The Military Origins of Layering

The popular way to keep warm outdoors owes a debt to World War II–era clothing science.

by Rachel S. Gross

The idea of wearing many light articles of clothing rather than a few heavy ones was everywhere: my brother’s Boys’ Life magazines, advertisements from my local outdoors store, my summer camp’s suggested packing list. But, like any way of dressing, layering had to be invented.

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Monocles Were Never Cool

Unlike other trappings of the aristocracy, the monocle has mostly been a joke since its invention.

by Austin Grossman

This little glass disk designed as corrective eyewear wound up as a comic prop, a universal metonym for wealth and snobbery. Monocles were briefly stylish at first. But they were never cool.

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Candy Land Was Invented for Polio Wards

A schoolteacher created the popular board game, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, for quarantined children.

by Alexander B. Joy

If you were a child at some point in the past 70 years, odds are you played the board game Candy Land. According to the toy historian Tim Walsh, a staggering 94 percent of mothers are aware of Candy Land, and more than 60 percent of households with a 5-year-old child own a set.

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How a Bad Night’s Sleep Birthed the Sound Conditioner

In 1960, a Rubbermaid executive invented a device to tame noise in the home. Its impact has been anything but quiet.

by Mack Hagood

The sound conditioner is one of the oldest examples of “personal therapy sensory devices.” The market for these technologies was said to be more than a billion dollars back in 2006, in a rare moment when someone bothered to study them.

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Nobody Uses Dental Dams

So why do they still exist?

by Anna Waters

“Nobody is using them.” It might seem like that would spell doom for the dental dam. But it has managed to live on: first as a staple of sex education, but now as a symbol of sex positivity for queer women—whether or not anybody ever uses them.

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Cottage Cheese Is the New Greek Yogurt

Americans’ dairy consumption is about to get a lot more cultured.

by Robin Tricoles

Stalwart food scientists and artisanal dairy farmers have high hopes for the future of cottage cheese. With yogurt sales on the decline, a golden age of curds might be right around the corner.

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Smartwatches Are Changing the Purpose of the EKG

Wearables help cast the medical test as a talisman of health-care competence.

by Andrew BombackMichelle Au

Like the white coat or the caduceus, the EKG has become talismanic, more valuable for the symbolism it provides than any diagnostic information it can convey. Now that EKGs are making their way into smartwatches, their symbolic purpose could risk overtaking their medical one.

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Why There Are No Nuclear Airplanes

Strategists considered sacrificing older pilots to patrol the skies in flying reactors.

by Christian Ruhl

The advantages of nuclear submarines over their conventional cousins raise a question about another component of the military arsenal: Why don’t airplanes run on nuclear power?

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Why Coal Symbolizes Naughtiness

And how it should be used instead.

by Kent Linthicum

A century has passed since coal was in widespread domestic and industrial use. Today, as humans still burn coal despite the known ecological costs, it might better serve as a reminder of collective ecological arrogance.

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The Benefits of a Foreign-Language Tattoo

Even when it goes wrong, body art in another tongue can be a good thing.

by Kevin Blankinship

People risk embarrassment because foreign-language tattoos give them a permanent invitation to contemplate cultures and ideas beyond their own. That effort can still succeed, even if the tattoos have errors.

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The Bootleg Video Vans of the Soviet Union

I learned English—and Western culture—watching American movies in smoky minibuses.

by Elmar Hashimov

In the U.S.S.R. of the 1980s, as Brezhnev’s stagnation mutated into Gorbachev’s perestroika, the Soviet people started peering out from behind the Iron Curtain at the tantalizing opulence of Western popular culture. It wasn’t unusual for a few government-approved (and heavily sanitized) Hollywood movies to show up in local theaters in Mother Russia and her 14 children-states.

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The Star of Norwegian Knitwear

The selburose design wasn’t invented in Norway, but it became a symbol of the country.

by Emma Sarappo

You’ve surely seen the selburose before: It’s knit into sweaters, featured on those mittens, seen at the Olympics, and printed on leggings and drink cozies. It’s shorthand for Scandinavia, if not Norway specifically, and feels at home on winter gear, especially our American faux-Christmas sweaters and earmuffs.

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The Fax Is Not Yet Obsolete

Law and medicine still rely on the device. Maybe they shouldn’t.

by Sophie Haigney

Faxing really took off in the ’80s, in offices around the world. It caused major changes in the speed of business transactions, allowing individuals and companies to disseminate materials quickly and broadly—someone in an office building in Japan could fire off a document to the United States instantly.

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The Problem With Feedback

Companies and apps constantly ask for ratings, but all that data may just be noise in the system.

by Megan Ward

The current mania for feedback can be traced to the machine that kick-started the Industrial Revolution, the steam governor. Revisiting that machine, and understanding feedback’s lost, mechanical origins, can help people better use, and refuse, its constant demands.

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When Pop-Up Books Taught Popular Science

Before they were relegated to the domain of children, books with movable mechanisms explained anatomy, astronomy, and more to adults.

by Kathleen Crowther

The charm and whimsy of pop-up books might seem far removed from the dry seriousness of technical literature. But during the first three centuries of printing, from about 1450 to 1750, most pop-ups appeared in scientific books.

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How Tea Helped Women Sell Suffrage

Private-labeled teas helped fund success during the suffragist movement. Today’s activists might learn from their model.

by Janelle Peters

When it came time for women to get the vote, tea played a role, too. Women such as the wealthy Alva Vanderbilt-Belmont held “suffrage teas,” where support for the cause was proclaimed. The tea parties also served as fund-raisers, a practice that extended to the teas themselves.

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When Televisions Were Radioactive

Anxieties about the effects of screens on human health are hardly new, but the way the public addresses the problems has changed.

by Susan Murray

Since the 1940s, there had been long-standing concerns about radiation leaks from black-and-white picture tubes. But it wasn’t until 1967, when routine testing revealed that specific large-screen models of GE color sets were emitting “X-radiation in excess of desirable levels,” that there seemed to be any real evidence of such a risk.

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Throw Your Children’s Art Away

Childhood is short-lived. It’s okay if kids’ drawings are, too.

by Mary Townsend

From the earliest age, adults press crayons into their hands. Art offers kids something to do, and folk wisdom holds that it’s good for them, too. But after the activity is over, the artwork sticks around. And that’s where the problems start.

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The Mystery of Alexander Hamilton’s Bank Clock

The origins of an 18th-century timepiece are part of an American institution even older than its financial system: embellishing facts.

by Emily Ludolph

A legend grew around the clock. A subsequent director of the Historical Society referred to it as the Hamilton clock. The story emerged that Alexander Hamilton had gifted the clock personally to his financial brainchild, like a father bestowing a pocket watch to his firstborn. Whether he really did remains an unsolved mystery.

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Writers Have Always Loved Mobile Devices

Writing boxes, popular from the 17th century, provided the same pleasure as today’s laptops and custom word processors: to make the experience of writing pleasurable, whether any actual writing gets done.

by Laura R. Micciche

Writing is a mobile art. People do it on laptops, tablets, and phones. They write—or type—while walking, waiting for a doctor appointment, commuting to work, eating dinner. Although writing’s mobility might seem a product of modern digital gadgetry, there’s nothing new about writing on the move. Digital tools are but the latest take on a long tradition of writing in transit.

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