Five Essential Inventions For A Tolerable Quarantine

We’ve been self-isolating for more than three weeks now, and while many people are complaining about being cooped up for so long, I think it’s important to recognize those things that have made our collective bout with quarantine more tolerable.  I’ve come up with a list of five things that I think have been essential, listed in reverse order of their first invention.  Two of them are about as old as civilization, interestingly.

  1.  Alcohol — Where would we be without wine, beer, and other adult beverages?  At the end of a hard day of working at home, a glass of wine or a cold tumbler of suds sure make the graphs showing how curves can be flattened and the news about ventilator production go down a bit easier.  Liquor sales spiked after the shutdown was announced, and it quickly became clear that Americans put alcohol on the same exalted level as toilet paper when it comes to being absolutely certain of having a more than ample supply.  As somebody said, it’s not clear that people are drinking more during the work-at-home period, but they’re sure not drinking any less, either.  As for the invention of adult beverages, humans have made both wine and beer for so long that their dates of creation have been lost in the mists of time.  Scientists recently discovered earthenware jars containing wine residue that indicated humans were guzzling fermented grape juice more than 8,000 years ago, and beer is the subject of the oldest recorded recipe in the world — instructions that were found on ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls that date back to 5,000 B.C. 
  2. Soap — You’ve got to give people something to do during a pandemic to make them feel like they are pitching in, and for Americans the instructions are clear:  wash your hands, thoroughly and repeatedly.   As soon as we get back from our allotted exercise walks we head dutifully to the sink for our required 20-second bout with lathering, scrubbing, and rinsing.  It may not sound like much, but those constant 20-second scrubbings add up and help to pass the slow-moving quarantine time, and they make us feel good about doing our part.  Soap also dates back thousands of years, with historians believing that the Babylonians invented the first soap, made from fats boiled with ashes, about 5,000 years ago.
  3. Canned food and crock pots — It’s probably safe to say that people are cooking more at home than they’ve done in the last 50 years, and because there’s an interest in trying to minimize trips to the grocery store, people are trying to stretch their food stores and leftovers farther than ever before.  That’s where canned food and crock pots really strut their stuff.  In fact, I think it is safe to say that no single device is more adept at converting aging leftovers into tasty meals than the crock pot.  Whether it’s stews made of random items hauled from the cupboard, or last night’s chili made with leftover meat loaf, leftover sausage, a can of black beans, some chopped onions, and liberal doses of Texas Pete’s hot sauce and sriracha sauce, our crock pot has been a high-producing kitchen item during the last few weeks.  The smells coming from the crock pot also help to make the quarantine household a happy place, too.  Canned foods were first invented more than 200 years ago, and the first slow cookers — the precursors to the crock pot, which was first call the “bean pot” — were invented about 80 years ago
  4. PCs — Where would we be without personal computers and laptops?  For many of us, they are the one, essential device that allows us to work from home, and without them the unemployment statistics in America would be much, much worse.  They also allow us to get the latest news with a few touches of keyboard buttons, and to catch up on our friends and check out the latest coronavirus memes and political rants on social media websites.  The laptop PC is the fulcrum that has moved the working world, and the COVID-19 quarantine is the singular event that will probably change our approach to how people work and do business, forever.  The first personal computer — the Altair 8800 — was invented in 1975, and the first laptop — which weighed more than 30 pounds, incidentally — was released in 1981.
  5. Netflix and other streaming services — One very popular topic among friends on social media these days is swapping information about nightly viewing options.  Everybody’s got an opinion, because we’re all watching a lot of TV during this shut-in period, and we’re running through viewing options faster than ever before.  (The ten episodes of season three of Ozark, for example, flew by far too quickly.)  Netflix and other streaming services allow us to pick from an enormous array or TV shows and movies, old and new, and then advise our friends on whether options like Tiger King or Messiah are worth checking out.  What would we do without constant entertainment?  Netflix first started streaming content in 2007 — just in the nick of time, relatively speaking.

So there you have it — millennia of human invention and creativity, all combining to make the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 a bit more tolerable for American shut-ins.  Thanks to the ancient winemakers, the Egyptians and Babylonians, and the techno-geeks and food canners.  We owe you a great debt of gratitude.

