Thank Goodness for Retractable Cords, Right?

retractable cord, extension cord	retractable cord, extension cord
Retractables, like this retractable USB cord, work by using ratchets to lock excess cord into place in a storage space. Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 3.0)

We live in a world of endless cords and cables these days and, as anybody who's hooked up a computer can relate, before you know it, you can find yourself tangled up in an unruly jumble of electronic mess.

In an effort to prevent that problem, numerous modern gadgets — everything from steam irons and hair dryers to USB chargers for portable electronics — are equipped with retractable cords. They work on a pair of rotatable wheels inside a storage space that houses the entire length of the cord. When a user pulls the cord, extending it, the ratchets lock automatically, preventing the cord from rolling back up into its original storage position. A snap of the wrist or the press of a button will disengage the ratchets, unlocking them and allowing the cord to retract back into place.

You might think that retractable cords are a contemporary convenience, but actually, the term shows up in U.S. Patent Office documents going back to the early 1900s. For example, here's a patent awarded in 1939 for a vacuum cleaner handle, which is equipped with a grip that allows the user to control how much of the sweeper's electrical cord is wound back by the spring-operated drum inside it. This patent awarded in 1971 covers an electrical cord retracting mechanism.

Retractable cords have other uses besides electronics. The International Space Station attaches an 85-foot-long steel retractable cable to any astronaut who ventures outside on a spacewalk.