10 Historical Inventions That Are Surprisingly Recent… and 5 That Aren’t

Image shows an almost-overflowing fruit and veg counter at a supermarket.The history of Britain goes back a long way, and a great many features of our day-to-day lives have been around for centuries.

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It’s perhaps because of this that many of us assume that some everyday objects and concepts were invented much longer ago than they really were. Some of the things we take for granted now are comparatively recent, but have been so overwhelmingly successful that we now couldn’t imagine life without them. Let’s take a look at some of them.

1. Standardised time

Image shows a train station platform with two clocks.
Train stations created the first need for standardised time.

We live in a global society now and couldn’t imagine a world without timezones, so it may surprise you to learn that standardised time only became law in 1880. Since the dawn of civilisation, we’ve measured the time by looking at the position of the sun in the sky. Even when clocks were invented, these were set in relation to position of the sun in the sky in a particular town or village. This meant that the time could differ slightly from one town to another. This was all very well in the days when few people travelled long distances, and when there was no such thing as instant communication such as phones or email. But the invention of trains changed that. Suddenly, people could get from A to B much more quickly, and travel much further. They needed to know what the time would be at their destination, and it became clear that standardised time was necessary. Local times were synchronised into what was known as Railway Time in 1840. The time was based on London time, set by the clock of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and hence it became known as Greenwich Mean Time. The idea met with some resistance initially, which meant that stations sometimes had to show two different times; a clock at Exeter, for instance, had a second minute hand added to show London time alongside its own. Standardised time was enforced by law in 1880, and by 1929 most countries were using time based on GMT.

2. CPR

Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – otherwise known as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) – is such an ingrained concept in today’s society that it seems hard to imagine that it was only developed in the 1950s. Although similar methods for life preservation had been around since at least the 18th century, it wasn’t until 1956 that Peter Safar and James Elam honed it to what you know today. The following year the book “ABC of Resuscitation” was released, in which Safar described the “Airway, Breathing and Circulation” model; he was also instrumental in educating the public about CPR, teaming up with a Norwegian toymaker to develop the resuscitation training mannekin so familiar in modern first aid training.

3. Teenagers

Image shows a group of teenagers playing football in the rain.
The idea of a teenager as a distinct category is recent, though there have always been complaints about “the young people today.”

OK, so they weren’t “invented” as such; clearly there have always been people aged 13-19. But the concept of being a “teenager” is a surprisingly recent invention – we’re talking 20th century recent. Until then, people were either children or adults; there was no defined period in which people experienced the ravages of hormones, mood swings and spots, and no real transition period between childhood and adulthood. Indeed, children in poorer families were sent to work like adults when they were very young, and people tended to marry and have children much younger because life expectancy wasn’t as good as it is now. As this article points out, the word “teen” – which came from the numbers “thirteen”, “fourteen” and so on – can only be found as late as 1899, and the word “teenager” not until 1940. The word “teenager” began to be used to describe the younger siblings of men who had gone to war during the Second World War, but the concept of being a teenager seems to have emerged because of religious commentators noting their concerns about the attitudes of people of this age. The word continued to be associated with trouble, an association which continues to this day in the attitudes of many older people towards teenagers.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all History & Classics articles."4. Crosswords

They may sound like one of those things that might have been around for centuries, like jigsaw puzzles, but crosswords are in fact a fairly recent invention. Arthur Wynn, a British man who had emigrated to America aged 19, is credited with their invention, having formulated a diamond-shaped puzzle that he called a “Word-Cross” in a 1913 edition of the New York World newspaper. Interestingly, it was only a typesetting error that led to the switching round of these words to form the familiar “crossword” term we know today. Wynne’s crossword puzzle contained several developments on previous puzzles, such as the use of boxes for letters and black squares to separate words. By the 1920s, crosswords had become all the rage, with the first crossword book published in 1924 and the first crossword appearing in a British newspaper the same year. Some saw them as a waste of time and expressed dismay at the crossword fever that had swept the population, but if proof was needed of their usefulness, it came during the Second World War, when some of the Bletchley Park codebreakers were recruited on the basis of their success in crossword competitions.

5. Supermarkets

Image shows a woman browsing in a supermarket.
The fact that practically all of our shops now involve customers collecting their shopping themselves shows the power of a good idea.

The modern supermarket, in which customers serve themselves, doesn’t sound like a revolutionary concept, but grocery shopping hasn’t always been done as it is now. In the old days, the customer either went to specialised shops such as butchers and bakers, or they wrote a list of groceries, took it to a general retail shop, and handed it to the shopkeeper, who would then collect the items required on the customer’s behalf and deliver them. It was a Memphis shop with the unlikely name of “Piggly Wiggly” that changed how things were done. In 1916, its owner, Clarence Saunders, came up with a revolutionary new idea that would make his job less labour-intensive and lower his overheads. He pioneered a new shop layout, with turnstile entry that meant people had to go around the shop in the same direction, passing by all his products. They would help themselves to whichever items they wanted, saving him the bother, and after paying, they would take the items away themselves, meaning he didn’t have to deliver them. This more efficient model also meant that he could lower his prices, as the customers themselves were now helping him cope with the burden of running the shop. Saunders is credited with dreaming up the supermarket as we know it today, and he would go on to develop other forward-thinking retail concepts until his death in 1953, such as the vending machine and self-service checkout.

