Cordless Tools

In 1895, C&E Fein, a German company, invented the first electric tool. It was a handheld drill weighing 16.5 pounds. The drill was underpowered because it ran on DC electricity. It also required two people to operate.

In 1910, Duncan Black sold his car for $600 and used the funds to open a machine shop in Baltimore. His friend and business partner, Alonzo Decker, joined the venture.

Their first project involved improving the C&E Fein electric drill. They looked towards Colt’s pistol handle to envision a power drill small enough for one hand with a pistol grip. The 1916 Black & Decker power drill was vastly lighter, stronger, and required only one person to operate.

At first, Black & Decker only sold their power tools to other businesses. Eventually, they realized the consumer market was also interested in the convenience of power tools and built their business-to-consumer channel. By the early 1920s, the company was advertising power tools in popular newspapers and magazines.

Eventually, other companies created various tools. Over time, power tools became the norm.

In 1961, Black & Decker took the innovation one step further and invented cordless power tools. Like the original C&E Fein drill, the first cordless power tools were heavy and underpowered. However, even with these drawbacks, the benefits were obvious.

In 2005, Milwaukee Electric Tool Company released the first lithium-ion tools. These changed the industry, making cordless tools powerful, long-lasting, and easy-to-use.

Today, virtually every tool imaginable run on batteries. Drills, saws, sanders, chainsaws, and even lawnmowers utilize battery-driven electric motors.

Mass-Scale Desalination

Reverse osmosis enables large-scale desalination of seawater, efficiently transforming it into drinking water.

People have been trying to desalinate seawater into drinking water for millennia. Firstly, Aristotle and other ancient Greeks unsuccessfully attempted to desalinate seawater. Eventually, by the 16th century, ship-based evaporation desalination systems created potable water. In time, by 1955, the first multi-stage flash distillation (MSF) plant went online. It desalinated water but require distillation, consuming enormous amounts of time and energy.

Finally, in 1959, the first multi-effect distillation (MED) plant came online. This plant used a combination of industrial-scale reverse osmosis and filtering. Subsequently, the University of California innovated the synthetic reverse osmosis membrane. This brought together the building blocks of a modern desalination plant.

Reverse osmosis desalination methods were refined over the future decades. Particularly, the filters became vastly more efficient at filtering salt and other particulate matter from seawater with ever fewer amounts of electricity.

Eventually, as aquifers around the world run dry, desalination promises to help offset the use of natural potable water.

At this time, in 2019, Saudi Arabia has the largest desalination plant in the world. It features 8 evaporators, 17 reverse osmosis units, and produces 1 million cubic meters of drinking water every day.

Israel comes second, using 16-inch (40.5cm) membranes it produces 624,000 cubic meters of drinkable water per day. Thanks to this and other desalination plants, Israel generates more water than the country uses, using the excess to refill drained aquifers and the Sea of Galilee. A plant north of San Diego, in the US, will produce about 190,000 cubic meters of freshwater a day for Californian’s, who have suffered water rationing for years as aquifers ran dry.

Just-In-Time Manufacturing

Just in time manufacturing delivers the parts required to complete a product shortly before they are needed. Accordingly, this vastly reduces inventory cost while typically increasing quality by aligning the manufacturing needs of part suppliers and the final manufacturer.


Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno needed a better way to manufacture. Specifically, efficiency was low and quality suffered, especially when necessary parts ran out. In due time, he noticed that supermarkets used a visual card to indicate when an item was running low. Therefore, this system signaled to supermarket workers to restock the bin immediately. Without this system, bins might be filled with unneeded food that would spoil or sit empty, forcing customers to make a later trip or go to a different store.

Ohno adapted this system calling it “Kanban,” which means “visual signal” or “card” in Japanese.

Eventually, Ohno brought the system to Toyota’s manufacturing facilities. When parts ran low, workers turned over a car and somebody quickly came to replenish the parts. There were never too many nor too few parts for a workstation on an assembly line.

