German Inventions in Everyday Use

By Francine McKenna on Email

There are many German inventors and scientists who have helped to build the country’s reputation as a source of invention and technology. Not all German inventions were patented so were developed elsewhere, and they are not only exclusive cars or chic kitchen appliances but also everyday objects now to be found in homes world wide, and which first originated as an ‘idea’ in a German kitchen, laboratory or living room.

Toothpaste

Ottmar Heinsius von Mayenburg developed toothpaste as we know it today in a laboratory, but a small one in the attic above his Dresden pharmacy.  Although it wasn’t an original thought, as the ancient Egyptians had used a mixture of pumice and vinegar to clean their teeth and the Chinese had invented a toothbrush in 1498, the initiative to try and produce a ‘Zahncreme’ that would not only clean and protect teeth but also have a pleasant taste was Ottomar von Mayenburg’s, using ingredients from his Loewen-Apotheke pharmacy.

After experiments with tooth powders, essential oils and mouth washes in 1907 he eventually created Chlorodent, a peppermint flavoured paste made from a mixture of pumice powder, soap, calcium carbonate, glycerin and potassium chlorate. He filled flexible metal tubes with the mixture and by this invented ‘Zahnpasta’, toothpaste, which quickly became popular around the world and gave dental hygiene a place in our daily lives.

Aspirin

Aspirin was the first effective pain medication to have few side effects and was developed in August 1897 by scientists working for Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company based in North Rhine Westphalia, and is still one of the most common drugs in use world wide for treating mild to moderate pain, reducing fever or inflammation, and as a preventative against angina, strokes and heart attacks.

The name Aspirin, which was registered in 1899, is composed from ‘A’ for ‘acetyl’ and ‘spirin’, named after a plant called ‘Meadow sweet’ which in common with the bark and leaves of willow trees contains ‘salicin’, used in folk medicine for pain relief from the days of Hippocrates if not before.

Known as the white wonder Aspirin was developed by a young chemist Felix Hoffmann working with Arthur Eichengruen, a specialist in synthesizing chemical compounds, and they created a acetylsalicylic acid which stilled pain but had minimal side effects. Unlike a form of the compound originally produced in 1853 by Charles Gerhardt, a French chemist, which proved to be unusable for medical purposes.

No longer produced only by Bayer, and despite all the alternative drugs now on the market, 50,000 tons of ‘acetylsalicyclic’ acid, Aspirin, continue to be produced annually.

Telephone

Das Pferd frisst keinen Gurkensalat, ‘The horse does not eat cucumber salad’, were the first words spoken through das Telephon, the name given the device by its German inventor Johann Philipp Reis a 27-year-old science teacher from Hesse in Germany, on 26th October 1861, and they were just barely understood at the receiving end.

Reis was years ahead of his time and the ‘Telephon’ he invented in a small workshop behind his home, and constructed with everything from sausage casing and platinum to sealing wax, was not wanted, but he had faith in his invention and had he had some support he could have perfected it. It was very different 15 years later for Scottish born Alexander Graham Bell, who had been in Scotland visiting his father when one of the Reis telephones was being demonstrated, and who knew of Reis’s work as the ‘telephon’ had been shown and publicized all over Europe.

Philipp Reis never applied for a patent, and gave all the details for the construction and operation of his invention to anyone who asked for them, giving his invention to the world before dying aged only 40 in 1874. Bell used techniques close to Reis’s electromagnet system, as well as ideas from an immigrant from Tuscany Antonio Meucci whose laboratory he shared, when creating his own telephone in 1876, changing the ways of communication forever.

Coffee Filter

A Dresden housewife loved her coffee but wanted to at last enjoy a cup without having to drink it complete with floating coffee grounds. The idea was there but not the ‘how to’, so she set about trying to solve the problem. School children used pen and ink in 1908 and Melitta Bentz began to experiment with blotting paper taken from work books used by her sons and daughter, fitting the pieces like an inlay into an old tin pot with holes in the bottom.  Hot water was added to the coffee grounds lying in the paper and a pure coffee liquid dripped into a jug leaving the coffee dregs behind, and that was the beginning of the first Coffee Filter. Melitta Bentz applied for a patent for her invention, refined its design and in December 1908 ‘M. Bentz’, her family business, was formed, and the five members of the family produced the filters in one small room of their Dresden apartment then delivered them around the city with a hand cart.

Originally the paper used came from a supplier, but after 1912 a filter paper was developed and produced to their own specifications and in 1929 the business, now Bentz and Sohn, had expanded and with no available facilities in Dresden moved to an old chocolate factory in Minden, North Rhine Westphalia, remaining there to this day. The headquarters of a global family concern, its beginnings in a kitchen with Melitta Bentz, a mother, wife and German inventor, who revolutionised the preparation of coffee and made drinking it an even better experience for all of us.

 

Just four of the widely used discoveries and inventions of the last two centuries, but proof that not all were made by German scientists in astate of the art laboratory, Germany’s kitchens, attics and workshops have also played their part.

Francine McKenna