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Evaporated milk, courtesy of Gail Borden

Cooking time again, as our subject for today is evaporated milk. It was on this day in 1851 that Gail Borden came up with the idea to condense milk through evaporation, after seeing fruit juice being condensed using vacuum pans. He worked tirelessly on the concept, and eventually received a patent for his milk condensing process in 1856.

Created by evaporating the bulk (about 60%) of the water from fresh milk, evaporated milk differs from condensed milk in that the latter has sugar added to help inhibit bacterial growth. Since evaporated milk does not contain added sugar, it has to be homogenised and sterilised to ensure a long shelf-life.

Evaporated milk - still a trusty old stalwart in many a pantry. (© All Rights Reserved)
Evaporated milk – still a trusty old stalwart in many a pantry.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Initially evaporated milk and condensed milk gained popularity at a time when storage and transport of fresh milk was problematic – it could be kept fresh without refrigeration much longer than fresh milk. When water was added back into the evaporated milk it was basically the same as fresh milk, with all the calcium and other nutrients intact, and without the sweetened taste of condensed milk. Interestingly, it was originally thought that it was the condensing of the milk that stabilised it, and only later did it become clear that it was in fact the heating process (to evaporate the water) that killed the bacteria that caused fresh milk to spoil.

Today, with pasteurisation allowing much longer shelf life for milk (even without refrigeration, in the case of long-life milk) the usefulness of evaporated milk as fresh milk replacement has all but disappeared. It is still used, but mainly in cooking, and sometimes as a less rich replacement for cream in deserts. Acknowledging this shift, brands such as Nestle are rebranding the product as “cooking milk” in some markets.

While it may not be a critical milk substitute anymore, evaporated milk remains so useful in the kitchen that you really should always have a can tucked away in the back of the pantry – just in case you need some to spruce up a creamy dessert, soup, sauce, or even a nice casserole or stew.

Related article:
Celebrating Gail Borden and Sweetened Condensed Milk

Showing some appreciation for the many wonders of Bubble Wrap

Today is Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day. And what a weird, wacky and fun invention it is!

With cushioning provided by hundreds of regularly spaced, air-filled plastic bubbles, it not only provides a really clever and practical solution for keeping packaged products safe and secure, but I’m sure if a survey had to be done on the most addictive toys ever, bubble wrap should no doubt rank quite high on the list. I’ve never met anyone who, when left alone with a piece of bubble wrap for a few minutes, did not start popping away at the hundreds of individual little plastic-encased air bubbles. Which is weird, when you think about it, because you’re effectively rendering the bubble wrap useless, destroying the very thing that makes it useful. But it’s such fun that you cannot stop!

Bubble wrap addiction
It’s addictive! Doesn’t this just make you want to go and find a piece of bubble wrap and start popping?
(© All Rights Reserved)

Bubble wrap was invented in 1957 when two inventors, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, set out to develop 3-dimensional plastic wall-paper (by sealing two shower curtains together, capturing various different shaped air bubbles between the sheets). The concept failed, but their design proved to be a perfect packaging solution. Pursuing this business opportunity, Fielding founded the Sealed Air Corporation and started marketing the Bubble Wrap® brand.

Acknowledging the compulsion of bubble wrap popping, the Sealed Air Corporation’s corporate offices is said to have ‘stress relief boxes’ – containers filled with Bubble Wrap® for employees to pop. Another cute initiative from Sealed Air is their Annual Bubble Wrap® Competition for Young Inventors, where kids are encouraged to come up with new inventions using Bubble Wrap® in novel ways outside of packaging. Some amazing inventions from these competitions have included a floating garden (floating on water with the aid of bubble wrap), a disposable, low cost cell phone holder, a wrist cushion for people suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, and “Petri Bubbles”, an inexpensive alternative to petri dishes in labs. (I told you kids make great inventors!)

An interesting fact (not verified) that I came across is that more than 250 Facebook pages are dedicated to Bubble Wrap® and its generic derivatives – more proof of the addictive appeal of this amazing product.

