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Ask HN: What’s the most important modern simple invention?
251 points by abrax3141 8 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 558 comments
Not levers and wheels and gears, but Velcro and paper clips. I’d put “modern” as after 1700, and “simple” as “you can pretty much build it yourself”, but you can argue theses (as I’m sure you will! :-)





Pads and tampons. Some argue these are environmentally unfriendly and produce too much waste, but you have to think, not everyone is privileged enough to own a washing machine in their own home, particularly those in 2nd and 3rd world countries. I genuinely believed pads and tampons allowed women to be more productive in the work force and eventually lead to more equality, just hearing my mom and grandma's story of having to hand wash your own bloody (literally) period bands gives me nightmares, that was in the 70s, not that long ago.

Menstrual cups are a step up from this!

They produce much less waste, are much less messy (almost never leak), and don't need to be changed as often (once every 6 - 12 hours and without the TSS risks that tampons have).

It's better to use running water to wash them out, but simply wiping them with tissue paper can work too (albeit a little messily), if water is scarce.

A downside that I've read about however is that just like with tampons, some cultures consider inserting anything into the vagina as losing your virginity so using them may be considered taboo.


True. On your last point, I think that actually makes pads a more significant invention over tampons and menstrual cups, because it allowed women in very conservative cultures where losing your virginity before marriage is considered taboo, to still able to go about their normal daily actives during periods. Interesting me and friends from elementary school in China were never taught to use tampons, tampons and menstrual cups didn't become a thing until very recently.

> without the TSS risks that tampons have

consumer reports disagrees with you

[1] https://www.consumerreports.org/women-s-health/menstrual-cup...


Thank you for linking that report, very interesting.

I also read through the article[0] that the report linked. I think a significant factor in the difference in risk is how much contact tampons are making with the vaginal canal vs menstrual cups; the article mentions that the risk is higher if the cup is allowed to overflow (and the toxins from within the cup make contact with the vaginal canal).

So I suppose that even though the cup can be left inside for longer than a tampon can, that (as advised) it should definitely not be left inside for longer than necessary.

[0] https://aem.asm.org/content/84/12/e00351-18.full


I live in New York and the majority of my friends do not have washing machine in their home. In fact, it’s a luxury to have one. In contrast, I’m originally from Ukraine where not having a washing machine is weird to say the least. There are many things that would make me call US a 2nd world country, so I’m having a hard time understanding which countries are 1st world countries.

This is only a thing in extremely dense, expensive American cities. Most Americans have washing machines in their home.

What is surprising is how many houses don't have a dish washer, in both urban and rural areas.

A quick Googling suggested that 25% of them don't have dishwashers. I don't know if that number is accurate, but 25% would be a lot more than I would have expected too.

After WWII, there were two superpowers splitting the world between them: the first world was the NATO West, and the second world was the Soviet East. Countries who were unaligned, or not considered sufficiently important, made up the so-called third world. If these terms ever meant anything, they don't anymore, and they certainly have nothing (directly) to do with washing machines!

Wow. I've lived in the US all my life and I've never heard of a majority of anyone's social group not having a washing machine.

Have others experienced this? If so, in what city?


I live New York. 5/7 years I’ve been here I haven’t had a wash.

In my experience, an apartment with in-unit goes for 10% more than one without. My rent is 1850/mo and my local friendly laundromat does wash-and-fold for $0.90/lb. The math works out that an in-unit wash just isn’t worth it to me.

Even if you’re lucky enough to afford rent in New York you probably can only afford one or two luxuries. For me I‘ve chosen living alone and windows that get sunlight over things like square footage, location, or a wash.


The time savings from using a wash and fold service aren't to be denied, either. You just drop off a huge sack of laundry once every week or two before work, and you pick it up on the way home nicely washed and folded, better than I, at least, would have done it. By the time you buy detergent and fabric softener and dryer sheets, and factor in the time derping around waiting for it to do its thing, especially in a sketchy coin-op laundry or a dank shared basement washroom, it's a little silly to do it yourself.

Speaking of course as a bachelor. When you are coupled up, or especially when children are involved, dirty laundry production escalates exponentially and wash-and-fold becomes prohibitively expensive and the capital investment in laundry equipment reduces in importance.


Yeah, I had to use a service for a few years (no laundramats within walking distance) and while it was definitely more expensive than doing it myself, it was pretty great. I was always amused by getting my clothes back in this perfectly rectilinear package. My main complaint was that the service insisted on a pick up/drop off time that was like 7am and I lived on a 4th floor walk up, so I have a lot of memories of getting jolted out of a sound sleep and having to schlep a heavy bag up or down a bunch of stairs.

How small are these apartments? I live in a 25 square meter one (according to wiki the definition of a tiny house is something smaller than 36 square meters) but there's still room for a washer and drier stacked on top of it. Around here the people that use building machines or laundromats are generally in the 15-20 square meter range or on razor tight budgets. Apart from that I know one guy without one and he's betting on not living long enough for it to be a wise investment.

Are the really that tiny in NY?


25 meters is pretty reasonable for a NYC apartment. I think it has more to do with the additional plumbing and ventilation setup that's missing. The old pre-war buildings are too expensive to renovate to add that kind of thing and a lot of the newer construction is aimed at maximizing profit by cutting every possible corner and those buildings were competing with the older buildings that didn't have them so they skipped it too. I also wouldn't be surprised if there's some NYC regulation or code that makes it extra complicated and expensive to add them.

In major cities you'll find that luxury units or condos have in-unit washer and dryer; but below luxury level apartments and condos do not. Nicer places will have a laundry on each floor. Others will have something in the basement or not at all.

It's an optimization that saves the owners significant amounts on up front and maintenance costs.

On the other hand, most people in trailer homes in the US will have a washer and dryer in their trailer. They aren't expensive appliances. They just take up space and require additional plumbing and ventilation - which can lead to significant expenses if you are designing buildings with 100's of units.


I believe this is quite common in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Most larger buildings have a washer and dryer in the basement of the building.

Many people send their laundry out to have it washed and folded by someone else.


Definitely the default in NYC. Lived there 15 years and only had a washer/dryer in one apartment (which was a condo that I was subletting. Any friends I had over were amazed and jealous when they saw it). If you're lucky, your building has a laundry room in the basement. Less lucky and you use a nearby laundramat. One place I lived basically didn't even have a laundramat within a 10 minute walk, so I had to pay for a laundry service that would pick up/drop off.

It's common in San Francisco, if you rent. Often you'd have a slated washer dryer in the building, but sometimes not.

Although the terms first, second and third world are often used to connote standards of living, that’s not the original sense[1] in which these terms were coined. They were Cold War era terms used to classify countries into Western bloc, Soviet bloc and the countries not aligned with either of the aforementioned blocks. And going by measure, the US could never be a 2nd world country :)

[1]: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_World


One thing is the fact that it's expected to have both washing machine and dryer in US. This leads to additional space and ventilation requirements.

The solution would of course be ditching the dryer, but not both.


You could also say the bra.

Less of a hygienic product for sure, bras spelled the end of corsets and really helped usher in many changes that led to a big increase in personal freedoms for women (both physically and socially).


Equally important is contraception and elective abortion. Being able to control the timing of raising a family allows a much higher degree of freedom and also ensures a safer and more healthy environment to raise a child.

I think the most important prerequisite to being a parent is the desire to be a parent.


I dont think "you can pretty much build it yourself" applies here.

eh, I'd say it depends on the quality you're going for. Some sheep intestines and string seemed to do it for a lot of people back in the day...

While you make a good point, I wouldn't call condoms made using sheep intestines and a string to be a modern invention, as that dates to at least 1500s.

