Top X: 10 Perfectly Pure Gadgets

By BBG Staff Perfection? Some gadgets are already perfect. They don't need further technological advancement. They're pure. If you change one thing about them significantly, you make them worse. You change their nature entirely. When someone finally comes up with a significant improvement to a pure gadget's tech, it will cease to be: it becomes something else. We're calling these gadgets "perfectly pure" and here's ten of them, for the passive absorbption into your cerebral membranes. The Wristwatch From the automaton-makers of Rhodes to the battery-powered blinkenlights of a crazy Tokyoflash timepiece, we've always loved machines that work to a schedule. Strip out the modern fad for electronics, however, and the basic workings of the not-so-humble wristwatch haven't changed an awful lot since the mechanism was miniaturized about a century ago. Permitting pocket watches – and a lot of genuine advances in accuracy – and we can look back as far as the 16th century. In an uncharacteristic flourish, even Wikipedia's army of officious tone-editors allows its entry on the matter to note our enduring love for the wristwatch's "old world craftsmanship." For the rest of us, however, this is a mere a prelude to its introduction to another world–one of escapement mechanisms, differential gears, and other cogporn–that we know we'll love to revisit even when we all have personal atomic clocks embedded in our marrow.
The Toaster For millennia, the cloddish neanderthal method of toast production reigned haute cuisine — much like a gazelle's torso or the scooped out brainmeats of a blood enemy, toast was best prepared by lancing it with a skewer and holding it over an open flame. There were, of course, sophistications: silver-coated cages used to dangle, to toast unevenly. But it wasn't until the 20th century that the toaster perfected itself, transforming from a helpful kitchen accessory into a nearly Platonic form: the pure mechanical interpretation of the verb to toast. In 1919, Charles Strite patented the world's first top-loaded bread toaster, with a spring-loaded ejection system that satisfyingly popped a crusty slice of raison cinnamon feet into the air upon completion. The design was picked up by the Waters Genter Company in 1925, christened the Model 1-A-1 Toastmaster and mass-produced. Within decades, there was not a single first-world kitchen that did not contain a toaster: what cooks a mere hundred years before had used a fork to prepare came a galvanic kitchen gadget obligation. Over the course of the next 75 years, superfluous perfections of convenience have been added to the toaster. The bread crumb tray. Thermal sensors that can detect burning. Jesus-producing pareidolia toasters. Cramming a toaster into a coffee maker. But the ultimate test of the design's perfection? Put someone into a kitchen without a toaster and tell them to make you a couple slices. Chances are, it'll take quite a few minutes for them to trudge up primal gastronomic instincts and suss out that all they really need is a heat source and a slice of bread.
The Toilet Sorry, folks, it's an urban legend. Thomas Crapper did not, in fact, invent the modern toilet. As a Galileo of the porcelain throne, however, he did much to promote and popularize an already-outstanding theory. The other legend is also false: the word "crap" predates Mr. Crapper's birth, meaning that his name, and its association with the act of defecation, is but a cosmic coincidence. Toilets have a long and illustrious history, but since the invention of the cistern-based, ballcock-toting, water-flushing modern model in the 18th century, little's been done to improve it. In fact, they've got markedly worse as modern-day restrictions on water usage threaten the efficacy of this classic invention.
Mouse Trap.jpg
The Mouse Trap The filthy vermin which afflict us must be exterminated. Animal-lover or not, the human extinct is pure: to pluck from our scalps the bulbous, blood-filled ticks; to drown in baths the dust mites that feast on our skin; to chop in half the tiny rodents that so delight in perching on our upper lips while we slumber and meticulously squeeze dropping after dropping into our snoring mouths. As they do. But mice and rats are a canny lot. How to kill them, not only with ruthless efficiency but with negligible pangs of guilt? In 1894, William C. Hooker of Abingdon, Illinois received a patent for his design for the first spring-loaded bar mouse trap. It was later perfected by Hiram Maxim to be the mouse trap we all know today: a simple plank of pine, attached to which is a clamp triggered by a spring and depressed with a slice of cheese. When a mouse or rat pokes its plaguey snout at the cheese, the spring depresses, the clamp snickersnacks and the mouse has its neck cleanly broken. What the guillotine is to the French, the mouse trap is to unhygienic Americans. A spring-loaded mousetrap is (usually) a clean way to kill a mouse. But spring for a non-lethal trap out of the kindness of your heart and when you release that mouse, you'll see it poking out of your Cheerios the next morning. Try a glue trap, and you'll hate yourself for years as you torture a cute, fuzzy animal to death. And poison is a painful crapshoot. Oh, sure. It's a cruel gizmo. But it is perfectly designed: "build the better mousetrap" has become an ironic cultural shorthand for "waste of time."
The Radio Radio's always been there, an endless ocean of electromagnetic nonsense shrouding humanity's nascent civilizations. It took Scots scientist James Clerk Maxwell to figure out that you could add a signal to the noise, but who actually made it work is a matter of some controversy. Nikola Tesla conducted public tests, but Guglielmo Marconi was first to design a purposeful, manufacturable apparatus, for which he was awarded a patent in 1896. Since then, there have been countless refinements, from the radar systems used to defeat the Luftwaffe over southern England to WiFi and high-speed cellular data. But the basic principle – systematically modulate an electromagnetic wave's frequency and amplitude – remains the same.
