The window in the macaroni box.
January 20, 2011 § 8 Comments
I never knew my grandmother who died when my mother was in college, but that handsome young man with the shock of black hair was an important part of my growing up. He lived with my family, although by the time I knew him he was quite bald and went by the Italian familiar name for grandfather, Nonno.
In the era when gears and pulleys and levers moved the world and electricity was at its humble beginning, my grandfather, a mechanical engineer, spent his working life as an inventor. An inventor for hire.
The idea for an invention almost always came from his client. It was my grandfather’s job to make the client’s vision manifest in a drawing, a working model, a patent application. No matter how impractical the idea, he was paid to build a device that worked.
Among his early clients was a man appalled by the dangerous nature of a recent invention, the automobile. My grandfather was hired to design a giant eagle that would stand on the hood of the car and sweep pedestrians to safety within its wings. My grandfather, realizing that what caused injury was the sudden acceleration of being hit by a fast-moving object, dispensed with the eagle and created a bumper that compressed, giving the stationary pedestrian a longer period to achieve the same speed as the car. The client, fixated on the idea of a life-saving eagle, fired him.
Luckily my grandfather usually worked with more reasonable clients, and with their funding invented many things that are still in use: the electric pencil sharpener, the talking doll, the floating head razor, the weighted glass eye that makes dolls “go to sleep” when lying on their backs. For the most reliable client he ever had, the US government, he designed a timing device that allowed a gunner to shoot through the whirling blades of his airplane propeller.
One of his odder inventions was the one that puts the cellophane windows in macaroni boxes. I doubt that my grandfather questioned the need for windows in macaroni boxes. He had been posed a problem and he solved it.
To this day we look at noodles through those little windows Nonno designed. We never think to ask, why is there a window in this noodle box? Or its more reasonable opposite; why do all these other boxes lack windows?
The window in the noodle box is a response to a very human instinct. Curiosity. And the fact that we like to know what we are buying, always fearful we might be cheated—and that means seeing the contents of the box.
The technology of things is changing so fast it is falling over itself, and all of it is built on the bright ideas of innovators like my grandfather who, day after day, invent the manmade world.
When confronted by newer technologies like the electronics of radio and television my grandfather would say, “Oh, that’s after my time,” which would cause my father to remind him that he was still alive. But it is easier for all of is to make sense of technologies that are comfortably familiar, to assess their worth and understand what they say about us, the human animal.
Here are three inventions that precede even my grandfather’s time, and I like all of them.
The pocket: In the coinage of carrying stuff around the pocket is the smallest denomination, followed in ascending order by the purse, the backpack, the suitcase, the car, the RV, the semi…we humans are stuff-carriers. My own pockets are usually filled with interesting things picked up on walks around the neighborhood and tissues I forget to take out before throwing the piece of clothing in the wash.
But pockets are more than places to put things. When I want to show that a character is withdrawn or sad they will almost always stow their hands in their pockets. We hide things in pockets, including ourselves.
Pencils: The hopeful start of each school year was signaled by the purchase of a package of yellow number 2 Ticonderoga pencils. Manufacturer-sharpened they were an invitation to make a mark, and were equipped with an eraser in case that mark was a mistake.
When I went to art school and became concerned with making that mark beautiful, I learned that the practical number two pencil had lots of more nuanced cousins. Berol pencils, with their turquoise jackets, became my favorites. They were available in many degrees of hardness and were labeled with a B (for Black) or an H (for hard), from the softest (9B) whose mark is black and spreads like butter, to the hardest (9H) which can lay down a wire-thin line so pale it is barely more than a dent in the paper. Humans want to do more than make a mark. We want that mark to be expressive.
Earrings: The earring is a humble invention. The mechanical part is nothing more than a bent wire. All the rest is decoration. Earrings show up in the Biblical record and in carved images of soldiers of the Persian Empire. They display our wealth, adorn us and sometimes send a message. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, a sailor who wore one was announcing that he had sailed around the world–or at least crossed the equator. It was also an implied pre-payment for a proper burial should the sailor drown at sea and wash up on shore.
I wanted to wear earrings because of what an older girl on the school bus had confided, “If you get depressed all you need to do is buy yourself a pair of earrings.” Great, but I didn’t want to wear old lady clip-ons!
My mother applied her usual wisdom when it came to me doing something of which she disapproved. I could get my ears pierced, but it had to be with my own money. I stepped up my babysitting efforts and saved the ten dollars it cost to have two holes drilled in my ear lobes.
My mother then said this was a medical procedure requiring a licensed physician so we went to see Dr. Tan whose home office was on Grover’s Mill Pond (of “War of the Worlds” fame).
For a while I lived by the advice of the girl on the bus. Get depressed, buy earrings. I haven’t bought a pair of earrings in years, but I look at the earrings hanging on the window screen in my bathroom each morning and choose which pair to put on carefully, hoping to influence the day ahead.
This early morning voodoo is the flip side of our belief that we can control life through technology. To control those things technology can’t touch we summon luck. By our actions we hope to charm whatever power it is that can gift us with a good day.
I find that my gold frog earrings usually do the trick.