So go ahead, grab some bubble wrap and start popping – you know you want to!

Celebrating imagination and creativity on Kid Inventors’ Day

Today we celebrate the youth. More particularly, clever youngsters through the ages who have come up with great inventions at an early age.

17 January is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (17 Jan 1706 – 17 April 1790). We all know Franklin as one of the founding fathers of the United States, but what is perhaps less well known is that he is also the inventor of swim fins (what became flippers), at the tender age of 12. In recognition of this fact, 17 January is celebrated as Kid Inventors’ Day.

Childhood - when our minds are open, thinking is uninhibited and the world is a place of wonder.(© All Rights Reserved)
Childhood – when our minds are open, thinking is uninhibited and the world is a place of wonder.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The Kid Inventors’ Day website states some interesting facts. Apparently about half a million children and teens invent gadgets and games each year. Some of the brilliant inventions by youngsters include braille (1824, Louis Braille, age 15), earmuffs (1873, Chester Greenwood, age 15), popsicles (1905, Frank Epperson, age 11), water skis (1922, Ralph Samuelson, age 18), the trampoline (1930, George Nissen, age 16), and of course Benjamin Franklin’s swim fins. The site also claims the television as a child invention, but I’m not too sure about that, especially since there’s such disagreement as to who actually deserves the credit for this invention.

To be honest, I am not surprised that so many well known items were invented by children and teens. In fact, if it wasn’t for the admin around patenting etc, I am sure more inventions may have been credited to kids who probably thought about many concepts before the more famous inventors credited with the eventual inventions.

Given their limitless imagination, uninhibited creativity and sheer energy, young people appear almost destined to come up with great ideas. I believe the great inventors through the ages were probably those people who managed to retain some of this innovative spark into adulthood, somehow managing to avoid having their creativity and imagination curbed by the conventions, norms, biases and prejudices (and medication!) clouding most grown-ups’ minds.

So, on this day, let’s celebrate the great inventions created by kids, and let’s all try to foster and regain some of their ability to live, think and create without inhibitions.

Walter Diemer, the accountant who gave the world bubble gum.

Today we celebrate the birthday of Walter E Diemer, who was born on this day in 1905 and, incidentally, also died on this day 93 years later. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Diemer is the guy who gave the world (wait for it…) bubble gum!

He never set out to invent bubble gum, to be honest. Working as an accountant for the Freer Chewing Gum Company, he experimented in his spare time with different recipes for new chewing gum bases. During one of his attempts, in 1928, he accidentally managed to create a base that was less sticky and much more elastic than typical chewing gum.

Bubble gum - creating a whole new way to play with your food.(© All Rights Reserved)
Bubble gum – creating a whole new way to play with your food.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Realising he had something quite unique on his hands, he decided to try his invention in the market. He sold a batch to a local grocery store, where it was sold out in the first afternoon. Leveraging Freer’s distribution networks, he started marketing his bubble gum nationally, using salesmen who were specially taught how to blow bubbles with the gum, so they could serve as product demonstrators when they sold the new Freers bubble gum (named ‘Dubble Bubble’) to stores.

Diemer eventually became Senior Vice-President of Freer, thanks largely to his bubble gum invention. Many years later, he still found it amazing that his five pound batch of gum started a global craze, becoming one of the most popular confections in the world.

Diemer’s original batch of bubble gum was pink in colour, mainly because this was the only food colouring he had available at the time, and after almost a century, this still remains the standard colour for bubble gum.

James Mason, the guy who (sort of) invented the coffee percolator

I am sure today is important for any number of reasons, but personally the key innovation for the day comes from the American James H Mason.

OK, so perhaps on the universal scale of great scientists and innovators he doesn’t rate up there with some of our recent blog-featured personalities (Newton, Joule, Edwin Armstrong, even Steve Jobs) but to me his contribution has brought much enjoyment – Mason is the guy who first patented the coffee percolator in the US in 1865. (Actually a British soldier and scientist, Sir Benjamin Thompson, came up an earlier version of the percolator some years before, but I couldn’t find out much about his invention.)

