October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Back in late 1969, America could do anything and meet any challenge. After all, those were the days of the Apollo Project. Neil Armstrong had taken his “small step,” and two days later blasted off the lunar surface, leaving behind the landing module’s descent stage and a collection of various scientific apparatus, tools, flotsam, jetsam, and flagpoles behind. In other words, we had successfully sent a man to the moon and back and left litter behind, because that’s what we humans do.

Speaking of garbage.

As a nation we were optimistic and sure of ourselves, and John Boyd of Falls Church, Virginia, was a visionary to match the times. Boyd had been working in the waste management field for years when he had his “Eureka” moment. What did America need? It all seemed so clear to him, America needed a household appliance that could convert our trash into neat little cubes—kind of like those bundles that Wall-E stacked sky high in that movie. It was a “can’t miss” idea, and Boyd got his patent. The kitchen trash compactor was born. The world was never the same.

Soon Kenmore, Whirlpool, and a host of brand names rushed the machine into appliance stores. The hydraulic power of the under-the-counter miracles would receive its daily allotment of debris and with a hum, a bit of a grinding noise, three or four clunks, a crack (no glass in the trash please), a slight ultrasonic hiss, and voila! That loose clump of garbage would be transformed into a super-dense odoriferous singularity. “What a boon,” the ads trumpeted, “Only take out the trash once a week!” 

The other thing we Americans are good at, besides having visions, is marketing. Trash compactor sales took off…at first…and then….somebody said, “Why would I spend $300 on a machine that turns 30 pounds of garbage into 30 pounds of garbage?” The light bulb went on above everybody’s head almost simultaneously, and the miracle appliance miraculously flopped.

Yes, Americans can achieve anything if we put our minds to it. The problem is that sometimes we achieve extremely stupid things.

Right now, some visionaries have a new vision, which of course, is what visionaries are supposed to have. They imagine our streets and highways full of driverless cars. Computers and little servo motors will, they say, seamlessly operate all our motor vehicles—even huge semi-trailer trucks—freeing us from the drudgery of paying attention to the traffic jam that surrounds us and giving us more time to stay riveted to our Twitter feeds for the latest absurdities of the dysfunctional electronic family we are all welded to these days.

Of course, the idea seems cool. Unless it’s foggy, or raining, or there’s a bit of construction on your route, or somebody tries to cross the street on foot. Yes, there can be, and have been, tragic consequences. OK, maybe it would be good news for Uber drivers, because none of them would work for Uber’s robot fleet anymore. Freedom! Other than that, it’s a cool idea that we should relegate to dystopic science fiction movies. Sometimes we humans have too many ideas. Ask John Boyd.

Driverless cars? Really? Why do we need a technology that will turn a freeway full of one million cars into a freeway full of one million cars?

Just asking.


Otis Twelve hosts the radio program Early Morning Classics with Otis Twelve on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

This column was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.