Contain yourself

I’ve got a question. What was the most important invention of the 20th century?

There’s a lot to choose from. There are the usual suspects, like the airplane, the computer, or the Internet, but picking one of those gives short shrift to the many other standouts that help get us through each day – starting when you get dressed, as zippers and Velcro were vast improvements over buttons.

As you make yourself some scrambled eggs, take a moment to give thanks for Teflon, the first of the non-stick coatings. And then there’s the milk carton, invented by John Van Wormer in 1954. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and I hate the modern innovation of putting the plastic spout on the side, rather than opening it to make its own spout, as nature and Van Wormer clearly intended. It’s like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

After you get over your irritation with the people who put the spout on the side of the milk carton, you probably get in your car to go to work. Although the automobile itself dates to the late 19th century, countless amenities – including the car radio, windshield wipers, and heated seats – were added in the 20th. And then, on the job, you’re undoubtedly grateful for neoprene, which keeps you warm and dry as you tend to your oyster farm.

When you get home again, and face down the ever-present question, “What’s for dinner?” you’ll be relieved to find that many inventors spent time figuring out ways to keep children entertained. Perhaps you’ll break out the Lincoln Logs, or Mr. Potato Head. Or maybe set the kids to work with Sunday’s comics and some Silly Putty.

No? Are your kids too jaded to be entertained by Barbie, yo-yos, or crayons? Too sedentary for Frisbees or Hula Hoops? Then break out the video games.

That’ll give you enough time to rustle up something to eat. As you do, take a moment to thank Clarence Birdseye, who discovered flash freezing and is responsible for the very high quality of frozen vegetables. Which you can cook, quickly and easily, in your microwave oven. Any leftovers can be stored in Tupperware.

After dinner, once the kids are in bed, it’s time for the adults to be entertained. Scrabble! Crossword puzzles! LSD!

Although I’m convinced we could live without television and cell phones (harrumph), I think, all in all, the 20th century improved our lives immeasurably – which makes it damn hard to focus on the single most important invention. As grateful as we all are for zippers and Tupperware, the serious candidates are obviously the usual suspects, plus a couple of dark horses like penicillin and duct tape.

But I have a candidate I’d like to submit for your consideration. It’s not the kind of invention that we have in our house, or that we drive to work, or that we use on the job (unless we’re Teamsters). I have long believed that the single most important innovation of the 20th century is container shipping.

I was reminded of this yesterday, as Kevin and I faced down one of the biggest jobs on the oyster farm – bringing the seed in to spend the winter in the refrigerator.

The seed began as 150,000 pinhead-size oysters back in May. Like humans, oysters grow at different rates, and the biggest of them are now almost two inches. The smallest, the runts, are less than one inch. What’s remarkable about this year’s seed is that we seem to have almost 100% survival.

We get 150,000 seed assuming that we’ll lose some portion of them in the first year. In fact, we assume we’ll lose a larger portion than other people do, given that we’re new at this and we make plenty of mistakes. We’re set up to grow out something in the neighborhood of 100,000 oysters at a comfortable density, so 150,000 is usually a good starting point.

This year, though, every single one of those 150,000 seems to still be with us. Which means that, next year, we’re going to have to accommodate them somehow – a problem we’ll deal with in the spring. What it meant yesterday is that bringing them in was a big job.

The seed has to come in not because small oysters can’t survive the winter – they can. The equipment, though, probably can’t. Most years, there’s ice in Barnstable Harbor, and it will destroy anything you leave out. Although we will take our chances and leave some almost-grown oysters out in a few trays, the seed is next year’s livelihood, and it has to come in.

It’s spent the last few months in stiff mesh bags that we attach to the trays that contain the mature oysters, and we have to transfer it to onion bags – soft, light, and stackable – to bring it in. That’s about five tides’ worth of work, since each of the 437 stiff mesh bags has to be detached from the tray, opened, and poured into an onion bag. Then the onion bag has to be securely tied, and the mesh bag has to be put in the boat and taken home for winter storage.

We finished that job on Thursday, so yesterday was earmarked for bringing the onion bags in.

The 437 bags average about five pounds each, for a total weight of 2000 pounds, give or take. To bring them in, we have to transfer them three times – from the trays to the boat, from the boat to the truck, and from the truck to the pallet. Once palletized, they get wrapped with plastic, covered with damp burlap, and transferred, by forklift, to the cooler (a refrigerated shipping container!).

Until the point where the forklift takes over, we get very little help from mechanical advantage. We have to lift the bags, one by one, and carry them to wherever they’re going. When they’re going from the trays to the boat, we can use a cart or a wheelbarrow, and that helps a little, but we still have to get the bags into and out of the cart. One by one.

It is somewhere around bag 273 that you start thinking about container shipping. The idea that, rather than move things one by one, you can put them into some kind of container and then let a series of very powerful pieces of equipment take over, moving the whole container from shipyard to ship, from ship to shipyard, from shipyard to truck, is immensely appealing.

