Inventions for Daily Life

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Inventions for Daily Life


Inventors in the eighteenth century worked to make life easier. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) introduced bifocal eyeglasses and a stove that warmed a whole room. The three-color print process and wood-pulp paper brought us newspapers, magazines, and wallpaper. The piano was invented and so was drip coffee. Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) gave us soda pop. A popular appetite for comfort, convenience, and amusement was created that has come to dominate the populations of developed countries, both culturally and economically.


Daily life today is full of small comforts and conveniences that originated in the eighteenth century. Some of these, such as Franklin's bifocals, stemmed from personal needs. Others, like Joseph Priestley's soda pop, for example, came about by accident, as byproducts of research. Moreover, clever entrepreneurs such as Robert Barker, who invented the panorama, consciously pursued the market opportunities that emerged in rapidly growing cities.

Benjamin Franklin came up with a household improvement that ultimately changed the way houses (and buildings in general) were constructed. Franklin noticed that, while a heat source radiates in all directions, fireplaces were built into walls. Half the potential heat of the fire was thereby wasted. In 1740 Franklin solved this problem by inventing a stove that sat in the middle of the room. It had the added advantage of being made of cast iron, which absorbed heat so that, even when the fuel was exhausted, it continued to warm the room for awhile. David Rittenhouse (1732-1796) perfected the Franklin stove by adding an L-shaped chimney, which helped to vent the smoke and provided even more surface area to radiate the heat.

James Watt (1736-1819) developed a steam radiator in 1784 that provided uniform heat to his offices and eventually allowed heat, generated from a central source, to be distributed throughout a building. Along the same lines, various inventors, including Count Rumford (a.k.a. Benjamin Thompson, 1753-1814), developed cooking ranges. These devices allowed more efficient and controllable heating and cooking. Rumford devised other cooking conveniences as well, including the double boiler and drip coffee.

The science of the 1700s led to the development of measuring systems and devices that barely affected the daily lives of people then but are standard in most households today. Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736) invented the mercury thermometer in 1714. Great Britain (and its North American colonies) adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. In addition, the metric system gained its first foothold in revolutionary France in 1795 and was eventually adopted by scientists and most nations.

An important step in commercial manufacturing occurred in 1790, when Nicolas LeBlanc (1742-1806), a surgeon, invented a process for producing sodium carbonate (soda ash or washing soda), an important ingredient in the manufacture of paper, glass, soap, and porcelain, from ordinary salt. At the time it was difficult to produce soda ash in industrial quantities, and the Académe des Sciences offered a prize for the development of a cheap and reliable method for producing the chemical. LeBlanc won the contest, and, by 1791 a plant was in operation producing 320 tons of soda ash per year. Unfortunately, politics worked against him and the French Revolution began before he could collect his prize. Although the National Assembly granted him a 15-year patent on the process, the government seized his plant a few years later. In 1802 Napoleon returned the plant to LeBlanc, but gave him little in the way of compensation. Discouraged, broke, and unable to reopen his factory, LeBlanc killed himself in 1806. Nevertheless, the process he discovered became the mainstay of the alkali industry and by 1885 it was being used to produce more than 400,000 tons of soda ash per year.

Hygiene received a much-needed advance with the first major improvement in the flush toilet since the invention of the "water closet" in 1596. In 1775 watchmaker Alexander Cummings added a water trap to the exiting pipe, stopping odors from backing up into the room and making indoor plumbing a much more desirable possibility, although toilets were still highly unsanitary affairs. Samuel Prosser invented the plunger closet two years later, and in 1778, Joseph Bramah put a hinged valve at the bottom of the bowl, and patented a float and valve flushing system that is still used today. Another century would elapse, however, before the modern toilet made its debut.

A number of inventions came together to create the newspapers and magazines we know today. Paper was made from wood pulp for the first time in 1719, and the first paper-making machine was invented in 1798 by Louis Robert. The three-color printing process was developed in 1710, and stereotyping, which permitted mass printing from durable plates, was invented in 1725. For reporters, the typewriter was invented in 1714, but it was not a practical alternative during the eighteenth century. Of direct benefit to reporters, however, were the replacement of quills with steel-pointed pens (1780) and the invention of the eraser (1770).

