Of the many technological innovations that have leapt onto the stage of world commerce and actually changed the way people interact with the world around them every day, there are a few that are so startlingly transformative they actually shock the public into a new frame of perception. I have a few personal favorites that I believe should be included in any list of life-changing inventions. Below is a brief sampling of what I find significant:
1. The lowly Post-It, now so ubiquitous we do not question its presence in our lives, the byproduct of an accidental invention by a 3M scientist of a reusable, pressure sensitive adhesive. Dr. Silver’s invention of a glue that didn’t work very well lay dormant until another 3M scientist became so frustrated by the way his bookmark kept falling out of the hymnal during choir practice that he had a sudden insight — a flash out of nowhere — which engendered the creation of the Post-It. This strange concatenation of circumstances is responsible for all the stickies in your legal reference guides and in the books your 3rd grader takes home, on which she writes minute plot descriptions in childish braille. In 2000, the 20th anniversary of Post-It notes was celebrated by having artists create their artwork on Post-It notes. One note that was made by artist R.B. Kitaj sold for £640 in an auction, making it the most valuable Post-It note on record.
2. Liquid Paper, now fallen by the wayside and made practically obsolete by time, but fondly remembered by those who grew up learning the qwerty system in the era of carbon paper, before the advent of the IBM Selectric and its magical self-correcting ribbon. It was invented by the mother of Monkees band member Michael Nesmith, who whipped up batches of the stuff in her kitchen for 17 years before finally succumbing to corporate pressure and selling her invention for $47.5 million in 1979.
3. The flushing toilet. While Thomas Crapper is commonly given credit for inventing the first flushing toilet in the late 1800s, the first modern version can actually be traced back to 1596, and was the brainchild of Sir John Harrington — the godson of Queen Elizabeth I — who engineered and invented a valve that could release water from the water closet (WC) when pulled. Though Harrington’s version differs in many respects from the modern toilet found in today’s homes, history owes him an apology for the ridicule he endured for attempting to bring a bit of civilization back from the dead. Back from the dead, I say, since any reasonably well-educated Greek scholar will recall that King Minos of Crete had a flushing toilet installed some 2800 years ago.
4. Toilet paper. Invented by the Chinese, the first historical record of its use is in the year 589. In 1391 the Bureau of Imperial Supplies began producing 720,000 sheets of toilet paper a year, each sheet measuring two feet by three feet. Recently rediscovered by the French.
5. The book. Predicated, of course, on the invention of paper (also a Chinese invention) as well as the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per day, compared to forty pages by hand-printing and a few by hand-copying. Books of bestselling authors like Luther or Erasmus sold hundreds of thousands of copies in their life-time — which equates to Michael Crichton-like sales on the bestseller lists of today. The original book (not the iBook), of course, whose distribution was enabled by the printing press was everyone’s favorite — The Bible — which remains the most widely-disseminated book in the history of the world even today.
This list, obviously, is not all-inclusive, nor is it intended to be. I intentionally left out other, arguably equally-interesting-and-world-changing inventions such as the light bulb, the telephone, money, alcohol, cigarettes, and the personal computer (to name a few) out of a desire to be concise. If you care to suggest your own favorite world-changing invention, please feel free to leave a comment below.
I am a commercial litigator and intellectual property lawyer in Orange County. Although my practice encompasses a wide variety of business disputes, I have a particular fondness for, and am prone to wax philosophical on, the subjects of copyright and trademark infringement in music, literature, art, and film.