The Humble Inventor

By: Dr Andrew Impey


Some of the world's greatest innovators are people you've never heard of. Everyone knows about Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone), Edward Jenner (vaccination) and the like. But there are a whole host of less obvious inventions that probably never even entered your invention radar - if you have such a thing.

Take toasters for example. Not quite as glamorous as TVs or telephones in the invention stakes, but important household appliances nonetheless. All hail the man who thought up a way to speed-cook two sides of piece of bread at the same time! And his name is Charles P. Strite. Ever heard of him? Precisely.

Quite comically, Charles was often reprimanded as a child for stealing loaves of bread from the school kitchen. But as I think you'll agree, he's repaid his debt to society in a very appropriate way.

Buttons then. The fastening of choice among European aristocracy during the Renaissance. And a true gem of an invention - simple to produce, functional and highly underrated as fashion accessories. Plus, if you lose a button, you'll always be able to root around and find another one sewn into the same item of clothing somewhere. Where are they going to hide a whole spare zip in your shirt, eh?

But who invented buttons? Nobody knows is the answer to that. Why? Because whoever put together the definitive list of history's best inventions was a toffee nosed button-hating bastard. Either that, or he was Amish.

Now one of my favourite ever inventions has got to be Lego. It's an institution for God's sake. So let's give some credit to Ole Kirk Christiansen, master carpenter and creator of the coloured bricks that provide 5 billion hours worth of building fun every year. Now that's what I call an invention.

Perhaps it would be a good idea if all new inventions were named after their designers. Then at the very least you would know that whoever invented buttons was called Mr Button, or Mrs Button for that matter. Or looking at it another way, Lego would be Christiansen bricks. Hmmm, let's shelve that idea.

Just finally, I'd like to mention a pair of inventors. Introducing Monsieurs Jacques and Joseph Montgolfier, the brains behind one of the most important inventions ever known to man - the balloon. Without balloons, every party ever thrown would have been sadly bereft, partly because of the lack of colourful bouncy things to play games with, but mainly for another reason - how would anyone ever find the right house without the obligatory (slightly indecent) arrangement of inflatables to guide the way?

And if that wasn't justification enough, balloons have been particularly influential in the world of science. Chemistry teachers and lecturers the world over have delighted for years in deafening their students by igniting hydrogen filled balloons in class. Whether this has actually inspired anyone to take up chemistry as a career, or simply resulted in several generations of hearing impaired chemistry graduates, I don't know, but it's certainly made an impact.

So here's to the Montgolfier brothers and all those anonymous inventors who could never quite aspire to the dizzy heights of fame attained by Bell, Jenner and the rest. On behalf of a world that doesn't know how lost it would be without buttons or toasters or balloons, not to mention Lego, we salute you.

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Andy worked for four years studying ducks (no stop laughing, he really did). He went into his PhD thinking he was going to save the world (albeit from ducks) and now spends him time lovingly preening Null Hypothesis, the Journal of Unlikely Science!

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