Vail Daily column: American innovation
July 25, 2014
A general characteristic of the Model T now generally forgotten is that it was the first motorcar of consequence to put the driver's seat on the left. Prior to this, nearly all car manufacturers (of which there were perhaps a thousand) placed the driver on the right side. The rationale being that it would be easier for the driver to step out of his conveyance directly onto a dry sidewalk or grassy border and not into a muddy street. (Few, if any, paved roads existed in those days.)
Ever the innovator, Henry Ford reasoned that the fair sex might appreciate this feature more than the driver (almost exclusively men in those days) and arranged for the driver to sit on the left side for benefit of the lady of the house.
But there were added benefits to this arrangement. First, it gave the driver a better vantage point of the road ahead, and secondly, it made it easier for passing drivers to stop and have a conversation (ever see two police cars in a parking lot?) Due to the seating arrangements Henry Ford implemented, placing the driver on left soon became the standard for all cars.
Ever wonder what the worst invention ever was? To answer that question, we must begin by looking at the ozone, a genuine chemical oddity. When ozone exists near the earth's surface, it's a pollutant, but it literally makes life possible when it resides in the stratosphere. Unfortunately there's not a lot of ozone — if distributed evenly throughout the stratosphere it would form a layer covering the planet about one-eighth of an inch thick. The ozone is what soaks up the sun's dangerous ultraviolet radiation that cause of skin cancer, suppresses of the immune system and many other not-so-pleasant maladies.
Meanwhile, chlorofluorocarbons aren't very abundant either, about one part per billion in the atmosphere, but they are extraordinarily harmful. One pound of CFCs can annihilate nearly 100,000 pounds of ozone when released into the atmosphere, making them about 10,000 times more efficient at worsening the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.
In the 1930s, the manufacture of chlorofluorocarbons grew exponentially when its applications seemed unlimited, i.e., it was used in refrigerants, air conditioners, propellants for aerosols, the manufacture of foamed plastics such as polyurethane, dry-cleaning and hundreds more.
But the problem with chlorofluorocarbons is that they hang around for a long time after being released — about 1,000 years in some cases — and more than 95 percent of every chlorofluorocarbon molecule ever manufactured remains in the atmosphere today.
In the mid-'90s, scientists realized chlorofluorocarbons weren't such a good thing and the industrialized world began substituting hydrochlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons. The jury remains out regarding the unintended consequences of HCFCs and HFCs, but this much is certain — chlorofluorocarbons were perhaps the worst invention ever created by mankind.
When did the United States' preeminence on the world stage begin? It can be argued that by the end of the 19th century the young nation seizing upon new technologies such as usable electricity, steel and petroleum products began its ascendancy. With an influx of immigrants seeking a better way of life, abundant natural resources, fertile farmland and an expanding railroad network to complement the nation's existing system of navigable waterways (still the envy of the world), there seemed no bounds to how far and how fast this nation could go.
Valid arguments can also be made that American preeminence occurred immediately after World War II. No war leaves a nation unscathed, but the losses America faced pale when compared to the devastation wreaked upon Europe and Asia. Europe lay in ruins. The Soviet Union lost nearly 25 million people. The Chinese lost 20 million and Japan was literally in ashes.
The loss of 400,000 Americans was tragic, but our industrial base had expanded ten-fold as we became the arsenal of democracy. Following the war, the U.S. was the world's leading producer of almost every important commodity, it was the world's largest creditor nation and our technology was unrivaled.
However, it can also be argued that 1927 was the year that marked the beginning of America's preeminence in the world. That was the year the first "talkie" came out of Hollywood. With the groundbreaking film "The Jazz Singer," the movies became a truly American product. As Bill Bryson writes in his book, "One Summer: America 1927" the global effect of the movie industry was profound. Moviegoers around the world suddenly found themselves exposed to American voices, American vocabulary, American pronunciation and American cadence and word order.
Spanish conquistadors, Elizabethan courtiers and Biblical figures were suddenly speaking with American voices, and the psychological effect, particularly on the young, cannot be over-stated. With American speech came American thoughts, American attitudes, American humor and American sensibilities. As Mr. Bryson opines, almost by accident, America may have taken over the world the same year Charles Lindberg crossed the Atlantic and Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs.
Quote of the day—"It's never too late to become the person you might have been" — George Eliot
Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.