Saturday, February 14, 2009

Innovation: Crock Pot

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the most modern bits of technology you would see in my apartment.  The list included a Crock Pot.  I was talking to a friend yesterday and mentioned this.  She said 'Crock Pots have been around forever.' and was surprised when I told her that they were invented in the 70's.

Her assumption is understandable, and I believe it is common.  A Crock Pot is an incredibly simple piece of technology.  It is just a metal container with a heating element and a piece of pottery.  You could make one in your garage with spare parts, even if you knew almost nothing about electricity.  It could easily have been invented in the late 1800's and sold in the early 1900's, when electricity was first run into homes.  Yet the early days of electricity were driven by technologies far more sophisticated.

The incandescent electric light is a marvel of engineering and design.  It is a contraption of glass and metal, made with enough precision to hold a vacuum.  Inside you find a filament carefully constructed from of an exotic material.  It was far superior to other forms of lighting.  People installed electricity for the sole purpose of having electric light.  The power outlets that we are familiar with were not invented until later.  Really old electrical appliances were designed not with a plug, but with something that screwed into a light bulb socket.

The electric refrigerator is another amazing bit of mad science, a marvel of physics, chemistry, and engineering.  To make one, you first need to construct a gas not known to nature, with unique and carefully calibrated physical properties.  Then, to design the cooling mechanism, you need to have advanced knowledge of thermal properties of materials, pressure, and fluid mechanics.  Then you need to put it all together with clever engineering and advanced fabrication techniques.

If you were an alien looking at the technological history of the human race, you would be stunned to learn that the electric light was widely sold over 70 years before the Crock Pot, and that the refrigerator was a fixture of the food preparation process over 40 years before the Crock Pot was available.  From an engineering standpoint, this is madness.  How could a species invent something so complicated so many years before it invented something so simple?  And why would it take so long to invent something that makes life so much easier?

Answering this question requires knowledge of human psychology.  People are amazingly clever when it comes to tinkering with things to satisfy short-term desires, but amazingly bad at imagining new ways of living life.  The early tech was an exaple of the former, and the Crock Pot is an example of the latter.

In a way, these earlier technologies are the result of narrow-minded thought.  Despite all of their technological wizardry, they show a lack of imagination.  This is because they were simply a better way of doing what people had always done.  The electric light replaced the gas light.  The refrigerator replaced the icebox.  They did nothing to change the way people lived, except to make life more convenient, and to make things available to more people.

The Crock Pot is an innovation that, in some ways, represents a more radical type of genius.  For all of human history, cooking was a hands-on process that required constant monitoring.  The cook started work with raw ingredients, and was required to be in the kitchen until the final product was delivered.  This pattern was never changed.  Even if something had to bake in an oven for several hours, the cook would usually need to make some adjustment, or be in the kitchen doing something else.  This was not just a matter of food quality, it was a matter of safety.  Leaving a stove or oven unattended meant risking a deadly and destructive fire.

All kitchen technology before the Crock Pot did nothing to change this way of doing things.  Nobody ever thought that it would be really nice if you could throw cheap ingredients into a pot in the morning and have a nice meal waiting for you when you came home in the evening.  In fact, the original inventor of the Crock Pot was not even thinking of this.  The thing was invented as a more convenient way to cook beans.  It wasn't until later that some unsung genius hero realized its true potential.

There are a lot of lessons in this.  The first is that you don't need technical knowledge in order to be a great inventor.  All it takes is a clever idea, and you can use commonly available tools to make people's life easier and make yourself a decent amount of money.  Think outside old habits, dream of new ways of living, and make it happen by connecting your thought to the tools in the world.  I am convinced that there are hundreds of things like the Crock Pot that have not yet been invented, but will seem simple and obvious after they are.

The second is that new technology will continue to improve lives for hundreds of years, usually in ways that were never imagined by the inventors.  The Crock Pot can only exist because we have electricity in everybody's house, but nobody would ever build an electrical grid just to give everybody a Crock Pot.  The early adopters of electricity wouldn't bother to make cooking more convenient, because they had servants to do the cooking.

The final lesson is that engineering skill is a commodity.  If you have a clever, simple, clearly defined goal, then you can always find an engineer to make it happen.  There is an army of technological wizards waiting for your command.  In the absence of original ideas, engineers will inevitably use their talents to make marginal improvements on our existing way of life.  This is very useful, and it is a great benefit to humanity, but you quickly hit the point where further improvement is not worth the effort.

This is why nobody should be worried about India and China producing vast quantities of engineers and technical specialists.  It doesn't really change anything.  True advances in human civilization require invention and creativity that cannot be taught in a school.  It requires consumers who are willing and able to try new things, instead of being enslaved to the past.  If America can keep its culture of experimentation and innovation, we will continue to find ways to improve our lives.  I am confident that we will.

1 comment:

recipe girl said...

Lovely essay...and inspiring conclusion! and you're right, the crockpot is simple genius.