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Who invented teabags?-and other great inventions of the twentieth century

Updated on August 13, 2014

Century of Inventions

The twentieth century saw many remarkable innovations and inventions, some big, like the motor car and the airplane and many small and seemingly insignificant

It is with the smaller twentieth century inventions that I'm dealing in this lens - things we take for granted as if they've always been around. But they had to be invented first - everyday things like teabags, paper clips, lipstick, and ballpoint pens - they didn't just appear, they had to be invented and developed. Even Scrabble needed inventing!

Patent for a tealeaf holder
Patent for a tealeaf holder

Tea Bags

A tea bag is such a commonplace object that its easy to forget that it had to be invented. Basically it is a small, porous bag containing chopped tea leaves and is used for brewing tea. The bags are usually made of paper, but can be made of silk or even plastic. The big advantage of the tea bag is convenience - once the tea is brewed it is easier to dispose of the leaves without mess. They're also single-serving, which means there's no need for a teapot. They're biodegradable too!

The first use of tea bags was around 1904 when silk bags were introduced by merchants Thomas Sullivan from New York and Joseph Kreiger from San Francisco. Originally designed for caterers, it was intended that the loose tea would be removed from the bags before use, but it was found that the customers preferred to make their drink with the tea still enclosed in the bags.

Sullivan found that gauze worked better than silk as the mesh was not so fine and the tea had a stronger flavor. He developed the idea for commercial production during the 1920's and the bags became extremly popular. After gauze they were later made from paper, and came in two sizes, a larger bag for the pot, a smaller one for the cup. At first hand sewn, a machine was soon developed to mass produce the bags. Most of today's features were already in place - in particular, an attached string so the bag could be easily removed, and a manufacurer's tag on the end.

Early manual traffic signal
Early manual traffic signal

Traffic Lights

Traffic lights have developed from primitive warning lamps on Victorian railways to the slick and sophisticated, computer controlled items of today.

In 1868 a semaphore type of signal on a cast iron lamppost and manually operated by a policeman was put up in Bridge Street, Westminster, London. It used red and green gas lamps for night visibility but within 3 weeks of installation it exploded and seriously injured the policeman who was using it.

When the automobile arrived, busy intersections were controlled by traffic police using hand signals but as traffic increased this became less and less practical. The first electrical red/green traffic light was invented by policeman Lester Wire in Salt Lake City in 1912 and two years later in Cleveland, Ohio, the American Traffic Signal Company installed a system with two colors, red and green, and a buzzer, based on a design by James Hoge, to provide a warning of future color changes.

New York's first traffic lights were introduced in 1918 on Fifth Avenue and comprised a series of signal towers placed dowbn the centre of the street, each with a red, green and white light, operated by hand. They were very soon replaced by 2 color automatic lights at intersections, controlled by time switches.

Amber color lights had to be added later to prevent accidents between vehicles too quick off the mark.

The first 4-way three color traffic lights in the world were installed in Detroit in 1920 and within twelve months the Motor City had installed a further fourteen automatic lights.


Bar Code

We take them completely for granted now, in fact, we don't really notice them. but the first barcode appeared as recently as 1974 - in Troy, Ohio, on a packet of Wrigleys chewing gum.

It was invented by IBM as a 12 number sequence, which uniquely represents the manufacturer's identity and an assigned product number. The now familiar linear code was chosen from a number of suggestions including bullseye concentric circle code, starburst patterns and others. It is read at the checkout by a laser beam which moves at around 10,000 inches per second. It then transfers the information to the retailer's database and prints the bill, all in a matter of nanoseconds.

The system is virtually error proof and has made managing and controlling stock much easier. It helps identifly shich items are selling or sticking and has made checkouts on average some 10% faster. Barcodes have been enthusiastically adopted by stores and businesses around the world. They are now universal, we just don't notice them any more!

Ballpoint Pen

Another article which became known by the name of its inventor, in this case, the Hungarian László Bíró, whose invention became known, and still is known, as the "Biro".

A number of attempts at creating an alternative to the fountain pen were made, starting in the late 19th century when John Loud, a leather tanner, took out a patent on a pen with a rotating steel ball to write on his leather products. His pen successfully marked leather but the flow of ink was not smooth enough for writing on paper. In the first decades of the twentieth century several more patents were taken out for rolling ball pens but all faced the same problem - the ink was not delivered evenly through the ball socket - and no inventor was able to overcome the problem until 1938 when Bíró patented his idea of delivering the ink by capillary action.

He was the editor of a well-known magazine in Budapest and he became interested in developing other uses for the quick drying ink used in his printing presses. He patented his idea of using capillary action to deliver the ink, in 1938 and the new pens were an instant success. In 1944 Bíró sold out to his English backer, H.G.Martin who marketed the pens for the sum of £2-15s. The pens were introduced to the USA in New York and 10,000 were sold on the first day.

Alfred Butts
Alfred Butts


Now a World Word Game

Scrabble is a classic word game played throughout the world. While other board games do well for a while and then go out of fashion (remember Trivial Pursuit?), Scrabble just forges ahead. Some two and a half million sets were sold worldwide last year.

Scrabble was devised in 1931 by Alfred Mosher Butts (pictured, right,), an architect from Rhinebeck, New York, who was unemployed like so many millions during the Great Depression. Butts determined the value of the letters by counting the number of times they were used on a single page of the New York Times. He was never really any good at the game himself, which he originally called 'Criss-Cross', and his wife Nina used to beat him regularly, once scoring 234 points with the word 'quixotic'.

After being turned down by a number of manufacturers, Butts decided to market the game himself. He went into partnership with James Brunot, a retired government official, who produced the sets in his garage in Danbury, Connecticut. They changed the name of the game to Lexico and began to sell it in 1946, making 200 sets a week by hand. Two years later Selchow & Righter acquired the rights and started to mass produce the game, changing its name to Scrabble.

Butts received a royalty of five cents for each game sold, and by the time the copyright expired in 1974 this was giving him an income of $50000 a year. When Butts died in 1993, 100 million sets of Scrabble had been sold worldwide.

Scrabble Products from Amazon



Humans have been decorating their bodies and coloring their lips and faces with various plant dyes and chemicls for thousands of years, but it was only in 1915 that the first solid lipstick in a convenient sliding tube container was developed.

At the beginning of the century some lip colorings were available in stick form almost like crayon, but it was only in 1915 that it began to be sold in cylindrical metal containers, which had been invented by Maurice Levy. A tiny lever at the side of the tube has to used with the edge of the fingernail to move the lipstick up to the top of the case.

The new lipstick was smoother and easier to apply and could be easily carried around. In 1923 James Bruce Mason Jr. introduced and patented the first swivel-up tube in Nashville, Tennessee.

More women were earning money and coujld aford to buy things they liked. And they liked lipstick. the new cosmetic became the biggest make up seller in the boom that followed World War I.

The cinema also began to influence the look of women and stars like Clara Bow with her "Cupid's bow" lips, made a big impression. When Technicolor arrived lipstick sales received another boost and stars like Elizabeth Taylor also helped to make lipstick trendy.

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Guestbook Comments

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    • FreakyV profile image


      6 years ago from Canada

      Interesting information about the traffic signals.


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