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Changing the world with brilliantly simple inventions

Why labour over complicated solutions when there is a much simpler way? As renowned scientist
Sir Isaac Newton once said: "Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes."

According to legend, Newton developed his famous Universal Law of Gravitation after observing an apple toppling from a tree. This simple event sparked a "light-bulb" moment of scientific genius that had an everlasting impact on the way we see the physical world.

Even nowadays, inventors continue to employ simple principles in developing new technologies that affect the lives of millions. Simple inventions cost relatively little in their production and can also be readily used by people living in regions with less developed infrastructure.

Here is a selection of brilliantly simple inventions - including numerous winners and finalists of the EPO's European Inventor Award:

Simple solutions for everyday problems

Simple ideas come to the rescue when current technology falls short of solving a problem. In the year 1946, electric refrigerators were still a rarity in private households. Enter American Earl Tupper and his airtight plastic containers for keeping foods from spoiling: With their signature vacuum-sealed lid, Tupperware became an international market success story.

Sometimes brilliantly simple solutions manifest when an inventor is busy looking for something else entirely: Post-It-Notes were created by American scientist Arthur Fry, who really wanted to develop a novel glue for paper - but ended up creating flexible notes that are equally adhesive and easy to remove, now used by millions worldwide.

At first sight, a steel wire element to improve strength and stability of reinforced concrete is relatively basic - instead of inserting a solid grid frame into concrete for reinforcement, the steel is mixed into the concrete as fibres. But with this simple trick, inventor Ann Lambrechts opened up brand-new possibilities in modern-day architecture - increasing concrete's flexural tensile strength by a third and allowing it to be poured into new, rounded shapes of pioneering construction projects.

We all know the principle of blowing air through a straw into a beverage. Adding air to liquids expands their mass, making liquid levels rise. The small jet regulator for water faucets created by German inventors Hermann Grether and Christoph Weis uses air for real-life water savings. By dividing the stream of water through a series of plastic filters while adding air, the volume of the stream is expanded - and less water streams from the faucet. The simple trick allows the regulator to achieve enormous savings and cuts  water usage by up to 50%.

Mario Polegato As a cure for sweltering feet on hot summer days, look no further than the breathable shoes invented by Italian Mario Moretti Polegato. A porous membrane with millions of minuscule openings in the soles of his patented GEOX shoes releases warm air from the inside, while keeping any intruding water at bay.

It's a known fact that oil and water do not mix. Using this simple principle, the "liquid lens" of French inventor-turned-entrepreneur Bruno Berge combines these liquids in a closed cylinder shaped into an optical lens. By means of electric jolts, the surface structure of the liquids can be manipulated, changing the depth of field.

Since the lens functions entirely without moving parts that would require mechanical controls, Berge's lenses are lighter, more robust and energy-efficient and up to 85% smaller than conventional camera lenses. The invention is already used in scanners and industrial camera applications.

Helping impoverished regions with simple innovations

Providing aid to impoverished regions calls for simple solutions - preferably those that are simple to use and easy to access. And since regions lacking electricity, plumbing and access to clean water continue to be plagued by epidemics such as cholera, prevention is crucial to saving lives.

With their elegant invention, a team of researchers led by Ashok Gadgil and Vikas Garud at the University of California brought clean drinking water to the most remote regions of India. Their patented water disinfection method relies on a 40-watt UV-lamp in a compact and energy-efficient device. Smaller than an average microwave oven, the water disinfectant unit can be powered by a 12-volt car battery or small solar panels. Instead of using pumps to move water through the device, the system relies on the force of gravity - Sir Isaac Newton would be proud. 

Despite its underlying simplicity, the UV-water disinfection device packs a punch: One single unit can disinfect more than 1,000 litres of water per hour. In the year 2010, the system had been installed in over ten countries, providing clean water to over two million people.

In the aftermath of natural disasters, the simple water filter developed by Swiss company Vestergaard Frandsen has proven a real life-saver: The LifeStraw is essentially a plastic drinking straw that is inserted directly into the drinking water. Without relying on chemicals, the LifeStraw employs a series of internal filters to eradicate up to 99.9999% of all viruses and bacteria. The Red Cross has already distributed the brilliantly simple water filter to 3,750 school children and 6,750 households in Kenya alone.

In the world's poorest regions, billions of people continue to suffer from vision disorders. According to aid organisation Child ViSion, more than 100 million young people are currently suffering from untreated sight disorders. Helping them with adequate corrective spectacles is a daunting enterprise, since opticians and their high-tech equipment are widely unavailable in these regions.

Instead of customised glass lenses, Oxford physics professor Joshua Silver developed a cheap-yet-efficient alternative. Filled with liquids, the lenses in Silver's simple plastic eyewear frames can be produced for the price of a few Euros, while wearers can adjust the strength of the lenses themselves - without an optician - by changing the amount of liquid contained in the lenses. The simply brilliant eyewear has already been fitted to 40,000 new wearers worldwide.

Brilliantly re-purposed

Sometimes simple solutions come to life when scientists are thinking outside the box. Employed in a new context, some time-tested concepts can offer surprising advantages. Inspired by the printing presses in  newspaper publishing houses, Hungarian journalist László Bíró wrote history with the invention of the modern ballpoint pen. As it turns out, printing ink coats the tip of the pen without smearing on the paper - brilliantly simple!

The reflection of headlights in the eyes of a roadside cat led British inventor Percy Shaw to the creation of reflective "cat eyes" for traffic safety. Light-reflective patches inserted into the pavement guide motorists safely through dark and curvy stretches without streetlights - even today.

An invention from the automotive industry is currently speeding up sales in the furniture business: the "Blumotion" damper system for kitchen furniture, created by inventors Claus Hämmerle und Klaus Brüstle. The small add-on for drawers and hinges in cabinet doors relies on the same principle as an automobile's suspension. A piston filled with hydraulic fluids dampens the force of impact when exposed to pressure. Instead of a loud bang, drawers and doors close with a soft hush - the greater the force applied, the more pressure they exert back. The invention is currently a finalist for  the European Inventor Award 2013.


Microwave radiation can do much more than just heat up meals: With a rather unorthodox application of microwaves, Portuguese researchers António Velez Marques, Helena Pereira, Rui Reis and Susana Silva are heating up the international cork market. Cork is first soaked in water and then exposed to microwave radiation for several minutes, causing the cell structure to expand by 40 to 85%. Thanks to the simple method, cork manufacturers Corticeira Amorim currently control more than 25% of a world market thirsting for cork.

Faced with these brilliantly simple inventions, researchers at competing companies are probably wishing for similar "light-bulb" moments, asking themselves: "Why couldn't we have thought of that?!" If simplicity were only that simple...