Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Greatest Invention Since…

Ever since I was a young boy I have heard people make reference to a new invention as "The greatest invention since sliced bread". Obviously the invention in 1928 of a mechanical machine to slice bread was a big deal to people in the 20th century. What took them so long to invent a machine with such a simple use is beyond me but I also can spend 2 hours staring at the TV wondering if I want to turn it on and watch it. Before the invention of this machine people, (gasp), had to slice bread with a bread knife one slice at a time. The inhumanity of it all!

History shows that Otto Frederick Rohwedder, originally of Des Moines, Iowa introduced a machine to slice bread on July 7, 1928, a date which also happened to be his 48th birthday. He first came up with the idea in 1912 but apparently just sat in his workshop for the next 16 years trying to find a faster, more efficient way to slice the bread for his daily peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Now Otto, Ot to his friends, wasn't a rocket scientist, primarily because they hadn't invented rockets yet, but he was from Iowa. Now Iowa is a major wheat producing state and I can only assume that there was a plethora of unsliced bread sitting on the shelf at the local general store just begging for this invention. I have a picture in my mind of unruly crowds in the streets of Des Moines protesting the governments inaction in coming up with a better way to cut a slice of bread off of the end of the loaf. Especially since slicing bread required that they make an effort.

Slicing bread wasn't new, the concept of the entire loaf of bread sliced at one time and prepackaged was. My struggle with sliced bread as the greatest invention since 1928 is that it is also a slap in the face to a lot of inventors before and after 1928. If the invention of the automatic bread slicer was the highpoint of inventing then inventing before and after 1928 must have been demoralizing.

Alexander Graham Bell invents the phone, Thomas Edison and his 1,063 patents, the building of the first a-bomb, Al Gore inventing the internet, they all pale in comparison to the invention of mechanically sliced bread.

Mr. Edison, "We have harnessed the power of electricity and directed its flow into this contraption of glass and fiber and have produced artificial light. The world will never be the same."

Assistant, "Unless we could find a way to slice a whole loaf of bread in one go. Now that would be something."

Edison, "Damn you!"

To be fair, Otto did try to multi-task in producing the first bread slicer. Up until 1928 bread wasn't available in a package either. So he had some pressure on him to produce. Not only did he have to slice bread in one go but also come up with the idea of a package for it. As mentioned, Otto came up with the idea in 1912 but apparently just thought about it for the next four years until 1916 when he actually decided to design it. I understand that as sometimes it would take my kids that long to clean up their room after I tell them to.

By 1916 Otto had a factory and a plan and he was really thinking he had something. Sadly and typical of the early 1900's his factory in Illinois caught fire in 1917 and burned to the ground. I think a cow started the fire. Of course the blueprints and his prototype bread slicer were now ashes and molten metal. The thought of starting over, World War I, and the fact that he was making his sandwiches out of hoagie rolls now put the dream of sliced bread out of his mind. In 1926 something happened that would change Otto's place in history.

Someone had previously invented toast but in 1926 Toastmaster invented the pop-up toaster. In 1927, seizing upon an opportunity and using his life savings, Otto pulled himself up by the jock strap, girded his loins, fresh courage took, and invented, patented, and introduced the first mechanical bread slicer and wrapper. It was such a hit that by 1930 Wonder Bread began selling pre-packaged sliced bread and all the bakers in the world copied them. Sliced bread was such a big deal that the sale of toasters skyrocketed. All because Otto's machine allowed for a standard size of bread. How visionary. I'm in awe.

Let's pause out of respect for Otto.

Of course, during the depression and before TV people were amused by the simplest things.

The industrial revolution, based on the invention of the mechanical slicer, peaked in 1928. Now, every new invention is compared to the invention of mechanical sliced bread. Everything invented before sliced bread barely garners recognition. Things that were the best invention prior to sliced bread include; fire, the wheel, dynamite, the light bulb, the flush toilet, waiting in line, two-seat outhouses, locomotives, airplanes, ships, and running water, just to name a few, don't have the appeal to the public of mechanically sliced bread in a plastic bag. And since 1928, TV, cell phones, rocket ships, computers, jet airplanes, Slinky's, the internet, Spam, Twinkies, and the remote control, have all been disappointing failures in comparison.

In Iowa Otto Rohwedder became something of a celebrity. Who can resist the man who invented the mass slicing of bread? But the attention of an adoring public and the paparazzi over his invention eventually drove Otto to take up residence in Michigan where people believed that the best invention before and since sliced bread was something called the automobile. Otto died in 1960 in Concord, Michigan without so much as a mention in the local paper.

I read that his coffin was in the shape of a loaf of bread with a big plastic bag around it and a giant twisty tie.

R.I.P. Otto, we shall never forget you.


The Crash Test Dummy said...

Oh you're goooooooooood.

Alex said...

I was searching for the most significant invention since the nuclear bomb, and came across this.
You've got to love the internet.
This article is the best thing since sliced bread.