How on Earth did they think of that? 35



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As a retired person, I often just sit, for quite long periods of time, doing nothing, while at other, more energetic moments I sit, and also think as well. It is during these all too infrequent times that I dream up all sorts of fantasies, about almost anything, many of them quite ludicrous and some I hope, thought provoking. I then sometimes write them down and send them off to Starts at 60, in the hope that someone like me might get a little pleasure from them, and perhaps even put up suggestions of their own, agreeing or disagreeing with what I write!

This article is as a result of one such period of thought.

I was actually drinking a cup of tea this afternoon, during one of those sitting periods, when my brain suddenly leapt into life. It said, “Who on earth was the first person to think of picking the tenderest young leaves off an acacia plant, fermenting them, then chopping them up into small pieces before laying them out in the sun to dry? And having done all that, what made him decide to put some of those leaves in a pot and pour boiling water on them, leaving them to brew for a while, before drinking the resulting beverage? It’s not really as if any of these actions could have happened by chance is it, so what gave him the idea?” That’s not quite the end of the story either, because later on, someone else thought of adding milk and sugar to the drink; only then did tea truly become the invaluable pick-me-up we enjoy today!

Having got started, my brain then thought of some of the other occasions in history when people have done something that was to change the world, maybe not even realising it themselves. Take for instance the man who somewhere picked up a reddish brown piece of rock and thought it might be worthwhile heating it to a high temperature (something that most likely required him to invent bellows too, in order to get the temperature high enough), just to see what happened. In fact, he’d invented iron, and look at the differences that made, and still is making to this day!

Then there was Joseph Priestly who, among many other scientists of the period, all of them it seems making momentous innovations, discovered oxygen. Now what I’d like to learn is, how he knew that what he had was oxygen (or “dephlogisticated air” as he called it – thank goodness someone decided to shorten it to “oxygen”!). How did he even know he had an example of one pure gas, let alone what type it was? And I suppose this same question applies to virtually all the early discoveries made regarding the periodic table of elements, and the secondary chemicals formed from various combinations of these elements, like water for instance – (H2O)?

Some of the mysteries I can almost figure out for myself. Wine for instance – I can easily visualise grapes being stored in a large jar somewhere, fermenting and smelling rather good, so someone took a chance and tasted it, spending most of the rest of his life happily inebriated.

I can also accept the fact that many, if not most, of the great discoveries possibly took hundreds or even thousands of years to reach anything like full fruition, but still, someone, somewhere had to make the vital initial step that led on to everything else. And much the same thing is still going on today of course with, for instance the discovery of electronics and the binary code, leading on to simple (by today’s standards) computers using old fashioned valves and thence on to the sophisticated equipment we boast today. Like clever phones, more intelligent I sometimes think, than the people who own them, replacing as they do in one simple little container, cameras, record players, game consoles, shops, maps, world-time clocks, weather forecasters, encyclopaedias and many other properties, some worthwhile, others little more than gimmicks.

Now we all have to wait, with bated breath, to find out what the next great scientific discovery will be – artificial human life? Self-cooking eggs? A tablet of soap that never gets used up? A powerful new fuel made from salt water, in a process than can be done free, in one’s own home? There’s a tendency these days to say the sky’s the limit, but even that old phrase is somewhat out of date now – I imagine it won’t be too long before it will be a case of “the universe is the limit”, let’s hope it will all be for good, not evil!


Do you ever think about these things when your mind wanders? How do you think some of your favourite things were created? What’s an invention you’ve thought of? Tell us below.

Brian Lee

  1. Sometimes I wish I had thought of something and made the money a simple thought had made someone….. 😉

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  5. This person and Bill Bryson have a lot in common. U must read his book. A Short History of just about Everything.

    2 REPLY
    • Yes I’ve already read that, (and just about all his other books too). He’s a great favourite in our household

  6. Yes, yes! Not only discovered but invented or just came up with the idea. Who thought of making jam from fruit? Who invented, or even thought of the idea, of parachutes? Windscreen wipers on cars? Sticking a bit of graphite in a piece of stick and calling it a pencil. Ladies, who first decided to wear under wear – knickers? Purely a social reason, much healthier to go without! Stop and think? Look around you. The world is full of things the origin of which we have no knowledge

  7. Mike here-the world of science is amazing but a thought for the person who looked at an apple or an orange then took the first bite. Imagine if you will the thoughts going through the head of the first person who looked at a cows udder & decided “I’ll just squeeze that teat & drink what comes out”.

    3 REPLY
    • Probably a mum with a hungry baby, watching a calf suckle, decided her baby could either die from hunger or she would try the milk, or a toddler licked the teat and liked the taste and started to suckle, we all know how curious babies are, and animals and humans shared living areas.,cows were used to plough then

    • mike here-velcro I understand, developed by NASA for the space program-didn’t come cheap. the oyster was probably swallowed on the advice from the woman. the human body is quite amazing too, we breathe about 15000 times a day to give enough oxygen for the heart to beat 80 time a minute/24 hours a day/ seven days a week , ad infinitum.

  8. For every good useful idea I wonder how many bad there were. How many died just trying that fruit or berry. How many false starts with useful inventions. Many politicians and business managers don’t understand this. Science and invention isn’t a production line, you may get next to nothing for an extended period then everyone’s projects come together and in a short period a lot is perfected.

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