Today, our guest, Rob Zaretsky, sees through the rain.
The University of Houston presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Robert Kearns died recently. Appropriately, I learned
about his death as I was driving home in a light rain. An engineer, Kearns
invented the intermittent wiper -- the very object I was fiddling with as I
listened to the radio. Perhaps it would have been the same, I thought, to
read in moveable type that Gutenberg had died. Or hear about Marconi's death
over the crackle of the radio. I then realized that, yes, the medium is the
message, but also that the message is in the medium.
Gutenberg, Marconi ... Kearns? The discordance comes from the magnitude of the
invention. Printing presses and radios are first-tier inventions -- creations
with a seismic impact upon human history. Life before such inventions is hard
to bridge, if only in our imaginations. The effort to do so leaves us in the
predicament of Gary Larson's suburban family, sitting in a half circle. All
their eyes are focused on an empty space where the set would've stood. The caption?
"Life before the television."
But there are the second and third tiers of human ingenuity, piled high with disposable
razors, electric toothbrushes, dimmer switches, Velcro ... . Revolutionary advances?
Well, they are hardly reason to sneer. Our lives are not utterly transformed by
such inventions, but they are tweaked. We rightly value these small steps in
easing our lives, just as we value their human scale. I don't slap my forehead
when I read about the grand inventions of Fulton or Edison. Yet the intermittent
wiper: well, why didn't I think of that?!
These are small nuggets of invention, modest but honest in their contributions to our
well being. They also contain an equally modest element of irony. Consider the snooze
button. Basically the intermittent wiper of alarm clocks, it has made our transition
from bed to bathroom less brutal. But sleep researchers tell us that the snooze button
has also made for less rest. The daily-repeated, and willed, interruption of sleep
has turned us into a nation of narcoleptics.
As I drove in the rain, I heard the same ironic patter. The greater degree of control
over the wiper's timing forced me to spend more time, not less, worrying about the rain.
The more closely I tried to synchronize the wipers with the rain, the more elusive grew
the goal of perfect synchronicity. Kearn's invention held the promise of this oneness
when my wipers, nature, and I would seamlessly mesh. Then raindrops would truly be
falling on my head.
But the epiphany never arrived. My experience resembled Zeno's paradox of the arrow.
This Greek thinker claimed that an arrow could never reach its target since the distance
between the two can be halved and halved again infinitely.
In a similar manner, the closer I got to a perfectly wiped windshield, the further the
goal appeared. If I had not been so tired from abusing my snooze button that morning,
my frustration would perhaps have been less.
I'm Rob Zaretsky at the Honors College, University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College,
and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages.
This site gives
Robert Kearns obituary.
(photo by John Lienhard)
A variety of Art Deco style commonplace appliances.
(Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, photo by John Lienhard)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.