I have to admit, so far, things have been pretty easy for the baby boomers.  

As a child, I didn't have to weed acres of lima beans, endure a depression, or walk five miles in the snow to school.  World War II was fought--and won--by my parents' generation. (Compare North Vietnam to the German and Japanese war machines and you can see just how easy Americans have had it recently.  Not that I had to fight even that war.)   If my teeth had grown in crooked, there were dentists to straighten them. Rock and Roll was born (if not perfected). The public schools were decent, polio was licked, franchised fast food was sprouting, and sitcoms had been invented (if not perfected).  We got to buy first edition Beatle albums for five bucks.   And best of all, we were born in time to scarf up the good houses, jobs, and money before the next generation could get here.

While it's true that most of the elements that make early 21st century society livable were already in place before the arrival of the baby boomers, my generation witnessed the development of certain key technologies crucial to today's way of life.  Some, like the "computer brain on a chip" and the "information superhighway," don't need me to help people appreciate them. Others are more obscure, and taken for granted.  So without further ado, Three Inventions that Changed the World...



The Plastic Straw.  When I was a kid, drinking straws were made from paper.  Imagine that—paper.  That's the stuff they make paper towels out of. Talk about strong when wet—not!  Oh, a paper straw was hollow all right, and you might be able to slurp up a Coke with one, if you were quick about it. A paper straw was a time bomb, a soggy drink-tube that could become unusably mushy, at either end, and at any time.  When a paper straw collapsed, it wasn't a pretty thing.  It happened suddenly and completely; cheek muscles could be strained.  Worse, high viscosity drinks like milkshakes were simply impossible to consume through a paper straw.  You GenX-ers out there—imagine not being able to drink a milkshake through a straw.

With a few deft strokes of chalk on a nameless Monsanto engineer's blackboard, the plastic straw was born, ultimately to change national beverage consumption habits forever.  I can't remember the last time a plastic straw collapsed on me, except maybe trying to drink a Wendy's shake, which is almost a frozen yogurt anyway, and even if you could find a titanium/carbon fiber combination rigid enough you'd probably suck yourself into a hernia trying.


The Bic Pen.  When I was a kid, you couldn't buy a reliable ink writing instrument, at any price.  Let's review the pen options available during the Kennedy Administration.

bulletExpensive, old-fashioned fountain pens—writing technology descended from bird feathers! These fragile things made unpleasant scratchy noises where the tip met the paper, smeared like crazy, and had to be filled by hand with the messiest stuff on earth, pure ink. They did mostly work, however.
bulletUnlike cheap ballpoint pens (e.g., the 39˘ Lindy), which didn't work at all.  [There are unsubstantiated accounts of Lindy ballpoints working for brief periods.  In September, 1962, a Kentucky man was supposedly able to write down a message with all seven digits of a telephone number recorded in actual ink, rather than just an embossed depression.  Later that same year, an Arizona schoolgirl is alleged to have been able to write all of her name and much of her teacher's name at the top of a test paper before her brand-new Lindy began to skip.]
bulletOne's final option was an expensive ballpoint pen—perhaps a Sheaffer, Papermate, or Parker. These pens went for $1 and up, and worked just well enough to justify the price differential between themselves and the Lindy class—but even the best of these could seldom write a paragraph as long as this one without skipping at least once. 

Then one day the Bic pen arrived. It wrote first time, every time, and cost just 19˘.   I never met a Bic pen that wouldn't write reliably. I understand even Lindy pens work now.



The Parallel Windshield Wiper Pattern.   When I was a kid, cars had fins, no seatbelts, and huge chrome knobs on the radio, and by god, we LIKED IT THAT WAY! In those days, windshield wipers worked like a pair of mirror-imaged synchronized swimmers. First, both would sweep towards the middle of the windshield (and towards each other), and then to the edge, away from the other. One cleared a fan-shaped patch for the driver to see through; the other, a similar area for the front seat passenger. A perfectly sensible arrangement.

One rainy day around 1962 I saw a European car with both wipers moving in the same direction—-first both to the left, then both to the right.. This stratagem flew in the face of common sense and long automotive tradition. How silly, how wrong it looked!  But within a couple of years, cars all over America were sporting clean windshields—-especially on the driver's side—-rather than two fan-shaped holes in a dirty windshield.


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