The Next Big Small Idea

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By John Pawlak

I love reading blogs on the human condition.  Why read standard news sites when you can enjoy the introspective analyses of the social issues that impact our daily lives, especially those written by “fair and balanced” minds?
 For instance, a blog might discuss the inventor of the chip-clip and his sociopolitical views on the frightening worldwide shortage of twist ties.  It makes me wonder if anyone ever considered combining the clip-on tie and twist tie.
 Ah, but we do take inventions for granted.  All around us, our world is inundated with the evidence of true innovative genius, from the lowly plastic tip of our shoelaces to the majestic faux Rolls Royce hood adorning thousands of Volkswagen beetles.  It was insights like these that got us out of the dark ages.
 OK, let’s work our way through human virtuosity from the bottom up.  Perhaps the most widespread story of early inventions is that of the toilet, purported to have been the brainstorm of Thomas Crapper.  Well, it’s a cute story, but not true.  In 1596, John Harington invented the toilet as we know it today.  His godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, had one of John’s commodes installed in the Richmond Palace.
 Is this where we got the phrase “a royal flush?”
 But a far more important question is, who invented toilet tissue?  Prior to society wondering if bears use tissue in the woods, people suffered the use of grass, leaves, and corncobs (ouch!) to address this sensitive subject.  Then in 1857, Joseph Gayetty introduced “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper” to a throng of cob-weary consumers, each thanking him from heart of their bottoms.  (Note:  China actually invented toilet paper more than 1,000 years earlier!)
 Not long afterwards, the toothpick was invented.  Well actually, it was a toothpick-manufacturing machine that was invented in 1872,  The toothpick itself has existed for nearly two million years with evidence showing early signs of “tooth probing” marks on Homo Erectus, Neanderthals, and a handful of tobacco farmers in South Carolina.
 The next thing you know, people were using toothpicks to clean out areas hard to reach, and in 1923, Leo Gerstenzand invented the Q-tip (“Q” standing for “quality”).  The original name was “Baby Gays,” marketed mainly for use with babies.  In the long run, “Q-tips” was a far better name than “Jab your kid in the ear with a little stick and puncture his eardrum Tips.”
 We owe much to these visionaries.  If not for their foresight, we’d all have clogged ears, food stuck in our teeth, and piles of used corn cobs in our recycle bins.
 Sometimes, the greatest inventions are right at our fingertips.  In 1959, Ermal Fraze invented the “pull tab,” and within 10 years the canned drink experience was forever changed.  Of course, one has to wonder why anyone thought it made sense to have inebriated beer drinkers brought together with the razor sharp edges of the discarded tabs.  I suspect that Ermal was heavily invested in stock futures for band-aids.
 Another inventor worthy of praise was Eugene Polley, who gave us the wireless television remote (1955).  When first introduced, it was named the Flash-Matic.  In fact, he did receive numerous awards, most notably an Emmy for technology and engineering.
Eugene died earlier this year.  To make sure he was in fact dead, he was first smacked against the side of a chair to check his batteries.  He was then buried ceremoniously between the cushions of a big fluffy couch.
 But perhaps the most momentous invention of all was that sugary puff of contentment conceived by James Dewar in 1930 — the Twinkie.
 The original Twinkie was filled with a banana-creme, but rationing during WWII forced the switch to the vanilla-creme used today.  With 500 million Twinkies baked each year, the calorie energy equivalent of a year’s production of Twinkies is over 50,000 barrels of crude oil.
 It’s rumored that the first Twinkie ever produced was put on display at the Smithsonian.  And of course, it’s still edible (well, at least as edible as Twinkies ever get).
 And so we wait anxiously for that next big small idea.  Maybe it’ll be yours?
John Pawlak
Los Alamos