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The stories behind these famous inventions are (almost) as incredible as the inventions themselves. From the X-ray to the Super Soaker, we're covering 13 amazing inventions and the stories of their creation.

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0:00 Three-point seat belt
1:32 Pizza box & pizza saver
3:08 Microwave
4:33 X-ray photography
5:45 Blood banks
6:53 Super Soaker
8:09 Space telescopes
8:55 The Pill
10:13 Flush toilets
11:36 Radio
12:47 Lightbulb
13:44 The Walkman
14:40 Suspension bridges


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1) If you drive a car, I can probably take a pretty good guess as to what the seatbelts inside it look like. But the now ubiquitous safety devices haven’t always looked like (or been as effective as) the ones you know today. 

Hi, I’m Erin McCarthy, and this is the List Show. The impact of the modern seatbelt is pretty obvious—the United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that they saved almost 15,000 lives in 2017 alone—but other technological innovations had more subtle or unexpected outcomes, from the Hubble telescope to those little plastic tables that pizzerias put on top of your pizza. 

Today, I’ll be discussing inventions that changed the world, in ways large and small. Let’s get started.


The three-point shoulder and lap belt wasn’t invented until 1958. Previously, two-point lap belts were more common. They were good at keeping people in their seats, but not necessarily safe. At high speeds, the belts themselves could cause internal injuries. Not ideal. Other seatbelts, like the four-point belts used by pilots, were safe, but considered too cumbersome for everyday drivers. So when Volvo engineer [Nils Bohlin] came up with his concept for a seatbelt that stabilized the torso as well as the lap, the car company quickly began implementing them into all of their vehicles. In a rather unusual act of corporate generosity, Volvo allowed the patent to be duplicated by other auto manufacturers so that the improved design could save lives, even in competitors’ cars. 100 points to Sweden for that one.

2) Saving a few million lives is one thing, but saving the integrity of melted mozzarella? Now that’s a real game changer. 

In the early 1960s, the world of pizza delivery took a big step forward. Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s, worked with a Detroit company to invent something that had been sorely lacking in the pizza industry: a functional pizza box. Prior to this invention, pizza was often delivered in bags (gross) or flimsy boxes, like those still used by many bakeries today. When Domino’s started using their sturdier

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corrugated cardboard boxes, pizzas were spared the sad fate of arriving at a home in a pitiable, mushy mess.

One problem remained, however. The new square boxes allowed multiple pizza boxes to be stacked on top of each other, which was convenient, but sometimes led to doughy disaster. The top of a box could collapse, ruining the beautiful layer of cheese on top of the pizza. So in 1985, Carmela Vitale invented the ying to the pizza box’s yang: the pizza saver. Which, yes, IS what that little white table that stands in the center of your pie is called. 

I should note, though he didn’t renew his original patent, a similar design was first documented by an Argentinian man named Claudio Troglia. He called his creation el separador de pizzas, or SEPI. Of course, it’s a bit dramatic to say that pizza savers changed the world, but the fact that the simple design is still being used decades later shows the enduring (if admittedly small) ways our lives can be improved by ingenuity.

3) Let’s say you wake up the morning after your structurally sound pizza delivery arrived. You think to yourself, “eggs be damned, I want a leftover slice of last night’s pizza.” Assuming, unlike me, you then go to the trouble of heating up that cold slice, your next stop might very well be a microwave. The device that will give you a hot, flabby slice of pizza first came about during World War II, and it might not have been discovered if it wasn’t for research into RADAR technology. 

In 1945, engineer Percy Spencer was working with magnetrons, which are essentially tubes that generate electromagnetic waves. He had a snack handy in his pocket in case he got hungry during his research—a smart move for any scientist. Spencer soon noticed that the peanut cluster candy bar had turned into what he described as a “gooey, sticky mess.” In the next few years, he developed the Radarange, which was a huge microwave precursor that would have cost you the equivalent of about 17 grand today. It was roughly the size of a refrigerator. By the late 60s, improvements in Spencer’s design led to home microwave ovens. They were advertised with lofty slogans, like “make the greatest cooking discovery

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since fire.” It’s important to believe in yourself.

To be fair to those enthusiastic marketers, the world of convenience food did take a huge step forward once microwaves became a mainstay in homes across the globe. For better and worse, food could be “zapped” in a fraction of the time that traditional cooking methods required. Madame Benoit’s Microwave Cook Book and Barbara Kafka’s The Microwave Gourmet were just two of the cookbooks that specifically catered to microwave cookery. And, as Justin discussed in an episode of Food History, TV dinners played their own microwave-enabled role in changing consumer habits. 

4) Like the microwave (and a surprising number of other inventions), the X-ray was also created mostly by accident. Back in 1895, a German physics professor named Wilhelm Röntgen was tinkering around with electricity, low-pressure gasses, and a chemical-coated screen. You know, as one does. He discovered a type of ray that made the screen fluoresce from a few yards away. He wanted to see what kind of shadows would be produced by placing objects in front of the screen. 

