The World’s Greatest Inventions
by H.L. Mencken, first published in the New York American, November 26, 1934. Reprinted in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, ed. Terry Teachout (New York: Knopf, 1995), pp. 161-63, under the title “Two Benefactors of Mankind.”
When I was a youngster, in the closing decades of the last century, two horrible plagues afflicted the American people. The first was the plague of flies and the second was that of corns. No one, in those days, knew how to get rid of either. We used to sleep under canopies of netting on Summer nights, but they were worse than useless, for on the one hand they kept out the air, and on the other they were no impediment to flies, which wriggled through their meshes and feasted on our carcasses within. By day these same flies gave their show on our dinner-tables, leaving us with cholera morbus or typhoid fever. On Sunday mornings they performed massively on clergy and laity; on weekends they specialized in pedagogues and pupils. Save in the extreme North their season ran from Easter to Thanksgiving. While they raged, every American spent half his time dodging them, banging away at them, and damning them.
The curse of corns was almost as bad. Every man, woman and child in the country had them. There was no such thing as walking off in comfort in a new pair of shoes. The shoemakers shaped their lasts to rub and hurt, and rub and hurt they did. All through the ’80s they grew narrower and narrower, until in the ’90s the so-called toothpick toe came in, and the whole nation began to limp. Does it seem comic looking back? Then believe me, friends, it was not comic to the sufferers. Every drug-store window was full of corn-cures, but none of them really worked. Corn-doctors practised in every American community, gouging, gashing and spreading streptococci. Desperate men cut off their own toes. Children at play stopped to hop around on one foot, holding the other and yelling.
No one seemed to be able to imagine release from either plague. The flies were looked upon as quite as natural and necessary as the sunshine, and the corns seemed to be as inevitable as death or taxes. Yet they were got rid of in the end, and very easily. In the first case it was the automobile that did the trick. When it drove out the horse, it shut down hundreds of thousands of stables, and with the stables went the flies that bred in them. Simultaneously, some one invented the copper-mesh window-screen, and the tale was told. There had been window-screens in my youth, but they were made of iron wire, and rusted quickly, and the flies got through them. When the plan was tried of painting them — mainly with florid alpine scenes —, it did no good. But then came the copper-mesh screen, and the last fly, staggering in from the livery-stable, gave up the ghost. Today, in any well-regulated American home or hotel, it would be as startling to see one as to see a buzzard.
Who invented the copper-mesh screen I don’t know, but whoever he was, he deserves far better of his country than the inventor of the telephone, which is a boon but also a nuisance, or of the automobile, which is handy in its way but otherwise has taken the place of the sabre-toothed tiger and the wolf. The man who abolished corns remains almost as elusive, but nevertheless he may be tracked down and identified. He was a brigadier-general of the Army Medical Corps, by name Edward Lyman Munson. In 1912 he designed a last that really followed the shape of the human foot, and during the World War it was used in making shoes for the Army. After the war the secular shoemakers began imitating it, and corns began to disappear. A little while longer, and they will be as rare as smallpox. Any shoe-dealer who knows his business can now supply a shoe that makes them next to impossible.
These two inventors — General Munson and the unknown who hit on the copper flyscreen — deserve far more from their country than they have got. They furthered human progress immensely, and without any drawbacks. Every other great invention seems to carry an affliction with it, but not theirs. The automobile kills its thousands, the telephone and the radio drive their thousands frantic, and the electric light has not only made the country bright, but also hideous. But the disappearance of the fly is pure velvet, and so is that of the corn.