Thinking outside the ice box

Posted March 5, 2015

In 1806, daring entrepreneur, Frederic Tudor, set sail from Boston bound for the West Indies with a cargo of 80 tons of ice. While we’ve all heard the adage about the difficulties of selling ice in the arctic, Tudor found selling ice in the tropics to be equally challenging. He failed on his first several attempts. The cargo arrived just fine, but residents of tropical climates had never experienced cold. They had no idea why they would want ice or what to do with it. Tudor persisted and fifteen years and several trips to equatorial islands later he finally began to make a profit selling ice to people in warm climates.

In his book, How We Got to Now, Steven Johnson highlights “cold” as one of six innovations that made the modern world. Cold as an innovation led to far reaching changes in how we eat, where we live, and our pastimes, to name just a few.

Johnson’s book (also a PBS documentary) is a fascinating read about the impact of some fundamental innovations on how we live. This got me to thinking about which inventions, on a more micro level, have impacted my life.

In my mother’s early years her family had neither a refrigerator (they had an ice box) nor a hot water heater. My grandmother celebrated the day she purchased a vacuum cleaner–no more beating carpets. My mother delighted in her first clothes dryer, purchased while awaiting the arrival of her seventh child (me –and I think she was more excited about the arrival of the clothes dryer). I take these and other labor- and time-saving appliances for granted all while enjoying the time they afford me to focus on other aspects of life.

Ironically, I spend that time researching and evaluating ways to convince people to use less energy when they are operating those very appliances (along with air conditioners, electronics, furnaces, etc.) that free me from many domestic tasks of old. As a result I have an uneasy relationship with many modern conveniences, so many of which can be viewed as contributing to our environmental problems. But, Johnson inspires optimism by frequently pointing to the ways that innovations have improved our lives and helped society.

Johnson also illustrates that contrary to popular myth, innovation rarely comes in a single “a-ha!” moment to a lone inventor. Even the lightbulb, frequently used as an icon of the “a-ha” moment was developed over time and through collaboration. Innovations are often a “slow hunch” developed over decades by many people working independently and collaboratively to develop new technologies and to find novel ways to use old technologies.

Fortunately I work in an industry and for a firm that values collaboration and community. Whether it’s a new invention or a new use for an old invention, I look forward to collaborating about new ways to solve our energy problems…in my free time while my appliances wash and dry the family laundry and dirty dishes.