A gallon of water weighs eight pounds, five and a half ounces. Once a week, I fill the poultry waterer in my chicken coop. The waterer holds five gallons. The coop is 200 hundred yards (one “stink distance” away) from my house. The chicken coop does not have running water.
Therefore, every Saturday morning I fill a five-gallon water can, hoist the 41 and a half pounds, and carry it…
Like hell I carry it. I put the five-gallon can in my tractor bucket and drive 200 yards to the chicken coop.
The most important innovations are things you don’t notice that are right under your nose. Or right up your nose – as I found out while filling the water can from the garden hose when the water stopped running. And I looked down into the nozzle as my 13-year-old son was standing behind me kinking the hose.
Ready availability of water is an astounding innovation. And we take it for granted. Actually, the way we regard water is worse than taking it for granted. Recall the national hullabaloo when icky stuff started to come out of the faucets in Flint, Michigan. We regard the ready availability of water – clean, pure water – as an inalienable human right.
It’s no such thing. Water doesn’t come from the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution. Water comes from smart thinking and hard work.
As far as archaeologists can determine, humans didn’t even begin to dig wells until around 6500 B.C. If you didn’t live right next to the river, just getting the day’s drinking and cooking water meant a big backache. Or a big headache if you were balancing the water jug on your head.
The Indus Valley Civilization created the earliest public water supply system only about 4,000 years ago. Water was piped directly into houses – that is, into the houses of Indus Valley Civilization bigwigs. If you were an Indus Valley Civilization civilian, at least you had the town pump.
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Appreciating innovations that go unnoticed in daily life is something I’m sure older readers of American Consequences can relate to. I’m old myself. Being old gives us a lens into the past and makes us thankful that the past is past.
We’ve used outhouses. For younger readers unaccustomed to the privy, bog, dunny, or “house of ease,” imagine a port-a-potty that hasn’t been emptied in years, where the roof leaks, and you sit on a splintery wooden board with a couple of holes cut in it, and the Charmin is a corn cob.
My parents were old, too. My father would be 110 if he were alive. His father was born in 1877. My mother’s mother was born in 1887. According to a Department of Energy study, as late as 1920 only 1% of American houses had indoor plumbing and electricity. (Back when being part of “The 1%” really meant something.)
There was, maybe, a cold tap from a cistern on the remote farms where my grandparents grew up. You reached these remote farms by way of long roads that were in turn muddy, dusty, and buried in snowdrifts.
But at least they had roads.
We complain about our roads all the time – traffic is horrible, potholes are huge. But we don’t stop to think (well, we do stop, but we don’t think) about what an incredible innovation it is to have roads at all.
My grandmother used to tell stories about her family’s innocent hayseed hired girl who was shocked by the idea of a bathtub. The hired girl said, “But a ‘lady’ never gets all the way undressed! She pulls up her skirt and washes her legs and pulls down her shirtfront and washes her neck.”
I asked my grandmother, “Where’d the hired girl come from?”
Grandma said, “Way out in the country.”
I said, “I’ve been to the farm. It is way out in the country.”
Grandma said, “No, I mean way out in the country past the roads.”
And this was in Illinois, not frontier Oklahoma.
The Persian Empire under Darius the Great had great roads. (His nickname wasn’t mere flattery.) Roman roads were so good that some are still in use, such as the Via Appia from Rome to Brindisi. Although it wasn’t so choked with Fiats during the reign of the Emperor Trajan.
Roads aren’t exactly an innovation, but they are a re-innovation. During the Middle Ages, people forgot how to make a road.
How do you forget how to make a road? Beats me. It’s only half as hard as making water available – no smart thinking required, just hard work. You put down big stones, cover them with smaller stones, cover these with little-bitty stones, dig drainage ditches and… Road trip to Brindisi!
But people managed to forget anyway. Or they got confused and began to think, “You put down big cow flops, cover them with smaller horse apples, and cover these with little-bitty sheep and goat pellets.”
