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5 inventions to change your life
Forget space age technology. It's the little things that matter, like the foolproof corkscrew.
April 28, 2005: 4:59 PM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Legend has it that in 1899, bureaucrat Charles Duell proclaimed that "everything that can be invented has been invented."

Like Marie Antoinette, Duell is probably the victim of historical slander, mocked for a line he may never have said.

Still, it's juicy to think that the head of the U.S. Patent Office could be blind to the Age of Invention.

Today, of course, nobody would ever assume scientific progress could stop. Gee-whiz technology and massive feats of engineering are accepted facts of life.

We exhalt the jet engine, the artificial heart or the digital computer. Meanwhile, we overlook other inventions, which seem trifles in comparison.

So, like the Charles Duell of popular imagination, we're blind to their impact.

A classic example from the 19th century is the zipper. A more recent one is Velcro, developed just after World War II by a Swiss mountaineer.

Each was considered inconsequential at first. Yet today, nearly every person in the world uses one or both every day.

Call it the little big idea -- a product that changes your life while you're not even paying attention.

Why didn't I think of that?

In a nation of gadget fetishists, everyone has a favorite doo-hickey.

A friend of mine treats every buzz of her Blackberry like it's a whining puppy in need of TLC. Another replaces his cellphone three times a year, and takes care to program every sparkling feature.

For me, these are my five favorite little big ideas:

* The Screwpull corkscrew. In 1979, the French cookware maker Le Creuset introduced a corkscrew that the company accurately calls a "self-pulling" design.

As a long, thin screw glides through the cork, a handheld base attaches to the neck of the bottle. In one smooth motion, the action of twisting the screw downward forces the cork up and out. Almost no exertion is required on the part of the person.

In nearly 20 years of heavy use, the Screwpull has never failed me, not once. In fact, the laws of physics suggest that it cannot fail. It's the foolproof way to open a wine bottle.

* The Sonicare toothbrush. Mechanical toothbrushes have been on the market for decades, but they always struck me as triumphs over laziness rather than innovation. Sonicare is different.

It's smart, beeping to alert you when to brush a different area of your mouth. It's powerful, with soft bristles spinning like a hummingbird's wings across your teeth.

It's even, dare I say, fun. With this contraption, I actually relish the moments I spend brushing my teeth.

* E-Z Pass. The first time you zip past a long toll-booth traffic jam, you wonder: Why did this take so long to invent? The second time you do so, you pity the poor souls whose cars aren't equipped with the electronic payment device.

By the third time, though, it gets confusing. Do all those other drivers really like sitting in mile-long backups? Why not just drive straight through the toll?

* TiVo. On average, Americans spend more time watching television than performing any other daily task, including working, eating, and sleeping. Yet until the arrival of the digital video recorder -- TiVo is the most famous -- the Idiot Box was just that. It spat out content, and you sat there.

The Man was in charge. If "Seinfeld" was on Thursday, that's when you watched it. If the phone rang during "NYPD Blue," you had to make a choice. And if nature called as Mariano Rivera was walking to the mound, well....

Those sad old days are gone forever. Now, I watch "Lost" whenever I want to. I can start and stop, fast forward and rewind anything.

* The iPod. Portable, handheld audio devices date back to the 1970s, even earlier if you count transistor radios. MP3 players came about in the 1990s.

So how did the iPod -- which is, essentially, just an update of the long-forgotten Walkman -- capture about 70 percent of its market, and turn once-fading Apple Computer into the hottest company in Silicon Valley? Only by being brilliant in every way.

Now, I walk for blocks each day through Manhattan with those signature white earbuds firmly in place. Seemingly every other pedestrian I pass, or nearly so, does the same thing.

It's a little big idea that changed my life -- and set it to music.


The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: goodlife@money.com.  Top of page

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