The United States has been a world leader for more than a century because we are a country of ideas.

Much of what is now the world’s commonplace began as an idea in the head of some American. We have had just the right combination of individualism and cooperation to come up with ideas (individuals) and to put them into action (groups).

Not every idea is a humdinger that deserves to be put into action. Some less deserving, even downright bad, ideas become part of the culture. Here are five ideas that turned out badly. And one idea guy whose thinking killed him.

Restaurants and convenience stores save a bit on custodial costs by installing toilet tissue dispensers that hold two rolls. The double roll lets the owner install two rolls of tissue in the time it takes to install one, saving labor. Good idea, eh? But it shifts the work of getting at the tissue to the customer who is already in a compromising position.

Often, visitors to the loo have to reach inside the dispenser, find the end of the roll, figure out which way it rolls, unwind some paper and then tear off enough to do the job. The teeth that cut the paper may be of no use because they are at the opposite end of the dispenser from which the loo-sitter, already twisted into an unnatural position, had unrolled the paper.

As long as we’ve already gone into the toilet, consider electric hand dryers, which are popular as an environmental step — they reduce the use of paper towels, which shouldn’t be a popular idea in Maine — and save on janitorial cost. But studies at UConn, Quinnipiac University and the University of Leeds have shown that electric hand dryers in public restrooms have no positive effect. In fact, they may make things worse.

The dryers spread bacteria from hands all through the room, including right back in your face. If any of those bacteria are pathogens, you spread them all over the restroom, rather than rubbing them off on a paper towel you plop into the rubbish. Where were your hands before you washed and dried them?

Rob Dunn, a biologist at North Carolina State University who studies bacteria in everyday environments, told an interviewer last week that anti-bacterial soap was “a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.” Anti-bacterial soap is no more effective than traditional soap in killing germs on your hands, he said, and it may be detrimental because it also kills bacteria that can be helpful, he said.

Still, when I was farming, inspectors from the Maine Department of Agriculture required that I use anti-bacterial soap in my slaughterhouse. One inspector picked up a bottle of my liquid soap and said, “I don’t even know what this is.” It was a name-brand hand soap, and he wrote me up for violating regulations. I was required to buy anti-bacterial soap thereafter. Guess the ag department never read Rob Dunn’s research.

Sixty years ago, I often drove across town to a gas station that charged 16.9 cents for a gallon of gas, rather than pay 18.9 at Joe’s Texaco, where our family had traded for years. I don’t remember when stations began putting gas prices in nine-10ths of a cent, but when people talked about the prices back then, they talked of 16 cents and 18 cents, not 16.9 or 18.9. Today, gas prices still end in nine-10ths, and we talk about gas at $2.39 or $2.49.

When gas was 16.9, that .9 represented more than five percent of the total price. At $2.399, that .9 is negligible, about three-eights of one percent. So why do gas stations still charge it? Because they always have? I remember a few stations rounding the .9 up to the next penny. It didn’t last. If, in 1968, gas was 39.9 cents at one station and 40 cents at a nearby station, folks turned into the 39.9 guy and ignored the 40-center.

In the turkey business, I couldn’t compete on price with supermarket Thanksgiving turkeys. I competed on taste and nutrition. Sometime in the 1950s, Midwestern supermarkets began charging far less for turkeys than they had paid. I knew a manager of a US Supers store in Missouri who took pride in his chain’s having started this loss-leader practice. I have no way of verifying whether it was US Supers, but he thought so.

Obviously, if you charge 39 cents for a pound of turkey for which you paid about $1.05, you have to make it up. And they do. I sold Maine-grown cranberries in my farmstore and Maine-baked stuffing bread for less than the supermarkets sold cranberries from Wisconsin and bread from Massachusetts. I could make a (small) profit on those items. But I still had to sell my turkeys for up to 10 times more to pay insurance, taxes, crew, etc. Fortunately, I sold out 29 years out of 30.

Just before I retired, I read in the trade press about supermarket-chain execs in the Midwest wishing they had never started the loss-leader business. They said the grocery chains and the big meat packers wanted to ditch the practice but couldn’t. If they all agreed to stop selling turkeys below cost, they would be in federal court for price-fixing. If all but one chain stopped selling below cost, the one would gobble up all the business. The loss-leader turkey seemed a good idea at the time, and it got shoppers into the stores. But a bad idea that takes hold can be an albatross (or turkey) around everyone’s neck.

Finally, here’s an idea guy whose good ideas turned out terribly. Thomas Midgley figured out that putting lead in gasoline — ethyl, we called it — would stop engine knocking. And he came up with chlorofluorocarbons as a refrigerant. Both turned out to cause terrible damage to people and their surroundings. Both have been banned. Midgley’s final idea was a system of pulleys and ropes to lift him out of bed after he contracted polio in 1940. Four years later, he got tangled in the ropes while trying to get out of bed and strangled. Some days the best idea is to stay put.

Bob Neal celebrates good ideas. But just being new doesn’t make an idea good. Can you say designated hitter? Two-minute warning?


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