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The World's Most Underrated Inventions
November 14, 2005 8:29 AM   Subscribe

The World's Most Underrated Inventions A curious list of the world's most underrated inventions. Including: the chariot; concrete; horse collar; longbow; eyeglasses; rotary printing press; barbed wire; carborundum; and bakelite.
posted by dios (41 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Nice post.
posted by loquacious at 8:33 AM on November 14, 2005


Cool. Also see AskMe for similar.
posted by cribcage at 8:44 AM on November 14, 2005


P-38 can opener.
posted by alumshubby at 8:44 AM on November 14, 2005


shurely Pepsi Blue ought to have made the list?
posted by devbrain at 8:49 AM on November 14, 2005


I found eyeglasses to be the most interesting entry. Ansary cites "25% of North Americans are nearsighted", but I wonder what percentage of the population would be legally blind if eyeglasses/contact lenses didn't exist?
posted by Lord Kinbote at 8:50 AM on November 14, 2005


BTW, this was posted on FARK.com three days ago.
posted by Lord Kinbote at 8:52 AM on November 14, 2005


Last month's Make magazine had an interesting interview with Dean Kamen (the Segway guy), where he talks about inventions in general, and one particularly clever one, the south-pointing chariot.

Apparently, these chariots were Chinese inventions, with differential gearing on the wheels. As the differential slipped, it drove a complex set of gears that changed the direction of a small indicator. Net effect: the indicator always pointed south.

Now, Dean didn't like this invention too much. He said that the Chinese knew about lodestones. Why, he argued, bother building these chariots at great expense, when all you needed was a simple lodestone? And he uses south-pointing chariots as an example of loving the invention so much that you don't see or use something better.

No overall moral here, just an interesting story kinda-sorta-vaguely on the same topic.
posted by Malor at 9:03 AM on November 14, 2005


BTW, this is MetaFilter, not Fark.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:04 AM on November 14, 2005


In related news -- Are U.S. Innovators Losing Their Competitive Edge?
posted by ericb at 9:11 AM on November 14, 2005


A lot of people don't consider what the invention of the ball bearing did for the world.
posted by cmonkey at 9:15 AM on November 14, 2005


In the American West, the water-pumping windmill was a huge factor in allowing farmers, especially cattle ranchers, settle in the vast areas where there was little or no surface water. Railroads, dependent on water for steam, also relied heavily on windmills. The pattern of western settlement would have been very different without them.

Good post!
posted by LarryC at 9:18 AM on November 14, 2005


Nice post!
posted by languagehat at 9:23 AM on November 14, 2005


Guys I have no idea what FARK is, so my thanks to Dios for an interesting post.
I guess the pill isn't an invention in this sense but it should rate very highly IMO
posted by Wilder at 9:24 AM on November 14, 2005


Underated by who? Every British school kid should know about the whoping our archers gave to the French at Crecy. And concrete? Probably the most important building material ever - overated?
posted by schwa at 9:29 AM on November 14, 2005


what LarryC said about the Chicago-style wind pump. It was the rocket science of its day.

Malor, interesting you bring up Kamen discussing overly-complicated solutions to previously-solved problems. Why bother building these Segways at great expense, when all you needed was a simple bicycle?
posted by scruss at 9:37 AM on November 14, 2005


Metafiler: What's a fark?
posted by blue_beetle at 10:00 AM on November 14, 2005


These were great inventions but I don't see them as underated, either. I seem to remember being tought about the effect of barbed wire on the old west back in junior high social studies.
posted by octothorpe at 10:07 AM on November 14, 2005


What schwa and # said. I'm glad to see them celebrated nonetheless. Nice post.
posted by buzzv at 10:43 AM on November 14, 2005


My votes would be for: 1) the use of zero and placement notation in math, 2) the stirrup, 3) differential axle
posted by forrest at 11:00 AM on November 14, 2005


If these inventions are underrated, what would be an example of an overrated invention. Perhaps under-appreciated would have been a better choice.
posted by Witty at 11:09 AM on November 14, 2005


scruss, actually, they talked about that in the interview. As he put it, walking is great for short distances, but practically anything over a couple hundred yards, and Americans go for a car. Bikes are very good at medium speed and long distance, but they can't easily go where people can, they don't work well at low speeds, and they can't back up or turn easily in a very short space. They're very awkward in close quarters.