> ... safer and more healthy ...

Not for that dead child.

> I think the most important prerequisite to being a parent is the desire to be a parent.

I don’t disagree with this. Thankfully adoption exists.


I'm assuming you were downvoted for your first point. Not sure why as it is true. There are two sides to the equation.

As for the second point, it's always better to plan for children, but people can step up to the challenge to become great parents.


Not surprised you're getting downvoted around here for saying the abortion isn't healthcare. Techies can bury their heads in the sand about it because of their political correctness, but it doesn't change the fact that the procedure does not extend a child's life but ends it.

The crux of the debate is on whether a fetus is a child. Your ‘fact’ calls it that, but it’s one that is rooted in your beliefs rather than some larger truth.

From a completely objective and scientific viewpoint, I think it's incredibly difficult to posit that life begins at any other point other than conception. After that it's just a matter of how "done" they are. The Human gestation period has been known to be as little as 22 weeks [1] or as long as 53 weeks 4 days [2], while the standard time is 37-40 weeks. Given more technological advancements, perhaps the time could be even shorter.

I would say that given only this information, a fetus is a full human being at a minimum by 22 weeks. Now, by 10 weeks "all major structures are already formed in the fetus" [3]. So, if a fetus is not a "child" until 22 weeks (as it has viability out of the womb), but by 10 weeks has all the major components of a human, can you tell me at what point in-between does it suddenly become a child, and have a guaranteed right to life?

I don't think you can. If you use conception, you can point to the precise moment in time where every single human being that has ever lived or will live becomes a human being. I'm not sure how you can get any more scientific than that, but apparently it's easy to ignore for the sake of justifying abortion.

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/17237979/ns/health-childrens_healt...

[2] https://www.medhealthdaily.com/longest-human-pregnancy/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prenatal_development#Developme...


It's not rooted in belief, it's rooted in science <jessepinkman.gif>

I agree with pads & tampons being a great invention. Can we however please finally stop referring to "2nd and 3rd world" countries. Get on a plane - things are more similar than different in most parts of the world, stop perpetuating dated notions.

On your last point: Having recently returned from rural africa where girls miss significant amount of school for lack of pads & tampons (still), I can't exactly agree with this sentiment.

Edit: if you care to read more or donate, check these out http://www.zanaafrica.org https://www.huruinternational.org


As an alternative to "2nd/3rd" or "developing" countries, I really like the "Four Levels of Global Income" model[0] that Hans Rosling put forth in his book Factfulness[1] (a must-read IMO).

It gives a much clearer perspective on how people live (and as you mentioned, how similarly people live across the world amongst the same income levels)

[0]: https://www.gapminder.org/topics/four-income-levels/ [1]: https://www.amazon.com/Factfulness-Reasons-World-Things-Bett...


These terms don't mean 2nd and 3rd tier countries. At least they didn't used to.

> The three-world model arose during the Cold War to define countries aligned with NATO (the First World), the Eastern Bloc (the Second World, although this term was less used), or neither (the Third World). Strictly speaking, "Third World" was a political, rather than an economic, grouping.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_World


I actually didn't state anything about economic grouping. My point is the notion is dated - and you've illustrated that quite well with your comment. The eastern & non-aligned blocs dont exist any more & the first world has split into its own bloc-ish things, yet everyone is a lot more willing to play ball with each other than at any given time in history before.

Get on a plane? Please, I'm from a plane. Being able to live in these highly developed western countries is a massive privilege. And trust me, a lot of things you take for granted these days, say birth control pills or IUD for women, are still frowned upon and not the easiest to access in China unless you're married, despite its development in the last 20 years. And even relatives who are making good earnings still wash their dishes by hand and dry their clothes with air, restaurants and food handling have little health inspection standards unless you're at a 5 star hotel. And I'm not talking about the rural parts of China, I'm talking about some of the most developed cities.

It’s common for women in Japan to get their friends traveling abroad (to eg Taiwan or Vietnam) to bring them back eg birth control or the morning after pill. It’s expensive and typically not covered by insurance (problem 1), and extremely hard to get a prescription for because the doctor will likely be male and lecture you on how you should get married and have babies (problem 2).

When did you last visit a country where the gdp per capita is a few hundred dollars? Trust me, it’s pretty different.

2nd / 3rd world notions have nothing to do with GDP. There are plenty of countries (a lot of the middle east for example) that would have back when 2nd and 3rd world were relevant notions been considered 3rd world, these currently have some of the highest GDP (PPP Adjusted) per Capita ;)

Sure, but I responded to the comment about “getting on a plane” and discovering that all countries are so very similar.

Yes, but the parent didn't imply that the two necessarily correlate. All you showed was that developing countries can have a high GDP. Are there any countries considered first world that have a low GDP?

The process for making ammonia from air (nitrogen) and hydrogen. Allowed a huge increase in agricultural output that saved a few billion people from starvation. Haber-Bosch process.

Basically there would be ~2 times less people on Earth and over half of them would work in farming if not for this one invention.

Sadly, in my professional opinion as a chemist, I would say that the the haber process, is not actually that simple, either in its original conception or as implemented now.

The description on Wikipedia makes it sound trivial if you have high-pressure, high-temperature plumbing, and a lot of risk tolerance. What is it leaving out?

I think those 3 things are the complexity

Development and discovery of appropriate catalysts and ability to organize the large industrial scale needed to produce meaningful amounts of product.

Can't you just use finely divided magnetite, or am I thinking of the wrong process? That sounds like "you can build it yourself" to me.

Lab demo scale, sure. The research and testing of catalysts for the industrial scale was a significant part of the development effort. Lifetime of the catalyst, temperature and pressure of the reactor, input energy, and output rate were all considerations and the result was much more than just throwing some magnetite powder in a reaction chamber.

There's a great book on the development of the process The Alchemy of Air https://www.amazon.com/Alchemy-Air-Jewish-Scientific-Discove...


Thank you very much!

Well it's better than Mościcki's process :)

What a coincidence, I passed today in front of his house and the chemical plant he was in charge of. The whole area is named after him too.

I did not expect to see his name in HN.


For anyone confused as to why: We (not just people but life on Earth) are mostly made of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. Nitrogen was something of a bottleneck because it's so much less ubiquitous than the other three, which are three of the four most common elements in the universe.

less ubiquitous in a bio-available way. Nitrogen is most of the atmosphere.

I meant it in an "elements occurring in the universe" sort of way, but this is a great point too. If we could get at atmospheric nitrogen naturally, there'd be no bottleneck.

Surely the three most common elements (by any measure) are hydrogen, helium and lithium?

It's complicated. Helium does make the list, but lithium doesn't. Carbon and oxygen are higher than you'd expect if you're just going by atomic weight.

I remember from my astrophysics course that Lithium was formed in the aftermath of the Big Bang. I would imagine that interstellar space is full of Hydrogen, Helium and Lithium.

I can imagine that stable nuclei such as carbon or iron would form as a result of stellar fusion but I would be hard pressed to imagine that these outmass the more primordial elements. I would be interested to see references if you have any.


Wikipedia has a good writeup: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abundance_of_the_chemical_elem...

TL;DR: Stars burn it up.


That table is for the milky way though, not the universe.

Yeah but all the elemental matter in the universe is like three dust specks floating in a lecture hall. You can ask about the dust specks or the lecture hall interchangeably.

This is a common misconception. Intergalactic space is filled with about half of the matter in the universe. See: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warm–hot_intergalactic_mediu...

As to your original point though, there doesn’t appear to be too many elements here apart from ionized hydrogen and hydrogen.


