Most inventors have high hopes for their creations: Even Frankenstein had good intentions for his monster's future. But once it is set loose in the world, an invention may live out a very different life than its creator intended.
That happened with some of the ideas below. The shopping mall, cornflakes, $9.99 shrimp cocktail and the office cubicle are not exactly what you would think of as the most idealistic of inventions; today, they all all seem like unremarkable facets of everyday American life. But at one point, their inventors believed these creations could improve the world.
1. The shopping mall
The shopping mall might seem like one of the most obvious, cookie-cutter environments around, something we all take for granted. But when America’s first mall was built – less than 60 years ago, in Edina, Minn. – it was an exciting innovation, with ambitions for transforming American society.
Victor Gruen, the architect who designed America’s first shopping mall, hated the sprawl and soullessness of the new strip malls that were popping up in mid-century suburban America. At the time, more people were buying cars and moving to the suburbs. As everyone began to drive cars to do their shopping rather than use public transportation, the competition over parking downtown became fierce, and strip malls gradually rose up in the suburbs.
With his design, Gruen aimed to bring some of the European urbanity that he had experienced in his native Vienna to the United States. His design basically took strip malls and flipped them in on themselves, to create a new internal public space that he thought would act as a town center, a new downtown for the suburbs.
This change would do several things, in Gruen’s thinking. It would allow the architect to unify the design and aesthetic of the space. It would also get people out of their cars, walking around and interacting in a public space. (It was Gruen who had the idea of putting competing department stores on either side of the shopping mall, to generate more foot traffic in between.)
That public space would become a venue for displaying art, having performances and eating at European-style open-air cafes – what are now more commonly known as food courts. Gruen conceptualized the mall as being the center of a new community, including housing, libraries, post offices, schools, day cares and work spaces.
The first shopping mall following Gruen’s design opened in Edina in 1956, complete with an original sculpture, an aviary and fashion shows.
Gruen was also surprisingly idealistic about the effect that the mall would have on the urban downtown. As my colleague Emily Badger wrote in a piece for the Atlantic in 2012, Gruen and his devotees denied that the mall would have any effect on the urban downtown.
“In his book, Hardwick unearths a great quote from the president of Dayton's, the downtown Minneapolis department store that developed Southdale. He, like Gruen, believed that all of this could happen at no expense to the city. ‘We do not believe,’ he said, ‘we or anybody else will lose any business because of the suburban move,’” Badger wrote.
Of course, that did not turn out to be the case. New shopping malls sprung up around the country, speeding the flight of residents and shoppers from the city center to the suburbs. Today, that trend seems to be reversing itself somewhat, with people leaving the suburbs and malls behind for revitalized city centers.
2. Corn Flakes
What do Corn Flakes have to do with combating "deviant" sexual activity? Understandably, you may never have asked yourself this question. But the breakfast cereal actually has some fascinating origins in an idealistic movement to promote clean living and eliminate sexual behaviors that its creator saw as social ills.
The creator of Corn Flakes was John Harvey Kellogg, a 7th Day Adventist, doctor and surgeon. Kellogg practiced medicine and wrote widely on health issues, espousing ideas that sound bizarre today but were somewhat popular at the time.
Kellogg advocated what he called “biologic living,” a program that included exercise, sexual abstinence and the avoidance of alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee and meat. For the guests at a sanitarium that he ran in Michigan, Kellogg developed new foods, including granola, corn flakes, peanut butter, soy milk and imitation meats, according to an article in the American Journal of Public Health in 2002.
According to Kellogg's company lore, John Harvey and his brother Will Keith Kellogg discovered modern breakfast cereal when they accidentally flaked a wheat berry. The Web site, perhaps understandably, doesn't go into much more detail. But according to the American Journal of Public Health, it was John Harvey’s brother, Will Keith, who built the company to sell Corn Flakes. For a while, the profits from those sales went to the Race Betterment Foundation, a pro-eugenics group that John Harvey founded in 1914, according to the journal article.
John Harvey Kellogg’s writings, which are available online through the University of Virginia, offer a window into his austere and often creepy life philosophy, of which food and diet was a main part. In a book called “Plain facts for old and young: embracing the natural history and hygiene of organic life,” J.H. Kellogg defends polygamy, argues that deformed people should not marry, prescribes some really horrific treatments for masturbation, and decries the waltz as “provoking unchaste desires,” among other things.
He also gives strict prescriptions for the kind of food that young and old should be eating. Kellogg counseled people to avoid such substances including spices, cinnamon, pickles, mustard, wine, beer, tea, coffee, chocolate, hot drinks of all kinds, and tobacco, because he believed these foods aroused certain desires and passions that would led the consumer into sin, including sexual temptation.
“Flesh, condiments, eggs, tea, coffee, chocolate, and all stimulants have a powerful influence directly upon the reproductive organs. They increase the local supply of blood; and through nervous sympathy with the brain, the passions are aroused,” Kellogg wrote.
“The science of physiology teaches that our very thoughts are born of what we eat. A man that lives on pork, fine-flour bread, rich pies and cakes, and condiments, drinks tea and coffee, and uses tobacco, might as well try to fly as to be chaste in thought,” he wrote.
