June 21, 2024

Today’s theme: Necessity and Invention

Article: “The Most Precious Cargo for Lighthouses Across America was a Traveling Library” by Natalie Zarelli

I’ve never given much thought to the day-to-day reality of operating a lighthouse. That might not seem surprising, but it occurred to me as I read this piece that I actually talk about lighthouses fairly often in classes, because they’re one of the classic examples of a “non-excludable” good: once it’s built, there’s no way to limit the benefits of a lighthouse to those who’ve actually paid for it. But for anybody to get those benefits, the light has to be on, and for much of human history that meant somebody actually lighting a fire or one kind or another, and making sure it kept burning, all night long, as well as in any kind of bad weather. Add to that the fact that lighthouses tend to be located in out-of-the-way places, and you’ve got a pretty lonely and difficult life.

Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, one thing that made all that a little more bearable was the lighthouse library, actually a wooden box or crate filled with books that was circulated between lighthouses by maintenance ships. Four times a year, such a ship would arrive, inspect the lighthouse, and exchange its library for another one in the rotation, providing a new collection of reading material. There were about 420 of these in circulation in 1885, with 50-60 books in each one; the boxes were designed to function as a small bookshelf when turned on end.

One thing I like about this story is that it is so chronologically specific. You had to have relatively cheap books, a pool of socially-minded reformers who thought of providing them to lighthouses, and a fairly large network of both lighthouses and maintenance ships with a regular, reliable schedule, and all of this has to come together while technology still requires a human keeper to be on hand twenty-four hours a day. Today, lighthouses use electric lights and are unmanned, and anyway it would be much easier and cheaper to do all of this digitally, with ebooks and and internet connection. The lighthouse library is a phenomenon that only could have arisen at this particular time, and for these few decades.

Side note: more and more, websites and blogs seem to be heading articles with relatively lengthy descriptions, rather than actual titles, as Atlas Obscura has done here. I suppose that’s actually very practical, since most people are going to see things first on various kinds of news aggregators, and they’re more likely to click if they they have a better sense of what a piece is about. That said, the cranky old man in me— and he’s never very far from the surface— definitely sees in this yet another sign of the decline of civilization.


Article: “How a Basket on Wheels Revolutionized Grocery Shopping” by Zachary Crockett

And here’s another thing I’ve never thought about, in this case because it seems obvious: the shopping cart. It’s easier to carry a bunch of stuff if you have a bag or basket; it’s easier to carry the basket if it has wheels and you can push it across the ground. Things like this sort of seem like they didn’t need to be invented at all, but just…are.

Actually, though, the shopping cart was only made necessary by a new kind of grocery store, the “self-serve” market (and then, even more, the very large “supermarket” we all know and…tolerate today). In the early part of the century, goods at a grocery store were kept behind the counter, and clerks fetched each item for each customer. That was slow and inconvenient, and clerks had to know a lot about the items on the shelves. By the end of WWI, self-serve stores had begun to appear, particularly in California, where a businessman named Sylvan Goldman saw them and was inspired to bring the new model back to his native Oklahoma.

One major problem, though, was that these stores only had small hand baskets for customers, who tended to buy only as much as they could carry in the baskets. Goldman solved this problem by combining, in his first iteration, one of these baskets with a couple of folding chairs and some wheels. It took a while for the idea to catch on; Goldman had to pay some of his employees to walk around the store, pretending to shop and using the carts, to convince people that they were a good idea, but once people started using them there was no looking back. With the carts, shoppers bought a lot more food; Goldman eventually also started a company to sell the carts themselves, from which he made as much money as he did from selling groceries.

As with the lighthouse libraries, for grocery carts to make sense, a bunch of factors had to come together at the same time: the self-serve market, as well as the rise of canned and other prepared foods and the synthesis of freon for refrigeration, both of which allowed people to store more food for longer periods (increasing the amount they purchased). What seems like the most obvious invention only became obvious once circumstances made it necessary.

Writing this post prompted me to find this article about rolling luggage, which was first patented in 1970. The rolling upright model most of are using today came later, in 1987; the earliest type was a regular suitcase with wheels on the bottom and a strap to pull it by. Again, this seems like an obvious idea, but it really only became necessary as air travel became less expensive (and public anxiety began to recede), so that flight replaced train travel as the main way people took long journeys. With more people flying, and without the porters that rail passengers had counter on to shlep their luggage around, carrying bags long distances suddenly became a concern, and Bernard D. Sadow came up with the first rolling luggage in response to that new need.


Article and Video: “The Last Job on Earth” by Moth Collective

A lot of people have lost their jobs to automation in the last several decades, and that’s probably not going to slow down any time soon. Another way of looking at this is that more and more of the work that we need done can be done without humans doing it. In principle, that should mean we all do less work; so far, it’s meant that many people have to struggle to find something to do that somebody will pay them for, and the options usually aren’t great. An optimistic reading of this situation, though, is that we’ll eventually break away from the assumption that people’s material circumstances have to depend on the amount and kind of labor that they engage in. That assumption makes sense when it’s only through human labor that the things necessary for our survival and convenience are produced; if they can be made with little or no labor on our part, then that labor should no longer be obligatory. This short, beautifully animated video imagines a world in which this has happened— in which, in fact, only one person still has a job. It’s not exactly a utopian vision (there’s a food bank for “people in crisis,” for instance), but it does prompt thinking about what our labor is for. As Paul Mason says in the article he wrote to introduce the film, “A low-work society is only a dystopia if the social system is geared to distributing rewards via work.” Our expectation that everyone should work “for a living” is based on moral principles at least as much as on practical necessity: we don’t believe that people deserve anything they did not work for. But if most people’s labor becomes genuinely unnecessary, most of the time, then we are left with nothing but that moral argument, and in those circumstances it may not hold up very well.

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