In Praise of the Unknown Engineers


Who can name the geniuses who have wrought our modern world?  The scientists and engineers whose imagination, sweat and determination created the artifacts of material culture we use and rely upon each day? 

I’m not talking Thomas Edison, Henry Ford or the Wright brothers.  Everyone already knows about light-bulbs and cars and airplanes.  But how about the inventor of the zip-lock bag?  The lowly but lovely Swifter?  Those hardy and child resilient Corelle plates?     

Maybe they aren’t as exciting as convertibles and jet airplanes, but those homey little marvels of modern engineering can really make your day.  Many a time I’ve been surprised with delight at the wonderful workings of some nifty bit of gadgetry that makes a job easier, completes a task more quickly, or best of all, makes a mess go away.  The kind of everyday items that you don’t give much thought to, but when you use them, make you say:  “Ahh, that’s really nice.” 

Things like the George Foreman Grill.  Small, light, easy to store, cooks fast and cleans-up like a dream.  Forget space shuttles and stealth fighters.  Whoever thought of putting Teflon on a grill is the kind of genius I’m talking about.

Unfortunately, the visionaries of domestic science tend to toil in obscurity.  The Pieta bears Michaelangelo’s name carved in marble, good old Walt put his name bright and bold onDisneyLandand Disney World, but I’ve never seen a signed sippy cup.  So, in the spirit of saying “Thank You” to the Unknown Engineers who have anonymously done so much to ease the burdens of their fellow man, I offer this Domestic Science Hall of Fame: 

1.  Drop in Bottles.  Oh the hours I spent scrubbing bottles for our first child.  Then, when our second child was born, my Mom told me about drop-ins and “Poof!” — like magic all those nights at the sink with soap-suds and a bottle brush disappeared.  Instead I can now sit in the chair and put my feet up for a second — or finally get to the laundry.  Whatever I do with the extra time, I’m glad to have it.  So every time I slip one of those disposable, never-need-to-be-washed drop-in sleeves into the bottle holder I cry out with joy from my toes to the no-longer-water-wrinkled tips of my fingers:  Thank you!

2.  The Bissell Sweeper.  Our oldest daughter, Liz, hates the vacuum cleaner.  The noise scares her and there’s nowhere in our apartment far enough away from any other place in our apartment to allow us to vacuum any room.  With two small and active children who love running in the park, splashing in mud puddles and digging in sandboxes, our thick wall-to-wall shag carpeting was in danger of accumulating enough dirt to put in a crop.  Enter the Bissell.  For those who don’t know, the Bissell is an old fashioned push-sweeper with two rotary brushes on the bottom.  It’s powered solely by the person pushing the handle – there’s no motor, no cords, just you and your Bissell.  Which also means it’s beautifully, blessedly silent.  And it works great.  Best of all, Liz loves it – so much that she wanted one of her own and now she helps Daddy Bissell!  (It didn’t hurt that she saw Bissell sweepers in her Little Mommy and Nurse Nancy books).  No more thoughts of tilling the carpet, now we can just wriggle our toes in its fibrous strands of wavy, clean plushness.  Whoever invented the Bissell:  Thank you! 

3.  Back pack carrier.   I’ve heard the saying that people view the world in the context of the tools they have to work with:  if all you have is a hammer, you tend to see the world in terms of nails that need pounding.  Well, with babies there comes that point in their development when they want to be held all the time.  When that happens, the tools a parent has to work with are reduced by one arm, and we’re forced to face the world with one hand tied behind our back – or at least wrapped around the toddler permanently affixed to our hip.  We have to carry our little bundle of joy around the way a camel carries its hump:  everywhere it goes.  The world looks different when one arm is constantly occupied by a baby with perpetual dibs on our limb.  With our first child I found myself prioritizing jobs by what could be done with one hand and what required two.  But she eventually outgrew her need to cling to me like a tree sloth, and I had forgotten all about this phase until our second daughter hit it and suddenly I found myself trying to fry eggs one-handed again. 

