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Do you know what the Boy Scouts have to do with barcodes? Or how Mother Nature inspired the creator of Velcro? The interesting origins of household items may surprise (and, at times, even horrify) you.

Erin (@erinccmarthy) shares the unusual origins of everyday items, from the air conditioner to saccharin.

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Did you know we have the Boy Scouts to thank for bar codes? As a kid, N. Joseph Woodland learned Morse code through his participation in the Scouts. Years later, when he was looking for a way to efficiently imprint data onto products for tracking an organization, he thought back to that childhood experience. He wondered if there was a way to visually render a version of Morse code's simple but virtually limitless method of communication.

As Woodland told Smithsonian Magazine, inspiration struck at the beach. "I poked by four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason - I didn't know - I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines. I said: 'Golly! Now I have four lines, and they could be wide lines and narrow lines instead of dots and dashes.'"

Woodland worked with a friend, Bernard Silver, to turn that moment of insight into the precursor to modern bar codes. The men sold their patent for only $15,000, but years later, with the help of Woodland's IBM colleague George Laurer and the supermarket executive Alan Haberman, bar codes became the industry standard. Today, they're practically ubiquitous.

Hi, I'm Erin McCarthy, and this is The List Show. In this episode, I'm breaking down the interesting origins of everyday objects, from the happy accident behind smoke detectors to a seriously disturbing use for Lysol. Let's get started.

(theme music)

 Lysol (1:11)


If you look back on March 2020 and feel a little silly for Lysol-ing your groceries, I can tell you that there have been much worse uses for the product over the years. It first came to prominence after it was used in Hamburg, Germany to help combat a cholera epidemic in the late 19th century. It was later touted as a way to fight the devastating flu epidemic of 1918. An ad in the LA Times that year said, "Help your health board conquer Spanish influenza by disinfecting your home."

Lysol does kill most bacteria and viruses, so it made some sense to use it in these contexts. Later research has cast doubt on the relative efficacy of addressing these particular illnesses through surface sanitation, but there was nothing too objectionable in those early efforts.

But things were already starting to come off the rails. Beginning in the 1920s, Lysol was marketed as a safe, effective, and all too necessary feminine hygiene product. In reality, it was none of those things. Lysol sold itself with incredibly sexist advertising featuring lines like, "Instead of blaming him if married love begins to cool, she should question herself." That would be gross enough even if douching, which the ads called for, was a necessary procedure, which is isn't.

And worst of all for the ladies who were spraying this stuff on their nether regions, Lysol's early formula contained cresol, which could lead to burning, inflammation, or worse. By 1911, doctors had recorded 5 deaths from "uterine-irrigation" with Lysol. A lawsuit was filed against Lysol's manufacturer in 1935 by a woman who had been burned by the product, yet when a man complained decades later that it had caused his wife's vagina to blister and bleed, the company's vice president told him that the report was "the first of its kind on record."

Lysol was often used in post-coital douching, the most common method of contraception from 1940 to 1960, and on that front, it was also a failure. As historian Andrea Tone explains in her book Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, a 1933 study at Newark's maternal health center found that almost half of the women who used Lysol as a contraceptive wound up pregnant.

 Vaseline (2:59)


Chemist Robert Chesebrough had a successful job making oils used for illumination, but when petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania, Chesebrough decided to seek out riches in the nascent industry. He noticed that oil rig workers were using a byproduct of the drilling process known as rod wax to address cuts and burns sustained during their work.

Some might have said, "Well, this oil rig stuff is really dangerous," but Chesebrough said, "Gimme some of that weird black goop and stand back." Chesebrough developed a method to refine the rod wax into a clear ointment called petroleum jelly, or, under the brand name it's widely known as today, Vaseline.

Supposedly, to sell his product, Chesebrough traveled around and performed demonstrations in which he wounded himself on purpose and then applied petroleum jelly to demonstrate its lubrious qualities. Afterwards, he'd give out free samples. I mean, a show and free samples? Of course it caught on. Chesebrough even boasted of eating a spoonful of the stuff every day. Now, we do not recommend this to our viewers, but I will say Chesebrough lived to be 96.

We can applaud Chesebrough for his ingenuity, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out a much earlier reported use of proto-petroleum jelly. Native Americans evidently realized the substance's ability to protect wounds in humans and animals, moisturize the skin, and even lubricate the moving parts of tools many years before Chesebrough patented his refining process. It's a useful reminder that, when it comes to discovery and invention, the person who gets there first is not always the person who gets the credit.

 Smoke Detectors (4:20)


Different versions of smoke and heat detectors have been around since the late 1800s, but a key step in the invention's evolution came from a Swiss physicist named Walter Jaeger. The story goes that Jaeger was trying to create a device that would detect poisonous gas. It didn't work.

One day he lit up a cigarette, because apparently he loved irony more than his lungs, and voila! His failed poison detector revealed itself to be an effective smoke detector. It would take decades for further technological advances to bring the devices into homes around the world, but they've saved thousands of lives since then.

 Velcro (4:48)


George de Mestral found inspiration for his most famous invention in those annoying little burrs that can get stuck to your clothing after a walk in the woods. They came from the burdock plant, and when de Mestral put them under a microscope, he realized that they made use of tiny little hooks on the surface of the burr to grab onto whatever passed by.

