Nothing is perfect. Even the oldest and simplest devices can stand some improvement, as their users -- and inventors -- know all too well.
Take the toothpick. According to anthropologists who have studied 2-million-year-old fossilized teeth, our hominid ancestors used prairie grass stalks to clean their teeth, making toothpicking the oldest known human habit. But despite 2 million years of tinkering, we have yet to find the perfect device.
In ancient times, those who could afford them owned durable toothpicks made of precious metals that were worn like jewelry. But most people used pointed sticks or splinters. In time, twigs came to be more deliberately formed into chewsticks, one end of which was pointed for picking and the other end pounded or chewed into a brush.
The first breakthrough toward the "perfect" toothpick came in 16th century Portugal. An order of nuns there supported itself by making and selling a sticky confection. To make it easier to eat, they also began to make wooden toothpicks to keep the sweet stuff off one's fingers and to scrape any stubborn residue off one's teeth. Made of orangewood, these handcrafted toothpicks were pale, smooth, strong and pliable and became a world standard. (Their manufacture remains a cottage industry in Portugal, and they are still imported into the United States.)
Portuguese orangewood toothpicks found their way to Brazil, where indigenous tribes began to carve them. These drew the admiration of Charles Forster, a Bostonian working there in the mid-19th century. He got the idea to mechanize toothpick making. In the years to come, his American factories would churn out tens of thousands of toothpicks a minute.
For Forster, the issue of cleanliness and "perfection" was paramount. (Who wants a stained, misshapen toothpick?) White birch proved to be the best wood for his machines, so Forster located his factories near the forests in Maine and harvested the trees only in winter, when no sap stains would discolor the wood. The logs were stripped of bark and the clean wood peeled off in a veneer from which the toothpicks were stamped. One tree could yield millions.
But as well made and packaged as the mass-produced wooden toothpick may be, it has its limits. Its point can be too blunt to fit between close-set teeth; it is difficult to maneuver between back molars. In short, it is imperfect, and imperfect things call out to inventors.
Among the scores of 20th century patents for "improved" toothpicks: ones with tips that are triangular (in cross-section) to match the shape of the spaces between teeth and gums; ones made of aluminum and celluloid, materials that were once more fashionable than they are today; ones that floated like a buoy, so a martini drinker can retrieve his olive without getting wet fingers; ones that dissolve so they present no danger if swallowed.
One inventor patented a toothpick made of vulcanized rubber that was, essentially, a tongue-tip prosthetic. The idea was that it would attach to the tip of the tongue by a slight vacuum and provide a convenient (and concealed) means of getting at crevices on the inside of the mouth. Another inventor designed a plastic fork with a handle scored to break, producing a pointed corner suitable for toothpicking.
Not long ago, I was talking to a former trustee of my university and told him I was putting the finishing touches on a book about the toothpick. He immediately reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic one with bristles on one end -- something sold as the BrushPick. "This is the best," he declared.
But not everyone agrees. Some people find the BrushPick too flexible. Some people swear by Stim-U-Dents, the stubby wooden ones that come attached like the teeth of a comb. One style does not suit all.
And the pursuit of perfection is no guarantee that the latest is best. In the 1980s, Forster's company introduced a wooden toothpick with a square center and round pointed ends, which was cheaper to manufacture. The company hailed the "square/round tip" toothpick as "ideal," but it looked and felt as awkward as its name. It never sold as well as the company's round model.
But that's all to the good. The imperfection of things is what drives invention -- for a better toothpick or a more efficient means of producing energy. Nothing is ever perfect, so nothing remains unchanged for long. Sometimes, things even revert to their former, better selves.