Perceivings: Go pound rocks

The author and a friend. Courtesy photo.

By Alan Dean Foster

The term “over-engineered” is a common one. It usually refers to something like emplacing three buttons on a car dash when a single button would accomplish the same task. Or installing multiple controls on a TV when the result is little more than duplication. Not to mention gadgets like expensive electric juicers, when all you need to do is put a neatly sliced hemisphere of fruit (orange, lime, pamplemousse, whatever) atop an old-fashioned glass or ceramic cone and — push down.

We have come to expect devices to handle such everyday chores for us. Sometimes they’re useful. Sometimes repetitious. Occasionally they expand and diversify in a way no one could have anticipated. Who saw the humble telephone replacing, for many folks, an entire computer? For that matter, who saw the formerly hideously expensive home computer replacing the abacus? After all, an abacus requires no electricity and allows one to do sums quite well, just as the slide rule permitted manual, non-battery-powered calculations.

But sometimes, well, you just have to shake your head at some of the developments that inflict themselves on the modern world in the name of advancing technology.

I’m speaking, of course, about laundry.

Laundry stock image, photo by Nik MacMillan, via Unsplash.

In many parts of the world people — by whom I mean women — still do laundry by hand. You take your basket of clothing down to the local river that you hope is not too polluted from the companies upstream making cell phones and electric juicers, soak the attire in the current, wring it out, rub it against flat rocks, and soak it again, repeating as often as necessary. When you think you’ve got all the dirt and shit and dead bugs out of your clothing, you spread it out to dry in the sun. No batteries required.

It’s labor intensive. It’s backbreaking work. So people invented clotheslines to at least help with the drying. Then when metal-bashing became practical, steel washtubs were developed. Wooden mangles were added. As technology accelerated, electric washers were invented. Someone had the bright idea to add soap to the wash. Not just any soap, but soap especially designed to go in the washer. Lo, detergent was born, and it was proclaimed Good.

The first laundry detergent consisted of ground-up … soap. Soon it became more specialized, because specialization equals profits. Niche detergents were invented. There was detergent for silks, detergent for jeans, detergent for everything you can think of. Bleach came along to make whites whiter than white. Then softeners, most welcome among those who drew hard water from wells and delinquent urban water authorities. Someone thought to counter the wash “smell” by developing additives that added fragrance to the wash, so that your favorite dude gym shorts could smell like … I dunno, lavender? Coquille St. Jacques? Attar of roses?

Detergent, bleach, softener, fragrance: The list of laundry additives is doubtless longer by now. What fascinates me is that there are folks who attend prestigious universities to obtain a degree in chemistry who then go on to develop better — detergent, bleach, softener, and fragrance. And there are companies like Unilever that will pay them plenty to do so. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there are specialty degrees offered in laundry chemistry. After all, Edward E. “Doc” Smith, creator of the early ground-breaking science-fiction “Lensmen” tales, had a Ph.D in doughnut chemistry. Why not laundry chemistry?

The chemicals used in laundry had to become more specific because the machines they fed grew more specialized. Nowadays it seems like to do ordinary laundry you need your own degree in engineering. There are innumerable choices to make and buttons to push. You can buy a washer-dryer combo that is controllable via the internet (how do you respond if someone hacks your socks?). We have “HE” washers that, of course, require you to use HE-specialty detergent.

Under development are washers (although that term will not be strictly applicable) that eschew the use of water altogether, cleaning clothing by treating it with sonic waves to shake off the dirt. Other washers will use infrared technology to kill germs. I bet they’ll all work. I also bet they’ll cost thousands of dollars. Because, you know, upscaling also drives profits.

You can still buy Speed Queen washers and dryers. These are the simple washers and dryers you usually see in coin laundromats. The ones that don’t require an advanced degree to operate. They’re made right here in the USA (Ripon, WI.) and are as simple to use as can be, though the company has been forced to add digital controls to some models in order to compete with imports. They’re also virtually indestructible, which is why they dominate the coin laundry business. But the company still struggles to sell them to the general public. Not enough bells, whistles, and no internet connection.

Now we’re told to use the cold-cold water combination for much of our laundry. The gals working the rocks at the riverside must be smiling.


Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.

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