3 Great inventions with simple engineering techniques – Catseyes, Fountain pen, Safety pin

Cats eyes – Road Reflectors

When you are driving at night, you see reflective objects on road. These objects reflect the light and guide people to drive safely. It may seem so simple, but the idea of this invention came in an interesting way. One night in 1933 when the road mender Percy Shaw was driving home in Yorkshire, he saw the light of his car headlamps reflected in the eyes of a cat beside the road. This gave Shaw the inspiration that by replicating this effect he could produce a practical way of helping drivers navigate poorly lit roads. Shaw’s challenge was to create a device bright enough to illuminate roads at night, robust enough to cope with cars constantly driving across it, and that also required minimum maintenance. Shaw came up with a small device that could be inserted into the road as a marker. It consisted of fur glass beads placed in two pairs facing in opposite directions, embedded in a flexible rubber dome. When vehicles drove over the dome, the rubber contracted and the glass beads dropped safely beneath the road surface. The device was even self-cleaning. The cast-iron base collected rainwater and whenever the top of the dome was depressed, the rubber would wash the water across the glass beads to cleanse away any grime, just as the eye is cleaned by tears. The patent for the catseye was registered in 1934. And in 2001 the product was voted the greatest design of the twentieth century, ahead even of Concorde.

Percy Shaw – Catseyes in 1934

Fountain pen

The invention of the modern fountain pen is really more a story of perfection than invention. In 1883, more than fifty years after the fountain pen was first invented, a New York insurance broker, Lewis waterman, was set to sign an important contract and decided to honor the occasion by using the standard ink-filled pen of the day. However, fountain pens were notoriously unreliable, especially in their capacity to regulate their ink low, so that it could not be signed, waterman decided to do something about it. Within a year Lewis waterman had designed the world’s first practical, usable, and virtually leak proof fountain pen. To regulate the flow of ink he successfully applied the principle of capillary action, with the inclusion of a tiny air hole in the nib of the along with grooves in the feeder mechanism to control the flow of ink from his new leak proof reservoir to the rib.

As early as the beginning of the eighteenth century, the chief instrument-marker to the king of France, M.Bion, crafted fountain pens with nibs, five of which survive to this day. The first steel pen point was manufactured in 1828, thought to be invented by Petrache Poenaru, and in the 1830s the invented James Perry had several unsuccessful attempts at designing nibs that employed the principle of capillary action. But it was Lewis waterman who overcome every obstacle and crafted a successful pen. It was so successful that by 1901, two years after waterman’s death, more than 350,000 pens of his design were sold worldwide.

Safety pin

When it comes to simple engineering, we can’t avoid safety pin. This useful object is found in households across the globe, it even gained status as a fashion accessory, with the movement in 1970s. Walter Hunt was a New York mechanic who, in 1849, sat wondering how to pay off a $15 loan. He spent around three hours twisting a length of wire in his fingers before he created the answers to his problems, the humble safety pin. Pins were by no means a new idea, having existed for centuries before Walter’s twist on the design. However, his creation was unique as it provided a solution to the potential problem of pricking oneself with the old style variety. His pin has a clip at the top which locks the pin and keeps us safe from not pricking. At the bottom it has a spring like structure made by bending the same pin to maintain the tension of the pin. Hunts design was patented in April 1849, and he sold the rights to his creditor, clearing a $385 profit. Unfortunately hunt had no idea how popular his invention was set to become. Even after 150 years, we are using this safety pin which works on a very simple engineering.  He also designed America’s first sewing machine with an eye pointed needle. But fearing the loss of jobs his creation may cause, he did not patent the idea. It was left to a fellow American, Elias Howe, to claim the credit for this invention some twenty years later.

“A man who could invent a safety pin . .  . was truly a mechanical genius . . .” – New York Times