What do the button, the condom and the GPS have in common? They are gadgets that changed the world. This is part 3 of a series of 10 articles in which you will learn about the 101 gadgets that changed our world from prehistory to today.
1. Aspirin, 1899
Little tablets of acetylsalicylic acid have probably cured more minor ills than any other medicine. Hippocrates was the first to realise the healing power of the substance – his related ancient Greek treatment was a tea made from willow bark, and was effective against fevers and gout. Much later, in turn-of-the-century Germany, chemist Felix Hoffman perfected the remedy on his arthritic father, marketing it under the trade name Aspirin.
2. Button, 1235
Which came first, the button or the buttonhole? The button; the ancient Greeks fastened tunics using crude buttons and loops, but it took the buttonhole to popularise the little discs of perforated plastic that adorn our clothes today. The earliest evidence comes from 13th-century German sculptures, which show tunics featuring six buttons running from neck to waist. Today, 60 per cent of the world's buttons are made in one Chinese town, Qiaotou, which churns out 15bn buttons a year (see also Zip).
3. Clockwork radio, 1991
With the wind-up radio, not only did deprived areas of the developing world get access to public information about Aids and contraception, but we were gifted a true legend of invention. Trevor Bayliss (see My Secret Life, p7), a former professional swimmer, stuntman and pool salesman, devised the contraption after being horrified by reports from Africa that safe-sex education wasn't getting through.
4. Barcode, 1973
Barcodes were conceived as a kind of visual Morse code by a Philadelphia student in 1952, but retailers were slow to take up the technology, which could be unreliable. That changed in the early 1970s when the same student, Norman Woodland, then employed by IBM, devised the Universal Product Code. Since then, black stripes have appeared on almost everything we buy, a ubiquity fuelled by their price – it costs about a tenth of a penny to slap on a barcode.
5. Biro, 1938
Had the Hungarian journalist Laszlo José Biró kept the patent for the world's first ballpoint pen, his estate (he died in 1985) would be worth billions. As it happened, Biró sold the patent to one Baron Bich of France in 1950. Biró's breakthrough had been to devise a ball-bearing nib capable of delivering to paper the smudge-resistant ink already used in printing. Today around 14 million Bic "Biros" are sold every day, perhaps making the pen the world's most successful gadget.
6. Condom, 1640
Egyptians donned them 3,000 years ago and the 16th-century Italian gynaecologist Gabriele Falloppio (he of the tubes) first advocated their use to prevent the spread of disease. The earliest remains of a condom, which date from 1640, were discovered in Dudley. In modern times, condoms, which until the 1960s were made from animal gut, have allowed generations of couples to avoid unwanted pregnancies and saved an inestimable number of lives by preventing the spread of diseases such as Aids.
7. Eraser, 1770
Strange, perhaps, that it took 200 years after the invention of the lead pencil for somebody to dream up the eraser. Until then, draughtsman had to use bread, but the English engineer Edward Naine saw potential in natural rubber to do a better job. It did, but, like bread, was perishable. The advent of more durable vulcanised rubber in 1839 (a method pioneered by the tyre tycoon Charles Goodyear) sealed the future of the eraser. Hymen Lipman conceived the all-in-one pencil eraser in 1858.
8. GPS, 1978
Determining your location used to require such cumbersome devices as a map, compass and ruler. Now a single press of a button (and up to 32 satellites) will pinpoint your precise position to within a couple of metres. Great for explorers, paramedics and pilots – not so good for unwitting Latvian lorry drivers sent on cross-country wild goose chases by budget sat-navs. Developed by the US military in the 1970s, the Global Positioning System has been globally available since 1994.
9. Kettle, 1891
In tea-obsessed Britain, where would we be without the humble kettle? It has been said that the kitchen-counter staple is found in more homes than any other appliance. Non-electric kettles date back thousands of years but would leave you waiting ages for your brew. The first electric kettle was developed in Chicago in 1891 but even that took 12 minutes to boil water. Things soon got quicker and today's speediest kettles can boil two cups in little over a minute.
10. Lead pencil, 1564
Any schoolboy worth his salt knows pencils do not in fact contain potentially poisonous lead. And they never did; the pencil arrived with the discovery in 1564 in Borrowdale, Cumbria, of a pure deposit of graphite, then thought to be a type of lead. A year later, the German naturalist Conrad Gesner described a wooden writing tool that contained the substance. Nicolas Conté perfected the pencil more than a century later by mixing graphite with clay and gluing it between two strips of wood.
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Read more about the 101 Gadgets that changed the world in Part 4 of the series of articles.
The content for these articles is gathered from various online resources.