Great point. I almost missed this. It really seems like there should be another separation in the article I linked, between "Universe" and "Milky Way."

Would the state of the Earth be better or worse if not for this development?

May as well just say The Earth would be better off if people had never existed if you're going to go that route.

There's more people living better lives, so things are better. There are new problems caused by our previous success that we solve next.


Grading the state of the Earth is subjective, what's good for plants or bacteria may be bad for mammals or fungi, and there's a few mass extinctions every million years anyway.

If you don't care about homo sapiens, then global warming isn't really "bad" - the ecosystems will adapt.


> May as well just say The Earth would be better off if people had never existed if you're going to go that route.

No, that most certainly doesn't follow. It's entirely usual and normal for an amount of something in a system to be fine but then an excess of the same thing to be not fine. This is a very common situation in medicine, for example.


It's also a common situation in the rest of population and community ecology. For instance, removing wolves as a predator here in Michigan has caused an explosion in the deer population. That, in turn, changed the makeup in undergrowth as they eat more now, which has all kinds of extended effects. Not to mention the propagation of diseases in a more sense population.

We only care about the state of the system as it relates to humans.

That's certainly not true for a sizeable number of environmentalists. Have you never heard the 'humanity is a virus on the planet' take?

Worse. We are able to produce more calories on less land than would otherwise be required. If you check out some photographs of the countryside of the East Coast of the US, particularly, from the turn of the century, and then look at those places today, considerable reforestation has occurred.

Thanos, is that you?

You really have to define and defend what you mean by better to get a meaningful answer.

It eliminated one bottleneck (regular mass starvations) and allowed us to get to the next one faster (global warming).

Choose your poison :) Both result in wars and death of millions of people.


> over half of them would work in farming

Why would throwing more people at the problem solve or mitigate lack of fertilizer?


Yeah I think he is wrong there. More people would work in farming than now but only like 1% of the population are farmers right now. 2% farmers covering atleast if not more than double the land area is not crazy.

Not to mention relying on natural processes and top soil health and would be extremely sustainable long term and be a huge carbon sink.


https://blog.resourcewatch.org/2019/05/30/map-of-the-month-h...

> The chart below shows data from the World Bank on employment in agriculture over time. Globally, about 1 billion people* work in the agricultural sector, about 28% of the population employed in 2018. This is down from 44% in 1991.

Currently 1/7th of the global population works in agriculture, and 28% of the employed population.

If that doubles it would be over 50%.

World isn't just USA.


More land would necessarily be farmland (i.e. there'd be less land "free" to dedicate to other things); so there'd probably need to be more farmers to work the additional land. Even in the modern world where a farm is mostly robots, one person can only manage so much land and so many robots (essentially the amount of land they can easily traverse in a few hours to check up on.)

And large-scale automated farming is less productive per acre than small-scale labor-intensive farming.

I think the point is that fertilizer makes it possible for big agriculture to operate at a certain scale.

If we didn't have fertilizer, farmers would be tending to smaller plots and using locally available fertilizers, such as locally available compost and mulch.


now imagine being someone who dislikes being around lots of people, and especially dislikes being around city people...

Imagine you could move to a small farm town population 62

Yeah but some people enjoy being miserable, so simple solutions like that won't work. :)

Imagine thinking one's choices are completely independent of status games played in the society.

Not to mention Norman Borlaug's development of dwarf wheat which kicked off the green revolution and saved billions from starvation.

An almost unbelievable life history is Dr Pandurang Khankhoje who came to San Francisco from China in 1906, got a PhD in agriculture from UC Berkeley and ended up in Mexico helping the farmers develop high-yielding varieties of corn and wheat before Dr Norman Borlaug. https://www.livehistoryindia.com/cover-story/2020/02/09/dr-p...

Yeah but it is also a mixed bag because in order to satisfy the massive energy requirements we cheat by using fossil-fuel derived hydrogen which contributes to pollution and global warming. Without cheap fossil fuel hydrogen the energy costs of fertilizer production would rise multiple times over and likely dwarf every other industry in the world. Currently fertilizer production takes 1.2% of total world energy generation, but 10% or more without fossil fuel reagents is not unreasonable. 60% of the world's total crop yield is the direct result of fossil-fuel derived artificial fertilizer.

At some point we have to decide if the goal of humanity is continued population expansion or some other project. Of course, good luck with the latter.

I’d like to recommend James Burke’s series “Connections”[1] and “The Day the Universe Changed”[2] from the late 70s early 80s.

He was a bbc journalist covering NASA and doing science communication and one of his particular fascinations (and mine, having grown up with his work) is the cumulative effect of ideas and technology shape not only how we interact with the modern world, but how we perceive it.

[1] https://m.imdb.com/title/tt0078588/ [2] https://m.imdb.com/title/tt0199208/?ref_=m_nm_knf_wr_t3


Just want to add that Connections and some of his other videos are available on the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/search.php?query=subject%3A%22james+burk...

Many of these are on YouTube as well, just search for "James Burke Connections"


Some of the greatest TV ever made. Shaped my young mind.

Fantastic and unique in that it cuts across what seem to be unrelated fields to show how one discovery, even accidental, can have enormous and profound implications.

This clip from his first Connections series is a favourite of mine:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPcZ_5uCldg

Near the end it provides an answer to OP's question 'What's the most important modern simple invention?' although whether this in fact would be Burke's answer, I don't know.


There was also a Connections pc game https://www.oldpcgaming.net/connections-cd-review/

seconding this. Connections is an amazing series about this topic

Since you've allowed modern to include the Industrial Revolution, I would submit the invention that started it: the flying shuttle.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_shuttle

(How did this cause the Industrial Revolution? It made weaving so much faster, that the spinning industry had to come up with machines to supply the weaving industry.)


As an aside, from the Wikipedia article:

> ... using treadles to raise and lower the heddles, which opened the shed in the warp threads. The operator then had to reach forward while holding the shuttle in one hand and pass this through the shed; the shuttle carried a bobbin for the weft.

That is a quite a bit of industry-specific jargon packed into a single paragraph. Without context this could easily be mistaken for Star Trek jargon.


Any woman born in England between 1200 and 1800 would have known all of these words except for being a bit nonplussed by “operator”. Most of the men, too.

This is an answer to the "most important invention" question I've never heard before, and it's a great answer for the "simple" qualifier too. I've never even heard of this device before.

The mills at Lowell are a National Historic Park now and they still have a weaving line running. It's a fascinating place to visit.

Wow, I inherited a heavily used one of these from my grandmother 20 years ago, and never understood what it was. It was used in an odd way to hold dried flowers and plants, and I assumed it was some sort of Dutch tradition to do this. Now I know! Thanks for that. This makes my little memento that much more interesting.

Another one is the railroad wheel -- the shape that self-centers the train on the rails without using the flange.

There also the spinning jenny which increased the rate at which a worker could spin thread and yard eightfold.

The flying shuttle is still in use in various parts of Asia, especially India in the manufacture of still sarees.

Isn't almost all woven cloth woven with flying shuttles now?

Hand washing. Modern disease control and prevention is borderline magic. Hand-washing is clearly the most important lifesaving and disease preventing invention in modern times.

Materially ... Well, "yourself" precludes anything computerized, unless you mean "program". It also precludes a huge range of materials science advances.

Technically, you can make steel and concrete yourself with enough real-world minecrafting, and good steel or concrete is probably hands down the most important factor in all our chemical, structural, and industrial processes.

Luckily there's a book with the most important inventions to re-engineer a complex, sustainable society called The Knowledge, and just about everything in there is build-able by a determined individual or small group (until you get to modern things). Not suprisingly, it mostly focuses on agriculture, medicine, steel, and concrete.


