The History of Inventions Recycled
(Handy With things at Hand)

by Angela Lorenz

We will probably never be sure whether the horizontal potter's wheel already in use by Sumerians in 4,000 B.C. to make cylindrical pottery vessels preceded or inspired the creation of the Sumerians' first wagon wheel a thousand or more years later.

But we do have many documented examples in history of inventors taking a contraption or material intended for one purpose and recycling it into something else. This makes perfect sense, as an invention is something that didn't exist before. Yet everything must be made from materials already present on the earth, with a slightly different form or function.

Johannes Gutenberg, credited with inventing the printing press in 15th century Germany, took a screw-style press used for pressing olives and grapes and adapted it to print the first book with moveable type in the Western world. He made this converted winepress taller, so that the work could be done at waist height, and created a press-bed underneath with a rolling tray for sliding paper in and out.

About a hundred years later in Holland, the craft of papermaking was considerably advanced when an old mill appliance that had been used for grinding tobacco and mustard seeds was recycled into a device for pulverizing rags. This new contraption was eventually called the Hollander beater, in honor of the country where it was invented.

Inventions have always been created to solve problems, or to make a job easier, not generally as a way to be environmentally correct, and re-use old things.

Actually, the recycling of things already in existence to create something new has not always been pleasant for the owners of these "borrowed" objects.

It is hard to say whether the American Army colonel who took the motor from his wife's washing machine in 1919 and joined it to his manual mower pleased her with this new configuration.

But we know for sure that the founder of wireless radio, Guglielmo Marconi, did not please his cousin Daisy with similar tactics.

When still a boy, Marconi constantly scavenged any material he could find in his family's villa or farm buildings on their propery outside Bologna, Italy. Apparently, Daisy wept the day he transformed her sewing machine into an electric turnspit for roasting meat. Fortunately for Daisy, he was able to restore the machine to its former state.

A decade later, in 1895, Marconi was still using recycled materials to create his most famous invention, the first apparatus able to send wireless signals through the air. Although Marconi's family was very wealthy, his father thought Gugliemo's contraptions were a waste of time and money. His mother did all that she could to help him, but he still had to be very resourceful in order to procure the necessary elements for his experiments. The wireless was connected to a battery. Marconi made batteries himself using teacups with broken handles to contain the acid. The radio's metal-plate aerial, suspended above a battery and Morse-code tapper, was concocted out of sheet iron from an old kerosene storage tank.

Around the same time, women were taking a different electrical device to make life easier, the vacuum cleaner, and adapting it to suit their own needs. They would connect the hose to the exhaust of the vacuum and harness the hot air blown out to dry their hair.

While this temporary function was very innovative, it couldn't be termed recycling as the vacuum cleaner happily still served its primary purpose. Sometimes people would have liked to adapt their inventions to another function, but were not successful. The pressure-cooker was invented in long ago 1690. Its creator, French physicist Denis Papin, called it the "steam digester". He put forth the idea that the same steam power could propel a vehicle, but that was not to happen for another hundred years.

Not all technological advances are sophisticated. The single greatest innovation in coffee preparation did not involve steam or electricity, but blotting paper! A German housewife named Frau Melitta Bentz decided to improve the experience of coffee-drinking in 1908, and created the first "filter drip coffee".

First she attempted using linen towels without success. Then she came up with the idea of using blotting paper in a brass pot with holes perforating the bottom.

She soon went into industrial production and sold her invention at the Leipzig Trade Fair. Frau Bentz wasn't seeking to change the world when she tried to make the texture and flavor of coffee more pleasant for her family and friends, but her impact is still felt today.

Necessity is termed "the mother of invention", but some inventors, after creating a thing nobody wanted, have been faced with a new problem: what to do with the stock of their unsuccessful item.

Apparently, the flashlight bombed in its first incarnation - as an artificial plant light. The inventor, unwilling to accept defeat, dismantled his "Electric Flowerpot" novelty items, extracting the light from the plant. This newly created "Portable Electric Light" made a fortune!

Even a brief survey of inventions and recycling in history shows that it is not always as necessary to initially create something as it is to apply it in a new and useful way.

In early America, the town preacher was thanked for his services with food and goods. Later, when money was deemed more appropriate, people used long-handled bed warmers to collect contributions from the pews. But to cut down on the noise, and muffle the amount given, aldermen started using long-handled wire mesh popcorn poppers, a common item in popcorn-crazy America.

In 1905, The Kansas schoolteacher Frank Rose took a piece of wire mesh and attached it to a yardstick to make the modern flyswatter.
Cultures on other continents didn't have wire screen lying around. But they did have plenty of horsehair, and used it to make whisks to shoe away flies, as did their horses. Sometimes the simplest solution is the most effective.

Many inventions are made out of recycled materials from around the home that once served another purpose.
Not every invention will be important in history - the important thing is to get the job done with the materials at hand.

          --Angela Lorenz