Boy playing with bubble wrap
Image via Wikipedia

I recently put together the annual photo book I do for my grandchildren’s birthdays. I take photographs throughout the year around a theme, assemble all the photos and caption them, then slip them into the Wal-Mart $1 photo albums. If I had more time or money, I could make the more formal photo books available through several photo sites, like Shutterfly. But, as I change the captions and some of the photos for each member of the family, and I now make 7 of them a year, for now, doing them by hand suits me and my schedule.

Now that the grandchildren are turning five, I’ve started telling them what my themes are when I take pictures of them, so they can remember when they see them in the photo books at the end of the year. Eventually, I hope they will be able to suggest photos for me.

This year, since I’ve been writing for this blog since July, I got in the habit of doing a little research on some topics, to give my grandchildren a slightly deeper understanding of the subject of the photo. And, I discovered something interesting. Stories about the history of inventions often include a description of the mock-up of the first version.

For instance, this year’s birthday book is centered around Patterns with a Purpose. That is, window screens have a particular, noticeable and regular wire pattern, and their purpose is to keep mosquitos and flies out of your house. Wire mesh is measured by the number of wires per inch. The standard screen is 18 x 14 wires to the inch. Not only did I not realize that the holes are rectangular, not square, I did not know that the idea came from an employee at a food processing company in 1861, who reasoned that the wire mesh sieves they used at the plant would make good window screens, an insight that eradicated a number of insect-born diseases in the U.S. by the 1950s, by which time window screens were common in most homes.

Nor did I know that the engineers who invented BubbleWrap first mocked it up with two shower curtains, trapping air pockets between them, thinking its use initially would be for wall paper, until IBM told them they wanted it to wrap their computers in during shipment.

Or that the first shopping cart was invented by a grocery store chain owner to help customers move groceries around more easily. He put a basket on the seat of a wooden chair and attached wheels to the legs. It was ultimately designed to nest, and the basket enlarged because people bought more when they had bigger baskets.

Or that the first fly swatter was developed by cutting a rectangle of window screen and attaching it to a yardstick, in response to a Kansas Department of Health call for swatting flies to cut down on diseases.

Perhaps I got excited at these revelations because we went to the Wright Brothers exhibit at the Smithsonian this summer, where we learned about the several innovations the brothers tried out before the final culmination of a plane that could fly, illustrated by K-3 lesson plans for children.

Inventors aren’t some far-off people who have a flash of insight. They are people who notice problems and try out possible solutions. Not a bad lesson for grandchildren.