If mousetrap tech is still the paradigm of Yankee ingenuity, it's surprising how sluggish murine-assassination R&D is. The avant-garde “no touch, no see” black-box traps that electrocute mice may seem impressive, but in my experience they only work once—and they're nearly $20 apiece. The trap that still tops best-of lists is roughly the same as the one patented by James Henry Atkinson in 1899: a cheap quick-release spring that's triggered by a naive rodent, and instantly snaps its neck.
But three other household tools have improved, and vastly, since Victorian times: humidifiers, glue, and eyelash enhancers. All this ebullient disruption has taken place in the vapor, adhesive, and eyelash “spaces” without incubators, accelerators, fortresses of secrecy in Palo Alto, investor decks, NDAs, or glossy magazine stories about the genius of a bright-eyed, extravagantly capitalized but ultimately fraudulent unicorn. Improvements in ordinary things may be no Blue Origin, but that's because they're better: more useful, less hubristic, and far, far cheaper. Just how Americans should want our secular miracles.
As I drifted off to sleep the other night in a romantic mist supplied by my bedside humidifier, I was hit by a bolt of wonder. How in the world does my $40 machine make vapor of water so fast? To become gas, water needs to be agitated, typically with heat, but there was nothing heating or hot about this device. How can water get so instantly riled up that it transmogrifies without any visible means of riling?
The American Association for Respiratory Care's Virtual Museum of Humidifiers, home to historians of human-made humidity, has answers.
In the 1930s, there was a French enamel steam inhaler called the Inhalateur Nicolay, which was essentially a big teacup with a muzzle-sized straw. Its logo shows a bearded figure demonstrating how to use the new device, into which you pour hot water; he looks like Lenin with a hookah. In the 1940s, Du Pont's Humidicrib—which used electricity to heat the water—promised no less than life: “to greatly increase the premature infant's chance of survival.” The December 1959 issue of Inhalation Therapy—the bible of the field—showed an ad for a cold-vapor machine, animated by the “high velocity impingement atomization of liquid particles.”
But those are all antiquities. The breakthrough of the contemporary humidifier is ultrasonic technology.
That's right: The trick to mind-blowing modern humidified air is sound. Ultrasonic humidifiers like mine contain transducers that pulse at a frequency well out of reach of human hearing, and those transducers are connected to a part, usually metal, that's submerged in a waterbed and converts the signals into movement. As the part vibrates faster, water can't keep up, and droplets detach from it, creating small vacuums. Air bubbles then form in what is known as cavitation bubble implosion, which I imagine as the popping of a constrained balloon, which further disturbs the water, breaking up otherwise orderly ripples caused by the sound vibrations. Water droplets lose their integrity and dissipate, escaping the machine in a fine mist. All of this happens at about the speed of sound—no scalding-hot water, and far less energy than is required to boil water all night. I clean mine every day and use distilled water because ultrasonic machines tend to aerosolize everything, including bacteria and minerals. This little bedside beaut costs far less than a year of melatonin, and it would let me sleep perfectly if I didn't keep waking up to contemplate its ultrasonic wonders.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
Glue is not generally top-of-mind for me, which is why when my partner, Richard, presented me with a beautiful cutting board he'd made—hard Eastern maple, shot through with swerving purple veins of African padauk—I thought trees must just grow in extremely intricate ways I'd never noticed. Only when I heard him and his fellow woodworkers talk about “glue-ups” did I realize that a fierce adhesive was involved in blending woods, and the wonders of this substance are sorely diminished when we call it by the name best used for Elmer's.
Wood glue has—again with little fanfare—turned extraterrestrial. There are names attached to radicalism in adhesives: Mildred Bonney and Langdon T. Williams, the couple that founded the adhesive company Franklin International in 1935 in Columbus, Ohio, which released its flagship product, Titebond, in 1955. Titebond is a polyvinyl acetate (PVA) glue. It swells the fibers of wood pieces, so they intertwine; as the glue dries, the fibers shrink to their normal size, but they're now so entangled that the bond is virtually unbreakable.
While some luthiers still use animal glue when they build stringed instruments—yes, the kind rendered from animal hides—most woodworkers have switched to PVA, and especially Titebond, and especially (for projects that need it) Titebond III, which inspires arias of awe all over the woodworking internet, as it bills itself as fully waterproof, though admittedly some pundits have doubts. It also has a vast “open time,” meaning it stays gluey and doesn't dry even if you dither over how to arrange your wood for a full 10 minutes. Titebond II gives you a mere five.
But the real breakthrough with all the Titebonds is, of course, the bond. How much cleavage, compression, flexure, impact, tension, or shear is required to break the plane of a Titebond bond? This is measured in pounds per square inch, and Titebond III takes up to 4,000 lbs to break. Two freaking tons. Hardwood will break before this glue.
From glue to eyelashes. And though old-fashioned false eyelashes do require glue, it's far weaker than Titebond—and that's enough thinking about hard-sealed eyelids. What's new in eyelashes is a synthetic prostaglandin analog called bimatoprost. (A synthetic prostaglandin analog is also the active ingredient in misoprostol, one of the pills approved for self-managed abortions.) Where chemical engineers can spell out how ultrasonic machines and PVA glue work, bimatoprost is a happy accident, and something of a mystery. Essentially, ophthalmologic researchers were working to reduce pressure in the eyes of glaucoma patients, and they discovered that bimatoprost relaxes the ciliary—the anxious muscle in the eye that chronically contracts when we read on our smartphones—which caused the outflow of aqueous fluid inside the eye. They were surprised to find that this movement of plasma-like fluid also served as Miracle-Gro for eyelashes.
As the invention of technology that can grow human hair seems to be the highest aspiration of humankind, this was a thrill. “Hypotrichosis,” or what the National Institutes of Health calls “an inadequate amount of eyelashes,” is the disorder bimatoprost treats, which can be seen in people with alopecia, but of course the compound has more vain applications. Excitingly, bimatoprost could even trigger hypertrichosis—excessive eyelash growth, the generation of a lush, abundant fringe over the eye that obviates the need for the thickening paint of mascara. “These hairs,” purrs the NIH study, “had a more robust appearance, were longer, thicker, and more heavily pigmented, and arose at a more acute angle from the skin than in the control eye.” The only catch? Hypertrichosis caused by bimatoprost sometimes comes with “irregular pattern of lash curling.” OH HELL NO.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
Eyelashes, as everybody knows, are supposed to twirl up to the heavens in unison, like Minnie Mouse's. And here we have a case where “the vellus and intermediate hairs had transformed into terminal hairs, and produced the appearance of new rows of terminal eyelashes in the lid margin”! (Humans are those primates who give earnest, scientific names to discrete precincts of 10-mm hairs on tiny flaps of skin on our faces.) Fortunately, this irregular pattern is a rare effect, and nothing that can't be remedied with what William Joseph Beldue patented in 1945: the eyelash curler. Diligently paint on that prostaglandin analog, in the form of a product like Latisse, and then clamp on Beldue's contraption. You'll get the full Minnie effect. We're still looking for better ways of catching mice (Titebond glue traps would still be glue traps, which are horrific), but for now a better way of catching mouse eyelashes will have to do. The arc of eyelash history is long, but it bends toward a pleasing curl.
This article appears in the February 2022 issue. Subscribe now.
More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!Can a digital reality be jacked directly into your brain?Future hurricanes might hit sooner and last longerWhat is the metaverse, exactly?This Marvel game soundtrack has an epic origin storyBeware the “flexible job” and the never-ending workday👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database🎧 Things not sounding right? Check out our favorite wireless headphones, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers