And a generation is starting to seem like a very long time, given the speed of change in much of our modern life. Computers get faster, cell phones get lighter and cars get new bells and whistles.


And it's easy to imagine why inventors are redesigning all of these products. The technology for making them is changing all the time.

MONTAGNE: But the human impulse to improve on what we have has propelled refinements even in time-tested low-tech items.

NPR's Joe Palca takes note of this in the latest installment of his new Joe's Big Idea.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The first U.S. patent for a toothbrush was issued before the Civil War.

To all whom it may concern: Be it known that I, H. Nichols Wadsworth of the city of Washington and District of Columbia, have invented a new and improved tooth brush. And I do hereby...

That was 1857. The brush Wadsworth patented looks pretty similar to the ones in use today. So how many new toothbrush inventions can there be? Well, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website, as of Christmas Day, there were 138 patents with the word toothbrush in the title issued this year - 138.

I talked with several of those patent holders about why they invented their toothbrushes, and they all said pretty much the same thing: something was missing in the toothbrush universe.

TOM MINTEL: Cleaning the teeth is actually a pretty complex problem, and I think that's why there's been so much invention around it.

PALCA: Tom Mintel is vice president of research and development in Colgate's Global Toothbrush Division. He's not at all surprised there were so many toothbrush patents issued this year. Brushing isn't like floor polishing. The areas needing cleaning in the mouth have different shapes, some are hard, some are soft.

Mintel says one solution Colgate is pursuing is making toothbrushes smarter. The company just released an electric toothbrush in the United Kingdom that has sensors in the handle that tell the toothbrush where it is in the mouth.

MINTEL: And so instead of expecting consumers to switch between different speeds depending upon what surface they're brushing, this brush does it automatically.

PALCA: Corporate giants aren't the only ones trying to build a better toothbrush. Michael Davidson is a dental hygienist in a suburb of Houston, Texas. He says most new toothbrushes are designed to look sexy with their fancy handle and flashy colored bristles.

MICHAEL DAVIDSON: I haven't really seen one that addresses, you know, how the user is using a brush in regards to the more effective brushing techniques.

PALCA: Davidson says the most effective technique requires holding the brush so the bristles are tilted at approximately a 45 degree angle down toward the gums.

DAVIDSON: So I just kind of sat down one day and said, you know, if I were going to design a really, really good toothbrush, how would I do it?

PALCA: He figured instead of trying to teach people to tilt their hands to the right angle as they held the brush, he tilted the bristles to the correct angle; that way all the brusher had to do was go back and forth.

DAVIDSON: It was idiot proof.


DAVIDSON: I guess that would be the best way to say it.

PALCA: Davidson hopes to bring his toothbrush to the market by next June.

Joshua Atkin was spurred to his invention for a different reason. Today, Atkin is a dentist in Dayton, Ohio, but before entering the oral care world, he worked as a jazz saxophone player.

DR. JOSHUA ATKIN: I traveled a lot, and one of the most frequent things I would forget would be a toothbrush.

PALCA: So Atkin invented a disposable, all-in-on toothbrush. It has a hollow handle that dispenses dried toothpaste pellets.

ATKIN: You put them on the brush head, run them under water, and then you have, you know, a flavored toothpaste.

PALCA: It's probably safe to say that very few school children grow up dreaming of becoming a toothbrush inventor. Colgate's Tom Mintel certainly didn't.

MINTEL: But I have to say it's really been amazing to work on something that looks so simple, really is a heck of a lot more complex than I think you would give it credit for at first glance, and is something that touches everybody.

PALCA: I guess when you put it that way, it sounds like a pretty noble calling.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.


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