Not all invention needs to take us in the direction we presume to think of as forward. Sometimes backwards is forward in the same way that less is more.


Not all invention needs to take us in the direction we presume to think of as forward. Sometimes backwards is forward in the same way that less is more. Some inventions, like the internal combustion engine, have just plain gotten completely out of hand.

Sure cars go almost anywhere faster than their predecessors, the horse and carriage. And they do so in quiet comfort. But cars pollute, consume a dwindling resource and put us at deadly odds with others who want to control the same finite resource.

When I watch my favorite version of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, those starring Jeremy Brett, I’m reminded of what a simple and elegant way to travel is the horse and buggy. Did we leave it behind because the automobile made more sense?

Does it? With gasoline fumes, gasoline stations, gasoline prices, oil, oil stains, oil changes, mufflers, tune ups, gridlock, parking lots, fender benders, traffic deaths, seatbelts, airbags, recalls, lost keys, car insurance, driving tests, license plates, emission checks, dumps piled high with discarded tires, junkyards, tow trucks, parking meters, the stink and the noise?

A horse eats hay and leaves behind a reusable byproduct. You can pet a horse and get to know it, even love it. And unlike a car, even though you might pet or even talk to you car, a horse can love you back.

Compare the whinny to the car horn. The smell of horse droppings to auto emissions. One is natural and harmless, the other deadly. And the sound, ah, the clippety clop of shoed hooves. Best of all, horses don’t crash into other horses.

Someday an enlightened big city will ban the internal combustion engine from the center of town or from large parts of their municipality—the way they do on Mackinac Island, Michigan. When they do, they’ll probably allow electric, golf-cart-size vehicles, and bicycles.

But why not go all the way like the urban pioneers of Vauban, Germany? According to “In German Suburb, Life Goes On Without Cars” in the New York Times, 70-percent of families there don’t even own cars. And 57-percent sold a car to move there. Folks say they are less tense and happier.

Come on Seattle! What about you, New York? Start with Central Park. You’ve already got the horses and buggies.

I watched a man clear snow around a corporate headquarters with a contraption that blew the snow up and out a chimney-like pipe. He moved noisily along the curb, blowing the snow into the street. He’d stop, turn the machine around 180-degrees, then turn the adjustable pipe 180-degrees, and go back in the opposite direction. The engine rattled and the blades scraped the cement in an awful cacophony. A couple or three people with snow shovels could do the same job more quietly, more quickly, and without all the commotion, pollution, and danger.

It’s tough to beat the horse, hammer, rake, shovel, screwdriver, scissors, paper clip, pencil, can open, corkscrew, or the original mouse trap. But if you try, please make sure the alternative is really better. To the inventor who right now is scaling down the flame thrower to give the world a better snow shovel, please stop.