Inventions taken for granted

Around Y2K, the internet and media were full of everyone's list of Most Important Inventions.  Many were slam-dunks: the wheel, gunpowder, the telegraph, radio, steam and internal combustion engines, airplanes, rockets, nuclear power, etc.

Near the top, often just below the wheel, was the printing press.  Well, no argument there, for all the obvious reasons.


What good was Herr Gutenberg's 15th-century invention without paper?  In half a dozen random lists, I found paper on all of them, but paper money rated high on two.  Paper generically was not included in two others.

(For those interested in pursuing the subject, the websites were Big ThinkCad CrowdTom TriumphLive, and the Exeter Daily.)

All right, then: we have a printing press, and we have paper.

What's missing?

You got it: ink!

Writing and alphabets are strangely missing from some lists, but both existed long before paper.  Consider Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform in clay tablets.  It took the combination of paper and ink to achieve written communication on a broad scale — even when many or most texts were laboriously copied by monks in candlelit monasteries.  

So I nominate ink as a leading contender among inventions that we take for granted — without a thought.

Did you ever wonder where ink comes from?

I'm a professional author with 40-plus books and nearly 800 published articles, but the question never occurred to me until lately.  So I did some Googling.

According to the Smithsonian, ancient-ancient Egyptians used red and black ink once papyrus was available.  Chinese and Indian civilizations also developed ink millennia ago.  Formulas varied, as you would expect, involving iron, ochre, phosphate, animal hide glue, carbon black, and so on.

The ink in your disposable ballpoint pen is composed of colorants (pigments or dyes) and binders or vehicles.  Pigments cost more but are color-fast, whereas dye inks contain solvents for quick drying.

That probably is more than you want to know the next time you write a check.  Or even when you endorse one.

Other taken-for-granted inventions

I consulted my email circle, composed of really bright, accomplished professionals in various fields.  They include mostly retirees from the military (submarines to jets), law and law enforcement, journalism, and academia (one-each Rhodes Scholar).  Some remain active authors.

Early responses included the button.

Think about that — which is the object of this exercise.  Where would we be without buttons?

Who first thought of sharpening a bone fragment, poking a hole in one end, and using it to draw a string through a piece of leather or wool?  What was the string?  Plant fibers?  We'll never know, but buttons are traced to the Indus Valley at least from 2,000 B.C.

Button holes also are found in surviving Roman garments.  So give a nod to 3,000 years of progress the next time you button your shirt or blouse.  

Then there are horses.

Saddles should feature in history's significant inventions for obvious reasons.  

Enter the stirrup.

When my grandfather's black gelding spooked and started bucking, my six-year-old feet remained in the shortened stirrups, avoiding a long fall from Omack's quarter deck. 

Otherwise, even as an adult, getting aboard — and staying there — was problematical.  As an Oregon ranch kid, when I swung onto Shorty's saddle, or Rooster's in Arizona, it was because of the stirrup.  

The Mongols probably did not have many horse whisperers — the Khan's minions were not known for subtlety or kindness — but the steppes reverberated with racing hoofbeats for centuries.  Archaeology indicates that the Mongols likely perfected the metal stirrup around the 11th century, with advantages over the simple leather loop.  Metal imparted rigidity, the better to stand while galloping and aiming the powerful recurve bow.

Mounted knights could not joust or fight absent stiff stirrups, and Europe's history might have been different otherwise.  

The foregoing examples remind us that much of what we take for granted is or has been essential to our civilization.  In a period when supply chains lapse or back up with items as basic as toilet paper, we might ponder everyday items such as paper, ink, and buttons, and what they mean to us. 

Image: PxHere.

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