7 Forgotten Inventions That Changed the World

Pneumatic Tire
Pneumatic Tire (Photo by RoyBuri)

1. Pneumatic Tire: Smoother, Safer Travel on Land

The pneumatic rubber tire is one of the most impactful inventions that few people today associate with a particular inventor. This forgotten 19th century innovation drastically changed transportation methods and enabled new forms of mobility.

In 1845, Scottish veterinary surgeon John Dunlop developed and patented the first practical pneumatic tire. This was a major breakthrough, providing an alternative to the solid rubber tires used on bicycles and carriages at the time.

Dunlop’s interest was sparked by wanting to create a more comfortable ride for his young son’s tricycle. His idea relied on air-filled rubber chambers that could absorb shocks from bumpy roads. The key was the relative compressibility of air versus solid rubber.

The pneumatic tire was far superior in cushioning and reducing vibration. This gave vehicles fitted with them the benefits of speed, stability, fuel efficiency, and most importantly – comfort.

By enabling smoother rides, Dunlop’s invention laid the foundation for the bicycling craze of the 1890s. It gained widespread adoption with the booming popularity of the safety bicycle, which utilized similar sized wheels and pedals connected to the wheels by a chain drive.

Later, the pneumatic tire enabled the transition from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles. It underpinned the acceleration, handling, and reliability needed for motor vehicles to become a mass transportation method.

Modern society owes a debt to this largely forgotten Scottish inventor. John Dunlop’s pneumatic tires fueled the bicycling phenomenon of the late 1800s and propelled the world into the automotive age.

2. Street Sweeping Machine: Cleaner Cities, Healthier Populations

white and red truck on road during daytime
Road Sweeper /Photo by Claudio Schwarz

As cities industrialized in the 1800s, their streets became increasingly choked with all manner of filth – discarded trash, mud, horse manure, and a mix of garbage and debris. This led to unhealthy levels of dust, bacteria, and pollution that caused rampant disease in dense urban areas.

To combat the unsanitary conditions, English inventor Joseph Whitworth created an important but now obscure invention – the street sweeper. His early rotary cleaning machine was patented in 1849.

Whitworth’s mechanical sweeper featured large rotating brushes that gathered up refuse from roads and directed it into receptacles. It was pushed manually by workers but far more efficient than cleaning by hand.

The street sweeper sparked a revolution in municipal sanitation. Cities quickly realized the value of regular street cleaning to preserve public health and respond to residents’ demands for cleaner neighborhoods.

Manual and horse-drawn sweepers evolved into motorized versions by the early 1900s. Soon city sanitation departments were established specifically to maintain clean streets.

Modern street sweepers with vacuum and filtration systems can remove over 90% of urban debris. This ongoing municipal service traces its roots back to Joseph Whitworth’s forgotten but brilliant innovation over 170 years ago.

By helping launch large-scale street cleaning, the sweeper played a pivotal role in making crowded cities more livable. It led to reduced spread of illness and disease, which contributed greatly to length and quality of life as populations skyrocketed.

3. Iron Lung Respirator: Saving Lives in Polio Epidemics

In the first half of the 1900s, paralytic poliomyelitis (polio) outbreaks caused widespread fear. The highly contagious virus could cause paralysis, difficulty breathing, and sometimes death. At the peak of the polio epidemic in the 1950s, as many as 60,000 children were disabled by the disease each year in the United States alone.

When muscles became paralyzed, including those used for breathing, patients were at risk of suffocating. At this dire point, an obscure but revolutionary device saved lives – the iron lung.

The iron lung respirator was invented in 1928 by Americans Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw. This along with the smaller wooden cuirass ventilator provided artificial respiration, forcing air in and out of the lungs.

Patients were sealed inside the airtight metal tubular chambers, which applied negative pressure to make the chest expand and contract. This mimicked natural breathing movements when muscle control was lost.

Widespread installation of iron lung units in hospital wards gave polio victims an opportunity to regain their strength and even survive. The iron lung was vital in keeping patients alive during the terrifying polio epidemics of the early 1900s, before the first polio vaccine was introduced.

Although its technology was superseded, the significance of this forgotten life-saving device endures. The iron lung and related negative pressure ventilators paved the way for modern positive pressure ventilation. They remain an icon of the desperate measures taken at a time when polio was untreatable and often fatal.

4. Saxophone: Iconic Jazz Instrument and Musical Game Changer

Man Sitting on Stool While Playing Saxophone Beside Fence
Saxophone / Photo by Yurii Hlei

The saxophone is an iconic fixture in jazz music, which emerged as a uniquely American art form in the early 20th century. Playing an essential role in shaping jazz and transformative new musical styles, it is easy to forget that the saxophone itself was also an innovative invention not so long ago.

Around 1840 in Belgium, musical instrument maker Adolphe Sax patented an entirely new woodwind design he called the saxophone. It had a brass body and single reed mouthpiece like a clarinet combined with a conical bore mouthpiece like the oboe.

Sax’s imaginative new instrument, with its captivating timbre and wide tonal range, became a regular addition to classical orchestras by the 1860s.

