Inventions we can't live without

Don't you wish you had invented something indispensible?

Whether you made a fortune or not, you would have the satisfaction of knowing you had enriched the lives of your fellow man.

Take, for example, the innovation of the buzzer that warns you when you leave your keys in your ignition. How many millions of people are saved each day from locking their keys in the car by this simple addition to the modern automobile?

Of course, some of us still manage to lock our keys in our cars. The last thought usually is, "What the heck's that buzzing noise?" Slam. Uh-oh.

Some people are annoyed by the buzzing sound. They want to be able to listen to the radio with the car door open. Why, I'm not sure. Couldn't they just roll down the window?

Anyway, these people will instruct you on how to disable the buzzer so you can happily listen to the radio and lock your keys in your car whenever it pleases you. An innovator for every problem.

Here are some of my favorite inventions and the folks to whom the credit goes:

n Duct tape. Obviously one of the most useful items in the world, it was originally called "duck tape" because Johnson & Johnson Co. invented it in 1942 to keep moisture out of ammunition cases. That's when it was green. When it became silver, people started wrapping it around pipes and calling it "duct tape."

n Velcro. Invented in 1948 by George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, after he looked at cockleburs through a microscope. It took him another eight years to perfect the system of two opposing pieces of nylon fabric, one with hooks and the other with loops.

n Remote control. The first one, believe it or not, was called "Lazy Bones" and went with Zenith TVs in the 1950s. Unfortunately, it had a cord and people kept tripping over it. The wireless version came along in 1955 when Zenith engineer Eugene Polley invented the "Flashmatic."

n United States flag. You would give credit to Betsy Ross back in 1777, but what about the 50-star flag that's been around for the last 45 years? It is the design of Bob Heft, who needed a class project when he was a 17-year-old junior in Lancaster, Ohio. His teacher gave him a B-, then upped the grade when Congress accepted Heft's design.

n Microwave oven. It was accidentally invented by Percy LeBaron Spencer when he realized that radar waves - originally developed to spot enemy planes in World War II - had melted a candy bar in his pocket. He worked for Raytheon, which by 1967 developed and released a tabletop version of the microwave oven under the name of Amana.

n Compact disks. Scientist James T. Russell got the patent in 1970 after the Bremerton, Wash., native figured out there was a better way to listen to music than a needle on a record. His idea of putting binary code on a disk to be read by a laser eventually revolutionized the music industry.

n Dishwasher. Invented in 1886 by Josephine Cochran in Shelbyville, Ill., she unveiled her workable, hand-operated machine at the 1893 World's Fair, but it didn't catch on until the 1950s. Don't think she did it because she was tired of doing her dishes. The real reason is that her servants were breaking too much of her fine china. The company she founded eventually became KitchenAid.

n Lava lamp. Craven Walker was drinking in an English pub when he noticed an oddly shaped, liquid-filled novelty lamp. He bought it and decided to perfect it, creating the mysterious Lava stuff that rises as it warms and sinks as it cools. It may not seem very practical, but when it became hugely popular in the 1960s Craven noted, "If you buy my lamp, you won't need to buy drugs."

n Sliced bread. Otto Frederick Rohwedder designed a machine in 1928 that could both slice the bread and wrap it so it didn't get stale. The automatic, pop-up toaster had already been around since 1919, when Charles Strite improved on the old manual, one-side-at-a-time method.

n WD-40. If you can't stick it together with duct tape, then you need to loosen it with WD-40. It stands for Water Displacement-40th attempt, so named in 1953 by chemist Norm Larsen as he and a couple of fellow researchers tried to come up with solvents for the aerospace industry.

n Video poker machine. Si Redd, founder of International Game Technology of Reno, took the technology and rights with him when he left Bally's Manufacturing in 1978 because the company thought it would never catch on.

OK, so the video poker machine isn't indispensable. In fact, Si Redd, who died last October, struggled with his legacy - making scads of money off a machine called the "crack cocaine of gambling" and donating big wads of it to help people with gambling problems. He told a reporter he didn't play the machines he helped to create.

Inventions outlive their inventors. None of these is truly indispensable, because people got by without them before they existed. We couldn't go back even if we wanted to.

Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at 881-1221 or


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment