Self-extinguishing cigarettes and other curious little safety inventions
- 3 November 2011
- From the section Magazine
In Europe, "self-extinguishing" cigarettes are about to become law but where do they stand in the pantheon of safety innovations?
The images from fire safety films are painfully familiar.
They usually feature someone smoking on the sofa - perhaps watching television - only to nod off while the cigarette is still alight. Soon, it drops out of the hand, eventually setting fire to the furniture.
From 17 November, a new EU directive will require cigarettes to meet a reduced ignition propensity (RIP) requirement. They will be manufactured to be self-extinguishable, to reduce the chance that they should set fire to sofas, beds and other combustible materials.
In England, of the 212 people that died in house fires last year, 81 were the result of cigarettes, cigars and pipes, says the Department of Communities and Local Government.
The DCLG estimates the new types of cigarettes could save up to 64 lives each year in England.
Some RIP cigarettes use paper that is rolled differently to normal cigarettes. Narrow bands of paper are applied on top of traditional cigarette paper at various intervals during the paper-making process.
The idea is that these act like "speed bumps". When the cigarette burns down to one of these rings, in the absence of fairly steady puffing, there is a greater chance that the cigarette will go out than with traditional versions.
Safety campaigners stress that there is no such thing as a truly "fire-safe" cigarette but that something that potentially improves public safety can only be a good thing.
New York became the first US state to adopt reduced ignition propensity cigarettes in 2004. In 2009, the state reported an estimated 33% reduction in fatalities due to materials catching fire because of cigarettes.
Other states have followed New York's lead. Today RIPs are available across the US, Canada and Australia.
But it has been a long journey for what appears to be a simple invention.
According to reports, the first North American patent for a self-extinguishing cigarette was registered as early as 1854. Many other patents have been registered since, but early versions usually involved the addition of fire retardants.
The original concept for the types of "fire safer" cigarettes that focus on the paper date back to the early 1900s, according to fire safety scientist Richard Gann.
But it has taken decades for the tobacco industry to get behind it.
"The 'fire safer' cigarette is the latest of a huge number of simple but clever inventions that really can save lives," says Jack Challoner, science writer and author of several books on the history of invention.
"Simple ideas really can save lives - and the best ones can quickly become taken for granted. Without cat's eyes, for example, driving at night would be far more hazardous - but how often do we take notice of them?" says Challoner.
"No one likes it when smoke detectors go off when you are burning toast or when we have to change the batteries - but we are in awe of simple inventions like this when they save lives. And they do."
Duane Pearsall did not intend to create a smoke detector in 1965 - instead he was trying to measure static electricity in a dark room.
He became irritated when the device, which was measuring the concentration of ions, went off every time his assistant lit a cigarette. For Pearsall, it meant he had to start his experiment all over again.
That is, until he realised he had a useful tool on his hands - one that eventually led to the creation of the first battery-powered home smoke detector. It is claimed the device has saved about 50,000 lives.
The "a-ha moment" between creation and innovation is a "brilliant process", says Jeff Woolf, two-time British inventor of the year.
Many inventors and researchers will have created a solution for a long-researched problem. But there has to be a leap from creating something for one reason, only to realise it can be used for another.
"That has happened many times in the past," says Woolf.
That's where real creativity comes from, he says. To leap from noticing that cigarette setting off a static electricity monitor - to realising it could be used to help save people.
"He could have just left it. The real innovation is taking that thought and using it."
Palm-n-Turn bottle cap
When educating parents about keeping medicine out of a child's reach was failing to reduce the number of stomachs being pumped, paediatrician Dr Henri J Breault decided something had to be done.
The Windsor Poison Control Center in Canada, where Dr Breault was director, had reported 175 poisonings in 1966.
The next year he perfected the Palm-n-Turn cap, the familiar medicine bottles where you have to push down hard before the lid can be removed.
The lids were intended to be difficult for children to open, but easy enough for everyone else. Soon, they had found widespread success in Ontario - reducing the number of poisonings by 25% for children under six years old.
The US made them mandatory on some medicine bottles in 1970 and in 1975, the UK did the same. Today, you can find the design almost anywhere.
But the design has often been criticised for stopping some old people getting at their prescriptions.
"It is bad enough having to take the medicine in the first place, but to not be able to even get into the bottle is insult to injury," says Dominic Hargreaves, a British inventor.
"This is a design that is definitely in serious need of a redesign."
One invention that has proved hard to improve on is the classic three-point car seat-belt.
Volvo calls it "the most effective lifesaver in traffic for 50 years", and they have Nils Bohlin to thank for it.
Today putting on a seatbelt is largely automatic, but in the 1950s - despite the increasing number of road deaths - car safety was a far less important issue.
Volvo seized the initiative. Bohlin had been working for Saab, which had strong links with the aviation industry, when he was approached by Volvo to create a safety device for its cars. At the time, the Swedish engineer had been developing the catapult ejector seat.
Bohlin set out to make an easy-to-use belt that drivers could put on with one hand. Since the three-point seat belt was introduced in 1959 in the Volvo Amazon, it is claimed to have prevented one million deaths worldwide.
"Safety inventions actually come from necessity," says Woolf. "When we identify things that are unsafe, we try to make them safe."
Here the problem was obvious - people being thrown forward and injured in car accidents. The category of solution involved - some form of restraining belt - might seem obvious to the modern driver. But the precise formulation, particularly one that remains essentially unchanged, is what earns the plaudits.
Volvo safety expert Thomas Broberg describes today's seatbelt technology as being "more intelligent" but says the principles are the same as Bohlin's initial design.
Broberg emphasises the importance of wearing a seat-belt at all times, particularly since other car safety technology, namely airbags, are contingent upon people having their seat belts on.
"It's the best life insurance you can get still in a car crash," Broberg says.
In an act of philanthropy, Volvo left the patent open to allow other car manufacturers to take advantage of the design.
Cat's eyes - the square glass and rubber objects set at frequent intervals down the middle of roads in many parts of the world have saved countless lives.
But Percy Shaw - their inventor - could never have foreseen that he would have made night-time driving easier for millions of people, when the idea for a reflective device came to him after leaving the Dolphin public house one foggy night in 1933.
The drive home to Halifax had him navigating dark roads.
The story goes that Shaw swerved his car - bringing him to a halt - when a pair of cat's eyes flashed before him. He later realised if he hadn't done so, he would have driven off the road.
As a result, Shaw, who was self-employed laying tarmac, developed the cat's eye - a name probably inspired by the feline that saved his own life.
In 1965, Shaw was awarded the OBE for his invention.
Unlike other safety inventions, the simple cat's eye is lauded by many as a design classic.
In a nationwide poll 10 years ago, the invention - which really took off during World War II - came top of a list of 20th Century design favourites.
Kevlar - a super-strong synthetic fibre - is another good example of the unintended path that inventions can take.
The original liquid solution - poly-paraphenylene terephtalamide - was discovered by chemist Stephanie Kwolek in 1965, when she was working for DuPont.
Little did she know that the fibre mixture originally intended to be used in tyres, would be used for dozens of life-saving products - particularly on the battlefield.
Every time a blast occurred near Neil Gussman while he was stationed with the US Army in Iraq, he was thankful for Kwolek's Kevlar in his helmet and his vest.
"It was hot and heavy, but we had rocket attacks and flew missions around the clock. We needed them," says Gussman.
And once the original principle has been established - a fibre mix used to resist bullets - then it can be a jumping-off point for scientists looking for improvements.
Kwolek has received more than 20 prestigious awards for her invention, and in the US a website dedicated to the Kevlar survivors lists the names of policemen whose lives have been saved thanks to the super-strong fibre.