The surprising stories behind ten everyday designs that go uncelebrated and unnoticed
10. THE DRINKING STRAW
The drinking straws we use today originated in the United States of America in the 1880s. Marvin Stone, a cigarette holder manufacturer, was sipping a mint julep one day after work. Unhappy with the tendency of his traditional natural rye grass straw to disintegrate, Stone fashioned the world’s first paper straw by winding and glueing strips of paper around a pencil. A few years later he’d adapted his company’s factory and started mass-producing his prototype.
Stone’s hygienic, disposable design was so successful that it wasn’t until the 1930s that someone thought to improve it. It was then that Joseph B.Friedman was sitting in a soda parlour watching his young daughter trying to drink her milkshake: the straight straw was too high, and she struggled to reach it. His improvised solution was to insert a screw a few inches down the straw’s length, and to wrap dental floss around the paper and into the screw threads, so creating corrugations. With the screw removed, the straw could then bend conveniently over the edge of the glass.
9. SECRET STREET FURNITURE
Rushing to work each morning, we take for granted the presence of an eclectic array of street furniture we pass during our daily commute. The average passer-by probably offers Giles Gilbert Scott’s celebrated telephone box as much attention as an overflowing litter bin. Arguably, that’s as it should be – street furniture should be functional and expressive of its purpose say the traditionalists, but in recent years designers have begun to capitalise upon such objects’ very inconspicuousness to conceal alterior functionality.
Oversized planters placed around government buildings play host to attractive flora while doubling as antiterrorist barricades, some mobile phone networks disguise their broadcasting masts as trees in a bid to avoid NIMBYist objections, while designer Stephan Bischof made movable night time urinals masquerading as litter bins.
8. TOUCH-TONE DIALING
D (1209 Hz)
E (1336 Hz)
F# (1477 Hz)
F (697 Hz)
G (770 Hz)
Ab (852 Hz)
Bb (941 Hz)
DTMF tones, or as you might know them, Touch-Tones, are the sounds you hear when dialing a telephone number. Both names are, in fact, equally misleading as each of the noises you hear actually consist of two tones of different frequencies played together (as shown above) making chords rather than tones.
Until the 1990s, American cable television broadcasters also used the same DTMF signalling tones to indicate to local stations the start and stop times for commercial breaks. The technology was prone to glitches though, occasionally leading to loud unsynchronised tone sequences interrupting programming.
7. THE ZIGZAG STITCH SEWING MACHINE
Synthetic fibres are all well and good for their micro-pores and wicking technologies, but where would we be without the humble zigzag stitch? The design evolved from existing technology but without it we would unravel, deprived of the sturdiness it lends to the seams of our clothing.
Its designer, Helen Blanchard, is among many underappreciated female inventors. A canny businesswoman, Blanchard successfully commercialised her invention of 1873, enabling her to recover her family’s lost wealth. Beyond her contribution to the commercial sewing industry, Blanchard also patented a new kind of surgical needle – illustrating the cross-fertilisation of ideas that so often takes place in design.
6. THE BRANNOCK DEVICE
Don’t recognise the name? It’s basically that thing they used to have you stand on in Clarks when you were getting new school shoes. The device’s capacity to measure foot length, width, and heel-to-ball distance all at once marked a great improvement over previous implements. But Charles F. Brannock, who invented the device at the age of only 22, gifted the world far more than stylish schoolchildren. Beyond helping many people avoid foot problems, the device is to be remembered for vastly improving the quality of boots issued to allied soldiers during the Second World War.
5. BARRICADE TAPE
Although developed with the emergence of forensic science, the design of barricade tape is arguably far more about a symbolism of containment than the creation of a physical obstruction. Despite its relative newness, its iconography – part authority, part drama – is deeply embedded in the urban experience.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, surely one of America’s less exciting federal agencies, has created an official set of colour combinations for the tape, each referring to a specific hazard type while maximising visibility.
4. THE METRIC SYSTEM
How many farthings to a penny? The French Revolution of 1789 was about more than deposing an unpopular king and his decadent court. In part the uprising was motivated by widespread frustration with standard units of measurement. Before the revolution, there was little agreement between European states on the matter, leading to huge inconsistencies in the sizes and weight of imerpial measures. Rather like the unscrupulous bureaux de change of today, there were many who made their business profiting from these disparities.
After the revolution the French rationaslists introduced a metric system incorporating a set of standard sizes, legnths and weights which slowly spread around the world enabling reliable international and inter-regional trade.
3. THE NATIONAL GRID
The British National Grid has long suffered from bad public relations. Between the power cuts of the 1980s and squabbles over Thatcherite privatisation, its accomplishments have typically gone unappreciated. People forget the complexity required for an actively managed system with the capacity to handle the demand surge of several million boiling kettles during the break of TV soap opera Coronation Street.
Beginning operation in 1933, originally as the ‘National Gridiron’, the network proved its value during World War Two when it facilitated the rerouting of electricity from South Wales to replace the lost output from Battersea and Fulham power stations. Today, in a bid for further performance stability, its connections extend beyond UK shores to counterpoints in France and even the Netherlands.
2. THE HEDGE
It’s all too easy when zooming along a country lane to imagine the hedgerows whizzing past as merely another natural detail of the bucolic scene. Quite the contrary is true. These man-made barriers have been used since the Neolithic Age to enclose land. At that time, they provided protection for early cultivation of cereal crops but almost 6000 years later their use was turned to another purpose: the Enclosure Acts. Instigated as a series of legislative reforms throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, these laws allowed for the enclosure of open fields turning common land to private property in a mass land-grab the effects of which can still be seen today.
1. THE ‘@’ SIGN
This symbol is difficult to upstage as an emblem of the digital revolution of the past generation. But the ‘at sign’ is not a modern invention. While it’s generally agreed that the symbol was developed as an abbreviation of the Latin ad, meaning ‘to’, debates surround when and where this use first occurred. Some cite medieval manuscripts produced by monks, while others point to Venetian trading records.
Allegedly both these theories were known to Ray Tomlinson, the electronic engineer who invented the first email programme in 1971. Tomlinson was looking for a means to structure email addresses, and settled upon the then long-neglected symbol. Despite lacking a known designer, the ‘at sign’ was acquired by MoMA in2010 for their permanent collection.