Kanban has four core properties. First, visualize the workflow. It is necessary to lay out a workflow so an ordinary person can grasp it visually. Second, limit work-in-progress. There must never be too much nor too little work-in-progress. Third, manage flow. It is necessary to align the workflow with the workers and the need for literal or figurative parts. Fourth, make process policies explicit. Clarify the workflow so everybody understands what is required. Fifth, create feedback loops. Ask and observe what works and what doesn’t and adjust accordingly. Finally, improve collaboration. Use small, continuous, incremental evolutionary changes that stick. Do not try to boil the ocean.

Toyota found Kanban vastly increased efficiency and decreased costs and adopted it through the Toyota system.


During the 1950s – 1970s, the quality of Japanese manufacturing rapidly increased while the quality of US manufacturing similarly declined. American executives studied the Japanese and found the core two components of Japan’s secret sauce was the use of Kanban and techniques taught by statistician W. Edwards Deming after the war. Deming tied Kanban’s flow into a statistical system called Total Quality Management TQM, producing higher quality goods (especially cars) at lower prices.

Eventually, US firms adopted Kanban and TQM while the process evolved in both Japan, the US, and elsewhere. Most notably, Michael Dell created a computer company that relied heavily on parts created by others. Dell computers were custom-configured when ordered, then quickly delivered. He needed a system where vendors aligned with his own factory to quickly build high-quality computers. Dell’s Just-In-Time (JIT) methods revolutionized manufacturing, enabling him to work with countless suppliers to ensure the supply bins were never either empty nor too full.

Prefabricated Housing Components


Limited amounts of prefabricated components date back to ancient times. Mesopotamian’s used burnt clay bricks. Romans utilized concrete molds for aqueducts and tunnels and William the Conqueror conquered the concept. There were movable modular buildings for industry, defense, and even hospitals. However, hand construction was the norm for the vast majority of houses and buildings.

That changed in 1908 when Sears Roebuck released a new item in their catalog, houses. People could order all the parts and pieces required to build entire high-quality homes and they’d come in a kit. Sears brought standardized parts, the “American Manufacturing Method” (invented by the French) to houses.

“For $1,062 we will furnish all the material to build this Eight-Room House, consisting of Lumber, Lath, Shingles, Mill Work, Siding, Flooring, Ceiling, Finishing Lumber, Building Paper, Pipe, Gutter, Sash Weights, Hardware and Painting Material,” reads a typical ad from 1908. All houses also included free architectural plans to aid in permitting.

Some houses were modest though many were large and there was at least one mansion.

As you can see from the catalog page, this was quite a house!

Sears discontinued selling kit houses in 1940 after selling about 70,000 houses.

Modern Day

However, the idea of modular building components remains. Today, doors routinely come with frames for installation. Hand-built trusses, that hold up roofs, are virtually unheard because factory-made ones are safer and cost less. Windows routinely come preassembled and, in some places, hand-built windows are illegal for safety reasons. Countless components of modern houses, especially in the US but also elsewhere are built at factories, not job sites.

Besides prefabricated house parts, entire prefabricated houses and buildings still exist.

In addition to prefabricated parts, there are also “modular” construction units. These function like building blocks, with various parts of houses and buildings fitting together. Modular buildings theoretically cost less than one-off construction but have higher quality since the pieces are built in tightly controlled factories.

Hotel chain Citizen M uses prefabricated modules to build entire hotels, including a 300-room hotel in New York City. The Chinese famously built the 57-story “J57 Mini Sky City” in 19 days using modules.

Processed Foods with Statistical Quality Control

By design, countless food products look and taste exactly the same. Nobody opens a name-brand candy bar and wonders if it will taste different than any other bar they may have chosen. Each can of Coca Cola, Pepsi, or Guinness Beer tastes exactly the same as any other.

