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The Unusual Origin Stories of 9 Everyday Household Items

Jon Mayer
The origin of the smoke detector might surprise you.
The origin of the smoke detector might surprise you. / Nick M Do/Photodisc/Getty Images
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Do you know what the Boy Scouts have to do with barcodes? Or how Mother Nature inspired the creator of Velcro? The interesting origins of household items may surprise (and, at times, even horrify) you. From Vaseline and Velcro to barcodes and air conditioners, here are the surprising origin stories of some everyday items, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. Barcodes

Did you know we have the Boy Scouts to thank for barcodes? As a kid, N. Joseph Woodland learned Morse Code through his participation in the Scouts. Years later, when he was looking for a way to efficiently imprint data onto products for tracking and organization, he thought back to that childhood experience. He wondered if there was a way to visually render a version of Morse Code’s simple-but-virtually-limitless method of communication.

As Woodland told Smithsonian Magazine, inspiration struck at the beach: “I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason—I didn’t know—I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines. I said: ‘Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.’”

Woodland worked with a friend, Bernard Silver, to turn that moment of insight into the precursor to modern barcodes. The men sold their patent for only $15,000, but years later, with the help of Woodland’s IBM colleague George Laurer and the supermarket executive Alan Haberman, barcodes became the industry standard. Today they’re practically ubiquitous.

2. Lysol

Lysol first came to prominence after it was used in Hamburg, Germany, to help combat a cholera epidemic in the late 19th century. It was later touted as a way to fight the devastating flu epidemic of 1918. An ad in the Los Angeles Times that year said, “Help your health board conquer Spanish influenza by disinfecting your home.”

Lysol does kill most bacteria and viruses, so it made some sense to use it in these contexts. Later research has cast doubt on the relative efficacy of addressing these particular illnesses through surface sanitation, but there was nothing too objectionable in those early efforts. 

Beginning in the 1920s, though, Lysol was marketed as a safe, effective, and necessary feminine hygiene product. In reality, it was none of those things. 

Lysol sold itself with advertising featuring sexist lines, like “instead of blaming him if married love begins to cool, she should question herself.” That would be gross enough even if douching (which the ads called for) was a necessary procedure—which it isn’t. And worst of all for the ladies who were spraying this stuff on their nether regions, Lysol’s early formula contained cresol, which could lead to burning, inflammation, or worse. By 1911, doctors had recorded five deaths from “uterine irrigation” with Lysol

A lawsuit was filed against Lysol’s manufacturer in 1935 by a woman who had been burned by the product. Yet when a man complained, decades later, that it had caused his wife’s vagina to blister and bleed, the company’s vice president told him that the report was “the first of its kind on record.”

Lysol was often used in postcoital douching, the most common method of contraception from 1940 to 1960—and on that front it was also a failure. As historian Andrea Tone explains in her book Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, a 1933 study at Newark’s maternal health center found that almost half of the women who used Lysol as a contraceptive wound up pregnant. 

3. Vaseline

Chemist Robert Chesebrough had a successful job making oils used for illumination, but when petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania, Chesebrough decided to seek out riches in the nascent industry.

He noticed that oil rig workers would use a byproduct of the drilling process known as “rod wax” to address cuts and burns sustained during their work. Some might have said, “Wow, this oil rig stuff is really dangerous.” But Chesebrough said, “Give me some of that weird black goop and stand back.” 

Chesebrough developed a method to refine the rod wax into a clear ointment called petroleum jelly—or, under the brand name it’s widely known as today, Vaseline. Supposedly, to sell his product, Chesebrough traveled around and performed demonstrations in which he wounded himself on purpose and then applied petroleum jelly to demonstrate its salubrious qualities. Afterwards, he’d give out free samples.

We can applaud Chesebrough for his ingenuity, but there was a much earlier reported use of proto-petroleum jelly. Native Americans evidently realized the substance’s ability to protect wounds in humans and animals, moisturize the skin, and even lubricate the moving parts of tools many years before Chesebrough patented his refining process. It’s a useful reminder that when it comes to discovery and invention, the person who gets there first is not always the person who gets the credit.

4. Smoke Detectors

Different versions of smoke and heat detectors have been around since the late 1800s, but a key step in the invention's evolution came from Swiss physicist Walter Jaeger. 

The story goes that Jaeger was trying to create a device that would detect poisonous gas. It didn’t work. One day he lit up a cigarette and voila! His failed poison detector revealed itself to be an effective smoke detector. It would take decades for further technological advances to bring the devices into homes around the world, but they’ve saved thousands of lives since then. 

5. Velcro

George de Mestral found inspiration for his most famous invention in those annoying little burrs that can get stuck to your clothing after a walk in the woods. They came from the burdock plant, and when de Mestral put them under a microscope, he realized that they made use of tiny hooks on the surface of the burr to grab on to whatever passes by. 

He went to work on developing a synthetic version of the adhesive structures, and with the help of a manufacturer in Lyon, France, he succeeded. It took a while to catch on, but today Velcro—which, incidentally, is properly a specific company name and not the generic term for the fastener—can be found on clothing, the Trapper Keeper, and even NASA space missions, where it helps prevent things from floating around in low gravity.