The classic coffee percolator - essentially unchanged for the last 120 years.(© All Rights Reserved)
The classic coffee percolator – essentially unchanged for the last 120 years.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Mason’s patent was for a downflow method, which didn’t use rising steam and water, but it did pave the way for another American, Hanson Goodrich who, in 1889, came up with the classic percolator system similar to the stove-top percolators still produced today.

Traditional stove-top percolators have lost some ground in recent years, with the rise in popularity of, firstly, the automatic drip style coffee makers, and more recently the very simple and practical French press devices.

And yes, a French press is great for your daily brew at home, but more than a century after its invention, a classic stove top percolator on a camping stove under a starry sky remains a wonderful thing.

Albert Jones and the invention of corrugated cardboard

Our subject for today is corrugated cardboard.

It was on this day, 19 December* back in 1871 that New Yorker Albert Jones received the first US patent for corrugated paper board, which he proposed as a packing and shipping material. A similar form of paper corrugation had been patented years earlier, in 1856, in England, where it was used as a liner for tall hats, but Albert Jones’ patent was the first that specifically proposed it as an improved packing material.

Corrugated cardboard - simple and clever, like all the best inventions.(© All Rights Reserved)
Corrugated cardboard – simple and clever, like all the best inventions.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Jones’ original patent was for a single-face corrugation, that is, a sheet of corrugated paper lined on one side with flat cardboard paper. Oliver Long soon updated and expanded the Jones patent by patenting corrugation with lining on both sides – basically the standard cardboard packing box as we know it today.

It took a while for the concept to catch on, but by 1890 corrugated cardboard boxes were in general use. It was initially used for packaging breakable material like glass and pottery, and by the mid-20th century it had become cheap enough to be used for packing fruit and fresh produce, reducing the bruising of the fruit going from the farm to the market.

Eventually, corrugated cardboard has become so commonplace that it is pretty much ubiquitous as the preferred material for boxing and packing. In fact, it’s really hard to imagine a world without it, isn’t it?

*Some sources say the patent was issued on 20 December, but most seem to agree on 19 December being the correct date.

Having your name up in lights, thanks to Georges Claude.

If it wasn’t for today’s birthday boy, French chemist, engineer and inventor Georges Claude (24 Sep 1870 – 23 May 1960), the streetscapes of New York, Las Vegas, and many other cities, might have looked unimaginably different – among other achiements, Claude gained fame as the inventor of neon tube lighting.

Claude, who is sometimes called ‘the Edison of France’ was a prolific inventor and innovator, and his early focus fell on the industrial liquefaction of air. This process, which enabled the production of industrial quantities of liquid nitrogen, oxygen and argon, also produced neon as a by-product. In order to exploit this by-product, he came up with the neon tube light, a tube filled with neon that generates light when an electrified current is passed through the gas.

Neon lights quickly gained popularity for advertising and promotion purposes, both indoors and outdoors. What made it particularly effective was its strikingly visibility even in daylight, and the fact that the sealed tubes could be shaped and combined to form impressive glowing signage.

The traditional red neon sign – a classic example of vintage advertising.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While original neon light referred specifically to a sealed neon-filled tube light, the term has become generic for any electric light involving sealed glass tubes containing gas, be it mercury vapor, argon or a range of other gases. Original neon tubes glow red, while other gases are used to produce a range of other colours, e.g. yellow (helium), white (carbon dioxide), or blue (mercury).

Early neon signs, such as the signs sold by Georges Claude’s French company Claude Neon to the Packard car dealership in the United States in 1923, proved huge tourist attractions, with people reportedly staring for hours at the amazing ‘liquid fire’ signs. Neon signage caught on like wildfire in the 1930’s and 40’s, particularly in the ‘States, with neon signs popping up all over the place, often to rather gaudy effect. After the heyday or neon lighting in the early to mid 20th century, it’s popularity declined somewhat. In recent years, however, neon signage has seen something of a revival in art and architecture, becoming popular for its retro effect.

