Necessity Must Be Infertile

I bought a jar of Sanka just a few days ago.  It’s been a while since I’ve had Sanka, but I’m currently on vacation and the condo’s coffee maker looks disgusting, so I figured I’d simplify and just deal with Sanka for a bit.

Necessity 001When opening it for the first time, I noticed that the cap wasn’t your standard coffee jar / peanut butter jar plastic cap.  Instead, the grip portion of the cap was a rubberized grippy material which the marketers named EZ Grip (see left).  And indeed, it was easy to grip.  Far easier than the standard hard-plastic ribbed cap that you get in almost any other grocery jar.

This got me thinking.  How many years has the old rubber band trick been around, the one where you wrap a thick rubber band around the lid of a hard-to-open jar to give it better traction?  Sanka’s EZ Grip is essentially that same idea, but built in.

This state of affairs seems ridiculous to me.  I don’t at all fault EZ Grip’s producers for making a classic concept into a branded (and no doubt now patented) “invention.”  On the contrary, it shocks and awes me that it has taken us (meaning The Global We, the Sum of Humanity) so many decades to finally come up with EZ Grip.

If necessity is the mother of invention, I worry she’s infertile.

Let me count the ways.  Since I’ve been traveling lately, I’ll use everyday examples from recent experience:

  1. Necessity 002 Luggage with built-in wheels and handles.  Those of you born after the early 80’s may not even remember a time when luggage came without wheels and handles.  It used to be when you traveled that you would bring, in addition to all your luggage, Necessity 003 a folding luggage cart, complete with a set of bungee cords to strap your luggage onto the cart prior to wheeling the whole contraption through the airport.  Then you’d undo the bundle at the counter, fold up the cart, and check the cart in along with all your baggage at the counter.  This went on for years. Necessity 004 Never mind the phase where luggage on four wheels was towed behind you by a strap, inevitably resulting in the luggage falling over and crushing nearby kids at every turn.  Finally, after decades, someone thankfully integrated wheels and collapsible handles into luggage.  Nowadays, you can hardly find luggage without it.
  2. Integrated cup holders in cars.  Although cup “holders” had been available as early as the 1950’s (where by “holders,” we mean two shallow indentations that suggested where you might set cups down, but were by no means sufficient for you to actually drive with the cups in them), true cup holders weren’t introduced into cars until the 1980’s.  They first made it into minivans and are now pretty much ubiquitous.  It took about a century after the automobile’s invention for cup holders to be introduced into cars.
  3. Necessity 006 Necessity 005 Big Mouth Slam Can.  Your mouth might not even remember a time when all soda cans had narrow-profile lids.  For decades, the opening in the can was taller than it was wide, like the first photo to the right.  Then Mountain Dew came along and introduced the first wide-aspect can opening.  It was far easier to drink from and presumably costs no more to make than the original.  Who even knows why the original opening was made so narrow?  Mountain Dew called the new opening the Big Mouth Slam Can when it was first introduced.  Now you can hardly buy a can without it.
  4. Soda boxes that fit and dispense in the fridge.  While we’re on the subject of sodas…  For decades, twelve-packs came in cardboard boxes that were three cans high and four cans wide.  The layout was such that you’d have to lay it sideways in the fridge, such that none of the sodas would dispense.  You’d end up either reaching deeply into the box whenever you wanted a soda or unpacking the sodas prior to refrigerating them.  Only several years ago, soda boxes finally changed to be two sodas high and six sodas wide, allowing you to put the box in the fridge in a way affords easy dispensing.

Why do simple inventions take decades for us to figure out?  The inventions I mention above are all very simple and do not take any sort of serious engineering or domain expertise.  Anyone can come up with these ideas.  And yet it seems to take forever for us to do so.

The evolution of luggage is particularly abysmal.  It used to be that luggage didn’t come with wheels at all.  People traveled with trunks — literally boxes — that required two people (read: servants) to carry.  How long has humanity known about the wheel?!  Some trunks didn’t even come with handles!

There’s all this talk in business literature about “innovation,” “invention,” and “disruptive technologies,” but all I see is idiocy.  We do even very basic things in idiotic ways.  Forget all this talk about the next billion dollar breakthrough, nanotechnology, the human genome, etc.  Let’s just focus a few moments’ thought on improving everyday things.

Perhaps good ideas don’t surface for several reasons:

  1. We don’t expect more.  Carry my luggage?  Fine.  Use a separate folding cart?  Sure.  Unpack my sodas every time?  Ok.  Struggle with opening jars?  Who hasn’t?
  2. Everyday inventors aren’t empowered to realize their inventions.  Suppose you think of the Big Mouth Slam Can before Mountain Dew does.  What are you going to do about it?  Write them?  The people who read those mails don’t care.  Patent it? Most people with a good idea aren’t going to put hundreds of dollars and several years’ time into patenting it.  Most times, when an idea occurs to you, you just want a company who is actually in that line of business to take the idea and run with it.  You just want to drink your soda more easily.
  3. Companies don’t care.  They truly don’t.  Sure, they talk about how innovative they are all the time.  But they really don’t care about everyday usability.  They’re too busy making money from the status quo.  This is the only explanation I have for why things continue to be so unusable when they can often be improved so easily.

We so often do things half way.  Once things seem good enough, we stop demanding better.  Take soda boxes.  Now they fit in a fridge — great.  But the last few sodas in the box still require you to reach into the box since it sits completely level in the fridge.  Why do inventors leave these loose ends?  To solve the “last few cans” problem, couldn’t they just wrap a cardboard strap behind the last few cans which you tug on to release the final few?  Or couldn’t they provide a fold-out that inclines the box in the fridge?

Somebody please tell me why this happens.  Why are products continually made in substandard, unusable ways?

3 Responses to “Necessity Must Be Infertile”

  1. Sharon says:

    Now Philip, that is really something to think about. I do not have an answer because I to have thought of many different inventions that would make life easier, but”what to do with them” is the question. I just block them out of my mind after spending a few minutes thinking about them, because it seems futile to continue to do so.
    Something to think about on vacation. PS, this is the first time I have ever answered a blog!

  2. Vivek says:

    Another thing we’ve grown accustomed to: receipts that fade.

    “Congratulations on buying your new computer/bedding/sunglasses. You’ll be excited to know it comes with a three year warranty. So please store the receipt safely.”

    Except, of course, that it is printed in disappearing ink. It doesn’t matter whether you leave it out in the sun or not – that detailed skinny printout is going to vanish in your filing cabinet.

    It’s a wonder we don’t find it acceptable to simply hand over our money and walk out empty handed…

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