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Many years ago, a man named Prometheus brought fire to humanity. He was then severely punished — not, as popular account says, by the gods, but by people themselves. They feared that this fire would run freely through their collection of animal skins, reducing them to cinders. They sentenced him to the harshest fate they knew at the time: freezing to death. 

Lots of inventions faced backlash like this when they were first introduced. Read about them now, and laugh at the people who feared them. But also, occasionally, wrinkle your brow and say, “Huh. I kind of see what made them feel that way.”

Push Buttons

At the end of the 19th century, a few different electric devices like the lightbulb were set to change the world. Still, people resisted electricity entering their homes. It was a new and strange force, which could and did kill people when wielded incorrectly. Then came a new ancillary invention that made electricity a lot less scary: the push button. Picture an old-fashioned doorbell, or the buttons you press at crosswalks:

Push button catalogue

Smithsonian

Usually designed to make you think you were pressing nipples

Electric devices had previously been turned on using various types of switches, including levers and dials. The push button, created in the 1880s, felt different. You no longer felt like you were working machinery or operating some kind of technical instrument. It removed you from the circuitry and let you feel like you were issuing commands and letting unseen processes handle the rest. Push buttons were familiar and reliable, like working a typewriter or playing a piano, but they seemed to work magic. They convinced plenty of people leery of electrification that these electric doohickeys weren’t so scary after all.

Sounds like good news for everyone, right? But the push button received unexpected pushback from the scientific community itself. While marketers realized the button would convert people to the church of electric power, educators already had their own plan for managing this: education. They wanted to bring people closer to the inner workings of electricity, not farther. In schools, they were teaching boys and girls about how to put together motors and batteries, not as part of vocational training but just standard learning. Understanding electricity demystified the process. They started teaching about buttons as well, but overall, this was drowned out by commercial messages selling the button (and selling electricity in general) as magic. 

1916 electricity ad

Smithsonian

It’s like how they now sell smart homes. You’re not supposed to know how they work.

The “screw it, it’s magic” philosophy won out in the end. Let’s put it this way: How many people reading this, despite all their experience with vastly more advanced tech, can draw a diagram of how an electric button works? Of how pressing a button once completes a circuit, and pressing it again in seemingly the same way later breaks it? This isn’t a test of intelligence — anyone can understand this if they’re taught — it’s just a matter of what knowledge we consider important. It’s possible that children 120 years ago knew more about electric devices than the average lay person today.

Then again, the idea that everyone should be able to understand every piece of tech they use was unsustainable. You can learn how to build a push button; you can’t learn how to make a CPU singlehandedly from scratch. If we fought every technology that we can’t fully teach to small children, we wouldn’t progress very far. 

Walter Crane

 Here’s a 1907 cartoon predicting where buttons would take us. It’s a pretty cool future. 

ZIP Codes

Speaking of things everyone uses but feels no need to understand, hands up if you know what a ZIP code is. Good. Now, hands up if you know what “ZIP” stands for. Huh, nobody? It stands for “Zone Improvement Program,” because before the postal service made ZIP codes, they had an older system, called postal zones, which were introduced to deal with the increase in mail during World War II. Zones proved inadequate as postal volumes increased still more, so in 1963, they upgraded to ZIP codes. Just a few months later, President Kennedy was assassinated. Coincidence?

JFK limousine

Walt Cisco

Wait till you see what googling “JFK ZIP code” brings up. (It brings up “11430.”)

Well, yes, of course that was a coincidence. However, Americans really did have conspiracy theories about these new codes they were being given. Everyone was being assigned new numbers? That was pointless — and dehumanizing. It was (theorized some people) surely a communist plot, with an uncertain goal. Some random comments from disgruntled customers were preserved so we can marvel at them, generations later. “Dear Sir, Zip Code is a complete boo-boo and you just don’t want to admit it,” wrote one woman. “It has set our mail delivery back 100 years.” Another message claimed, “The Pony Express would be more efficient.”

Postal service employees themselves also sometimes opposed the codes. Of course, ZIP codes improved efficiency, but some workers considered mail sorting not just a task to be sped through but an art. ZIP codes rendered their expertise redundant. Also, workers weren’t a huge fan of this guy:

Mr Zip ad

Time

That’s postal mascot Mr. Zip. He was first created not by USPS but by Chase Bank, to advertise their bank-by-mail services, but the postal service got their hands on him and used him to campaign for ZIP codes. Real mail carriers thought he was a ridiculous caricature. “Remember the good old days,” wrote one angry employee, “when Postal Employees were respected people and friends to those they served?” As a female counterpart to Mr. Zip, the postal service sought to make a Miss Zip — not another cartoon but a real person, the winner of a beauty contest. These contests were the most popular part of the ZIP campaign and were enjoyed by everyone.

In time, people adapted to ZIP codes — sorta. Today, you use them without complaint, but how often do you use the full ZIP code, with the initial five digits as well as the four digits that come after them? Do you even know your own full ZIP code? Like we said, ZIP codes are something no one really feels the need to understand. 

Quartz Watches

Today, there are two kinds of watches: ones that just tell the time, and smart watches. Go back a little, and there were also two types of watches: digital and analogue. Go back more, to the 1970s, and there were another two types of watches: ones that used balance, and ones that used quartz. 

With a balance watch, gears send a wheel moving back and forth to keep time. It works something like a pendulum, except you have to keep a pendulum upright:

Balance wheel in mantel clock. The spiral balance spring is visible at top.