When he went to try a hunk of lead, he noticed something interesting. Not only did he see the lead’s shadow, he also saw the bones of his own hand on the screen which must have been…pretty freaky. He experimented further, replacing the screen with a photographic plate—and thereby inventing the X-strahlen. 

Strahlen means “ray” or “beam” and X refers to an unknown quantity, as in algebra. Over a century later, X-rays are still used, and not just to detect broken bones. They help diagnose breast cancer, can find cracks in nuclear reactors, and have even been put to use by astronomers. Big shout out to Wilhelm for exposing himself to potentially harmful rays in the name of science. The Nobel committee evidently agreed; in 1901, Rontgen received the first Nobel Prize for physics.

5) Continuing with important medical inventions, let’s talk about the concept of a blood bank. For most of medical history, blood transfusions and donations were difficult procedures. There wasn’t a method to preserve blood for very long, and even if there had been, an organized

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network to obtain, record, and distribute blood didn’t yet exist. If you needed a blood transfusion, you had to find your own donor.

In 1937, the first blood bank was set up in Chicago thanks to a new discovery allowing blood to be preserved for up to 10 days. People could now deposit blood to be used for patients with matching blood types without it being procured in a hurried, life-or-death scenario. 

Around the same time, Charles R. Drew devised a method to separate plasma from blood. Plasma, unlike whole blood, can be dried for long-term storage. This became a crucial discovery as World War II commenced. America was able to send donated plasma to Britain to aid combat hospitals there.

Drew soon collaborated with the Red Cross to develop bloodmobiles—mobile blood donation units that continue to help sustain blood banks today. Just…don’t stand up too fast after you donate or you’ll end up like me, sweaty and collapsed on the floor of a bloodmobile in the middle of a strip mall parking lot.

6) Now onto something that is, arguably, just as important as accessible blood donations: the Super Soaker. (I didn’t say it’d be a good argument.)

Pool parties changed forever the moment this toy hit the market in 1990. Previous squirt gun models were cheap; they generally couldn't spray water more than a foot or two. Super Soakers used a sophisticated air-pressure system to shoot water further and faster than ever before. The product was a hit. The former executive vice president of Larami, the original Super Soaker manufacturer, wrote that “ … deliveries would come into the stores, and the clerks wouldn’t even have time to put them on the shelves. They’d just take them out of the boxes and sell them to the kids waiting in line for them.” 

Larami was bought by Hasbro in 1995, and over the Super Soaker’s first 25 years, it amassed over a billion dollars in sales. It was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2015 and is still soakin’ today. So where did this genius idea come from anyway? A NASA engineer, of course. 

Lonnie Johnson was testing a new heat pump he created that used water as a coolant. The concentrated streams of water that shot out from it seemed like they could be fun in the right context. 

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Sure, Johnson had worked on NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter, but I think his work in the field of action hero-quality water guns deserves just as much, if not more, praise.

7) Let’s stay in the domain of NASA. Back in the 1940s, anyone interested in looking at the stars had to make use of a ground-based telescope. That’s around the time Lyman Spitzer first proposed the creation of a space telescope. Decades later, the Hubble telescope brought Spitzer’s original dream to fruition in a way never seen before.

From its unique vantage point, Hubble was able to give scientists insights into the age of the universe and the distance between galaxies. It also observed more new moons and exoplanets than you can shake a space telescope at. These days, Hubble generally takes a backseat to the James Webb Space Telescope, an even more powerful tool that has already given us some incredible glimpses into the far reaches of the universe. Without Spitzer’s initial idea, though, we might not have developed either perception-expanding device.

8) Back on earth, the first birth control clinic was opened in 1916 by Margaret Sanger. It was promptly raided and shut down. It would be another few decades before a safe and effective contraceptive pill would make it to market. It had some less effective and incredibly dangerous predecessors. Before “The Pill,” people had sometimes used toxic pennyroyal or straight up mercury as oral contraceptives.

In the 1950s, biologist Gregory Goodwin Pincus and gynecologist John Rock—with funding from Sanger and philanthropist Katharine McCormick—began work on what Sanger once envisioned as “a magic pill.” Though it took years before the hormonal contraceptive was approved by the FDA and legally purchasable in most states, it was a huge step forward in bodily autonomy for women. Author Linda Gordon argued “ … that effective contraception was probably in the whole of the 20th century the most important change for women.”

It remained illegal for unmarried women to purchase the pill in some states until 1972. But today, the Pill has evolved to become widely available in a variety of monophasic, biphasic, and triphasic options (the different varieties release the hormones estrogen and progestin in different schedules and levels).The Pill has been tied to various sociological developments since its release, from later-in-life marriages to changes in the workplace. As Vanessa Grigoriadis 

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wrote for New York magazine, “These days, women’s twenties are … a time of boundless freedom and experimentation ... The Pill, which is the most popular form of contraception in the U.S., is still the symbol of that freedom.”

9) “Toilets are the key to a thriving, healthy society.” Though a lot of sources point to Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, John Harrington, as the inventor of the toilet, he wasn’t the first to flush. A number of flushing toilets preceded Harington’s very real toilet enthusiasm, including one from back in the 16th century BCE, on the island of Crete.