The Bicycle There are a billion of them worldwide, serving dutifully in work, leisure and even artwork: "The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets," said Christopher Morley. Though operating on a simple mechanism of wheels and pedals, their thermodynamic efficiency is so remarkable that almost nothing has changed in the basic design since the 1880s. And as Morley was drawn to write eloquently about our most eloquent form of transit, so were many others. Einstein dreamed the theory of relativity while riding one. "Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live," said Twain. "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race," said H. G. Wells. To this day, their wonders inspire little but wonder: "I hope that cycling in London will become almost Chinese in its ubiquity," London mayor Boris Johnson recently remarked. Not to miss: We are the Cyclists
The Scissors Even over the bicycle, a pair of scissors is the most perfectly perfect invention in all of gadgetdom. Created (at the latest) by the ancient Egyptians in 1500BC, scissors can be used to cut almost anything there is to cut. You can use them to cut paper. You can use them to cut steel. You can use them to garden. You can use them to circumcise. You can use them to trim hair. You can use them to carve someone out of a flaming car. The physical forces that make scissors so efficient are well known: they are sharp double levers with a pivot as a fulcrum. That's not to say there haven't been improvements, but they've been subtle (in 1761, Robert Hinchliffe started making scissors out of steel) or specialized (the Jaws of Life). And most scissor "improvements" are decidedly lame: flipping them enantiomorphically for use by the sinistral, or attaching a motor so you don't callous your thumbs. Scissors. You can scarcely improve them. So perfect are scissors at what we do that it was only at the end of the 20th Century that we started dreaming up "better" ways to cut things... like slicing it in half with a 1.3 petawatt laser beam. We're a few millennia yet before we stop using scissors entirely when there's something to cut.
The Keyboard Forget about Dvorak for a moment: no one's talking about keyboard layouts here. There's a surprising number of tattooing patterns for the flat protrusions of the modern keyboard... some better for different countries, some better for Unix dorks. But isn't that, in itself, some sort of wonderful commentary on the conceptual purity of the keyboard? That the only bickering going on is in the way alphanumeric keys are arranged... but not the base technology of the device? It's true that the construction of all Latin languages gives the keyboard a certain necessity. The smallest unit of a written word is the letter, without breaking things down into line strokes: it follows that we would all use a typing device that arranges itself by letter. In the case of the typewrite keyboard, a reversed steel imprint of that letter is damply pressed against the page when it is typed. On a computer keyboard, it simply sends the electric signal. But using a keyboard has never been intuitive. People know how to write long before they can type, and speak long before they can write. Yet advances in computer handwriting technology are sloppy, and speech-recognition technology even more so. The keyboard is so swift and elegant, there's little real need for these technologies... and thus, no impetus in perfecting them. Ultimately? Yes, mobile phones may finally hobble the keyboard. But it's worth noting, with a confident shrug, that even the touch screen iPhone only allows text entry via virtual keyboard.
Etch-A-Sketch If it seems a poor and labored candidate for a "perfect gadget" – especially given the difficulty of producing anything that isn't a straight line – one merely has to look at recent attempts to improve on the Ohio Art Company's classic Etch-a-Sketch to realize how wonderful it was, and remains. For example, asking for an Etch-a-Sketch nowadays carries a risk of receiving this electronic atrocity, which replaces the simple elegance of the original with a flimsy-looking, TV-required clone that doesn't even add any substantial new features. I'll confess to hating the Etch as a child, preferring the artistic range offered by magnets and colored iron filings. That, however, was not a gadget: that was someone's else's hazmat operation!
Printed Money This is the one that almost didn't make the list. A dollar bill isn't really a gadget. It doesn't even have a moving part... surely the minimum requirement for a piece of tech. It's a piece of paper, ink dampened with the morbid visage of a dead, pompous patriarch. We almost left it off the list entirely. Except for one thing: while it's not the only gadget on this list to change the world, it's the only one to change the world for everyone. Rewinding human history back a spell, trade was initially achieved by exchanging one object for another object. For example, an apple is traded for a roll of toilet paper. This, as you know, is the way the cavemen did it. If one caveman had more apples than he had toilet paper, he'd be willing to trade more of them for the prospect of a nice wipe. It was all very straightforward, until some utter madman decided he coveted gold... the utterly worthless "bling" of the Cromagnon periodic table. At this point, gold somehow became symbolic of goods and services in a trade... the variable x in a consumerist equation, always opposite a tradable good or service on the other side of the equal sign. But x always stood for something concrete. It stood for gold. And while promissory notes eventually took the place of gold (because promissory notes could be more easily carried than a large sack full of metal) the true revolution was realizing that gold could be divorced from currency altogether. It wasn't easy. Early attempts at printed money were failures. But we now live in a society of abstract wealth. Brownlee lives in Berlin, paid abstract wealth in dollars by an American company, and he is able to translate it into tangible euros at a local bank. Printed money? They're fairy promises. Everyone in the world willingly exchanges the possessions that can give them nourishment and comfort for a specified amount of ornamented paper rectangles... good for absolutely nothing, except to be spent, and only because we all believe they can be spent. Now that's a gadget.
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87 Responses to Top X: 10 Perfectly Pure Gadgets

