Indoor plumbing. In his hilarious history
Flushed With Pride, Wallace Reyburn credits the
invention of the toilet to a plumber named Thomas
Crapper. Alas, Mr. Crapper's story is the
satiric invention of Mr. Reyburn. The history of
indoor plumbing is far more mundane--the culmination
of many innovative efforts involving indoor
sanitation. But these inventions have together
magically simplified bathing, cooking, cleaning,
and--as it rendered obsolete the outhouse--the
management of bodily functions.
We think of it as just another hobby, but as
historian Daniel Boorstin has observed, photos
transcend language. In the world this invention
made possible, "anybody, without even needing
to be literate, could preserve at will the moments
of experience for future repetition." While in
previous generations only the lives of the rich and
mighty have been chronicled in great detail,
photography has enabled everyman to document his
life from cradle to grave, from ultrasound images in
utero to home videos of funerals, not to mention
everything in between: the first steps, Thanksgiving
dinners, weddings, and Fourth of Julys.
electric motor. The electric motor not only powers
labor-saving devices for the home; it also made
possible the assembly-line production of such goods.
"Taken together, the vacuum cleaner, the
washing machine, the refrigerator, and the
automobile had profound implications for the
reorganization of work in the households,"
wrote Ruth Schwartz Cowan in her now classic history
of housework, More Work for Mother.
doubt these labor-saving inventions do save labor.
But whose labor? Prof. Schwartz Cowan's
conclusion: They made certain tasks less physically
exhausting for housewives, but the only real labor
saved was that of children and men, who no longer
had to beat rugs, carry water, or chop wood. In
fact, many scholars concur that inventions
complicate as well as ease our lives. The washing
machine made washing clothes easier, but it put a
lot of laundresses and commercial laundries out of
business. The pill brought greater control over
fertility but greater susceptibility to venereal
disease as well. The Internet allows us instant
intimacy with our far-flung loved ones but makes us
vulnerable to identity theft and pedophiles. The
automobile, which allows us to get to work without
physical exertion and to transport our children to
violin lessons across town, pollutes our air and
enslaves us as commuters or chauffeurs.
can invention be a mixed blessing for inventors
themselves. While Edison was a shrewd entrepreneur
who parlayed his ideas into an empire, many other
inventors have not been so lucky. Take, for example,
the hapless Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton
gin. Brilliant inventor though he was, he earned
virtually nothing from a technology that
restructured the economy of the American South.
"An invention can be so valuable," he
observed, "as to be worthless to the inventor."