Today, a parable about the way we use invention.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
What do you cook in your
microwave oven? What kind of watch do you wear on
your wrist? How well do you know the buttons on
your VCR and the features in your word-processor?
The inventive muse offers up a great banquet of
ideas. Most die before they ever get to market.
Some get into stores, only to fail when we don't
buy them. Then there are inventions we buy and lay
Take the digital watch: most of us have owned or
still own one. But walk into any room full of
people and count the digital watches. You'll find,
maybe, ten percent. The circular analog watch has
built itself into our metaphorical substrate, and
it will not be replaced.
The technology of cooking is even closer to our
hearts than timekeeping. Microwave ovens took
America by storm in the 1980s. Now eight out of
nine households have one. Yet, last week's
New York Times reports quite another
side to the microwave story.
How do we use our microwaves? I use it to pop
popcorn, reheat coffee, or to warm up lunch. My
wife, more confident in the face of new technology,
says, "It also does what double boilers do, but
you've got to learn the variable power settings."
And so you must. But even then, you're far from any
full spectrum of cooking. The microwave has proven
useless for baking pastries. It turns steak into
shoe leather. The microwave acts on the water in
food -- brings it to a boil and then cooks food at
a uniform 212 F. Don't ever try to hard-boil an egg
in a microwave. The shell is a sealed container.
In 1988, food companies offered almost a thousand
special microwaveable foods. The 1981 Betty
Crocker Microwave Cookbook was a
best-seller. Today, fewer than half those special
foods survive, and the 1991 revision of the book
did poorly. Today, you still have a microwave oven,
but it sits off to the side -- with your electric
can opener and your toaster. You do your real
cooking on the stove and in a conventional oven.
Microwave oven defenders point out wonderful things
it can do if we just learn the moves. Well, so can
our VCRs and word processors. But the microwave
oven is a second-class citizen in today's kitchen.
Habit is a strange thing. Mark Twain once wrote,
. . . the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid
. . . will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again
-- and that is well; but also she will never sit
down on a cold one anymore.
Sure, we could do more with the microwave. But
having exploded an egg, melted a gilt-edged dish,
or ruined a steak, we're like the cat who sat on a
hot stove-lid. We go back to familiar things: the
old oven and the stove. They, after all, define the
home. They remind us who we are and where we have
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds