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May 16, 2000

A public radio commentary

I've studied cathedrals, temples, and palaces, and even seen in the middle of London a section of an ancient Roman wall. It makes me wonder: What American engineering achievement will be here eons from now. One day while sitting and thinking I came up with the answer: Bathtubs!

In bathtubs, the past is already with us; they aren't far from their ancient moorings. Tap the glassy surface of your bathtub and you've touched an ancient art - the art of Myceneanian jewelers, who specialized in bonding glass and metal together as in a King's specter. An engineer uses the same process to attach a white coating to a bathtub's metal inner shell.

The story begins with the Minoans on Crete. They had bathtubs, but they used them for the Dead, or maybe the Queen, archaeologists aren't sure. The Myceneans drove out the Minoans, and took over their bathtubs. They left ninety years later, without the bathtubs. They probably didn't see much sense in washing dead people or queens. Yet soon the bathtub caught on when the Romans began hanging out in huge marble tubs. They felt bathing was a basic social obligation. This pearl of wisdom shows, no doubt, why the Romans founded western culture.

But this idea slipped away until by the 18th century bodily care sank to total neglect. It had to do with the Counter-Reformation and the Reformation -- they both felt nakedness was a sin. At the end of the 19th century, after eons of stinking, everyone decided to have a private bathtub. Here is where engineers enter.

They asked: how do you democratize the bathtub? That is, "how do you make a bathtub so that everyone can afford one?" They first made a porcelain tub. But its great weight made it expensive to move, and required a house with extremely strong floors.

In short, the porcelain tub was a Rolls-Royce of bathtubs. What was needed was the Yugo of bathtubs. So, they tried wood, but think of the bottom of a ship - barnacles and the green stuff growing on it. Now think of a week of bathing in a wood tub.

Next they tried metal. This was lightweight, but the tub rusted. So, they painted it, but after a hot bath the paint stuck to people.

Finally, some engineer realized that you needed both a porcelain top and the lightness of metal. The solution: make a thin and light tub of metal, and cover it with a thick layer of frosty glass - the surface you see on your bathtub. And here we return to where we began: Myceanans putting glass on metal.

So the next time you desire to see the glorious monuments of history - cathedrals, palaces, temples - instead just take a look at your bathtub.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises