Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"What Could Possibly Happen...."

I walked on the boardwalk at South Beach (Staten Island's, not Miami's) for almost an hour this morning. It had just stopped raining and the sun was trying to break through. There was a wet, fragrant smell of Spring hanging in the air and, except for the steady hum of the morning rush hour traffic on Father Capodanno Boulevard, all was quiet. I know how busy our lives are, and how rarely we get a chance to just think about how lucky we are to be alive. For me this was such a moment, peaceful and spiritual, and I'm thankful it found me. I knew I'd be complaining about something soon enough, but for a while it was nice to be uplifted.

Back to business. My wife Jasmine and I had a few laughs in the car as I was driving her to work this morning. I don't recall what started the conversation; it might have been a convoy of Post Office trucks lumbering ahead of us on Tenth Avenue in Manhattan. I think I said something about who could have imagined how a solid institution like the U.S. Postal Service could be ambushed the way they were. Back in the 1950s there was little competition for the services they provided, and sending a letter across the country for three cents was still a bargain. Last year however, because of technology like e-mail, fax machines, and package delivery services who are much faster and more efficient, the U.S. Postal Service lost nearly $3 billion! We began to think about others who had successful, money-making products at some point, who were fat, dumb and happy not realizing that their golden goose was about to be cooked.

How about the guy who manufactured carbon paper? (For those of you under 60, carbon paper is paper coated on one side with a layer of a loosely bound dry ink. It is used for making one or more copies simultaneously with the creation of an original document. Carbon paper is placed between the original and a blank sheet to be copied onto. As the user writes or types on the original, the pressure from the pen or typewriter keys deposits the ink on the blank sheet, thus creating a "carbon copy" of the original document.) Anyhow, as the unsuspecting carbon paper manufacturer read his New York Times on October 22, 1938, the headlines were probably about British Prime Minister Chamberlain's now infamous "peace" pact with Hitler. He probably never saw this story buried in the business pages: "A process called "electrophotography" (later named Xerography) , was invented by a man named Chester Carlson who made the first successful copy in Astoria, New York."

Bette Nesmith Graham wanted to be an artist, however, shortly after World War II ended, she found herself divorced with a small child to support. (The child grew grew up to be Mike Nesmith of "The Monkees" fame.) She found employment as an executive secretary who took pride in her work. Graham sought a better way to correct typing errors. She remembered that artists painted over their mistakes on canvas, so why couldn’t typists paint over their mistakes? Bette put some tempera water-based paint, colored to match the stationery she used, in a bottle and took her watercolor brush to the office. It was her "Aha" moment. In 1956, Bette Nesmith Graham started the Mistake Out Company (later renamed Liquid Paper) from her North Dallas home. In 1979 the first Word Processor was introduced by a company called WordStar. The device allowed easy manipulation of computer generated text including creating, correcting, storing, retrieving and printing a document, pretty much obsoleting Liquid Paper. Don't feel too sorry for Betty though; in 1980 she sold her corporation for $47.5 million, and used the money to set up two foundations to help women find new ways to earn a living.

I feel a little sorry for the younger folks out there who never got to enjoy the magic of radio. It's become a minor medium today, but when I grew up, radio was king. The variety of programming was dazzling, as were the radio stars of the day and the big-name sponsors lining up to pay the bills. Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Ozzie and Harriet, Amos and Andy...big names whose shows occupied the same time slots week after week. In our house we listened to family favorites together, and of course I had my special shows that I listened to alone, while giving full vent to my imagination, something radio shows allowed you to do. The moguls of radio must have believed the glory days would go on forever. By the early 1940s, television was on the horizon and within a decade, would push radio into the background as a form of entertainment. Some radio stars made the transition to television, but when radio died, a lot of young imaginations died with it.

During the 1950s when AT&T (known affectionately as Ma Bell) was at the height of its power, their stock was as blue chip as any investor could want. After all, they had a monopoly on telephone communications, and everybody needed a phone. They marketed hard for multiple phones in every home, and would happily give you "Princess" phones in any color you wanted just for being their customer. Then came deregulation which spawned the "Baby Bells" and created the most ridiculous muddle ever by separating phone services into component parts so that when the damn phone broke, nobody knew who to call. As if that weren't bad enough, in April of 1973 in New York, Doctor Martin Cooper, director of R&D at Motorola, invented the modern cell phone. I can imagine the snickers and skepticism of the land-phone barons when this product hit the streets. They ain't snickering no more.

And finally, an invention that didn't really replace another product, but I'll bet that people were just thrilled when it came along....TOILET PAPER! Toilet paper dates back at least to the late 14th Century, when Chinese emperors ordered it in 2-foot x 3-foot sheets. Corncobs and pages torn from newspapers and magazines were commonly used in the early American West. The Sears catalogue was well-known in this context, and The Farmer's Almanac had a hole in it so it could be hung on a hook and the pages torn off easily. In 1857, Joseph C. Gayetty of New York started producing the first packaged toilet paper in the U.S. It consisted of pre-moistened flat sheets medicated with aloe and was named "Gayetty’s Medicated Paper". Rolled and perforated toilet paper as we know it today was invented around 1880 by the Scott Paper company. On a side note, the Scott Company was too embarrassed to put their name on their product, as the concept of toilet paper was a sensitive subject at the time, so they customized it for their customers... hence the Waldorf Hotel became a big name in toilet paper.

And on that classy note dear readers, I take my leave secure in the knowledge that when I take today's Daily News into my "office", I won't have to take a corn cob in with me. Adios muchachos.


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3 comments:

The Whiner said...

Well aren't you a little fountain of information? Let's hear it for the guy who invented toilet paper!

Jim Pantaleno said...

They certainly have my gratitude.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

The advertising design industry was hit hard in the 1990's with the use of the computer. Typesetters, retouch artists, hand rendering of pictures and letters were all replaced by computer graphics, minimizing the time and costs to produce! This also took into account the prep work for printing! The Daily News is my 'office paper' too!