He sort of sees the Segway as the spot in between the two... the average speed of a vehicle in city traffic is about 9mph (lots of stops), so the Segway's 8mph doesn't look so bad. City-trained humans walk about 2mph... real walkers at about 3. So it's between 2.5 and 4 times faster than most folks for walking... and it can go almost anywhere they can go. It comfortably shares the sidewalk, and works very nicely in tight spaces.

I honestly think that the reason people haven't liked it is from the the mega-hype surrounding it before its introduction. If it hadn't been promoted as the advent of world peace, I think folks would have seen it for what it is... a very clever solution for a particular niche.

I find his self-balancing wheelchair to be much more impressive. It lets people essentially stand up while sitting, by raising them to normal standing height. This lets them function in a world designed for standing people... perhaps not quite as well, but enormously better than what went before. I can't think of many things that would have as positive an impact on the lifestyle of the wheelchair-bound.
posted by Malor at 11:15 AM on November 14, 2005


I can vouch that barbed wire gets lots of love in the grade-school classrooms of Nebraska. Every year we'd get a session on how we wouldn't be there if barbed wire hadn't made ranching viable.

We could also count on yearly reminders that we'd be the first ones to go in a nuclear war because of the SAC base in Omaha, but, well, those discussions tended to be a little more animated.
posted by COBRA! at 11:17 AM on November 14, 2005


The cardboard box in another under appreciated invention. Sounds silly, but.. well, think about it.
posted by tkchrist at 11:35 AM on November 14, 2005


Malor, interesting you bring up Kamen discussing overly-complicated solutions to previously-solved problems

Interesting? It's hilarious. Surely the Segway is the very definition of this phenomenon, and the irony of Kamen's remark almost defines that term.

I was flipping around channels a couple weeks back and was rewarded with the sight of Dr. Niles Crane whirling imperiously about on his Segway. The utter goof-idity of the scene really exceeds my ability to describe. I can only thank Mr Kamen for producing what must be one of the top 5 most amusing objects in the universe. Thank you sir, Rube Goldberg would be very proud.
posted by scheptech at 11:41 AM on November 14, 2005


what would be an example of an overrated invention

Hubcaps with spinners?

On reflection...really, anything that's proven to be a fad would probably qualify as an "overrated invention."
posted by alumshubby at 11:44 AM on November 14, 2005


I've just finished listening to the audiobook of James Burke's Connections, which discusses a lot of these world changing inventions. Burke's list starts with the plow, which allowed for agriculture and surplus grain, which allowed people move away from subsistenece hunting and gathering to concentrate on the matter of invention and refinement of specialist skills. It's really a fascinating book.
James Burke on Wikipedia
posted by boo_radley at 12:20 PM on November 14, 2005


I have to say I've had a great respect for a lot of these inventions for some time. Well, maybe not the rotary printing press, but certainly concrete, eyeglasses and bakelite.
posted by Citizen Premier at 12:37 PM on November 14, 2005


The cardboard box in another under appreciated invention. Sounds silly, but.. well, think about it.

It is no longer under appreciated! It is now officially enshrined in the National Toy Hall of Fame along with Jack-in-the-Box and Candy Land.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 12:52 PM on November 14, 2005


Encarta's taking a page from wikipedia (and they're doing it really well). Cool.
posted by Tlogmer at 1:02 PM on November 14, 2005


Here's the other side of the coin: http://www.pitt.edu/~ctnst3/chindogu.html
posted by AJaffe at 1:21 PM on November 14, 2005


I'm a big carborundum fan
Mmmm....moissanite.
Like those semiconductors do ya?
Me, I dig - cutting tools.
I must admit, I read “concrete, horse collar” as concrete horse collar.
Which is dadaesque.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:21 PM on November 14, 2005