He went to work on developing a synthetic version of the annoyingly adhesive material, and with the help of a manufacturer in Léon, France, he succeeded. It took a while to catch on, but today, Velcro, which, incidentally, is properly a specific company name and not the generic term for the fastener, can be found on clothing, the Trapper Keeper, and even in NASA space missions, where it helps prevent things from floating around in low gravity.

 Kleenex (5:26)


Like Velcro, Kleenex is practically synonymous with the generic product it's made popular. The disposable tissue actually dates indirectly back to World War I, when the company Kimberly-Clark created a type of cellucotton for use as a filter in gas masks. They had been doing other work with the cellucotton at the time, including a product that would turn into Kotex, the feminine hygiene product.

The company kept the -ex ending from Kotex when they modified it, making it softer and thinner, and sold it as Kleenex. Originally, it was meant to remove cold cream and makeup, hence the "Kleen." Five years after Kleenex came to market, as the company's website tells it, Kimberly-Clark's head researcher was suffering some hay fever. He started using Kleenex instead of his handkerchief, and when he looked down into the snot, he evidently saw dollar signs.

Just a few years before, a Chicago inventor named Andrew Olsen had developed the first pop-up tissue box, the one that makes it easy to take one tissue at a time. Kleenex put their new product in the pop-up boxes, and the rest, as they say, is paper goods history.

 Flush Toilets (6:18)


You can read pieces all over the internet about Queen Elizabeth I's godson John Harrington and his would-be contributions to plumbing. Harrington didn't invent the flush toilet, but he did see the wisdom in its use and tried without much success to convince his English contemporaries to eschew their chamber pots for his lavatory. I mean, not his personal lavatory. That wouldn't have been very practical.

But the everyday object I wanna focus on is the S-trap, which watchmaker Alexander Cumming incorporated as he patented his flushing toilet in 1775. The S-trap attaches to the back of a toilet and "... use[s] water in the trap to keep the toxic gases from getting back into the home and the poo and pee from easily sliding back into the toilet," according to Kimberly Worsham, a sanitation expert and the founder of Facilitated Learning for Universal Sanitation and Hygiene, or FLUSH. Cummings's patent led to what Worsham calls "a flush toilet renaissance" and, in the long run, alongside other plumbing innovations, has prolonged countless lives by improving sanitation.

I should point out, we think of the flushable toilet as a ubiquitous household object, but by Worsham's estimate, around half of the people on Earth don't have access to safely managed toilets in which waste is properly treated before being put back into the environment. And while there's surely a role for governments and nonprofits to play in expanding access to sanitation, there's also a new generation of inventors and thinkers working on the problem, whether by building better toilets or integrating waste into safe applications like fertilizer.

 Air Conditioning (7:36)


The air conditioner was a revolutionary device created to provide relief to countless people. Sorry, I read that wrong. I should have said "created to provide relief to a printing press." When American engineer Willis Carrier created an air conditioner using chilled water moving through heating coils, it was meant to control the temperature and humidity, primarily the humidity in fact, at Brooklyn's Sackett and Wilhelms printing plant. This was necessary to ensure smooth operation of the machinery.

The invention spread to other industries and soon enough was being used specifically to provide comfort to human beings. It's easy to underestimate the air conditioner's impact. To take one example, it allowed human beings to build up into the air with skyscrapers. Imagine the stifling summer heat on the 100th floor of a building without air conditioning.

 Sweet'N Low (8:16)


Let's wrap up with a bit of old-fashioned science beef... or sugar. Well, not sugar, exactly. I'll explain. Chemist Constantin Fahlberg was working at Ira Remsen's lab at Johns Hopkins University in the late 1800s. One day after work, as Fahlberg later explained, he forgot to wash his hands and grabbed a piece of bread. It tasted suspiciously sweet.

Thinking he had accidentally grabbed some cake, he rinsed his mouth and dried his mustache with a napkin, which tasted even sweeter. Then, he drank some wine. It tasted as sweet as syrup. Finally, he licked his thumb and found it was about the sweetest thing he had ever tasted.

He realized that one of the chemicals he was working with had to be responsible. When Fahlberg went back to the lab, he started tasting different chemicals, as one does, before identifying the sticky substance as benzoic sulfamide, which became known as saccharin, often sold under the brand name Sweet'N Low. Fahlberg had worked with the chemical before, but it took a happy accident for him to taste it and realize its commercial potential.

Fahlberg and Remsen co-authored a paper on the discovery, but when Fahlberg patented the product years later, he listed himself as saccharin's sole inventor. Remsen did not take too kindly to this development. He later called Fahlberg a scoundrel and said, "It nauseates me to hear my name mentioned in the same breath with him." Remsen argued that he assigned Fahlberg a problem which Fahlberg investigated under his guidance, saying, "Fahlberg carried out my directions and deserves credit for this, and for this alone."

We may never definitively know who deserves credit for which part of saccharin's discovery, but we know that the health risks associated with it have probably been overblown. Studies have shown that the artificial sweetener causes cancer in rates, which is the primary source of the concern, but most studies don't find evidence of saccharin being a carcinogen in humans.

The sweet substance has actually been controversial for much of its history. In the early 20th century, long before the saccharin studies done on rats and cancer, there were already calls to ban it. Theodore Roosevelt, never one to mince words, said, "Anybody who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot."

 Outro (10:07)


Our next episode is about amazing historical coincidences. If you know a good one, drop it in the comments below for a chance to be featured in that episode. Thanks for watching.