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How Things Worked Before 10 Game-Changing Inventions

You know you’re in for a treat when you hear a much older person start a sentence with “back in my day.” The world used to be different and we all know it. But what gets lost sometimes is just how different things used to be in the day-to-day world. We don’t need to look at what the world was like before major, life-changing inventions like cars or antibiotics to appreciate how odd things used to be, either. 

10. Before Insulin, Diabetics Had to Live on Dangerous Low Carb Diets

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Frederick Banting discovered insulin at the University of Toronto in 1921, changing the world for millions of diabetics. Before insulin, a diabetic had a life expectancy of maybe 3 or 4 years, and they weren’t pleasant years, either. 

The only treatment for diabetes prior to insulin was diet changes. If you’re a type II diabetic, that can actually work in some cases. For type II’s, their ability to make or use insulin is impaired and often weight loss and dietary changes can help reduce glucose in the bloodstream and ensure better health. Type 1 diabetics, on the other hand, do not produce insulin. Diet really can’t help them at all because they don’t have a functional pancreas, so the stereotype about eating less or trying to be healthier doesn’t help at all. 

In order to squeeze out a few extra years of life, doctors would put diabetics on diets so strict that they’d be considered criminal today. Carbohydrates, which turn into sugar in your blood, had to be eliminated completely. Some diabetics were being sustained on just 450 calories per day, at least until the diet literally starved them to death. 

9. Inducing Rat Ovulation Was a Way To Test for Pregnancy Before Home Tests

pregnancy test

In 1977 you could finally head to a drugstore and, for the first time ever, buy a home pregnancy test. But what was a woman to do before then? There was a method that was devised 50 years prior to that convenient at home test that could also let you know if you were pregnant but instead of peeing on a stick that could gauge your hormone levels, you needed access to a female rat and someone capable of later dissecting it. You can see why the home test proved to be more popular.

In 1927, something called the A-Z Test was created by doctors Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek. Urine from a woman who suspected she might be pregnant was injected into an immature female rat or mouse. If the woman was pregnant, her hormones would trigger an estrus reaction and cause the rodent to go into heat. The animal had to be dissected to determine this. 

There were other methods over the years as well, including mixing urine with wine which may have actually yielded accurate results sometimes, as well as urinating on barley or wheat seeds to see if they would grow. Modern tests showed, 70% of the time, this testing method was actually accurate.

8. Before Baby Carrots Most Carrots Were Tossed in the Trash

carrot juice

In the world of carrots there are regular carrots, and there are baby carrots. Yes, there are colored carrots, but they’re still full-sized, regular ones for the most part. And at some point you may have heard the devastating news that there’s really no such thing as baby carrots, they’re just regular carrots that were shaved down. Media sources will often rehash this story every few years and present it as scandalous in a facetious way. 

What most sources don’t get into is why baby carrots exist and what the world was like prior to their existence. Turns out that baby carrots aren’t just a wasteful way to make the root vegetables seem more palatable. If anything, the opposite is true. 

In the early 1980s, the carrot industry was incredibly wasteful. More carrots were trashed than sold. This is because people like pretty food and carrots are often ugly. That, and the fact carrots can be 80% good with a rotten end, and so the whole carrot is now useless. 

Carrot farmer Mike Yurosek got sick of losing money and started peeling his ugly carrots by hand. That was labor intensive, so he bought a green bean cutting machine that sliced the carrots down to little 2-inch nuggets. The baby carrot was born.

Within one year of Yurosek’s innovation, US carrot consumption rose by 30%. In 10 years it was up another 117%. The scraps are used as animal feed and now consumers are enjoying a better diet overall. 

7. Before Elevators The Rich Lived on the Ground and The Poor Lived On Upper Floors

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When you look at a high rise apartment building today, you’ll notice that the upper floors often look a little different thanks to the large, opulent penthouse apartments. The top floors of buildings are reserved for the wealthiest residents who can afford the best views. In midtown Manhattan there’s a penthouse that goes for $90 million. In Monaco, there’s a penthouse worth $335 million.  

Do you know what makes a penthouse so expensive? It’s one thing and one thing only – the elevator. Prior to the invention of the elevators, the richest residents of a building lived closer to the ground. The less well off you were, the higher you went. The top floor of many buildings was considered servant’s quarters. And that makes sense when you consider that people on the top floor were going to be carrying all of their furniture up the stairs to move in. The ground floor afforded you the luxury of going in and out as you pleased and ensured you rarely had to run into the people on the upper floors.

6. Before Barbed Wire The Beef Industry Was Much Smaller and Costlier

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Before barbed wire the world had a lot fewer cliche tattoos, but that is not the only contribution this method of secure fencing is responsible for. In the world before barbed wire, beef was a much rarer commodity and, in many ways, we owe the modern beef industry to barbed wire. There arguably would be no burger-based fast food industry without it. 

