Everyone has something they can’t live without. You might not go anywhere without your smart phone; you never know who is going to update their Facebook status or send you a text or play you back in Words With Friends. You might cherish your laptop, the device with all important documents that you would never leave anywhere where it could get stolen (unless you are like this law student, who pummeled a would-be robber after the robber attempted to steal his laptop.) You might even be stuck in the dark ages, so attached to your television and cable that you couldn’t conceive what it would be like if you missed the next episode of The Voice or whatever hit TV show you love. But most of us probably take for granted a few amazing technologies in our life and have likely never imagined what it would be like to lose them. These three inventions definitely impact our modern world, making them the best thing since (or before) sliced bread.
Or in this case, actual sliced bread. Bread has been a staple in the human diet since the dawn of agriculture. It’s argued that the invention of bread allowed humans to develop civilizations and the technologies that would eventually lead them to discover how to slice bread (among other incredible achievements).
But sliced bread was a great thing. I mean, the cliché says so. French peasants are said to have eaten up to 3 pounds of bread per day. Three pounds. Even by the late 1800s, people were still consuming nearly one-third of their calories in bread. That’s a couple of slices of bread at every meal. However, people started to discover that the local bakery might be adding sawdust, dirt, hay, or even dung in their flour as a filler to cut costs. Cholera and typhus spread through contaminated food. People started to wonder where their food was coming from and how it was made.
Meanwhile, a jeweler from Iowa, Otto Frederick Rohwedder, was showcasing his new-fandangled machine: abread slicer. The original prototype was mocked; if bread was pre-sliced, it would just go stale a lot faster, bakers told Rohwedder. He was unrelenting, though. He knew that consumers needed sliced bread and spent nearly two decades perfecting his device, adding ways to hold the loaf together and wrap the slices to preserve freshness. Eventually, his bread slicer stumbled into the bakery of Frank Bench.
Literally overnight, Bench’s sales of bread skyrocketed. Ads in local newspapers touted the sliced bread as the greatest invention since ground coffee and sliced bacon, thus solving the mystery of what the greatest thing was before sliced bread was invented. Only two short years later, Wonder Bread was on supermarket shelves; thick, uniform slices of soft white bread representing modern convenience and giving peace of mind to those worried about food origins. These doughy slices were an appetizing peek into the future.
I’ve talked a little bit about this before, describing the difference in lighting efficiency in terms of a day’s wage. In Ancient Babylon, an entire day of work would only afford 10 minute of lighting. When kerosene lamps were invented, workers could afford 5 hours of light after a day in the fields. And in the 1990s, as fluorescent light bulbs were approaching their maximum efficiency, a day’s wage could buy 20,000 hours of light.
Now, the impact of light cannot be overstated. In the simplest case, lighting potentially doubles productivity since there are now 24 hours in a day that can be classified as “working hours” rather than just 12. Light and light bulbs have had a tremendous effect on society but often understated is simultaneous invention of energy systems.
Thomas Edison could have invented a light bulb, ran a small generator for his home, and called it a day. However, everyone else would be literally left in the dark. So, Edison set off to design the first central power plant in the United States. Pearl Street Station started off serving 85 customers and 400 lamps and eventually expanded to light up 10,164 Manhattan lights. Eventually, Edison lost the AC/DC war, but his inventions still gave him a lasting legacy.
I’ll summarize economist Robert Gordon’s thought experiment here and let you make the choice: What would you rather have; everything invented in the last 12 years but no indoor plumbing (option A) or nothing invented in the last 10 years or so plus indoor plumbing (option B)? With option A, you can keep your Facebook, Twitter, and iPad, but you will have no running water and indoor toilets. With option B, you still might have an outdated computer by today’s standards, but you won’t have to lug buckets of water in or dump the contents of your chamber pot into the streets every day. The point that Gordon was trying to make with this thought experiment is that indoor plumbing is more important than anything invented in the past decade.
If there was ever a more appropriately-named person to invent the toilet, it was Thomas Crapper. However, this story seems to be apocryphal. By no means are toilets and indoor plumbing exclusively a modern construct. The Ancient Greeks used an indoor plumbing system that included pressurized showers. Primitive toilets have been found in archeological digs dating back to 3100 BC. Even the modern flush toilet was designed by John Harington in the late 1500s. Still, Crapper was indeed a plumber, patented various plumbing-related devices, and made improvements on the water closet.
Take a moment today and appreciate technology around you. You could easily give up your phone, laptop, and TV, and people have even lived without sliced bread, light bulbs, and toilets. Still, these modern conveniences are nothing to take for granted. So thank you to all of the Otto Rohwedders, Thomas Edisons, and Thomas Crappers of the past, present, and future. The sandwich-eating, late-night-working, and toilet-using populace is indebted.