Although it's hard to fathom why people bothered to go on living, there was once a time when folks had no choice but to sit up straight in their chairs, fiddle with buttons and zippers, climb stairs, hike to the outhouse, and add numbers with pencil and paper. Below, a paean to the inventions that made it easier to enjoy the simple pleasures of sinful idleness.
1. The Escalator
In 1891, Jesse Reno patented the first moving staircase, paving the way for today's world, in which we choose not to use staircases, just StairMasters. Reno's invention was more of an inclined ramp than the escalator we know today; passengers hooked into cleats on the belt and scooted up the ramp at a 25-degree angle. Fairly soon after, he built a spiral escalator—the mere thought nauseates us—in London, but it was never used by the public. Reno's first escalator, however, was widely used, albeit not practically. In a testament to how utterly unamusing amusement parks were in the 1890s, 75,000 people rode Reno's "inclined elevator" during a two-week exhibition at Coney Island in 1896. Let's be clear: The escalator was not the means by which one traveled to a ride. It was the ride itself.
In 1928, when he was a mere lad of 21, Edwin Shoemaker forever blurred the distinction between sitting up and lying down by developing the world's first reclining chair. His initial model, a wood-slat chair intended for porches, was fashioned out of orange crates and designed to fit the contours of the back at any angle. It took an early customer, appreciative of the concept but rather unexcited about the prospect of lying down on bare slats of wood, to suggest upholstering the chair. Shoemaker and his partner (and cousin) Edward Knabusch then held a contest to name the invention. "La-Z-Boy" beat out suggestions like "Sit 'n Snooze" and "The Slack Back." The next time someone tells you an active lifestyle is the key to long life, reply with this tidbit: The man who invented the recliner lazed his way up to the ripe old age of 91.
Isaac Newton beneath the apple tree. Archimedes shouting "Eureka!" in the bathtub. And Georges de Mestral going for a walk in the woods. The greatest discoveries often stem from mundane observations, and while gravity (Newton) and measurable density (Archimedes) are cool and everything, nothing beats the sweet music of parting Velcro. Mestral, a Swiss engineer, returned home after a walk in 1948 to find cockleburs stuck to his coat. After examining one under a microscope, he noted that cockleburs attach to clothes and fur via thin hooks. Eureka! It took Mestral eight years to develop his product. But in the end, the twin nylon strips worked precisely like a cocklebur on a coat—one strip features burr-like hooks and the other thousands of small loops to which they attach, forming an unusually strong bond.
4. The Calculator
Ah, the calculator—a handy device that makes 55378008 look like a naughty word when you turn it upside down. Oh, and it also makes math class a whole lot easier. Oddly enough, it was a 19-year-old boy named Blaise Pascal (yes, that Pascal) who invented the first mechanical adding machine. But Pascal's device was cumbersome and couldn't record results, so the vast majority of people continued calculating by hand until 1892, when William Seward Burroughs patented the first commercially viable adding machine. Although Burroughs died before reaping much profit from his invention, his grandson (also William Seward Burroughs) was one sure beneficiary. The younger Burroughs became famous for writing Naked Lunch, a book that would likely have been impossible if Burroughs hadn't had all that inherited calculator money to waste on heroin.
5. The Toilet
Contrary to popular belief, we do not have Thomas Crapper to thank for the conveniences of the flushing toilet (more on him in a moment). Toilets with drainage systems date to 2500 BCE, but Sir John Harrington invented the first "water closet" around 1596 (it was also used by his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I). However, toilets never caught on until Alexander Cummings invented the "Strap," which featured a sliding valve between the bowl and the sewage trap. As for Mr. Crapper (1837-1910), he was a plumber who sold, but did not invent, a popular type of toilet, although he did hold several plumbing-related patents. Not surprisingly, Crapper has been unfairly linked to the less-than-pleasant word "crap." The two, however, are unrelated. In 1846, the first time "crap" is recorded as having been used in English, little Tommy-poo was just nine years of age.
This article was excerpted from Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits. You can pick up a copy in the mental_floss store.