6. Kleenex

Like Velcro, Kleenex is practically synonymous with the generic product it made popular. The disposable tissue actually dates indirectly back to World War I, when the company Kimberly-Clark created a type of cellucotton for use as a filter in gas masks. They had been doing other work with cellucotton at the time, including a product that would turn into Kotex, the feminine hygiene product line.

The company kept the “EX” ending from Kotex when they modified it, making it softer and thinner, and sold it as Kleenex. Originally it was meant to remove cold cream and makeup—hence the “kleen.” 

Five years after Kleenex came to market, as the company’s website tells it, Kimberly-Clark’s head researcher was suffering from hay fever. He started using Kleenex instead of his handkerchief, and when he looked down into the snot, he evidently saw dollar signs. 

Just a few years before, a Chicago inventor named Andrew Olsen had developed the first pop-up tissue box—the one that makes it easy to take one tissue at a time. Kleenex put their new product in the pop-up boxes and the rest, as they say, is paper goods history.

7. The S-Trap

You can read pieces all over the internet about Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, John Harrington, and his would-be contributions to plumbing. Harrington didn’t invent the flush toilet, but he did see the wisdom in its use, and tried, without much success, to convince his English contemporaries to eschew their chamber pots for his lavatory.

But the everyday object we're focusing on is the S-trap, which Scottish watchmaker Alexander Cumming incorporated as he patented his flushing toilet in 1775. The S-trap attaches to the back of a toilet and “use[s] water in the trap to keep the toxic gasses from getting back into the home and the poo and pee from easily sliding back into the toilet,” according to Kimberly Worsham, a sanitation expert and the founder of Facilitated Learning for Universal Sanitation and Hygiene, or FLUSH. 

Cummings’s patent led to what Worsham calls “a flush toilet renaissance”—eat your heart out, Michelangelo—and in the long run, alongside other plumbing innovations, it has prolonged countless lives by improving sanitation. 

But, by Worsham’s estimate, around half of the people on Earth don’t have access to “safely managed toilets,” in which waste is properly treated before being put back into the environment. And while there’s surely a role for governments and nonprofits to play in expanding access to sanitation, there’s also a new generation of inventors and thinkers working on the problem, whether by building better toilets or integrating waste into safe applications like fertilizer.

8. The Air Conditioner

The air conditioner was a revolutionary device, and you might be surprised to discover that it was created to provide relief to ... a printing press. When American engineer Willis Carrier created an air conditioner using chilled water moving through heating coils, it was meant to control the temperature and humidity—primarily the humidity, in fact—at Brooklyn’s Sackett and Wilhelms printing plant. This was necessary to ensure smooth operation of the machinery. The invention spread to other industries, and soon enough was being used specifically to provide comfort to human beings.

It’s easy to underestimate the air conditioner’s impact. To take one example: It allowed human beings to build up into the air, with skyscrapers—imagine the sweltering summer heat on the 100th floor of a building without air conditioning—and to develop cities in locales like Dubai that would be much less pleasant to spend time in without artificial cooling.

 9. Saccharine

Chemist Constantin Fahlberg was working in Ira Remsen’s lab at Johns Hopkins University in the late 1800s. As Fahlberg later explained, he forgot to wash his hands after work one day and grabbed a piece of bread. It tasted suspiciously sweet. Thinking he had accidentally grabbed some cake, he rinsed his mouth and dried his mustache with a napkin, which tasted even sweeter. Then he drank some wine—it tasted as sweet as syrup. Finally, he licked his thumb and found it was about the sweetest thing he had ever tasted. He realized that one of the chemicals he was working with had to be responsible.

When Fahlberg went back to the lab, he started tasting different chemicals (as one does) before identifying the sticky substance as benzoic sulfimide, which became known as saccharin—often sold under the brand name Sweet’N Low. Fahlberg had worked with the chemical before, but it took a happy accident for him to taste it and realize its commercial potential.

Fahlberg and Remsen co-authored a paper on the discovery, but when Fahlberg patented the product years later, he listed himself as saccharin’s sole inventor. Remsen did not take too kindly to this development. He later called Fahlberg “a scoundrel” and said, “It nauseates me to hear my name mentioned in the same breath with him.” 

Remsen argued that he assigned Fahlberg a problem which Fahlberg investigated under his guidance, saying, “Fahlberg carried out my directions and deserves credit for this, and for this alone.” Though he leaves out whether poor laboratory hygiene was part of his directions.

We may never definitively know who deserves credit for which part of saccharin’s discovery, but we know that the health risks associated with it have probably been overblown. Studies have shown that the artificial sweetener causes cancer in rats, which is the primary source of the concern, but most studies don’t find evidence of saccharin being a carcinogen in humans.

The sweet substance has actually been controversial for much of its history. In the early 20th century, long before the saccharin studies done on rats and cancer, there were already calls to ban it. Theodore Roosevelt, never one to mince words, said, “Anybody who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot.” 

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