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Greatest inventions? Well, it depends on the need at the time
What are the greatest inventions ever?
One of them, I might have said in the summer of 1955, was air conditioning because my grandmother, Mama Stevens, was living with us and my brother and I slept in the attic on a mattress laid on the flooring. Our baby sister moved into a bed with Mama, who was a rather large woman. Sister quickly learned to hold onto her side of the bed to keep from rolling over against her bed partner.
Our mother was changing the sheets on our attic bed one day when she stepped back to admire her work. She stepped off the flooring and one leg went crashing through the kitchen ceiling. Seeing Mother’s bare, scratched appendage just dangling there, Mama Stevens stood amidst of the sheetrock debris and yelled at the leg: “Bonelle, what are you doing up there?”
Mother couldn’t think of an answer at the time.
But, you know, I probably wouldn’t have said air conditioning was one of the greatest inventions back then because we didn’t have it.
Air conditioning, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, was invented in 1902 by Willis Haviland Carrier. (It was really Dr. John Gorrie who, in the 1830s, began experimenting with mechanical cooling to lower the body temperature of malaria and yellow fever victims. So the Carrier descendants should share credit with the Gorrie family.) Our family didn’t get electrical cooling until the 1960s.
I said in a column that air conditioning might have been the technological innovation that changed the nature of Southern life most dramatically. But Michael Shepherd of Lake City, Fla., wrote back saying it all depends on the person you’re asking. His grandfather was born in a log cabin in Manatee County, Fla. In 1920, he rode an ox cart across the state to see an airplane fly, and in 1969, he drove a car across the state to watch a man leave for the moon.
But the greatest invention to him was not the airplane or the car or the space shuttle or air conditioning. It was window screens. Once his family got them, the windows could be left open and the bugs left outside.
Affordable wire mesh window screens, by the way, were introduced in 1861, but affordable didn’t mean everybody got them.
It was the same with air conditioning. When I was a newspaper boy, I visited subscribers’ homes every Friday to collect 52 cents for a week’s worth of papers. One house, I remember, had air conditioning. The woman of the house barely cracked the door to pay me, but I could still feel the cool air on my sweaty face. Air conditioning was a luxury.
But it’s wintertime now, and we don’t appreciate air conditioning the way we will later on. Greatest inventions? Well, it’s all about what we need at the time. When my mother’s leg was dangling from the kitchen ceiling, she might have said: “You know, stronger sheetrock would be nice.”
Phil Hudgins’ column is published in many newspapers around the Southeast.