4 Handy Devices That Were Once Maddeningly Inconvenient

Candles look primitive now, but they’ve marvels compared to what came before them
4 Handy Devices That Were Once Maddeningly Inconvenient

Technology has one big mission: to spare you from having to perform any kind of labor whatsoever. At the rate things are progressing, you will soon be able to remain completely motionless from birth to death, if you so choose. Getting here wasn’t easy, though. Those simple inventions you now use were once ridiculous chores. 

Without Candle Scissors, You’d Be in the Dark

A candle works by burning wax. The flame melts wax, and the wick sucks the melted wax up into a tiny spot, where it vaporizes and then combusts, sustaining the flame. Not everyone knows this. Some people think the wick is the fuel, and the wax merely holds the wick in place. Consider the following quack product, which claims to regenerate a candle by collecting all the wax. This is impossible. The wax must burn (ideally, all of it burns). Otherwise it’s not a candle. 

Yes, the wick is not the main part that burns. In fact, the wick is specially designed to resist burning. If the wick swiftly burned, the way a long fuse leading to explosives does, it would vanish in seconds, and the candle would go out almost immediately. This fire resistance created an issue, however. Originally, the wick would remain — singed but not incinerated — as the candle stood lit. As the candle burned down and exposed more and more wick, the wick lengthened. 

With a long exposed wick, the entire mechanism of sucking up the melted wax broke down. The flame sputtered and died out. To prevent this, you had to manually trim the wick, with dedicated candle scissors. If you own a classic Zippo lighter, you go through a similar rigamarole even now, but rather than trimming your lighter’s wick every few months, you had to trim your candle’s wick every few minutes.

Scissors for trimming candle wicks

Hans Marttelius

This was why lightbulbs brought people such relief.

Candles work better now, thanks to an engineering trick. Wicks are now weighted asymmetrically. As a result, as they start to get long, they immediately bend over. The excess wick is rolled right into the flame and totally burns away. That means even when you have electric light as an alternative, candles are convenient to use, just for fun. You can light them whenever you want romance, a tradition that remains because candles and wicks are so phallic. 

You Needed a Knife to Read Books

Along with your candle scissors, you needed another now-obsolete blade in your home arsenal: the book knife. When you bought a new book, its pages came sealed together, and you needed to cut them apart to read it. This wasn’t a security measure to stop people at bookstores from reading for free but rather a consequence of how books were printed

Books used to be printed on long rolls of paper, which were folded up zigzag-style when bound together. When you first bought a book, these pages were referred to as “unopened.” Once you cut them, with the knife you kept ready for this purpose, the pages were “opened.”

Unopened bound pages

University of Missouri 

Reading was hard back then, but so much more visceral.

You should not, by the way, call these two states “uncut” and “cut,” because those words refer to something else, regarding how smooth the edges of opened pages feel. Today, you can buy some books whose uncut edges are designed to look rough, patterned after books of old, for style points. You’ll have more trouble finding any books with unopened pages.

While a chore, opening books with a knife offered evidence that you did indeed read them. On the other hand, if you went into someone’s study and saw all their books still had their pages joined together, you’d know your host was a fraud. Today, to see if someone read a book, we rely on the far less reliable process of looking at the fore-edges and seeing if they’re good and dirty. 

Newspapers Needed to Be Ironed

Not all paper was zigzagged together before being sold. Newspaper, which was more disposable, was printed a hundred years ago much like it is today, and you received big floppy broadsheets for you to hold up and read. The problem with reading newspapers was newspaper ink smudged and easily got on your fingers. This used to an especially big problem if you were in the habit of wearing white gloves. 

The solution: ironing the newspaper at home, to seal in the ink. Clearly, this was no necessity, but if you happened to have a butler around, you’d add this to his list of duties. Not only would ironing the pages keep them from sullying your hands, but it would remove the creases, making them good and crisp for you. 

Downton Abbey ironing newspaper

Carnival Films

Plus, there was a chance of starting a fire and putting you all out of your misery.

If you see a butler ironing newspapers in some period piece, like the Downton Abbey pic above, you might think this is some kind of satire about someone too rich for their own good, but it’s true to life. Word on the street is hotels will still iron newspapers for you even now — but then, hotels will also fold your towel into a swan for you. With hotels, the pointlessness is the point. 

You Had to Plug Your Pacemaker into the Wall

All of these advances in everyday items around the house obviously pale next to advances in medicine. Consider the pacemaker. It’s a device in your chest that jolts you to life when your heart otherwise forgets what to do. Doctors implant it into your body, and the battery lasts for years. If someone invented it for the first time today, people would debate whether this is cool sci-fi or terrifying sci-fi. It’s not a new invention at all, though. We’ve been implanting artificial pacemakers since 1960.

Back then, they charged the pacemaker’s battery via electrical induction through the skin, a process that still seems futuristic today. The very first artificial pacemaker popped up just a decade earlier, and they didn’t use inductive charging then, or any charging. The device needed to be connected to the main supply at all times. It plugged right into the wall, so even when you plunked the heavy device on wheels, your world was now limited by the length of an extension cord

Zoll’s pacemaker 1958

Images in Paediatric Cardiology

Anyone with a dying laptop can relate.

That was one issue with early pacemakers. Another involved the electricity coming externally, since the device was not contained in your body. It needed a high voltage to penetrate your skin, and electric shocks through the skin tended to be painful. Such shocks also risked killing you, which was the exact opposite of what the device aimed to do. 

Most of the complaints at the time didn’t involve these shortcomings, however. Instead, objections covered how the use of electricity to restart the heart sounded awfully like doctors were playing God, resurrecting people, Frankenstein-style. To which we imagine doctors said, “Yes. That’s what I’m here for. Was that not clear?”

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