We often take the existence of "common objects" for granted. When was the last time you wondered who was responsible for the invention of the zipper, or how the ball point pen came to be? Yet these objects, like all of the artifacts we come into contact with on a daily basis, have an underlying history involving discovery and human ingenuity.
The purpose of this page is to provide guidance to those seeking information on the origins of everyday objects. Whether you are looking for a description of the invention of a particular item, the biography of a famous inventor, or more general information regarding the nature and process of invention itself, it is hoped that the following information will provide a useful starting point toward finding the answers you seek.
Many resources are available to those in search of such information. These resources exist in a variety of formats, including online and printed materials. For convenience, this following discussion is divided into sections based on these formats. In spite of this division, readers are encouraged to consult multiple sources (across formats) to arrive at the most appropriate and complete answers to their questions.
On the Internet
The web contains a multitude of sites geared toward those seeking information on the process of invention. The majority of these sites, however, appear to focus either on providing instruction for new (or would-be) inventors (i.e. how to obtaining patents, market one's ideas, etc.), or on discussing recent inventions and issues surrounding their development. Sites which focus on inventions of commonplace objects or of historical significance are harder to find, but a few notable sites exist.
The Electric Press site, which lets you read books online (although they will charge you if you want to download the text), provides access to the text of a 1994 book by Travis Brown, titled Historical First Patents: The First United States Patent for Many Everyday Things (http://readingroom.electricpress.com/readittoc.jsp?Book=0810828987. By clicking on various links, you can read about the invention of all sorts of everyday objects — the bottle cap, the calculator, condensed milk, frozen food, plow, zipper, etc.
The Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology maintains a site on Invention and Design (http://www.bergen.org/ECEMS/class/welcome.html) which provides the history behind several famous inventions, including the telephone, the automobile, the light bulb, the radio, and the airplane. For each of these inventions, a brief summary of the life of the inventor and circumstances surrounding the invention is provided.
One web site which may be of interest is MITs Invention Dimension (http://web.mit.edu/invent/index.html). This site focuses primarily on relatively recent inventions (late 20th century) in the fields of science and technology, such as the microchip, microwave oven, and computer mouse. It provides information about inventors, games/trivia, and links to many other resources on inventing.
The National Inventors Hall of Fame (http://www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/1_0_0_hall_of_fame.asp) offers a web site which is choke full of information on inventions and inventors which have been inducted into this honorary organization. While you might imagine the inductees to be comprised of a small, elite group, they arent. In fact, the number of inventions and inventors represented on this site is quite vast, with detailed information (and, often, accompanying pictures) about each. Entries are indexed by name of invention, name of inventor, and date of induction. Free text search capabilities further ease the process of navigating this large site.
By sacrificing breadth of coverage, many sites provide greater depth of discussion of a particular class or group of inventions or inventors. The Henry Ford Museum &Greenfield Village site (http://www.hfmgv.org/exhibits/online.asp), for example, provides detailed information regarding the lives of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and the Wright Brothers in its "Online Histories - Stories of Inventors" section. Similarly, the Lucent Technologies/Bell Labs web site (http://www.lucent.com/minds/discoveries/) contains a timeline of discoveries made by Bell Labs researchers since the 1920s, most having to do with telephone and communications-related technologies.
If the information you seek cannot be found on sites such as those mentioned above, which cover the topic of historically significant inventions with wide to moderate breadth, searching the web for a specific invention may prove to be a more productive strategy. For example, if you are interested in the invention of the airplane, you could point your browser to your favorite search engine (if you don't have a favorite search engine, try Yahoo or Altavista) and search for "invention AND airplane". In Yahoo, this returns a link to a site called To Fly is Everything (http://invention.psychology.msstate.edu/) which contains a photo gallery and movie collection (in QuickTime format) in addition to a detailed bibliography of inventors and inventions related to air travel.
Similarly, if you know the name of the person responsible for the invention you are interested in (and this person is relatively well known), you might try searching directly for the inventor's name. Searching for "Wright Brothers" in Yahoo, for example, led me to a page titled Wright Brothers Links (http://www.wrightflyer.org/Links/links.html) which, as its name implies, contains numerous pointers to sites of relevance to the invention of the airplane by these famous brothers.
At Your Public Library
Numerous books on the invention of everyday things await you at your local public library. Thus, regardless of whether or not you're able to find useful information on the Internet, you will likely find a trip to the library to be time well spent.
Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things (Charles Panati; Harper &Row, 1987) is a compilation which "...reveals the beginnings of the ordinary things - from the brown paper bag to animal crackers - that most of us take for granted" (description from book jacket). It includes the origins of expressions, customs, and holidays in addition to common objects. Other books of potential interest by the same author include Breakthroughs and The Browser's Book of Beginnings.
Famous First Facts (Joseph Nathan Kane; H. W. Wilson Company, 1950) describes itself as "a record of first happenings, discoveries, and inventions in the United States." Although this resource is limited to discoveries made in the U.S. prior to 1950, it provides useful tidbits of knowledge on a vast number of objects meeting these criteria, each cross-listed by name of invention, date/year of invention, name of inventor, and place (state) of invention. Although this book lacks illustrations, it contains colorful descriptions such as the following: "...The first toilet paper was unbleached pearl-colored pure manila hemp paper made in 1857 by Joseph C. Gayetty of New York City, whose name was watermarked on each sheet. It sold at five hundred sheets for fifty cents and was known as Gayetty's Medicated Paper - a perfectly pure article for the toilet and for the prevention of piles" (page 329).
Stories Behind Everyday Things from the Reader's Digest provides a listing of "strange and fascinating facts about what's all around us." This listing is alphabetized and illustrated, making it an ideal reference for browsing.
The books mentioned above represent only a few of the many relevant resources available at your public library. The following is a listing of additional sources which may be of interest. The reader is encouraged to explore these and other books, and to request the assistance of a librarian if necessary.
Because the references mentioned above tend to be large books densely packed with information, they may be somewhat intimidating to younger readers. Fortunately, a number of excellent books on the subject of invention have been written with children in mind. Look in the youth section of your local public library to find the following items.
Steven Caney's Invention Book (Steven Caney; Workman Publishing, 1985) contains plentiful pictures and large, easy-to-read print geared toward children of all ages. Information is presented in the storybook style, with facts and figures wrapped in entertaining historical tales. A section on the invention of the ballpoint pen, for example, is accompanied by the story of the first sale of ballpoints in the United States, which occurred at a major department store in 1945 (apparently, following a full-page newspaper ad which ran on the previous day, the store sold out of its entire stock of 10,000 pens on the first day of sale at $12.50 each). In addition to such information and stories, this book contains "do-it-yourself" instructions for building simple objects like back-scratchers from common household items.
Where Everyday Things Come From (Aldren Watson; Platt &Munk Publishers, 1974) is an oversized picture book aimed at young children. It contains sections on the invention and manufacture of common items such as paper, bread, chocolate, and soap.
Additional books on invention geared toward younger readers include the following:
If you decide to look for other resources while at your local public library, the following call numbers may provide a useful starting point toward finding relevant books. They are part of the Dewey Decimal Classification scheme used by most public libraries in the United States. If you are unfamiliar with this classification system, or with the layout of your local library, don't hesitate to ask a librarian for help.
This pathfinder was created by Jason Cohen.