Many of the most commonly used products in everyday life change practically every year, sometimes multiple times a year. These changes are often driven by fashion, with stylistic adjustments reflecting changing tastes and trends. Sometimes new technology or new regulations lead to significant changes in a product’s functionality. When trends and technology develop and change in tandem, consumers will see marked variations in tried and trusted products that eventually leave a well-loved invention almost unrecognizable in its modern form.
The following products have changed almost immeasurably over time, because many clever inventors over the years have figured out improvements that make each product easier to use, more appealing to the modern eye, or both. Are the latest incarnations of these inventions the best possible forms, or are there more changes still in store for these time-honoured inventions?
10. Lawn Mower
Lawns, first an indulgence for the rich and powerful in the 16th century, became an attainable reality across the classes through the intervening centuries. Of course if you’re going to have a lawn, you’re going to need something to cut the grass with.
The first mechanical lawn mower, pulled by horses, was created in 19th century Britain. But it was Elwood McGuire of the United States who designed the first human powered mechanically-driven lawn mower. Throughout the years, the design settled into the familiar four wheel units driven by a variety of power
9. Perambulator / Baby stroller
The Perambulator was a staple for any couple with a baby. First popularised in the 19th century, it was a sturdy carriage with four wheels, a wicker crib to keep baby comfortable and safe, and a handle to control the contraption. They were large, cumbersome and expensive.
Through the years into the mid 20th century, their basic design remained the same but improvements were added – such as braking systems, fabric instead of wicker and modern manufacturing techniques. Everything changed in the 1960s when Owen McLaren, a British aeronautical engineer, designed the collapsible baby stroller; this basic design has remained the same until today. Minor changes have included the number of wheels (three instead of four_, the collapsing mechanism, the addition of braking systems as well as changes to the seating arrangements such as interchangeable cribs and seats.
8. Vacuum Cleaner
These floor cleaners use a partial vacuum to suck up dirt, dust, etc. The first units were invented in the United States in the 19th century and were hand powered. The next iteration was the motorised vacuum cleaner, which was gasoline powered and so large it required a horse drawn wagon to move it from house to house.
The truly portable vacuum cleaner, created in Britain in the early 20th century was again hand powered. The electrification of the portable unit was accomplished by James Spangler of the United States in the early 20th century; this developed into the cylinder cleaners with the upright being introduced in the 1920’s along with disposable filter bags.
The 1980’s saw the next biggest innovation in vacuum cleaners with the introduction of the bagless cyclone in Britain and Japan, and later the rest of the world. The latest incarnation of the vacuum cleaner is the robotic cleaner; these units clean floors at predetermined times and over pre programmed areas. The only human interaction needed is to empty the dirt and dust receptacle.
7. Clothes Iron
While clothes have been pressed by different means for over one thousand years, the flat iron was created in the middle ages; this iron plate with a handle was manufactured by blacksmiths and the owner would heat the iron over a fire before using on clothes.
This type of iron would cool down quickly, however, so the next innovation was the box iron which would contain a reservoir of still-burning coals to provide an iron which would remain hotter for longer.
By the start of the 20th century electric irons, developed in the United States by Henry Seely, were becoming popular. Through the 20th century, innovations to the electric iron included an inbuilt thermostat to keep a desired temperature, variable temperature control, a water reservoir for steam generation, non stick iron plates and cordless versions.
People have been toasting food items for thousands of years over open flame. Sliced bread started to be toasted over an open fire or grill by being placed on long forks or metal framed baskets. The first electric toaster was developed in Britain in the late 19th century and was a series of elements against which the bread was placed; the consumer then turned the bread by hand in order to toast the other side.
In the early 20th century, a toaster was developed that turned the bread around without having to touch it. The next innovation was the pop-up toaster, invented in the United States in the early 20th century. Minor innovations have subsequently followed that include a bread lifter, timing mechanism, variable width slots and internal shields between the element and the bread that produce a graphic on the toast.
5. Water Kettle
Containers for boiling liquids over open fire have been used for millennia. The current name is a derivative of an Old Norse word; ketill which is a cauldron. The development of this container into the recognisable, body with a spout and a handle occurred in the 19th century and were cast iron units heated on stove tops. The electric kettle was developed in the United States at the end of the 19th century and were then generally thereafter made from copper and latterly stainless steel until the 1970’s. The 1950’s saw the introduction of the automatic cut out once the water had boiled with the 1980’s seeing the introduction of the cordless kettle as well as transparent plastic windows; this innovation developing into the use of borosilicate glass for the kettle body so the consumer can see the water boiling.
4. Motor Car
The motor car, with internal combustion engine, was developed in France at the beginning of the 19th century and was powered by hydrogen. This was usurped by the gasoline powered motor car developed in Germany in the 1880’s. As both of these contraptions were aimed at replacing the horse drawn carriage, they both were a carriage based designs with three or four wheels.
This basic design, with the engine at the front or back, has remained the same for the majority of motor cars up to the modern day, with the four wheel variety being prevalent. The four stroke engine was developed in the latter part of the 19th century and replace the two stroke engine with diesel internal combustion engines being developed in Germany at the end of the 19th century.
Motor Cars were open topped but soon were covered to keep out the inclement weather. Over the years, many innovations and improvements have been made, from wipers to remove water from the windscreen to computers that control the efficiency of the engine. Current motor cars come in all shapes and sizes and are produced to be affordable for all or only the richest.
For our purposes the first toilets can be described as a hole with some manner of removing the subsequent refuse; early examples have been found in Crete comprising of large pots flushed out by piped water, a function that is still the basis of modern toilets. The first modern toilet had it’s debut in late 16th century Britain with the installation, for Queen Elizabeth 1, of a raised cistern that flushed water into the toilet.
The next innovation occurred in the 18th century when the ‘S’ bend was fitted onto toilets to stop the invariably nasty smell from emanating out of the toilet bowl. In the 20th century, the cistern was moved from above the toilet to sitting just on to of it. The bidet toilet, common in Japan, has been the next popular innovation. This unit not only performs the function one would expect of a toilet, it also washes with temperature-controlled water, warms the seat and deodorizes the air.
2. Light Bulb
The first incandescent light bulbs (the application of an electrical current to heat a material until it glows hot and produces visible light) were developed in Britain in the middle of the 19th century by Joseph Swan and Warren de la Rue but these designs were impractical for commercial use; either not employing a good enough vacuum within the glass bulb or utilizing materials that were too expensive.
The first practical light bulb was developed in the USA by Thomas Edison towards the end of the 19th century using a good vacuum within the bulb and also utilizing carbonized bamboo as the filament. The next innovation was the introduction of the tungsten filament in the early 20th century, which increased the life of each bulb. This basic composition of light bulb, with design and material tweaks, remained the same until the introduction of the compact fluorescent bulbs in the 1990’s; these bulbs operated on a different principle of exciting mercury vapour by an electrical current which then in turn reacts with a phosphor coating inside the bulb to produce visible light.
The latest innovation is the production of LED (light emitting diode) bulbs that operate on the principle of electro-luminance; where photons are emitted from a diode; a one way electronic component, encapsulated in a transparent medium.
1. Telephone, Calculator, Television, Alarm clock, Wristwatch, Camera
This one is a bit of a cheat but worthy of the number one spot. Each of the products has had its own evolution as stand alone products that are still purchased today. But all of these products have also converged to become one product that is sold in even greater quantities every year. This is of course the Smartphone; which was first introduced to Japan at the end of the 1990’s and has now become an integral part of many people’s lives.
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