After the Roman empire fell, flushing toilets in Western Europe went down the drain. Areas in East Asia and the Middle East continued to use different iterations of the device, but for a long time the only option for doing your business in places like England were chamber pots, garderobes (which were little more than closets with a hole in them), or going “animal style,” a slang phrase I just invented for pooping outside. Apologies. 

To make up for it, I will share three real historical slang terms for the toilet, since you better believe I wrote an entire list of them for

“The necessary house” is perfectly logical, while “sludgie”—a Scots slang term—is just fun to say. Rhyming slang gave us the Thelma Ritter. I’ll let you figure that one out. We discussed a key innovation in toilet technology in a previous video, the S trap. That piece of plumbing was developed by Alexander Cumming, a Scottish watchmaker, but we’ll probably never know who first came up with a flushing toilet. Whoever we can thank, the simple device has indirectly saved countless lives by reducing outbreaks of infectious diseases like cholera and typhoid. Luckily for us all, someone somewhere had enough of our [bleep].

10) Another invention with a contested origin is the radio. Physicist James Maxwell predicted the existence of radio waves in the mid-19th century, and Heinrich Hertz successfully generated them in a lab a couple decades later. (Hertz’s work is still honored today in the SI unit for frequency.) But the question of who first had the ability to send and receive radio signals (the technology undergirding everything from World War I and II-era military communication to morning shock

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jocks) is a matter of some debate.

Guglielmo Marconi is often considered the father of the radio—what was once thought of as the wireless telegraph. He was given the Nobel Prize for technology and received the patent for his work, first in England and eventually in the United States.

Nikola Tesla believed he should hold the patent, though. His Tesla coil could send and receive radio waves, but a fire at his lab got in the way of a demonstration of its capabilities. Tesla actually sued Marconi for patent infringement, but was unable to see the suit through due to lack of funds.

In a bittersweet postscript, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Tesla’s favor in 1943, saying that one of his earlier patents should’ve maintained priority over Macaroni's application. We would’ve needed technology far beyond radio waves to know if Tesla celebrated the decision, though—he had died earlier that year.

11) Another patent controversy surrounded improvements to the incandescent lightbulb. In this case, two of the primary legal combatants were Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan. Eventually, the two joined forces and formed a new company, Edison-Swan United. Whoever we attribute particular lightbulb innovations to, it wouldn’t be correct to say Edison invented the lightbulb. British chemist Humphrey Davy had shown that electricity could produce light decades before Edison and Swan were engaged in their legal battles.

There’s an element of truth to the erroneous idea that Edison invented the lightbulb, though. His company’s improvements to the technology changed the world forever. Once electric light became widespread, people could work later hours with cheaper, reliable illumination; health hazards of gas-powered lighting were minimized or eliminated altogether. And the development of the electric grid—another important step forward that Edison’s company helped drive—was accelerated by the business needs that arose in the wake of the upgraded incandescent bulb.

12) In a roundabout way, you can connect the smartphone all the way back to Masaru Ibuka’s desire to listen to music on flights. Ibuka was the co-founder of Sony, and his desire to be freed of the unending din of his own thoughts (OK, I’m editorializing here, based on experience) eventually led to the Walkman. 

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Though transistor radios had been around for a couple decades by the time the Walkman debuted in 1979, the new technology was a breakthrough in dialing up music on demand. Suddenly, all you needed was a Walkman and a cassette collection to bring your favorite music with you on the go. Admittedly, it took a whole bunch of other developments—from the discman to the iPod to a whole lot of computing improvements—for us to get to smartphones, but I think there’s a spiritual connection there. 

Even if you don’t buy that argument, you can’t deny that the Walkman enjoyed a good run, in its own right, as a favored piece of ‘80s tech.

13) Suspension bridges are actually thousands of years old in their most simple form. Different materials have been used as de facto cables to hold up bridge decks, including—in one millennium-old example from China—bamboo. But the 19th century saw important advances in suspension bridge design that have allowed people to cross long bodies of water ever since. A number of those advances can be credited to the Roebling family.

John Roebling was an engineer who created a way to make strong wire rope. Eventually, the durable material could actually be spun right on-site during bridge-building projects, helping to speed up construction. Roebling’s bridges spanned the Niagara River gorge, the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh and, most famously, New York’s East River. That last bridge came to be known as the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s still standing tall and looking good (if I may say so) today. 

When Roebling died, his son Washington became the chief engineer on the construction project. When his health started to fail, his wife, Emily, stepped in and helped see the project to completion.This was, of course, long before the concept of “women in STEM” existed, but Emily’s contributions were acknowledged in her own time. 

She crossed the bridge on its opening day with President Chester A. Arthur. At the Brooklyn Bridge’s opening ceremony, Abram Hewitt called the impressive new structure " … an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.”

Thanks for watching the List Show. Next time you’re heating up some soup in the microwave, I hope you think about how incredibly impressive the common inventions around us really are. Oh shoot, soup! I forgot to talk about the can opener! It’s actually a great story, can we get a few more minutes? 

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No. Well, maybe next time. Thanks for watching.