  1. whitetail says:

    i second the request for information on the watch!

  2. Anonymous says:


  3. Lobster says:

    I’ve got to second the canoe.

    I’ll also say that while it’s arguable that divorcing currency from gold is what made it a gadget, it’s QUITE a stretch to say that perfected it. In fact, that’s the primary cause of destabilization (both inflation and deflation). If you want to see the dark side of symbolic currency, just take a look at the exchange rate in Zimbabwe. It’s been jumping by about 10 billion per USD every day.

  4. Anonymous says:

    FWIW If you pour vegetable oil on a mouse in a glue trap, they come right off.

  5. John Brownlee says:

    Thanks for all the comments, guys.

    Our definition of “perfectly pure gadgets” was more emotional than one that could be defined totally. We decided they needed to have at least one moving part and exist pretty much in their original form since their invention. So yeah, there’s improvements on all of these… none of them are perfectly pure in that sense. But surely we all recognize that a bicycle is perfectly pure in some wonderful philosophical sense and we can forgive it the addition of some extra gears.

    Also, re: currency. That one was WAY too complicated to do anything but an overview. The point we didn’t make, and probably should have, is that printed money not backed up has all sorts of problems associated with it… but the 21st Century would be so radically different without it that it would be unrecognizable.

  6. wingedwheel says:

    In my lifetime scissors were greatly improved. There are now many models designed to be used by both right and left-handed users.
    That did not used to be the case.

  7. Scuba SM says:

    There is one concept of design that has been drilled into my head over and over again over the past several years: you know you have a good design not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing to take away. Most of the gadgets on the list fulfill that design criteria; they do just the job they’re supposed to, with as few complications as possible (in their most basic forms). I think that design concept is getting a little lost in today’s gadget market, where “Jack of all trades, master of none” is viewed as the winner.

  8. magic whiskey says:

    One gadget rules over many here. One we use daily, regardless if we have mice to kill, someplace to go, words to express or things to cut.

    Toilet paper. Hell..forget the toilet! Potty paper is the one thing that demands recognition.