Glosome/Wiki Commons

Here’s one more device we must teach every schoolchild to make.

Switzerland dominated the world watch market using these balance watches. You might have heard the Swiss are very precise people, which explains why they’re so good at intricate manufacturing, but that’s not really true. Instead, watches were another industry whose path was defined by World War II. During the war, nearly every country shut down their own clockmaking facilities since they were converting all factories for military use. Only neutral Switzerland ran all their clock factories uninterrupted. Postwar, they were making half the watches in the world, and they kept this supremacy going for the next few decades. 

In the middle of this period, in 1953, a Swiss engineer named Max Hetzel came up with a new way of keeping time. Instead of a balance wheel, his watch used a tiny tuning fork. Forks vibrate under electricity, and if he carved one to the just the right size, it vibrated at just the right frequency to be able to mark the passage of seconds. This was much more reliable than a balance wheel. Hetzel was able to get one company manufacturing his new kind of watch, but the Swiss industry at large had no interest in following up on this nonsense. They were already ruling the watch world with their balance wheels. 

Fondue served with bread, potatoes, and white wine

Juliano Mendes

“Forks are good for one thing only.”

By the end of the next decade, Japan unveiled their own tuning fork watches. Theirs were better, because they made the forks from quartz, which was more accurate. The watch also cost as much as a car. But then the cost plummeted, to even lower than mechanical watches, and people the world over switched to these more accurate alternatives. Swiss watchmakers resisted the shift, figuring surely plenty of people would prefer real watches. Not enough people did, and the Swiss watch industry crashed.

Eventually, Swiss companies did update their methods, but they still remember that devastating disruption, calling it The Quartz Crisis. The Quartz Crisis is also the name of both a spy thriller about a Swiss coup and a sci-fi film about the nature of time itself. 

The Cheese Slicer

We’ve got one more lost art to reveal to you, and it may be the silliest of all. We speak now, of course, of the noble practice of Norwegian cheese slicing. 

If you try cutting a block of cheese into slices, you need a steady hand, lots of concentration and also a high tolerance for failure because the result will come out terrible no matter what. You’ll wind up with a bunch of awkward wedges instead of slices. Then, in 1925, a hero named Thor Bjørklund forged a new tool, which would be called the ostehøvel.

Ostehøvel

Jonas Bergsten

This is the article’s second pic in a row of cheese impalements, for those keeping score.

Thor was no cheesemaker. Thor was more adept with a hammer than with a knife because Thor made furniture for a living. This outside perspective, however, gave him unique inspiration. Rather than base his tool on anything from the kitchen, he based his on a carpenter’s plane for shaping wood, and he produced something that cut cheese and other foods easily and neatly. 

Everyone who cut food at home loved the ostehøvel. Professional cheese men did not. If cheese cutting was going to be so easy going forward, why had they wasted all those years getting a degree from Colby College (and then a master’s, from Stilton)? Some dairies, in protest, put up plastic garbage bags in public places and posted the following sign: “Throw your cheese slicer here!

Emmental cheese

Coxinelis/Wiki Commons

“Cheese slicer, you say? There are cheese slicers? Let me go inquire about buying one.”

Ironically, the ostehøvel is now considered an iconic and most traditional part of Norwegian cheese culture. The real modern, efficient way of slicing cheese is to use an automatic slicing machine like delis have. And if you want some sliced cheese at home, you might reach instead for some prepackaged slices of processed cheesefood — which aren’t legally cheese at all but a mixture of mayonnaise, plastic and horse glue. 

Toilet Paper

People have wiped their butts for thousands of years with whatever’s handy. Sometimes, paper’s handy, and in China, people were using toilet paper in the sixth century or earlier. But if we zero in on the modern era, the idea of commercial toilet paper is a little newer than you might think. America first produced factory toilet paper in 1857. The product was called Gayetty’s Medicated Paper, which made it sound like something designed for smoking weed.

Gayetty's Medicated Paper

Sutler of Fort Scott

“Something going in my ass? That’s Gayetty!” 

The papers were made of hemp — hey, looks like we were right about sensing a cannabis theme here — soaked in aloe vera. The public did not go wild over the stuff, and no, it’s wasn’t because they preferred to just use water. It was because they considered absurd the idea of paying for something they were just going to wipe their ass with and then throw away. They already had plenty of paper around the house they could use. They could use newspaper, or the Sears catalog. And here’s what we meant when we said toilet paper’s newer than you might think: Which did you think came first, the earliest commercial toilet paper or the Sears catalog?

Gayetty had some counterarguments for people who wiped themselves with scraps. Ordinary paper is made with all kinds of nasty chemicals, they said in ads. For example, arsenic — a bold strategy, calling out arsenic, since other ads during this period falsely boasted about arsenic’s curative properties. Wipe with other paper, said Gayetty, and the poison could kill you! (Okay, looks like they weren’t above a little false advertising.) Printed paper was covered in ink. You’d never put that gross stuff in your mouth, right? So, Gayetty reasoned, why would you touch it to “the tenderest part of the body corporate”?

Gayetty's medicated paper ad

Library of Congress

Response: “I also wouldn’t shit in my mouth, but shit’s on my asshole, so I guess poison don’t hurt my asshole.” 

This reasoning swayed few people. Not till the introduction of toilet paper rolls in 1890 by the Scott Paper Company did people start seeing toilet paper as a product worth buying. At this point, people finally shifted from saying, “nope, you can wipe my ass with that product” to “sure, seriously this time, you can wipe my ass with that product.”  

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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