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Toothbrush trounces car as top invention

By Jeordan Legon
CNN

Merton Flemings, an inventor, runs the Lemelson-MIT Index.
Merton Flemings, an inventor, oversees the Lemelson-MIT Index.

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DENTAL DETAILS
  • Americans spend $2 billion a year on dental products -- toothpaste, mouthwash and dental floss.
  • 94 percent of Americans say they brush nightly; 81 percent say they do it first thing in the morning.
  • 75 percent of the U.S. population has some form of periodontal gum disease.
  • 50 percent of Americans do not receive regular oral health care.

    Source: American Dental Hygienists' Association
  • QUICKVOTE
    Which of these inventions could you not live without?

    Toothbrush
    Car
    Personal Computer
    Cell Phone
    Microwave
    VIEW RESULTS

    (CNN) -- In a nation obsessed with sparkling teeth and minty-fresh breath, the lowly toothbrush is the king of inventions.

    So say the findings of a new survey released Wednesday by the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which asked which of five inventions Americans could not live without. The toothbrush emerged the undisputed champ, beating out the car, the personal computer, the cell phone and the microwave -- in that order -- as the most prized innovation.

    "It makes a lot of sense," said American Dental Association spokesman Dr. Richard Price. "Your teeth are always with you. ... You can always update your car or a computer, but you just can't update teeth."

    Promoting inventors

    The folks who run the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index spend big bucks every year asking hundreds of people across the country what they think about inventions.

    Almost half of those surveyed in 1995 thought inventors were eccentric. Fifty-six percent of adults asked in 1998 said antibiotics were the most crucial advance in medicine. And in 1999, kite-flying innovator Ben Franklin trounced Microsoft chief Bill Gates and telephone whiz Alexander Graham Bell as history's most important inventor.

    The latest survey sampled 1,000 adults and 400 teenagers across the county. Fifty-six percent of teens and 60 percent of adults said they thought a cure for cancer would be found in their lifetime. About a quarter of the teenagers and over a third of the adults thought solar-powered cars would replace gas-powered cars.

    But the toothbrush finding has received the most attention, researchers said, because it shows that the public recognizes that great inventions don't have to be complicated.

    "Those of us here (at MIT) know the simple things are very, very important," said Merton Flemings, an inventor with 29 patents to his name who runs the Lemelson-MIT Index. "It surprises us other people who are not scientists recognize that too."

    Tracing the history

    It's been a long road to the top for the toothbrush. The first was built in 1498 by a Chinese emperor who had hog bristles embedded in a bone handle, so says the American Dental Association. The hog bristle toothbrush became popular in Europe, but because it cost so much, poor families would often share the same brush.

    It wasn't until 1938, according to the ADA, that DuPont introduced nylon bristles as a replacement for pig hair. And a good thing they did, said Price, who notes the invention has been embraced by almost all Americans.

    But Price, a dentist for 33 years, says it's not enough for Americans to laud their toothbrushes.

    "I don't think many people will say dental floss is one of the great inventions of all time," he said. "But the toothbrush alone will not do the job."


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