This book should be called The Misinformation. It omits crucial safety information and other details about many of the processes it mentions, and the author doesn't maintain a public list of known errata; it's entertainment, not education.

Three better alternatives: the Primitive Technology channel on YouTube, the Boy Scouts Handbook, and Wikipedia, which you can download as .zim files for offline reference. Other relevant YouTube channels include AvE, CodysLab, and Applied Science; in more specific areas you have NileRed, Abom79, Ben Eater, EEVblog, This Old Tony, GreatScott, ElectroBOOM, and NurdRage. Unlike the book you're recommending, they are by people who know how to do the things they are explaining, show their errors, and include the relevant calculations. There are other channels like How To Make Everything and King of Random which do not; they are entertaining but deadly.

General-purpose know-how books have gone out of fashion, though we still have the CRC Handbook and the Machinery's Handbook. In the 19th century there were a bunch of books like Dick's Encyclopedia of practical receipts and processes (ripped off, I think, from Cooley’s, or possibly vice versa) which covers a wide range of topics at a level sufficient to enable you to practice them; you could probably build a fair bit of Victorian technology from the recipes in Dick’s. (You aren't going to get a loom out of it, though; for that, see The Mechanism of Weaving, but YouTube is far superior.) I think the equivalent is more difficult to-day.


Add The Essential Craftsman and Frank Howarth to that list to round out the woodworking skills.

One point you’re spot on about though, AvE is and will always be the absolute crème de la crème of the yous tubes.


Very good references! Thank you!

I do think the author tried to relay concepts and hints, rather than recipes. Given the compactness, a group of people starting largely from scratch and taking the book on faith could figure out a lot of stuff.


If they took the book on faith they would halt progress until they all died of methanol poisoning.

> Hand washing. Modern disease control and prevention is borderline magic. Hand-washing is clearly the most important lifesaving and disease preventing invention in modern times.

I was recently in the hospital and was shocked at how often they used the hand-sanitizers.

The staff at all levels used them after literally everything.

I'm a former commercial pilot so I get the idea of having stuff drilled into your brain.

But I mean everyone from the food staff who delivered breakfast, to the orderlies who made the bed, to the doctors who touched nothing, would instinctively go to the anti-bacterial hand sanitizer on the wall, press it with their elbow, rub their hands, and leave the room.

It was pretty wild.


I volunteered in a hospital. They have competitions with 'secret shopper' nurses and admins. The prizes can be pretty good. A co-volunteer got ~$100.

The benefits of washing your hands depends on a fairly large set of other improvements and inventions.

For most of history the water available was frequently contaminated with human and animal waste, along with whatever your local tanner was dumping in. Fixing that was a prerequisite to making hand washing useful.

And then there is the soap issue. While soap certainly has a long history, it was often unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Cloths were traditionally washed with urine.


Alcohol might be easier than soap in those cases.

I wouldn’t call it a recent invention although it might be recent in the west, but plenty of cultures in South Asia, Iran, and muslim world (at the very least) considered hand washing crucial for basic hygiene.

> Hand washing

Hand washing isn't modern by any stretch of the imagination. Promoting it is modern, though.


Even then... Our Muslim friends have been promoting regular hand washing since the 600's CE. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wudu

And before them our Hebrew friends since 1000 BC. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handwashing_in_Judaism

Oops, you are correct. The modern connection to germ theory is most important.

Lister - the namesake of the (unrelated) Listerine.

The humble ball point pen.

People forget how cumbersome and/or expensive it was to write before cheap ball point pens became a thing. You had to use fountain pens. The cheap ones leaked and were an absolute mess to carry around. The ones that didn't leak were expensive.

I can now buy more pens for $100 than I'll ever use in years and just stash them everywhere I want


> I can now buy more pens for $100 than I'll ever use in years

I just checked and you can get a pack of 60 Bic Ballpoint pens for $4.50.


I mean it's one banana, Michael, what could it cost...10 dollars?

Depends if it's in Australia after a Northern Queensland cyclone.

Well i don't think i use 1333 pens in "years", so math checks out

And now you can get a cheap fountain pen that won't leak and writes delightfully.

Financially, you're probably better off with hundreds of cheap Bics, but fountain pen ink lasts a long time.


I just started exploring fountain pens (inspired by a previous HN posting), and the feature that appeals to me the most is the variety of ink colors available for fountain pens. Most ballpoint pens seem to have just a handful of ink colors, but it seems to be possible to get a lot more colors for fountain pens, and some of the colors are really exotic.

> variety of ink colors available for fountain pens

Just wait until you start mixing inks to produce your own signature colour. It gets to the point where your ink is as unique as your calligraphy.


Also fountain pens draw really fast with almost no pressure and have such a consistent line. I've been making little musical drawings with them. https://tiktok.com/@whistlegraph

> and writes delightfully

If you're right handed.

Fountain pens simply don't work for lefties, without writing in a completely unnatural way.


In case you missed it, there was a thread here yesterday about pen grip with a sub-discussion regarding left-handed writing and fountain pens: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22287679

I must write in a completely unnatural way, then. My hand is always completely below the current line of text. Which hand is writing simply cannot affect whether my hand touches just-written ink.

Edit: Just wrote some test lines, forward and backward. My whole hand is multiple lines down in the notebook. Writing in a way so as to get my pen-hand on the same line I'm writing feels incredibly weird to me. I think it just goes to show that whatever you get used to feels natural.


You're lucky. Me, and every leftie I know, grew up dealing with this in school. http://i.imgur.com/kTT6O.jpg

Luck seems a poor thing to attribute this to.

I used to smudge all the time as a righty.

I have taken time to adjust habits in day-to-day activities. Luck seems to apply only insofar as I do not am neurally and physically typical enough that I can adjust these habits.

If you don't like something, especially if it's your own behavior (and writing style is absolutely a behavior), it is likely within your power to change it. Maybe you would need help from a coach or perhaps pharmacological or therapeutic if there is some pathology.

For me, it is always a no-brainer to change things that annoy me.


How do you learn writing?

In Germany, as far as I know, everyone learns writing with foundation pens. You can search for images with „Schreiblernfüller“ to get an idea how they look.


O/T for inventions but:

I'm American and have lived in Germany a lot. In the 1970's in California, we learned to write with pencils.

By the time I was in high school and used pens (mostly ballpoints, some felt-tipped) and also typewriters, I thought of myself as a pretty serious stationery nerd.

Then I went to Germany and everybody at school used fountain pens, which I didn't even know how to fill! People probably thought I was an absolute barbarian, sticking to my ball-points.

Then came university: in America, at the end of the 80's, you would be considered rather unserious if you didn't at least type up your assignments. Computers were an option but the minimum effort was to type things, libraries had lovely quiet-ish electronic typewriters for that purpose.

And back I went to Germany, where -- at University! -- everybody was writing everything with those same damned Füller!

And now, in 2020, at least the kids still are. Drop into any McPaper[0] and you will see a ton of cheap plastic fountain pens for the school kids. (Fortunately for me, the roller ball has also taken pretty firm hold, and people don't look at you funny anymore for not carrying around an ink bottle.)

I have a really nice fountain pen, a Pelikan[1], and I almost never use it because I can't commit to thinking about the ink that much. In the end, the Germans out-nerded me.

[0]: Really, there's a chain called McPaper: http://www.mcpaper.de

[1]: https://www.pelikan.com/pulse/Pulsar/en_US_INTL.Core.display...


In the US ive never used or even seen anyone use a fountain pen, although ive heard of enthusiasts for them here.