I was flipping around channels a couple weeks back and was rewarded with the sight of Dr. Niles Crane whirling imperiously about on his Segway. - scheptech

I was up late that night, too.
posted by raedyn at 1:32 PM on November 14, 2005


The longbow is a great example of the right innovation in the right place at the right time, but basically it's a continuation in the development of an existing weapon. Even more clever was whoever thought up the bow and arrow in the first place.
posted by alumshubby at 1:42 PM on November 14, 2005


What? No backscratcher? Come on, that's the pinnacle of civilization right there!
posted by mediareport at 1:45 PM on November 14, 2005


This is a silly list. First off, why only 9 things? Who makes a list of the top 9? (Maybe the "top 10 list" should be # 10).

At any rate, chariots, longbows, concrete, barbed wire, eyeglasses and rotary printing presses are certainly well appreciated.

Bakelite and Carborundum may not be, but that's because they are trade names for well known products. Bakelite is an early plastic, not the first plastic and Carborundum, an abrasive otherwise known as silicon carbide. (used in fine sandpaper, a very well appreciated invention). The fact that "the United States Patent Office called Carborundum one of 22 American inventions most responsible for the industrial age of the 20th century" back in 1926 does not impress me. (And again, who makes a list of the top 22? Maybe they used to-- and that's why the "Top 10 list" is a legitimate invention.)

That leaves the horse collar. Let's hear it for the horse collar, something that I at least have not sufficiently appeciated.

And what about duct tape?
posted by notmtwain at 2:19 PM on November 14, 2005


I would have thought that the internal combustion engine would have made the list.

I mean, look outside, what's different than a hundred years ago?
posted by Danf at 2:20 PM on November 14, 2005


forrest writes "2) the stirrup, "

The horse collar is way more important than the stirrup. About the only thing you can't do in a saddle without a stirrup is warfare, but the amount of work you can get out of a horse is drastically reduced if you don't have a horse collar evenly distributing the load to the horse's shoulders.
posted by Mitheral at 2:38 PM on November 14, 2005


Without this, industry would never have existed. Come to think of it, there a great many small and often antiquated objects that are a prerequisite for an industrial society. Does anyone know how many technologies combined it took to create the infernal combustion engine?

Oh, don't forget the pipe. Pipe was a great idea.
posted by IronLizard at 2:47 PM on November 14, 2005


I would have thought that the internal combustion engine would have made the list.

It was underrated inventions. These are quite highly rated, trust me.
posted by IronLizard at 2:49 PM on November 14, 2005


forrest writes "2) the stirrup"... The horse collar is way more important than the stirrup.

Lynn White Jr. agrees with forrest. In his book Medieval Technology and Social Change, which I read years ago, he says, "Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few have had so catalytic an influence on history." A more recent article titled How the Stirrup Changed Our World adds: "The advantages of the stirrup, White believes, launched sweeping changes in warfare and society that lasted for nearly two thousand years. It shifted the balance of power in Europe. The maintenance of horses was expensive, and cavalry training was a long process. To support this, nobility granted land to mounted warriors for their service. The land provided the income to support the knight and this system of land holding was a key part of feudalism. Eventually, knighthood became a mark of social distinction, and the opportunity to become a knight was usually limited to men of noble birth. This web of political and military relationships among nobility, Professor White believes, caused the creation not only of the feudal system, but also of city states themselves."

In addition to barbed wire, people often overlook the importance that air conditioning and the elevator have had on how America evolved. And Andro Linklater, in his book Measuring America, says that no one (no one but him, I guess) realizes just how important the Gunter's chain has been to this country.
posted by LeLiLo at 8:03 PM on November 14, 2005


Eyeglasses are underrated? Not by me. I'd be utterly, completely helpless without them, and dependent on the goodwill of others to survive.

With them, I am a functioning, contributing member of society.

I do not underrate my glasses.
posted by Savannah at 8:08 PM on November 14, 2005


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