Science: The Genius of Everyday Things

Tiffany O’Callaghan, CultureLab editor of our sister site New Scientist, considers a new exhibition ‘Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things’ now showing at the Science Museum in London.

When you tap a pile of papers against your desk before pinning them together, you probably don’t consider the ingenuity that first propelled the lowly paperclip into production. Or when nestling an egg carton among groceries at the checkout counter, you may not routinely wonder how you would have juggled the eggs in jostling bags without the aid of a pressed fibre box.

The exhibition Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things draws your attention to the indispensable doodads we take for granted each day. Created by the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, and now showing at the Science Museum in London, the exhibition puts the spotlight on adhesive tape and Lego building blocks, telescoping umbrellas and jam jars, corkscrews and condoms.

The simple ingenuity of the items is mirrored in the plain layout of the exhibition, with each object on display inside a brightly-coloured wooden box. The collection of 36 objects, whittled down from a total of 44 included in an online gallery, have a range of very briefly noted origin stories – some were brought into being as the result of overlapping efforts across the years, others born from one or two individuals’ brilliant ideas, and still others the results of opportunity forged from failure.

The birth of Post-It notes is a now fairly well known tale of fortuitous failure. In the late 1960s, materials scientist Spencer Silver was working on a project to create a powerful adhesive for 3M corporation. Instead, he wound up with a seemingly feeble variation – sticky, but only just. Enduring another kind of disappointment, fellow 3M scientist Arthur Fry was frustrated that he kept losing his bookmarks in his hymnal during choir rehearsals. It occurred to him that if he could apply his colleague’s only slightly sticky adhesive to paper… and, you know the rest.

That today offices are papered with the colourful squares is exactly what made Post-It notes perfect candidates for the exhibition. All of the items included were chosen because they are simple, mass produced, and have a design that has varied little since they were introduced.

The paperclip is another example. In the summary that accompanies a display of heaped silver paperclips and several whimsical variations – clips shaped like bicycles, for example – you learn that this humble convenience was introduced in the late 1800s when machines were developed that could bend and cut steel wire, and that the underlying physics of elasticity that makes them work was first articulated by British scientist Robert Hooke in 1678: Ut tensio sic vis, the extension of a spring is directly proportional to the load added to it. Perhaps keeping the explanations succinct was a deliberate strategy, but at times you’re left longing for a bit more information. Paperclips are ingenious – but what did people use before? Did someone dream them up as a solution to unwieldy stacks of documents, or did the idea first spring from a different need? A little online digging suggests that perhaps they weren’t actually first designed for paper, but instead to hold tickets to bits of fabric.

The story of the birth of the rubber band is also disappointingly brief: The introduction of vulcanisation in rubber production in the 1840s yielded a more pliable and durable material. In 1845, the now ubiquitous rubber band was first patented. Ta-da!

Unfortunately, the exhibition, like its online version, too often emphasizes style over substance, and moments of intellectual tussling and the vagaries of bringing inventions to life are glossed over in brief write-ups that too often do little to satisfy any deeper curiosity for the back story. Underneath the display of lightbulbs – fitted with wings to seem as though they are flitting about the colourful box – you learn that Thomas Edison and Sir Joseph Swan were simultaneously developing the technology on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, the two eventually joined forces to form the Ediswan company in the UK.

So, why is Edison so often considered the inventor of the light bulb? You’ll have to look that up yourself when you get home.

(The answer is fascinating: though Swan developed a bulb that worked well in demonstrations, for longer-term use it was impractical. The carbon rod he used for a filament inside the vacuum sealed glass bulb burned out quickly and also emitted soot when the light was turned on, dirtying the interior of the glass. Edison introduced a long, thin copper filament, which required less current and was far more practical. The National Museum of American History provides the caveat: “Edison is generally credited with inventing the first practical incandescent lamp.”)

Similarly, the invention of the safety match has potential to be a riveting tale. In the exhibition, you learn that in 1848 German chemist Rudolf Christian Boettger created the now common match by replacing poisonous white phosphorous on its tip with less toxic red phosphorous on the side of the matchbox. Until then, matches could rub up against one an other and self light – quite a dangerous prospect. Once again though, it seems there is a lack of consensus over who first dreamed up the better safer version – something the exhibition does not mention.

In an era where a roiling economy has encouraged many of us to tighten purse strings, celebrate simple pleasures and repair and make better use of the objects we already own, an exhibition that prompts you to consider the many clever innovations we make use of everyday is well timed. You just have to hope that it was by design that you leave it with more questions than insights.

Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things is running at the Science Museum in London untilJune 2012. It will be on display at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts from September to December 2012.

Tiffany O’Callaghan, New Scientist

Tags: science

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