Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Producers vs. Predators post WW II

When I first understood that Thorstein Veblen believed that the greatest human distinction was between the Leisure Class and the Industrial Class--between business and industry, I was so stunned by the quality of the insight, I actually gasped.  I could immediately think of 100s of examples of each.

Ordinarily, it should be much easier to click off examples of Leisure Class behavior because this sort of behavior--military, religion, sport--attracts media attention to the point where it has come to completely dominate the culture.  But I didn't grow up in a Leisure Class world even though I grew up in a parsonage.  And it's hard to be more Leisure Class than a clergyman.

There are many ways to illustrate an Industrial Class childhood but my personal example is toys.  I was probably an annoying child--always pestering folks to explain something or other.  So anything that occupied my time in big chunks was probably most welcome.  Enter the build-it toys.  My parents probably discovered how much I enjoyed these things by accident but once they found out, they repeated the experiment.

This toy is called Skyline which consists of small plastic parts that push together. This "masterpiece" was an attempt to see how tall a building could be made using all the parts in the set.  It is taller than I am even before being placed on a stool.  I have discovered that playing with the light meter was a good distraction while my dad sets up the picture.

By the next Christmas, I have been given an Erector Set.  (Set no 6 1/2 page 40--pdf alert).

This set came with an electric motor that plugged into the wall.  Here I am fiddling with gearing because I am going to power up the windmill I have built.  The power section is the blue part just to the left of my right hand while the steel stamping sections directly below my hands contain the step-down gears.  Let's see, you have a 110 volt motor turning gears you can make turn at high speeds, connected to a propellor shaft with store string, mounted on a structure bolted together by a nine-year-old's hands.  What COULD go wrong?

Never hurt myself, however.  I was appropriately afraid of motors that plugged into wall outlets.  But I am sure there were folks who DID hurt themselves with these toys.  So even though Erector sets are considered classics, they are not made anymore--at least not like mine.  I have wondered how many of the folks who got Apollo 11 to the moon played with Erector sets when young?  My guess is most of them--and most of them loved it.

The cheap thrill in the summer was kite flying.  The kites were only $0.10 but the string could get expensive.  And on the prairie, there was plenty of wind and space for kites.

But nothing got my attention like flying model airplanes.  I built over a dozen of them.  This one was probably the most complex.  It was a kit from a company named Jetco called the Sabre Stunt.  You can still buy the plans.

The reason flying models are so engaging is that getting model airplanes to fly requires you understand the science of flight.  It took humanity from the dawn of recorded history until 1903 to figure out powered flight.  By 1966, flying had become an amusement for a teenager living out on the North American high prairie.  A textbook example of technological diffusion.

And then there was the summer my brother found a packing crate that could be made into a treehouse.  So we did.

What is amazing in all this is that the legal profession has just about made a childhood like mine illegal.  I cannot imagine how an Erector Set with its dozens of small parts and a 110-volt electric motor could be sold to children.  Or model airplanes that need butyrate dope to build and nitromethane / methanol fuel to fly.  And even I am pretty sure a couple of kids shouldn't be allowed to build a treehouse 25' in the air out of recycled scrap lumber.

But damn, it was fun.  I would go on to engage in historic preservation and process invention but none of this would have happened without a culture that had turned science into a plaything for children.  And such a childhood taught just volumes about persistence and planning and the other prime concerns of the Industrial Classes.  So when I encountered Veblen, I immediately appreciated his understanding that the important distinction IS between the builders and the Leisure Class.  Because as the son of a clergyman in a world of science-based toys, I had seen both sides so clearly.

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