Celebrating the hidden heroes of technology
- 8 November 2011
- From the section Business
Where might you expect to find a paperclip, a clothes peg, and a teabag?
Probably not in a museum where the other exhibits chronicle the progress of science and technology.
But those items are amongst the stars of a new exhibition at London's Science Museum.
Hidden Heroes celebrates the everyday objects that we take for granted - products like the paper tissue, the egg box, and the zip fastener - and tells the stories behind their invention.
Who knew, for instance, that the rawlplug that millions of us use in DIY jobs every day was invented in 1910 by an engineer called John Joseph Rawlings?
He had been contracted to install electrical fittings at the British Museum with the stipulation that the walls should be damaged as little as possible.
He came up with a plug made out of jute fibres that had been saturated with glue.
Fifty years later a German inventor developed a plastic plug that used the same principle of "grip by expansion".
Then there is the clothes hanger. It looks very simple, but 189 patents were issued for various models between 1900 and 1906.
One was for a wire hanger invented when Albert Parkhouse arrived at work on a cold winter's day to find all the coat pegs taken - so on the spot he bent a piece of wire into a hanger.
"It's not always a eureka moment," says Dr Sue Mossman, the Science Museum material sciences specialist who is overseeing the exhibition. "Sometimes there are a few steps before you get to the perfect product."
Dr Mossman says the aim of the exhibition is to make people think about things that they use every day. But Hidden Heroes also tells a story about the industrial revolution.
"You need industrial processes and manufacturing before you can get these inventions. So without drawn wire you wouldn't get the paperclip."
The rubber band, for instance, arrived in 1845, but only after Britain's Thomas Hancock and the American Charles Goodyear discovered that heating rubber with sulphur - vulcanisation - transformed an unstable raw material into something much more useful.
The idea for Hidden Heroes came from a company called Hi-Cone which makes another simple but durable product, the plastic strip used to carry six-packs of drinks.
"Our product is used by millions of people every day but is rather invisible," says Ton Hoppenbrouwers from Hi-Cone.
"We looked around and found that there are lots of products at home or at the office that are simple in design, used by millions, and haven't changed over the years."
In collaboration with the Vitra Design museum in Germany, Hi-Cone selected 36 such products and mounted the Hidden Heroes exhibition, which is now arriving in London after winning all sorts of awards.
What, then, do the Hidden Heroes have in common that makes them last so long?
"The secret behind them is that they are all idiot-proof," says Ton Hoppenbrouwers.
"Once you see them you know how to use them, and they operate in the way you like."
When I asked Mr Hoppenbrouwers to choose his favourite products he plumped for the rawlplug, the coat-hanger, and the clothes peg - "like our product they are all very simple, very minimal but they carry a large weight".
One striking thing about an exhibition of products that are used by everyone is that only one of the hidden heroes was invented by a woman. In 1908, German housewife Melitta Bentz invented an effective coffee filter by lining a perforated metal beaker with blotting paper.
It was 30 years before this evolved into the form it has today, but despite the arrival of all sorts of smart and expensive machines, the simple paper filter is still the easiest route to a good cup of coffee in millions of homes around the world.
More recent products that already look destined for longevity include the sticky note seen plastered on computer screens, notice-boards and documents just about everywhere.
This all began with a failure in the late 1960s, when an American scientist at 3M's research lab, Dr Spencer Silver, was trying to develop an extra-strong adhesive.
Instead, he developed a weak glue that allowed things to be joined and taken apart equally easily. A decade later Silver's colleague Arthur Fry, irritated by paper bookmarks which kept falling out of his hymnbook during choir rehearsals, decided to coat them with the weak glue. The Post-It note was born.
You will not find anything that looks remotely hi-tech in the Hidden Heroes exhibition.
Visitors wandering in after seeing a steam engine, a spacecraft or even a smartphone on show elsewhere in the Science Museum may wonder what objects like an ear plug, an egg box or a rubber band are doing in a place that chronicles the progress of technology.
But, as Dr Sue Mossman explains, the supposedly mundane is often remarkable. And when I asked her which object people would still find useful a decade from now - an iPhone or a rubber band - she was clear: "The rubber band, because by then the iPhone will be a dinosaur because it is not simple enough."
From the paperclip to the Post-It note, simple and very cheap products have proved that they can have lasting appeal, and make some of their inventors very wealthy.
Today's innovators may find inspiration for the products of the future in this exhibition of the hidden heroes of the past.