I predominantly write with a ballpoint pen, however as an affection when I write letters (which is more often than you might think) I always use quality stationary and a fountain pen. I'm very American. I know it's not commonplace, but in many ways that's exactly why I do it. There's several rather successful businesses in the US that only supply fountain pen users and collectors, probably the most well known is the Goulet Pen Company https://www.gouletpens.com/

I have several fountain pens, and vastly prefer them to anything else for note-taking (even the pen for One?Note on my Surface Pro!) My favorite was made in 1947, and still works as well today as it did then. With care, it'll still work as well when it's 100, which is a fair fraction of how long I'm expected to last (at least statistically...)

I have a friend who's into fountain pens and for a while worked for a company that sells really nice ones. In that capacity he came to know some people who collect pens.

You'd be amazed. One guy I heard of -- not-famous founder of a very famous brand -- was so into it he'd spent tens of millions building his collection, but outside the world of serious pen enthusiasts it wasn't "worth" anything near that much.

A lot of the pens one collects are very limited editions but otherwise unremarkable: say a really good pen that would cost $500 but in a different color and they only make a thousand of them in that color and it costs $10,000. (Made-up numbers but $10K is not that much in the pen-collecting world.)



I'm in the UK. They're not common, but you do occasionally see them. I have one that I mostly use because I was taught to write in the italic style [0] of cursive, so mine has an Italic squared-off nib. I don't use it every day, however.

It cost me about £40, uses cartridges, and still manages to leak (blue, washable) ink on my fingers.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italic_script


Pencils mostly. It's not really common for kids to use pens outside of maybe drawing until later on at least not in the US.

Not OP, but it is common in India for schools to ask kids to not use ball-points and use fountains instead.

As a counterpoint, my school banned fountain pens and ballpoints both - it was gel pens or bust.

Instead of leaking everywhere we now have a new problem: ink dries up before it's used and now they're landfill.

Fountain pens are the ultimate in no-waste - Clean them, refill them and keep using them. I have a handful, the oldest is 73 years old, but I have several that are around 50 years old. Cleaning, refilling with ink, and very rarely, a new nib (quality fountain pens have nibs coated with very hard metals that last for decades) keeps them going indefintely. Quality is worth the cost here, but by the late 1920s we knew how to build quality fountain pens that do not leak and definitely last!

My FAVORITE of all time is the Pentel Energel 0.7mm gel pen.

Super low friction, no blotching, high contrast readable ink.


Haven't pencils always been inexpensive?

Then you have to carry around a sharpener with you everywhere

Never seen anyone walking around with a pencil clipped to their shirt pocket.


I do, but you would mistake it for a pen.

Mechanical pencils are a Thing. Pentel makes good ones.


The Pentel P225 is the best mechanical pencil ever. There can be no argument.

AKA a knife. Which we all carry everywhere, right? :)

And you put a (non-mechanical) pencil behind your ear, rather than clipping it to your pocket.


When I discovered fountain pens and small-nib felt tip calligraphy pens I switched to them for all correspondence and most note taking; I only use ball point pens when I have to. Even round/bullet point felt tip pens are better.

I would love to see felt tip calligraphy pens developed with more ink and a longer life.


Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis on discovering the effects of washing your hands before operating on patients. Simple, yet highly effective.

His story is so sad though. He was ostracized by the other doctors and medical community who didn't believe him and indeed openly mocked him. He remained outspoken about his findings until a colleague forced him into an asylum where he was beaten by the guards and died.

They didn't believe him in part because he was a notorious asshole, and in part because he was insistent on a root cause analysis of hand-washing that was clearly false. He also didn't "invent" handwashing, which was already the normal protocol by the time he began practicing; rather, his contribution was a particular antiseptic handwashing protocol (chlorinated lime).

How do you figure it was “clearly false”? Once his protocol was implemented, mortality rates from childbed fever plummeted. It turned out the reason so many people had been dying from it was that obstetricians were performing pathological observations on mothers who had died from it and then gone straight to delivering babies without disinfecting in between. This is readily available info on his wikipedia but also recently appeared in an episode of 99PI which is where I learned about it. I’d be interested to see more information presenting an alternative history.

Antiseptic handwashing wasn't false. His theory for why it worked was; that theory was that "cadaveric particles" --- literally, corpse particles, and very specifically not a more general concept of microscopic infectious agents --- were to blame for ailments, and that chlorinated lime was the only way to get rid of them. Other doctors noted things like ailments in patients with no plausible contact with cadavers, to no avail: Semmelweis was insistent.

Semmelweis is, to me, an interesting story about how it's not all that useful to be right if you're unable to persuade, and Semmelweis' difficulties with persuasion have little to do with his adversaries bloody-mindedness and much to do with his.


Superficial, disrespectful. There might have been many reasons, not being in tune with the crown wasn't necessarily the worst of the sins.

I can't tell whether you're saying Semmelweis was merely superficially disrespectful, or whether you're saying I'm being disrespectful. Can you reword this? I don't understand the point you're trying to make.

I listened to the Joe Rogan episode on victorian medicine and it made a weird sort of sense: Why wash your hands after being in the morgue if you were just going to get them dirty again with surgery?

EDIT: Joe Rogan Episode #1272 - Lindsey Fitzharris


I don't know if it's the most important, but it's a great example of how a very simple innovation had huge benefits. The Fitch Barrier are those big orange barrels you see on the side of the road. They're filled with sand inside, and basically help to dampen the momentum of a car that veers off the road.

They were invented in the 1950s by John Fitch, a Formula 1 driver who just came up with them as a quick and dirty way to make the race track safer. One afternoon's random idea has managed to save over 17,000 lives and billions of dollars in damage.


I would nominate Jersey barriers as well, they’re easy to mass produce and there are machines that lay them down. Many roads would be undivided if it were not for jersey barriers.

I owe my life to Jersey barriers. Around 1999 or 2000 I was driving an old Plymouth Barracuda (Slant 6 grandma's car, not a hemi monster) at 70 miles per hour in the fast lane on a freeway in Nevada. The car drifted to the left naturally because it needed an alignment and as I went to correct to the right nothing happened. The joint that connects the steering column to the steering gearbox had become disconnected. I didn't step on the brakes because they were also somewhat if he and might have sent me in any random direction!

Had it not been for the graduating slope of the jersey barrier I would have either gone over into oncoming traffic which was also doing 70 miles per hour or more, or I would have bounced back into traffic on my own side of the freeway with random results. I would not most likely not have survived.

Instead my front left tire caught the steepest graduation at the bottom of the jersey barrier which launched front left corner of the car up the barrier. But then a funny thing happened. I didn't flip over and I didn't go over it. Because the top section of the barrier is vertical I just came back down. This cycle happened several times until the car slowed down enough just to be sliding against the bottom of the barrier. At that point I was only doing about 30 miles per hour and could hit the brakes without worrying about what direction the brakes were going to take me. The car came to a stop. The only damage was a broken ball joint, a very messed up tire and wheel, and a bent fender lip!

A wrecker came and got me and delivered the vehicle to my house. I horse traded that car the very next week for an old Land cruiser that tried to kill me when it lost brakes, but that's another story. I drive better vehicles these days but only barely


They fill them with water where I live. Seems easier to fill/empty but I'm not sure about the consequences on car collision.

In cold climates the water freezes and it's then basically like hitting a boulder.

I’ve only ever seen them in North America, why is that?

Washing Machine. Recent iterations are more complex( repair engineer could plug into ours and diagnose all sorts of things, including checking results of previous washes), however the principle behind it isn't that complex. It has made life easier for so many households.

On the number of hours saved by Washing machines and Dishwashers. Liberating women from having to do these tasks and instead contributing to the general economy instead.