Celebrating the invention of toilet paper

Here’s an amusing story – today is the birthday of toilet paper! On this day back in the year 580 AD, the Chinese invented toilet paper (well, at least according to they did). I doubt the accuracy of this fact, as various sources give widely differing historic accounts of this rather personal product. It is, however, too good a topic to let pass, so I will accept it as true for now.

To make things more interesting, I have also found a site claiming that today is the day back in 1871 when toilet paper was first sold on a roll in the US, and that today is, in fact, National Toilet Paper Day in the States.

So whichever way you look at it, toilet paper’s shadow looms large over this day.

Spotlight on toilet paper – basic commodity or luxury item?
(© All Rights Reserved)

Of course, when you start thinking about “the first use of toilet paper”, the second thought that enters your mind almost immediately, is “what did they use before?”. Well, whatever was available, it seems – grass, leaves, moss, corncobs, coconut shells (I cannot quite get my mind around that one!), snow, sheep’s wool… The Romans, fancy buggers that they were, used sponges and salt water.

It does seem to be a generally accepted fact that it was the Chinese who introduced the use of paper for cleaning up after ‘the act’. The earliest recorded reference to the use of toilet paper seems to come from the Chinese scholar Yan Zhitui, who wrote in 589 AD: “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.” (According to Wikipedia.)

On a roll

Rolled and perforated toilet paper, similar to what we know today, only saw the light of day in the mid 19th century, with American Zeth Wheeler taking out a patent for it in 1871. It seems the commercial potential of purpose-made toilet paper was marred in the early days by the fact that people were too embarrassed to ask for it, or to be seen buying it, so Wheeler’s first company, the Rolled Wrapping Paper Company, failed to turn a profit. Things have obviously changed since then, with toilet paper today being a multi-billion dollar industry.

The future

It’s interesting to speculate about the future of bathroom hygiene.  Will toilet paper remain the product of choice in the Western world? A toilet known as the ‘Washlet’ (a toilet equipped with a bidet and air blower) is growing in popularity in Japan, while many countries in the Middle East and Asia prefer water cleaning. As we continue to exhaust the world’s natural resources, and manufacturing costs continue to rise, will a product as humble as the toilet roll become too much of a luxury item for many people to afford?

Interesting thought… Considering that the average American reportedly uses almost 60 squares of toilet paper a day, and the market for the product is booming in developing countries, it really is a huge volume of wood pulp that simply goes down the toilet – thousands upon thousands of trees are consumed daily by the toilet paper industry.

Over or under?

OK, time for a quick amusing fact:  In brand new research published in the US, a survey was done to find out whether Americans prefer their toilet paper to hang over or under the roll. The result? A staggering 75% of respondents preferred the paper hanging over the roll. Women appear to be even more adamant about this, as do people over the age of 60. Nevada turned out to be the ‘over-hanging’ capital of the US, with almost 100% preferring the over-the-roll option. For more have-to-know information, you can read more on the survey results here.

So how do you roll?

Celebrating rock ‘n’ roll royalty – Leo Fender and his iconic guitars

Come on, everybody, let your hair down and rock it like you mean it!

If you ever needed an excuse to rock out, you have one today – we celebrate the birthday of Leo Fender (10 Aug 1909 – 21 Mar 1991), the man who gave rock ‘n’ roll a huge adrenalin injection with the invention of the Fender Telecaster, the first (and many would argue still the greatest) solid-body electric guitar.

Through his company, the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, he also made numerous other contributions to the music world, including the legendary Fender Stratocaster guitar and the Fender Precision Bass.

