The greatest invention of all time

By Carol / July 29, 2013 /
Yep. No power here!

Yep. No power here!

We lost electrical power Saturday. A little after noon, the TV went off, the fan stopped turning, the oven stopped heating, the clocks stopped ticking off seconds. In that moment, modern life as we know and love it stopped. We may as well have stepped back in time 100 years.

My husband picked up the phone to call MidAmerican Energy to report the outage. Oops! The cordless phone doesn’t work without electricity. Nor could we report it online with the computer. No electricity, no wi-fi. Thank goodness for a cell phone.

When I asked my 92-year-old uncle what he considers the greatest invention of his lifetime, he didn’t hesitate. Electricity. Born in 1922, he remembers when electricity finally made it to their farm.

“Everybody was waiting,” he says. Even though they didn’t have anything to turn on. No toaster. No radio. No microwave. No hair dryer. No electric lights. No TV. No computers.

As I write my novel set in 1913, I’ve done my level best to imagine life in that time. Living without electricity is hardest to get my head around.

“What did you do at night?” I asked my uncle.

“When it got dark, we went to bed,” he replied.  Life was not easy, but it may have been more simple.

My husband was getting ready to put two loaves of bread in the oven when we lost power. He remembered the old gas stove in the basement and went to get it going. We’d never used the oven and he learned the door doesn’t really close tightly. A resourceful man, my husband found a 2×4 to prop the oven door closed.

Cooking by flashlight.

Cooking by flashlight.

If he could make bread, I could make the blueberry cobbler I planned to serve the company coming that night. I took everything to the basement only to realize I’d be working in the dark. No matter how many times we flicked a light switch (and we did it plenty), the lights did not come on. A flashlight provided the little halo of light we worked by.

The good folks at the power company came right away, assessed the problem, and determined they’d have to dig up the cable. They assured us we’d have power again sometime that night. I think they feared we’d scream. But what are you going to do? I was grateful this didn’t happen last week when the temperatures were in the 100s. Or the day when we had 40 guests for a party.

Six men, a backhoe, and eight hours later, we had a hole in our driveway and the electricity back on. Just in time to go to bed. We retired that night very happy to be back in the 21st century.

What do you think is the greatest invention of your lifetime?

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  1. Mary Gottschalk on July 29, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Loved the about the phone … for years I’ve kept an old fashioned rotary phone you can plug directly into the phone jack. But then I suppose if the cell-phone systems are out, the phone company might not be answering anyway!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 29, 2013 at 11:51 am

      We reached for so many things out of habit. Only after it didn’t work, did we think, “Oh, yeah. Electricity.” David found an old phone we could plug into the jack. Then he went after everything with batteries – flashlights, radios. We were glad to be on city water. If we’d been tied to our well, we wouldn’t have had that either – no electricity to run the pump. Boy does electricity spoil us!

  2. Sarah Houldcroft on July 29, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    I agree with you Carol. If I can’t boil the water in my electric kettle for a cup of tea first thing in the morning then the whole day feels wrong! If my laptop or phone runs out of charge, the world stops! We really are totally dependent on this wonderful invention!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

      It’s only when the power goes out like this that I realize how completely our lives run on electricity. The experience made me sympathize and empathize with people who lose power during a snowstorm or hurricane. We had it easy compared to that. I’m sipping my coffee as I type with an electric light shining over my shoulder. Thanks for commenting, Sarah.

  3. Grace Peterson on July 29, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    Hmm… I think I would have to agree with you about electricity. It’s a lot like our health. We don’t think much about it until it’s gone and it is what fuels all of the other gadgets.

    I’ve got a middle grade book at home titled “Father’s Great Inventions” or something like that. I’ll have to look it up when I get home. Anyway it is the story of a father who renovates the family home with all sorts of newfangled gadgets, such as a flushing toilet.

    As a side note, I mailed your copy of REACHING today. You should be receiving it in a few days.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 30, 2013 at 7:32 am

      Exactly, Grace. I haven’t seen that book. It sounds like a great way to teach kids that it wasn’t always so easy.

      I’ll be watching the mail for REACHING, Grace. I’m eager to read your memoir.

  4. Grace Peterson on July 29, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    I remembered it: Father’s Big Improvements by Caroline D. Emerson

    Here is a link:

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 30, 2013 at 7:47 am

      Thanks for sharing the book and the link, Grace. This book looks like great fun. I was interested to see it was published in 1965. Time for a re-release!

  5. Richard Abbott on July 30, 2013 at 1:32 am

    Here in the UK I remember going to my grandmother’s house in the countryside in Norfolk and her not having electricity (or mains water/sewage) until I was in my teens. We used portable gas lamps in the evenings, heated water over a range, and used the toilet facilities ‘over the way’ at need. As a child I found all this very exciting… I should probably add that I was born long after 1922! This was definitely a rural experience – the county of Norfolk is a little off the beaten track but not objectively very far from major towns and cities. Back at my parents’ home things were much more as you would expect as regards utilities.

  6. Carol Bodensteiner on July 30, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Thanks for sharing your memories, Richard, and reminding us that all our modern conveniences are really quite recent. I, was born in 1948 and our farm did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. Dad had the Rural Electric Cooperative run power lines to the farm right away. But it wasn’t until 1953, when they built the new house that we began to enjoy the convenience of indoor plumbing. The outhouse continued in use as long as we lived on the farm as a “convenience” closer to the barns. I hope you’re writing down your childhood memories. Future generations will benefit from knowing how it was “back then.”

  7. Sharon Lippincott on July 30, 2013 at 9:56 am

    What a fascinating question Carol. Thanks for asking it, and I’m glad your outage was temporary. We have too many of those ourselves as the Pittsburgh region is full of old trees that succumb readily to lightening, wind, snow and ice. Since even at my advancing age, electricity was well established by the time my life began, I’m going to say the computer (which is totally dependent upon that greatest invention of my grandparents’ lives). To be even more specific, the World Wide Web.. Yes, it has sucked the life out of many pursuits I used to enjoy, but even ten years ago I could not be reading and benefiting from this blog post. For better and worse, the web is linking the world in previously unimaginable ways. I have close friends in Britain, Australia, and a couple of other countries that I stay in touch with at least a few times a week. Not only do we email, we Skype or Hangout. The only downside is that they can’t bring me chicken soup when I’m sick or drive me to chemo, if (God forbid) I should need such help. And vice-versa.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 30, 2013 at 10:08 am

      Sharon – It is almost as though we need to take electricity as a given in thinking of other great inventions. Computers and the Web are right up there in importance to me, too. During our power outage, I suffered uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms from being disconnected from the world. I kept wanting to flip open my laptop and see what was going on. Just for a minute. Or two.

  8. Paulette Mahurin on July 30, 2013 at 11:53 am

    We sure do learn to appreciate what we have when we go without. This is another great post that really puts perspective on the value of the daily gift electricity gives. You look lovely by flashlight. 🙂

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 30, 2013 at 12:05 pm

      That is a fact, Paulette. Absence makes the heart grow fonder …
      I rather hoped no one could see me at all!

  9. Carol on September 29, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    My grandfather always said that for what you get electricity is the greatest bargain their is. I wholeheartedly agree. This is the one bill I never dread paying

  10. Carol Bodensteiner on September 29, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    I totally agree with you! One day without electricity was all the gentle reminder we needed.

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