Niagara Gazette

Columns

November 17, 2013

SINGER: Tackling our technological ingratitude

Niagara Gazette — We — myself included — often take the benefits of technical innovation for granted, innumerable gizmos and conveniences maintaining us in the style to which we’re accustomed. The result? We now deem many of these things legated to us as inalienable rights!

You get a sense of how hyper-inventive people once were from Daniel Boorstin’s old book, “The Americans: The Democratic Experience,” focused not on politicians, but on types like a Vermont farm boy, Otis, inventing an elevator for among other places, New York’s Macy’s (itself successful due to strides in the plate glass-making industry, sewing machines impelled by huge uniform needs of the Civil War, etc.). The author discusses one Borden, stunned by the Donner Pass tragedy and despite nay sayers, inventing condensed milk. Not to mention those who made canned goods of all varieties safe, and on it went.

I also remember reading a biography of Charles Kettering (his name now associated with a prestigious New York cancer center) — like Otis, a farm boy, in his case from Ohio, who observed the persnickety behavior of cranks to get cars going. Sometimes they obstinately spun out of control and busted shoulders of people cursing them on frosty mornings.

Kettering worked obsessively until ready to take his invention to Detroit — nothing short of a device to create self-starting vehicles we again take for granted. You apprehend the dizzying pace of such changes from other books like Frederick Lewis Allen’s classic on the ‘20s “Only Yesterday” (1931) and Sinclair Lewis’ fine novel of that era, “Babbitt.”

But a more observable sense of such innovation comes from visiting the Corning Museum of Glass, open all but four days of the year. And here it’s not just glass for tumblers, chess sets, or Pyrex containers once miraculously invented to avoid shattering at great temperatures; but applications for telescopes and more sophisticated equipment. Plus gorgeous art (giant colored glass fruits especially leap out at you). The Corning gift shop reveals an American cornucopia that rested entirely on laborious innovation, and which again, many of us take for granted.

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