All major food companies can thank Guinness brewer William Gosset who developed modern statistics. Many articles note that Gosset wasn’t an academic because he worked for a brewery. However, he was a highly educated mathematician.

His techniques are in use to this day in countless fields.

Regulators decide whether to approve new drugs. People base their professional careers on favorable figures using his statistical analytical tools. Governments calculate the value of human life, balanced against new regulations, using tools developed by the brewer. Insurance companies set rates, civil engineers design master plans, investors gamble trillions, and even spacecraft rely on his techniques.

Due to rules of secrecy at Guinness, Gosset published his work under the Nom De Plume student. Granted, his obvious creativity did not extend to name-picking. In any event, the student’s t-distribution, statistical significance, and Monte Carlo method are all his work. Some argue the entire field of quality control comes from his work. However, by the time he was born the American Manufacturing System was producing high-quality standardized parts.

In any event, the idea that food can be processed to a high degree of sameness, something that permeates store shelves to this day, is certainly his.

Moldboard Plow

Traditional plows would become gunked-up with soil, forcing farmers to repeatedly stop and clear away soil. Moldboard plows repel soil, lowering the cost of farming.

John Deere was an ordinary blacksmith, creating pitchforks and other common farm instruments. Farmers complained about the time wasted stopping and clearing their plows. Deere thought there must be a better solution. He reasoned that a differently shaped plow, with a polished steel end, would naturally repel soil.

Iron was more common than steel, so Deere melted down an old sawblade. He iteratively worked with different shapes until finding one that slid through the soil. By polishing it, soil slid off rather than building up.

“Deere must have given a great deal of thought to the shape, to the special curve of his moldboard, for its exact contours would determine just how well the soil would be turned over after the share had made the cut.”

Smithsonian curator Edward Kendall after testing an 1838 Deere plow.

Deere sold his plows first locally then further away. Within a decade, he was selling 2,000 plows per year. Twenty years later, sales continued booming and Deere offered nine different models depending upon a farmer’s needs.

Fourdrinier Paper Making Machine

Fourdrinier machines transform wood pulp into enormous rolls of paper. They vastly reduced the manufacturing cost and, subsequently, the price of paper.

Even the smallest Fourdrinier machine is massive and requires an enormous amount of water. Frenchman Louis Roberts invented the papermaking machine. His friend and confidant, Sealy Fourdrinier, patented and commercialized the technology in England. Roberts was afraid to commercialize the technology in France due to civil unrest during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.

Making paper requires evenly distributing wood pulp across a large area. Too much in one place creates bumps in the paper but too little creates holes.

Fourdrinier realized that combining shredded wood pulp in a massive amount of water, then driving the water out via presses, creates consistent paper. The first step is a mix of, at most, 5 percent pulp to 95% water. Future steps eliminate water via presses between rollers and dehydration from heated rollers.

The machine enables economies of scale based on size and creating rolls of paper, rather than sheets. It also utilizes felt rollers to drain the remaining water towards the end of the process, creating a uniformly consistent sheet. Each set of rollers is slightly thinner than the prior set, squeezing the paper pulp together while draining the remaining water.

The final product is an enormous roll of paper that can be cut into smaller rolls for use on a web press or into individual sheets.

Spinning Mule

Few inventions on innowiki have inspired as much social unrest at the spinning mule. The mule is a minor innovation compared to most others on the list. However, it caused a massive freak-out. The Luddite movement, that still exists to this day, if often wrongly credited to the printing press but actually began with the mule.


The spinning mule transformed raw wool into fabric. It was a vastly more efficient spinning wheel. Like many jobs threatened by automation, spinning was dull, repetitive, and time-consuming. It created jobs but they were terrible jobs.

Rather than one at a time, the mule wove together dozens. Following a pattern that both pre and postdated the mule, children were often employed to operate the machine.

Whereas spinning wheels had 2-5 spindles, mules typically had 1,320. They were vastly less expensive to operate while producing a more consistent yarn.

