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Wednesday, February 01, 2012


I want to tell you about the most improbable machine in all of human history, a machine so brilliant that it has no moving parts. In fact, it works because it has no moving parts. Next to this invention, the invention of the wheel looks like the work of a simpleton. And if you didn't know the history of this machine, you would have said that could never have been invented, that it must have required a genius to have even conceived of the need for such an invention. But that is only because this brilliant machine was not invented to do what it does. The inventors were trying to solve an entirely different problem. And their solution to that other problem did not really work very well. See, before this improbable machine could be invented, first people had to invent an almost equally improbable thing - beer.
Now, beer was not invented by people trying to get drunk. That was just a happy side effect. They were trying to make bread. But when they screwed up their dough, they got fremination, which ruins the bread, but produces beer. So, put yourself in the position of a Sumarian alcoholic, hanging around a Babyolonian bakery, waiting for the workers to throw out their mistakes. When they do you are presented with a mildly acoholic stew,  filled with floating chunks of dough, stalks and stems and seads and smelling like mold. In wine circles this is called the bouquet. So, how do you get the mind numbing neuron killing elixir into your body without jamming a soggy chunk of dough over your wind pipe and catching the express ferry over the river Styxx? You need a machine which will allow you to filter out the chunks and still deliver the booze to your throat.
And right in front of your face, floating in the jug with the booze, is the solution - stems. Stems are Mother Natures way of carrying water from the roots of a plant to the leaves and seeds, by tapping into the tendency of a water molecule to attract an adjacent water molecule – called capillary action.. This is how paper towels work, but it is an unacceptably slow method of devlivering fluid to a thirsty person's throat. To do it faster you need a partial vacuum. So a straw is not just a hollow stem, it is a hollow stem in which the air pressure is lower at the higher end than at the lower end. When you suck in, the fluid is drawn to the low pressure in your mouth, and rises in the stem. In fact the oldest image we have of people drinking beer shows Sumarian guzzlers sucking on staws almost 7, 500 years ago. Hidden in this carving is the corporate structure of Budweiser and Coco-Cola. Seriously, this stone carving is like finding a note written by an ancient ceolacanth that reads, “Today, I grew a lung.”
But while a straw will prevent dough from blocking your esophagus, you now have the problem of the dough blocking the straw. This is why brewers did not start making real dough from their beer until the got the dough out of their beer .And once you no longer needed a straw to drink beer, you really no longer needed straws. So the development of straws languished, an alcoholic afterthought, a mere garnish to the twin sciences of marketing and fluid dymamics until the re-invention of drinking for fun.
Over the intervening thousands of years the only straws were actual straw, made out of grass stems, in America, usually rye grass. The drawbacks were obvious – first, whatever you drank through the straw now tasted like rye grass and second, the only unniversally fun drink, alcohol, had a tendency to do to the cell structure of the straw what it does to the cell structure of your brain. You dare not dally over your mint julep least your straw decompose in mid-suck. And that problem was not solved until Mr. Marvin Chester Stone, of Washington, D.C. was about to get shafted in a business deal in the 1880's.
Marvin was working as a journalist in Washington, D.C. when James Bonsack invented a machine capable of rolling 200 cigarettes every minute. Marvin immediately saw an opportunity and in his spare time designed and built a machine to mass produce cigarette paper (above)  fast enough to keep Bosnack's machine supplied. Marvin started a factory on Ninth Street in Washington, and became the exclusive suppler for tobacco magnate James Buchanan Duke, who had bought the rights to Bonsack's machine. Marvin was now making pretty good money, except... Duke started gobbling up his competors, building what would eventually become the American Tobacco Company, also known as the “Tobacco Trust”.  Marvin knew that eventually his only customer, Mr. Duke, would demanded that he lower his prices until he was squeezed out of the business. And while contemplating his predicament one night over a mint julep, Mavin came up with a solution.
What he needed was another product. It had to be made out of paper, since he had already had a factory to handle paper. So, the story goes, Marvin glued a roll of paper around a pencil, removed the pencil and sucked his mint julep through the resultant tube. His mint julep now tasted like glue, and the paper tube fell apart faster than the natural stem straw. But Marvin knew how to solve that. He repeated the experiment, but this time, after he rolled the paper around the pencil, he dipped it in wax, and again after he removed the pencil. The paper was now water proof enough that it lasted through an entire mint julep before it came apart.  And his mint julep now tasted like just a mint julep. Rather than being shafted, Marvin would suck. He quickly designed a machine to mass produce his new wax paper straws (above), “adapted for use in the human mouth without injury”,  as he claimed on his patent application. 
His patent was granted on January 3rd , 1888, (now offically “Drinking Straw Day”) and one year later Marvin was selling more wax paper straws than he was cigarette paper. He even had to open another factory on F Street, just to keep pace with demand for sucking in mint juleps, Coke-a-Cola, Pepsi and Doctor Pepper. Marvin was financilly set for life, which was, unfortunatly, only ten years long. He died on May 17th, 1899. at just 57 years of age. And that really sucked.
There were minor tweeks to straw technology until 1935, when a San Francisco office manager, part time real estate agent and amature inventor observed his daughter Judith struggling to suck in a milk shake at the Varsity Sweet Shop in that city. She just wasn't tall enough to comfortably reach the top of the standard 8” high straight wax paper straw. And in the girl's frustraition her father, Joesph Freidman, saw a fortune. He inserted a metal screw about 1/3 of the way down a wax-paper straw. Then he wound dental floss around the outside of the straw, creasing it to match the screw's threads. And when he removed the screw, he had an invented the “bendy staw”.
It seemed like a simple modification to existing technology, and to be worthy of a patient Joesph would have show his invention filled a not previously recognized need. So on his application, Joesph waxed dramatic. “A view of any soda fountain on a hot day,” he wrote, “with the glasses showing innumerable limp and broken straws drooping over the edges thereof, will immediately show that this problem has long existed. inventor...has seen fit or has been able to solve this problem, whereas applicant did, that situation alone is prima facie evidence of invention.” It was enough to bring tears to the eyes of an idealistic capitalist. The patent for this “Drinking Tube” was granted on September 28, 1937, creating what Judith's younger sister, the adult Pamela Friedman Leeds, recently describe as “the family icon”. They called it the Flex-Straw.
But why do we still use the straw today, in any form? They are rarely used at home. But why are straws so popular in fast food restaurants, where the drinking cups are one time use wax paper and disposable, and the straws are usally one time use polypropylene and also disposable. Sanitation is not an issue. And modern beverages are not in need of filtration. There are two possible explinations, offered at John Elder Robinson's web site, “Look Me In The Eye”, (”.
“Our bodies evolved to associate wet lips with satisfied thirst. Drinks that are ingested via straw don't touch our lips, and so do not satisfy our thirst as quickly. The result: we drink more...Did you know that the plastic straws at today's fast food restaurants are 50% larger than the straws at soda fountains 50 years ago?...Stimulation of consumption is the only reason I can see for increasing the diameter of a straw.”
Thus the straw has become just another marketing tool, like stock derivatives and bottled water. It may still be true that you get what you pay for, but thanks to the machine of marketing, you no longer get what you thought you were paying for. And that just sucks.
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