Chances are good that your computer, your microwave, your windshield wipers, and your Lincoln Logs all came to you by container shipping. Instead of being moved piece by piece, by people, they were moved container by container, by machine. Which is one of the reasons they’re cheaper than oysters.

So, next time you zip up a dress or pop open a Tupperware, spare a moment for Malcom McLean, who is generally credited for inventing shipping as we know it. And next time you walk in to a Manhattan restaurant, and see Barnstable oysters on the menu at $3. a pop, think of our aching backs. And enjoy the oysters – they’re at their best this time of year.

8 people are having a conversation about “Contain yourself

  1. I’m a big fan and picking and choosing what technology I want from which century. I love my polyethylene black plastic pipes and electric fences – products of the 1900’s. The 1800’s gave us some great swine genetics. And the time machine I procured in the 23rd century is da bomb. Unfortunately I mistakenly went back to the 22nd century and killed the inventor’s grandfather so they’re no longer being made in this universe. 🙂

    • Well, Walter, since you’re one of the few who has a time machine, perhaps it’s your bounden duty to go fix that little grandfather snafu so the rest of us can get our time machines. Or, you could just use it for world domination.

      • Funny thing is when I tried to go back and fix the problem I may have caused a time tangle that is tightening to a knot. It appears that in the process of attempting to mitigate the error I may have inadvertently damaged the multi-verse such that all universes where time travel were possible have now been choked off into the past and all future universes beyond April 1st, 2017 12:01:03 won’t have time travel. I’m trying to work out the necessary mathematics to untangle that temporal knot before the singularity occurs because if my calculations are correct the time machine won’t be able to pass through the narrow aperture at noon of that day. That would have had been a bummer…

  2. The details of oyster farming are fascinating. I’ll never eat another one again without thinking of your aching back. 🙂

    But what I really wanted to comment on was the shipping container. Its story is not complete without considering the refrigeration element, which was a critical part of the innovation that drastically changed how people eat the world over. Without it, people like me who live in the midwest could never have fresh oysters (or other seafood), not to mention dozens, or maybe hundreds, of other foods.

    For several years, I wrote technical documentation for Thermo King, the company that brought the world refrigerated shipping (now a division of Ingersol Rand). It was founded here in Minnesota by a businessman named Joe Numero and his partner, Fred Jones. If I remember the story correctly, Jones invented a device to play sound with movies (!), which caught Numero’s attention. Numero took Jones under his wing because he (Jones) was a mechanical savant. A business associate of Numero’s was complaining to him about having lost a whole load of chickens to a broken down truck. Numero got the idea of refrigerated transport and asked his man Jones to go to work on it. Jones came up with the first refrigerated truck, and Thermo King was born. Today, they make refrigeration units for semi-trucks, delivery trucks, buses, and shipping containers. Maersk (what McClean’s company morphed into) is their biggest customer.

    Fred Jones also invented the ticket dispenser you still see today at movie theaters, a portable X-ray machine, and many other things. He was a black man with an elementary school education who taught himself mechanics and electronics. He remained an employee of Numero until his death and never made more than $30,000 a year.

    My contender for most important invention is probably antibiotics, as they have probably had the biggest effect on both life span and life quality. But I do agree, the shipping container is right up there. It’s a huge part of the modern food chain, and I think it’s great that you bring this to people’s attention. Knowing where our food comes from is a big part of making good choices. Thanks for a fascinating article.

    • Melanie, welcome to the Starving commentariat. You are a commenter after my own heart — you know obscure, interesting things, and tie them in to the subject at hand. A lot of the time, I pretty much talk through my hat, so I’m always grateful to have someone contribute actual, genuine facts. Now, if only you had a time machine …

      The history of food is filled with stories like yours, about Thermo King. So many people came up with ideas that ended up changing the way we eat. Thanks for adding yours. I will think of it every time I store oysters in a refrigerated shipping container.

      • If I did have a time machine, I think I’d bring someone from the 15th or 16th century to modern times, somebody like Da Vinci or Galileo. I wonder what 20th century invention would be the most shocking to them? I think they would marvel at everything (cars! electricity! ball point pens! dentistry!), but when they saw an airplane, it would put them over the edge. Flight is pretty amazing, not just for its huge impact on life but just for sheer coolness.

        Then there is the rocket and all the resulting communication satellites and Hubbles, nuclear weapons, the silicon chip and computers themselves–oh, and the Internet! I’m not sure it’s possible to narrow it down to just one thing.

        Happy New Year!

  3. By far GENETIC ENGINEERING is the greatest invention of humanity. We have touched into the natural order of life and by this invention can make humanity more efficient and productive. We can prevent the extinction of animals by introducing genetically modified animals in the wild populations. In the future we will be able to increase numbers and size of animals in the wild once we incorporate genetically modified animals into the wild. Both animals and humanity will benefit from this. (This is only from a food supply perspective, as it also important to biotechnology, medicine, etc.)

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