Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Golden Plunger Awards (8 page)

BOOK: Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Golden Plunger Awards
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The Roadster is an innovation, but “electric carriages” have been in the works since 1832, when Scotland’s Robert Anderson tried
to create one. In 1835, Professor Stratingh of the University of Groeningen in the Netherlands made his own attempt. There were various other tries throughout Europe, but the United States didn’t have electric vehicles until the late 1890s.
In 1897, a fleet of electric taxicabs was established in Manhattan, and for a decade or so, it seemed that electric cars might be the wave of the future. Electric cars didn’t have the smell, vibrations, or noise that gasoline-powered cars had, and they also didn’t require cumbersome gear changes.
But Americans wanted cars that traveled long distances, and the early electric cars couldn’t provide high mileage. That drawback might have been overcome, but in the early part of the 20th century, there was also no place an electric-car driver could stop en route from New York to Las Vegas to plug in and recharge. This, combined with the discovery of Texas crude, meant that gas-powered cars seemed like the smartest way to motor.
SLEEKER STYLING
From the 1930s until 1990, a few companies fueled by America’s growing environmental conscience tried to market boxy little electric cars to alterna-Americans, but they had little success because the cars just didn’t look appealing to the mainstream. Finally, by the early 1990s, concern about the environment prompted enough public interest in finding a good electric car solution. Manufacturers made strides, but the cars’ heavy battery packs and ignition/acceleration problems plagued them, and people dismissed electric cars as a fad.
PRIME PERFORMANCE
The shortcomings of early electric cars are part of the reason the Tesla Roadster is so noteworthy. It seems to address all of the old problems: it’s completely electric, it’s easy to recharge, it looks great, and it accelerates as quickly as many lesser sports cars.
That latter quality especially is what the Lotus Company, which makes the Tesla, is banking on as its ace in the hole. The Tesla may be environmentally friendly, but it’s not bank-account friendly. A fully loaded Tesla, delivered to your door, will set you back $100,000, although a $30,000 model is supposedly
in the works. Lotus hopes to offset resistance to the price tag with the Tesla’s cash savings (in gas) over time. On the other hand, Martin Ebehard, former chairman of Silicon Valley–based Tesla Motors, told the
New York Times
in 2006 that the way to get a new product into the mass market is to sell it to rich people. “Cell phones, refrigerators, color TVs, they didn’t start off by making a low-end product for [the] masses,” he said. “They were relatively expensive, for people who could afford it.” The companies that sold those products at first, Ebehard continued, did so, “not because they were stupid and they thought the real market was at the high end of the market,” but because that was how to get production started.
TESLA OR “TOM”?
The car’s name is a nod to Nikola Tesla, a onetime employee of Thomas Edison and the man who came up with the idea of alternating electric currents. It was Edison, however, who spent a lot of time trying to create electric batteries for horseless carriages. Maybe we should nickname these sexy new sportscars “Toms.”
AN AWARD ORIGIN
MacArthur Genius Grant:
John D. MacArthur made millions as the owner of several insurance companies in the 1930s and 1940s. His wife, Catherine, held board member positions at many of her husband’s firms. When John MacArthur died in 1978, most of his fortune was used to start the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The major work of the charity is the awarding of the MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Grant.” Between 20 and 40 Americans each year—nominated by a small selection committee—receive $500,000 dispensed over five years as an “investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.” Among the more than 700 winners are historians, writers, scientists, artists, musicians, and inventors. Writer Thomas Pynchon, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, and critic Henry Louis Gates are all MacArthur fellows.
THE LI’L SPEED RACER AWARD
Toy Cars
They’re fun to run on a track or along a sidewalk. They’re
fueled by fantasy or based in reality. Either way, they’re
at the top of the heap for childhood memories.
CAR WARS
Some debates are so classic that they can’t be resolved:
The Godfather
vs.
The Godfather Part II
. Who’s stronger, Superman or the Incredible Hulk. Or which toy cars are better—Matchbox or Hot Wheels?
 
To understand this fight fully, it’s essential to understand the differences between the two lines:
 
Matchbox:
Introduced first in Britain in 1953, and then in the United States in 1954; manufactured realistic play versions of cars kids would see on the street.
 
Hot Wheels:
Introduced in 1968; created fantasy-oriented cars that included racing stripes and flame decals, along with realistic versions of American muscle cars.
 
