Humans have a tendency to improvise when faced with problems and some prove to be quite resourceful. Most of the things we use nowadays were born out of necessity, but some were created by people with a bit of luck and a dash of genius. Here are some such stories:
A French doctor named Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781–1826) at the Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital in Paris invented the first stethoscope in 1816. Before its discovery, physicians used to tap their fingers on the patient’s chest in order to get clues about their condition. This proved to be a problem for this gentleman doctor when he needed to inspect a young female patient. Reluctant to embarrass the girl, he rolled up a sheet of paper to create a tube, which he then placed on her chest. He was surprised when this method actually facilitated an accurate diagnosis. This breakthrough led to the invention of the first stethoscope.
In 1920, a lowly cotton buyer for Johnson & Johnson named Earle Dickson was married to a rather clumsy woman named Josephine. Josephine was very accident prone, which made life difficult for poor Earl, since medical accessories weren’t cheap. When he realized that his wife’s accidents wouldn’t stop, he had an idea. He cut a small piece of gauze and placed it on another strip of gauze with adhesive on each end. Josephine’s wounds were saved from getting infected, but no one knows if she stopped walking into walls or not. By 1939, band-aids were also sterilized, just in time for World War II.
Nitrous Oxide Anesthesia
Before anesthesia, a doctor was judged on how fast he could complete a procedure, rather than his technical skill. Techniques to relieve a patient’s pain included distraction, alcohol administration and even hitting the patient so hard that he blacked out. That changed when Horace Wells, a dentist in Hartford, USA, had a moment of vision. In 1844, Nitrous Oxide gas used by dentists was considered a party drug, since it made people ‘happy’ and relaxed. His friend took too much of the laughing gas during a stage show, hoping to entertain the crowd. During the act, he accidentally cut his leg, but to his surprise, he didn’t feel a thing! Excited by this discovery, Horace patented the use of Nitrous Oxide as the most primitive anesthetic. Although Horace Wells is credited with creation of anesthesia, he died a tragic death after a life of addiction to his own product.
In 1932, a man named Percy Spencer managed to become one of three people hired to install electricity in a paper mill plant, despite having never received any formal training in electrical engineering, nor even finishing grammar school. Largely due to his talent and hard work, he taught himself trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, physics, and metallurgy, among other subjects. He then won a government contract to produce combat radar equipment for World War II. One day, while Spencer was working on building magnetrons for radar sets, he was standing in front of an active radar set when he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. After much investigation, he developed a huge box that could shoot electromagnetic radiation at food objects to heat them. Now, we have similar, albeit smaller, boxes to make popcorn and re-heat the leftovers!
In 1956, Wilson Greatbatch was working on building a heart rhythm recording device at the University of Buffalo. He reached into a box and pulled out a resistor of the wrong size and plugged it into the circuit. When he installed it, he recognized the rhythmic lub-dub sound of the human heart. The beat, according to his 2001 obituary in The New York Times, reminded him of chats he had with other scientists about whether an electrical stimulation could make up for a breakdown in the heart's natural beats. Before then, pacemakers were hulking machines the size of TVs. Greatbatch's implantable device of just 2 cubic inches forever changed life expectancy in the world. Now, more than half a million of the devices are implanted every year.