In praise of this century's greatest gadgets

They were discussing the paper clip. Was it, or was it not, the supreme design achievement of the 20th century? I suppose this kind of sublime ridiculousness is to be expected on radio at millennium-time. But ... the paper clip?

Admittedly, this tiny twiddle of bent wire, perhaps even more of an office staple than the staple (and that item, after all, does such awful things to your fingernails), is usually taken completely for granted. So to be reminded of its ingenious functionality was a good idea. One of the participants praised its elegant simplicity. But another felt it might not stand up, in terms of human achievement, in comparison with an invention like, say, the car. He had a point there. Driving to Manchester on a paper clip would present certain difficulties.

And another taking part complained about the way in which paper clips holding a number of papers together have a way of attaching themselves to other sheets of paper below them on a desk. So it is not unusual to find attached to the deeds of your new house, or to some highly confidential report on corruption in the office canteen, your mother-in-law's Christmas shopping list or the embarrassing floriferousness of a love-letter's first draft. Staples don't play rotten tricks like that.

One of the participants then proposed "elastic" as a far more useful invention. I must admit I hadn't thought of elastic as "designed" (maybe the discussion had shifted gear somehow). But it must have been thought up by someone, presumably with a great concern for humankind's need to hold things up that insist on falling down, not to mention the longevity of bungee-jumpers.

"Depends on your point of view," my wife replied when asked what she thought might be the greatest 20th-century design. "I mean, to a cook, it might be plastic wrap. To a dog, an extension lead...."

"Yeah, yeah," I said, "and to a bird a squirrel-proof seed dispenser. OK."

"Paper tissues, fax machines, photocopiers, remotes...."

"Ah," I interrupt, "now you're talking. The remote. That is a wonderful thing! How did we survive without them? He who invented the remote should be knighted." And so the radio chat reverberated, and we went wandering through the regions of design, singing the praises of Scotch tape and bubblewrap, electric toasters, vacuum cleaners, rechargeable drill/screwdrivers, Sony Walkmans (should that be "Walkmen?"), pocket calculators, electric razors, hovercrafts. You name it, we named it.

And then I made my choice: Percy Shaw's invention and design of the "cat's eye." This was such a good idea that Mr. Shaw was, in 1965, given by the queen the honorific appendage "OBE" ("Order of the British Empire"). If anyone deserved it, this Yorkshireman did.

His invention had really taken off during World War II, when the country was in blackout every night to baffle the bombers. It is a little concoction of glass and rubber set at frequent intervals into the tarmac straight down the middle of a road. What it does is reflect lights coming toward it. That's all. But it is magically practical. The rubber renders it easily flattenable and wonderfully indestructible. Night-driving without the aid of cat's eyes is monumentally harder. Shaw must have saved thousands of people from collision, particularly in fog.

It is good to know that the cat's eye did make its designer a wealthy man. Unlike Charles Goodyear, who developed the process of vulcanizing rubber, Shaw did not end his days in poverty. But he modestly never moved from his very small and very ordinary house. There was no need for that, now, was there?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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