> the number of hours saved by Washing machines and Dishwashers.

This is true, but to some extent over-stated I think.

We have a family of five, and don't use our dishwasher. I just do the dishes every morning while I listen to the news on the radio. It takes less than an hour.

As far as washing machines, I agree that they are quite convenient, but the truth is most clothing doesn't need to be washed nearly so often as people do.

Without a washing machine, you would just do laundry less often.

I think modern plumbing is the actual time saver. Not having to haul water from the river or the well frees up a ton of time. Having waste water safely disposed of is a massive boon to hygiene.


I think if you spend close to an hour to wash dishes every morning, it's actually a good proof of how much time it could save you. Being able to use that hour productively with other means while you do it (e.g. listening to the news or podcasts in your case) is somewhat a separate topic.

Loading and unloading the dishwasher for the same amount of dishes every day will probably take less than 30 minutes. I would estimate you could have a savings of 30 minutes every day if you used the dishwasher. Depending on how you use water when you hand-wash them, you may also save some water as well.


> you could have a savings of 30 minutes every day

Maybe I'm unique in this (I don't think I am), but if anything the curse of modern life is that we're absolutely awash in free time.

What would I do with an extra 30 minutes? Probably check Hacker News or Facebook more than I already do.

The actual washing of the dishes really doesn't take that long. Most of it is gathering everything up, rescuing the sink from the disaster that my wife leaves it in (i.e. How hard is it to actually nest the dishes instead of building them into some precarious tower?), and then washing the various big and otherwise awkward items that you couldn't put in the dishwasher anyway.

If you want to get on the modern hype train, you can think of it as a "mindfulness" exercise. There is something therapeutic about having busy hands and letting the mind wander.


> If you want to get on the modern hype train, you can think of it as a "mindfulness" exercise. There is something therapeutic about having busy hands and letting the mind wander.

I don't mean to be gatekeepery here, but aren't "mindful" and "letting the mind wander" pretty much opposites?

"Wash every bowl, every dish as if you are bathing a baby - breathing in, feeling joy; breathing out, smiling. Every minute can be a holy, sacred minute. Where do you seek the spiritual? You seek the spiritual in every ordinary thing that you do every day. Sweeping the floor, watering the vegetables, and washing the dishes become holy and sacred if mindfulness is there. With mindfulness and concentration, everything becomes spiritual." - Thich Nhat Hanh, in "How to Eat".

"Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes." - Alan Watts.

It sounds more like the modern "productivity" hype train than the mindfulness one; "do two things at once, and distract yourself from life, if your eyes are busy, fill your ears, fill all your senses all the time".

> the disaster that my wife leaves it in (i.e. How hard is it to actually nest the dishes instead of building them into some precarious tower?),

mindfully criticising your wife in public for a cheap laugh. :eyes:


I will admit I don't really know where you're going with this since the two quotes you just gave line up pretty well exactly with what I thought I said.

Seems like you aren't so much responding to what I said as to what you wish I had said.


> Maybe I'm unique in this (I don't think I am), but if anything the curse of modern life is that we're absolutely awash in free time.

It is hard for me to understand your point of view on this.

What is the difference between saying "modern people have too much free time" and "modern people live too long?"

> What would I do with an extra 30 minutes? Probably check Hacker News or Facebook more than I already do.

Some things you can do in those extra 30 minutes:

- Read a book

- Call an old friend

- Paint, write, or create something

- Code on your hobby project

If you think checking hacker news or Facebook is a waste of time, then don't, and find something more worthwhile to do instead.


> Some things you can do in those extra 30 minutes

And which of those exactly would be something I could do in the hour that my kids are waking up and wanting me to get them breakfast / wipe their bottoms after they go potty / otherwise demanding things of me?

The thing I want to be doing at that time is listening to the radio. If I'm listening to the radio, then my hands are free.

Might as well just wash the dishes.


> Maybe I'm unique in this (I don't think I am), but if anything the curse of modern life is that we're absolutely awash in free time.

I’m sure you’re not unique, but your case is far from usual either.


We say that, but how much time to people spend just watching TV or Netflix? All of that is "free time". People just spend it without thinking and then lament their lack of free time.

Then what you're really saying here is that you think they're spending their free time wrong. Maybe they enjoy watching Netflix or playing games or whatever much more than you enjoy your zen moment of washing dishes and listening to the radio?

It's like me going for a Sunday ride on my bike (which I very much enjoy) and then telling other people that they shouldn't resent having to commute to work in rush hour every day.


There are lots of things you could do with 30 minutes. Meditate, a brisk walk, prayer, learn a new language, etc. I guess washing dishes is a form of meditation in the same way showering or shaving is, but man, I can’t imagine 30 hours of hand-washing dishes per month. That’s almost a week’s worth of a full-time job.

An HOUR? To do the dishes? That seems like an enormous consumption of time.

I would suggest that you might consider reallocating this time. For example, if you have three children are any of them old enough to help do the dishes? Initially it will take you more time, but children love to contribute to the household at first, until they are taught not to by being told they're doing it wrong.


> An HOUR? To do the dishes? That seems like an enormous consumption of time

You will note that I said "less than an hour", which in my life basically equates to "a trivial amount of time". Most days it's probably closer to a half hour.

It's also a fairly leisurely process of me listening to whatever they are talking about on the radio.

When the kids are bigger, I'm sure we'll teach them how to do the dishes and other chores around the house. For now, our oldest just turned four and is probably approaching big enough to grasp the concepts, but doesn't really have the attention span to see it through to the end.


IMO the main benefit of a dishwasher is giving you somewhere to stick dirty dishes that’s not the sink. I agree that it’s not particularly time consuming, and prepping dishes for the dishwasher and loading them probably takes about half the time of hand-washing anyway.

That only works if you actually empty the dishwasher. Sometimes the dishwasher turns into the cupboard, and it only gets emptied the rest of the way when the sink is full.

> ... but the truth is most clothing doesn't need to be washed nearly so often as people do.

Didn't exactly understand you ... I mean, I can't wear any shirt more than two days in a row before it picks up my body odour and starts stinking (India; hot climate - and this is after 2 baths a day too; no deodorant). So if I don't wash and wear it, I am pretty sure it would bother a lot of people. I can wear pants and trousers longer, sure, so they get washed less.


As a counterpoint, here in the US Midwest, I currently have three pairs of jeans, two thermal shirts, and two button downs that I rotate through and wash honestly maybe quarterly.

Other clothing items I go through more quickly, but I'm planning to start giving my undershirts a couple rotations before washing them as well. Same with socks.

The main thing I've noticed is that natural fabrics don't pick up smells nearly as badly as synthetics.

Also just letting things hang and air out seems to keep everything smelling pretty fresh. If I go out of town and leave clothes in my backpack they need washed when I get home whether I wore them or not.

Finally, I think odors are largely based on your skin biome and genetic factors, and fortunately for me, I just don't get that smelly.


> The main thing I've noticed is that natural fabrics don't pick up smells nearly as badly as synthetics.

This is especially true of wool.


Wool is a miracle fiber as far as I'm concerned.

Quick plug for two of my favorite businesses:

Fox River Socks [1], which is a sock factory in my home town. Up until a year or two ago it was locally owned. The owner sold it to a larger holding company though. I think they still have a fair amount of local control though.

Faribault Woolen Mill [2], a maker of wool blankets in southern Minnesota, about an hour and a half from where I grew up.

To throw in a third, we made our own bed ~6 years ago out of wool batting from Shepherd's Dream [3], which is an Oregon-based wool seller. We are actually planning to order more this week to make another for our kids.