When Hot Wheels were introduced, Matchbox saw its sales plummet. The public seemed to prefer Hot Wheels’ sporty, colorful line. But that’s hardly the end of this story.
ROUND AND ROUND
Matchbox began in 1953 when Jack Odell, co-owner of a die-casting company called Lesney, developed a toy car for his daughter. She liked to take spiders to school in matchboxes, so he made her a small toy to take instead. The first car his company produced was based on a toy steamroller it was already making in a larger size. A mini dump truck and a cement mixer followed for an initial
offering of three different Matchbox vehicles. The model cars were a hit, and other makes and models were soon introduced. For the next 15 years, Matchbox dominated the market, selling more toy cars than any other company. But in 1968, a competitor entered the scene and shook up the race.
MEET THE COMPETITION
A year earlier, one of the founders of Mattel Toys, Elliot Handler, had an idea to design model cars with low-friction wheels that made the toys race at speeds that would have equaled almost 300 miles per hour if they were actual size. Reportedly, Handler remarked, “Wow, those are hot wheels!” after seeing one perform, and a brand name was born. Mattel soon patented the design.
While Matchbox focused on creating exact (sometimes painstakingly so) replicas of real cars, Hot Wheels generated fantasy cars—with some realistic replicas, particularly of racing cars, thrown in. The split between philosophies split buyers as well.
THE FINISH LINE
The Matchbox and Hot Wheels competition raced through the 1970s, with some kids fiercely loyal to one brand. Most, however, mixed and matched sets, collecting both and using the accessories interchangeably. The early 1980s, though, brought economic tough times to Britain and forced Matchbox into bankruptcy. The company was sold to Universal Toys, which a decade later sold the company to Mattel—maker of Hot Wheels. The competition between the two brands would never be the same.
Since then, the toy car market has continued to produce faster and better cars. Now they are made of tough molded plastic instead of cast iron, but they’ve broken new records in speed, including some models that would exceed 500 mph if they were life sized.
QUITE A COLLECTION
The toy car market is a specialized industry. Its serious collectors are passionate about their hobby and make note of each car’s ratio to actual size. The most popular size with collectors is 1:24; other popular sizes include 1:64 and 1:87. Remote-control cars and
video games have cut into the market somewhat, but toy cars remain a more than $2-billion-a-year business.
In 2008, Hot Wheels celebrated its 40th year, which coincided with the manufacture of its four billionth toy car. In honor of its success, the company created a car covered with $140,000 worth of jewels to be auctioned off for charity. It is cast in white gold and loaded with black, white, and blue diamonds—rubies take the place of headlights.
That’s just one of the thousands of collectible cars that have been produced over the decades. Collectors pay top dollar, or tens of thousands of dollars, for the rarest ones, and Web sites and magazines are devoted to the hobby. They help collectors locate the hard-to-find models that have come and gone through the years. From a small idea so many years ago to a giant hallmark of childhood for so many, toy cars have gone around the track and come out a winner.
KIDDIE BOOK AWARDS

Newberry Award.
John Newberry was an 18th-century publisher who specialized in children’s books. It’s believed he was the first publisher to specialize in kid lit. Since 1922, the American Library Association has presented the Newberry Award annually to the author of the best novel written for children. Some Newberry winners: Hugh Lofting (
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle
), Esther Forbes (
Johnny Tremain) ,
and Katherine Paterson (
Bridge to Terabithia) .

Caldecott Medal.
Randolph Caldecott was an English illustrator in the 19th century. He drew pictures for books, including
The Babes in the Wood
and
The House that Jack Built
. Like the Newberry Award, the Caldecott Medal is a prize for children’s literature presented by the American Library Association, but this one awards only the illustrators. Caldecott-winning titles include Ezra Jack Keats (
The Snowy Day
)
,
Chris Van Allsburg (
The Polar Express
)
,
and Maurice Sendak (
Where the Wild Things Are
).
THE MR. LONELY AWARD
Fire Lookouts
Incredibly solitary but vitally important, fire spotters live
above the fray and keep an eye out for everyone.
MOUNTAIN HIGH
From its 2,571-foot peak high above San Francisco Bay, the Mount Tamalpais Fire Lookout Station in Marin County has a magnificent view over 200 miles, 25 counties, and nine bodies of water. Since 1921, fire lookouts have been surveying this horizon for evidence of destructive wildfires.
Once upon a time, fire control wasn’t necessary, because it cleansed and renewed land and vegetation as part of a natural and regular cycle. Fire removed old, dead matter and made room for healthy, new growth. But as humans moved into areas like the thickly forested Marin County and built homes, schools, and stores, a way was needed to control the fires.
SMOKE OF A DISTANT FIRE
Fire lookout stations are not new. The oldest known station dates back about 2,000 years. It was located on Mount Masada, in what is now Israel, and was built by King Herod’s army to protect his empire against enemy burning.
By the time the United States Forest Service was founded in 1905, many communities had already recognized the need for fire lookouts. But it was “the Big Blowup” of 1910—still the biggest recorded forest fire in U.S. history—that forced a more regulated approach to forest fires. During that disaster, 3 million acres across Washington, Idaho, and Montana burned, and sent smoke as far east as Washington, D.C.
However, most of the country’s lookout stations (about 8,000 in
all) were built during the 1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program. And the golden age of fire lookouts was from 1930 to 1950—before technological advances made them less necessary. (The only state never to have had a fire lookout is Kansas, because its flat landscape makes them unnecessary.) Firefighters, though, have found that in many areas and situations, there is no substitute for the human eye in detecting smoke.
BIRD’S-EYE VIEW
Fire lookouts have to be in high places with clear views on all sides. Sometimes that means a sturdy, one- or two-story windowed building high on a peak—like the Mount Tamalpais Fire Station. Other times, it means a very tall structure on stilts, with several flights of stairs that climb to the top.
BOOK: Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Golden Plunger Awards
5.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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