Before the mule, weaving was usually a family business. Mom and the children would break up and clean the raw fibers then spin them into thread. Dad wove their thread into fabric. The mule reduced the cost of thread, sending dad to factories and leaving mom and the kids unemployed with no marketable skills.


The whole family reacted predictably, violently breaking up mules. They named their movement, the Luddites, after Ned Ludd who most historians agree is a fictional character invented to create labor unrest. Luddites still exist to this day, opposing countless types of automation all the while enjoying the lower costs the machines provide. For example, modern Luddites talk to one another over mobile phones. They don’t realize technology powering their phones eliminated countless jobs, especially switchboard operators, and vastly lowered costs.

The mule itself was a combination of Arkwright’s water frame and Hargreaves’ spinning jenny. Basically, it did both functions. The offspring of a horse and a donkey is a mule, the origin of the name for Crompton’s invention.

Like countless inventors, Crompton could not afford to patent and commercialize the rights to his work. Finances forced him to sell the rights to industrialist David Dale for a pittance. That man went on to make a fortune from Crompton’s work.

Modern Management (Wedgwood)

Modern management, marketing, and high-end sales to ordinary people make pottery company Wedgwood a management innovator.

Pottery dates back to ancient times. Fragments of pottery in China date back 20,000 years. Since then, for the most part, wherever archeologists find people they also find pottery. Therefore, opening a pottery manufacturer, especially in the 1700s, intuitively seems like a terrible idea.

Josiah Wedgwood decided to try something different, creating a pottery business built on high-quality management techniques and top-tier customer service.

Built in 1769, the Etruria Works factory spanned 350 acres. Employees, managers, and Wedgwood – along with their families – lived and work at the site. The company focused on “ornamental pottery,” pieces meant more for display than use. Although advertised as Etruscan his pottery more typically appeared in a Grecian style. The factory utilized division of labor, assigning different workers to a single specialized task. This was unusual before the introduction of standardized parts and the assembly line.

Wedgwood created a high-end showroom in London with well-dressed and knowledgeable staff. Each piece of pottery was beautifully showcased and packaged. Customers who changed their mind later could return a piece for full credit.

The quality of Wedgwood pottery was above average potters, but the company really differentiated by the highest quality purchase experience. They were also apt technology innovators, creating stoneware called Jasper. Like most English potters, they also manufactured local bone china.

More importantly, Wedgwood innovated modern marketing techniques, going so far that he obtained royal permission to brand a line of his pottery “Queen’s Ware.”

Wedgwood is the first known use of artificial scarcity, making his pottery attractive for collectors and investors.

The company

Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS)

MEMS are literally microscopic-machines. The best-known MEMS are the accelerometers that have become ubiquitous in smartphones, allowing precise tracking of movement on the X, Y, and Z-axis. Significantly, MEMS are the reason your phone can sense movement. Additionally, other MEMS devices include miniature microphones, projectors, cameras, and countless others.

MEMS were first proposed in 1959 via a paper by physicist Richard Feynman, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” He theorized about the growth in micro and nanotechnology.

In 1964, Harvey Nathanson of Westinghouse introduced the first working MEMS device, a tiny transistor. Subsequently, during the 1960s and 1970s work continued, with machines etched into silicon working as pressure sensors. Eventually, these evolved into MEMS-based blood pressure monitoring devices.

In 1979 HP released a MEMS controlled inkjet nozzle to create the inkjet printer.

The first crude MEMS accelerometer dates to 1982. Airbags were important because they must fire when needed, never fire when not needed, and react almost instantly.

By 1993 Analog Devices produced the first real 3D MEMS accelerometer. At $5 it cost far less and functioned far better than other solutions. Countless airbag deployments relied on this inexpensive yet accurate accelerometer. Eventually, Nintendo adopted it for use to track motion in the Wii gaming system.

MEMS technology continues to develop with scientists working on microscopic insulin pumps, glucometers, DNA arrays, and other lab-on-a-chip applications.