The new printing techniques also made homes more attractive by making wallpaper and decorative prints affordable. Another invention that was to become a fixture of middle-class living rooms, the piano, was developed in 1709 by Bartelomeo Cristofori (1655-1731). The most popular form of public art in the nineteenth century, the panorama, was created in 1789 by Robert Barker. It consisted of a series of paintings that fully encircled the viewer, offering a 360-degree view. Panoramas, which initially showed audiences views of the cities in which they lived, were an instant hit, drawing large crowds. When they became traveling exhibits, panoramas offered the general public its first visual experiences of foreign lands.


Products that add comfort and convenience to daily life are a major industry today. Some of the conveniences of the 1700s have been superceded: Rumford's double boilers may still be essential for gourmets, but most people now buy ready-made sauces and icings or use microwave ovens to melt butter and chocolate. Other inventions have continued to develop and improve. As early as 1802, the closed-top cast-iron cooking range began to replace earlier models. Mass production in the twentieth century lowered the price and extended the reach of conveniences, and electrical power made others, such as drip coffee, easier to enjoy. In the case of central heating and well designed toilets, eighteenth-century innovations came to be required by law. But the largest effect of the influx of new gadgets was the stimulation of an appetite for more. Today, some of us have central cooling as well as heating. Our pens carry their own ink supplies and can be molded from soft materials that feel good in our hands. Bifocals, so common they have become an emblem of middle age, survive in stealth form as glasses with progressive lenses or as multifocal contact lenses. In our kitchens, electric or gas ranges are complemented by refrigerators and freezers. We also have minor gadgets we often feel we cannot live without, such as toasters, bread makers, food processors, waffle irons, and electric mixers.

Most of the forms of measurement developed in the eighteenth century are still with us. The Gregorian calendar, tuned to fractions of a second, is the worldwide standard for almost everything but religious or cultural activities. The thermometer, now a standard device, usually measures temperature in degrees Celsius, rather than Fahrenheit. Globally, the metric system today has only a few holdouts, most notably the United States. Many Americans, from auto mechanics to scientists, however, have been forced to become fluent in metric measurements.

With the new affordability of paper, newspapers and pamphlets became a force of revolution and popular government. In the Colonies, Thomas Paine's pamphlet "Common Sense" fired a revolution, and the Federalist Papers, published as weekly installments in newspapers, helped win public support for the U.S. Constitution. In 1807 English engineers improved Robert's papermaking machine, making it a practical reality. Inexpensive printing also increased general literacy and provided a vehicle for advertising that helped create markets for the products of the Industrial Revolution. Despite regular predictions of a "paperless office," both commercial and private use of paper increases each year. Indeed, computers are sold with printers, encouraging the use of paper as an essential adjunct to the "virtual world." While electronic publishing has made some inroads, paper's "form factors" (portability, "view-ability," ease of markup) make it indispensable. There are even pilot projects aimed at making paper and pens part of the electronic environment: the text of posters coated with electronic ink can be changed using pagers; and pens have been designed that broadcast their movements on paper to computers, allowing for the automatic capture of drawn images and text.

The role of images also grew. Today, even the humblest households are decorated with posters and art. The motion picture has its roots in the eighteenth-century panorama, which has been called the first mass medium. While people today watch Titanic at home on video, middle-class crowds once lined up to see panoramas of the Battle of Waterloo or the great earthquake of Lisbon. The panorama's popularity continued throughout the nineteenth century and, with the addition of movement and music, came to resemble movies more and more as time went on. Popular images of foreign lands, historical events, and myths were formed by the panoramas, which traveled the world and earned their owners fortunes. While panoramas went out of vogue by 1900, they still exist in museums and art galleries. Walt Disney World, for example, has featured a popular multimedia panorama for more than a decade. The term "panorama" itself, coined by Barker, still survives, and a whole new genre of Internet panoramas has emerged in recent years.

Mainstays of popular culture, including soda, trading cards, printed T-shirts, ballpoint pens, greeting cards, coffee bars, and bumper stickers, all have their roots in the 1700s. To a time traveler from 1799, they might seem confusing but they would not be unrecognizable. In the eighteenth century, as the ranks of city dwellers and wage earners swelled, and the public sought the amusement and comforts that we expect today, their society began to resemble our own.


Further Reading


Asimov, Isaac. Isaac Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science & Technology. New York: Doubleday, 1976.

Oetterman, Stephan. The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium. New York: Zone Books, 1997.

Thackeray, Frank W., and John E. Finley. Events that Changed the World in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998.

Wolf, Stephanie Grauman. As Various as Their Land: The Everyday Lives of Eighteenth-Century Americans. Little Rock: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Internet Sites

HyperHistory Online.

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