Then one of my sisters gave me her old backpack carrier.  Wow.  What a difference maker.  Now the baby can be attached to Dad, but Dad can still have two hands free for laundry, cooking, cleaning, taking out the trash and all the other things that don’t seem all that difficult until you find yourself trying to do them with a wriggling, sticky-fingered baby-weight in the crook of your arm.  Seriously, if you have a little one in the “hold-me-24/7” phase, get a back pack carrier.  It will revolutionize your life! 

4.  GPS.  One of my brothers was on a house hunting trip with his wife in a new town neither had ever visited before.  They had one weekend to find the place they would be living the next several years, a long list of possibilities to check-out, and no idea where they were.  No stress there.  Well, with the GPS they got the job done without frantic foldings and bendings of maps, missed freeway exits, and constantly asking each other:  “What street that was?”  And they never got lost once.  My brother told me:  “You’ve got to get a GPS, it’s a marriage saver.” 

I heeded his advice, and I’ve found it’s especially great if you have kids.  The GPS gives you a constantly adjusted ETA, so you know if you should stop now or if you’re only 20 minutes from your destination.  And if you’re in unfamiliar territory and need to find someplace to eat, buy diapers, or whatever, the information you crave is only a few touch screens away.  We were on a lonely stretch of deserted highway when spirits started to dissolve in the back seat.  The kids needed to eat and stretch their legs a little bit, but it didn’t look like there would be a spot to do that for miles.  We consulted the GPS, and found there was a small town with a Subway restaurant a mere two miles off the highway from where we were.  Ten minutes later, we were ordering sandwiches and changing diapers.  Thank you GPS! 

5.  Travel Coffee Mugs.  I was talking to a friend who’s a stay-at-home Mom and asked her if there are any techno gizmos that especially brighten her day.  She told me:  “My travel mug.”  “Why?”  I asked, “you don’t commute to work anymore.”  “Because,” she said, “I never have time to drink a whole cup of coffee.  I used to pour myself a cup in the morning, get a few sips, then get busy with the kids and by the time I’d get back to my coffee it was always cold.  So I started using my old travel mug.  It still takes all day to drink my morning cup of coffee – but now it stays warm.”  Genius, in plastic and aluminum.

6.  Pinwheel Twirly Flowers.  When I asked my sister Rachel for her favorite modern marvels, she said pinwheels were putting a smile on her face these days, ever since the desert destroyed her garden.  She lives in a remote and arid part of the Southwest, and she missed our Mom’s flower gardens from her Midwestern childhood.  So she cleared cactus from a patch of sun baked ground behind her house, and together with her own daughter planted a garden.  But petunias don’t fair well in the parched desert air, and those that did manage to bloom were quickly devoured by wild critters.  Rachel’s daughter was crushed.  The situation called for a miracle of Mommy magic to set the world aright again.  In a flash of inspiration, Rachel acquired a bunch of plastic pinwheel flowers and then she and her daughter planted the “Twirly Flowers” in the ruins of their petunias.  Rachel’s daughter loves the new garden, and despite heat, blowing sand, and ravenous dessert dwellers, they find their garden blooming every morning in all its plastic pinwheel beauty.  Rachel’s daughter said the best thing about the garden is that “it makes Momma smile.” 

Little things done well — they can make a big difference.  Scripture tells us:  “You see a man skilled at his work?  He will stand in the presence of kings . . .”  Prv 22, 29.  And just as the work of the Unknown Engineers can do so much to make the world better, even through little things like grills and coffee cups and Twirly Flowers, think of the impact we Moms and Dads can have through our work in parenting.  There may not be a Diaper Changing Hall of Fame or an award for Best Parenting Performance While Suffering Severe Sleep Deprivation, but, as Kimberly Hahn said, we parents are “changing the world, one diaper at a time.”  When we do our parenting work well, as nitty-gritty as the little details sometimes seem, we’re transforming the world.  And someday, when we find ourselves in the presence of The King, we may hear Him say:  “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”


About Author

Jake Frost is the author of Catholic Dad, (Mostly) Funny Stories of Faith, Family and Fatherhood to Encourage and Inspire, a $0.99 e-book on Amazon. He is a lawyer in hiatus, having temporarily traded diapers for depositions and kitchens for court rooms to care for his pre-school aged children. He comes from a large family in a small town of the Midwest, and lives near the Mississippi River with his wife and kids.