[1] https://www.foxsox.com/

[2] https://www.faribaultmill.com/

[3] https://shepherdsdream.com/


Quarterly washing of clothes is way too seldom for shirts. Jeans? I guess, if you never spill anything on them, etc. But things like shirts, socks, and underwear require washing essentially every time you wear them.

I mean, it's really all just a matter of preference right?

If something gets legitimately dirty, I wash it. That just rarely happens.


[flagged]


I assume my wife or kids would more than happily tell me. Particularly my kids since they find jokes about smelly things to be highly amusing. And they don't really understand the concept of being polite yet.

You can get a simple one that is probably 80% of the way to a modern commercial washing machine, and several orders of magnitude better than going to a stream and washing:

for example "wonderwash"


An excellent talk on its affects by the late Hans Rosling https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_the_magic_washing_mac...

Thank you for that link. Right before reading your reply I was trying to remember where I read about how it changed women's life and this is actually that talk my memory had remains of.

The surface plate. Modern precision all stems from the concept of a flat reference. However, the technique to make a surface as flat as possible (which is based on simple geometry) was first discussed in the early 19th c.

In terms of profound impact on modernity, the metal screw-cutting lathe.


I disagree. The modern (read:1800s) horizontal milling machine was really what enabled the industrial revolution. The kinds of parts you can make cheaply on a lathe is much less diverse than on a mill with proper tooling. Don't get me wrong, you need parts with circles but all the other shapes are what really enabled the industrial revolution. Mills and the complex shapes they can quickly create allowed us to cheaply crank out the tooling to make all sorts of things.

it takes many many high precision screws to make a milling machine work, so I think you are making my point for me :)

The 1751 Machine that Made Everything

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djB9oK6pkbA


I'd argue firearms are the most important mechanical devices, as they and their production led directly to interchangeable parts, mass production, and precision tooling of all kinds. The modern world is literally impossible without firearms. And yes, you can make crude firearms yourself, but good ones require more skill and capability.

I think the idea of grinding three surfaces against each other to make them flat dates to the Sumerians and may have been independently discovered in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Please cite your source about the three surfaces method dating back to Sumerians.

The metal lathe is not really a 'modern' invention is it?


The screw cutting metal lathe is within the time frame given by the OP.

I'm surprised nobody mentioned radio communication. The AM (Amplitude Modulation) transmission is even quite simple to understand and build.

You can even create an electric arc between the ground and the transmitting tower as a cheap (and dangerous) receiver: https://youtu.be/uo9nGzIzSPw


I don't think a layperson can understand even the basic principle behind AM, let alone the actual device. It's not as "simple" as washing your hands.

I seem to recall building small AM transmitters in elementary school. I don't remember if I used a transistor or not. I think it was easy to construct the capacitor and the inductor. (I build it in the early 70's and don't really remember how.)

We also made crystal diode radios, but I have no idea how to construct a diode from scratch, so maybe those are not simple.


A pencil tip touching a steel razor blade is famously a diode which can be used to build a "foxhole" radio [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foxhole_radio


cat whisker detector

This one just requires a lump of germanium and a pin or small wire.

Traditionally, one would have used galena (natural lead II sulfide) crystals. I also recall most "boys'" radios - the type you'd find in Cubs/Scouts/etc. handbooks - using a razor blade as the contact whisker, probably because it was the simplest way to get a small contact point and stiffness at the same time with materials a kid would likely have to hand.

Back when radioshack existed they used to sell kits where you could assemble a crystal radio out of a handful of simple parts. This was the first real project my dad and I ever did and I was just a little kid at the time.

One of those kits ended up being a growing up story of mine, and a lesson in unchecked hubris.

I was maybe 8-ish years old, and trying to follow the instructions to wire together a crystal radio with one of those Radio Shack electronics kits. My stepdad - who had only recently become such, and to my assumption at the time was just some dumb hick mechanic - volunteered to help me troubleshoot.

Being the bratty child I was, and being frustrated by my inability to figure it out even with the "easy" diagram (let alone actual schematics, which might as well have been hieroglyphs to me), I snapped back at him "I'm ten times smarter than you!" and stormed off.

Not 5 minutes later he calls me back in, triumphantly presenting a working crystal radio.

Turns out my "dumb hick mechanic" of a stepfather was actually once upon a time a technician for Nakamichi, and specialized in fixing their receivers. That little crystal radio was trivial compared to the sorts of circuits he used to repair for his day job.

That was 20 years ago and he still gives me shit for it, lol


This story just made my evening, thanks.

Haha, thanks!

The tables did turn on that more recently, when he was having trouble with his computer (an ancient-by-today's-standards Dell Optiplex running Windows XP); his power supply died, so I bought him a new one, but after he installed it he wasn't able to boot into Windows anymore. I figured maybe whatever blew the PSU also blew the hard drive (I've seen that happen before), so next time I was at his place he handed me the tower to take home and diagnose/rebuild.

As he's handing it to me, it dawns on me, "Well wait just a second..."

On the spot, I popped open the case, took a quick look at the hard drive, plugged in the Molex cable, put the cover back on, and handed it right back to him.

Hearing the words "Alright fucker, we're even" made my week.


Wow, that brings back some memories. I built one of those too. It was a crystal radio with no need for batteries. I used that little radio for years to listen in bed until I fell asleep.

Important - yes, but would you consider it simple? AFAIU it relied on Maxwell's equations that I would not characterize as simple.

You don't need to know anything about Maxwell's equations to build a functioning radio. There are plenty of do it yourself books from the 1920s and 30s that explain in great detail how to do it including how to make rectifiers for battery charging, winding coils to get the right inductance, calculating the length of wire needed for the aerial and so on, together with the simple formulae that are needed.

There's reasonably good evidence to suggest that the first radio was invented before there was widespread acceptance of these so-called "waves" that Maxwell's ridiculous maths seemed to predict - before either Hertz or Lodge had managed to prove that they were anything other than artifacts of Maxwell's electromagnetic model. A certain David Hughes demonstrated transmission over a distance, but it was just written off as induction. And one could even presume that radio would have been inevitable, even without a preexisting theory of it, based entirely on barometers lighting up in thunderstorms; it only needed Volta's pile or a simple generator - some source of current on demand - and some experimentation with electricity before the phenomenon was noted and then deliberately employed.

Someone didn’t think of putting wheels on luggage until relatively recently, in 1987.

https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/business/05road.html


Article notes that it was 1970 that the idea was had and patent application filed, not an original idea in 1987. But your point stands.

It's a good link though, as it also tells the story of how the luggage-with-wheels idea was hated on by people who heard about it. The story here isn't that it took so long to think of the idea, but that it took a long time for anyone to actually want it.

> So why did it take so long for wheeled luggage to emerge? Mr. Sadow recalled the strong resistance he met on those early sales calls, when he was frequently told that men would not accept suitcases with wheels. “It was a very macho thing,” he said.


What? I have a large suitcase with wheels from 1979. I was plannig to build "portable computer" in it, but Osborne-1 destroyed this plan.

A few weeks ago I was going through some stuff in our storage unit and found an originally very nice suitcase. It's of no value to me now because it has no wheels.

Imagine how much more difficult air travel would be without the wheels!


Imagine it? I've been living it and it's so much better. Try to get from one side of O'Hare to the other for your connection leaving in 20 minutes with a rolling suitcase vs with a comfortable medium-large backpack.

Boarding flights is easier, getting around outside is easier (try rolling your suitcase around the cobble streets of Paris), fitting into tight restaurants is easier.

Look into /r/onebag if you want to learn more. Check out the Minaal, it's literally life-changing if you travel often.


