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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.