Complex, high technology has transformed our world at an ever-increasing, bewildering speed. Who would have imagined only 20 years ago that virtually everyone would carry a portable telephone that would not only make calls but also take pictures, surf the internet — what’s that? — instantly find any fact you want to know and let all 100 of your best friends know where you went to dinner last evening. This handy little device, of course, is made in a factory in China so large that you can’t see one end from the other. And these machines, with all your desired apps, are not cheap.
It recently occurred to me that in my lifetime we have witnessed the healthy appearance of some remarkably useful little inventions so simple that, when you think about it, the normal reaction is or should be, “Doggone it, why didn’t I think of that? I could now be as rich as Warren Buffett.”
Let’s begin with suitcases. Get in your time machine and set the dial to 1970 or before and the location as any airport or train station. See passengers huffing and puffing, lifting or dragging their heavy baggage or for the more well-off, paying a porter — remember those? — to cart your load to your destination. Why should it have taken centuries since the invention of the wheel to figure it out — put the blooming luggage on wheels!
Now think of the humble garbage can. The metal ones of old didn’t look or work very well after being brushed by the first car to speed down your street. When the lid no longer fit the can, your neighborhood crows would feast, leaving you as the cleanup crew. Maybe the lid would never be found if a strong wind blew through — and the can, where did it go? Enter the hard plastic, rectangular garbage bin on wheels, with attached lid. Genius.
I appreciate today’s ketchup bottle, made of squeezable plastic, with its spout resting down. Trillions of baked beans drowned, smothered with enough ketchup for an army division after we all would pound the bottom of the old wide-mouthed glass bottle to get just a bit of the red stuff. Why did we have to wait decades for that?
While mentioning food, it reminds me of teeth, which I almost lost to inflammation of the gums, a bloodbath at every brushing. My dentist at the time, now happily elsewhere, didn’t have a clue about what to do other than to send me to a specialist who recommended dental floss, of which I’m now a devoted fanatic. Just a piece of slippery string to clean the spaces between one’s teeth. It worked like a charm, and I was saved a lifetime of dentures.
What would the world be like without Velcro Brand fasteners? We should thank a Swiss engineer who wondered why burrs clung to his pants after a walk in the woods. After a few years of experimentation, he developed what we now call Velcro Brand fasteners — two fabric strips, one lined with tiny hooks and the other with very small loops. Presto! We can now stick just about anything to just about anything, easily and reversibly. Patented in 1955, is there a household anywhere without it?
Is there anyone in the country who hasn’t used recently a little 3 inch by 3 inch paper sticky note, such as the one posted on the refrigerator before my wife went to a meeting, reminding me what was available within for my lunch? A million applications every day.
Last on my list — there must be others just as deserving — is the “Forever” postage stamp. Yes, even techno-wizards now and then have to use “snail mail.” What’s the cost of a stamp gone up to now? Good luck if you try to call the post office. Maybe you’ve tried that. The postal employee who came up with the timeless stamp should have earned a big promotion.
The inventors of these simple victories over life’s minor frustrations should be hailed as heroes. How do we recognize their brilliance? Simple. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Alan Boone is a retired physician living in Bangor.