a wooden stick and then trying to get the gunk off of it by scraping it on the floor. The stick burst into flames, and Walker realized he'd stumbled onto something much more interesting than his patent pending Gunk Stick.
"Holy shit! Wood is flammable! Wait till I tell the guys!"
Walker was able to turn the discovery into a marketable product -- though he didn't patent it, and it was quickly stolen. Also of note: What we now call matches were then called "Lucifers." Which is a way, way cooler name. What the hell, human culture?
The Steering Wheel Was Invented Eight Years After The First Car
Karl Benz first invented what we consider the "car" back in 1886. But it sounds like it would have been a little dangerous to be on the road back then, because a steering wheel wasn't added to the device until 1894, eight years later. When the first cars came on the market, the question of how to actually steer them was legitimately a problem, because until then, the only analogue was to yank a horse's head until it got pissed off enough to turn in the direction that you wanted it to go. You can't piss off an engine in the same way, so engineers were forced to look outside the box.
"Have we tried whipping it, or kicking it with spurs?"
At the time, there was only one other form of transportation that didn't involve the whim of some animal to change direction at the driver's behest: ships. And so the very first cars were modeled after boats. Instead of a steering wheel, they came with a tiller -- which, for those of us not nautically inclined, is the lever that is used to turn a boat's rudder. So steering the original automobiles down Fourth Street and Main was more like directing a cruise ship through a shopping center.
Of course, the original Benz cars could only reach 10 mph, so getting hit by an out-of-control landboat was more of an inconvenience than a tragedy. It was only when cars started getting faster that the idea of steering them with a stick and a prayer became a problem. In 1894, the world's first motor race took place, and one of the cars was fitted with a wheel instead of a lever. The advantage was so obvious that future cars were all fitted with wheels, and that's why you're not currently reading this from beneath the wheels of a speeding automobile.
For now ...
Laura H is a dog person. Follow her on Twitter. Jacque is also fond of dogs, but Graeme prefers cats. Follow them too.
In those 30,000 years before sliced bread, what was the greatest thing ever? Find out in 5 Classic Jokes With Mind-Blowing Scientific Answers. And being an innovator sometimes isn't all that great -- especially if you live long enough to see people bastardize it. See what we mean in 6 Geniuses Who Saw Their Inventions Go Terribly Wrong.
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