    Oh and if you want decent Russian watches, try too.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I believe that the proper usage is “UNIX weenies” not “UNIX dorks”


  10. Anonymous says:

    The postal stamp with attached envelope as the original RFID tag. Also, an anti-great gadget- the AK-47. Beautiful basic design and one of the most devastating pieces of technology loosed and used on humankind.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The idea of this list blows like the IBM boss quote about world needing just 5 computers. Or a top physicist saying that all fundamental laws of physics have been discovered discovered, just two years before Einstein starts publishing his works. Or patent office boss suggesting closing the office because everything has already been invented.

    Toaster definetly does not belong to this list. All its incarnations are far from perfect. The bread holes are never good fit for the bread you have, and the spring is always too strong or weak.

    Also, I detests implying that that old model mouse trap is perfect. Just a few years ago someone came up with a model that is safe for your fingers and much easier to arm/clean.

    Still, I would put coffee maker to the list. Those are always at least adequate for the job and have not changed in decades.

  12. whoo_whoo says:

    I was thinking:

    Toothbrush — An absolutely essential gadget that has been being made the same way since about the 1400s, in China.

    Air Conditioning/ Refrigeration — Either for cooling homes or keeping food cold. Who would want to go back to the ice-box, pre-air conditioning days? How can you improve it?

    Toothpick — Who was that fellow who just wrote a whole book about toothpicks? But is it so simple, that the toothpick does not qualify as a gadget?


    The Zipper — Barbed Wire — The Modern Washing Machine — The Incandescent Electric Light

  13. Flying Orca says:

    #26: recumbent bikes are ok, if you don’t mind getting crushed by giant SUVs…”

    Just what makes you think a recumbent is more susceptible to crushing by giant SUVs? I own and ride both, and the recumbent is FAR more visible. I might cause accidents by distracting all the drivers who insist on goggling and yelling out “Cool bike!”, but believe me, I’m visible.

    Way to pass on a persistent myth, though.

  14. Anonymous says:


  15. Anonymous says:

    Re #75, buttons win over zippers for that reason too. For years Battle Dress Uniforms came with buttons for that reason. Also easier to fix in the field!

    I’ve read, though, that recent BDUs have velcro. o_O Not very stealthy!!

  16. Nollie says:

    the zipper?? no way, it always gets stuck, or the teeth break, or the little handle thingy comes off. Velcro instead!!!!

  17. BadKittyM says:

    #12 – I live in southern California. We have no “countryside.” Any live, released vermin simply becomes someone else’s unwelcome infestation, unless you wish to drive at least 45 minutes away. I won’t. Not for a rodent. Not with gas at $4.49 per gallon.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Eric Logan: The recumbent has been the logical-and-yet-unpopular alternative since at least 1880. It’s banned from racing *because it works better*, and I would guess that women wearing skirts avoided it (bloomers got them in enough trouble).

    For an unexpected view on the history of bicycle racing, which has a little bit about the beginnings of the organization but a lot about an actual athletic hero, check out Major Taylor.

    And, being picky about paper currency; one shouldn’t ascribe to the idea of the printed paper all the virtues of non-physical currency; letters of credit are older (at least in the West) and got the global market off the ground. (Braudel, Civ and Cap, etc.)


    Um… I’d say the pencil, wood or mechanical. Movable type was quite the thing at the time. Glass windows are pretty important. Internal combustion. The lever. What’s a gadget, exactly? The vacuum tube was pretty important. To me, anyway, with this fresh blister on my hand from a hot 6CA7. The triode vacuum tube is a more pure gadget than the mechanical watch. Optical photography with chemicals. Let’s see… The slingshot. Or the bow/arrow for that matter. Simple and effective. A ladder: irreducible function if you ignore the 35 warning stickers on it, and who doesn’t?

  20. Anonymous says:

    Sure the bicycle may be under constant improvement, but so are many of the other inventions mentioned. Do you really think watch technology peaked in 1880? It is easy to argue though, that the quality of bikes has actually declined in recent years, if you define quality in terms of utility. The trend in bicycles has been towards emulating racing cycles. Older bikes (Like the Rene Herse pictured) are, in my mind at least, much better than most modern bikes (recumbents included).

