The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

September 12, 2012

Not everything is more expensive

The Daily Southerner
Bob Harper

TARBORO — Most of us think that just about everything today is more expensive that it has ever been. Well, actually that's not exactly true.

First when we look back to the history of the automobile we find that in 1769 there was a steam engine automobile that was capable of human transport. Of course it was mostly experimental. 1806 brought forth an internal combustion engine that ran on gasoline. There were also steam powered cars such as the Stanley Steamer. None of these made great strides forward.

The key thing that pushed the development of the automobile was the advent of the wealthy beginning to purchase these cars almost as play toys and to impress their peers. The rich were the only ones who could afford to buy these very expensive machines.

I was always crazy about cars and that's why I selected the history of the automobile to be the subject of my high school senior theme. At the time I thought that Henry Ford invented the automobile, but my research soon showed me that that wasn't true. Ford's great contribution to the development of the automobile and its contribution to our society came later.

It's no wonder that the average American couldn't afford to buy a car in the early days of its development. From 1910 through 1919 the average worker in the U.S. earned about $750 a year. However, as the rich bought more automobiles the manufacturers developed better means of manufacturing the cars and the prices slowly begin to fall, but nothing close to the point of bringing forth an affordable vehicle for the masses.

There was a man who closely watched all of this and he came up with his own ideas. Of course, his name was Henry Ford. Ford designed a much simpler automobile design and built his first automobile. But, the most important thing that Ford developed was the moving assembly line. In 1908 his Model T Ford was produced and sold for $850. But, by 1915 the price of the Model T had dropped to $440 and then in 1925 the Model T could be bought for only $290.

Now, the average American could afford to buy a car, but the first buyers of the first cars had to be the wealthy. And that's how most advances come about. Even in the early 1900's the Americans had a larger percentage of wealthy people than most countries in the world. The simple truth is that most brand new products cost a lot to bring into production and they have to be pricey in the beginning.

Video tape recorders are readily available now at very reasonable prices.just $200 or less. Guess what the first videotape recorder cost?

Ampex sold the first one to a very wealthy man for $50,000. Soon, more wealthy people bought video cameras and the prices gradually came down.

I wasn't wealthy, by any measure known to mankind, but I did buy a Panasonic video camera in the 1990's. I bit the bullet and paid about $2,500 for a big camera that weighed about 10 pounds and a battery pack that weighed even more. I wanted to be able to video my children growing up and to capture some of the memorable trips we took.

I lugged that thing on most of our trips and on other occasions until I finally got tired of the whole thing. You can now purchase a small hand held video camera that will do much more than my old one, for $200 or less.

How about something as simple as the ballpoint pen? For many years we had ink pens. Even the best ones would start leaking after long use. They would leak and smear and we'd cuss and fuss. Then came the ballpoint pen. The first great success for the ballpoint pen came in October in 1945 when a crowd of over 5,000 people jammed the entrance of New York's Gimbels Department Store. A full page ad in the New York Times promoted the first sale of ballpoint pens in the United States. The newspaper ad described the new pen as a "fantastic, miraculous fountain pen.” On the first day of the sale at Gimbels, their entire stock of ballpoint pens was sold. Gimbels 10,000 pens were sold at the price of $12.50 each! We can now buy a package of four excellent ballpoint bens for only $1.75.

Over the years the U.S. has produced more needed and wanted new products than any other nation in the world. The reason for this is that we have a very inventive and production oriented nation and we also have enough wealthy citizens to purchase the early production of such products to move them along until we can all afford to buy the same products.

Is America great or what?

(Bob Harper is a Tarboro resident who writes a column of general interest.)