Monday, November 12, 2012


As a very recent user of hearing aids my curiosity got the best of me so I did some research into the invention of hearing aids and their evolution to today’s state-of-the-art models and I was surprised to learn that folklore holds that Alexander Graham Bell undertook telecommunication experiments in an attempt to restore his wife Mabel’s hearing which had been destroyed by Scarlet Fever close to her fifth birthday leaving her completely deaf for the remainder of her life. I was also surprised to discover that Mabel Bell’s maiden name was Hubbard. I knew that hearing loss runs in the family but could it be?? I’ll have to that one to see what I can find. I am sure that A. G. Bell would probably flip his lid if he were to find out what a phone can do now, eh?! Or hearing aids, for that matter.

While researching the history of hearing aids I came across a number of useful and popular inventions that got their start as a search for something entirely different, usually as enhancements for the tools of war or something, but many final results resulted in everyday items. The following are examples of accidental inventions.

Microwave ovens: Percy Spencer was a known electronics genius who was responsible for vast improvements to the manufacturing of radar parts for the war effort in 1941. He was an engineer at Raytheon in 1945 when he started fiddling with a microwave-emitting magnetron and melted a candy bar in his pants pocket! Good thing that was all that melted in his pants, but I digress. Spencer observed that the microwave radiation from the magnetron was responsible for the chocolate bar’s melting. Development of the microwave oven grew out of these observations, and by 1947, a commercial oven was being sold by Raytheon. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Percy!!

Slinky: In 1943, Richard James, a naval mechanical engineer at William Cramp and Sons Shipyards, was developing springs that could support and stabilize sensitive instruments aboard ships in rough seas. James accidentally knocked one of the springs from a shelf, and watched as the spring stepped to a stack of books, to a table top, to the floor, where it re-coiled itself and stood upright. James thought that with the right tension and property of steel he could make the thing walk and after tinkering with it for most of a year he arrived at the final product which got neighbourhood children excited when he showed them. James’ wife Betty named it “Slinky”, (meaning sleek and graceful), after finding the word in the dictionary, and decided that the word aptly described the sound of the metal spring expanding and collapsing. The couple took out a $500.00 loan and introduced the “Slinky” to the public at the American Toy Fair in 1946, and the rest, as they say, is history. Over 300 million Slinkys have been sold between 1945 and 2005, and the original Slinky is still a bestseller!

Velcro: The hook-and-loop fastener was conceived in 1941 by Swiss engineer, George de Mestral when the idea came to him one day after returning home from a hunting trip with his dog. Using his microscope, he took a closer look at the burrs of burdock that kept sticking to his clothes and the dog’s fur. He noted that there were hundreds of “hooks” that caught on anything with a loop and immediately saw the possibilities of binding two materials reversibly in a simple fashion if he could figure out how to duplicate the hooks and loops. It took a decade to perfect the materials and the loom to create a mechanized process that worked. He submitted his idea for a patent in Switzerland in 1951 and the patent was granted in 1955 but it was another decade before NASA saw the benefits of the “zipperless zipper”. As Velcro only became widely used after NASA’s adoption of it, NASA is popularly — and improperly — credited with its invention.

These are just three of a vast number of products that have been introduced and have stood the test of time after its original purpose either failed or was re-directed. Now you know.

“What we must understand is that the industries, processes, and inventions created by modern science can be used either to subjugate or liberate. The choice is up to us. - Henry A. Wallace (1888-1965). 33rd Vice President of the United States.

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