  21. SeamusAndrewMurphy says:

    Agree with Woo Woo about refrigeration. Modern Western “civilization” without it? I think not.

    Along with that; canning, especially industrial canned goods. You try and commit yourself to a twentieth century land war without canned goods. You couldn’t have killed nearly as many people in as short a time.

    Don’t forget the transistor either.

  22. Anonymous says:

    the fence. Not only did it provide early humans with a way to control the herding of livestock, but it also created boundaries ushering in more permanent versions of agriculture. I believe that the fence did more for humanity as a gadget then scissors ever could.

  23. Felix Mitchell says:

    I’ve just done a dissertation on toilet design and I’m pretty sure they’re not a perfect gadget.

    there’s the argument that sitting (rather than squatting) increases the likelyhood of medical problems.

    there’s the whole edifice of a toilet block that has to be considered alongside the toilet; filled with traditions and taboos that restrict innovative design

    elderly, disabled people or those with bowel problems are rarely properly catered for by basic toilets

    and there’s quite a few other issues as well. just look at how many toilet organizations there are to help and promote good toilets; would a perfect gadget need that?

  24. Anonymous says:

    That 50 Franc note with all the images of/by Antoine de Saint Exupery is totally awesome. I have one that my sister got for me before the Euro was adopted. I always thought it was the perfect example of what money should really look like – colorful, whimsical, and commemorating a really wonderful person. Among the many details and images is even some micro-printed text from The Little Prince!

    @#10: recumbent bikes are ok, if you don’t mind getting crushed by giant SUVs…

  25. jonom says:

    No duct tape?

  26. freeyourcrt says:

    So glad to see John included paper money. I, and many other gold standard types, would’ve termed it fiat currency though. Also, the pros and cons of this “invention” is a discussion in itself. It’s one of the most fascinating subjects in my opinion because, as the article’s author points out, it is something that affects all of us.

  27. joncro says:

    mouse traps were perfected by Hiram Maxim? Wow… He also perfected a fantastic human killing device, the machine gun.

  28. Anonymous says:

    I would have made the safety pin #1.

  29. Anonymous says:

    The “controversy” about who invented radio has been over for a very long time… hmm, since 1943.

    Tesla invented it, built it, and demonstrated it in front of hundreds of observers including a US general. Marconi was an also-ran, and most of the important work of making radio useful to mere mortals wasn’t done by either man.


    PS- If the link doesn’t come through, just look for the Supreme Court decision against Marconi in 1943.

  30. wackyvorlon says:

    I would add coinage to the list. Early money was made of raw lumps of metal, stamped with an insignia. Over time, it was realised that if the insignia was raised, they would be harder to counterfeit.

    It allowed money to be minted industrially, and exchanged at higher and higher rates.

  31. Anonymous says:

    “true revolution”? you mean greatest scam ever because governments can inflate your money at will, which is essentially theft. Since the creation of the Fed, the dollar has lost 94% of its value, and you think this is a good thing?

  32. Jordan says:

    That watch at the top is gorgeous. Please, somebody tell me where I can buy it or a replica.

  33. genericvox says:

    Alton Brown may disagree, but I consider the toaster a dreaded “uni-tasker” – a complete waste of counter-space that does nothing an OVEN cannot do.

    I’m rather disappointed. Granted, the other items that made the list are uni-taskers, but have been useful additions to a modern lifestyle, filling a gap where an item of that nature was needed (toilets, for one).

    Replace Toaster with Oven (hell, I’ll even take toaster oven) and I’ll be a happy Stepford Wife.

    Also, paper money? We can argue semantics, but I normally think of a gadget as an item that consists of some moving parts. If I’m wrong, please feel free to correct. And although I don’t think it fits the list, I do believe people will always need a way to purchase products with an untraceable form currency. Cash will be around for a while, as long as people purchase their crack and prostitutes… :)


    I’ve just done a dissertation on toilet design

    And I’ve just read the one sentence that could convince me that I spend too much time on the internet. I’ll be outdoors with the dog, whether he wants to go out or not.

  35. Snowglobe says:

    Toilets are great…….but toilet plungers – now that’s a helpful gadget!!

  36. Anonymous says:

    This “the true revolution was realizing that gold could be divorced from currency altogether.” is called fiat money and makes money creation fraud possible (thus inflation), especially when combined with fractional reserve banking!

