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Archive for April, 2011

The Simple, Ubiquitous Modern Screw Created Fortunes and Enabled Mass Production to Flourish

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

by: Geoff Ficke

The Simple, Ubiquitous Modern Screw Created Fortunes and Enabled Mass Production to Flourish 

Every human seems to have screws lying around our homes and offices. They tend to accumulate like dust particles. Open a drawer or a utility box and there will be a jumble of screws of different types and sizes littered among other assorted pieces of flotsam and junk that we collect and never seem to lose. Occasionally we go looking for a screw for a unique application or task and usually, we will find just the unit to complete the chore. 

We don’t think much about screws. I can’t remember the last time I actually bought a screw, if ever. They come attached or included in many of the assembled products we purchase. We know what screws do and their importance in holding things together; but we don’t reflect much on their provenance. They are innocuous, inanimate objects in our lives for the most part. 

And yet, fortunes have been made off of the simple screw. Screws were first used in building trades in the 15th century in France and Germany. They became crucial in enabling architects to build on a grander scale. However, the production of screws was difficult, cumbersome and not standardized. The industrial revolution, which began to explode internationally in the middle of the 19th century, required that the screws become a mass production staple. 

The first known pioneer to entrepreneurially create a fortune from enhancing the screw was P.L. Robertson. Mr. Robertson was a Canadian who sold mechanical products in Ontario is the late 19th century. He recognized that the screws available at the time were difficult to work with. His concept was to place a square divot in the head of the screw. This became the famous “square socket” screw. The head of the screw driver was refitted with a square nib and locked firmly onto the head of the Robertson screw. Robertson was a prolific patent filer, and he was ardent in protecting his invention. Soon the “square socket” was in wide use in industry and the trades. 

The SPS Company (Standard Press Steel) in the early part of the 20th century wanted to avoid paying royalties to P.L. Robertson and Co. SPS invented the UNBRAKO line of screws and implements. Today we know these products as Allen Wrenches and hex-head screws. Try to imagine any DIY project, or IKEA furniture assembly, without using the Allen Wrench to lock the parts together. 

Henry Phillips was an Oregonian and inveterate tinkerer. He was aware that the automobile industry was desperate to accelerate the assembly process. Henry Ford had created the automated factory line. Parts and tools were needed to assist in improving efficiencies in mass production. 

One of the problems that engineers faced was that screws were difficult to self-center. Henry Phillips attacked the problem and created one of the most useful, famous and omnipresent product innovations in history; the Phillips Head Screw. His first commercial success with the Phillips Head Screw was a sale to Cadillac for use in the 1934 models.

Imagine a hardware store anywhere in the world that did not stock an array of screws and screw drivers. 

The Allen Wrench-Hex Head screws, the Phillips screw and the square socket were simple riffs on a standard product already in wide use. None of these inventors created an “alpha” product. They simply improved on an existing design(s). This is the great opportunity that has created so much wealth, so many enduring companies and improved so many lives. It is also a path available every day to creators, inventors and entrepreneurs seeking to add value to commerce. It is not necessary to create the wheel. Just create a new use or benefit for the wheel and many rewards will open to you.

How Modern Gastronomy Has Been Influenced by The Commercialization of Ancient Condiments

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

by: Geoff Ficke

How Modern Gastronomy Has Been Influenced by The Commercialization of Ancient Condiments 

Several years ago I had the good fortune to re-visit the ruins at Pompeii near Naples, Italy with my family. I had been to the ancient site some 30 years before, but the excavation of the volcano shrouded city had progressed a great deal in the interim and there was much that had not yet been discovered on my earlier visit. Our very informative guide advised us that archaeological work and discoveries would be ongoing for many decades still. 

Pompeii is stunning in its preservation and the exactitude with which the life of the age is still represented. Inns, restaurants, merchant’s homes, apartment buildings, public houses and baths, brothels and a wide variety of  commercial shops and markets are clearly defined and on view. The countless ways people worked, played and interacted, even more than 2000 years ago is amazingly similar to way society organizes itself to this day. Food and drink; production, distribution and consumption was especially interesting. 

One of the most fascinating bits of information that one learns in visiting Pompeii is how people ate and drank on a daily basis. The prosperous class ate a diet that was heavily weighted towards rich foods and meats. Gout was common amongst these better fed citizens. The poor, less advantaged ate a more pedestrian diet of meal and a porridge-like soup. 

Food is consumed for human sustenance. It is only when prosperity blooms that taste and enhancement of this life-essential fuel becomes of import. Pompeii was a center of gastronomy in the ancient world. Evidence of the variety of foodstuffs, drink, wines and fruit that sustained the population of that age is found everywhere to this very day. Excavations regularly uncover amphorae that contain consumable products that were the basis of Pompeii’s vaunted prosperity. 

The discovery of a food paste called Garum is indicative of a prosperous society’s desire for not just a meal, but a tasty meal. Garum was a fish sauce of the time. It was originally created by the Greeks but the Romans perfected and greatly advanced the commercialization and popularity of Garum. This became the world’s first widely utilized, mass produced and custom flavored condiment. Recipes for different styles of Garum have been discovered in ruins. Fishing became a hugely important activity in order to supply factories with the basic raw fish stocks essential to produce this spicy condiment. 

Garum was sold for prices that rival today’s top Caspian caviar’s.  The richest consumers bought the finest grades of Garum principally made from the filet of fish. Poorer consumers bought the coarser grades produced from innards and tails. 

Every dinner table in Pompeii was said to have a container of one or more types of Garum at hand. Fortunes were made in the trade of this spicy fish sauce condiment. It was consumed at every meal in order to enhance flavor, intensity and to embellish foods. 

When the Roman Empire declined, and then fell in the 4th Century A.D., a great darkness settled on the vast empire. As prosperity declined, and food again became a mere fuel for existence, the concept of flavor enhancement was lost. Garum disappeared from peoples diets. 

The next great civilization to improve the taste of a bland diet was the Arabs. They discovered and enjoyed a condiment called tahini. Later the Indians blessed the dinner table with chutney. The British, so successful as travelers, traders and conquerors, brought back the spices that became Worcestershire sauce. The French perfected the many variants of mustard. In the 19th century, Americans gifted the world with tomato ketchup. 

Today we live in a time of plenty. Even the poorest family in a developed country has a selection of condiments in the home. Fine restaurants pride themselves in offering “house secret” dressings, marinates, sauces and flavor enhancers. Amazingly, brand new condiments and variants of existing condiments are ubiquitous on super market shelves and news varieties arrive constantly. As international travel has become democratized the spread and popularity of the condiments that we discover in our journeys has accelerated. 

The result is that we enjoy an explosion of variety in dressing and elevating even the most mundane plate of food. Eating is now a hobby for many, a pursuit of luxury and heightened sensual experience for some. The addition and consumption of this galaxy of condiments has created not only the platform for blissful taste experience, but amazing commercial opportunities. Condiments and naturally occurring food additives are grown, harvested, processed, marketed, packaged and transported from all corners of the planet to our corner stores and offered at amazingly affordable prices.

The business activity this trade has created is stupefying. Just as Garum was one of the major cornerstones of trade and enjoyment in the ancient world, so too today are condiments integral to our modern quality of life. We could survive without spicy mustard, or mayonnaise. Why would anyone want to!