Wheeled checked luggage is nice when I'm on a trip that requires a lot of year. (Because of outdoor activities or whatever.) However, for typical trips I just take a carry-on travel backpack and a small bag for electronics/camera even for trips that are 2-3 weeks. IMO, most people travel with way too much stuff.

I don't have to imagine it. We had 2 massive suitcases when I was a kid that were built like tanks. You actually had to be pretty thoughtful when you put them into the trunk because of their size.

But here's the thing. You pulled up to the terminal back then, parked, got out. Walked away from the car and checked your bag right there on the sidewalk if you weren't getting there at some weird hour and then said bye to whoever dropped you off and they left. You walked inside and checked into your flight and didn't have to think about luggage until you got to wherever.

When you got to your destination, there were a bunch of luggage carts and you'd throw in 25 cents or 50 cents or whatever and get one, load up whatever and take it to the shuttle or car rental. If you were feeling rich, you'd just leave the cart and not worry about getting your change back. If you were feeling like a cheapskate you could take the cart to a return and get some or all of your change back.

Picking someone up? You parked the car, went inside the airport, went through a metal detector and had your change/wallet/purse x-rayed and walked right up to the gate and waited for their plane to pull up.

I remember one time we picked up my grandparents and my dad was a state police officer. We went through security, he put his gun and badge (out of uniform) on the conveyor belt, no one freaked out, they checked his police ID against his face, made me push a button on my pager to show them it was a real electronic device and told us keep moving. Then in that area, there was some smoke coming from the ceiling outside. No panic, no evacuation, some fire fighters pulled up outside and came in through a gate, poked around at the ceiling tiles and decided everything was ok while everyone just casually sat around. This would have been 1997 probably, dad died in early 1998 and I don't think I had the pager in 1996 (context: my father had bought a pager and payed for service in advance, then as a detective the department gave him one so they used it to reach me when I was out and about on my bike or at a friend's and someone was on the internet).

Different times. I'm only 34.


Makes you wonder how one bad action can just cause sweeping changes in surveillance, privacy, screening process, etc. How much of it is overreaction?

It was all a designed to create more surveillance, not to protect us. I don’t think it’s stopped any terrorist attacks.

I’d normally agree except the copy cat effect is strong these days. School shootings in US are the counter example where little changed after Columbine and now we have them weekly or so.

We don't have Columbine-style school shootings every week. Maybe gang shootings involving students, but that's a separate problem with completely different cultural roots.


It needed development of tough plastics to become practical. Until very recently you had to be careful to get bags where the wheels wouldn't snap off eagerly.

Aren’t wheels only useful inside the airport? As soon as it gets rustic you want a back-back or a trunk with a shoulder strap.

Luggage trunks have had a pair of wheels on one edge since forever.

The modern idea of a library catalog came around in the early 1800s, and probably accelerated the pace of knowledge transfer and acquisition quite a bit. In its original form, index cards, it was ubiquitous for almost 200 years before being replaced by computerized systems.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_catalog



Bicycles are pretty amazing, although there's no way you could 'build one yourself'.

Bicycles may seem simple but took many decades to get it right.

Your comment also reminded me of this gallery of drawings from people attempting to create a bicycle from memory which is pretty funny https://twistedsifter.com/2016/04/artist-asks-people-to-draw...


The most astounding thing about bicycles is that we did actually get it right. looking at the first ~100 years of iteration, you'd kind of assume that it was one of those things that would just keep evolving forever. But then they found the classic diamond frame design, and bikes have been fundamentally the same since then.

You could also argue that the political necessity in competitive cycling to maintain its status quo (thus not allowing recumbents and the like) has forced us into a local maximum that we cannot easily exit.

Feels kind of asymptotic to me: they got most of the basics right 100 years ago, but things like derailleurs are a pretty big improvement in terms of allowing an ordinary person to ride over varied terrain. Quick release skewers (grazie a Tullio Campagnolo), lighter materials, clipless pedals (for racers)... have all been incremental improvements. More recently, tubeless tires on mountain bikes are a big improvement in my enjoyment of riding off road.

You can absolutely make arguments that bicycle design is unoptimized.

Why use front forks when they have so many problems? https://www.revzilla.com/common-tread/why-are-there-no-alter...

Why haven't recumbent bicycles taken over the road bike market despite many advantages (hint: It has to do with what kinds of traffic we prioritize in cities) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recumbent_bicycle#Compared_to_...


people have been trying to make linkage forks a thing since forever ago, and it never pans out. For all the claims that telescoping suspension isn't very good, there's still nothing better.

I don’t get it, front forks seem very optimal to me. Could hardly be any simpler.

They're simple, but from the article:

> The main problem with conventional forks is that they can’t separate bump forces from braking forces.

> As a result, a conventional fork dives under hard braking. As weight’s transferred to the front wheel, the fork springs compress. This uses up fork travel that would otherwise be available for bumps, which is bad enough. But wait, it gets worse...

> Brake dive also shortens the wheelbase and changes the rake angle. In a perfect world, engineers would certainly rather not change those parameters in mid-corner!

This makes braking mid-corner a risky proposition, which leads to accidents when riders encounter surprises mid-corner.

In the motorcycling world this is being worked around by computers, so we're not likely to see an alternate front suspension, unfortunately. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHRWg91hv-M


This seems like it’s talking about front forks with suspension though? Only mountain bikes have that, and in the terrain they are made for it works well. On the road mountainbikes are terrible in numerous ways.

What's kind of fascinating is that sport motorcycles have all reached a similar design too, except they were all influenced by a racing rule that said the fairings couldn't extend forward of the front axle. Before that, motorcyles were tending towards football-shaped.

What a frustrating article, they say its missing a key component but doesn't say what.

It's the Chainstays. You need two bars connecting the bottom bracket to the rear hub or the rear wheel is extremely unstable.

Most modern bikes are fundamentally 2 triangles joined at the base.


Even the artist just says "an important part of its frame".

If I had to guess, it's a bar connecting the back wheel's harness-thing with the gear to maintain a consistent distance. If someone sat on that, I think the wheels would flex out, the chain come loose, etc.


A bar between the axes of the pedals and the rear wheel ;)

There's no chain stay, to complete the rear triangle.

The chainstays are missing in the first image.

I'd love to see some of these built out and tested. I'm assuming most would snap in half when riding over the first curb. Thanks for sharing!

Well, you can certainly assemble a bike from a pile of components, a pair of wheels, and a frame (try and do that with a sedan...) And it's not beyond most people to learn how to weld or braze a frame together from tubing (or even glue up carbon fiber or bamboo into a frame, at room temp). But smelting the steel and aluminum at home to make the parts is admittedly not practical.

Not only not practical -- essentially requires a highly refined metal industry to begin with, as I understand it.

It's no surprise the first mass producers of bicycles were weapons manufacturers -- they were the ones with the high quality steel supplies and equipment that allowed for tight tolerances.


There are people on youtube who refine their own ores. They are lucky enough to live in a place where ore is close to the surface - not high quality ore, but with enough that for a youtube video you can get a small quantity of pure metal out. (high quality ore is either deep in the ground or already mined). For iron the process is actually simple, knowledge of iron refining likely predated the bronze age, but quality iron ores were too hard to come by to make it useful. (bronze is in much less quantity overall, but where there was was easy to find)

Edit: I won't discount the advances in iron refining though. the methods known thousands of years ago were not suitable to large scale production. It is hard to say if they would have made those advances if ore was available or not.


> try to do that with a sedan...

Well, it can be done. There's a guy who rebuilt a Tesla Model S from a pair of junked Teslas.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfV0_wbjG8KJADuZT2ct4SA


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