Tadpole's Outdoor Blog

November 17, 2013


Filed under: Neal Murphy — Freddie Keel @ 6:09 am

I was watching a TV program last week which was identifying the top one hundred inventions in all of human civilization.  Among the top items was the hair comb.  I did a double-take – the lowly comb?  Who would have guessed it?  So, that prompted me to do some research on the matter.

We all know what a comb is, what it looks like, and its intended use.  Back in my day all the guys had a small comb in their shirt pocket to quickly smooth out their hair should a pretty girl approach.  I, too, carried one as I had a lot more hair back in high school.  Being a beautician, my mother used all kind of combs in her work.  She had long ones, short ones, fat ones, some with long teeth, others with short teeth, each with a specific use.


Historians tell us that combs are among the oldest tools found by archaeologists, having been discovered in very refined forms from settlements dating back to 5,000 years ago in Persia.  This is to say that the comb has always been among the most important tools of human civilization.

Combs have been made out of a number of materials, most commonly plastic, metal, cotton material, or wood.  Combs made from ivory and tortoiseshell were once common, but concerns for the animals that produce them have reduced their usage. When made from wood, combs are largely made of boxwood, cherry word, or other fine-grained wood.  Good quality wooden combs are usually handmade and highly polished.


Surprisingly, combs can be used for many purposes.  Historically, their main purpose was securing long hair, matting sections of hair for locking, or keeping a skullcap in place.

The cotton gin is actually a mechanized version of the comb and is one of the machines which ushered the Industrial Revolution.  The cotton gin was used in separating cotton fibers from seeds and other debris.

Combs are also a favorite spot for police investigators to collect hair and dandruff samples that can be used in ascertaining dead or living persons’ identity, as well as their state of health, toxicological profiles, and so forth.

The lowly comb was the inspiration of the kazoo.  I am sure that most of you at one time took a small piece of paper, or a leaf, and placed it over one side of the comb and hummed a tune.  The comb dramatically increases the high-frequency harmonic content of the hum produced by the human voice box.  The kazoo developed from this activity.

Moreover, the comb is also a lamellophone.  Comb teeth have harmonic qualities of their own, determined by their shape, length, and material.  A comb with teeth of unequal length, capable of producing different notes when picked, eventually evolved into the thumb piano and musical box.

Finally, in recent years more specialized combs have been developed such as “flea combs” or “nit combs” which are used to remove microscopic parasites from the hair and scalp.  A comb with teeth fine enough to remove nits, or lice eggs, is sometimes called a “fine-toothed comb.  This produced the metaphoric usage of the phrase “go over something with a fine-toothed comb”.

Sharing combs is a common cause of head lice infections, as one user can leave a comb with plenty of eggs, or even live parasites and transmit them to another user.  Therefore, combs should never be shared with other people.

So, here you can understand why the comb has played such an important role in the civilized world.  Those of you who still use combs should think of its history the next time you treat your hair to a “comb-over”.

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