10 Things People Did before Modern Inventions Came About

Centuries from now, people will be writing about how, before the invention of “flying cars,” people used cars that were driven on roads made of concrete, or if World War III or even IV happens, people might not be writing at all. Some of the most simple things we use today like the alarm clocks or erasers did not exist before modern inventions made them available. They were invented out of necessity, but people who lived before us had other things to use in place of them.

You’ll find it interesting to know what people used decades ago before many of our modern inventions came about.

1. Before the alarm clocks were invented, there was a profession called “knocker-up” who were people who went from client to client and tapped on their windows or doors with sticks until they woke up.

Image credit: BBC

A “knocker-up,” also known as a “knocker-upper,” was a profession that was highly valued until the 1950s when alarm clocks became readily available and were considered to be reliable. The first alarm clock was invented in 1757, but it was not widely used then. Roosters were obviously not reliable.

The knocker-up was a person whose job was to wake people up (even if they did not like it) on time. They used a baton or heavy stick to tap on the windows and doors of their clients until they woke up. They would not leave until they were sure that their client was awake. If the windows were on higher levels, long bamboo sticks were used. One knocker-up got innovative and used a pea-shooter!

They also used a tool called “snuffer-outer” to extinguish the gas lamps that were lit at sunset. The people who were a part of this unique but extinct profession were of both genders and different ages. Sometimes a policeman would take up the job for some extra income. They were paid a few pence a week. A large number of people were employed in this profession especially in the industrial areas where being late to work meant a cut in their wages. Who woke the knocker-upper? Maybe they never slept in the night. (1, 2)

2. Before the invention of razors, shark teeth and flint were sharpened and used to shave with. Some tribes continue to use such “razors” even today.

Shark tooth
Image credit: malcolm lidbury via wikimedia

In prehistoric times, clam shells, flint, and shark teeth were sharpened and used as razors. Some indigenous tribes continue to use these to shave today. The drawings of such razors have been found in prehistoric caves. In the Bronze Age, people made razors out of bronze and obsidian that were oval and looked nothing like the modern razors that are in use today.

The first, straight, modern razor was invented in Sheffield England after Benjamin Huntsman produced a hard steel grade that was suitable to be used as a blade in 1740. This steel which is used to this day is called “Sheffield Steel.” During the 19th century, it was not a common practice to shave off beards, and those who did and were wealthy and had their servants do it for them. After World War I and when modernization began taking its baby steps, American men starting sporting a clean shave beginning a trend that spread worldwide. When King C. Gillette manufactured the modern safety razor, straight razors fell out of fashion. (source)

3. Crustless bread was used by writers and artists to erase the marks on paper before erasers were invented.

Bread eraser
Image credit: Pixabay

Before the English engineer Edward Nairne invented the eraser made out of rubber in 1770, soft bread was used in its place. The Japanese continued to use bread erasers long after the invention of the eraser during the Meiji Era that lasted from 1868-1912. Tablets of wax were also used to erase charcoal and lead marks from paper while sandstone and pumice were used to erase ink marks from parchment or papyrus.

When Nairne impulsively picked up rubber instead of bread, he discovered its properties. He sold it for an expensive price of three shillings for a half-inch cube, and called it a “rubber” for its rubbing properties instead of an “eraser.” But that was raw rubber. It was only after the process of vulcanization was invented by Charles Goodyear in 1839, that modern erasers became popular in Western societies. (source)

4. Before the invention of modern pregnancy tests, the urine of a woman was injected into a rat or a mouse, and if the rodent “went into heat,” the woman was assumed to be pregnant.

Today, pregnancy tests are easily available over the counter at pharmacies, instantly giving you results. But it was not always that women peed on sticks; they peed on all sorts of things. In ancient Egypt, women peed on wheat and barley seeds and believed that they were pregnant if the seeds grew into crops. If wheat grew, they were going to have a girl and if barley grew, a boy. In the 10th century, sulfur was poured over women’s urine and if worms sprung up from it, she was considered to be pregnant. In the 16th century, people read urine like tea leaves to predict if the lady was expecting. They were called “piss prophets.”

However, modern pregnancy tests can be regarded as heirs of what scientists Selmar Asccheim and Bernard Zondek did in 1927. The urine of women was injected into immature rodents. If the rodents “went into heat,” that is if they displayed an estrous reaction (show signs of physiological changes that are brought about through reproductive hormones in mature female mammals), the woman was diagnosed as pregnant. The rodents had to be dissected to find out the results. Later on, the rodents were replaced with rabbits. Research on hormones and plenty of other experiments in science led to the invention of the modern pregnancy test approximately 50 years later. (1, 2)

5. Years before the modern electroconvulsive therapy was invented, electric fishes were used to treat headaches and mental disorders by ancient Romans—and it worked!

Electric fish
Image credit: fishbase.org/wikipedia

The jolts of electricity from a black torpedo fish or an electric ray were the forms of electroconvulsive therapy that existed before the modern one. Imagine being stung by a fish that shocks you to treat you! An ancient Roman physician, Scribonius Largus, who was a physician to Emperor Claudius, advocated the therapy to treat headaches. He wrote in the first century: “To immediately remove and permanently cure a headache, however long-lasting and intolerable, a live black torpedo is put on the place which is in pain until the pain ceases and the part grows numb.”