To keep these desires in check, he advised people never to overeat, have only two meals a day, and eat plenty of ripe fruit and simple grains — including, of course, Corn Flakes.
3. $9.99 shrimp cocktail
Shrimp went from being a luxury food in the mid-20th century to something that, for better or worse, is available pretty much everywhere. Now, coconut shrimp, shrimp nachos and shrimp cocktail are on the menu for less than $10 at Red Lobster, and shrimp is hardly considered an extravagance.
The change is largely due to one idealist, a Japanese aquaculturist named Motosaku Fujinaga, who devoted his life to figuring out how to farm shrimp. Beginning in the 1930s, Fujinaga worked for more than 30 years to develop effective methods for shrimp farming. Paul Greenberg, the author of “The Great Fish Swap,” says Fujinaga was an idealist who believed that the world could feed everyone by farming the seas.
The first commercial farms were set up in Japan in the 1960s, and by the 1970s the world was seeing the beginning of a shrimp boom. As Greenberg says, Fujinaga trained international students in aquaculture, and his disciplines went on to create the huge Asian industry of aquaculture, which farms most of the shrimp that Americans eat today. Those in the industry termed this surge in aquaculture the world’s “Blue Revolution,” following on the heels of the Green Revolution in Agriculture of the 1950s.
Aquaculture went from contributing 8 percent of the world’s seafood in 1975 to more than half by 2010, Kennedy Warne writes in a book on shrimp farming called “Let Them Eat Shrimp.” By 2012, Americans were eating twice as much shrimp per person as they had 30 years before, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That surge in aquaculture has had huge and tangible benefits along the lines of what Fujinaga envisioned: Plentiful seafood for consumers, and a boost to many developing economies. But as Greenberg, Warne and others point out, the industry today is plagued with some serious issues.
In Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and other shrimp-producing countries, the mangrove forests along the coast, which help prevent soil erosion and provide environments for a lot of wildlife, are being cleared to create open ponds for shrimp. Because shrimp is an ancient animal with few immunities, these shrimp ponds can become contaminated with bacterial infections. When that happens, farmers often abandon the ponds, and clear more mangrove forest to dig new ones.
There are also some troubling implications for labor. The Associated Press, the Environmental Justice Foundation, and the Guardian have all documented the use of slave labor in Thailand’s shrimp industry. And the competition from low-priced Asian farms has pretty much decimated the American shrimp industry, says Greenberg.
Americans still enjoy super cheap shrimp cocktail, but perhaps at a higher environmental and social price than Fujinaga would have anticipated.
4. The cubicle.
“We don’t have a lot of time on Earth. We weren’t meant to spend it this way,” the main cubicle-dwelling character in “Office Space” says of his drab workspace.
From Office Space to Dilbert, the cubicle has become a favorite symbol of office drudgery. But initially it was seen as a liberating invention that would give greater autonomy to workers who had grown weary of the “Big Brother Is Watching You” experience of an open office, in which only executives had the luxury of a door, and everyone else was packed into a noisy, open space.
The forerunner to the cubicle, called “The Action Office,” was created in 1964 by a designer named Robert Propst for the Herman Miller Company, a furniture company in Ann Arbor, Mich. Propst was hired to help rethink the company’s strategy for office furniture, and his first workstation design incorporated many of his hopes for improving conditions for workers.
Propst spoke with workers, doctors and psychologists about how to create a space that would give workers more privacy, increase productivity, and promote good health by increasing circulation. He criticized the open office of the 1960s as a wasteland that “saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment.” The cubicle was designed to provide much-needed privacy and personal space, while still allowing for relatively easy communication. As Nikil Saval, the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, told The Post’s Jena McGregor, "the interesting thing is how much it was seen as a liberation. He wanted to save office workers, in a way, from the office plan that had existed before."
Propst's first prototype, dubbed the Action Office, included desks of varying heights to allow the worker to move around, and didn’t sell well. The second version, Action Office II, was the one that stuck: It had interlocking walls made of lighter materials that could be moved and rearranged to fit a workers’ needs.
Propst wanted workers to be able to customize his invention. But ironically, the cubicle became popular around the United States for the opposite reason. Companies took the cubicle and rearrange them in cubes, which allowed them to maximize the number of employees that could fit on a floor. And as real estate prices and other cost pressures rose over the decades, the average size of the office cubicle fell.
Executives have tried to revive the idealism of the cubicle over the decades by sometimes declining a big office and sitting instead at a modest desk out on an open floor. Current chief executives who have insisted on sitting with the plebes include Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard, Tony Hsieh at Zappos and Joe Mansueto at Morningstar. But even those gestures have been unable to rescue the cubicle from its position as a symbol of all that is soulless and banal in the modern workplace.
Perhaps Propst should have seen this coming. As McGregor notes, one of his colleagues did – saying that the Action Office II wasn’t great for people but was “admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for ‘employees’ (as against individuals), for ‘personnel,’ corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority.”
Propst regretted his role in creating the cubicle farms of America. In 1997, at the age of 76, he told the New York Times that the “cubliclizing of people in modern corporations is a monolithic insanity.”
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