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Behind Simple Ingenuity: The stories behind some of the simplest–and most brilliant–inventions ever

Behind Simple Ingenuity: The stories behind some of the simplest–and most brilliant–inventions ever

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Some of the greatest inventions of the modern era–the microprocessor, the internal combustion engine, Bloody Marys–took years of development and contain complex systems and parts working in perfect harmony. And while these are undeniably great achievements, there are some equally brilliant inventions that are so simple, you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of them (because had you, you’d be spending the afternoon counting the digits in your bank account). Here are 7 of those simple, brilliant inventions that changed the world and the stories of how they (sometimes accidentally) came to be.

Post-It Notes

Post-It notes were a mistake. In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silver was trying to develop a very strong, quick drying adhesive for 3M, and screwed the pooch so badly he ended up developing the exact opposite: a weak adhesive that never seemed to dry. But this adhesive had promise; Dr. Silver just couldn’t think of a satisfying application.

It was Dr. Art Fry, Silver’s colleague, who, after becoming frustrated with his bookmark always falling out of his church hymnal, decided to apply the adhesive to the back of a slip of paper. Thus was born the Post-It note, used everyday across the globe for doodling, and occasionally, an important note or reminder.

Sliced Bread

Frederick Rohwedder’s invention has been the gold standard by which all other inventions are judged–as the old adage goes, “the best thing since sliced bread.” Whether he was just really lazy or had a severe bread knife allergy, we’ll never know, but he’s the man who “invented” sliced bread. Not the sexiest thing, but he was probably too busy making money sandwiches to care.


Wine has been around so long–eight thousand years, give or take–that no one knows how it was “discovered.” It’s likely that some dim-witted hunter-gatherer left the juice of grapes in the sun a bit long, but drank it anyway despite the funny taste. Half an hour later, he was singing Bob Seger and spit talking.

Wine is easy to make, good wine is not. Since Gorg the hunter-gatherer, viticulture (the science and production of winemaking) has grown to a delicious, multi-billion dollar industry supported by unhappy housewives and Greek weddings.

Paper Clip

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and Samuel Fay needed a way to harmlessly attach claim tickets to fabric. Pins wouldn’t do; Fay didn’t want to perforate delicate fabrics. He bent a small piece of wire into a simple X shape, and by sliding the ticket and fabric between the crossing elements, he could bind them together without damage to either. Not long after, on April 23, 1867, he was awarded US Patent number 64,088, and the paper clip was born.

Fay’s initial design, however, was not to survive. It had imperfections–pokey ends, limited strength–and soon better designs arrived on the market. No one is really sure when the Gem clip arrived, but what we do know is that it vanquished dozens of competitors with it’s simple double-turn design; a design so sublimely perfect it’s gone unchanged for over a hundred years.

The Pulley

Archimedes took to science like a fish to water. He was a physicist, an astronomer, an engineer, and a mathematician. He was the Bo Jackson of ancient science.  While he is known for many inventions and discoveries (that whole “Eureka!” thing), perhaps the most influential of his inventions remains in use today, 2200 years later: the pulley.

Archimedes was the one who developed the first block-and-tackle pulley system–a system that uses multiple pulleys working together to maximize mechanical advantage to lift something extremely heavy. Pulleys are as effective as they are simple: Plutarch describes Archimedes using his block-and-tackle system to move a warship full of men, single-handedly.  We imagine he placed a few bets on this beforehand, and collected handsomely after.

The Zipper

Once upon a time, buttons were found on everything you could wear, and some things you couldn’t. They were the gold standard of fastening, closing, or tightening fabrics. Button makers made lots of money providing a staple service (so to speak) to the world’s clothing manufacturers. Then some guy named Gideon Sundbäck came along and ruined everything.

The zipper was the DVD to the Button’s VHS. It did everything better, faster, stronger, work it, make it, do it, makes us…er, you get the point. He earned a patent in 1917, and almost immediately began producing hundreds of feet of zipper a day. If you look down at your crotch right now, you’ll a) get weird looks, and b) likely find “YKK” on the zipper tab–the world’s largest zipper maker, with production facilities in 68 countries around the world.


Georges de Mestral was hunting with his dog in the hills his native Switzerland when he noticed how many burrs had attached themselves to his pet. Their removal proved frustrating enough to pique Mestral’s curiosity. He put one of them under a microscope, and discovered their secret: tiny hooks covering the burr. The idea for Velcro was born.

It took only a moment for the idea to form, but a full 10 years for it to come to fruition. After finally getting a patent and figuring out a good design and manufacturing process, Velcro (a mix of the French words “velours” and “crochet,” or “velvet” and “hooks” respectively) saw the light of day. It can be found anywhere from the Space Shuttle to your 8th grade wallet.

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