Rock ‘n’ roll royalty – the Fender Stratocaster.
(© All Rights Reserved)

With the changing trends in music towards the end of the 1940s, Leo Fender realised there was potential in the market for a louder, cheaper and more durable guitar than the pickup-equipped archtop guitars used by the earlier dance bands. He prototyped his first thin, solid-body electric guitar in 1949. First released in 1950 as a single pickup design called the Fender Esquire, it was quickly renamed the Broadcaster. After the addition of a second pickup, it became the Fender Telecaster (or ‘Tele’) – one of the most iconic electric guitars, still virtually unchanged, and as popular as ever, today, more than 60 years later.

Based on feedback received from players who wanted something different to what the Telecaster offered, Fender first considered changing and updating the design of the guitar. With so many players committed to the Telecaster, however, he decided to rather introduce a separate new design. The new guitar, called the Stratocaster (or ‘Strat’) – basically a Telecaster on steroids – had a more ergonomic, smooth double-cutaway body, a rounder neck, three pickups and a revolutionary tremolo (string-bending) unit. Another true rock icon, the Fender Stratocaster became the weapon of choice for countless rock guitarists over the past 50 years.

The list of guitarists who play Fender Strats and Teles reads like a who’s who of guitar gods over the ages – Jimi Hendrix, Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Blackmore, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Kurt Cobain, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, John Mayer and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to list a few of the better known names. You just can’t argue with that!

In addition to their legendary electric guitars, the Fender company also produces acoustic guitars, electric basses, mandolins, banjos, and electric violins, as well as a range of amplifiers and PA systems.

In one of those crazy cosmic coincidences, today also happens to be the day (back in 1897) that aspirin was first created.  So it turns out that the same day that gave us the man who helped put the volume into rock n roll, also gave us the substance that could help relieve the headaches suffered by those who couldn’t handle the volume!

Invention of the microwave oven – time-saver or taste-killer?

Today we celebrate a device that, despite being a really innovative invention, has in the eyes of many become synonymous with anti-innovation in the kitchen.

On this day, way back in 1894, Dr Percy Spencer (9 Jul 1894 – 7 Sep 1970) was born – the self-taught engineer who, many years later, invented the microwave oven. Before the Second World War, Sir John Randall and Dr HA Boot invented the magnetron tube, with which they were able to produce radar microwaves. A few years later, after the war, Percy Spencer was doing research work on the magnetron tube. While working on an active radar set he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted – the radar melted the chocolate bar with microwaves. From this discovery, he started investigating the possibility of using microwaves to cook food. Spencer fed microwave power from a magnetron into a sealed metal box. When he placed food into the container and radiated it with microwave energy, the temperature of the food rose rapidly. This resulted in the development of the microwave oven – a device that cooks food with radiation used to heat polarised molecules in the food.

The microwave oven – only good for popping corn?
(© All Rights Reserved)

The first microwave ovens were large, heavy units, used in restaurants and commercial kitchens. The first countertop microwave was introduced in the mid sixties, soon becoming a ubiquitous device in kitchens around the world.

While the microwave oven is great for reheating food, cooking vegetables, and heating liquids like water or milk, it has not yet achieved any real culinary status. For the most part, it is used to heat ready-made, pre-packaged microwave meals. Microwave cooking can be quite healthy – it’s impact on nutrient content in food is said to be no worse than conventional heating, and thanks to the shorter preparation time, more micronutrients may be retained when microwaving vegetables, for example. But it is limited in application, and for the most part not capable of achieving the culinary effects and flavours created with conventional baking, frying, browning and slow-cooking. (Somehow I don’t expect to see Jamie Oliver’s “The Italian Microwave” or Nigella Lawson’s “The Microwave Goddess” hitting the cookery shelves anytime soon!)

So while the microwave oven definitely has it’s place in the modern kitchen, it may also probably stand trial as the primary culprit in thousands of dull, colourless and uninteresting meals prepared in the past 40 years.

Where do you stand – is the microwave oven an invention to celebrate, or to lament? Do you find it a must-have time-saver in the kitchen, or do you still have difficulty stomaching most microwave meals?