But it was in the new jazz music where the sax truly made its mark. Early jazz pioneers like Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong elevated the sax to solo instrument status.

Its expressive emotional power was a perfect conduit for blues, swing, and the innovation of jazz improvisation. As a jazz staple, the saxophone became intricately linked to cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance.

The groundbreaking sax riffs of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, and others reshaped 20th century music. The sultry, smooth tones of the saxophone gave jazz and rock their distinctive moods and personalities.

Few now remember Sax, the visionary Belgian who dreamed up this game-changing “new sound” in a simple workshop almost 180 years ago. But echoes of his brilliant invention still resonate powerfully today.

5. Crookes Tube: Forebear of X-Rays and TV Screens

Today x-ray imaging provides vital diagnostic medical insights by revealing our unseen interior anatomy. The ubiquitous television screen and computer monitor are so commonplace they seem almost mundane.

These revolutionary technologies trace back to an obscure 19th century device called the Crookes tube, invented by British physicist William Crookes. Inside a glass envelope under vacuum conditions, Crookes tubes generated mysterious rays that caused fluorescence on a screen or photographic plate.

Crookes’ early experiments from 1875 onward paved the way for a new understanding of cathode rays, which J.J. Thomson later identified as streams of negatively charged electrons. This lent key evidence for the electron theory that upended previous “indivisible” theories of the atom.

Further work on shadow casting abilities of cathode rays led to momentous breakthroughs. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered x-rays and their myriad uses in 1895. Building on the principles of Crookes’ cathode ray tube, early television was demonstrated by 1907.

Today’s ubiquitous x-ray machines and TV/computer screens have their roots in a largely forgotten pioneering electrical device – the Crookes tube. The streams of electrons it produced inside a partial vacuum gave scientists their first glimpse into the hidden quantum world that underpins modern physics.

6. Kinetoscope: Bringing Motion Pictures to the Masses

Long before grand movie theaters, surround sound, and CGI special effects, audiences were first captivated by moving images on a peculiar box called the kinetoscope. This key early innovation laid the foundations for the entire film industry as we know it.

Invented in 1891 by American inventor Thomas Edison and his assistant William Dickson, the kinetoscope was history’s first commercial motion picture device. It consisted of an enclosed viewing box with a tiny film strip playing within.

Looking through a peephole on top, one customer at a time could watch the moving images inside the box. Despite its limitations, the kinetoscope was immediately popular with the public when it debuted. It foreshadowed the incredible visual storytelling potential of cinema.

Edison and Dickson engineered updated kinetoscope technology capable of projecting images onto a screen in 1895. This evolved into standardized movie projectors and the first silent films shown in theaters.

By creating the first commercially viable way to view life-like motion pictures, the kinetoscope launched the film industry that transformed global entertainment. Although eclipsed early on, this pioneering invention kicked off decades of cinema magic that continues to entrance audiences today.

7. Hoberman Sphere: Radically Transformable Structure

The Hoberman sphere is an obscure modern invention that represents a revolutionary leap in transformable engineered structures. Conceived by American inventor Chuck Hoberman in the 1990s, it can rapidly unfurl to several times its collapsed size, then neatly fold back in on itself.

This unique structure consists of a network of scissored struts arranged in interconnected rings. Unlike similar devices, the Hoberman sphere requires no latches or human intervention to transform. Just a gentle push on opposite sides causes it to smoothly shape-shift between a compact sphere and an open lattice-like ball.

In addition to being fun to fiddle with, the collapsible magic of the Hoberman sphere points to dynamic new possibilities in reconfigurable architecture, furniture, and products. Its principles have been applied to retractable roofs, deployable satellite booms, and self-adjusting assemblies that adapt to their environment.

The radical shape-changing abilities of the Hoberman sphere reveal a tantalizing glimpse into a future of responsive transformable structures that can morph on demand. The forgotten inventor behind this simple but clever contraption may one day be seen as well ahead of his time.

From pneumatic tires to x-rays, this look at 7 forgotten inventions reveals how many pivotal technologies we take for granted today actually had their start in obscure contraptions of the past.

Long before the name-brand recognition and cultural ubiquity they may now enjoy, innovators like Dunlop, Sax, Crookes, and Edison launched revolutionary devices that changed everyday life. They solved pressing problems, shaped new industries, and paved the way for future innovations.

These inventors proved that transformative ideas can stem from humble workshops and simple patents, not just today’s high-tech laboratories. Their forgotten inventions may not be household names, but the problems they solved and industries they enabled live on as an integral part of the modern world.

We can pay tribute by recognizing that even the most mundane everyday technologies we interact with are the product of creative human minds tackling challenges with persistence. The forgotten inventors who first dreamed them up shaped our world in lasting ways, even if their pioneering contraptions are not so familiar today.

Garry L. Hemphill
Garry L. Hemphill

My mission is to help people discover their dreams and take action to make them a reality. I specialize in creating content that motivates, educates, and inspires others to pursue their passions with purpose.

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