Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Just-so stories

The products around us were once just ideas, often with fascinating stories behind them, says Mai Samih

Al-Ahram Weekly

From the moment the alarm clock wakes you up in the morning to the time you switch off the light at night, you are surrounded by things that make life easier or more pleasant. Yet, how often do you consider how such wonders came about, or who invented them and why? The answers are often fascinating in themselves.


AIR-CONDITIONERS: In Egypt, like in many hot countries, people often turn on their air-conditioners to survive heat-waves, but to whom should the credit go to for making peoples’ lives more bearable in summer? When the young American engineer Willis Carrier invented the first air-conditioning machine in 1902, it was not meant for humans but for controlling humidity and room temperatures in the printing plant he worked in at the time. It was only later used in public places like department stores and theatres. It was not until 1928 that the first “climate-maker”, or air-conditioner, that we have at home today was made.


SANDWICHES: Everyone enjoys a sandwich at least once a day, but when and where was the first sandwich served? In 1762, the British fourth earl of Sandwich, Edward Montagu, asked his cook to put his meat between two slices of bread since he had no time to eat properly as he preferred to spend most of his time gambling. 


ADVERTISEMENTS: In any newspaper and on any TV or radio station there are often endless advertisements, but where did the idea come from? According to Introduction to Mass Communication by Warren K. Agee, Philip H. Ault and Edwin Emery, the ancient Egyptians were the first to use advertisements in the form of papyrus sheets to offer rewards to people finding runaway slaves. The Romans were the first to use advertising in politics to persuade people to vote for candidates in elections. However, advertising was not yet used for trade, as the Greeks and Romans used criers to promote goods instead. In the mid-15th century in Europe, hand bills and posters were used for advertisements. At first, advertisements were used to promote books, newspapers and medicines. In the 19th century, the invention of half-tone printing enabled advertisers to use photographs, and later in the century images and colour were added. In the last century advertisements started to appear in the cinema, on the radio and on TV.


CANDLES: The oldest candle has been found in France, but it was in the first century CE that the Romans started to use wick candles made from wax to light spaces such as temples. The ancient Egyptians had previously dipped grass or reeds in tallow or animal fat to make rush lights. It was only in the Middle Ages that candles appeared as we know them today. Different countries made candles in different ways. In China and Japan, wax from insects, nuts and seeds were used. In the US, whale oil was more common. In order to make candles last longer, stearic acid was added to the mix in the 18th century, though candles were often still expensive and only the wealthy could afford them. In mediaeval Europe, there was even a day to celebrate the blessings of candles and distribute them among the faithful on 2 February, or “candle mass”.


SOAP: No bathroom is complete without it, but soap was only discovered by accident in ancient Rome. The story goes that animal sacrifices were taking place on Mount Sapo, and their ashes were being washed down the mountain by rain and into the River Tiber to form a sort of clay. Women washing clothes in the river found that this helped wash the clothes, and in this way soap was born. A soap-maker’s shop was discovered in the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Yet, one form of soap was also known from 2800 BCE, since in ancient Babylon fats were burned with ashes to make a kind of soap. Soap was and still is used as a medicine by adding chemicals to it to cure skin diseases like eczema and to treat stiffness.  


MAKE-UP: In the past, women made themselves look more beautiful by using ashes to darken their eyes, berries for lipstick, urine to get rid of freckles, and ox blood to improve their complexions. They even used arsenic, lead, nitric acid and mercury to look fairer. It is said that Cleopatra in ancient Egypt used a mixture of ant’s eggs and beetles to make lipstick. At this time, both men and women wore make-up, and the more make-up a person used, the higher his or her social status. Make-up was even applied to statues of the gods. Henna was used for nails and hair and for pre-mummification rituals. Kohl was used for medical purposes, like protecting the eyes from the sun and as a kind of disinfectant. Ancient Egyptian mothers would apply kohl to the eyes of their new-born children to protect them from the evil eye and to improve their sight. Green make-up was used to evoke the eye of Horus, the god of the sky and sun. Ancient Persian women wore henna on their hair and cheeks to summon up “the majesty of the earth”. Much later, in 1770, the British parliament passed a law condemning lipstick, stating that women found guilty of seducing men into wedlock by wearing make-up could be tried for witchcraft.


PERFUME: Imagine life without perfume. The ancient Egyptians used scented animal fat to make themselves smell nicer, and later the process of extracting perfume from roses was discovered by the Arabs, who developed rose water as a result. The ancient Egyptians believed that it was important that the dead should be buried with perfume, which would accompany them to the afterlife, and for this reason perfume was found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. Herbs and oils were often tried, but it was the Romans who developed perfume in its liquid form as we know it today. The word itself comes from the Latin per fumum, or “through smoke,” which reveals the way perfumes were used in religious ceremonies at the time. Later, people became so obsessed with perfume that in the reign of Catherine de Medici of France it was said she had her own perfumer in her palace. At the time of Queen Elizabeth I in Britain, public places were often scented as the queen could not stand foul smells. Perfume was also used by leather manufactures to get rid of the smell of manufacture. In the ancient Phoenician culture, possessing perfume was a sign of wealth. During the period of the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, perfume was used to protect papyrus from insects.


EARRINGS: Girls often like to be well-dressed and to use accessories, but where did the habit of wearing earrings come from? Earrings originated in the Middle East, with the oldest records of earrings going back to 2500 BCE in ancient Egypt and Iraq. The first earrings were worn by both sexes to protect them from evil spirits, as it was believed that any opening in the human body could invite an evil spirit to enter. Some earrings were designed to cure people of headaches or weak eyesight or hearing problems. Sailors wore hoop-shaped golden earrings as proof of their experience in sailing: it was said that these showed they had crossed the equator or sailed around the world or survived a shipwreck. An earring could also be an asset, ensuring that a sailor would get a fine funeral. In ancient Rome, earrings were worn by slaves, unlike by people of high social status as was the case in ancient Egyptian and Assyrian cultures.


TEDDY BEARS: Lovers today often exchange teddy bears on special occasions, but the first teddy was the nickname used to refer to the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was on a bear-hunting trip in Mississippi in 1902 when he found a wounded bear cub and ordered his companions to kill it to stop its suffering, or refused to kill it, as other accounts say. The news spread, and The Washington Post reproduced a picture of a cuddly bear-cub. After a while, this became known as a “teddy bear”. The first person to make teddies is believed to have been Morris Michtom, a shop owner in Brooklyn, who asked Roosevelt for his permission to use the name to start a company to manufacture them. At almost the same time, the toy also appeared in Germany at the Leipzig Fair, when a German woman, Margaret Steiff, made many cuddly animals including bears and displayed them for sale.


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