Building Materials: Who Invented This Stuff Anyway?

There are some building materials that are so commonplace today that it’s pretty easy to take them for granted.  But, there was a time when the world went without them, until someone dreamed them up for our benefit.  So, what are some of the types of building materials that fall under this category, and who are the visionaries who helped to usher them into our daily lives?

Take a look at these 10 stalwart building materials products, and learn about who invented them, and how.

1. Plywood
One of the major advances in home building in the last couple hundred years is the development of plywood. Invented in Stockholm in the mid 1800s by Swedish engineer Immanuel Nobel, plywood involves gluing various flat sheets of wood together with their grains at right angles for maximum strength. Nobel was the inventor of the rotary lathe that is used in the manufacturing of plywood; therefore, plywood itself is a direct result of one of his previous inventions.

Interestingly enough, the same family to bring you these fine products is the same group that brought us dynamite! Yes, Immanuel’s son Alfred followed in his industrious father’s footsteps and eventually invented dynamite.

2. Skilsaw
The days of sawing things manually ended in 1921, in the sugar cane fields of New Orleans, when Frenchman Edmond Michel fashioned the prototype for the modern skilsaw. Because the workers were simply using machetes to cut through the thick stalks, in an effort to increase efficiency, he affixed a machete to a milk mixer motor and gearbox and invented a rather crude and ineffective version of a circular saw.

In the years to follow he drastically tweaked his design, applied for a patent and ultimately changed the face of modern construction with his innovative line of skilsaws.

3. Duct Tape
Already noted for their adhesive bandages (BAND-AIDS), Johnson & Johnson was asked by the US government during World War II to invent a waterproof, cloth-based tape that could keep the moisture out of the soldier’s ammunition cases. As a part of the war effort, Johnson & Johnson then developed a product in 1942 that they originally called Duck Tape (because of its water repelling properties); however, once the military realized it could be used for literally everything, including the repair of ducts, it then became known as just that, Duct Tape.

Though duct tape is often a last resort when you’re in a construction pinch, there is no denying that many homes are built with blood, sweat and duct tape.

4. Drywall
A crude version of drywall was originally invented in 1916 by the US Gypsum Company. Originally called Sackett Board and then sheetrock, multiple layers of gypsum are compressed and sandwiched between two pieces of heavy paper to form an alternative building material in the place of the time-consuming application of plaster. Although Sackett Board was largely refined in the following years, the construction industry ignored its presence until the majority of the US workforce was shipped off to fight in World War II.

To offset the loss of manpower, drywall then became a staple in construction at that time because it was lighter, quicker to install and much easier to handle by the smaller crews.

5. The Spirit Level
Keeping things level in construction is of obvious importance, thus, leveling tools have been in place throughout the civilizations. The Egyptians are credited with an A-frame apparatus that, when balanced correctly, revealed when a board was level but the modern version of the spirit level (aka the bubble level) was invented in the mid 1600s by a French scientist, Melchisedech Thevenot when he tested his theory – the balancing properties of a single air-bubble in a vial of liquid.

6. The Nail Gun
World War II is responsible for yet another home building invention – the nail gun. Replacing the old-school hammer and nails, John Ollig, Reuben Miller and Marvin Hirsc are the war veteran trio responsible for taking the same concepts they learned from their automatic machine guns and incorporating it into a powerful nail-dispensing tool. Combining electromagnetism, compressed air and propane, they filed for their patent in 1956 and introduced their fancy nail gun into the construction mainstream with great success.

7. The Chalk Line
Much like the spirit level, keeping things flush and plumb in construction is also of obvious importance; however, in this case, there has been very little evolution since 3,000 BC. Yep, Egyptian craftsmen can be credit for the same technology we use today in a basic chalk liner as they invented the method of applying chalk to a string for marking straight lines that were too long for a straightedge ruler.

8. Glass Windows
Humans have built window holes in their dwellings since the dawn of man to create a sense of space and to improve circulation but have you ever wondered who was the first to introduce glass windows and/or windowpanes?  Well, even though the Egyptians are credited with inventing glass for beads, the Romans are credited with using an unrefined and opaque version of the material for windows in their bathhouses as a way to stunt the chilly breezes that would otherwise flow through the rooms.

Further, even though glass windows have been used for thousands of years, Irving W Colburn patented the sheet glass drawing machine in 1902, and triggered the mass production of glass on a worldwide scale.

9. Laminate Flooring
Advancements in technology inevitably brings newer and cheaper trends in home building. That said, the Swedish company Pergo invented laminate flooring in 1977 as a way to enjoy the aesthetic appeal of wood or stone flooring without actually paying the full expense of the raw materials themselves. In the end they found that sandwiching a photographic rendition of the desired material between a durable protective layer and an adhesive layer (for application) was a convincing way to enjoy natural wood floors without paying a premium for the actual materials.

10. Fiberglass Insulation
The concept of insulation is nothing new within home construction, in fact, as far as history can report, civilizations have used mud, grass, animal skins, etc to insulate their homes and minimize the transfer of heat. However, there is a definitive moment when the insulation industry adopted an absolute standard – Russell Games Slayter invented fiberglass insulation in 1897 and construction crews have never looked back – well until recently, as cellulose fiber insulation has  begun to rival fiber glass.

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