19th Century Household Technology


The toilet was first patented in England in 1775, invented
by one Thomas Crapper, but the extraordinary automatic
device called the flush toilet has been around for a long
time. Leonardo Da Vinci in the 1400's designed one that
worked, at least on paper, and Queen Elizabeth I reputably
had one in her palace in Richmond in 1556, complete with
flushing and overflow pipes, a bowl valve and a drain trap.
In all versions, ancient and modern, the working principle
is the same.
Tripping a single lever (the handle) sets in motion a
series of actions. The trip handle lifts the seal, usually
a rubber flapper, allowing water to flow into the bowl.
When the tank is nearly empty, the flap falls back in place
over the water outlet. A floating ball falls with the water
level, opening the water supply inlet valve just as the
outlet is being closed. Water flows through the bowl refill
tube into the overflow pipe to replenish the trap sealing
water. As the water level in the tank nears the top of the
overflow pipe, the float closes the inlet valve, completing
the cycle.
From the oldest of gadgets in the bathroom, let's turn to
one of the newest, the toothpaste pump. Sick and tired of
toothpaste squeezed all over your sink and faucets? Does
your spouse never ever roll down the tube and continually
squeezes it in the middle? Then the toothpaste pump is for
When you press the button it pushes an internal, grooved
rod down the tube. Near the bottom of the rod is a piston,
supported by little metal flanges called "dogs", which seat
themselves in the grooves on the rod. As the rod moves
down, the dogs slide out of the groove they're in and click
into the one above it. When you release the button, the
spring brings the rod back up carrying the piston with it,
now seated one notch higher. This pushes one-notch's-worth
of toothpaste out of the nozzle. A measured amount of
toothpaste every time and no more goo on the sink.
Over 90 percent of all North American homes with
electricity have refrigerators. It seems to be the one
appliance that North Americans can just not do without. The
machine's popularity as a food preserver is a relatively
recent phenomenon, considering that the principles were
known as early as 1748. A liquid absorbs heat from its
surroundings when it evaporates into a gas; a gas releases
heat when it condenses into a liquid.
The heart of a refrigerator cooling system is the
compressor, which squeezes refrigerant gas (usually freon)
and pumps it to the condenser, where it becomes a liquid,
giving up heat in the process. The condenser fan helps cool
it. The refrigerant is then forced through a thin tube, or
capillary tube, and as it escapes this restraint and is
sucked back into a gas again, absorbing some heat from the
food storage compartment while it does so. The evaporator
fan distributes the chilled air.
In a self-defrosting refrigerator/freezer model, moisture
condenses into frost on the cold evaporator coils. The
frost melts and drains away when the coils are warmed
during the defrost cycle which is initiated by a timer, and
ended by the defrost limiter, before the frozen food melts.
A small heater prevents condensation between the
compartments, the freezer thermostat turns the compressor
on and off, and the temp control limits cold air entering
the fridge, by means of an adjustable baffle. 

Smoke Detectors
Is your smoke detector good at scaring to death spiders who
carelessly tiptoe inside it? Have you ever leapt out of the
shower, clad only in you-know-what, to the piercing tones
of your alarm, triggered merely by your forgetting the
close the bathroom door? Is it supposed to do this?
There are two types of smoke detectors on the market; the
photoelectric smoke detector and ionization chamber smoke
detector. The photoelectric type uses a photoelectric bulb
that shines a beam of light through a plastic maze, called
a catacomb. The light is deflected to the other end of the
maze where it hits a photoelectric cell. Any smoke
impinging on this light triggers the alarm (as do spiders
and water droplets in the air!). The ionization chamber
type contains a small radiation source, usually a man-made
element called Americium. The element produces
electrically-charged air molecules called ions, and their
presence allows a small electric current to flow in the
chamber. When smoke particles enter the chamber they attach
themselves to these ions, reducing the flow of current and
triggering the alarm.
Both types are considered equally effective and may be
battery-powered or wired to the home's electrical system.
No matter which type you choose, if you don't have one
installed, put down this article and go buy one now!
Ball-point Pens
And while you're signing that credit card voucher for the
new smoke detector, pause for a moment and gaze at that
other technological marvel you are probably holding in your
hand, the ball-point pen. Ever wonder why it's called a
ball-point? Because it has a ball. The first European
patents for the handy device were issued in the late 19th
century, but none of the early pens worked very well until
a Swiss inventor named Lazio Josef Biro designed the first
modern version in 1939. He called it a birome. Commercial
production was delayed by World War II, and then in 1945,
an American firm, Reynolds's, introduced "the miraculous
pen which revolutionizes writing" at Gimbel's in New York
City. The new pen didn't work very well and cost a whopping
$12.50 US, but it was an instant success. The Henry Ford of
the ball-point industry, Marcel Bich, launched the Bic pen
in 1949, after developing the Biro design for two years to
produce a precision instrument which wrote evenly and
reliably and was cheap. By the early seventies, Bic pens
became the world's largest manufacturer of ball-point pens,
and today some two and one-half million Bic ball-points
alone are sold every day in North America.
Ink feeds by gravity through five veins in a nose cone,
usually made of brass, to a tungsten carbide ball. During
the writing process, the ball rotates, picking up a
continuous ink supply through the nose cone and
transferring it to the writing paper. The ball is a perfect
sphere, which must fit precisely into the extremely smooth
nose cone socket so that it will rotate freely yet be held
tightly in place so that there is an even ink flow.
Although it sounds deceptively simple, perhaps the most
amazing thing about ball-point pens is the ink. Why doesn't
it just run out the end? Why doesn't it dry up in the
plastic cartridge? Bic describes the ink as "exclusive,
fast-drying, yet free flowing". The formula is, of course,
In the 19th century, writer and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson
expressed a fear that perhaps we all feel to some extent,
that "things are in the saddle and ride Mankind". But with
the help of good household reference books, friendly
reference librarians, and helpful manufacturers only too
willing to help consumers understand their products, we can
at least get a rein on the technology in our homes. 


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