February 11, 2014 4:48 pm

Happy National Inventors’ Day!  In honor of this day for inventors, we thought we’d shed light on a major part of inventing – problem solving.

No matter how big or small, inventions should not be taken for granted for at some point they solved a serious problem for a new mom, member of the military, fashionista, or perhaps someone who loves engaging in do-it-yourself activities. Creativity, innovation, as well as determination are employed to produce a vast array of new inventions throughout the world.

Solving a problem or finding its need has been going on for hundreds of years. Early man was determined to come up with inventions of his own, such as the wheel that still plays a pivotal role in our lives today. Perhaps the best way to discuss what type of inventions are needed in the future is to examine some of those that solved various needs in the past.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has invented a multitude of products since its inception in 1958. This prolific problem solver has created many products that have made our everyday lives more comfortable and safe. While the products were initially designed for urgent needs and to solve many safety, comfort, or technical problems, they have also solved numerous everyday problems when they became part of the mainstream.

Memory Foam:

During the 1960’s Charles Yost helped the Ames Research Center develop airplane seating that could absorb the energy of crashes and increase passenger’s chances of survival. Yost created a special type of plastic foam that had the ability to deform and absorb tremendous pressure and then return to its original shape. Initially referred to as “slow springback foam,” researchers found that this product not only made passengers safer, it also made sitting on long flights more comfortable as it allowed for a more even distribution of weight. Since this time, memory foam has been used in professional football player’s helmets to greatly reduce the incidence of concussions and the multitude of health risks. Another application of the foam involves its use within shoes or aftermarket insoles that reduce the incidence of various health problems including back and knee pain associated with standing or walking for long lengths of time. Finally, this material has also been employed to construct hospital mattress pads and wheelchair seats that can reduce the incidence of pressure sores. When pressure ulcers don’t heal properly they can lead to various types of infections and the resultant deaths.

Water Filters:

Astronauts rely on basic necessities including clean water. The agency created special water filters in the 1970s to ensure astronauts had clean water in space. The technology, called the Microbial Check Valve, has gained momentum in cleaning water for municipal water plants. It has paved the way for devising other ways to filter the resource for human consumption and the basic need for drinking water. Filters have become especially important in areas where chemicals have contaminated groundwater supplies. NASA has also created units that can more efficiently recycle human waste such as urine into safe, drinkable water. Thus, the filters have solved the problem of ensuring clean water not only in space, but also on earth.

Velcro:

While this invention was produced prior to the formation of NASA, it got a huge image boost during the early 1960s when Apollo astronauts used it to secure pens, food packets, as well as any equipment they did not want floating away. As such, the problems associated with the numerous items floating around the space shuttle causing injuries to the astronauts and breaking various high-tech, expensive machinery was solved. This simple yet versatile material has revolutionized many products and made life easier for a multitude of individuals. Hospitals began to affix Velcro to everything from blood pressure gauges to patient gowns. This magic material has been found in motor vehicles, home décor, and even on airplanes.

Smoke Detectors:

During the 1970s, NASA and Honeywell Corporation joined forced to create a device that would detect smoke and toxic gases in Skylab, America’s first space station. This led to the 1979 introduction of inexpensive photoelectric detection devices that emit an ear-piercing alarm when smoke or a steamy shower block the light beam. No, they are not designed to alert cooks when dinner is ready. Over the years, smoke detectors have provided home owners with peace of mind and added safety. Their audible alarm has saved many lives during the holiday season when lights are displayed throughout the home as well as throughout the rest of the year.

Cordless Tools:

While on the moon and working in deep space, the astronauts often needed mechanical help for various tasks including gathering scientific data such as moon rocks. However, a 239,000-mile extension cord was rather impractical. NASA then teamed up with Black & Decker to develop tools containing rechargeable batteries that could be used wherever they were needed, without regard to cords or electrical outlets. Today, cordless power tools are everywhere from constructing new homes to making repairs on existing homes. These versatile tools have made many projects and jobs more convenient and less daunting.

While the space race began between two Cold War rivals and can trace its origins to 1930s Germany, the increases in spending on education and pure research led to many spin-off technologies that solved the specific problems of the astronauts, but have also fulfilled many needs in everyday life. Some of the spin-offs include the dust buster, golf ball technology, virtual reality, and the self-inflating life raft. Another interesting spin-off has been society’s infatuation with space and aliens. Since people experiment with every invention, it is incomprehensible what future inventions or innovations will be conceived from those currently being used or in development to solve that “infuriating” problem and fulfill numerous needs.

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