The world is filled with useless discoveries and the thousands of men and women who work hard every day to come up with them. Who knows where and when that next spark of genius will strike and bring us another civilization-altering invention such as the internet, with its ability to send knock, knock jokes at the speed of light, or the teleprompter, which allows even an actor who can’t memorize his lines to become President.
Here are a few of my favorite discoveries that, though initially thought to be useless, wound up becoming indispensable parts of modern life.
The ATM – The twin idols of modern man are money and machines. So the ultimate discovery had to be the machine that spits out money. The Bankmatic automatic teller machine was invented in 1939 by Luther George Simjian, a brilliant and tireless inventor who also is responsible for developing the computer-simulated indoor golf course (encouraging men in ugly plaid pants to curse and fling golf clubs year-round). However, the ATM was initially a failure. Simjian persuaded what is now Citicorp to give it a trial, but after six months the bank reported that there was little demand. “It seems the only people using the machines were a small number of prostitutes and gamblers who didn’t want to deal with tellers face to face,” wrote Simjian.It wasn’t until 1968 when a modern version of the machine was introduced that customers finally embraced 24-hour banking, and the ATM became the greatest cash squandering device in the history of mankind.
The Microwave Oven – The first new way to cook since man discovered fire, the microwave oven was discovered accidentally. In 1946, a Raytheon Company engineer named Dr. Percy Spencer was performing tests on a magnetron tube (a component of military radar) when he got strong cravings for the chocolate bar that was stashed in his pocket. When he grabbed it he was surprised to find that the chocolate had melted. Dr. Spencer at first suspected foul play, possibly by Communist agents, but later guessed that the magnetron had cooked his chocolate. To test his theory he took a handful of popcorn and placed it in front of the magnetron tube. Popped kernels of corn began shooting across his lab in all directions. Dr. Spencer was soon blowing up eggs, cookies, and a number of his colleagues’ experiments, before his fellow researchers realized that he had cooked his own brain.They edged him out of the dangers of the research lab, where he changed his name to Orville Redenbacher and went on to become the first microwave popcorn millionaire.
Disposable Diapers – It was 1946 and Marion Donovan was tired of changing her son James’ diapers and sheets, which he would habitually wet as soon as she would finish putting him back in bed. She decided to design a waterproof diaper cover, so that at least his sheets would remain dry. Working methodically through a number of shower curtains, she perfected a reusable, leakproof diaper cover, which she named the “Boater,” because it helped babies stay afloat. The diaper covers’ sales debut came at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, where they were an instant success. Donovan next created the disposable paper diaper, made of materials that wicked moisture away from the baby’s skin, but was roundly laughed at by the all-male executives at numerous major U.S. paper companies. Being guys who had never changed a diaper in their lives, they viewed her idea as unnecessary and impractical. It took nearly ten years for her to finally convince a man, Victor Mills, to create Pampers. Marion Donovan’s son James grew up to be a urologist.
Anesthesia – Inca shamans, the world’s first brain surgeons, probably invented anesthesia in order to help alleviate the squirming of patients whose skulls they were drilling holes in to let out the evil humors. The shamans chewed coca leaves and spat into the wounds, where the coca acted as a local anesthetic. Whether it’s a good idea to have a surgeon high on cocaine drilling and spitting into your brain is a question best left to your HMO. The next major development in anesthesia didn’t occur until 1793 when nitrous oxide was discovered and researcher Humphrey Davy began administering it to visitors of his institute. Noting the hilarious effects on people who inhaled it, he nicknamed it “laughing gas.” After trying some of the gas himself, Davy decided to abandon science and distribute laughing gas in bags to famous celebrities of the day such as Peter Roget, who would stand around all evening making up synonyms for “intoxicated” (inebriated, plastered, mellow, tanked, cockeyed etc.) which take up no less than seven pages of his famous Thesaurus. For more than 40 years, the primary use of laughing gas was in travelling medicine shows and carnivals, where volunteers would inhale a minute’s worth of gas, and then stumble around on stage and be confused while the audience laughed at them. (This was the birth of Reality TV.) Finally, a Massachusetts dentist, Dr. Horace Wells, was struck by the pain- numbing qualities of a carnival laughing gas experience, and started administering it to his patients while he was drilling holes in their skulls. Dr. Wells went on to pioneer the root canal (when he dozed off while drilling a cavity), but is probably best known for his other invention, the spit sink.