Automatic for the people

Convenience and common sense collide in much of today’s gadgetry

Elevators are one of many energy- guzzling inventions used mostly by people who don’t need them.

Elevators are one of many energy- guzzling inventions used mostly by people who don’t need them.

Photo By David Robert

Trivia question: Who invented the escalator? Answer: A man named Jesse W. Reno, son of Jesse L. Reno, for whom The Biggest Little City was named.

Tougher trivia question: Why did he invent the escalator? Answer: Ummm …

That’s right, Mr. Reno didn’t have any practical application in mind when he built the first moving staircase in 1892. He thought it would be a novelty. Little did he know, American malls and airports in the 20th century would come to depend on his big, expensive, steel-made, energy-guzzling invention to transport shoppers and travelers all the way up one flight of stairs.

What’s the green connection? Generally unnecessary machines that do things most of us are perfectly capable of doing ourselves use up a whole lot of natural resources.

Obviously, people with certain health conditions may need some extra assistance. But the rest of us have little excuse.

Take the typical public restroom. You walk in, do your thing, stand up, and the toilet flushes itself. You go wash your hands, and the soap dispenses itself while the water turns itself on and off. You walk over to dry your hands, and the automatic dispenser gives you a paper towel, or the automatic air machine delivers a blast of hot wind.

There was a time when people did all of these things for themselves. Now I know what you’re going to say: “But if we didn’t have these machines, it would take many seconds to air-dry my hands, and people would waste water and soap and paper towels while toilets were continually clogged.

You’re certainly right. But people wave their hands around until they get enough water and soap and paper towels, and I’d like to believe we could re-learn how to flush toilets and conserve water.

The kitchen is another great place to look at the disconnect between necessary and prevalent. A lot of people still have electric can openers. It’s just as quick to use a manual version, and you can still open a can when the electricity goes out.

How about the garbage disposal? Whoever invented that gizmo made a fortune, didn’t he? (John W. Hammes in 1927.) It’s mostly banned in the European Union because of the increased load on wastewater treatment plants, but you can’t find a new home in the United States without one. Viable alternative: Scrape the plate, and use a strainer thingy in the sink.

Luxury cars are another good place to find resource-intensive items in the “just because we can” category. A typical Lexus LX-570 has mirrors that move themselves, a camera that helps you back up, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, voice-activated HDD navigation system, and a Glass Breakage Sensor. It does not yet come with a refrigerator.

You can walk through automatic doors to buy replacement heads for your automatic toothbrush while you wait in line at the automatic check-out. Or head to the automatic walkway in the airport after you check your luggage at the automatic kiosk.

Do we really need these things built into our lives? We’re used to them, and they seem convenient, but maybe we have higher priorities now. Maybe we can do without.