Big Changes Little Noted

I was born in 1942.  A lot has changed since April of that year.  I know I’ve changed: I’ve changed from a little baby boy to a little old man.  We, not me personally,  have been into space and even gone to the moon.  We have satellites that greatly enhance communication and the understanding of our world.   Computers are everywhere.  One could go on listing the accomplishments of Man in the last 69 years and not run out of examples.  In spite of how impressive these accomplishments may have been, they are not the ones that impress me.

Most of you probably don’t even notice the white line of paint down the edge of our highways.  As you may have suspected,  it’s there so that one can see the edge of the highway at night.   Concrete roads, because of their lightness of color, probably really don’t need the marked edge, but blacktop roads definitely need them.  In my youth, traveling down blacktop roads without shoulders, also relatively new and now common, at a high rate of speed was a pretty questionable undertaking: where the roadside ended and the unknown began was pretty much a guessing game.  Who knows how many lives this simple white line of paint has saved through the years.  James V. Musick is the fellow we need to thank for this innovation.  He started working for the city of Columbus, Ohio, in the 1950s.  He had just started the job when drivers kept crashing on an S-curve in Columbus. “I started looking at the accident history, and I said, ‘Let's put down a big, wide white line.’ It did wonders.  It reduced accidents."  Later, while working for the state highway department, he conducted the studies that would persuade the Federal Highway Administration to require edge lines on all U.S. highways.

The first practical remote came along in 1950, but it wasn’t wireless: it was connected by bulky wires which caused the inevitable accidents.  Then there was the ultrasonic remote control, first introduced by Zenith in 1956,  which used four lightweight aluminum rods that emitted high-frequency sound when struck at one end.  This increased the price of a television by 30 percent, and it drove dogs nuts.  One version of the remote basically used a flashlight to control the TV: not a big surprise, it didn’t work well in daylight situations.  Thank God for the invention of the transistor which made the infrared devices possible in the early 1980s.  We went from small black and white TVs to large black and white TVs, from small color TVs to large color TVs, from expensive digital TVs to inexpensive digital TVs.  Each step was a step forward and a pleasure for all, but none of these advances compare to the development of a practical and versatile remote control.  They are now used to control our televisions, our sound systems, our ceiling fans, our car door locks, etc., but back in the 50’s we had to change the channels the old fashioned way: dare I say it--manually?   Ah, the clunking sound was very attractive.  The remote control is everywhere now, but not when I was a youngster. 

The first ballpoint pen was patented by an American leather tanner, John Loud.  From the beginning, the major problem was the ink.  In 1935 the Biro brothers of Hungary, who ended up in Argentina, invented an improved version.  All the early pens depended on gravity, but the Biro brothers developed  a pen that used capillary action.  American flyers who were in Argentina during WWII discovered the capillary pen which could be used in flight and did not have to be refilled frequently.  Eberhard Faber paid the Biro brothers a half million dollars for the rights to the Biro pen which they later sold to the Eversharp Company.  The first US manufacturer of the ballpoint pen was Milton Reynolds.  A fellow named Seech came up with a better ink formula in 1949, and Patrick Frawley bought the formula and Papermate was born.  The French brothers Biro developed  the “Ballpoint Bic” which was introduced in 1952.   Today ballpoints are throwaways.  They are given little respect, but I notice few people still use fountain pens.  In 1942 very few people had even heard of a ballpoint pen.  When I was in elementary school, our desks were equipped with holes for bottles of ink,  and we wrote with fountain pens that we had to repeatedly dip in ink for a refill.  When I was in the third grade, the kid in front of me stabbed me with with one of the sharp little instruments.  This could be the reason I list the ballpoint pen as a little noted but significant development.

Medicine has advanced mightily since 1942.  Hell, it wasn’t until the early Forties that penicillin began to be used to heal.  When I was growing up, there was nothing to do for a cold except endure it and let it run its course.  Today there is a cure for a cold: zinc lozenges can reduce the average duration of cold symptoms in half.  Like many useful discoveries, the discovery of zinc as a cure for the common cold was accidental.  In 1979 George Eby’s 3-year old daughter, Karen, who had leukemia was given zinc gluconate dietary supplement tablets.  George realized a few hours later that the diet supplement had cured her cold.  After many clinical trials, the “Cure for the Common Cold” patent was issued in 1995.  I’m still amazed by how many people are unaware of this miracle.

