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Science & Technology

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Books Vs. E-Readers

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Any Idiot Could Have Come Up With The Car

During a recent visit to the Smithsonian's National Museum Of American History, I was more than a little amazed to discover they had dedicated an entire freakin' room to the history of the automobile. I've seen some pretty strange things in museums, with the usual mumbo-jumbo brainiac explanations, and I've heard people talk about how the car is the "most important" invention of the 20th century.

I was under the impression that things in museums are supposed to be interesting. I want to see remarkable innovations created by humanity's greatest minds, not some souped-up hay wagon that any bozo with some scrap metal and a free afternoon could dream up.

When you get down to it, a car is really nothing more than a couple of chairs on wheels—wheels, mind you, being those round things that have been around forever! It was only a matter of time before someone thought to plop a seat down on four of them and roll around in it. Just toss in an internal-combustion motor utilizing a high-octane accelerant to produce kinetic energy to rotate the axle, and whammo! You've got yourself an automobile.

It's so simple, it's almost impossible not to invent.

It may have been the first readily-accessible, self-propelled vehicle to allow efficient travel between distant cities, thereby radically altering the course of human civilization, but big frickin' deal. I wouldn't go so far as to call the car "inventive." The horse-and-buggy already got us halfway there, thank you very much. It doesn't take a mechanical engineer with extensive knowledge of metallurgy and thermodynamics to make the leap from that to gas-powered cars, am I right? It's the next logical step—watch: I walk around. I want to move faster. This horse isn't fast enough. Car. See? I just invented the car again in 10 seconds, so excuse me if I'm not jumping up and down at your "ground-breaking advancement in personal transportation."

I guess they're just giving out Smithsonian exhibits willy-nilly these days, because the museum had a whole wall dedicated to Karl Benz, the supposed creator of the automobile. Am I supposed to be impressed just because he was the first guy to put the idea for the car down on paper, even if everyone else was thinking the exact same thing right before he said it, designed it, and developed a speed regulation system and ignition technique to make it functional? Just because you're the first don't make you a genius.

A sofa-on-wheels with an eight-cylinder engine containing a functioning camshaft that activates its valves in perfect synchronicity with its pistons sounds exactly like something an underachieving third-grader would slap together the night before the school science fair. So you figured out a way to convert a relatively small amount of an easily accessible combustible via the four-stroke cycle into an enormous amount of energy capable of propelling a two-ton chassis from zero to 60 in under a minute? Yeah? And?

I should thank the Smithsonian, however, for pointing out how any old numbskull, if given the time and inclination, will eventually put together this supposedly world-altering little doodad. After reading how it's nothing more than some tires, a couple seat belts, an engine, a combustion cycle, intake valve, oil sump, and complex ignition system with a distributor timed precisely so that wires are sparked only once at a time, the good people at the Smithsonian have taken what was already one big exercise in pointlessness to a whole new level.

It's sure as heck no cotton gin.

I thought I was living in an age of innovation. But if the car is the best thing we've been able to come up with in the past hundred years, then color me bored. Want to hear a better way to get around, off the top of my head? Okay, how about giant robots carrying us from place to place in human-sized satchels slung across their chests?

And even that might be too easy.

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