I have just described roads all over the world until the late 18th century.
The “improved roads” built for the next hundred years were, in fact, not much of improvement on Roman roads. We’d call these roads “off-road” and put our SUVs into 4WD. In 1900, pavement of any kind was limited to city streets… The U.S. had just 10 miles of paved country roads.
We now have more than 4 million miles of paved roads. Next time you’re stopped in traffic, think grateful thoughts about how you’re not stalled in sheep, goat, horse, and cow manure.
Of course people aren’t the only things that need transporting. So does oil, gas, and electricity. Here’s another part of our infrastructure that, like roads, we don’t think much about. Or don’t think much about until the oil spills, the gas line blows up, and the electricity goes out. Then we get furious at the people trying to supply us with the things we want, even though we want so much of those things that leaks, explosions, and power outages are inevitable.
Yet if the people trying to supply us with oil, gas, and electricity try even harder and want to build more pipelines and high-voltage transmission towers we get really furious, scream “NIMBY!,” and start blogging on
the Internet about how the things we want cause cancer.
And maybe they do. But do we want to be treated for cancer in a hospital without lights, heat, or air-conditioning?
The part of the taken-for-granted infrastructure that fascinates me most is the electrical grid. So many people think phone poles and power lines are unsightly. News for you folks, in the dark everything is “unsightly.”
Don’t bury the power lines, lift them up on high, to remind us of our blessings.
Chief among which is the washing machine, an innovation that’s surprisingly new. Electric washing machines began to be manufactured in the 1920s, but the modern “automatic washing machine” made by the Bendix Corporation, wasn’t introduced until 1937. And we had to wait a year for those clothes to dry before Hamilton Manufacturing began to sell electric and gas dryers in 1938.
And early washers and dryers cost like sin. Or, I should say, they cost like washing (and drying) away the stains of sin.
When my parents got married in 1946, my grandfather gave them a washer and dryer as a very unromantic wedding present. Unromantic, but not unwelcome. The pair of appliances cost about $500… or $6,725 in 2017 dollars.
Hand-washing clothes is like hand-washing a car – if you had to pick the car up and put it in a giant bucket and rub it up and down on an immense washboard until its fenders, doors, roof, grille, and trunk lid were fresh and clean. And if you had a whole used-car lot of dirty cars to wash every Monday.
Drying clothes on a clothesline is as bad… and, in the winter, worse. You can’t towel-off… a towel. And a laundry basket full of wet sheets weighs as much as my poultry waterer. If I had to drag soaked and dripping bed linen from the laundry sink to the backyard clothesline, I’d be running my tractor up and down the basement stairs.
The first self-contained electric refrigerator was produced by Frigidaire in 1923. Before that, if you wanted a burger you had to cook the whole cow. And, with no place to store the leftovers, you had to eat the whole cow, too.
And yet it’s people now, not people back in the 1920s, who have an obesity problem.
This may have had something to do with the old-timers’ hard labor washing and drying their clothes.
Not to mention ironing them. I tried it – once – when I was a bachelor. The ironing wasn’t so hard, but it was a lot of work putting out the shirt fire.
Alert readers will notice that many of my examples of under-appreciated innovations concern what was traditionally considered women’s work in less-enlightened times. And by “less-enlightened times” I mean right now, when women are still doing almost all of that work.
(Power tools, by comparison, are over-appreciated innovations. Try cooking, cleaning, washing, drying, and ironing with my table saw.)
Women are, as women know, under-appreciated.
The greatest innovation ever, for all time, took place 1.2 billion years ago among unicellular eukaryotic organisms in the Proterozoic Eon.
Never heard of any of that stuff? Me either. I had to look it up because I’m a typical under-appreciative man. The best innovations get no respect. The Proterozoic Eon was when sexual reproduction first occurred.
Unicellular eukaryotic organisms invented women.