There are some inventions that are just plain complicated. Atomic bombs, NASA rockets, and the LHC all fall under this category. Other inventions, such as cups, swords, and clubs, seem bound to happen. One one end of the spectrum we have very complex inventions and on the other we have very simple ones. Usually, this same scale reflects the creativity and originality necessary to invent these creations, but there are exceptions. I would like to explore these exceptions: inventions that are physically simple yet require a new insight to invent.
The first invention, the paper clip, is perhaps the most commonly-cited instance of such an invention. Metal wires have many uses, but perhaps none as original as holding papers together. It is counterintuitive to have a wire binding flat objects, and the paper clip represents an interesting and creative solution to this problem. While with some fiddling most people could develop something similar to the paper clip in response to this problem, it takes originality and even courage to conceive of this problem in the first place. The physical uses of wire are limited, but become quite unlimited with some creativity.
In the same spirit, the staple represents another simple yet creative invention. Actually, the feat of invention is in the stapler, which manages to combine the processes of puncturing the paper and reforming the staple into one action. Without staplers, we would be manually bending staples to hold papers together; the stapler gives a simple solution to the problem of automating (to some extent) this task. Instead of conceiving of some contrived machine to reshape the staple, staplers use the downward force to perform two actions at once.
The safety pin is another noteworthy simple invention for many of the reasons mentioned above. Once again the mechanism is conceivable, easily manufactured, yet curiously original. It takes advantage of the springiness of metal coils to present a plausible yet original solution to a nonobvious problem.
The zipper is another example of a simple system that takes advantage of force. The upward force on the zipper manages to close each lock. When we think of using force to perform work we often think of pulleys and levers, but inventions such as this remind us that there is much below the surface in the form of many of these inventions.
With these “not so simple machines” in mind, I cite the escalator as an example of using nonconventional shapes to serve a purpose. Like the “teeth” of a zipper, the steps of an escalator serve to turn something mundane into a useful invention. The steps turn a conveyor belt into moving stairs. While there is no aspect of using force in unusual ways, there is the spirit of using unique shapes to create unique inventions.
As an additional example of creating useful shapes, the boomerang is nothing but a curved stick. Yet, when thrown in the right way it can return to the thrower. It amazes me (and hopefully the reader as well) that something so simple (it’s a curved stick!) can perform a task that seemingly requires engines or complicated wings.
In the interest of briefness I will stop the list here. We have explored a list of simple yet creative inventions in common use. In doing so, we have seen some common themes, such as the usefulness of unique shapes, using force to do work in unusual ways, and solving problems that seem to be impossible. This list will never end; as has been demonstrated above, the tasks that can be accomplished with even the simplest tools are without limit.
And surely many of these simple solutions haven’t been invented yet!