Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Secret of Man’s Failures is in the Bathroom

From Jules Verne and H.G. Wells through the mid 20th Century, Western society contemplated a future where scientific advances achieved an almost magical level of sophistication. We were promised jetpacks and flying cars to speed us on our way. Cities were to become shining beacons of hope for a clean, prosperous lifestyle of leisure and scientific pursuits. The heavens beckoned and we had only to decide whether our journey to the stars would be in a rocket-ship or a flying saucer. There would be new worlds to conquer.

And, really, everything seemed to be going fairly well up until the 60s. You could argue that Viet Nam and smelly hippies ruined it for everybody, and you’d be correct, of course. But only partly. The secret testament to scientific and cultural failure has actually been staring us in the face (or perhaps in the chest) for decades. From public restrooms. Fair and gentle reader, the single device that better than any other epitomizes the sad state of technical achievement in the latter half of the ultimately pathetic 20th century is none other than the humble hand dryer.

You’ve no doubt seen these useless devices affixed to walls in bathrooms around the world. They use a powerful-sounding motor that seems as if it ought to cause the very building to tremble upon its foundation, each use of the machines threatening to rip it from its moorings to lift ever so briefly off the ground. These predominantly white, porcelain-like behemoths suck in air from the room, whip it to a gale’s force, then unleash through their chrome muzzles the gentlest puffs of breath upon one’s moist hands. You, the user, standing before this vicious assault upon your ears and timid stirring of the air about your dripping hands, obediently follow the directions on the roaring unit hieroglyphic instruction plate. You rub your hands briskly together, creating a friction almost sufficient to ignite a Boy Scout’s campfire, the asthmatic, screaming puffing of the machine mocking your vigorous efforts to achieve some semblance of evaporation.

After perhaps a quarter of a minute of fruitless hand-waving (a Jedi attempting to employ one of these machines would, in such a time, have made mindless vegetables of every living creature in a three-block radius. Though their hands would be no less wet.), each individual must make a choice as to how to proceed. The truly stubborn or, perhaps, incurably indolent, will continue to flap and rub and wave and shake their hands as the machine simultaneously simulates both the sound of a fighter jet and the air pressure of a Summer breeze. They may, perhaps, engage the unit for a second round when they find that the allotted time has expired, the dryer has powered down, and yet somehow their hands remain no more dry than a water park in August. The all-too-common alternative is to simply wander off, frustrated and unsatisfied, a sheen of water glistening on your hands, ears ringing. Your shirt, the thighs of your pants, a convenient pocket – these hapless fabrics must then absorb the failure of the hand dryers. And, naturally, they must absorb the remaining water on your hands. Nobody likes to walk around with wet hands.

At a restaurant-industry trade show in 2006, I got a preview of the next generation of hand-dryers. The unit looked much more sleek, all grey plastic instead of white porcelain. It was the same generally-boxy shape, but it seemed to channel its very essence down into a cone-shaped exhaust-nozzle at the base of the device. I was invited to dip my hands into a bowl of water nearby and, since the day was young and it didn’t seem as if a thousand other people had already put their greasy hands in the bowl, I availed myself of it. I then placed my wet hands beneath the unit's mouth and it howled into action. The sound was only marginally less deafening than traditional hand dryers, but instead of producing the gentle zephyr of a butterfly’s wings to lightly tease the water pooling between my knuckles and clinging to each individual hair on the back of my hand, this marvel of 21st century engineering directed a jet of heated air over my hands such as might have lifted the Concord over the Atlantic at mach speed. My skin literally rippled from the force of it, not unlike Roger Moore’s face in that James Bond movie where the bad guys strap him to a giant centrifugal force simulator and send him racing around in circles to a grizzly, dizzy doom. I could see the water being blasted from my hands. Within moments the device’s brigade of airborne super-soldiers had driven the invading moisture from my occupied hands. I was free. Technology had at last overcome the world-dominating power of water.

It took three years, but a few weeks ago I finally experienced one of these new breed of hand-dryers in an actual restroom. Mind you, the original hand-dryer was invented in Chicago in 1948 by George Clemmons. The year now is 2009. A little basic arithmetic (carry the one… calc.exe… 2009-1948=61) and it’s immediately clear that it took over SIXTY YEARS for this revolution to occur. Want to know why man hasn’t gone to Mars or established colonies on the Moon? Because it took SIXTY FREAKING YEARS to invent a hand dryer that works. A machine that dries your hands by blowing air on them. Jet packs? Are you freaking kidding me? Oh sure, we can make a jet pack that SOUNDS like it’s blasting you beyond the pull of Earth’s gravity, but actually achieving lift? We couldn’t invent a machine to blow water off your hands in less than six decades, people!! It’s amazing that computers actually do anything more than blink a few lights and whirr loudly. It’s astounding that airplanes actually manage to get off the ground (perhaps because they were invented before the hand dryer?). It’s not at all surprising that our state-of-the-art in manned space craft drops pieces of styrofoam all over the place every time it blasts off. The ones I made as a kid always did that, too, and I didn’t even go to Aerospace Engineering School.

The hand dryer. Dangling from the neck of Western society like an albatross (except that a fully-functioning albatross can, you know, actually fly). At long last, this painful chapter in our culture’s history can close. It is now possible to blast the water right off of your hands. There’s every reason to believe that we’re back on track. It’s not beyond plausible that we might, in my lifetime or my children’s, once again reach for the stars. And hopefully, on the Moon or on Mars, there will be restrooms. And those restrooms will have paper towels.

No comments:

Post a Comment