    Fiat money is a serious evil, it makes the so-called economic cycle of boom and bust possible i.e. fraudulent lending, then fraudulent debt recovery, via property theft, by bankers!

    I own Gold Bullion because I am convinced that most fiat money (IOU) notes, especially Dollars, will lose most of their purchasing value in the coming depression, yet limited commodities like Gold will retain most of its purchasing value.

    IMHO anyone who does not own a decent stake in precious metals, or other valuable commodities, is going feel serious financial pain!

  37. lava says:

    I had that same Toastmaster, and it would still be going strong if you could fit a half bagel in it…

  38. Anonymous says:

    Man, my parents have the exact same toaster, down to the cloth-covered cord.

    Thing’s been going strong for like seventy years — that’s some good design.

  39. Anonymous says:

    How about the Crescent or Ford Wrench?
    I know the right tool for the job is usually the correct size open end or box end wrench, but the adjustable wrenches can get you out of a jam if you don’t have the proper size unit available.

    Sorry about the anonymous comment but I am in the jungles of PNG right now and can’t waste the bandwidth to login.

  40. Random Royalty says:

    Technology always changes and must improve generally if there is an evolution in the availability of materials and along with energy, how much is consumed. In other words perfection can be obtained as long as there is stability in the environment in which the technology functions (which rarely happens).

    Toilets are a case in point. Going from 22 litres per flush to 1.2 litres with the same performance requires a serious rethink from a technological standpoint.

    Mousetraps have achieved “perfection” mainly because mice evolve slowly and the materials to manufacture the trap have remained inexpensive.

    I would also say that it is not the wristwatch but the clock face that is perfect, but this is not technology but design (oh dear).

  41. MadDuck says:

    Damn, five mice in one trap! My personal best (worst?) is three…

  42. Grebby says:

    Re: that watch

    My limited knowledge of Cyrillic letters paid off!

  43. phazeaction says:

    who ever said the zipper was superior to velcro has never tried to quietly boinkboink his girlfriend in her parents house while wearing boardshorts with a velcro fly.

    the noise is agonizing and has the effect of a powerful shrink ray.

  44. Anonymous says:

    Refrigerators can be improved by not having a door that lets all the cold air out every time you open it, as it stands they waste more electricity than most appliances in the house.

  45. arzak says:


    I see your point. Go for the quick kill.

    Arzak in VT

  46. chunkeesoop says:

    I would top that list with the following three pure inventions:

    The Salad Shooter.
    The Bedazzler.
    The Ginsu Knife.

  47. PaulR says:


    Canoe! Canoe! Where’s the canoe?

  48. ivan256 says:

    But using a keyboard has never been intuitive. People know how to write long before they can type

    Somebody better tell that to our current crop of 3, 4, and 5 year olds…

    My little cousin could type his name before he could hold a pencil using something other than the “fist” method. He even understands “backspace”.

  49. WarLord says:


    Steam Power and Refrigeration.

    I think you could make the case that the ability to keep food cold or frozen was huge but even more the cooling of homes and business to allow habitation and commerce in hot climates might be as big a deal as “fire”

    No Swiss Army knife?

    Enjoy the journey


  50. Red Fury says:

    Hey! That’s my toaster! But who broke into my house and cleaned all the crumbs off my counter?

  51. Red Fury says:

    Hey! That’s my toaster! But who broke into my house and cleaned all the crumbs off my counter?

  52. Anonymous says:

    The Halligan Bar.

  53. Anonymous says:

    There is a specific term for something that has reached the zenith of it’s design, and can not be improved, but the word escapes me. The example I always heard about, was scissors.

  54. romulusnr says:

    You’re in the Eurozone being paid in USD? You poor poor man; I hope you can find a way out of that predicament soon.

  55. SeamusAndrewMurphy says:

    Just an aside; our current paper currency isn’t really fiat money, it’s credit money. All borrowed into existence, not decreed.

    Easier to manipulate for private reasons this way though.

  56. EtaWat says:

    Paper money is quickly vanishing, Iceland has its stated aim to be the first paper-money-less economy, and we are almost there, we all use credit/debit/prepaid cards. Having paper-money on you is an anomaly.

