The other week Richard Todd, famous British actor died at the age of 90. He was a war hero who played other war heroes and even appeared in films with other actors playing himself. His most celebrated role was that of Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC DSO DFC who led the famous Dambusters' Raid on the Ruhr dams on 16/17 May 1943. The film The Dambusters is a perennial British favourite with its stirring music because I think it brings together two characteristics that the British like to think distinguish themselves. It shows the extraordinary heroism of Gibson and his team of 133 men of whom 53 died that night as well as the amazing inventiveness of Barnes Wallis, played in the film by Michael Redgrave, who came up with the idea of the bouncing bomb and then convinced Whitehall and the RAF to back it.
However, there are some other inventions in the story that are quite simple but were necessary for the success of the mission. Wallis wanted 617 squadron to fly its Lancaster bombers at just 60 feet above the reservoir. This required a level of accuracy never before achieved. Gibson is credited in the film with solving the problem when he went to the theatre and watched two spotlights trained on the lady singer. He took the idea back to camp and two spotlights were mounted, one below the fuselage and the other under the aircraft’s nose so that at the correct height their light beams would converge on the surface of the water. Wallis also required that the bomb be dropped at a precise distance from the dam or it was likely to bounce over and then blow up the plane as it also flew past. Again a simple solution was found with a device like a catapult without the elastic. The bomb aimer aimed the sight at the turret at each end of the dam. When they lined up he pressed his bomb release mechanism.
While we celebrate many complex inventions and talk about state of the art technology it is often the simplest of solutions that are forgotten and maybe opportunities are missed as a result. There are many candidates for simple inventions that changed the world: from the wheel, or more exactly the axle, to the road and the sewers underneath; from the fishhook which dates approximately from 30,000 BC to spectacles which were on sale in Florence in 1450.
Barbed wire is composed of two zinc-coated steel strands twisted together and having barbs spaced regularly along them. The need for barbed wire arose in the 19th century as the American frontier moved westward into the Great Plains and traditional fence materials—wooden rails and stone—became scarce and expensive. Cattle had traditionally migrated from the blizzard conditions of the north to the warmer weather of the south west. As these lands were settled farmers wanted to prevent these migrations through fencing the land. This led to disputes known as the range wars between free-range ranchers and farmers in the late 19th century. These disputes were decisively settled in favour of the farmers, and heavy penalties were instituted for cutting a barbed wire fence. Within 25 years, nearly all of the open range had been fenced in under private ownership. For this reason, some historians have dated the end of the Old West era of American history to the invention and subsequent proliferation of barbed wire.
Of the many early types of barbed wire, the type invented in Illinois in 1873 by Joseph F. Glidden proved most popular. The advent of Glidden's successful invention set off a creative frenzy that eventually produced over 570 barbed wire patents. It also set the stage for a three-year legal battle over the rights to these patents. When the legal battles were over, Joseph Glidden was declared the winner. His invention made him extremely rich. By the time of his death in 1906, he was one of the richest men in America.
So what about that famous sliced bread? In the 1920’s Otto Frederick Rohwedder, an inventor from Iowa created a machine that sliced a loaf of bread. One problem that Rohwedder had anticipated was that once the bread was sliced, it ran a risk of drying out and going stale – so his machine wrapped the loaf as well. The Continental Baking Company used the new technology to make its revolutionary ready-sliced Wonder Bread, which began selling like hot cakes across the world in 1930. We still talk about the “greatest thing since sliced bread”: in the great tide of history it has managed to sweep away such trivialities as nuclear fission, rockets to the moon and the internet.
And why can’t I find shoelaces that stay tied?
Copyright David C Pearson 2009 All rights reserved