6. Hair gel

We’re used to seeing photographs of 1940s film stars with their hair slicked back with Brylcreem (invented in 1929), and archaeological evidence shows that the Ancient Egyptians used something similar, but hair gel as we know it today wasn’t developed until the 1960s. Using the brand name “Dep”, after the key ingredient, diethyl phthalate, it was invented by Luis Montoya. It was a big improvement on Brylcreem because it wasn’t so greasy, and similar products remain popular to this day.

7. Chicken Tikka Masala

Image shows a serving dish full of chicken tikki masala.
British MP Mohammad Sarwar tried to get European Union protected geographical status for Glaswegian chicken tikka masala. Sadly, he was unsuccessful.

What sounds like a traditional Indian dish is thought to have been invented sometime during the last 50 years, and according to many sources, it wasn’t even invented in India. Glasgow doesn’t sound like the sort of city that would be pioneering Indian food, but according to one story, it was a Pakistani chef named Ali Ahmed Aslam, who ran an Indian restaurant in Glasgow’s west end, who came up with the dish in 1971 after improvising a sauce made of cream, yogurt and spices. According to his son, Asif Ali:
“On a typical dark, wet Glasgow night a bus driver coming off shift came in and ordered a chicken curry. He sent it back to the waiter saying it’s dry. At the time Dad had an ulcer and was enjoying a plate of tomato soup. So he said why not put some tomato soup into the curry with some spices. They sent it back to the table and the bus driver absolutely loved it. He and his friends came back again and again and we put it on the menu.”
It’s now an immensely popular British dish, and a staple of pub menus and takeaways across the country.

8. The Scottish kilt

We have a very particular view of Scottish national identity, and a big part of that image has to do with the wearing of kilts made from the tartan of one’s clan. However, these are not the ancient symbols one might think. Many of the supposedly ancient tartans common today came about in the Victorian period, produced by tailors who recognised a fashion for them (perhaps because of Queen Victoria’s famous love of the Scottish Highlands). In fact, the kilt itself only became a symbol of ‘Scottishness’ relatively recently, and the kilt as we know it today doesn’t even seem to be of Scottish origin. It was an English Quaker, Thomas Rawlinson, who invented the knee-length kilt, the one commonly worn now, altering the existing Highland garment, which was floor-length and therefore “cumbrous and unwieldy”. This shortening of the kilt happened in the 18th century, during the Industrial Revolution, when this shorter garment was deemed more practical for workmen and Highlanders were needed to work in factories. Perhaps surprisingly, Highland dress was originally viewed as quite barbaric by the rest of Scotland (the “lowlanders”), so it was far from the national dress we think of it as today.

9. Doorknobs

Image shows a doorknob on a red door.
Complicated locks were in existence long before the doorknob.

Turning a doorknob to open a door seems so simple and commonplace that you’d think we’d always been able to do it. But no – the doorknob mechanism wasn’t invented until 1878, by an inventor named Osbourn Dorsey, an African American inventor about whom not much is known. Prior to this revolutionary invention, doors were opened and closed using latches, of the sort still often seen in older cottages in the UK.

10. The Queen’s Christmas Message

It’s essential Christmas Day viewing, and feels like an age-old tradition, but the Queen’s Christmas Day address only started in 1932. While this may not seem especially surprising given that it’s only radio and television that have enabled the monarch to address the entire nation, one would have thought that some sort of Christmas message from a monarch to the people had been going on for hundreds of years. In fact, the idea came from the man who founded the BBC – Sir John Reith – who suggested that a Christmas message from the monarch might be a nice way to inaugurate the Empire Service (which is now called the World Service). Consequently, there was a radio broadcast from King George V on Christmas Day in 1932, starting a tradition that would move to television in 1957.

Finally, here are five inventions that have been around longer than you might think…

Image shows a row of perfume bottles.
The first recorded chemist was a perfume-maker called Tapputi, who lived in Mesopotamia in the 2nd millenium BC.
  • The credit card – the first one was issued in 1958, which, though not exactly ancient, seems much earlier than one might expect.
  • Plywood – the B&Q staple has actually existed since Ancient Egyptian times – 3,500BC – when it was used to cope with a shortage of good-quality wood.
  • Central heating – we have a lot to thank the Romans for, and central heating is just one thing. Their hypocaust systems provided heat from the walls and under the floors.
  • Perfume – it may not have been on a par with Chanel Number 5, but 4,000 year old perfume has been discovered in Cyprus.
  • Ice skates – we all love watching elegant figure skaters like Torvill and Dean, and perhaps even going for a skate around a romantic Christmas ice rink ourselves, but what most people probably don’t know is that ice skating has been around for thousands of years. The earliest skates, made from animal bones, are 5,000 years old, and were used by Finnish people when out hunting in harsh winter conditions. A far cry from the circumstances in which they’re used today!


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