  57. whoo_whoo says:

    I brainstormed a little bit, about elegant and simple “gadgets” that have completely revolutionized daily life. What about:

    – The Paperclip

    – The Syringe

    – Post-It notes

    – The Ball-Point Pen

    – Screw-off caps

    – The Compass

    – The Telescope or Microscope

    – Eye glasses/ Bi-focals?

    – Lego bricks

    – Skis/ Skiing


    We are awash, inundated with these types of products, or concepts, in this mass-consuming mechanized society of ours. No wonder to other cultures our “trash” is “valuable”.

  58. Marja says:

    The Bicycle:

    I’d have to say the [i]safety[/i] bicycle. Early bike designs led, step-by-step to the penny-farthing, which may not rival Maxim’s inventions as killing machines, but which suffers obvious problems. The safety bicycle solved these problems. All bike designs for the past century have been safety bikes or reclining bikes, and the safety bike has remained the most practical for most purposes.

    Paper Money:

    Especially useful for those who control the printing rate. It strikes me as an incredibly opaque invention, compared to notes denominating hours, goods, futures, etc. It also depends on trust in the government.

  59. legomyeggo says:

    There’s a great book dedicating page after page to simple gadgetry (for those of you paperclip, zipper, ladder types). Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design, Paola Antonelli (Author)

    My favorite gadget… Zippo lighter. Functional, elegant, effective.

  60. Adam Stanhope says:

    There are scores of beautiful Russian/Soviet watches for sale on eBay all of the time.

    I think the one in this article is particularly handsome as well.

  61. Kit10inDublin says:

    The CORK SCREW. No mention so far.

    I love the list. Very non-worldly democratic, if you get my meaning – very US/European standard for today. No vindictive criticism of that is intended.

  62. monkeyborg says:

    This article is a perfect example of a phenomenon in technology I find fascinating – the way that technologies unfamiliar, disruptive, and hand-wringing-inducing when introduced eventually become objects of second nature, “nearly Platonic form[s]”.

    I believe that part of this is a process of history-concealment, such that objects which were very much born from strife and uncertainty come to seem inevitable, even natural.

    Pinch and Bijker’s “Social Construction of Technological Systems” deals with the safety bicycle in particular, arguing that rival bicycle forms offered differing advantages (most notably speed), and that the safety bicycle emerged as the winning form because it exemplified a particular set of values preferred by the culture at the time, not because it was an unqualified best technical solution.

    My own interest lies with the keyboard, and the shift in attitudes toward typewritten text that occurred between the middle of the 20th century and today. It’s interesting to compare Heidegger’s rant against the perverse, unnatural influence of the typewriter in ‘Parmenides’ with the modern geek’s celebration of ‘plain’ text as the most pure expression of the written word – the title of Stephenson’s “In the beginning was the command line,” while tongue in cheek, places the typewriter prior to nature itself!

  63. kilranian says:

    I’m just going to echo many other comments and state that I find your inclusion of paper money, and its accompanying reasoning, to be irksome to my logical sensibilities. The idea of a fiat money system is nothing more than a ticking time bomb due to its detachment from the gold standard.

  64. arkizzle says:

    Thanks Grebby @28

    The watch shown above is the Sturmanskie “Gagarin 40 Year Anniversary Edition“, which is a remake of the watch Gagarin was wearing on his history mission.

    Do Want!

  65. nerdkiller says:

    Retractable Tape Measure!

  66. Eric Logan says:

    Can’t improve the diamond-frame bicycle? Nonsense. What about recumbent bikes?

  67. John Brownlee says:

    Okay, Kilranian! I’ll see you back in the stone ages when it all comes crumbling down! I guess I’ll owe you a beer!

    Excellent comment, Monkeyborg.

  68. SleighBoy says:

    Ah yes, currency backed by nothing, a must-have gadget for those who wish to exercise control over people of every nation.

  69. gabrielm says:

    Here’s “my” list:

    * Lever
    * Wheel and axle
    * Pulley
    * Inclined plane
    * Wedge
    * Screw

    …but yours lent to much better pictures…

  70. arzak says:

    The is a better mousetrap, I’ve been using it, when necessary, for years. It’s no kill, very effective, and see-through so you can look at the cute little things before taking them for a drive in the country. Just remember to check the traps every day.

