Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#102, August 29, 2000


by Marylaine Block

Beneath the bland exterior of many an ordinary American lurks the mad dreams of the would-be inventor and entrepreneur. And why not? Though officially we believe in the benefits of hard work, we've never yet passed up a chance to get machines to do the hard work for us. It took Americans to invent the plow that broke the plains, the birthday cake candle extinguisher, and the motorized ice cream cone.

We also firmly believe that technology can solve those annoying little problems, like mice, for instance. If we didn't believe the world would beat a path to our door, there wouldn't be thousands of U.S. patents for mousetraps. (Of course, whether you guillotine them, poison them, or lure them into miniature gas chambers, mice remain. More mousetraps are clearly in our future.)

Americans have invented more devices to stop snoring than there are snorers. For people who sleep through alarm clocks, there's an alarm bed that forcibly ejects you at the chosen hour. There's even a timer fork that rings when you've been eating too long.

We've also built machines to make us more socially acceptable - edible deodorant, a knife with a mirror, so you can tell you have spinach between your teeth, a combination ring/toothpick so you can discreetly remove it, a wearable odor-removing filter for the flatulent. To make us more appealing to the opposite sex, we've built machines to make us taller, and machines to give us dimples where God neglected to.

Some products, of course, are inexpensive little nothings that appeal to our sense of humor -- whoopee cushions and fake roaches, teddy bears dressed in military uniforms, attesting to our right to arm bears, animal-track shoe-soles, and leashes that make animal noises (for folks who have no animals to walk).

A tour through American patents and failed products is a matter of going from "Why didn't I think of that?" to "What were they thinking?" Yes, three-legged pantyhose do solve the problem of a sudden unexpected run in one leg, butů The combination bird-trap and cat-feeder overlooks the fact that for cats, the foreplay is as important as the eating. And while the combination clipboard/gun might just do the trick of encouraging folks to cooperate with census takers, it probably wouldn't do much to solve our distrust of government.

The basic frisbee was as simple an invention as you could ask for, but once everyone has one, you have to create variations to give people a reason to buy another. Thus we have glow-in-the-dark frisbees, gold-plated frisbees, frisbee-shaped dog biscuits, and flavored frisbees (the idea of a "postman flavor" was, happily, rejected).

Not all product extensions work, of course. It was reasonable for Gerber's to extend their product line during the baby bust of the seventies. They were also right in seeing in the growing senior market a need for readymade individual meals. But packaging those individual meals in jars for the very people who got their reluctant babies to eat by playing "You take a bite, then I'll take a bite"? No wonder it failed. When mothers think of Gerber's, "yummy" is not the word that comes to mind.

R.J. Reynolds' scientists labored for years to produce a smokeless cigarette. Only when it flopped miserably did it occur to the company that smokers LIKE smoke. Reynolds had spent huge amounts of time and money inventing a product for non-smokers, the very people who wouldn't ever use it.

But Americans are undaunted by failure. After all, Edison tried hundreds of light bulb designs before finding one that worked. And besides, who can possibly predict what the public will decide to buy? If sauerkraut pizza succeeds, why not try jalapeno soda? If pet rocks, why not a Santa Claus detector for Christmas stockings?

So when you see a prim-looking little old lady, or a man who looks like a middle-aged accountant, don't dismiss them. Look again. Behind those placid facades they may be dreaming of self-dusting bookshelves and sail-powered bicycles and programmable Christmas trees.

Dreaming big. (Or crazy.) It's what America is all about.

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