Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1755:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a consumer report. 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.

In 1986, the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a book entitled I'll Buy That. It's arranged in an odd way. It lists fifty technologies that've radically changed the lives of American consumers, and it illustrates each with several examples.

Much of what we see is expected, of course. The Transistor, commercial Air Travel, Hi-Fi, and TV are all obvious major consumer items. But then we realize that the people who put this book together have no interest in prettying up American consumerism. They're interested in seeing which items radically altered the social landscape -- pretty or not.

Once you go down that road, you find much that you might want to forget. Take, for example, the section entitled Standardized Dining. The American fast-food industry is presently under attack for afflicting the young with a high-fat diet. However, the early White Castle chain, then McDonalds and Howard Johnson, provided a vast improvement over the sale of sometimes-lethal cheap food in the old uncontrolled greasy-spoon diners.

And we find a section on Antibiotics. In the section called Suburbia, we see the vast tracts of prefab homes that sprang up after WW-II to house a nation of returning veterans and their new families. Wrinkle your nose at such ticky-tacky if you will, but, like fast foods, this was an affordable answer to a nation's need.

A section on Supermarkets shows how we finally cut the overhead costs, slow service, and waste that went with the corner groceries of the 1930s. The shopping cart, checkout lines, and large refrigerated inventories vastly improved the delivery of food to low-income families. The same case may be built around the sudden explosion of Synthetic Fabrics or Frozen Foods.

There are sections on Tampons and the Birth-Control Pill. The impact of those items on American life is too obvious to dwell on, and they might easily have been overlooked in such an accounting.

Three sections tell how we dealt with the problem of paying for the most expensive consumer items: housing, education, and medical care. By spreading the cost, VA and FHA Mortgages, the GI Bill, and Health Insurance plans radically improved American life.

Other sections deal with certain automobiles, Latex Paint, Smoke Detectors, and Refrigerator/Freezers. We see no concession to style and taste here -- only the raw process of clawing our way out of the cave. Museums of American design go back, after the fact, to celebrate some of the cream that rose to the top: beautiful Eames chairs, Tifanny lamps, and Art Deco radiator ornaments.

But that's after the improvement of the human condition has taken place! What we see here is the crude struggle to extend human life and to improve its quality. There's time enough, once that job is done, to look back and find all the ways we might've done it better.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

I'll Buy That! 50 Small Wonders and Big Deals that Revolutionized the Lives of Consumers: a 50-Year Restrospective by the Editors of Consumer Reports. Mount Vernon: New York: Consumers Union, 1986.

1900 Sears Roebuck Catalog
American getting down to serious consumerism in 1900

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.