And now, it’s time to check out a few websites and think about what we’ll be making for dinner tonight.

Where Would We Be Without Willis?

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As we deal with another day of sweltering heat in the Midwest, let’s all acknowledge the huge debt we owe to Willis Carrier — the guy who invented air conditioning.  Where would we be without Willis and his life-changing invention?

Interestingly, Willis Carrier did not invent air conditioning to increase human comfort on scorching summer days.  Instead, he came up with his invention, in 1902, to try to deal with the problems heat and humidity were causing for a Brooklyn printing business.  It was so hot and humid during the summer months in the printing plant that the ink would not adhere to the paper, so Willis came up with the idea of moving air over cooled coils to lower the temperature and the humidity so the printers could function.  The decreased temperature in the no-doubt sweltering area near the printing presses was just a pleasant by-product of the invention.

Willis’ invention caught on and air conditioning was implemented in many businesses, but it would be decades before air conditioning became common in American homes.   The first two houses I remember living in didn’t have central air conditioning.  But now, 117 years after Willis Carrier was touched by a stroke of genius, central air conditioning is commonplace, and it’s really hard to imagine life without it.

Thank you, Willis Carrier!

Father Of The Mouse

Most of us use one just about every day.  We roll it along the surface to guide that little arrow around the screen.  It’s how we point and click, edit our work, and drag and drop.

It’s the mouse, of course.  We take it for granted, but it didn’t always exist.  It had to be invented, just like every other manufactured item that has become an accepted part of our everyday lives.

In the case of the mouse, the inventor was Douglas Engelbart, who died this week.  He filed for a patent for the mouse in 1967 — describing it as a device that allowed the user to alternate visual displays at selected locations — and received one in 1970.

The early mouse was a clunky wooden object with two wheels, three buttons, and a cord coming out the back like a mouse’s tail.  After the patent was granted, other companies began experimenting with Engelbart’s invention, and by the 1980s the mouse had become an accepted part of every home computer kit sold at technology stores.  In the process, the design was modified and the bulky wooden mouse morphed into the sleek plastic item that conforms comfortably to our hands and that we now use without a second thought.

Engelbart’s colleagues considered him a visionary.  He also came up with far-sighted concepts concerning computer networking, digital collaboration, and video teleconferencing that the computer types consider to be even more significant than the mouse.

They may be right, technologically, but from a social standpoint it would be hard to top the impact of the humble mouse, which helped make computers accessible and usable for bloggers, and Facebookers, and other average folks like us.  We thank you for that profound contribution, Mr. Engelbart, and we will remember you.

The Inventor Who Changed Everything — And His Invention

Eugene Polley, 96, died on Sunday.  Few Americans recognize his name, although virtually every American uses his invention on a daily — in some cases, hourly, or even more distressingly frequent — basis.

Polley held 18 U.S. patents, but his crown jewel was the wireless TV remote controller.  In 1955 he invented the Flash-Matic, a gun-shaped, battery-powered device that changed the channel and turned the TV on and off through use of light signals — and the infernal “clicker” was born.  The Flash-Matic was eventually replaced by sonic, infrared, and radio frequency devices, but Polley’s device set the nation firmly on the road to a land where Americans planted their ever-expanding keisters on their sofas and watched TV for hours where their only exercise was the twitch of the thumb muscle needed to change the channel.  He even won an Emmy for his impact on television.

Consider the social consequences of the wireless TV remote controller.  Not only has it served as a crucial enabling device for an increasingly overweight and lethargic population, it has also been the cause of countless family squabbles.  How many wives have been brought to the boiling point by thoughtless husbands who annoyingly change channels repeatedly during commercial breaks — never spending more than a millisecond on the latest showing of  The Shawshank Redemption, which for some reason is always being aired, or any other program as they zip through the dozens of channels offered by modern cable television services?  How many brothers and sisters have fought over control of the clicker, and therefore whether the family watched Glee or Jackass?  And how has the remote controller affected the brains, and shrinking, gnat-like attention spans, of children who have grown up with their thumb on the remote?

Few people can claim to have had such a profound impact on the social conditions of the world around them.  Eugene Polley, R.I.P.