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These 4 big inventions were terrible ... until someone fixed them

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

If you've ever worn Levi's jeans, you've seen the tag that says "Since 1853." That marks the year the company was founded. But even though Levi's has been making jeans for a long, long time, one of the key features — belt loops — didn't come around until 1922. Before then, you had to wear suspenders.

Stories like that are surprisingly common — some of the world's most important inventions, from beer bottles to typewriters, were incredibly inconvenient for decades before they were tweaked in revolutionary ways. Sometimes the improvement seems obvious in hindsight. But no one regularly put belt loops on Levi's until the jeans had been in widespread use for nearly 70 years.

That's because reimagining big ideas can be just as crucial as the inventions themselves.

1) Beer bottles had to be corked — until the bottle cap came along

A corked beer bottle ad from 1849.

A corked beer bottle ad from 1849. (Getty Images)

Beer bottles helped make beer widespread in the 19th century, and it was a great time for Victorian beer geeks. By 1890, there were almost 2,200 small breweries in the United States.

There was just one problem: Early beer bottles had to be corked like bottles of wine, and it was incredibly inconvenient. They were hard to open and had to be used right away, and it was easy to spill beer. Even when corks were replaced by easier-to-use bottle fasteners, a rubber stopper secured with an additional metal fastener was too complicated (especially after you'd had a few beers). Both corks and stoppers were expensive to manufacture and assemble, too.

The big breakthrough came in 1893, from an inventor named William Painter. He developed a bottle-sealing device and a machine to make the familiar crimped bottle caps. It didn't take long to recognize the importance of his innovation, which he followed up with the bottle opener in 1894.

Still, Painter's invention took a long time to get off the ground. The Panic of 1893 slowed bottle cap adoption, and it took another decade before 25 percent of US bottlers were using bottle caps. That was enough for Painter to amass a small fortune, and it set the stage for better beer in the 20th century.

2) Tin cans were a great innovation. But it took 48 years to develop the can opener.

Tin cans being filled in the 1870s.

Tin cans being filled in the 1870s. (Universal Image Archive/Getty Images)

Once Painter invented the bottle cap, it didn't take long for him to invent a bottle opener. But the story was very different with tin cans.

The tin can was first invented in 1810 and proved a major innovation for food storage. Nicolas Appert of France had discovered that heating sealed glass jars could keep food sterile, so not long after, Britain's Peter Durand came up with the idea of using lighter and cheaper tin for food containers (although some credit Philippe de Girard with the invention).

Opening the cans, however, proved difficult. Many consumers resorted to chisels and hammers or knives. Cans even came with elaborate instructions printed on the side:

First stab a hole with the butt-end of the knife, near the upper rim of the Canister; then insert the blade as far as it will go; draw the hand towards you (the claw resting against the Canister as a lever), when the blade will be found to cut through the tin with perfect ease.

"Perfect ease" never took so long.

It wasn't until 1858 that Ezra Warner finally invented a simple can opener. And the rotating-wheel can opener familiar to most of us didn't appear until 1870. It's a testament to how compelling canned food was: People were willing to endure opening cans for 60 years, even when it was almost impossible to do.

3) Before vulcanization, rubber was popular — but had one very sticky flaw

Charles Goodyear, demonstrating his vulcanization machine.

Charles Goodyear demonstrating his vulcanization machine. (Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the 1800s, rubber was seen as a miraculous material: It came from trees and could be easily shaped and formed. There was something like a rubber fad, thanks to the material's unique traits. Charles Goodyear sold rubber shoes and rubber mailbags. People wore rubber pants.

But there was one big problem: The rubber wasn't vulcanized, so it melted in hot conditions or cracked in the cold. Goodyear once saw it firsthand when a local boy wore rubber pants next to a fire. As recounted in Charles Slack's Noble Obsession, the fire melted the boy's pants to his legs and his legs to the chair. He had to be cut out of them.

It wasn't until 1841 that Goodyear helped develop vulcanization — a process by which, through the use of fire and sulphur or other chemicals, rubber becomes more resistant to heat and cold. As legend has it, Goodyear hit upon the idea after he tossed a piece of sulphur-coated rubber on a stove and saw what happened.

Today, vulcanized rubber is so common that it's easy to forget anything else was ever an option. But gooey, cracking rubber was a hit in America for decades.

4) The typewriter made writing better. But the first version was a writing ball that looked like a pincushion.

A writing ball.

A writing ball. (Auction Team DE)

Typewriters made it easy to write legible text in a predictable way. They ushered in an age of standardization that undoubtedly improved productivity. That is, once they were no longer shaped like a giant pincushion.

Invented in 1867 by Rasmus Malling-Hansen, the Hansen Writing Ball was, by some measures, one of the first typewriters. As described in The Iron Whim, the writing ball pioneered a "radial strike design" that made the typewriter keys look like pins stuck in a pincushion.

Despite its intimidating steampunk appearance, the writing ball was relatively easy to learn. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used it as he was approaching blindness, and though some reports said the machine frustrated him, he also dedicated some poetry to it:



But it had big problems. For one, the keys pressed onto the curved paper at an angle, which meant some of the letters were blurry. It also necessitated a hunt-and-peck approach to typing that made it hard to use — you could get used to a writing ball (just as you do to a QWERTY keyboard), but it was difficult to master the angled keyboard. Worse, it was hard to see what you'd typed until your document was finished. Finally, there wasn't a workable way to use a "shift" key.

Yet modern typewriters didn't really take off until 1873, when Remington produced a version of the typewriter that had a QWERTY keyboard and a shift key. Equally important, it printed sharper letters. People realized that typewriters were good not just for those with visual handicaps, but for anybody who wanted to write a clear document. Though writing-ball advocates are still fans of the device's aesthetics, the typewriter won for functionality.

Like a beer bottle cork or jeans without belt loops, it took time to realize the typewriter could be easier to use. Of course, such obvious improvements are never obvious ... until they've already been made.

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