Cattle ranching in the 1870s had ground to a halt because it couldn’t be contained. Cattle would destroy other crops and couldn’t be contained with meant herds could only be so large. All existing fencing methods were proving ineffective but with the invention of barbed wire in 1874, things changed.

Cattle could be contained to pastures and that allowed them to grow bigger, stronger, and healthier. Cattle drives were no longer necessary so the animals could grow much bigger and produce more meat. New breeds, such as Angus, could also be bred since they no longer had to endure those long cattle drives, and that in turn improved the beef industry as a whole. 

5. Before the Heart Lung Machine, Cross Circulation Connected Two Living Patients Together

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Cardiopulmonary bypass is the process you’ll undergo if a surgeon ever needs to open you up to operate on your heart. A machine, often called a heart-lung machine, will take over the functions of your heart and lungs since they’re going to be otherwise occupied but your blood and oxygen still need to flow. These machines were developed through the 1950s and the process of testing them ended with a number of deaths. Between 1951 and 1955 there were 18 surgeries. Only one patient survived. 

Before machines, there were still successful methods, however. An 11-year-old boy underwent heart surgery in 1954 and survived thanks to a method called controlled cross-circulation. For that, his father was put under anesthetic and the boy’s veins and lungs were connected to his father’s. His father became a secondary, living circulatory system for his own son, allowing blood and oxygen to flow between the two of them while doctors repaired the boy’s heart. 

4. Before Crash Test Dummies, Living Volunteers Were Used

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Some time after the invention of the automobile people began to realize that crashing an automobile was a seriously dangerous thing. But how could you figure out what the most dangerous parts of a crash were without actually crashing people? Enter the crash test dummy. They were developed throughout the 1950s and 1960s as a means of testing not just cars but planes and rally anything that could move at a dangerously fast pace. 

Adoption of the crash test dummy wasn’t instantaneous, however. There were a lot of automobile manufacturers and a lot of safety tests being done for decades before they became industry standard. That’s why, from 1960 until 1975, people like Lawrence Patrick were volunteer crash test dummies. 

Patrick’s contribution to impact testing was invaluable. Because while a crash test dummy could show how bad a crash could be, it couldn’t tell you how much a human could take. That was Patrick’s job. 

Living subjects like Patrick weren’t the only ones, either. Some studies strapped corpses into cars to test them. They even used pregnant baboons for a time. 

3. Back in the Day, Marathon Runners Drank Booze During Races

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The first marathon dates back to 490 BC, so this is an ancient custom. The modern marathon can involve a lot of planning and fanfare and you’ll often see people on the sidelines providing water and sports drinks to the runners in an effort to keep them hydrated. But there was a time when we weren’t entirely sure what a person should be drinking when they were running and that led to a lot of boozy marathons.

On the one hand, if you run and get tired you feel thirsty, so drinking anything seems like a good idea. On the other hand, the fact that runners were once advised to drink champagne of all things seems confusing at best since being both drunk and gassy can’t help your running game. 

A century ago, runners in the Boston Marathon would have helpers keeping pace on bikes or in cars, handing out whisky or brandy when the runner needed a boost. Cognac and wine were options at various races as well. 

The reason for this seemed to be that, while everyone acknowledged thirst was a think, water was generally considered weak and not very manly. 

2. Before Radar, War Tubas Helped Detect Enemy Aircraft

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Radar has been an invaluable tool over the years and it’s hard to overstate its value in war. If you have enemy aircraft coming in to destroy you, then knowing where they are is extremely important. But radar was only invented in 1935 and there were dangers from above well before then.

Prior to the advent of radar, the Japanese in particular had devised a method of tracking enemy aircraft that involved the use of what is known as a war tuba. And the name is oddly accurate. War tubas were giant horns pointed at the sky. A person would stand at the narrow end of those huge horns while the wide-opened mouth end was pointed at the sky. The intention was that the open end would catch the sound of approaching aircraft before anyone could see them coming.

There’s no evidence this method was successful in locating and aiding in the destruction of any aircraft, but the UK and the US both attributed their successes with radar to acoustic location techniques like war tubas before anyone knew radar was a thing, as a method of keeping it secret. 

1. Before Modern Erasers People Used Bread Crumbs

rye bread

Everyone makes mistakes, that’s why pencils have erasers, so the saying goes. But what about when pencils didn’t have erasers? It wasn’t a mistake-free world back then; it was just one that relied on bread crumbs.

Since a pencil eraser works by sticking to the graphite marks on paper and then being ground away as you rub against it, the same principle works with a lot of other substances. Notably, prior to “real” erasers, people just used bread crumbs

Rubber erasers were innovated in 1858. From about 1612 to 1770, breadcrumbs were the go to fixer, simply because it worked, was cheap, and was really easy to get ahold of.

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