Modern researches have been studying this practice to understand the impact of electric therapy through electronic and electromagnetic devices in treating migraines rather than using pharmaceutical drugs. (source)

6. People in Finland and Russia dropped frogs in their milk to keep it from spoiling before refrigerators were invented. That trick worked well.

Frogs to save milk
Image credit: pixabay

Frogs would have thanked Oliver Evans who designed the first refrigeration machine in 1805 and scores of others who contributed to the making of the refrigerator as we know it. The people of Russia and Finland dropped living, brown, Russian frogs in their milk to preserve it. Frogs preventing the milk from going bad was believed to be an old wives’ tale until science said otherwise.

A research in 2012, headed by Moscow State University’s organic chemist A.T. Lebedev showed that frogs have a mixture of 76 peptides that are a string of amino acids which are antimicrobial compounds that work as well as antibiotics against Salmonella and Staphylococcus bacteria. In 2010, scientists from the United Arab Emirates came to the same conclusion about the secretions from the skins of frogs. They found that the secretions from a mink frog that was native to North America could be helpful in treating a drug-resistant bacterial infection in Iraqi soldiers. (1, 2)

7. People in ancient Rome used human and animal urine to whiten their clothes and teeth before modern bleach was invented. It was so popular that a Roman emperor had to put a tax on it.

Urine as a bleach
Image credit: Cornell University Library/flickr

The ancient Romans valued the ammonia content (an ingredient that is found in household cleaners today) in the urine enough to cause their Emperor Vespasian to impose a tax on the distribution of urine that was collected in public urinals. The people found that urine was effective in removing dirt and grease from their laundry and also whitened it, all before the invention of modern bleach. They also believed that urine whitened their teeth. These properties of urine turned it into a highly valuable product.

In Rome, vessels, where people had relieved themselves where taken to a laundry, called a “fullonica.” There, the urine was diluted with water and poured on the clothes. Workers would stand in tubs full of urine and dirty laundry and stomp on it. Even early Europeans were known to use urine to clean tough stains on clothes and for pre-wash soaking. The urine collected in chamber pots was used as a “chamber lye,” and in some areas of the United Kingdom, it was called as “lant” and “weeting.” (1, 2, 3)

8. Giant concrete “sound mirrors” were used before the invention of radar, to detect enemy aircraft. The Japanese used “war tubas.”

Sound mirrors
Image credit: Oast House Archive, Hywel Williams

Sir Robert Watson-Watt invented the first radar in 1935 that used pulsed radio waves to detect enemy aircraft as far as a 100 miles away. Before radars, giant concrete “sound mirrors” were used. Dr. William Sansome Tucker built acoustic mirrors that were used as warning systems that detected enemy aircraft by the sound their engines emitted. The range of these “sound mirrors” was only about 15 miles, but it gave the British enough time to prepare for the attack.

The Japanese had their own method of detecting an enemy aircraft during World War I. They developed listening devices known as “war tubas” where a person could listen using stethoscope-like earphones. These were large tube-like devices that also worked on the concept of listening to the sound of the approaching aircraft a few miles away. Their use was discontinued during World War II. (1, 2)

9. Before heart-lung machines were invented, for “cross-circulation,” surgeons who performed open-heart surgeries connected the patient’s heart to a donor, usually a parent, that oxygenated the patient’s blood and pumped it back in.

Heart surgery
Image credit: Evolution of cardiopulmonary bypass

Before the heart-lung oxygenators were invented for heart surgeries, surgeons used other methods. The first open-heart surgery was conducted on September 2, 1952, which was led by surgeon F. John Lewis along with others including C. Walton Lillehei. This operation was done using hypothermia where a patient was cooled in a cold water tub, but this gave the surgeons a window of only 10-15 minutes to perform surgeries which weren’t enough for the complicated ones.

To solve this, Lillehei invented a cross-circulation method where a donor, usually a parent, was connected to the patient to perform oxygenation functions using the donor’s lung and heart, and the blood was pumped back into the patient. On March 26, 1954, he successfully performed a repair of a ventricular septal defect, but the patient, a 13-month-old child, died 11 days later due to pneumonia. They conducted 44 more such surgeries using the method out of which 32 patients lived. It was Lillehei who then introduced the bubble oxygenator, making open-heart surgery possible for all surgeons across the globe. (1, 2)

10. In the 19thand 20th centuries, athletes drank alcohol during marathons as sports drinks had not been invented yet.

Athletes drank alcohol during marathons
Image for representational purpose only. Image credit: wikipedia

Today, alcohol is known to cause dehydration and thus something athletes should not drink during a marathon. But in the 19th century and early 20th century, the invention of sports drinks had not yet come about. Back then during marathons, booths, where energy drinks and water were made available for the athletes, did not exist. Each runner had people on bikes or cars waiting for them along the path with alcohol.

They refueled themselves with shots of whiskey, brandy, or other alcoholic drinks. There was a marathon in Paris in 1924 where wine was offered to runners. Spyridon Louis, the man who won the marathon during the Olympics of 1896, refueled himself with cognac with some six miles left to the finishing line. If athletes drank anything other than a hard drink, they were not considered “macho” enough and were looked down upon. The organizers of the marathons also did not encourage drinking water during the runs.

In the 1960s, people began understanding the importance of hydration, and it took another ten years to make it a common practice during marathon runs. When a team of scientists at the University of Florida School of Medicine invented Gatorade in 1965, things turned around. (source)

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