Have you ever stopped to wonder where everyday objects originate from, such as the paperclip or the ever-so-useful coat hanger, the humble pencil, or the indispensable rubber band? Most likely the answer is no, and yet these are all everyday items that, subtly, make mundane tasks that little bit easier. The new exhibition at the Science Museum delivers exactly what its celebratory title implies: a comprehensive examining of ‘the genius of everyday things’, invaluable items that we take for granted.


Hidden Heroes was initially curated by the Vitra Design Museum, Germany, in co-operation with Hi-Cone, before being transferred to the Science Museum. Whilst naturally there is a focus on German inventors, nevertheless, the achievements of British designers do feature. Thomas Hancock gets a mention for his work on the evolution of the rubber band; Percy Shaw, a mention for his creation of the Cat’s Eye Reflector, as does Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, for his role in the invention of the light bulb.  We also hear the story behind the Rawl Plug and how it was invented by the British engineer John Joseph Rawlings in 1911, when he was contracted by the British Museum to install some electrical fittings and received instructions that the walls must be subjected to the least possible damage in the process.

The most modern exhibit on display is that of the Post-it note which was commercially introduced in the 1980s, and one learns that the history behind this useful item of stationary, is that of a failed experiment. Similarly, the invention of the tea bag was allegedly a coincidence: in the early 20th century the American tea trader Thomas Sullivan shipped samples of his tea in small silk packets, and according to legend, some of his customers dipped an unopened packet into hot water to test its quality. Throughout the exhibition, old advertisements are placed alongside various inventions to show how they were first marketed. A particular favourite on display, was the catchy video clip for the 1954, German Fix advert for the tea producer,Teekanne. At a time when paper tea bags were still a relatively new invention, this advert takes a far more practical stance than tea advertisements nowadays; it comes complete with clear visual explanations which use diagrams and arrows to explain the tea making process to potential customers.

The story behind the invention of Bubble Wrap is discussed, and how a descending aeroplane inspired its design; as is the evolution of the tin can and its link to the French Emperor Napoleon. As is the case with several exhibits on display, one learns that it is common for an invention to evolve completely separately but simultaneously, in different parts of the world. A good example of this can be found in the history of the adhesive tape, which appeared on the market in the USA and Germany at a similar time during the 1930s. There is an emphasis throughout the exhibition, on the longevity of the exhibits on display: these are all objects that have stood the test of time and are likely to continue to do so. A quintessential symbol of the office world, the ring binder, relies upon a lever mechanism that has hardly changed since its invention by Friedrich Soennecken in 1886 and modification by Louis Leitz in 1896.

Everlasting, ordinary objects have long been assigned a subsidiary role. This exhibition aims to re-orient our current obsession with rapidly advancing technological trends, and direct it instead towards these seemingly mundane items and the unsung heroes behind them. In a thoroughly informative fashion, it reminds us not to forget about the simple things in life.
Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things, at Science Museum

The new exhibition at the Science Museum delivers exactly what its celebratory title implies: a comprehensive examining of ‘the genius of everyday things’, invaluable items that we take for granted.

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