When I first started driving, tires were awful.  They required rubber tubes, they wore out quickly, and they blew out often.  Americans, being a resourceful lot, put up with this crap many years after the radial tire had become common in Europe.  Michelin, a French company, introduced the radial in 1946.  It reached our shores in 1965 offered by the B. F. Goodrich company. I was one of many who were more than a little unhappy with the US tire manufacturers who were holding back this little secret. 

What about the stainless steel razor blade?  When I first came to shaving, the “safety” razor was the standard; it was safer than the old straight razor, a horror I didn’t have to endure.  The safety razor, as I knew it, used a steel blade that one unwrapped, placed in a slot, and tightened down with a screw.  For the sake of your face, you’d better hope you tightened the blade down properly; for if you didn’t, the blood would surely flow.  The main problem was the blade: it wasn’t stainless steel.  It rusted almost as soon as it met water; it left stains wherever it sat; it lasted briefly.  Gillette, the king of the razor blade, patented a stainless steel blade but never produced it until they heard the cry, “The British are coming!” in 1965.  The Wilkinson company, a British company which had been producing the stainless steel blade for the British and European markets, invaded America.  Gillette soon followed with their own version of  the stainless steel blade.  Thanks a lot, Gillette.  Of course there have been other improvements in the safety razor: disposable blade cartridges, multiblade razors, disposable razors, and other aesthetic and functional changes.  But the most important development in shaving was the introduction of stainless steel to the shaving process.  Thanks, Wilkinson.

Although I’m a big advocate of ciphering and doing simple sums in one’s head, the pocket calculator, which no one seems to respect now, was a wonder of the early 70’s.  It all started with the abacus in Ninth Century China; it moved on to Blaise Pascal in Seventeenth Century France with the first machine that could add and subtract; and finally the commercially successful machines that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide in the late Nineteenth Century.  Texas Instruments invented in 1966 and patented in 1974 the hand-held calculator.  The sliderule, yeah, they really existed and were pretty common, was immediately on a downhill slide to the graveyard.  The first handhelds were marketed for between $200 and $400.  Now you can pick one up for a couple of bucks in the checkout line at the grocery store.

Does it get hot in the South; does a bear crap in the woods?  You betcha.  When I was born, if it was hot outdoors, folks were hot indoors.  No relief other than fans: hand fans, oscillating fans, ceiling fans, attic fans, window fans.  Moving air made it seem cooler and helped evaporate the sweat.  Then along came Willis Carrier with his “rational psychrometric formulae” and the rest was history.  By the 1930s, department stores, banks, restaurants, and hotels in the South began to be air-conditioned.  Movie theatres were just about the first buildings air-conditioned.    For most in the South, the movie theatre was a double bonus: entertainment and relief from the heat.    Folks would go see a bad movie just to cool off.    The Great Depression and WWII slowed the progress of air-conditioning, but it bounced back big time after the war.  1947 was the first mass produced, low cost window air conditioners.  In the 1950s, cooled air began marching across the South with inexpensive window units.  We loved the noisy, dripping, metal boxes hanging from the sides of our houses.  Today 90 percent of the South is air-conditioned.  In the 60s, more people migrated into the South rather than out.  We all knew the South would rise again, but we never suspected it would be on the wings of air-conditioning. 

Body odor is caused by bacterial breakdown of perspiration.  Each morning most of us now apply either a deodorant, which prevents bacterial growth, or an antiperspirant, which prevents sweating.    The first commercial deodorant was Mum which was patented in late Nineteenth Century by an unknown inventor in Philadelphia, but the public generally was unaware of the product.  Jules Montenier in 1941 patented the first antiperspirant, Stopette.  Again, it took a while for it to catch on.  In the late 50s and early 60s, sprays, creams, and roll-on forms became part of our daily rituals.  What did we do before these products?  The easy answer is that we stunk.  It wasn’t because of a lack of effort: perfumes for women, colognes for men.  Nosegays, another effort to mask the odor, were a little before my time.  If you were a rural resident in the 40s, you probably didn’t bathe as often as we do today. I remember carrying buckets of water to a metal tub in order to bathe and thus the popular “Saturday bath.”    Does anyone want to go back to pre-deodorant days? 

A man on the moon, yeah, impressive, but edges of roads clearly marked, efficient remote controls, the ballpoint pen, a cure for the common cold, radial tires, stainless steel blades,  handheld calculators, airconditioning, and deodorants are miracles we should not take lightly.  I know I don’t.


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