March 18, 2014 5:03 pm

New inventions can sprout from the most unlikely of sources—and the oddest of places. The modern toothbrush was not invented by a dentist in a hygiene laboratory but by a prisoner serving time in an English prison in the late 1700s with a need for cleaner teeth.

Jailhouse Hustler

William Addis, arrested and jailed in 1770 for inciting a riot, spent his days in prison pondering his future life and career. Hoping to recoup income lost while serving his jail time, Addis considered different jobs from which he might choose upon his release. Also on his mind was the upkeep of his health, including caring for his teeth. The method most often used for oral hygiene since the time or Aristotle was rubbing teeth with a rag doused with salt or soot. With his blackened-tooth fellow prisoners as evidence, Addis realized the ineffectiveness of this technique and set about making improvements. Within days, he had his idea, as well as his new career.

Bad to the Bone

Addis saved a small animal bone from a prison meal, boring small holes in it to place the natural bristles, which he obtained from a prison guard. The bristles were tied together into small bunches with thin wire, cut to size, then placed and glued into the bone. And from necessity came innovation—the first modern toothbrush.

From Inmate to Entrepreneur

Upon his release from prison, William Addis set out to manufacture toothbrushes similar to the one he created for himself. An entrepreneur at heart, he created a company in 1780 that went on to manufacture toothbrushes for smiling citizens of England, France, Germany, and Japan. Bones were replaced with wood, and bristles were taken from pigs and badgers, depending on the level of luxury the user chose. Upon his death in 1808, Addis left the toothbrush company to his son, and the business he founded, Wisdom Toothbrushes, is still in existence today—as is our use of his innovation, the toothbrush.

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