The Two Worst Inventions?

Can’t blame science for these ones

The world won’t end with a bang. Actually the world won’t end, but humanity might. If we destroy ourselves, we won’t do it suddenly — not nuclear war. We will slouch and slide slovenly oblivious toward our dissolution.

The 1950s set in motion forces that may end up destroying the world. Two particular inventions epitomize these forces. No, not televisions, but you aren’t far off.

The Disposable Society

Seemed like a great idea at the time. Invent a better writing instrument. For centuries, writing had been a messy affair. The quill pen had been replaced by the fountain pen, but the central issue remained. It was too easy to make a mess with a fountain pen. The pens leaked, ink bottles spilled, the sharp metal nib could tear the paper if it didn’t splotch ink across your paper. Writing was a chore that required a setup — the “writing desk” — to facilitate the task.

Build a better pen and the world will beat a path to your door.

László Bíró invented the first usable ballpoint pen. In 1938, he developed a practical mechanism to store and deliver ink to the pen tip and his brother, Győrgy, developed a quick-drying ink. However, the Bíró brothers were Jewish people in Hungary, and the growing Nazi persecution of Jewish people forced the Bíró brothers to flee. They managed to get to Argentina where they set up a factory to manufacture the pen.

Their ballpoint pen had little exposure outside of Argentina, other than a contract with the British air force. However, a US businessman, Milton Reynolds, learned of the Bíró pen during a trip to Argentina, and in true American corporate style, he copied the design and sold it as his own, giving no credit or royalties to Bíró. The Reynolds ballpoint pen was introduced in the US in 1945 and was an immediate bestseller.

The problem with the Reynolds ballpoint pen was that it cost the equivalent of $190 in today’s money. It was a luxury item. All Reynolds pens, and pens made by their imitators, were metal. Some were gold-plated.

Enter industrialist, Marcel Bich. He purchased László Bíró’s patent for $2 million and gave full credit to Bíró. In fact, throughout Europe, ballpoint pens are still called “biros.”

Blame this guy (Source)

Bich knew the ins and outs of mass production. He perfected the design of Bíró’s pen such that it could be produced for one-fiftyth the price of other ballpoint pens. His main innovation was to make the body of the pen out of a strong but inexpensive transparent plastic.

The Bic ballpoint pen, dubbed the “Cristal,” went on sale in France in 1950. Bic advertisements in France referred to the Cristal as the “atomic pen.” It was a fitting invention for the new era of seemingly infinite expansion and convenience.

The Bic pen was affordable, portable, and worked efficiently in any environment. One no longer needed a dedicated writing desk for one’s fountain pen and its necessary accoutrements—one could write anywhere with the Bic pen. Soon, the scale of production reduced the Bic’s cost to only 50 cents, and nearly everyone could own a pen with which to write.

All good, yes? Not all good. All pens run out of ink, and the Bic was no exception — that wasn’t the unintended problem that Marcel Bich had created.

Other ballpoint pens had a metal body, designed to look good and last long. When the ink ran out, users bought a new ink cartridge and replaced the spent one. One could use the same pen for years, and some old pens are still in use by descendants of the original owners.

The Bic pen was made of inexpensive plastic; the body was the cheapest part of the pen. Refills of the inner ink cartridge were available, but the Bic pen was so inexpensive, so easy to acquire, it encouraged people to throw away the whole thing and buy a new one, rather than buy a refill cartridge almost as expensive as a whole new pen.

Over 100 billion, yes billion, Bic pens have been sold since 1950. Almost every one has since been thrown away. The Bic pen has not only littered the landscape and filled the landfills, it has helped cultivate the mindset of the disposable society. Corporations and consumers grew to see products as disposable rather than reusable.

The Bic corporation continued to contribute to the disposable mindset. In 1973, Bich and his corporation introduced the Bic disposable lighter and in 1975, the Bic disposable razor. With all three of their disposable inventions, Bic replaced a clumsy, messy, even dangerous product with an easy-to-use alternative. In this, Bic helped many people. The cost, though, has been high. The environment and society have been harmed, perhaps irreparably.