    The MICECUBE (also available a malwart):

  71. WordyGrrl says:

    A very good list, although some things (like the bicycle, for example) are constantly being “improved upon” and thus aren’t “perfectly pure.”

    With technology advancing in the direction of elimating physical effort or mental exertion, it’s a shame when we lose respect for the things that don’t need to have electricity applied to them in order to work.

    Really, how close to your normal, everyday routine could you get — by using mechanical, non-electrical devices alone?

  72. travistbrown says:

    Nice piece. One humble correction: I don’t think “Jaws of Life” are technically scissors. The ones I have seen operate to force apart a closed car door, essentially by converting the force of a jack screw or hydraulic ram to the heavy metal “jaws” that force open the door when inserted into a small crack or opening. So at best they are the opposite of scissors: something that applies BLUNT force to tear apart two objects that were close together. They use leverage, but, duh, almost all tools do. Perhaps the writer was thinking of power metal shears.

  73. Fred Rated says:

    Nobody said porn.


  74. Mark Temporis says:

    Genericvox @69:

    The toilet is very much NOT a “uni-tasker”! It can be used for #1, and it can be used for #2.

    Even with the #2 just mentioned, this post has less shit in it than the gold standard folks. THERE AIN’T ENOUGH GOLD!

    BTW, Eta @68: In Iceland, how does one purchase a prepaid card if there is no cash?

  75. njordgreen says:

    maybe they should revisit this topic and see if anything has changed (
    there are plenty of gadgets that could, would or should hae made the list.

  76. Lord Peter says:

    @23 – The recumbent wasn’t banned from racing because it was faster (although it was faster); it was banned from racing because it eliminated the team and strategy aspects of racing. With recumbents, bike races would look like horse races (or time trials); there would be no drafting, pacelines, risky breakaways, pelotons, etc.

  77. Anonymous says:


  78. dainel says:

    In my economics class 20 years ago, we were taught that paper money were already superseded. Not that paper money are going to disappear anytime soon, but most of the money in the world in the world was not in paper form. They were merely bits in computers in the banks around the world. (Yes kids. Even when your ma and pa was in school, banks had computers, even then :).

    The interesting thing was that banks created money when they lend it out. And this total is a lot more than the total value of paper money being printed by governments.

  79. arkizzle says:

    me @79

    What is a ‘history mission’..? doh.


  80. Anonymous says:

    Ivan256 mentioned the current crop of young folk typing before they can write… however that’s not to say that even some of us older folk aren’t like that! I am 29 years old, and have been typing since around the same time that I learned to write. My first computer was an Apple ][+ back in the very early 80s (probably around 82, when I was 3) and learning to type on that was just as “natural” as learning to write with pencil and paper. Actually, I’d hazard to say that it was EASIER, because I only needed to remember what key to press and the same letter would be formed each time (that can’t be said for a pencil!)

  81. Daemon says:

    I don’t know – I think the Lever, Wheel and the Inclined Plain win in terms of purity.

  82. Beanolini says:

    My ‘first world kitchen’ does not contain a toaster- I prefer using the grill part of the oven.

    Toasters don’t cope well with hand-sliced bread- it’s very difficult to gauge the brownness setting when bread thickness varies from slice to slice.

    Toasters produce very dry toast- toasting in front of a fire or on a grill gives a slightly moist core (which I prefer).

    Toasters are unable to make cheese on toast!

  83. Bruce Arthurs says:

    How could they leave out…

    …the swivel-bladed vegetable peeler?

  84. Quiet Noises says:

    Perhaps your typical bolt and lock?

    No technological advancement can prevent a solid door from closing as reliably as a solid door lock. Disregarding the engaging mechanism, be it a hand-operated dumbbell, the classic key-and-pins or even an electronically-deployed system, the basic premise of a physical barrier being unpenetrable because of one simple mechanism is something that can never be replaced.


    The wheel is almost trivial compared to the axle and bearing. That’s an essential and non-obvious invention.

  86. shecky says:

    “Jaws of Life” I’ve seen seem to work both ways, as scissors and as spreaders. Hydraulic ram used for both opening and closing.

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