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Mourning the passing of the humble sugar cube...

I couldn't let this moment pass without celebrating the invention and mourning the demise of the sugar cube, and highlighting its largely unrecognised legacy within the field of engineering. The sugar cube was invented in 1841 by Swiss-born Czech entrepreneur Jakub Rad at the sugar refinery in Moravia where he was director. At the time sugar was moulded and sold in large (8-12in) cones, sometimes called a sugar loaf. Once in the home, people would cut off the required amount of sugar for a given need from the cone. Rad, though, in 1841 conceived the easier-to-handle cube and developed the machinery to make it. The story goes that his wife, Julia Radova, one day cut her finger sawing off a chunk of sugar from a cone, and complained to her husband, asking why sugar couldn't be available pre-cut. Rad took the suggestion on board and in the autumn of 1841 presented his wife with a packet of 350 white and pink sugar cubes.

Two years later, Rad patented his idea, and began selling his sugar cubes in local stores. Global success followed, but sugar cubes were not available in England until 1875, following German inventor Eugen Langen's patenting of his own method for making them. The rights to use the process were purchased by Henry Tate in 1877, who then 15 years later acquired the exclusive manufacturing rights in Britain for a superior cube-making process patented by Gustav Adant of Brussels. A hundred years on, the sugar cube remained the primary sweetener in cafés across the country, and I for one distinctly remember the sugar cube as being the delivery medium for the polio vaccine. But the world order has changed, and today the sachet rules the roost, threatening to confine the cube to little more than a footnote in history.

Now perhaps you'll say that this really doesn't matter, and that sachets of sugar are far more convenient. But the importance of the sugar cube goes well beyond sweetening your favoured hot beverage. The sugar cube is so entrenched in our culture and our psyche that without it a whole frame of reference simply falls apart. Earlier this year scientists at IBM said pioneering research efforts could shrink the world's most powerful supercomputer processors to the size of a sugar cube. Separately, I read a debate that reckoned if a lump of neutron star the size of a sugar cube hit the earth then it would trigger a mass extinction event. In 2006 the BBC reported on a projector the size of a sugar cube - a real work of miniaturisation - created by researchers in Germany. I could cite numerous other examples. Where would we be in all these cases and more if we had to explain that we were talking about something that measured approximately 1cm by 1cm by 1cm? Suddenly, all the drama disappears out of it.

So I, for one, mourn the passing of the sugar cube. For it must surely be rare that a product, even after it has disappeared from our culture, is still referenced as a vital visual identifier. Surely that sort of cult status is what all of us as designers are ultimately aiming for.

Mark Simms, 8 July 2011

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