There is no shortage of candidates in the competition for ‘worst invention ever.’ In the last half century especially, we have seen hundreds of inventions unleashed upon humanity, some of them useful, most unnecessary, and many downright absurd and truly obnoxious.
The Leaf Blower
Growing up in the tranquil suburbs of Washington D.C., I enjoyed plenty of quietness and serenity. That is, until the invention of the leaf blower. These detestable machines became commonplace in the neighborhoods around my house in the mid to late 1970s, and by the 1980s were ubiquitous. I recall many times sitting in my house reading a book or chatting with a family member when suddenly the ear-splitting scream of a leaf blower would shatter the peacefulness. I would peer out the window and inevitably saw a group of (Hispanic) landscapers fanning out across the expansive lawns of my neighbors with the leaf blowers strapped to their sweaty backs, gas motors revved up and long nozzles blowing leaves around. The fumes from the cheap two-stroke engines polluted the air.
This was a weekly ritual. Even when their wasn’t much leaf matter or debris to gather up, they still used the blowers as a matter of course. On and on and on the nerve- wracking noise went, until my peace of mind was gone. Given the decibel range of these diabolical machines, the morning serenity was disturbed even when the blowers were a kilometer away.
What about the good old-fashioned rake and broom? In fact, the rake and broom are examples of appropriate technology: simple to produce, cheap, and effective. Additionally, the user of these tools gets the added benefit of some mild aerobic exercise. But if you want to keep up with the Jones’, you better hire a landscaping team with leaf blowers and demonstrate that you are with the times.
The Weed Whacker
Closely allied with the leaf blower is the ‘weed whacker’, sometimes called ‘weed eater’ or ‘string trimmer.’ Gaining widespread usage around the same time as the leaf blower, the weed whacker became a standard tool for all landscaping companies and for any respectable suburban dweller with a yard in the 1970s. My family bought one when they became widely available and affordable and I used it to ‘trim’ the lawn around my house. But I always hated it. For one thing, they can be quite dangerous. They can easily cut your foot or leg if you are not careful. They are noisy; they throw grass and debris in all directions, some of which can even fly into your face. Most of all, they were, and are, unnecessary. They are simply an expensive, loud, and polluting machine designed and created to feed the vanity of America’s growing legions of suburbanites. Everybody with a lawn dreams of making their yard look like a golf course, just like on TV!! Therefore, the weed whacker is necessary to trim those edges and make everything look ‘perfect.’ In other words, the suburban yard should not look like anything remotely resembling nature.
The Paint Spray Gun
The paint spray gun is yet another loathsome invention, completely redundant and ridiculous. I recall a few years ago watching a group of painters performing a job on the apartment complex where I was living in the suburbs of Seattle. A man stood on a ladder with a spray gun in hand, moving it back in forth in rhythmic motion a couple of feet away from the building’s exterior. Standing below him , I immediately observed something: more than half of the paint from the gun was not hitting the wooden panels but was instead simply flying off into the air. I could literally see the paint droplets missing their target. The painter was unconcerned. Back and forth, up and down the spray gun went. The worker was blithely indifferent to how much paint was being wasted. Of course, the wasted paint is only half of the problem. All of that toxic paint which goes into the air eventually falls to the ground or even gets inhaled by unsuspecting passers-by with the microscopic droplets easily penetrating into the respiratory tract. The workers used respirators, but did nothing to warm the neighbors about all the toxicity.
Just last week, I drove by a painter who was using a spray gun to paint some furniture on the sidewalk. This was in the middle of a city. He had no protection whatsoever. Waiting at the intersection, I watched as he clumsily waved the gun all over the furniture, with perhaps only 20 or 30 percent of the paint hitting its target. Even though I was 20 meters away, I immediately tasted the paint particles in the back of my throat. I can only imagine what the people around him were exposed to.
I have a radical idea. Let’s go back to paint brushes. Similar to the broom and rake, the paint brush is simple to produce, simple to use, and is extremely cheap and durable. It requires no moving parts, no machinery and wastage is kept to a minimum. But such notions place me squarely in the Neo-Luddite camp, a very lonely place indeed.