We can’t entirely blame it on Marcel Bich, but he greatly contributed to plastic pollution and the dangerous notion that everything is disposable. The corporate model that Bich helped create in 1950s was planned obsolescence — dispose and replace. Today, the idea that consumer products should be repairable and reusable is almost heretical, especially to corporate manufacturers.

The Detached Society

I mentioned television earlier. Much ink has been spilled (some using Bic disposable pens, no doubt) on the vacuous, mind-numbing effects of television. I draw your attention to a related, but distinct, evil — the television remote control.

I am old enough to remember the last remaining televisions that had to be physically operated. My father was cheap when I was a child, preferring used hand-me-downs to new items. In the early 1980s, we had cheap televisions, the “kids” one being black-and-white. You had to get up, cross over to the television, and twist a knob to change the channel or volume. The “fancy” adult television in the living room was color at least, but still had buttons on the set you needed to press to go up and down the channels or volume.

Remote control for televisions dates back to the 1950s when the Zenith corporation developed first visible light, then ultrasonic remotes to operate the set. My grandmother had one of those ultrasonic Zenith Space Command remotes. The channel knob made emphatic clunk noises as you cycled through the channels.

Today, you can’t buy a TV with knobs. All TVs are controlled remotely. There were three or four television channels when the remote control was invented. Now, there are 40 to 50 buttons on the remote control, and you can’t operate the TV without it.

One could argue that the TV remote has contributed to general laziness and the obesity epidemic. I say the remote has caused a deeper, greater harm to humanity.

Television itself lends toward viewing the world from afar. The remote even further pushes that separation from the world. Once, one interacting with the television. Now, you interact with a handheld remote. Now, one just vegetates on the couch, avoiding the world.

Yes, avoidance is the issue even more than the laziness. The Zenith corporation invented the remote control because its CEO, Eugene F. McDonald, wanted to avoid watching advertisements. Rather than expend the effort to get up to change the channel, he ordered his engineers to design a device that would do it for him. The television remote control was invented to allow people to avoid things — in this case, the ads that paid for the content one was able to receive for free.

Ads can be annoying, but this short-sighted laziness that one simply avoids what one finds mildly annoying is empowered by the TV remote. The urge to cop out and avoid, even against one’s self-interest has probably always been a human tendency. We can’t blame all of it on the remote, but the remote is the epitome of avoidance behavior.


Back before the remote, people were more prone to sit through advertising and watch a program until the end. People are lazy, after all, so the temptation to not get up to change the channel was there before the remote. The remote didn’t invent the avoidance of ads but the phenomenon of channel surfing. The ability to flip though TV channels, especially now that there are over 100 of them, feeds the human desire to avoid. Back in the 1840s, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard warned that some people live an almost animal-like existence in which one attempts to stave off boredom by moving as quickly as possible to the next fleeting stimulus. These people have no life, no history, he said. He would have had a field day with our society of avoidance and detachment.

Armed with the remote,  people have attention spans of nearly zero. When the remote control was invented, television advertisements were a minute long and sometimes even longer. Today, advertisers are pushed toward fifteen or even five second ads. Content is dying because what matters now is tricking people into sticking to a channel for a few seconds.

Worse, the remote encourages a detached attitude toward life. People don’t want to be involved with anything that takes effort. People now even want to do away with having to pick up and point a remote control. They want to simply say “change the channel.” (Okay, we can blame Star Trek for that one.) The remote control primed people for the emergence of social media and the smartphone. Why immerse yourself in life when you can detach from it and bury your tiny attention span in your phone? That phone being the successor to the TV remote.

The result is that we aren’t involved in our own lives. We want things to just happen for us. We live in the detached society. Some of us still create, yes, but the creators may be a vanishing breed. Ever ascending are the detached animal-life observers of life, locked in avoidance mode, easily manipulated by the corporate media, getting up from the proverbial couch only to grab more ultraprocessed snacks and change the disposable batteries in the remote.

 

Sources: https://mea.bic.com/en-za/blog-7, https://www.npr.org/2012/05/22/153308674/inventor-of-wireless-remote-revolutionized-tv, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180830-the-history-of-the-television-remote-contro.

 

 

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